#FootSoldiers: Umsebenzi wama CHWs – Bringing hope and life to the community of Sweetwaters

Foot soldiers of the health system: It’s election time which means men and women in party regalia take to the streets, podiums, loudhailers and stadiums. Invariably they tell people about all the good and wonderful things they have done or plan to do in the health system. SECTION27’s Nomatter Ndebele and photojournalist Thom Pierce travelled the roads of South Africa in search of the foot soldiers of the health system, the men and women who quietly get on with doing the job and saving lives, often without any acknowledgement.

A story of life and death, of love and compassion. Of caring. Gogo Tholana and Doris Ntuli. Photo by Thom Pierce

Three years ago Doris Ntuli and her fellow Community Healthcare Workers (CHWs) Nhlanhla Makhaya and Sindi Zondi took Spotlight from house to house on a tour of Sweetwaters  in KwaZulu-Natal where the trio worked for a paltry R1 800 per month,  caring for extremely ill people in their homes. They had no resources, which means they had no gloves, no soap, no bandages, and no support from those in power. At the time Spotlight published an iconic photograph of CHWs using old bread bags as gloves as they washed patients at home. Last week Spotlight returned to Sweetwaters and found the trio.

The last time we saw  78-year-old Gogo Tholana in July 2016, she was living alone in a bare rondavel in the hills of Sweetwaters. She had been ill for two years, suffering from a serious and possibly fatal kidney infection.  She was bed ridden, her skin was ashen, she was stick thin and was wearing nappies. When she spoke she was almost inaudible, and was barely able to sit up. Day in and day out, she lay on a thin mattress in her rondavel, a few meters away from a fire place. Her only source of heat in the rondavel. She would have to wait until Doris Ntuli or another CHW came to check on her, to ask them to light a fire for her.

This time, almost three years to the day we met Gogo Tholana, we are led a little bit further down the hill, her rondavel is still there, but there is a gold latch dangling on the door. A few hundred meters from the rondavel is a big four-roomed house, and in bedroom number two (all the doors are numbered) we hear a loud voice saying “ Ah, you’re here”. We wait while the CHWs enter the room 2, and now there are sounds of laughter and excitement emanating from it.

Doris Ntuli and her fellow Community Healthcare Workers (CHWs) Nhlanhla Makhaya and Sindi Zondi with Gogo Tholana in the blue gown. Photo by Thom Pierce.

The trio of CHWs file out of the room, with a sparkle in their eyes and finally a large ever present woman, dressed in a baby blue gown stands up straight in the doorway.

The person standing in the door way is a healthy weight, her skin is bright and she has a wide cheeky smile on her face. It is almost unbelievable, that this was the helpless woman lying in a bare rondavel, whose only access to healthcare was through three dedicated CHWs who never missed a single day in attending to her, feeding her, bathing her, clothing her, washing her sheets, washing her clothes and telling her silly jokes to keep her spirits up.

The woman who stands in front of us now, clearly cheated death.

Umsebenzi wa Labantwana ongivusileyo (It is the work of these kids that bought me back),” says Gogo while she points at the three CHWs. My skin was black, I couldn’t move, I tried my best to shuffle across the room to try and relieve myself, but I could not move to urinate, so I had no choice but to urinate on the mattress I was lying on,” she recalls.

From this single example it is clear how Doris Ntuli and her team of CHWs have impacted on lives in the community.  However, on the flipside, sadly very little has changed for the CHWs themselves. Other than a salary increase implemented earlier this year,  shiny name tags, and branded backpacks from the department of health, not much else has changed.

The backpacks cling limply to their backs, as the women make their rounds by foot, visiting the 60 households they look after. There is nothing in the bags  to assist them in doing their work. The CHW’s still don’t have the resources they need, they do not have a transport subsidy, not an airtime subsidy, there are no masks to prevent them from contracting communicable diseases, and often times, they still don’t have gloves to wear. This while they care for patients the public health system no longer cares for in any other way.

“A few months ago, we did a TB program, we walked up and down these hills collecting sputum, with no masks or gloves. We then had to walk a long way to the central point where we had to deliver these (sputum) bottles. So many of our colleagues have died, and many more continue to die from contracting TB and other diseases, as we have no means for infection control,” says Nhlanhla .

In meetings and workshops in roundtables, politicians and health department workers will speak of war rooms and the importance of CHWs, but ask these CHWs and they will tell you that when they report their challenges to the “war room” the only ones who respond is the Department of Agriculture. The departments of health and social development are mostly no shows. Many of the issues the CHWs encounter require the assistance of social workers in order to assist the community in attaining ID documents, grants and food parcels. As it was three years ago, Doris and the team still take food from their own homes to feed their patients.

“The patients will hold their medication in their hands and say, I have no food- How can I take this medication,” says Sindi.

From their salary of R3 500, they must look after their own families, as well as all their patients. “By the time we get paid, the money Is already gone,” said Sindi

“When we arrive at a household, if there are ten people living there, we attend to every single person. We check the elderly for chronic diseases, we ensure that babies in the household have been immunized, we check their growth, and after all the health aspects, we deal with the social issues- some are being abused, most are unemployed, others have no means of accessing a grant- and all of that is on us,” says Sindi .

As they walk along the streets, community members wave,  shouting greetings at them, “Hello Nurse, Hello social worker!”

“That’s what they call us, but our actual titles are just CHW’s,” says Nonhlanhla.  The community has so much faith in the trio, that sometimes the terms of endearment weigh heavily on them, particularly when they are unable to provide the assistance people need. Never  due to a lack of effort on their own part, but rather because the system they are made to work in, provides them with no support. The situation begs the question, why do they bother?

Each of the CHW’s are bound to their work by this inherent need to help. The idea of community and care is one they hold in high regard, “You cannot see trouble next door and just look away,” says Nhlanhla.

For Sindi though, it was the death of her cousin who died from AIDS that lead her to caring for the community. “My cousin was so ill, he bled from everywhere possible, his ears, nose, mouth, he bled from every opening in his body, he never told us what was wrong, he died from the disease, but it was also the way he was treated that killed him. He started to notice that he was being served with the same dish and spoon everyday- we didn’t know better then. But when he died, I vowed to myself that I was never going to let another person die like that, not under my watch”

And so she joined Doris and Nonhlanhla in taking care of the community of Sweetwaters. The trio is unstoppable, there isn’t a hill they won’t climb, not a story they won’t listen to and not a single house they will pass. Unknown to the high ranking officials of the Department of Health, these three woman live and breathe the principals of Batho Pele.

