The indignity of ageing in poverty

By Helen Lieberman, Founder and Honorary President of Ikamva Labantu.

Contrary to what many choose to believe, retirement in Cape Town is no breeze – at least for those living in the townships. Hundreds of thousands of frail seniors spend their days alone in small (and often, unsafe) homes, unable to access transport or medication, vulnerable to crime and abuse, and in desperate need of support.

And the problem is only going to get worse. South Africa’s ageing population is growing, with WHO estimating that it will double by 2050, reaching over 10 million older persons. This rise in the ageing population will have implications on the economy, healthcare and social security, adding pressure to already overburdened systems.

In his opening remarks at the ANC’s 106th anniversary in January this year, President Ramaphosa recognised elder abuse as a societal problem that needs urgent attention, saying: ‘Gender-based violence and violence against other vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQI community is a scourge that needs to be eradicated.’

But older persons should not only be lumped together with all other vulnerable groups – they need and deserve special attention and focussed support. After all, no one is immune to the effects of ageing.

In my daily work at Ikamva Labantu, where we care for older persons in Cape Town both at day clubs and in their homes, I have come across cases that are a blight on the whole country.

There is the man who suffered a stroke and had nothing to sleep on but a cardboard box in a one-room shack. Unable to walk, he would pull himself across the floor, grazing his skin and bruising his bones as he moved. Nozamile (not her real name) is 95 years old, has arthritis and suffers from incontinence. She is left alone most of the day. Another 60-year-old woman, bedridden and starving, has attempted suicide three times.

Then there are those who do not have IDs and cannot access the social grants that they are entitled to. And those who have had legs amputated due to diabetes, but have no access to a wheelchair or walking aid. And the grandmothers who walk for hours to collect their pension, only to spend it on supporting their family, or worse – only for it to be stolen by their own grandchildren. In some of the most gut-wrenching cases, these grandmothers also suffer sexual abuse and rape at the hands of their own children and grandchildren.

These are not cherry-picked cases – this is the daily reality for thousands of senior citizens. Those who should be living out their later years stress-free and cared for, are instead suffering the indignity that a life in poverty gives rise to. Moreover, those who lived the bulk of their life under apartheid, who bore the brunt of the struggle and sacrificed so much in the fight for freedom, are now living in devastating conditions with no reward or recognition for their contribution to a democratic South Africa.

Tragically, the plight of South Africa’s elderly is largely invisible. How much do our elders need to suffer before we take notice? And more importantly, before we take action? My work in Cape Town’s townships has taught me that community-based problems require community-driven solutions. NGOs, government and the private sector need to work together with communities to facilitate these solutions and to support them in the drive for change.

Through violence, neglect, and isolation, the voice of the elderly in this country has been reduced to a meek whisper. Let’s help to amplify it.


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Ethel’s story

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There are some common patterns of ageing that are universal. Many people over 40 begin to need reading glasses, many people over 65 find it harder to hear clearly in noisy environments, and strokes, dementia and heart disease become more prevalent in those over 70.

But Ethel* is an exception to the rule. At 104 years old, she is in good health, has never needed glasses and has almost perfect hearing. But her life has not been smooth sailing.

Ethel was born in the Eastern Cape in 1913. She enjoyed her childhood and believes those early years made her happy and gave her strength for her future. When she was 18 years old, Ethel’s father arranged for her to marry a local priest. Her husband’s job led them to live in many places including King Williams Town and Port Elizabeth.

In 1939, they moved to Elsie’s River and lived there until 1960 when their settlement was destroyed by the Apartheid police and they were relocated to Gugulethu. Finally, in 1990, they moved to a house in Khayelitsha.

Throughout these years, Ethel raised ten children while working as a domestic worker and a factory worker. Sadly, just three of her children are still alive today. One of her sons, now an elderly man himself, has been rendered totally blind through diabetes. He lives close to his mother and they keep each other company. Ethel also has 22 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and 8 great-great-grandchildren.
When asked what her secret is to reaching 104 years old, her daughter and granddaughter both chant in unison: “No drinking, no smoking and no liking men!” They laugh. It appears to be a family mantra!

*Not her real name



Ethel lives in Khayelitsha, where she is provided with home-based care from Ikamva Labantu’s field workers, or “Umelwanes”. Our Umelwane programme provides support and companionship to senior citizens who are unable to attend our day clubs due to frailty or poor health. Ethel is one of over 1,000 seniors who has received home-based care through Ikamva Labantu. 

