The forgotten children
Behind the glitz of the preparations for the World Cup, homeless, orphaned kids are being rounded up by police and dumped out of sight. We meet the British women helping to give them a future
By Laura Millar,
Under the glare of the midday sun, workers are busy putting the finishing
touches to the new state-of-the-art football stadium.
In just two weeks, tens of thousands of fans will descend on the city of
Durban in South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
But all the pomp and ceremony linked to the games can’t gloss over the ugly
truth: that South Africa has millions of AIDS orphans – many of them
homeless, begging for food and addicted to sniffing glue.
Children like eight-year-old orphan Moeketsi*, whose parents both died from
AIDS three years ago. For him, every day is a struggle for survival as he
tries to avoid the violent gangs, child traffickers and rapists who prowl
the streets.Lucy with one of the children she’s helped
And recently, Moeketsi – and children like him – have faced another, greater
fear. The police.
Over the past few months, unmarked vans – driven by the Durban Municipal
Police – have patrolled the streets. Their aim? To round up homeless street
kids and dump them outside the city boundaries, away from the media
spotlight and the holiday-happy football fans, and also from the only hope
they have of getting help.
It’s been reported that homeless children have been rounded up using tear gas,
sometimes beaten, then driven away. And it’s British charities who are
trying to raise awareness of the practice as they work to support these
desperate youngsters who have nothing and no one.
The deprivation is hard to describe
Former PA Lucy Caslon, 28, founded UK-based charity Msizi Africa in 2007. For
the past year, she’s been working with Durban charity Umthombo, a
street-shelter project for homeless children.
“It seems the authorities don’t want anything to get in the way of the
country’s positive image during the World Cup,” Lucy says. “I heard of one
17 year old who ran into the path of a car trying to escape being herded
into a police van. He was killed instantly. It’s heart-breaking.”
According to United Nations statistics on HIV, there are 3 million AIDS
orphans in South Africa. Many of them have become ‘street kids’ – children
who are homeless and sleep on pavements or in doorways. In Durban, one of
the World Cup centres, there are hundreds of them, and thousands more kids
who beg on the streets during the day, but have a home to go to at night.Alice at a community project in Soweto
“I first became aware of the horrors facing some of South Africa’s homeless
children when I visited Durban last year,” says Lucy, who had previously
spent time working at an orphanage in neighbouring Lesotho.
“The first time I came here to visit the street shelter, I can’t explain how
shocked I was. The kids were malnourished, high on glue to dull their hunger
pangs and living in fear of being attacked by gangs. Unless you see it for
yourself, the sheer deprivation of the place is hard to describe.
“It seemed that the authorities had washed their hands of the kids. I knew I
had to help.”
Since founding the charity, Msizi, which means ‘helper’ in Zulu, Lucy has
raised more than �300,000. In 2008, she won a year’s sponsorship from The
Vodafone Foundation’s World Of Difference Programme, enabling her to commit
� to fund-raising for the charity full-time. She estimates it costs just �5
to feed one child for a month – while a full-price World Cup final ticket
costs up to �630.The new World Cup stadium in Durban
Together with Umthombo, Lucy has helped to provide three meals a day for
hundreds of the city’s homeless children.
She hopes that the promise of a good meal will bring the children to the
Umthombo street child shelter, called Safe Space. As well as food supplied
by Msizi, the kids can get support and rehabilitation from the shelter’s
staff, many of whom are former street children themselves. They’re offered
information about safe housing and education, plus access to counsellors who
can give advice on living with HIV.
“The offer of food brings the kids into the shelter and once they’re there,
they start interacting with the workers,” Lucy says. “Providing meals for
them is a tiny part of getting them off the streets, but it’s so important
that they eat properly, especially as so many of them are HIV-positive. A
healthy diet boosts their immune system, helps their HIV medicine work
effectively and enables them to put on weight.”
With no parents and no help from the Government, charities like these are the
street kids’ only lifeline.Rescued children have the promise of a future
Once children have taken that important first step by seeking support, they’re
helped to live a safer life.
“We try to engage with the children to help them stay off the streets during
the day and to deal with their glue addiction,” says Umthombo founder Tom
Hewitt. “We have programmes of surfing and football lessons to give the kids
something to do, and they have access to social workers.
“Our ultimate aim is to get them back living within their communities, with
any extended family or in older-child-headed households that our carers can
supervise. But there is a long way to go.”
Once the children have managed to secure safe housing, they are then
encouraged to return to school in order to try to escape the poverty trap
for good.Football fever is everywhere but at what cost?
Unfortunately, preparations for the World Cup have started to have an adverse
effect on the education on offer, too. In one province, two schools have
reportedly been knocked down to make way for a new football stadium, leaving
kids in make-shift classrooms.
Lucy admits the task can seem daunting, but insists she can see a real
difference being made to these children’s lives.
“Because the children are eating well, they get bigger and stronger, their
eyes are brighter, their skin is clearer and they don’t come down with colds
or coughs as often,” she says. “And with charity support workers helping
them, they manage to stop sniffing glue too.
“It’s fantastic to see them running around and playing, just being little kids
“Life on the streets can harden them, but deep down all these children really
want is love.”‘These kids deserve a chance’
Alice is helping to make a difference
Community fund-raiser Alice Gilkes, 29, from London, has been working for
the Starfish Greathearts Foundation for two years. She flies out to visit
projects in South Africa once a year. She says:
“Although I was aware of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, nothing could have
prepared me for the reality when I visited.
Orphans are surviving in dire poverty. Many have no relatives and are living
in basic shacks, often without running water. After the death of a parent,
it falls to the eldest child to care for their siblings. Too young to work,
they take to the streets to beg for money or food. It’s such a desperate
The charity I work for was set up in 2001, by two South Africans living in
London, to improve these children’s lives. We employ local workers who
find foster families, and identify kids whose parents are sick to make sure
they’re cared for.
I recently met a girl called Sindi*, who was nine and had lost both her
parents to AIDS-related illnesses. She had been looking after her two
younger sisters, begging to feed them and herself. A neighbour spotted her
one morning and told one of our workers. Sindi and her sisters were taken
into the charity’s care, while other workers tried to find them a foster
family. With the charity’s help, Sindi is back in school while her sisters
are cared for at home by their new foster mum. In just a few months, she’s
transformed from a scrawny, scared child into a bright-eyed girl enjoying
The charity doesn’t just find the children new families – it funds projects to
ensure they have access to education, books, uniforms and stationery. Since
Starfish was set up, it’s helped over 36,000 children to avoid a future on
the streets. With good diets, an education and a safe place to sleep, these
innocent victims can achieve their dreams.”South Africa facts and figures
- There are homeless street kids living in all the three main cities of South
Africa – Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
- Figures suggest there are now 3 million orphans as a result of AIDS in South
- An estimated 5.7 million South Africans are living with HIV**.
- Child trafficking in South Africa is rife – 1,700 kids go missing each year.
It’s been reported that homeless children have been rounded up using tear gas, sometimes beaten, then driven away. And it’s British charities who are trying to raise awareness of the practice as they work to support these desperate youngsters who have nothing and no one.