The evolution that followed took place in the same way – always driven and determined by the needs of the children. A childcare worker was employed, daily activities were set up and we arranged temporary accommodation in town. Eventually, in December 1995, we established our own shelter, 25kms out of Margate on the border of KwaNzimakwe, a rural area where the boys attend the local school.
We then turned our attention back to the streets of the towns, where we opened a drop-in centre. This functions as the first and second phase of our three-phase voluntary rehabilitation programme, with the Munster shelter being the third phase.
The circumstances of every child who arrives on the streets are investigated by our childcare workers to establish why he left home. If possible, disputes are resolved and the boy reunited with his family. If not, he is taken into the drop-in centre.
Our ultimate, long-term objective for every boy is that he returns home. This is, therefore, the underlying theme in every decision or programme that we incorporate into the boy's rehabilitation. Nevertheless, it is our experience that it is futile to return the boy to his home if the situation there has not changed from the time that he made his original decision to leave. He will go back to the streets, having been let down by yet one more adult in his life, disappointed and even more disillusioned. The chances, therefore, of him ever being reached at a later stage by our, or any other organisation, are greatly reduced.
For this reason, we started increasing our involvement with the families. We see the boy on the street as the visible manifestation of deep-rooted problems at home. If we follow him, he will lead us to the source of the problems – a family broken down and in crisis. Without restoring the family unit to a point where it is stable, functional and self-supporting, we can never hope to rehabilitate the boy completely.
As our shelters reached the point of overflowing, and with more and more children in need coming to our attention, we realised that we would have to develop our programmes with the children in their own homes and in their communities as far as possible. This is also in line with the new approach by the government, focusing on prevention work in the communities, and avoiding if possible, having to institutionalise children.
In our investigations into the families of the boys, we have found that the primary underlying factor for their leaving home was poverty. This leads to alcoholism, hunger, abuse and the children not attending school, as a result of not being able to pay the school fees or buy a uniform. We then intervene with the minimum assistance required to make it possible for that child to remain at home. During this year, we have provided more than 100 children with school fees and uniforms. We also work closely with the schools, community leaders and clinic sisters, and part of our work with the family is establishing a support network around them. We do follow-up visits with the children throughout the year, as often as we assess is necessary for each individual child. It is our policy to support a child for a second or subsequent year, only on condition that he passed the previous year at school and we were satisfied with his general attitude, commitment and performance.
In some cases, we find that the family situation is really desperate, and the children are starving. In these situations we do take food parcels to the family every week. In return for this, some responsible adult from the family must work for a day at one of our shelters. We provide the taxi fare and she works for the day to earn food for the family. In this way, the family retains its dignity and the food parcel is not simply a handout.
As this programme developed, and the number of families grew, we looked at ways of assisting more families at a deeper level. We are now in the process of implementing a programme in which we group together families identified as in need and living in close proximity to each other. Together with them, we organise land and obtain approval from the Tribal authorities. We then assist in the developing of a community garden. A person then receives their weekly food parcel in return for their day's work in the garden. In addition to the food parcel, they receive fresh vegetables for their family. We also take some of the produce to feed the boys at the shelters.
Having made contact with a family, one of the first steps is to identify for which government grants the family qualifies, e.g. pension, child support grant, disability grant etc. Often this would be the family's only income and would make it possible for the family to survive. It is our experience that most families with whom we work do not have the necessary ID documents and birth certificates required to apply for these grants. It normally requires endless futile trips into town following a bureaucratic trail that, even for us with our resources, is a nightmare; for the family that does not even have the means to pay the taxi fare, it is close to impossible. It seems that, while the concepts are good, the reality is that the system is failing the people most in need – those for whom it was actually designed.
With the increasing impact of HIV/AIDS on our communities, and as we are dealing with increasing number of orphans, we fully support the principle that it is best for the child to remain in his own community. Nevertheless, this is only provided that the community is given sufficient support – both financial and other – to absorb these children. One of these measures is the decision by the Department of Welfare to allow an extended family member to be registered as a foster parent, thereby qualifying for the foster grant. However, all foster placements must be done by a government approved social worker, and it is our experience that these social workers have over a thousand children each on their case load and these simply cannot be processed fast enough. The result is that the burden of the orphans is being placed on communities and families that are already battling to survive. We believe it cannot be sustained and that the whole system will inevitably collapse if measures are not implemented soon to support the people.
In June 2002, with funding from a Dutch organisation, Kern-konsult, and in partnership with trainers from a Dutch NGO, the Baumanhuis, we launched a Mobile Outreach Unit. We identified three regions from where the majority of our boys originate: Bizana in the Eastern Cape, Harding, which lies approximately 100km inland, and the rural regions surrounding the thin strip of developed coastal towns along the KZN South Coast.
We have established partnerships with other local organisations working in the same regions and formed close relationships with the community structures and clinics. It is our objective to develop a network of people in each region and to assist them in setting up their own programme to assist the boys on their streets and in their regions. Themba Club will not be responsible for the running of these programmes – only for guiding the local committee and bringing them to a point where they can take control of them. We hope that this will result in fewer boys leaving home and coming to our area from those regions.
In our work we have seen people living in conditions of such extreme difficulty that we cannot believe they have the strength to go on. And yet so many of them have left us humbled by their dignity and deep sense of honour. They are truly wonderful people. We owe it to them – in all the furthest corners of our rural areas – to fight for a quality of life that they deserve and desire, where their children attend school every day, do not go to bed hungry and are not left alone and scared, tending to their dying parents. We cannot ignore these people and their suffering, for they are truly the soul of our nation. By failing them in their time of need, we will ultimately be destroying us all.
The burden of the orphans is being placed on communities and families that are already battling to survive… the whole system will inevitably collapse if measures are not implemented soon to support the people.