With what little they have, they ensure that the community comes first in every way. And while the country prepares to mark a change with an (x) these foot soldiers are committed to bringing change and hope that is far more tangible, than that of a ballot box.


This article was written for Spotlight and first appeared on their website on May 6th 2019. 

Unity thrives next door to Eugene Terr’blanches Farm in Ventersdorp.

South Africa is a country of surprises, ironies, twists and turns. On Saturday a group of alumni gathered for a reunion at a farm school in a former right-wing stronghold. Maverick Citizen was there to capture the glimpses of hope our country desperately needs right now.

On Saturday 5 October about 50 alumni of Opang Diatla intermediate school in Ventersdorp drove along a dirt road to gather in a celebration reunion of the classes 1970 to 1985. For many kilometres there is nothing to see on the side of the road, other than brown plains and emaciated livestock.

Opang Diatla is a farm school in Ratzegaai, about an hour from Klerksdorp. The school was founded in 1970 and started taking learners from 1971. It was built on dusty red sand and has three large blocks that contain seven classrooms. At the entrance of the school there are neatly stacked rocks that have been painted in bright colours by the learners.

Past learners of Opang-Diatla singing at the reunion. Photo by Thom Pierce.

The school is in an area that has in the past been a stronghold of conservative, at times right-wing Afrikaans people. Looking out of a window of one of the classrooms, one can see the farm of the late Eugene Terre’Blanche, an Afrikaans supremacist and nationalist. For years, he was the leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), a motley crew of white people who had an affinity for parading in khaki clothes, waving flags and shouting about self-determination. They mounted a backlash against the end of apartheid.

Terre’Blanche struck fear into the hearts of many people, especially the surrounding black communities. It is hard to imagine that he would have been pleased with the developments at Opang Diatla adjacent to his farm. However, times have changed, and the only thing the community fears is abandoning young children who have the potential to be anything they want to be regardless of their background.

It was ironically the bravery of a white, Afrikaans family, and the deep need to do better and right by their community that spurred a group of farming families on, in building a school on their farm.

Farmer Andries Kotze addresses the reunion class. Photo by Thom Pierce.

Farmer Andries Kotze, known by many as Oom Andries, was visibly emotional throughout the event on Saturday, his soft blue eyes often sparkling with tears. Kotze and his family, specifically his brothers, started the school with the local community in 1970.

“One of my friends came to me and said, “Ons kan nie dit so los nie [we can’t leave it like this], people can’t read the Bible and they can’t read and write.” So the community came together, initially just a group five or six people, “and we built this school from scratch, we used clay bricks. I wish my brothers and family were here today, to see what they created.”

Kotze, credits the Ventersdorp Dutch Reformed Church “Dominie”  Dr Dippenaar, for inspiring the community to do better. Oom Andries said he only had one message for the former learners.

He took a piece of chalk, walked up to the board and drew a simple smiley face. “That is all I can say,” he said, before being drowned out by heartfelt applause from the past learners.

Kotze said him and his brothers were more concerned about providing an education to the people whose children lived on the farm.

“In the ’70s the politicians we’re pulling this way and that, but in the ’70s we had 36 farm schools with about 7,000 learners.”

Throughout the event, past learners paid homage to Kotze and the teachers that they had at Opang Diatla.

“If it was not for this school, we would not be where we are, we are men and women today. This school has produced nurses, teachers, policemen and many, many other successful students,” said Mr Lebeko, a former learner and programme director for the day.

Former principal PJ Jacobs addresses past learners while Oom Andries listens. Photo by Thom Pierce.

Today, Opang Diatla has seven classrooms and 220 learners. The principal, Ms Maroane, was pleased to see the former learners come back and take an interest in developing the school.

“We face a lot of challenges at this school. Some kids don’t have shoes, we have no sporting equipment to support our incredibly talented learners and also we cannot manage our electricity bill,” she said.

The former learners committed themselves to supporting the school and making sure that every child that comes through Opang Diatla has an opportunity to make something of themselves, just as they themselves did.

“This is our school and we are so proud of it. We may have gone to a farm school, but that doesn’t make us any less important. We are all important, and we should never ever underestimate ourselves,” said Lebeko

ANC Veteran Mavuso Msimang addressed the reunion class at Opang-Diatla school. Photo by Thom Pierce

Anti-apartheid activist and guest speaker Mavuso Msimang commended the Kotze family and the former learners at the school for being committed to providing education. He spoke of the community’s power, by sharing an African saying: “If you want to go far, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.”

Former teacher Ms Molete tells the former students about her dreams for the future of the school. Photo by Thom Pierce.

One of the guests at the reunion was Ms Molete, an educator who had been at the school in the late ’70s. Now 74, Molete could not believe that her kids had grown up so much.

“I keep pinching myself, I keep wondering if I am dreaming, you are my kids. I feel so proud today, I feel respected and I stand a little bit taller… had I known what this would be, I would have worn higher heels,” she said.

Former pupil and event organiser Baby Makgeledisa said Molete had always been the learners’ fashion icon.

“This woman knew how to dress, and she taught us to dress up and always look smart.”

Many of the other former learners spoke fondly of their time at Opang Diatla, recalling the lessons of punctuality handed down by their teachers, but also the value of working hard which they learned from Kotze:

“Oom Andries, you used to take us to plough in the farm. At the time it seemed as though you were being so hard on us, but the minute we saw our seeds start to bear fruit, we finally understood that it was all worth it.”

Opang Diatla is a story of community, of partnership, of selflessness and of unity. Regardless of race or creed, the community put their heads and resources together to create a space where lives could be changed.

In closing, Molete asked one thing of the group:

“When you come back, please come back in your graduation gowns. The children must see what potential they have, they must see that they are unstoppable. And even if we can push 20 out of 50 kids to excellence, we would have done a lot.”

