In rural Zithulele, putting food on the table is more important than the niceties of the law.
‘I’m going to show you the names of the children in the book where I record them,” says Ncedisa Paul, while walking to her car parked on a dusty gravel road in the former Transkei. “I’ve got one case of a woman who ‘sold’ all five of her children. But now there’s a big fight. She has obtained an ID book and wants them back.”
Paul works for the Mentor Mothers project in Zithulele, a rural village near the Wild Coast holiday haven of Hole-in-the-Wall. Every day she visits young mothers in the area to advise them on their children’s health.
Paul is referring to a mother who needed child-support grants for her children but did not have an ID book. It is impossible to obtain a government grant without it. Paul explains: “The mother then faked her children’s clinic cards and birth dates so that they fitted in with the details of a neighbour who did have an ID book. The friend has been collecting the grants for several years now as if it’s her own children. The biological mother gives the neighbour part of the grant and that way both of them make money.”
Paul goes to great lengths to try to get people in Zithulele to understand that fabricating your children’s information to get state money is fraud and that they could be jailed. But she acknowledges she is often fighting a “lost battle.”
Obtaining an ID book in this isolated part of the country, where tarred roads are luxuries, is extremely difficult, particularly if one does not have money.
“You need letters from the chief and school you attended, and an affidavit from the police station. You also have to go to the nearest town, Mqanduli, about 60 kilometres away, to collect a form,” says Paul. “All of this involves travelling and therefore taxi or bus fares. But nine out of 10 people here don’t have a job and therefore most have no cash.”
In an effort to solve the problem of “hiring out” IDs, Paul says the Mentor Mothers project has arranged for government social workers to visit the area on set dates with the necessary ID application forms. “But people still need to travel to their schools and the police station, something that many are unable to do. So many of our mothers still don’t have ID documents,” Paul says.
Thandeka Bota is the woman who “sold” her children. For the past few years, they have belonged to her neighbour—on paper, at least. Bota receives a total of R1 350—R270 a child—in child-support grants, of which she used to pay R250 to her neighbour who collected the grants.
But now Paul has helped Bota to obtain an ID book by writing a letter to the chief and explaining which police station to visit.
“The woman who has been collecting the grants is upset and does not want to ‘return’ the children, as she would then no longer receive part of the grant,” Paul says. “She argues that, for years, she was good enough to help her out but, now that Thandeka has an ID book, she’s suddenly a burden and she feels that’s very unfair. It’s a mess.”
Families at war
Bota says the two families have since been “at war”. The feuding parties, says Paul, have little understanding of the legal processes involved in getting the children re-registered with their biological mother. But to many people here survival is more important than the law—being able to feed and clothe their children simply weighs heavier than the finer details of government administrative procedures. Almost everyone here is dependent on child-support grants.
“It is parents’ main form of income,” Paul says. “People are unemployed and few have completed high school, which makes finding a job even harder.”
According to Paul, some women in the former Transkei have as many children as possible to increase their grant income, although she concedes that there are other reasons for unplanned pregnancies in the region, which are far more complex.
“More than 65% of the mothers we deal with are teenagers of between 13 and 19 years old. It’s nothing strange to see a 15-year-old with two or three kids in this area. It’s not even frowned upon.”
The Mentor Mother co-ordinator visits the morning clinic at the local hospital twice a week to talk to patients about reproductive health matters, such as contraception, and the importance of ensuring that their children are well informed.
But, says Paul, parents often refuse to talk about “sexual matters” with their children. “One vehemently complained to me that a nurse insulted her by talking to her teenage daughter about contraception and menstruation in front of her.
“I explain to them that it’s good for their children to know how to prevent getting pregnant, that they must talk about these things. But it’s new to them. They are so resistant — “
Paul says most of the pregnant girls her organisation deals with drop out of school, never to return, and join the “never-ending circle” of poverty. “Schools here can be a two or three-hour walk from home for children. Even if girls are not pregnant, or are not mothers, this discourages youngsters from completing their education,” says Paul.
But Mentor Mothers has recently managed to persuade two 15-year-old mothers to return to school. “It’s only two girls, so I am sure many people would laugh. But, believe me, in this area, having just two girls go back to school is a big victory.”