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Giving Tuesday

Instead of splashing out on #BlackFriday, Ikamva Labantu is encouraging the public to use their money to make a difference with #GivingTuesday on 27 November.

Ikamva Labantu provides care, companionship, and support to over 1,000 senior citizens in Cape Town’s townships through senior clubs and home-based care. Our seniors receive health checks and take part in various activities from outdoor exercises to income-generation projects; they also receive two warm meals every day. But these clubs close over the festive season, allowing the club staff to spend Christmas with their families.

Over this time, elderly club members will be at home and will have to provide food for themselves and their families. This can be a huge financial burden for the elderly, who are often breadwinners in their family, feeding children and grandchildren with money from their monthly pension of just R1,600.

To relieve this burden, we want to give these seniors a Christmas food hamper to take home over the festive season. We are calling on the public to brighten up a senior’s Christmas by donating R150 towards a food hamper.

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Nomsitho’s story

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In the 1970s, Nomsitho* arrived in Cape Town from the Eastern Cape to live near her husband, who was living in a hostel reserved for working men. Their wives were not allowed to live with them and risked arrest if they visited their husbands, so Nomsitho joined other women and created an informal settlement in a forested area which became known as Crossroads. For five years, Nomsitho slept on the ground under shacks made from plastic. The police came often to burn down the shacks and the women would buy more plastic and rebuild them again and again.

“There was nothing to sleep on in the forest. No matter if it was winter or summer, we slept on the ground. To cook, we would make a fire inside an empty 20 litre paint tin and put a pan on top. We stayed there for five years from 1974 – 1979. Our husbands would come in the evenings and spend the night with us. I gave birth to three of my children during this time and they all grew up there. It was not easy.”

Some of the women looked for jobs in the city but it was risky because if they were found without a pass, they would be arrested. Nomsitho managed to find a job as a domestic worker but it was hard work.

“I was not given a mop, so I had to clean the floors with my bare hands and nails. There was a washing machine in the house but I was not allowed to use it. When I did the laundry, I had to use my hands. The worst part was that I was not allowed to eat inside. The Madam would take my food outside as if I was a dog and I would have to go to a small cupboard outside to eat.”

During these years, Nomsitho joined with other people in the community to contact local lawyers who persuaded overseas sympathisers to buy a large plot of land which could be used to build houses. After a long time, they managed to raise the money and in 1979, the land was purchased.

The old Crossroads community moved to this new piece of land, now known as New Crossroads, and waited for their houses to be built. Whilst they were waiting, Nomsitho was caught up in a political struggle between the ANC and the IFP. Her shack was burnt down and once again, she was in danger.

“I jumped out of the back window and for many days, we ran from one place to another. We did not feel safe anywhere. In the end, we went back to the forest and we sat back under the trees. We could not tell our husbands where we were. I stayed under those trees for six months. We had nothing. No plastic, no clothes.”

Nomsitho lived in the forest again until 1986, when the police came to clear the land by burning down the settlement and shooting anyone who resisted.

“They came every day and sprayed us with tear gas. They were led by a policeman called Bernard. We knew him as the ‘hero of the tear gas’. The police would open the door of the shack, throw in the tear gas and then close the doors. They did not care that there were also children in the shacks.”

One morning in July, the police came early and started shooting.

“They came with a helicopter and shot people from the sky. While I was running, a girl in front of me was shot and killed. It carried on for three days – day and night, day and night. They wanted to finish off everyone. They burnt the whole place down. Many, many people died.”

Nomsitho managed to escape the fighting and took shelter in a church. She was pregnant during this time and began to feel pains in her stomach. The stress that she had experienced had induced labour.

“I gave birth at Somerset Hospital but my baby was not well. I was transferred to the Red Cross Hospital and a specialist came to look at my baby. I was told that there was nothing that they could do. My baby lived for three months. I felt that I was lucky because some people never get to see their babies but I saw her for three months. Whenever I see a girl who was born in 1986, I think ‘that could have been my child.’”

Nomsitho was finally given her own house in New Crossroads in the late 80s. But today, she lives in fear of crime and violence in her community.

