The Shosholoza Meyl train paces steadily through the heart of South Africa on its way to Johannesburg. On board is Sibongile Shabalala (31) who, after completing her Matric in 2001 at Osizweni High School in New Castle Township in KwaZulu-Natal, leaves her family of 11 and her first born son Lusanda (13) for the City of gold. The year is 2006 and she is in pursuit of a better life.
Sibongile is dressed in her Sunday best, wearing a red and white polka dot dress to welcome the buzz in the big city.
The Shosholoza Meyl is moving fast, in a race with the ambitions of this young mother when she arrives in Johannesburg. The train journey between the two South African cities takes 14 hours before reaching its terminus at the train station.
“All passengers get ready to disembark the train …please do not forget your tickets before approaching the counter at reception for your luggage! “,…shouts the intercom 15 minutes before arrival.
Sibongile’s stay in Johannesburg first began in Soweto at Zola Township with a friend. After meeting her boyfriend in 2007 she moved to Kliptown in the hope of finding her independence.
Kliptown is an iconic area in Soweto that represents the setting of democracy and the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955.
This sought to provide an alternative vision to the policies of the apartheid government but 23 years after democratic elections there is no sign of it.
Little Rose community centre is built at the centre of the “government forsaken” state of Kliptown.
Made from brightly painted plastic containers, it stands in contrast to the rusty metal shacks that overpopulate Kliptown. Little Rose functions as a shelter and day-care for the homeless.
It also offers afternoon classes focusing on computer skills and literacy along with three meals a day to those in need.
A PROMISING FUTURE: Little Rose has become a community safe haven grooming the youth for a different reality.
A single mum, abuse, neglect and the road to Little Rose
Sibongile arrived in Kliptown and found a shack. “At first the shack was in bad condition where from my bed the rooftop had a hole you could see the sun from during the day and the moon in the evening.”
To make a living Sibongile started washing people’s laundry and says, “A year after dating my boyfriend we had our first child together, Thabiso (9), we no longer had to fend for ourselves but had another human to support, worse of all I still had to send money home for Lusanda (13) because his father left us back in KZN.”
Sibongile says her boyfriend started selling drugs and became involved in crime in an effort to make a living. “Money would come in; we had enough to sustain us”.
With every rand they made her boyfriend soon started abusive habits. “From Thursday to Sunday he was out drinking and those were the days he would come home drunk and start beating me up. I forgave him often and held onto the initial character I had of him but the reality of who he was and his lifestyle caught up with me”.
Sibongile recalls the first morning after a night out where her boyfriend came home. “Around 3am we were sleeping when we got woken up by a knock. I went to open the door only to welcome in police. They came to arrest him after a girl he slept with had laid a charge of rape. The girl was from the area. I knew her and had heard of their relationship”.
Sibongile’s boyfriend got arrested for three months before the case was dropped. Nine months after his release, Sibongile’s boyfriend was again arrested for another rape charge. Bekundzima (it was difficult) I also was pregnant with my third born I would go visit him and bring him food and airtime Ndimenza umntu (humanising an inhumane situation), trying to assure him that he had a family that loved him.
I had to get lawyers and at this stage we had no money so I had to make a living”. “I too started selling weed and later got access to crystal meth, mandrax and cocaine. I made enough money to get him bail. You know in Kliptown after usuyile eNyangeni (After going to see a traditional healer) and you have money.
A SINGLE MOM’S HOPE: Sibongile Shabalala (31) regards Little Rose as a symbol of a better future for her kids.
You can get arrested for anything but you will never go to prison, his case soon fell through and he was free”. Sibongile says after her boyfriend’s release from prison, he went back to crime.
“Before giving birth to my third born I decided to leave him. I started to fend for myself and my children. Life was hard you know…but I stopped selling drugs and looked for jobs and did peoples hair.”
The better life for all Sibongile hoped for seemed far from reality. But she was determined to change this narrative from being an inheritance to her children.
Sibongile found Little Rose and started to volunteer. “I sent Thabiso (9) the middle born home to KZN and remained with Siphelele (3) who still goes to Little Rose. The centre offers him a different path of life. He gets so excited to attend and enjoys learning. A lot of the kids in the area are susceptible to crime and gambling.”
USING ONE’S PAST MEANINGFULLY: Ouma Majola (56) , founder of Little Rose, used her orphaned upbringing to aid the community of Kliptown.
Sibongile says the centre offers children in the area a different perspective and tries to meet parents half way. “You have to pay for the day care, but if you can’t afford they allow you to work there as a volunteer in exchange for them to allow your kid to come”.
