Women are disproportionately affected by violence and poverty in South Africa; our country’s townships are filled with stories of despair and a lack of opportunity. For some, the solution is to turn to crime, falling into the trap of drugs and gangsterism. But even when this happens, change can still come. Zandile Ndamane talks to two women in her community, Khayelitsha, that have overcome adversity on account of the spirit around them – a spirit that says: don’t give up, we’ll make a plan.
In Khayelitsha there is a lot of temptation,” says Thandi, a 35-year-old who works as a social worker at Nompumelelo Educare in Khayelitsha and at the Khayelitsha Hospital. Thandi sees the great potential in the community by day, but she also bears witness to some of the worst side effects of the increasing unsavoury activity in the township by night.
Thandi works with all kinds of youth not only through her work, but also through the netball club she started for girls who have been in various rehabilitation centres for drugs and alcohol. She’s become such a positive influence, that she has extended her support to boys too through mentorship. She believes that by mentoring them to become positive examples in the community they will be known for something other than being suspected of criminal activity – the default for young men and boys in the township.
She speaks of how it is very hard to see someone the same age as her younger brother go through rough situations in life and no one is willing to help them.
“I used to be a rebellious teen until I fell pregnant and found out that I was HIV positive. Not knowing the father of my child was very painful. I was 15 and needed help,” she tells me. Thandi was lucky to find a mentor in her life that inspired her to keep going and to not give up. He passed away last year of lung cancer, but the lessons she learnt from him have led her to be the woman she is today and she continues to follow in his footsteps.
“He was a man of principle,” she explains. “He would make jokes of how he suffered and tell me that what I experienced in my life was just a passing phase. That really helped me. But at the same time, while encouraging and supporting me, he also taught me that life is not a joke and we should never play with it.”
Thandi turned away from dangerous habits and became part of the solution in her community. She saw the need for girls to spend time together in a healthy environment, free from negative influences. “Sport has really helped them turn to a new chapter in their lives.” She wanted to show the girls that they don’t need to feel alone – like she did. She says she hopes they will also invest in their community to help others like themselves.
Turning away from abuse
Sinazo is 17 and pregnant. She lives with her grandmother, Celia, who is 60 and is a domestic worker. I asked Sinazo what happened with her life how she ended up leaving school. It’s not an uncommon story.
“I thought my granny hated me with all the chores she gave me. I became tired of taking my little sister to crèche and fetching her, making sure she was clean and fed while my granny was away at work. My granny would return late at night tired. I was angry, so I became friends with a group of girls in my street that partied every day and would do drugs with boys who are gangsters. That’s where I met my boyfriend, who was a well-known gang member. Everybody was scared of him; he was praised by those around him. The new group of friends made me feel like that life was for me and I dropped out of school and lived with him at his home.”
She tells me that the group would smoke drugs and drink alcohol every day. She also tells me that she was beaten by her boyfriend regularly, but she stayed with him. Things changed when she fell pregnant. “His mother was a nurse so noticed me first. She told me to go to the clinic with her. It was there that I was told I was pregnant.”
That’s when things started to change for Sinazo. She disclosed to the nurses that she was being beaten. “His mother stopped him and told him to leave.”
While Sinazo’s prospects – pregnant, unemployed and a school dropout – seem bad, I realise that she is one of the lucky ones. It’s not too late for her. Sinazo’s story is also one of upliftment. She’s been helped by the mother of the boy who caused many of the problems in her life. His mother is looking out not only for Sinazo, but also her future grandchild. She hopes that her son will return and will change, but if not, she has at least saved a child from abortion, she says.
“My boyfriend's mother helped me register with a rehabilitation centre and it helped me heal. I stayed there for three months and now I’m six months’ pregnant and back at school. I’m in Grade 12 now,” Sinazo tells me.
Sinazo has also gone back to her grandmother’s house. “She was disappointed, but she’s forgiven me.”
Sinazo and Thandi are just two stories that could have ended differently – like too many others. In both cases, it took just one positive role model to steer them in a new direction. In a place heavily impacted by drugs, alcohol and violence, we need many more role models to keep our youth and my friends on the right path, and we need a lot more hope.