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:

Beading for Bread

Ethel Fanelo was born in Cape Town in 1949. Now 69 years old, she lives at her home in Nyanga with her four grandchildren, her sister, and her sister’s husband. Ethel receives a pension grant of R1,600 ($135) per month which she uses to buy food and basic necessities.

But as with many elderly people in South Africa, this pension is stretched across the extended family and very little, if anything, is left for the senior’s own self-care.

“The pension is better than nothing but it’s not enough for my grandchildren and myself, and I have to pay the rent too,” says Ethel. “My daughter helps by giving me food when I am short.”

Ethel attends the Noluthando 2 Senior Club, where she has opted to join the Relate beading project. In partnership with Ikamva Labantu, this project allows seniors to earn supplementary income from beading bracelets for the non-profit organisation, Relate.

“The beads have allowed me to be a good grandmother,” says Ethel. “I use all the money from beading to buy bread and to help with bus fares for the children’s school.”

Ethel is one of 18 seniors at her club who have joined the beading project. Collectively, they earned R27,875 ($2,345) in 2017. Sazi Gunya, the Relate Project Manager, remarks that the club is very good at beading. “Especially me!”, Ethel chimes in.

And she may well be one of the best – craftwork is not new to Ethel. When she divorced her husband of 11 years, she started working as a seamstress to make ends meet for her two young daughters.

“I love sewing and I still have a sewing machine in my house but I’m too old to use it now. That’s why I like beading – because my hands need to work. If I don’t bead my hands will get stiff; I need the exercise. These beads make me happy!”

Ethel Fanelo attends the Noluthando 2 Senior club daily, where she is provided with two warm meals, healthcare and counselling services and exercise activities. She is one of 410 seniors taking part in the Relate income-generation project across 19 Ikamva Labantu senior clubs.

Our Family Services

We believe that strong families build strong communities. Our new Family Services programme is based on this belief and takes a holistic approach that empowers families to thrive in our most vulnerable communities.

We aim to work with the family as a unit, whilst also paying attention to the individual needs of each family member. We know that what affects a grandparent has the capacity to affect their grandchild in the same household.Through Psycho-social Support, Health Services, and Life Skills and Recreation, we aim to enable each active and willing family member to contribute positively to their family unit and ultimately, to their community.

The programme is supported by three services:

Psycho-social Support

  • Access to basic services e.g. access to schooling, health care, shelter, food.
  • Individual, family & group counselling
  • Specialised therapeutic support including access to social workers and psychological support to guide and refer
  • Group work (peer-to-peer, support groups, family mediation)
  • Case management (including follow-ups, accompaniment to DSD, SASSA, hospitals)
  • Emergency relief food parcels when needed
  • Disability support, providing logistical support for people living with disabilities;
  • Community awareness workshops (e.g. Substance Abuse, Child Abuse, Mental Health)
  • Training courses (e.g. Parenting & personal development)

Life Skills and Recreation

  • Life skills for men using the modules of the Fatherhood programme from Hearts of Men to help men and youth identify their goals and learn tools to achieve them.
  • Handyman tips to empower and upskill men to become self-sufficient.
  • Skills training that prepares participants for the world of work and lifelong learning.
  • Recreational activities: judo, basketball, swimming and hiking.


  • Trauma management with social workers providing psychological support, counselling sessions, and referrals
  • Sexual and Reproductive Health education for youth and their families
  • Addiction support for families and individuals. Providing healthcare, support and referals.

Get in touch with our Family Services team.

The Journey to becoming Principal

Each afternoon, as the school day ended in a rural village in the Eastern Cape, 15-year-old Lindiwe Dlakala would settle down with some homework. It was 1989 and against the backdrop of a country in the grips of Apartheid, she was determined to work towards a more hopeful future. Armed with the knowledge gained during school hours, Lindiwe would tackle homework late into the evening; but it wasn’t just her own homework that she was working on.

When the last class of the day ended, Lindiwe transitioned from pupil to teacher. “I used to teach other children after school, because there was no educated person in their home. I would visit the homes of grandmothers in my village and help their grandchildren with their homework.”

At just 15 years old, Lindiwe was already setting the groundwork for what would become a lifelong career.

Today, the 44-year-old is Principal at her own pre-school in Khayelitsha. Founded in 2013, Ethembeni Educare cares for 67 children, aged 0-5, from the surrounding area.