At the end of the festivities Oom Andries looked at all the learners with tears in his eyes, and said, “Julle maak ’n Boer huil”. (You’ve made a farmer cry.)

In a day full of surprises it was revealed that former finance minister (for a weekend) and a man who has been accused of being an accomplice to the Guptas’ State Capture, Des van Rooyen, is also an alumni of Opang Diatla, but was unable to attend the reunion. He sent a message of support, promising that he would be at the school’s jubilee celebration next year.

  • Opang Diatla is in need of sporting equipment, school shoes and uniforms and financial assistance to manage the school’s electricity bill. If you would like to assist the school, please contact Baby Makgeledisa on 078 033 3078.

The following article was written for Maverick Citizen and first on their website on October 7th 2019.

Vuvuzela patrollers: Soweto community takes back its power over criminals

 Dikeledi Mofokeng is a neighbourhood watch patroller who has been arrested for protecting her fellow residents in Phiri, Soweto. (Photo: Chanel Retief)

It is about 6.30am on a Friday as we drive through the streets of Phiri. The streets are quiet now as the hustle and bustle of morning activities has died down.

The only people in the streets now are the Phiri patrollers, who are getting ready to either go to work or catch a quick nap.

Phiri is located in Soweto. Up until 2018, Phiri’s monthly crime stats were sky-high.

Kholofelo Tshilwane, 20, is a neighbourhood watch patroller in Phiri. She says they started patrols after the SAPs did not respond when people were being mugged or held at knifepoint. (Photo: Chanel Retief)

“The crimes were very violent, many people were robbed with knives,” said 20-year-old Kholofelo Tshilwane who serves as the secretary of the Communities Neighbourhood Watch programme.

“I remember getting up early with my younger brothers when I started to hear a commotion just outside our yard. When I looked outside, I saw a woman trying to hold on to her handbag and dragging the man who was robbing her to the street light,” she said.

Phiri neighbourhood watch patrollers caught a thief in this hideout. Residents cut down trees and alerted their neighbours to the secret location where criminals hide.
(Photo: Chanel Retief)

A few months before that, a young woman had been attacked at about 7am, when she was making her way to university. The robbers got away with her backpack, which contained her laptop and university textbooks.

In June 2018, the community decided that enough was enough.

They held a committee meeting and decided to create their own neighbourhood watch. The community employed a whistle system: “If anybody is in trouble they can just blow on the whistle and that will alert the community that something is wrong,” explained Tshilwane.

There are over 20 patrollers in Phiri. Their shifts start at 3.30 in the morning. Armed with vuvuzelas, they patrol the streets, escorting women to bus stops and protecting them from any possible criminal attacks. Each hour, more and more patrollers head into the streets, creating a symphony of vuvuzela sounds.

“We use the vuvuzela to let people know that we are around, and also to communicate with each other; when you hear the vuvuzela on one side, you know that there is a patroller there,” said David Ncube, 57, chairperson of the Neighbourhood Watch Committee.

For the past year, Ncube has escorted one woman from her house to the bus stop every day at 3.30am.

“We need to protect each other and look after each other, it’s not about money, it’s about our community and our moral fibre,” he explained.

A lack of visible policing was the main reason the community decided that they would put in their own security measures. After countless attacks, the community has lost trust in Moroka police station.

“They really didn’t do anything; imagine we would catch people with weapons red-handed, and then by 4pm they are roaming the streets again,” said Ncube.

Phiri’s neighbourhood watch has been active for nearly a year, and in that time their crime stats have decreased drastically. “According to the police stats our section is actually below the average,” said Kholofelo proudly.

“One thing that must be clear is that the police came to us, they saw what we were doing and then asked if we could collaborate, we didn’t go to them. We don’t work for them, we work for the community,” Ncube says sternly.

Like many South Africans, most of the residents in Phiri have lost all faith in the South African Police Services (SAPS). According to many people, the police show up hours after you’ve called for help, and even then, the perpetrators of the crime are back on the streets before sunset.

“You know, if you get into a scuffle with someone trying to rob you and you manage to get a hold of them, you can’t hold them for a very long time, it’s easy for them to overpower you and run away, so if the police don’t come immediately, what are you supposed to do?,” said Kholofelo.

The group speaks openly about using mob justice as a means to deal with perpetrators.

“We catch them, and then we beat them, they need to feel the pain that we feel when they rob us of things we have worked for,” said Tshilwane.

However effective the community believes this is, they lament the fact that they, in turn, end up behind bars for protecting their community and doing the work that the police are failing to do.

Dikeledi Mofokeng, 46, is one of Phiri’s street patrollers. She is unemployed, but serves as the deputy secretary on the Communities Neighbourhood Watch programme.

“I’ve been arrested for assault. One of the robbers was caught and then beaten up. I did not beat him, but he went to the police station and reported a case of assault against me and a few other people,” she says.

Mofokeng’s arrest was not acceptable to the community. Community representatives headed to the police station and demanded to speak to the prosecutor. They then raised funds for the arrested and they were eventually released.

The community in Phiri has taken a holistic approach to being responsible for their community. Not only do they conduct safety patrols, they also do a lot of community outreach. The patrollers also spend much of their time at the local clinic, Senawane, cleaning up the facility and making sure that community members are in a healthy environment.

They have also started a relationship with waste collecting company Pikitup, to ensure that open spaces in the community are clean and not used as illegal dumping sites.

A few blocks up the road from Tshilwane’s house is an open area that had overgrown grass and was filled with litter. This was the hiding place for most criminals. The community came together and started cutting the overgrown grass and cutting the trees down so that criminals could not hide there.

“There are huge pipes in that area, so most of the criminals would hide there and also hide their stolen goods there,” said Tshilwane.

The neighbourhood committee keeps a close eye on the community, ensuring that there are no easy hiding places for criminals.

“We all work together, if someone says they’ve seen criminals in a specific place, we go there and clean it up, and we often recover stolen goods,” added Mofokeng.

The Phiri community meets religiously at the local high school every Thursday.

“Everybody knows that if you have any issues or want to report a matter, all you have to do is show up at the school at 6pm,” said Tshilwane.

It’s complicated, but in Phiri, the people are taking back their power.

