/ 16 May 2011

Collapse in ‘traditional values’ haunts E Cape social workers

As he walks up the gravel path towards a faded pink-coloured house in Hlwahlwazi village, a short drive outside the Eastern Cape town of Flagstaff, social worker Zolile Mbono notices a girl in her early teens slouched against a fence, speaking flirtatiously to a young man. He shakes his head in disapproval.

“When I was a boy the elders in the house would never have allowed that girl to talk to a boy like that,” he says. “There would be a grandfather near here who would have chased the young boy away with his walking stick.

“It’s changed now. There are men in these rural areas, they don’t have jobs, they walk past a house and see these young girls and they help themselves. The elders don’t chase anyone anymore. They keep their eyes down.”

Perhaps the elders are afraid of the young men, Mbono says. Many young men like these kill for R50, he says. The old people know this.

Mbono (42) and his colleague Miselo Nodonyelwa work together at the Vusisizwe Aids Awareness and Human Rights Training Programme in Flagstaff, one of the poorest towns in South Africa.

The two men daily encounter families who have been torn apart and destroyed by violence. There has, they say, been a collapse in once strict traditional values in rural areas.

The men reach the pink house and tap on the door and Nodonyelwa announces himself. The adults are not home, a child’s voice says from inside in the Pondo language, but Nodonyelwa is welcome to come in.

‘Something went wrong’
Inside the one-bedroom house, a 14-year-old girl is on her knees on a clay floor wiping food from the mouth of her 18-month-old daughter. She nods to Nodonyelwa in acknowledgement and the two exchange greetings. Two babies, wrapped in blankets, are asleep on the floor beside the girl.

The girl, who had been chatting to the boy outside, has rushed inside and is sitting on the edge of the bed, paging through a school jotter. Apart from the bed and a pile of maize kernels in the corner, the room is empty.

Nodonyelwa says the girl and her child have a special place in his heart. He comes regularly to check up on her, he says.

When she was 12 she was raped and impregnated by her uncle. After he had raped her he tied a rope around her neck and hung her from the rafters of the house. She managed to break out of the noose and ran for her life. She made her way to her grandmother’s house. The pair laid a charge with the police, but the man was not arrested. The girl was terrified her uncle would find her and kill her. It was then that she encountered Nodonyelwa.

He took her to hospital, where she was tested for sexually transmitted diseases and where it was discovered she was pregnant. Nodonyelwa took the girl the social welfare offices and was told the department was unable to keep pregnant girls.

He went to work and found the girl a foster home with the family at Hlwahlwazi village, just a few kilometres from where a R32-million road has been rerouted past a new house being built by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka.

“She was supposed to have an abortion at a clinic, but something went wrong and she ended up having the baby,” says Nodonyelwa.

“Her uncle was eventually charged with rape, assault and attempted murder. But when she saw him in court, she was shaking. She was terrified.”

‘Men have lost their dignity’
Mbono says there are many similar cases in the Flagstaff area.

“It never used to be so common,” he says. “But now there is so little work in this area. Men have no jobs.

“If a man wants to buy shoe polish he has to ask his wife for some of her government grant money. The men sit for years without jobs and start to drink. Men are have lost their dignity and that is when they start doing terrible things.

“Some days I see so many bad things happening to women and children that I go home tired and I just want to sleep.” Mbono says there has been little economic progress in Flagstaff in the past 20 years.

“It’s the same,” he says.

“The only difference now is that we have potholes on the streets, no water and the shops aren’t owned by black people anymore. They are owned by Chinese and Indian people.

“The Chinese and the Indians sell things too cheap. Their shops are always full. People receive their grant money and they go there. The black shop owners can’t compete with them.”

‘They don’t care’
Outside the pink house, the girl’s foster mother, Thandekele Khasa, appears from the gravel road.

“She has been working,” she says, before shaking her finger and scolding one of the girls in the house for not being at school.

“I have 10 children whom I must feed,” she says.

“It’s difficult because school is far away. We get five grants for the children. It is expensive to get so many children to school. There is no money to do anything.” She says there is no running water or electricity at the house, and points at a unsheltered wood box 10m from the house, when asked where the toilet is.

“It’s a Cape Town toilet… or a Free State toilet,” she says with a smile, referring to a recent political scandal over unenclosed toilets built by municipalities in Cape Town and the Free State.

Satisfied with the girl’s progress, Nodonyelwa and Mbono bid farewell and say they will be back soon for a check up.

“There’s a difference now in this area,” Mbono says, looking at a large white house on nearby hill. When I was growing up in this area, if someone in our village had wealth and a big house and many cattle, they would approach a poor family and say, ‘we see you have a boy who is free. I want to borrow your boy to herd my cattle and I want to borrow one of your girls to help clean my house’.”

In return the head of that house would loan one of this cows.

“The poorer family could milk the cow and when the cow had a calf, the calf became theirs.

“That does not happen anymore. That culture has gone from the village. When people have wealth now, they keep it to themselves. They don’t care.” — Sapa