“We fought for South Africa – for our children. But today, our children have made a terrible mess. Our hearts are so sore. We thought that after we fought so hard for South Africa, we would rest nicely, in peace. But we have never had peace. Now we just wait for the day that God will take us.”


Nomsitho attends an Ikamva Labantu Senior Club daily, where she is provided with two warm meals, healthcare and counselling services, income-generation projects and recreational activities. She is one of over 1,000 seniors who attend Ikamva Labantu’s senior clubs.

*Real names have not been used.

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Mandisa’s story

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In 1957, Mandisa’s husband passed away and she was left alone to care for their four children in Lady Frere, Eastern Cape. There were very few jobs in her village and Mandisa had no option but to try and find work in Cape Town so that she could support her family. She knew that it would be almost impossible to get a pass that would allow her to live and work in Cape Town, and that if the police stopped her without a pass, they would send her back to the Eastern Cape. “I was so frightened but I needed to get a job so that I could feed my children,” Mandisa says.

Working without a pass was difficult, too. “You had to walk from door to door. Some people were sympathetic, they were the good ones, and they would listen to your story and give you a job without a pass. But they were also scared of the police. When they employed you, they told you that you mustn’t answer the door in case the police come.”

One day, Mandisa was walking back from work when a big yellow police van stopped her. The police arrested her because she did not have a pass. “I was the first person to be picked up, so they drove around for a long time looking for other people to arrest. When the police van was full, they took us all to the police station.” That night, Mandisa and the other prisoners had to sleep sitting up. She was not able to contact her family and they did not know what had happened to her. In the morning, the prisoners were taken to court. “It was very full in the court. But everyone was there for the same crime: not having the right pass. I was given a fine and told that I had three days to leave the Western Cape and go back to my village.”

In court, Mandisa met a woman who reassured her that she would be okay and encouraged her to stay in Cape Town. “She told me to keep running and hiding and doing whatever I needed to do for my children. If I lose a job, then I must find another one. If I get arrested, then I must hide again. This woman motivated me to keep fighting for my family. I threw away the letter that said that I had to return to the Eastern Cape and I went back to work.”

But for many years, Mandisa struggled to find work. She had been employed by a French family but when they found out that she didn’t have a pass, they asked her to leave. “They said that I must go because otherwise, their family would get into trouble. They said: ‘We need to save ourselves so you have to go.’ It was very painful.”

In 1977, 20 years after her husband died, Mandisa found a job at Nazareth House. She had heard that there may be a seamstress job there and she went to see them. “They gave me a basket of unfinished products and asked me to complete them. At the end of the day, they came to see my work and they gave me the job. This was the first time in my life that I felt rested. I felt that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. After 20 years of hardship, the people at Nazareth House helped me to get my pass. I was free. I worked with them until 1999.”


Mandisa lives in Khayelitsha, where she is provided with home-based care from Ikamva Labantu’s field workers, or “Umelwanes”. Our Umelwane programme provides support and companionship to senior citizens who are unable to attend our day clubs due to frailty or poor health. Mandisa is one of over 1,000 seniors who has received home-based care through Ikamva Labantu.

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Nomalungelo’s story

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Nomalungelo worked for a pizza restaurant in Newlands for 27 years. Last year, when she turned 60 years old, she handed in her resignation. She was looking forward to her retirement and resting after her many years of work.

Just one month later, Nomalungelo began to feel unwell. “I knew that I had diabetes but I had been treating it and it had not given me any real problems until that stage. But then I noticed that my fingers had started to turn black and I knew that I needed help.”

Nomalungelo went to the doctor, who advised her that she needed to have one finger amputated. Later that year, she also began to experience pain in her knees. She went back to the doctor and this time, she was told that her leg would need to be amputated. “I was shocked. I asked advice from my old boss at the pizza restaurant because I trusted him. He told me that I must do what the doctor said otherwise I could die.”

“They removed my leg. I could not stop crying afterwards. I hoped that they would give me a new prosthetic leg but I was told that they do not give prosthetics to people who lost their legs due to diabetes.”

When Nomalungelo came back from the hospital, her neighbours helped to care for her and clean her house.

“They gave me a lot of love and helped me a lot. I still felt sad though because my children never came to help me at home. Even when I was sick, they didn’t come. The only thing they want from me is money, so I need to rely on my neighbours for help.”