The following article was written for Maverick Citizen and first appeared on its website on October 3rd 2019.

“In my dreams Michael’s hand is always beckoning towards me”

Rosina Mankone Komape is the mother of Michael Komape, who died after he fell into a pit toilet in 2014. Over the past few years, Rosina and her family have sought justice for Michael’s death, through a lengthy legal process which continues on 2 September, 2019. Maverick Citizen sat down with Mama Rosina to understand her life and her journey.

Rosina Mankone Komape. Photograph Thom Pierce 

When we arrive at the Komape house in Chebeng, Limpopo, Mama Rosina immediately chastises me for being late for the interview. “Next time you’re late, nobody will be here,” she says sternly. It is only when I compliment her outfit that she cracks a smile.

“This old thing?” she says, holding her floral dress out. This may be the first time I have ever seen Mama Rosina smile. She settles on the couch and cocks her head, giving me her full attention. When we start chatting about her childhood, she has a faraway look before she begins. It as though she has travelled back in time to narrate the story of her life.

“The last time any of us had actual freedom was when Mandela was president,” she says.The horrors of the apartheid regime are still etched in Komape’s mind.

“Our children don’t know anything about police brutality. In my time, you would get pulled off the street into a police van and told that you would explain yourself at the police station. They didn’t need a reason to arrest you. There were police and army men roaming the streets 24/7, and people would get chased down by police dogs,” she recalls.

Back then, they called it “black power”, she says, referring to the political upheaval and the struggle against apartheid in the late 1970s. Mama Rosina recalls groups of students always meeting and talking about “black power”. Growing up with a staunch Christian grandmother (after her parents got divorced) meant that most of her free time was spent in the church, where the pastor discouraged the children from getting involved in politics. Which suited her just fine.

“I was never one for politics or anything of that sort, all I wanted was to get married and be a homemaker,” she smiles.

Growing up, Mama Rosina spent her time at school, playing netball, singing in the church choir, doing house chores, and attending girl scouts. While she’s speaking, she suddenly bursts into song. When she is done, she turns to me with a grin and explains, “We used to sing those songs when we were scouts.”

Rosina Mankone Komape was born and raised in the small village of Utjane, in Ga-Mashashane, 20km outside of Polokwane. Very little has changed in Utjane, which is just 20 minutes away from her current home in Moletji, Chebeng, where she has lived with her husband, James Komape, for more than 30 years. Rosina met James when she was 16.

“He was so handsome, so tall, and very polite,” she says. James was the oldest in his family and so was Rosina. It was these similarities that convinced Rosina’s grandmother that theirs was a match made in heaven. After more than 30 years of “blissful” marriage, Mama Rosina says, “Not once has he raised his voice at me, and I know nothing of being beaten. He is a good man.”

When Mama Rosina’s parents got divorced, it was decided that she would live with her grandmother. They had a special relationship. Her grandmother became her mother and taught her everything a young woman needed to know growing up.

Her face lights up as she speaks about her grandmother: “And she still visits me in my dreams.”

“My grandmother adored me, and I loved being with her. She taught me everything, she had always wanted me to stay in school, but when my parents split up that wasn’t possible, so I dropped out in Grade 5. I was disappointed, but I told myself that I would make sure that my children get an education.”

A young Mama Rosina took the setback in her stride and went into the job market. Unsurprisingly for the born homemaker, her first job was being a caregiver at a school. Here she spent her days looking after the children, feeding them and putting them to sleep.

“You know, when I was there, I never let a single child go to the toilet on their own, I would go with them, one by one, hand them some tissue paper and then wash their hands. And I did that even though they had flushing toilets.”

After this, she pauses and then asks, “How can you send a child to the toilet alone?”

A rhetorical question. But far from random.

After that, Rosina was employed as a domestic worker, where again she thrived.

“I didn’t take up that job because I was struggling — my husband was employed — I did it because I enjoyed it, I loved it.”

A quick glance at the polished living-room floor is confirmation enough.

Despite growing up under apartheid in rural Limpopo, Rosina says that life was a lot simpler back then. “You didn’t need much, just food to eat and a nice dress to go to church in.”

Her dreams for the future, were just as simple: to get married to a good man, and to have children.

“And as God is good, I even gave birth to twins,” she smiles.

There is a single-family portrait hanging in the Komapes’ living room. In it, Rosina and her husband James are smiling, surrounded by their five children… there should be six.

Her son, Michael Komape, died in 2014, after he fell into a pit toilet and drowned in human faeces. He was just five years old and had been at Mahlodumela Lower Primary School for only four days before the tragic incident.

The last image of her son that Mama Rosina saw was that of his tiny hand sticking out of the pit toilet.

“In my dreams, his hand is always beckoning towards me, I will never forget that day,” she says as her voice cracks and tears well up in her eyes.

Overnight, Mama Rosina’s dreams of a simple life were shattered. Michael’s sudden death devastated the family. The family home, which had been filled with the sounds of children bickering and playing, was now quiet. Everybody was hurting, they were angry, they stopped speaking to each other. The only constant sounds were Mama Rosina’s muffled cries and her son Moses shouting out loud from nightmares.

“He would shout, ‘Run Michael, watch out, you are going to fall into the toilet’,” recalls Mama Rosina.

The night before Michael died, the family had dinner together as usual. They watched TV and the children left the living room to go to bed. Nothing could have prepared the family for the events of the next day, not even the dreams that Mama Rosina and her eldest daughter Lydia had had a few days before.

In Mama Rosina’s dream, she heard a voice telling her that the child had been hit by his uncle’s taxi and he had died. Lydia dreamed that the family had walked towards a big hole and then they all walked away from it. In retrospect, the dreams were frighteningly ominous.

“But we never expected that it would be Michael’s death,” she says softly.

Mama Rosina is one of 17 million people in SA who receive a state grant. The family fell on hard times when James became ill and was unable to work. When Michael died the family had no means to bury him.

“The first undertaker I went to took my SASSA card. They said they would hold on to it and take the money from that.” An illegal practice that many poor South Africans get caught up in when they struggle to make ends meet.

“There was nothing I could do.”

The community rallied together and assisted the Komapes with the arrangements of Michael’s funeral.