Ouma Majola (56) is the founder of Little Rose which was established in 1993. Her life growing up inspired the community haven.
Ouma says, “When I was 13 years old. My parents died. I ended up living from one home to the next but fortunately my brother in law was working and got me through school.
Things were different after my parents died…you know the absence of parents even in my case where I was taken care of was still an unpleasant experience. I decided to drop out of school in grade 9 and went to work.”
Ouma describes growing up as a metaphor for the Little Rose centre. “My mother loved kids and giving back to the community so even with me it came naturally and I didn’t want to witness any other orphan or abandoned child going through what I did.
“Over weekends we had community outreaches, in 1993 at a community meeting, I made a proposal for us to start food gardening because the people of Kliptown were hungry and there was land to plant in, this marked the beginning of Little Rose,” she says.
Ouma says she soon attracted support from developed businesses. The single shack was turned into a double deck of colourful containers covered with freehand art from the kids at the centre. The centre has running water, flushing toilets and a playground, which in dry and grey Kliptown provided a literal and symbolic metaphor to the life known by the community.
“We later got computer donations, international sponsors and Sage publication donated a library to us, marking the expansion and full operation of Little Rose,” Ouma says.
A single father’s experience with Little Rose
Little Rose has become a haven to many parents and children in the area.
Julious Zungo (43) is a single father to three-year-old Asanda. “My daughter’s mother left us when she was about 3 months old. Ndim’UMama noTata wakhe (I am her mom and dad). I work here (pointing at the spaza where we met) so when I am working Asanda goes to Little Rose’s day care.
They teach her how to read and write. She comes home and we start discussing what was taught at school”.
Zungo says her daughter talks of future career prospects because of the exposure she got from Little Rose.
REBUILDING TOGETHER: The community of Kliptown relies on one another and have no faith in help outside of themselves
The location of Little Rose is distinguished from the rest of the area surrounded by shacks and little to no access to running water or flushing toilets.
The brightly coloured community haven, offers bunk bed dormitories and running water to the homeless children, and gives the experience of being a country of its own, tasked with the responsibility of providing a sense of hope to the people of Kliptown.
Bongiwe Penelope (21) is a single mother to 1-year-old, she offers dance classes and tutors at the center.
Ouma took her in at the age of 8 after her mother passed on. Bongiwe describes gambling alcoholism and drug abuse as being prominent in Kliptown.
“The work we do in the center takes the focus of the youth away from those activities, she says”.
A survey 2006 prepared for the JDA by Martin Wessels an Independent Consultant with the community members of Kliptown indicated that between 1995 and 2005 crime rates had increased by 75%.
With arrests of community members for possession of drugs, rape and robbery being the most prominent of incidents.
Wessels survey also reflected that 62% of community members in Kliptown felt that living conditions had become worse. Whilst 82% said there had been no recreational improvement in Kliptown.
Ouma’s legacy lives
Nhlanhla Majola (31), Ouma’s only biological son, who after a habit of using drugs in standard four, is now a tour guide and mentor for the children in Kliptown.
“If you have no vision or ideas, Kliptown can be like a bottle for you. Where you feel lifeless and with little options”. Nhlanhla says the center “saved him from himself” and gave him a sense of purpose.
“When I was in standard four in Lansfield primary, Eldarado Park, I started hanging with the wrong crowd. I ended up doing; weed cigarettes and cocaine.
To remove me from that environment, in grade eight my mom sent me to a Muslim boarding school. Jules High in Jeppe. High school was a frustrating time for me because I would stay in boarding school and often visit home during holidays and the differences in living conditions and upset me”. After finishing grade 11 in 2007 Nhlanhla quit school and went back home.
“A year later I made my then girlfriend pregnant this one event changed the course of my life. I had to get it together and make means end for my child. I started going to the Mosque in Kliptown and fell in love with the Muslim religion it really impacted me well”, Nhlanhla said.
“As a tour guide I enjoyed the process of showing local and international tourists the history and experiences in Kliptown. It also gave me an opportunity to expose my community to people we hope would come as visitors but leave as family, adding value to our lives”.
Nhlanhla says he hopes to open his own tourism company and wants to mentor the young men and women in Kliptown to use the little resources they have to ‘’preserve the history and make attainable achievements that will bring wealth and communal success to the people of Kliptown”.
The efforts that came from the experience of an orphan are generations ahead of the Government that lays claim to the Freedom Charter.
In realising a “better life” in Kliptown, Little Rose is viewed by the local community as giving a sense of hope to parents, youth and children, changing the predetermined course of life for the younger generation and serving as an act of defiance to the status quo of the area.