Rescued from a life on the streets

A new educational trust is giving street kids a good education.

SIPHO Mathebula’s earliest memories are of being beaten by his stepfather every day with a sjambok, of running away from home every chance he got, and of stealing money from his mother. By the time he was six or so, he was living on the streets of Johannesburg.

“I was introduced to dagga, glue, cigarettes, drinking,” says Sipho, now 15. “We would beg for money, and we’d steal wheel caps from cars and sell them to the taxi drivers. We slept in Hillbrow at night—as long as you had a box, you could sleep. We would find a spot and sleep there for a few nights until the police came and hit us and chased us away. Sometimes we would split up to sleep, sometimes we wouldn’t sleep at all.”

Sipho was one of about 18 000 children currently eking a survival from South Africa’s streets. That was until he was introduced by a friend to a children’s home in Benoni, Kids’ Haven, and his life changed forever.

“I stayed there, they took me to school,” remembers Sipho. “I had never been before. I lied and said I was in standard one. I couldn’t read or even write my name. The teachers were always shouting at me. I failed standard one.”

But Sipho enjoyed school. The next year, he came first in standard 1, and the following year first in standard 2, after which he was promoted to standard 4.

Enter Bruce Howard, a successful Johannesburg businessman, who had decided that he wanted to do something positive in South Africa. Howard’s way of making a meaningful difference was first to get involved with Kids’ Haven, and to help it to find its feet, financially and administratively. Then he looked to individual children he could really help—the first was Sipho. Howard decided to send Sipho to St Patrick’s Christian Brothers’ College in Kimberley, the private school where he had gone.

Sipho is now a good-looking, tall teenager with a ready smile that belies his painful past. The change was not all easy for Sipho. He was put back a year because he was academically comparatively weak. And small things, like learning to use a knife and fork, were huge obstacles. “I was used to a spoon only,” he explains. At his first meal in the boarding school’s dining room, he remembers, “I started eating with my hands and everyone looked at me. I didn’t eat that night. Then the matron taught me to use a knife and fork.”

But Sipho grabbed the opportunities he got. He could not swim when he arrived, but a year later he had made the provincial swimming squad, of which he is still a part. He learnt to play rugby and cricket, he took part in school productions, and he became the Pipe Major in the school pipe band—a rare honour. And, he adds with a huge grin, “Making friends—it just changed my life. I’m very happy to be here.”

After Sipho, Howard decided to send another child from Kids’ Haven, Kenneth Malope, to the school. Like Sipho, Kenneth, now in grade 6, has worked hard, making up for what he missed out on.

On the back of their success, Howard set up the Sugarbush Foundation Education Trust, to try to persuade others to put money towards sponsoring private school education for promising pupils. This year Nomsa Magane became the first child to be sponsored by the trust (as opposed to by Howard himself) to attend St Patrick’s.

Principal Mike Thiel says St Patrick’s is all the better for accepting the children. “We’ve had to work hard, there are all sorts of backlogs that have to be addressed.

For the school it’s been a productive process in that our kids have been able to confront and understand a very real part of South African society.

For more information, Sugarbush can be contacted at (011) 325-5995

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, May 15, 2000.

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