“People made donations to us. We got a call from another undertaker, and they told me that they would take care of everything for us.”

After such an outpouring of love and support, Mama Rosina was taken aback when the very same community suddenly turned on her when the court proceedings started.

“I don’t know what it was — maybe that they all thought we were going to get rich from the case.”

Everything changed. The community she had once lived harmoniously with, now ostracised her.

“They would whisper about me and stare at me. Everywhere I went, I would hear them say, ‘That’s her, the woman whose child died in the toilet.’ I couldn’t even go to the clinic any more. I couldn’t watch the news, and I didn’t dare look at a newspaper.”

It was a difficult time. Mama Rosina worried endlessly that the whispers would eventually reach her youngest child, Johanna, who was three months old when Michael died.

“We haven’t told her what happened. She knows she had a brother that passed on, but that’s all. We can’t burden her with this now, she’s too young to understand and I know she’ll have questions that I won’t have answers to.”

The only saving grace, she says, is that all of the children who were in Michael’s year have now left the school. For Johanna, it is as if the tragedy never happened. She bears a strong resemblance to her late brother. She has the same big eyes, and dressed in Michael’s uniform it is hard to tell the two apart at first glance.

Johanna, who is now five years old, goes to the primary school where her brother died.

“I didn’t have a choice, I can’t afford to send her anywhere else.” Frustration flashes across Mama Rosina’s face and finally settles as a frown.

“When she grows up and can understand things better, I will explain to her.”

A kilometre away from the family home, Michael’s tiny grave stands between those of other family members. If the size of his grave is not jarring enough, his youthful image etched on the tombstone is a painful reminder of his untimely death.

“His eyes. Every time I went to that cemetery his eyes would follow me, whichever way I was headed his eyes were always locked on mine. It is better now, but for a long time I struggled to attend other funerals because the minute I walked past his grave, I would burst into tears.”

The grief was unbearable. The entire family struggled and it nearly killed Mama Rosina.

“It hurt so bad,” she says wiping a single tear from her face. “It was so bad, that one evening I thought of throwing myself off the seventh floor of a hotel in Cape Town.”

When Michael died, the family became the centre of attention. The hype took its toll on a family that had lived a very private life. What was even more frustrating was the way in which the wheels of justice moved. Steadily, but unbearably slowly.

The matter went to court only in 2017. Four long years after Michael had died. When family members gave evidence, after everything they had been through, they were treated as though they were the ones who had committed a crime. The state counsel accused the family of having contrived their grief.

The lawyer asked Mama Rosina whether they had bought the case forward to “get rich from her son’s death”.

Through tears, she defiantly choked back, “If you put a pile of money and my son in front of me, I will take my son and go.”

That single response was a defining moment. Rosina Komape was a mother. And that was the be-all and end-all. Everything that she ever did was for her children.

Her remaining children are the reason she did not let the grief consume her.

“I had to think about these kids. They lost their brother and I saw what it did to them. What would happen to them if they also lost their mother?”

A google image search will bring up at least 10 photographs of a sullen and grief-stricken Rosina Komape. For so long, that has been the story: she is the mother of a little boy who died in a pit toilet. Grief-stricken and eternally bruised.

But that is just one part of her story and her journey. Her courage and grace refuse to allow her son’s death to hold her hostage. Between the frowns and tears, slowly more smiles are starting to emerge.

The following article was written for Maverick Citizen and first appeared on its website on the 2nd sept 2019.  

Dear South Africa, you don’t have to be misaligned with everything.

Over the past few days I have spent much of my internet time scrolling through the new #ImStaying facebook group. For those of you who haven’t heard or are ‘so over facebook’, #ImStaying is an open group on facebook where hundreds of people share their stories or experiences of why they are staying in South Africa, at a time where many people are leaving the country. (For various reasons by the way, not everyone is leaving because things are going ‘downhill’)

On Monday a few colleagues and I had a brief chat about the group, the general feeling was that it was a refreshing side of South Africa, and that it was actually nice to see positive interactions and people choosing to be a part of something, rather than immediately misaligned. However after just recently emerging from a twitter storm, my jaded self commented “Let see how long it is before people find a reason to hate this group”

I don’t know if I spoke it into existence, but enter stage left an article by Solly Moeng titled “Good for you, #ImStaying but why shout about it”. The premise of Moeng’s article is  (1) that we need not judge people who are emigrating from south Africa for whatever reason and (2) That we should not use the anecdotes such as those published in the facebook group as means of emotional blackmail towards people who choose to leave South Africa.  “we should stop the negative and divisive narrative that consists of claiming that those who leave today have no love in their hearts for South Africa; or that they’re not committed to its well-being,” says Moeng.

He argues that such ideals are divisive. And perhaps many see them as such. But often the argument of something being “divisive”, is the view that to align with the other is an absolute and definite stance against something else. Simple example (albeit potentially complex) supporting the idea of the Freedom of Palestine, does not automatically and absolutely qualify me as anti-semitic.

By the same token, I don’t believe that following and participating in #ImStaying, is an automatic and absolute response to people who are choosing to leave the country. There are many things that we can be angry about in South Africa, you don’t have to look far to find things that make you angry. It could be poverty, Gender based violence, Toxic white Privilege, State Capture, Eskom, Racism, corrupt politicians, lying journalists and and and and. There are so many micro aggressions that we can all tap into at any point in this country, why on earth would be choose to be angry about a facebook group whose sole intention is to show connection, to show how humanity is still an important value, to show that despite all the things that we can be angry about, there are some things that we can look at, and for a moment, even if it is fleeting, feel good about.

I will admit, we are living in times where rage, anger and a lack of compassion are at the core of our existence . In a country such as ours with such a complex history one can argue that the rage and anger is justified. People are allowed to be angry, they are allowed to feel betrayed, they are allowed to feel “othered”  if it is their lived experience.  these are not feelings, that I would wish on any one, but the truth is some of our experiences legitimately bring us to these feelings. And in experiencing, and expressing these feelings, we adopt certain boundaries and barriers, we see things differently, but that does not mean that we cannot see anything else.