Nomalungelo lives in Harare, where she is provided with home-based care from Ikamva Labantu’s field workers, or “Umelwanes”. Our Umelwane programme provides support and companionship to senior citizens who are unable to attend our day clubs due to frailty or poor health. Nomalungelo is one of over 1,000 seniors who has received home-based care through Ikamva Labantu.

Sylvia’s story

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Warning: This story contains descriptions of child mortality that some readers may find disturbing.

It was the ‘70s and a young Sylvia* and her family were living in Nyanga East. It was a time when strict pass laws were in place, and the family’s movements were heavily restricted, affecting where they could live and work. Her family did not have the right passbooks for Nyanga, so Sylvia’s father dug a large hole in the middle of their small house for the family to hide in when the police came to check their passes.

One night, the police were checking passes in Sylvia’s community and they came to her family’s home. Sylvia was nine months pregnant at the time and she was too slow to climb into the into the hole that her father had built. The police saw that she did not have the correct pass, and they arrested her.

19 years old and terrified, Sylvia was taken to the court in Cape Town where she was sentenced to three months in prison. They sent her to a hospital ward cell for pregnant women.

“I entered and heard the key turning in the lock as the door closed behind me,” she recalls. “The first thing that I saw in the cell was several dead babies at the foot of their mothers’ beds.” Sylvia soon learnt that the mortuary only came once a week to collect the babies who did not survive birth, so the mothers in the cell were forced to live with the dead bodies of their children until the next collection.

Heavily pregnant, Sylvia knew it was only a matter of time before she went into labour. With no nurses or doctors around, she was scared for her own life and for the life of her unborn child. “Another woman in the cell told me that she would help me when I started going into labour – but then she said that I would have to pay her first. I didn’t know who I could trust.”

When her first contractions came, Sylvia took herself to the bath. She made sure to keep very quiet so as not to draw attention to herself. “I sat in the bath and I prayed to God, I told him ‘You are the only one who can help me now.’” Sylvia stayed in the bath for as long as possible but the baby did not come. She decided to return to bed and soon after, she gave birth to a baby boy.

There was no way to cut the umbilical cord and the door was locked, so they could not call for a nurse. One of the women in the cell climbed onto the back of another woman and shouted for help through a small hole in the ceiling. Eventually, they heard footsteps. A nurse came in, cut the umbilical cord and left. “I will never forget the sound of the key in the door as she walked away,” says Sylvia.

Sylvia’s son, now 51 years old, survived the birth but he has been left with severe developmental challenges. “I do not know if this was caused by the birth, or maybe because I was unable to breastfeed,” she says. For the first two months of her son’s life, Sylvia was only able to feed him water and half-cooked mielie meal.

Sylvia’s son is very vulnerable as a result of his developmental challenges and even though he is a grown man, he is an easy target for gangs. “My son has had to be supervised for his whole life. Today, he cannot be left unattended because he likes to wander away from home.”

If Sylvia wants to leave the house or come to the senior club, her daughter must stay home to watch him. “I am so worried about him. I am 75 years old now – what will happen when I am no longer here to look after him?”


Sylvia attends the Masibambane Senior Club daily, where she is provided with two warm meals, healthcare and counselling services, income-generation projects and recreational activities. She is one of over 1,000 seniors who attend Ikamva Labantu’s senior clubs.

*Real names have not been used.

By donating R300 a month, you can provide an elderly citizen like Sylvia with daily meals & safe transport to our clubs.

Celebrating Older Human Rights Champions

The UN International Day of Older Persons is marked on October 1. The theme for 2018: Celebrating Older Human Rights Champions.

South Africa is a country that has been transformed by human rights activists, many of whom are revered and looked up to, both in life and in death. But many others who fought for our freedom have fallen through the cracks and are living out their later years in abject poverty.

Whilst we celebrate the contributions of older persons to the progress of our country, we must also acknowledge the many hardships that they still face today, including issues such as:

  • Elder abuse, particularly in poor communities where unemployment, crime and drugs are prevalent. In Ikamva Labantu’s daily work with vulnerable seniors, we come across countless reports of financial, physical, emotional and even sexual abuse among the elderly.
  • Food insecurity, 9.1% of older persons live in households that experience hunger.
  • Financial insecurity, the old-age grant is the primary source of income for the majority of the elderly in South Africa. Many older persons stretch this money (R1,600 p/m) to support their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren – often feeding their families before themselves.
  • Access to healthcare, only 6% of black older persons have access to medical aid – compared to 73.5% of white older persons.