The only forms of recreation for children in the rolling hills of Zithulele are a few barren football fields that sport sagging wooden goalposts and grazing cattle. The boys play; the girls watch.
But shebeens are plentiful. In fact, each hill seems to boast an informal tavern, on which the names of popular brews are scrawled in paint that’s peeling off. “Girls go to the drinking dens to escape boredom. There, they meet boys, or men. Things move from there,” says Paul.
The few men of Zithulele who do have jobs mostly work on mines in South Africa’s northern provinces. When they return to their home district to visit, says Paul, it’s like a “gift from heaven” for the area’s teenaged girls.
The community worker explains: “These men bring hope to the girls. The men are rich compared with the people here. The men buy the girls cellphones and clothes, or food for their families, and the girls provide the men with ‘fun’ in the form of sex. Drinking, of course, helps to facilitate the whole process.”
Paul says the girls have “almost no knowledge” of contraception. And, although condoms are available at local clinics, no one uses them. “The girls are scared the guys will leave them if they use condoms. The guys say ‘they don’t want to eat a sweet with a paper’,” Paul says.
The men return to the mines. “The girls are left alone with the babies,” says Paul. “But it’s the grandmothers who mostly take care of the little ones. Then the young mothers go back to the shebeens to look for more men who have a bit of money.”
Health workers in Zithulele and its surrounding villages say many of the girls also become infected with HIV.
Paul recently visited a hut where 14-year-old Zolelwa Sali had just given birth. “There the mother of this girl stood—also pregnant,” Paul sighs. “So were the girl’s two sisters.”
The hut is at the bottom of a hill. Rain streams through cracks in the structure. The family shares a single bed. On the day of Paul’s visit, Sali is fortunate because it’s her turn to rest on the bed, on which she now nurses her newborn baby.
None of the Sali family has ever had an ID book. Officially, they do not exist. Sali’s two pregnant sisters, aged 19 and 22, wander around outside their tumbledown home.
“Both are infected with HIV,” Paul says. “I’m not sure about the 14-year-old and the mother.
“You know, when I see situations like this, I just don’t know where to start. You tell the people here, ‘Please don’t make crime; don’t cheat with the grants.’
“[But] sometimes the words, they stick in my throat. Because what can I give them instead? A job? Food? Education? An ID book?”
Like the ubiquitous emerald hills of the former Transkei, there are plenty of questions to ask in Zithulele village. But the answers are like the spirits often invoked by the people here.
“They are invisible, like the ancestors,” says Paul,” But we know they are out there—somewhere.”
*Some names have been changed.
Sex education goes far beyond the basics
The highest rates of teenage pregnancies occur in the poorer provinces, such as the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, according to the national education department.
Marion Stevens from Women in Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health Associates attributes it largely to the fact that youngsters in underprivileged areas, without decent education, transport or housing, have little to aspire to.
“Such districts also have little recreation to offer and teenagers often end up having sex, often without meaning to, as they have little idea of how to manage new feelings and desires,” she says. “Teenagers may also think that a baby will bring more meaning to their lives or let them ‘graduate’ as women, although the reality is that their already tough lives become much more challenging with a child.”
Stevens says that there is also a serious lack of information. “Their poverty is increased by the poverty of information on how their bodies and sexuality work.”
She says the onus is on the government to deal with privacy at rural clinics, where often the same nurse attends to an entire family and a teenager is not in a position to obtain contraception from a clinic as the nurse is likely to tell her parents.
She believes parents often think that sex education comprises “teaching your children how to have sex” and don’t understand that it equips youngsters with information about their bodies, feelings and relationships. “We need better sexuality education training for teachers, which will help them first to deal with their personal sexuality issues and then equip them to share that understanding with learners and parents,” she says.
The effects of migratory labour are well documented, says Stevens. “Many mines have invested in local HIV projects in the Transkei because of the increased HIV-infection rate associated with men not living with their families.
“But we also need investments in teenage sexual and reproductive health projects that will address the lack of comprehensive sexuality education among young people and the wider community.”
Mia Malan works for the Discovery Health Journalism Centre at Rhodes University