SA children take centre stage

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cape Town - Driving into Cape Town on Wednesday, listening to an afternoon talk show host, I was left in no doubt that the big news for some was Canadian pop star Justin Bieber’s first concert in South Africa.

Indeed some of the callers were concerned that if Bieber was true to form and started his concert late, he would set of a chain reaction which would look like this: Bieber starts singing late, adoring fans scream and don’t care, my child misses the specially laid on public transport, I go into Cape Town to fetch my teenager, I’m late for work on Thursday, and my child either misses or arrives late at school.

Listening to all of this, I couldn’t care less. I didn’t have a child to drop off at Cape Town Stadium, which was filled to the rafters. In fact, all I know about Justin Bieber is what I’ve read in newspapers, seen on television news, or heard on the radio.

There are no teenagers in our house, so we don’t hear his music. When we had teenagers in our house we heard rap music. So musically speaking my ears are ignorant when it comes to Bieber’s songs.

Obviously from the above it’s clear that while I was on my way to Cape Town, I wasn’t going anywhere near Green Point Stadium. I was on my way to one of the Mother City’s newer hotels. This one was situated in a section of Cape Town which had once been part of a residential area known as either the Bo Kaap, Malay Quarter or Schotchse Kloof.

My assignment was to report on a dinner hosted for children who because of the death of parents were now heads of households and looking after siblings.

Wednesday night was their night, and that hotel was their stage. They didn’t have Bieber singing songs to them. They had the Gugulethu tenors, a group of four men whose soaring voices and repertoire of songs must have been like an out of this world music experience for these young men and boys who have been robbed of their childhood.

For a few hours these children could slip out of their parenting roles and even sing along, click their fingers and clap when the Tenors launched into a rendition of Home Talk, the song made famous by Mango Groove.

Brought to Cape Town from all parts of the country by Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and her Deputy Maria Ntuli the youngsters were the stars of the evening.

Not only was flying a first-time experience, to be shared with others later, for many of them, but so too was the honour, pride and friendliness with which they were served and treated.

All of us present, I thought, were honoured to be in the company of these children. They are real modern South Africa heroes. They’ve been robbed of the love, guidance, security, kiss, caress, soft word, or presence of a mother and a father. Not for them a comforting parental touch when they are down or unwell. They’ve had to jump from being child to parent, missing out the on being a teenager. They’ve have had to lead. In leading they’ve had to put the interest of their siblings first.

John Sikhumbuzo is one of those children who heads a household in South Africa. Accurate statistics on exactly how many children have been thrust into these positions by circumstances beyond their control are hard to come by. However, the Department of Social Development will soon start a national campaign to compile a register of child-headed households.

Only 18 himself, John recalled that he became a “parent” to his 16-year-old sister Sindile on 25 February 2011 when his mother Charlotte died. His father passed away while he was much younger.

“There was no one else to look after her. We still live in the house that belonged to my mother. I cook our food. I do the washing. Sometimes Sindile helps,” said the Grade 10 Khula Senior Secondary School pupil.

Seventeen-year-old Robert Mathenja raises his 15-year-old sister Thandi. He’s been doing it for the past year. Their parents died in quick succession of each other in 2003. An older sister looked after them until a year ago when she moved out, leaving Robert in charge of parenting Thandi.

“This is my first year of looking after her. The responsibility is on me. It makes me a man,” said Robert, who dreams of becoming a traffic officer.

They’re showing real leadership as Minister Dlamini and MaNtuli told them.

“When you grow up you are also taught how to put Vaseline on your face, how to use roll-on. You are also taught not to get a shock when you become a woman. I know that you miss these things. I used to fight with my mother when she (taught me these things). Raising children is a big responsibility. I really respect you for who you are,” Dlamini said.

She urged the children not to “allow anyone to judge you. You must always try to move forward steadily”.

Driving home I thought about this country called South Africa. Some of us at some stage or the other have a bag full of gripes about our country. They range from unhappiness with industrial action taken by teachers, transport workers, low wages, quality of service delivery, politicians, and the price of food and petrol.

I know that when I start muttering about these things that I’m selfish and only think of my discomfort. At these times I become the centre of my world, never thinking that others are not as fortunate as I am.

But on Wednesday night, I saw courage. Those young leaders had more reason than I to moan, but complaining was not part of the language of the inspirational young people I spoke to. They were grateful to have a night off, get a monthly social grant, and to be in a country where they count, where they have a future.

Yes, it was a tale of two momentous events in one city on Wednesday night. There was a pop concert attended by the more affluent sections of Cape Town, while at another venue the Gugulethu Tenors sang their hearts out as they serenaded young men and women who for one night had the luxury of being children. I was blessed to be where I had been. –