Where things are unjust, we must rage against them. But as someone close to me pointed out to me quite recently “You don’t have to be misaligned to everything”. I can still be bothered by toxic spaces of white privilege, but I am also allowed to be happy to see one white person using their privilege to change someone else’s life. Whether it is by putting a Domestic Workers child through school, or whether it is something as simple as giving two women a lift to work, when the bus they were on broke down.

And before you say it, I know. I can hear the naysayers screaming and hollering about the fact that people should do that purely because they want too, and not because they want to be part of a trend where they can post their good deeds and feel good about themselves. And that is true. People often say, you can do good and not post about it.

But at a time, where all of humanity is screaming for connection, compassion, and kindness. Do we really have to be angry or annoyed that people across our country, are making the effort to connect, to be more compassionate and to exercise kindness.

Seriously, you want to be angry at people who are sharing their positive experiences in this country, and then also be angry at the news for always highlighting the countries shortfalls? Things are not always “Black and white” and yes, I’m using this term on purpose. It is okay to be dealing with years of prejudice and inequality, it is okay to be angry about the looting of state entities, it is okay to be angry about the fact that two years after Life Esidimeni Qedani Mahlangu and her posse have not faced criminal action. Nobody is saying quit your battles, nobody is asking you to forget about the toxic spaces of white privileged.

Bear your crosses, fight your battles, stand up for what you believe in. But where there are good deeds done, where people are choosing to see others, and be compassionate, you’re also allowed to celebrate that. It doesn’t make you any less of a ‘freedom fighter’ or any less committed to your cause. It makes you human.

If people are deciding to share their experiences which are underpinned by compassion, love, ubuntu and unity, they have every right to shout about it and they can shout as loudly as they want too, because their actions call for unity, they call for connection, they call for hope, and in this country where racial tensions are high, when inequality is extremely pervasive in our lives, genuine acts of unity, connection and hope are what we need to see, and share. As one lady said on the group, we must choose light.

The world is a F_ckn mess right now. Now more than ever, we should be chasing humanity, connection, unity, ubuntu and respect. And whether or not these deeds or anecdotes end up on facebook, the main thing is that they are happening. In our streets, shops,  schools, in our communities. Yes, facebook lives on the internet, but the people sharing their stories of hope live amongst us. They go to our churches, they sit in our bars and they sit in the same traffic as we do, and I for one, would rather know that there are many of us, that we walk this earth together doing our bit to make things a little bit better for those around us.

So yeah, things aren’t always great. I fight a barrage of battles everyday, to be seen, to be heard, to be respected. And if everyday, I get to see one person winning that battle. There is no reason to doubt that I won’t win mine. If for nothing else, I will stay to bear witness to this tiny little space of unity, because it matters to me. You are not forced to stand with us, but it is completely up to you, whether or not you decide to stand against us. Remember, you actually don’t have to be misaligned to everything.

That one time the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela wrote about me. Like a little bit.

Now I don’t usually do this, because I am super low key and I never imagine that things like this could ever happen to me. Anyway, I was invited to speak on a Panel at GIBBS a few weeks ago. The topic was Millenials and leadership in Africa. Something like that.

Me speaking at Dr Reul Khoza’s panel about Millennials in Africa and how they should lead.

Anyway you can click here to see what I said on the Panel, which caught Thuli Madonsela’s attention and she went on to mention me in an opinion Piece that she wrote about the panel.

The acid test of freedom.

Thuli Madonsela

‘Our parents fought for freedom, but all we got was democracy … We don’t want democracy, we want freedom.”

This was a bold statement made by Nomatter Ndebele, one of four erudite and passionate millennials who shared a platform with businessman and leadership advocate Reuel Khoza at a Gordon Institute of Business Science public forum recently.

While other young panellists used different language, sometimes reminiscent of 1976, there was a pervasive sense that they too felt let down, particularly by government and adults. I was left with the distinct impression that young people feel they are being made to bear their burdens alone or are being forced to take on responsibilities that should be borne by the state, business and adults – particularly when it comes to addressing historical socioeconomic disparities in the pursuit of social justice.

I wanted to speak to Ndebele about what she’d said, but I stopped first to congratulate one of the other panellists, my daughter Wenzile. She was surrounded by her posse, many of whom wanted to take selfies and talk to me about their appreciation for the work of the Public Protector team during my tenure at the office.

Wenzile had spoken about the vision and philosophy of the foundation my colleagues and I have established, and several participants at the forum, mostly millennials, wanted to know more about how to get involved. The foundation will focus on a democratic leadership approach that is ethical, purposeful, impactful and committed to service.

It was encouraging to see that what resonated with them was the emphasis on community leaders solving the problems they could before holding government and other decision-making structures that failed to play their part accountable.

True freedom remains elusive

Side conversations that followed about democracy and freedom culminated in a dinner table conversation that morphed into a democracy dialogue with a handful of millennials.

The general view was that true freedom remains elusive for many historically disadvantaged citizens. There was also agreement that many were left behind in respect of being allowed to enjoy basic freedoms, such as having one’s potential freed to compete meaningfully with others in the market. It was argued that many of the rights promised in the Constitution mean little or nothing to hopelessly disadvantaged groups and communities.

Access to quality education, passionately mentioned as an example of elusive freedom by Ndebele and her fellow panellists Lovelyn Nwadeyi, Yusuf Randera Rees and Wenzile, emerged as a common concern in the dialogue. There was also some agreement on Wenzile’s point that children from communities that are trapped in abject poverty and the related dysfunctionality, including drug and alcohol abuse accompanied by systemic violence and fear, faced extreme barriers regarding dreaming expansively enough to realise their full human potential.

Khoza’s point about the absence of a clear and compelling vision that should be inspiring and guiding social transformation actions to leapfrog South Africa into a successful and inclusive society also found resonance.

Equally supported was Ndebele’s point that business was not doing enough. She argued that, after Nenegate, which struck at the heart of the economy, the South African elite expected young and poor people to march with them in protest against executive misconduct, yet they had abandoned young people during the #FeesMustFall struggle.

There was consensus that socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, crime and structural inequality reflected in gross disparities regarding access to quality education, healthcare and economic opportunities, coupled with vulnerability to violent crimes, limit the freedom to meaningfully pursue many human endeavours by affected groups and communities.

