Vol.6 No.20, 07 June 2006


Margaret Legum

Beauty died four years ago. The email announcing the news broke my heart: Beauty died today. Funeral tomorrow. Like the first line of an apocalyptic poem. What could survive the death of Beauty?

What did survive her were eight children. Three were her own: the other five, children of her siblings, had lost their parents, like Beauty, to AIDS. The eight were left in the shack she inhabited in Gugulethu. What would happen to them, I asked the Rev. Spiwo Xapile, pastor of the J.L. Zwane Church and Community Centre, who had introduced me to Beauty. ‘God knows’, he said, ‘They will probably be dispersed among relatives in the Transkei’.

Appalled, I wrote their story, attaching it to a plea for a Basic Income Grant (BIG). I said that if those children had carried a grant, as of right, to the home of whoever took them in, there was a good chance that the local community could find them a place. It is hard to describe the bone starkness of the poverty in Gugulethu, as elsewhere in the marginalized economy. They simply cannot afford to put food into existing mouths, let alone to take on new ones.

But a Phoenix has risen from the ashes. I have just learnt what happened to those children. The Church did not abandon them; and another sister, Cynthia Mdoyi, was found to mother the family. Although the BIG campaign did not succeed, child grants are now available for children up to 14. They are a start; but do not cover all necessary expenses, including schooling; and the older children get no grant.

The eldest son has a job that pays him R150 a week! Accepting that ‘flexible’ level of wage is applauded as a solution to unemployment by conventional economists, who apparently do not bother to imagine how such a wage might serve the purpose of life preservation of one person, let alone a family. What matters to economists of that ilk is that it fits the theory of supply and demand, not whether it is applicable to the lives of people with flesh and blood.

What keeps the family going is the support of the J.L. Zwane Centre. They are among hundreds of families that are minimally but regularly fed from its kitchens, with the support of Spar.

Even more remarkable, the family shack has been transformed into a solid 50 square meter house with water and electricity laid on. It has been done through a partnership between Habitat for Humanity and the Church Centre. Habitat, an international NGO, helps to build houses in poor areas by recruiting more affluent volunteers to work with the local community; and by advancing a R10,000 interest free loan. That has to be repaid within three years. Its great advantage is that it helps people stay away from interest-guzzling banks; but it is obviously not going to help people without a good regular income. That almost certainly excludes most people in Gugulethu.

And it would have excluded the cousins that Beauty left behind. But the Church has raised the money - not only to repay the R10,000; but also to fit internal walls – in effect to complete the home.

Another Habitat/Zwane partnership house is equally remarkable. This time, it is an enlargement of a home, rather than the replacement of a shack. It belongs to Elspeth Boto, a childless woman who overcame her sorrow by providing a home for the most abandoned, deprived and abused little mites. Her assumed motherhood clearly suits her: she is very beautiful.

When Elspeth started there was no serious government fostering scheme. Now she is able to access fostering grants for the seven children. One gets a disability grant, because she uses a wheel-chair: her cerebral palsy had resulted in rejection by her natural parents. Several came as babies, abandoned by desperate mothers. All are now fed, clothed and sent to school by Elspeth, with the help of her sisters. Her regular monthly shortfall in income – over essential expenditure for food, transport, uniforms and school fees - is about R2,000; which is somehow scraped together from well wishers.

And the Church has found the money to enlarge her house through the Habitat partnership. Gugulethu local coordinator Manelisi Jack says the Habitat houses are very much appreciated, being 20,000 square meters larger than the RDP ones.

Dr Xapile’s Church is clearly literally a life-saver. It responds in the most direct fashion. I personally am tiring of the over-used adage about not giving people fish but teaching them to fish. The fisher needs to eat while the teaching is going on; and the fishing rod is useless if there are no fish in the river. Too often that teaching builds up false hopes: the fish are not there. No wonder fury builds up in hungry people.

So feeding in all its forms is vital until we create an economy that enables people to make their own living. To insist that they make their own livelihood in circumstances where it is impossible is the height of cynical betrayal. The feeders must be supported with money, and at present that means rich corporates.

But faith based institutions like the JL Zwane Centre should become the implementers of social policy. Government should not try to deliver such personal and detailed service. They should direct funds in a generous and reliable stream to civil society institutions who are personally in contact with the deepest need, especially of the most vulnerable, the little ones.

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