The pink and yellow walls of Ethembeni are peppered with educational posters, the letters of the alphabet and numbers up to 30. In the younger classes, these are replaced with fruit cut-outs and giant paintings of sea creatures and insects.

Lindiwe’s pre-school has been registered for one year now, though the process to reach registration status took almost twice as long.

In South Africa, a pre-school needs to be registered with the Department of Social Development in order to access an early learning subsidy, a form of government funding. But this can be a long process with many delays and challenges.

According to provincial government officials, there are about 2,000 unregistered pre-schools in the Western Cape.

To meet the requirements for registration, Ikamva Labantu assisted Lindiwe in upgrading her pre-school. “I had to change all the doors and floors. We needed to have one toilet per 20 children, so I changed the bathrooms too.”

“I spent a lot of money upgrading the pre-school. I used money from school fees and from my own savings and slowly, with the help of my husband, we fixed up the pre-school. My husband helped me a lot because he knows that this is my dream,” Lindiwe says.

Lindiwe has four practitioners who make up her staff. The practitioner for babies aged 0-18 months is pictured above in her classroom.

For an informal pre-school with no external funding, an exercise like this is often unaffordable, making registration a distant reality for thousands of pre-schools across the country.

But together with Fezeka Sibidla, a community-based worker from Ikamva Labantu, Lindiwe overcame the first major obstacle to registration in 2015, when she received the stamp of approval for zoning. “This is the first bridge to cross” says Fezeka, who specialises in consulting pre-school principals on the registration process. “Once you have zoning and a brick structure, it’s easy to get the other clearances.”

But even with a registration certificate in hand, Lindiwe still has to apply to renew her funding this March. And that funding is as important now as it was pre-registration.

Lindiwe charges just R200 ($17) a month for school fees, which she uses to pay salaries for her four practitioners. “Sometimes I don’t get a salary of my own because I want to satisfy the staff.”

Fezeka echoes this statement, saying: “We know that she needs to keep her staff – whatever you do, you make sure that your staff are happy. No staff, no pre-school!”

The 5-6 years class, pictured with their practitioner and Lindiwe.

“I also need to give the children food, toys and stationery,” Lindiwe continues. “The DSD funding does help with salaries, food and maintenance –so there is some change, but not enough. Our staff still only receive R1,500 ($126) per month.”

Fundraising attempts within the community have been unsuccessful, with some parents struggling to even afford the school fees. “I will never chase the child away because of this,” says Lindiwe. “I need to take care of them because I need our country to have educated children.”

When she opened the doors to Ethembeni in 2014, Lindiwe looked after 20 children. Today, at almost 70 children, the pre-school is still growing. “The parents cry to us when we tell them that the pre-school is full. We need a bigger structure now; I will keep growing this pre-school until I die.”

True to her word, Lindiwe plans to apply for Grade R certification this year from the Department of Education; this would allow her to open a Grade R class at Ethembeni. “We give the children a good education. We even do graduations for the older children. Last year we graduated 26 children; in 2014 it was just 14.”

Lindiwe’s office is cramped but perfectly organised. The noise of 70 children doesn’t allow for much quiet space to work, but Lindiwe hopes to soon convert her office into another classroom and move her desk to a quieter part of the building.

Although this is Lindiwe’s pre-school, Fezeka has walked the road to registration with her and is clearly proud of the outcome. “The place has been transformed. It was not colourful outside before, it was just brick walls. You can see that Lindiwe is using the funding in a good way. It is bright and colourful now and everyone can see that this a pre-school,” she says.

And the changes aren’t only physical; testament to Lindiwe’s dedication, the children’s learning has improved too. “We have a relationship with the local schools,” says Lindiwe. “The teachers come to me and tell me that our children are doing really well – they are writing properly and are at the right stage of development.”

This is, of course, the ultimate goal for any pre-school; to get children ready for the start of their schooling career.

More than 20 years since Lindiwe first started helping other children with their homework, she is still hard at work, striving towards a better future for South Africa.

Lindiwe took part in the Ikamva Labantu Principals Training programme, learning about leadership and management. Two of her staff members have done the Practitioners Training programme where they learnt practical skills for the classroom and how to engage with children and parents.

Fezeka is a community-based worker who works for the Ikamva Labantu Registration Help Desk; helping principals to navigate the registration process for pre-schools. We have reached 556 community pre-schools through this initiative.