A passionate philosophical conversation ensued on the meaning of democracy and freedom, and the relationship between the two. Olivier argued that there is a difference between freedom and democracy, and that there are different views on the meaning of democracy. Mbusowabantu argued that democracy and freedom are not mutually exclusive, and that, when properly understood, democracy incorporates freedom. Khulekile concurred, adding that the reason some are left behind is not because of the failure of democracy, but due to the failure of political leadership and the paradigm that confines the meaning of democracy to people’s participation in periodic elections.

The conversation ended with agreement on the need for a public dialogue on the meaning of democracy and freedom, as well as on the various roles that should be played by individuals, communities, government and business in ensuring that all equally enjoy the fruits of democracy.

Nurturing the youth

After the conversation, I came across a pertinent reference to freedom in former president Nelson Mandela’s inaugural state of the nation address on May 24 1994, tweeted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on Wednesday. Mandela said:

“The purpose that will drive this government shall be the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment, the continuous extension of the frontiers of freedom.

“The acid test of the legitimacy of the programmes we elaborate, the government institutions we create, the legislation we adopt must be whether they serve these objectives.

“Our single most important challenge is therefore to help establish a social order in which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual.”

Mandela continued: “The youth of our country are the valued possession of the nation. Without them, there can be no future. Their needs are immense and urgent. They are at the centre of our reconstruction and development plan…

“Building on this base, the government and the [National Youth Development Agenda] would then work together to ensure that the nurturing of our youth stands in the centre of our reconstruction and development, without being consigned to a meaningless ghetto of public life.”

It seems to me that Mandela saw the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment and freedom as the acid test of government’s fulfilment of its responsibility in our democracy, and justification for being in power. This, in my view, is in line with the Constitution, particularly section 237, which requires constitutional responsibilities to be given priority and to be performed diligently.

I wonder if the acid test of programmes that government has been giving priority to, and the institutions created or dismantled and legislation adopted in the past few years, has been the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment and freedom for all. How do we reconcile the anger of millennials such as Ndebele at seeing wasted young talent while a few prosper on the wings of social injustice and, in many cases, corruption, with Mandela’s iconic inaugural state of the nation address and, in a sense, promise to all?

Ndebele may not be the only young person who feels that their parents’ fight for democracy was betrayed by exchanging freedom for democracy. If so, our democracy is in peril unless all groups and communities see meaningful progress in their experiences.

There is a saying that goes: “If they do not eat, we can’t sleep.” From the millennial voices, the message seems to be: “If we cannot sleep, none of you can.” What’s comforting, though, is that young people, particularly millennials, are not only demanding accountability for social justice, they are already acting as midwives for the inclusive South Africa of their dreams by rolling up their own sleeves. They are leading us regarding the urgent need for dialogue on the meaning of democracy and freedom.

Madonsela is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow, former Public Protector, and founder and chief patron of the Thuma Foundation

Ps. We’re besties now. Obviously.

On Bursaries, discrimination, disillusionment and a bunch of lawyers who’ve hated everything since 1994.

Dear: Democracy, constitutionality, equality and Solidariteit.

Remind me what was June 16th for? Because it’s been 41 years in, and very little has changed.

How is it, that in 2017. 23 years into democracy, Black students all over the country will (by representation) head to the North Pretoria High court to challenge Solidariteit , as they question the constitutionality of the Fundza Lushaka bursary scheme, which was initiated by the Department of education in order to address the inequality in access to higher education for Black children.

The bursary scheme is a measure that was put in place specifically to give us, Black students the dignity of being able to learn in our mother tongue, as well as teach others in their mother tongue.

A measure that was created specifically to allow us as black students  to go back to the communities that raised us , particularly in Rural areas and make a difference. A measure  to sow us back into our communities as  changemakers, who will inspire further change.

Why is it that as Black children in this country we must continue to fight for our right to live in dignity, in a [ Democratic, equitable, constitutional]  space that was supposedly created for us to prosper and not suffer the indignities that our parents endured under Apartheid.

May I remind you, Solidarity that in apartheid, your government created laws and regulations that specifically  advanced the interests of white people. White people had higher end Jobs reserved specifically for them. They were also the recipients of resources that kept them at the top of the ladder and has done so systematically to this very day.

What Fundza Lushaka is doing, is merely getting us off  of the ground that you kicked in our faces everyday, and onto that first step on the ladder. How dare you question that. How dare you cry foul, when faced with similar circumstances that you subjected us too. You? The very people who actually tried to force us to learn and speak Afrikaans, now have the audacity to cry foul, when we want to speak in our indigenous language.

How quickly you forget solidarity. But look at every sector in this country and you will still find your own, sitting at the highest levels.Comfortable as comfortable can be. But still, that’s not enough for you is it? What is that you actually want?  our lives? just a few more because sharpville, June 16, and boipatong were not enough hey?

But I suppose that is how democracy works isn’t it, it allows every man (as immoral as you are)  to cry foul and be attended too.

To say we are angry, is an understatement. Everyday my friends and I, eye democracy, constitutionality and equality from the other side of the fence clothed in poverty dreaming of the day when we when we will touch the garment of either one, just for a minute so that we too may prosper.

But in our view, there stands Solidarity and Afriforum. Always. Reminding us that Democracy in whatever shape or form it may come, was never for us.

You say our songs are hate speech.
You decide how successful we may be. Just smart enough to be ‘not like the other blacks’
You say our Indigenous language is discriminatory and disadvantages you. (Lets laugh together, lets laugh in apartheid)
You say our need to give back to the communities that raised us is outlandish.

In 2017, you still say we will never amount to anything. And you actively pursue that ideal.

What hurts equally, if not more is that the very pillars that should empower us and set us free. Taunt us everyday. From the bottom of pit toilets, through the cracked windows of what they call our schools. From the back of police Vans, where we shout “Fees must fall”  in the very streets that we walk. We are forced to look past out circumstances and fix our eyes on democracy.

We’ve heard many things said, all in the name of Democracy.
But when will this democracy, that was created for us,  ever be about us and for us.
When will equality reach us.
And this constitution that you argue over (while we watch from our shacks and broken RDP homes)  when will it actually free us?

