CB20: Africa's Angels

14 September 2008
This week the Carte Blanche “Make a difference” birthday campaign focuses on charities that have the heart-wrenching task of caring for AIDS orphans. We meet the social workers from the Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre who aren’t called Africa’s angels for nothing.
CB20: Africa's Angels Image : 2005

These boys enjoying a game of football look like any other kids, but there is something that sets them apart from their friends. When the sun goes down, the others will go home to their families. But the three brothers will be left alone in their shack. No parents to feed them or put them to bed. They will have to fend for themselves until morning.

Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): "I'm standing on a bridge overlooking Hartebeespoort Dam and some of the most prime real estate in Africa. In fact, many of the mansions behind me are used as second homes, or weekend getaways. But just up the hill are families living in grinding poverty and many of them headed by children."

Schaumburg is a squatter camp that has sprung up next to an old Lutheran mission school. With no electricity and only one tap for the entire settlement, every day is a struggle for survival.

Bongani: "It's as if they've been forgotten. The people of this community are at the very bottom of the social ladder. But through some sense of ubuntu', they try to share. But how do you begin to provide for somebody else's kids, when you yourself have absolutely nothing?"

Ditebogo and Lebogang are 10-year-old twins. Their little brother Moeketsi is eight. None of them know when their birthdays are, and their mother rented this room before she abandoned them. They are visibly dirty and neglected, with their scalps covered in a fungal infection.

Bongani: "Who is the boss at home?"

Lebogang: "It's me."

Bongani: "Why are you the boss?"

Lebogang: "They listen to me."

Bongani: "They listen to you?"

Lebogang: "Yes."

Bongani: "What do you tell them?"

Lebogang: "When they do funny things I tell them not to."

Bongani: "What funny things?"

Lebogang: "When they play in the house I tell them to play outside."

Bongani: "What happened? Why are you living alone with your brothers?"

Lebogang:"My sister was sick so my mother took her to Pietersburg and she dies there. Now I don't know if my mom has got the money to come back."

Ditebogo is epileptic, so the role of parent has been taken on by Lebogang. He is clearly in charge making sure his brothers make the bed, tidy the room and have something to eat. Today is Sunday, and he is preparing to cook a packet of chicken necks.

Bernice Maponyane (Parent & Child Counselling Centre): "This is one of the worst scenarios that we have. That these little boys that need to be looked after have to look after themselves."

Bernice Maponyane is a manager of the Parent & Child Counselling Centre. If it wasn't for this organisation the plight of these boys would have gone completely unnoticed.

Bongani: "How long have these kids been on their own?"

Bernice: "Since the beginning of this year."

Bongane: "And their mother never made any plans to..."

Bernice: "Not at all - no contact. Nothing."

Bongane: "And their father?"

Bernice: "Their father is unknown to us; [he] is unknown to the children."

The Hartebeespoort branch is run by the Johannesburg Parent & Child Counselling Centre. Since 1944 they have provided therapy and support to children and their families. The Director is Jacqui Michael.

Jacqui Michael (Director - Johannesburg Parent & Child Counselling Centre): "For many years I think people though that if families weren't working, they should remove the children. And our services have always been on keeping the families together, because removing children and putting them in institutions is really not an answer."

But with over 2-million AIDS orphans in South Africa, they have had to come up with other solutions.

Jacqui: "We help them to deal with the grieving, because of course that is a huge problem. Many of them have nursed their dying parents. Many of them have not dealt at all with the emotional effect of losing their parents, and then having to bring up their younger siblings. So our aim is to connect them with other adults in the community, or to try to support them in living on their own."

Bongani: "This container houses the offices of the Parent & Child Counselling Centre. There is one social worker here who services the needs of hundreds of people in this community. The dream is to establish a crèche, using a container just like this."

The resident social worker at Hartebeespoort is Helen Mahlase. She counsels children at six schools in the area and often visits them at home to assess their situation. Six-year-old Sina lost both her parents to AIDS this year, and she now lives with her aunt and cousins.

Bongani: "So Sina, who is this?