The foundations of the Ikamva Labantu Seniors’ Programme were built by three human rights champions – Phumla Ndaba, Tutu Gcememe and Helen Lieberman – who are now, too, in their later years. Since the 1980s, their tireless efforts have resulted in the care and support of thousands of vulnerable senior citizens.

“The quality of life for many of South Africa’s seniors is devastating,” says Lieberman. “These are the men and women that fought for equality and freedom in our country, yet today they are often forgotten, isolated and even abused.”

Ndaba and Gcememe are both award-winning community leaders who were active in the fight for democracy and have been working alongside Lieberman to advance the rights of older persons for over 40 years.

Ikamva Labantu is marking this day with the launch of an awareness campaign, “Celebrate Seniors”, to highlight the stories and daily struggles of vulnerable older persons living in Cape Town’s townships, whilst acknowledging and celebrating all that they have contributed to society. Older persons are too often invisible in the public eye; greater visibility is needed to highlight the plight of older persons and to advocate for change and the upholding of their rights.

Learn more about our Seniors’ Programme here, and read a story from one of our club members.

Kholiswa’s Story

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“In 1976, I was working as a domestic worker in Cape Town when my employer told me that there was trouble in the townships and that I should go home. The schoolchildren were protesting and the police were beating and killing them. My daughter was just 6 years old at the time and I was worried about her, so I left to go find her. When I arrived home, I was so relieved to find her safe inside. She made me laugh because even though she was so young, she was dressed up and shouting ‘Black power! I am ready to fight!’ My daughter was like me – she believed in fighting for freedom.

I grew up in Nyanga when the pass laws were very strict. We couldn’t even move from one township to another without a permit. The government wanted to divide us. At night, the police would go door-to-door to check our passes. I was 15 years old and people around me had started to throw away their passes in protest. The police retaliated by sending some people back to the Transkei, arresting and even killing others. They called us monkeys. I threw my own pass book away three years later. I said ‘no more!’.

I took part in a lot of protests but there is one night that I will never forget. The police came to my community and they burnt down all the houses. Many people were killed and shot. It was a terrible night. We lost our home and everything we owned – and because we had no rights, we didn’t know where we could go next. For a while, I slept on the floor of a church with my children, until my family could fix up my house again.

Many of my family members were killed in the struggle. My cousin was an activist in exile for a long time. When he came back, the police found him. They called our whole family together and then they killed him in front of us. I knew that I could never stop fighting for our freedom because of my family members who died in the struggle.

Kholiswa sits with fellow members of the Masincendiswe senior club in Khayelitsha.

Years went by and Mandela was released. I watched his speech on my black and white TV and I hung on to his every word. We were so excited to vote. We didn’t not understand this voting thing but we were excited, whatever it was! On the day, we were dressed and ready to vote at 4am! It was an exciting day. Everything was new. Mandela won. The ANC won. We won. And we felt relief.

Mandela served us very well. But today, our leaders have forgotten that it was us that put them there. It was us that also fought. South Africa is not what Mandela fought for now and it is not what we fought for. It is not what we thought it would be.

Our people are still living in very small houses. They say we are free but we do not feel free. There is no progress or success and there is still so much poverty. I do not even feel safe in my own home. When I come home from the senior club, I lock myself in my house because the gangsters know that I live alone. I am not free from the crime and I find it hard to trust the police. When you are a grandmother living alone, you are a target. We still have hope that things will get better. We still have hope. We will never throw in the towel.”

Kholiswa Zwana attends the Masincendiswe Senior Club daily, where she is provided with two warm meals, healthcare and counselling services, income-generation projects, recreational activities and companionship. She is one of over 1,000 seniors who attend Ikamva Labantu’s senior clubs.

Keep an older person warm this Mandela Day

This Mandela Day, we’re collecting blankets and non-perishable food for the vulnerable elderly in our clubs.

 

Drop off your donations at our Head Office until 17 July and we’ll deliver the items to our clubs on the 18th.

Want to join us on the day? Just let us know!

 

Drop off point:

Donate R100 in honour of Mandela’s Centenary instead.

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