Many of us have waited an age for these three wise men. We’ve watched from a distance as Democracy, equality, and constitutionality slowly make their way to us, but hardly make it to us.

But no more.

Freedom is calling.

This freedom that is ringing in our ears, sounds like democracy, it looks like equality, it looks like constitutionality.

but this time.

This freedom, is actually for us.

And guess what Solidarity, its starts with a simple Bursary Scheme called Funza Lushaka.

You mad? Stay mad.



This Youth month, can I get a little bit of respect please??

We need to stop the bullying and abuse of young people in the work place under the guise of teaching them and initiating them into the work place.

If you have to belittle someone, and break their confidence in order to assert your seniority that is a failure on your part, It is a lack of leadership and mentoring skills. It must also be said that being a senior or having been in an industry for a long time, does not automatically make you a ‘leader’ or  give you the qualities of being a mentor.

As a society we have normalized the abuse of young people in the work place. We tell young people that they must break their backs working if they want recognition, that they must give their all and still understand and be okay when they aren’t recognized for their work. That they must deal with both the internal and external politics of feeling undervalued privately, but still show up for work at 8 in the morning without a question.

As young people coming into various industries, be it journalism, Accounting or Medicine, we are well aware of the importance and value of hard work. We know that you’ve to start somewhere and work your way up.

However, what young people (or anybody actually) need in any place of work is a supportive environment and holistic  mentorship to be able to grow. Show me, teach me, give me responsibility and trust in what capabilities I have. We do not profess to know it all, but there are some things we know from our lived experiences, things we have learnt from each other and none of that should be disregarded in the name of seniority and experience.

It always amazes me how we are expected to go into work places, with a certain level of ‘start up’, we are expected to be the picture of innovation, we are expected to speak up and bring fresh ideas to the table. Where is this ‘start up’ supposed to come from if you are constantly being second guessed and made to feel as though you know nothing?

I think to many people this may be misconstrued as the mentality of a young person in the work place who is entitled and somewhat self-important. Perhaps. But still, I will not be ashamed for seeking gentleness. Every step that one takes to transition into the work place is both oppressive and repressive. Many of us, must go through a schooling system that makes you us believe that if we do not think, or function in a certain way we are inadequate.

We then have to make our way into a university system that was never designed for us to prosper. We have to somehow make our way through four to five years of university with minimal financial resource, and in a pool of 30 000+ students we have to find something that will make us desirable in the work place- despite the fact that we are all receiving the very same qualification. If we make it out of university, we then have to enter the job market, we find ourselves in a space where we are expected to be all things, even though we have come from nothing. Only to be torn apart at the hands of people who are supposedly mentoring you.

In my journalism year, we had a guest speaker who said to, ‘I want to tell you now, that at this point. you do not matter and nobody cares about you.’ A seasoned journalist said this to this to a room full of young hopeful journalists, who in a matter of months were expected to go into the industry and ‘perform’,  even after being told that we did not matter. How can you tell me that I do not matter, and still expect me to produce work that matters?

This experience was a complete contrast to the one that I had with Former City Press editor,  Ferial Haffajee. In my journalism year, Aunty Ferial was assigned to be my mentor. The relationship that we had, was one where my career aspirations were encouraged, but also realistically ‘managed’ for  lack of a better word. Aunty Ferial allowed me to share my ambitions with her, and at the time,  when I told her at that my interest was in war reporting, she did not immediately shut me down. Instead she told me to read, to do research, to speak to people who were been in the industry, she even offered to put me in touch with her own connections. Four years later, I have found myself in activism and not war reporting, but I do not view that as a failure, I see it simply as having taken another path. I did not fail as a person or a journalist because I didn’t follow my initial a career path. I have grown in different ways and I have learnt different things. In retrospect, I believe that  Aunty Ferial wanted to make me actually think about what it is that I thought I wanted to be. She allowed me in the gentlest of ways, to figure out the direction of my career.

In that same year, a financial Journalism lecturer remarked that I was going to die if I chose to go into War reporting. It so happened that I spent a year in the financial journalism sector, and it’s safe to say it was the worst year of my life. I died. Not dodging missiles in a war zone, but rather sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned office in the northern suburbs , every day from 9 to 5.

For six months I worked for a man whose only positive remark to me was “You look like you are half smart”. Everything that I learnt in that place, was from all the other ‘plebs’ on the ground who were patient with me, were willing to share their knowledge and encouraged me every day to learn, to try harder and to do better. From the man who was the Head of TV for an entire continent though, I learnt nothing about the craft of News TV, I learnt nothing of managing a team and perhaps more devastatingly I learnt nothing about myself.

It is time for people who are leaders in various industries and sectors to re-imagine mentorship. It need not be a violent process marked by belittling and bullying. It is okay for mentorship to be gentle, it is okay for mentorship to be nurturing, it is possible to shape and mould a young professionals career path without imposing your own insecurities on them and tearing them apart. And there are many people who have done that. I myself am a product of strong women, who were gentle with me.

So some unsolicited advice, young people in 2017 are ambitious, we angry, we are a revolution-in-waiting, we are not afraid to do the work, but unfortunately we are also accustomed to having to exist in a system characterized by poverty, inequality and injustice. We are now wired to resist, our very existence is a constant act of defiance and if you choose to break us down and stilt our development for your own interests, you are not helping us. You are by no means harnessing our power for the greater good, you are only pitting us against you. In a system riddled with inequality and injustice, it will not help either of us to be at odds with one another. We are better together.


The following article first appeared in the Daily Maverick and is written in my personal capacity. 

Applicant PRP 14635

Dear Applicant PRP 14635

We see you’ve tried to apply to exist in this country,

but somewhere in between crossing crocodile infested waters

Walking for days

And losing all you had

You’ve become just another number.

What did you think?

That you could come to a country that upholds human rights and just start anew?

Not quite.

See, here, you are just another refugee.

What more could you be?

Yes, we have laws and regulations

Our policies are made for people,

but you don’t fit that category

you’re just a refugee

and here, that is all you will ever be.

Perhaps you should never have left

There is nothing for you here.

We work with numbers Sir,

and you are just one too many.

So Applicant PRP 14635

Thank you for your time

but wait,

I’ve just realised,

You’re in the wrong line.