Sina: "Mama."

Bongani: "It's your mama and your dad? This is you? You were so small, but now you are big."

Although she has been kept within the family, Sina isn't receiving the best care. Her aunt is mentally handicapped and all seven of them survive on her disability grant. From what we could see most of it is spent on alcohol. They live on a farm 17km away from Schaumburg school, and when there's no money for transport Sina has to walk.

Edith Nkabinde is her Grade 1 teacher.

Bongani: "How is she doing in class?"

Edith Nkabinde (Schaumburg School teacher): "Agh, it's a mess in the classroom. It's a mess - she cannot cope in the classroom. We are still struggling with the letter s' when writing her name. This is August - still struggling with her name, let alone the rest."

Helen does play therapy with Sina twice a week, to help her come to terms with her loss.

Helen Mahlase (Social Worker): "I remember the first time I saw her - couldn't see a smile or anything. She would talk with the dolls and with the toys, and you can't see a smile. But after a few sessions, I saw a smile on her face. And she usually comes here in her break and talks to me."

Most of the children attending Frikkie Smidt Primary School are orphans. In many cases the cup of soup and slice of bread they get at break time, is the only meal they get the whole day. Some of the children like Moeketsi and his brothers live at Schaumburg camp, while others, like 13-year-old Nthabiseng and her 10-year-old sister Lerato live on the surrounding farms.

Bongani: "Orphans living in farming communities have an added stress. For many of these children, the cottages they live in are the only homes they've ever known. And when their parents - who are the farm workers - die, they are left in a state of limbo, with no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay there."

After school the sisters go home to nothing and no one. Since their parents died earlier this year it's just the two of them living here, and at night they get nervous because the back window is broken.

Bongani: "What is the most difficult part of living here alone?"

Nthabiseng: "Sometimes we don't have food. So we just sleep without eating."

Bongani: "How do you cope when those situations happen?"

Nthabiseng: "We just cope."

According to the principal Nthabiseng is the brightest kid in the school, but with all the responsibilities she now has to shoulder chances are she will never reach her full potential.

Bongani: "What's the hardest part of having to look after your sister?"

Nthabiseng: "When I see her sad. I can't comfort her the way my mother or my father did."

Bongani: "What's the worst situation you've seen here?"

Bernice: "Most of the people in this community work on the farms. And I've seen mothers locking their children inside the shacks, leaving to go work on the farms."

Bongani: "And that's of course because there's no crèche to take the kids to?"

Bernice: "There are just no resources - absolutely no resources."

Jacqui: "So we are wanting to set up a pre-school for at least forty little ones in that area. And we do not have the containers, the equipment, whatever. We do have community interest. We need to train people, we need to be able to pay them for one year because once we get it registered with the Department of Social Development, they will fund it."

The Parent & Child Counselling Centre is making a difference to hundreds of vulnerable children, but with limited state funding and no Lotto donation since 2006, they are struggling to continue their work. North West Department of Social Services didn't pay Helen's salary for a whole year.

Jacqui: "Many funders do not want to fund salaries, and our work is done through people. We have excellent staff - well trained staff. We do good supervision, but we have to be able to sustain it."

Their running costs are R3-million a year, and over half of that depends on donations. Their Johannesburg headquarters are rundown and need renovating, while the Hartebeespoort office desperately needs an air-conditioner, amongst other things.

Helen: "And you know the roads here... I think we need the bakkie."

And as for the orphans, their needs are both physical and emotional.

Bernice: "They need clothes, they need school shoes, they need school uniforms. They need to have breakfast in the morning when they wake up. They need to have lunch, supper when they go home - and all of that they can't get."

Bongani: "If someone wanted to help you, how would you like them to help you?"

Ntahbiseng: "Take care of us and love us as their own children."

Jacqui: "If we stop doing this, then who is going to do it? And there are hundreds of thousands of children in this country that need support. We cannot save all of them, but we can make a difference. And I think that's what keeps you going."

Producer : Kate Barry
Presenter : Bongani Bingwa