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SOS families in Rustenburg, South Africa

The SOS parent: heading and organising the household “Beyond buildings and infrastructure, SOS parents have more autonomy, including organising their own services, so SOS handymen and gardeners are not required. An SOS parent will organise her own transport to go and do groceries, go to clinics, hospital even to go to the different schools and buying her pre-paid electricity.


1. Living on a winding street in a quiet suburb

Roxy* is 14 years old and lives with her SOS family in Rustenburg, a large mining town in South Africa’s platinum belt. She recently attended a youth camp organised by her school. When she was grouped with “children from homes” for an exercise, Roxy was a little confused. When children in her team shared their experiences of high fences, curfews and staff caring for them, she became very confused. She raised her hand and addressed the teacher: “I have a family and a house with a garden, and I live in a street where I play netball with friends until my mum calls me in for dinner. I should be in the team for children from families.”

Children in SOS families in Rustenburg live in houses with no identifiable markings or any branding, and the ten SOS families are not even next-door neighbours. They live on a winding street in a quiet suburb with one of Rustenburg’s famous koppies (hills) in the background as you head in the wrong direction searching for a building that might be an SOS Children’s Villages office.  

Mpho Madiba is the SOS programme director in Rustenburg and not surprised by visitors getting lost. “I am so happy when people get lost. That is the idea. We don’t want people to think that children here are any different from children in the rest of the neighbourhood,” says Mpho.
In fact, Google Maps will find SOS Children’s Village Rustenburg but will direct you to a random house on the winding street – and it is not where an SOS family lives or where Mpho and team works during the day.

This innovative approach to alternative child care is aimed at providing the best care possible to children who may need a family, and it does so in a smart way. The neighbourhood library is 4km away, the sportsground is a street away and the nearest doctor, clinic or hospital is a five-minute drive away. Children either walk to school, use a minibus taxi (public transport) or get dropped off by mum.
Young people live with their SOS families until they head off to university in other cities such as Johannesburg or Pretoria. This is something the team works into their financial plans. Currently, there are three Grade 12 learners (school seniors), which means that university fees for next year for these three must already be planned for.

“Physically we are part of this broader society, our norms are the same. We use what the community is using, whether it is transport or the supermarket. There are no restrictions. Mothers in SOS families run their households like in a normal family. We might meet for emergencies sometimes, or when they submit their budget reconciliations,” explains Mpho.

Although life on this winding street looks normal, and everyone goes to everyone else’s parties and family funerals, Mpho says there is one tell-tale sign that the families might be slightly different. “There are eight children to a family and around here the average is three. But, because we were here when this area was still developing, our neighbourhood grew around us, accepting these larger families.”

Mpho has been programme director in Rustenburg for two years, but she has been with the team for eight years – first working in family strengthening – and altogether ten years with SOS Children’s Villages. She finds that strong relationships with state social workers are important so that she and her team can better access public services which the SOS families depend on. In turn, the social workers know the team at SOS Children’s Villages can help when tragedy strikes and a child needs care.
Children in SOS families come from as far as 200km away from Rustenburg, and are mostly in need of a family because they were either neglected or abandoned.
“Some of the children have biological parents, but substance abuse is an issue and that is then not the best place for the child. Something we find here is that when parents die, relatives will take two children but for economic reasons they cannot take all the siblings and so one may come to us. We ensure that these siblings spend holidays together,” says Mpho.
Of the 80 children in Rustenburg that SOS Children’s Villages provide care for, the oldest is 22 years old and at university in Johannesburg. The youngest is a five-month-old baby who was abandoned at two months old and brought to live with her now SOS mother and seven older siblings. The little girl did not have a name and so her SOS mother named her Litha*, for light.

2. Being an SOS mother in a “digital village”

Gabitele Mokwena has been an SOS mother for ten years. She used to run a pre-school or crèche before joining SOS Children’s Villages. Although being an SOS mother mostly means running a household like any other mother of eight demanding children, Gabitele also has to run her household like a business as she has to submit budgets, calculate tax earnings, account for her expenses and plan ahead for incidentals. Her experience at the crèche has been invaluable.

Gabitele has now been an SOS mothers for ten years and has raised 15 children, excluding her three biological adult children. Her eldest daughter from her SOS family and one of her biological daughters are best friends.
SOS families in Rustenburg may live in one neighbourhood, walking distance from a house that serves as SOS Children’s Village office, but for the most part they lead independent family lives.

Mpho Madiba, SOS programme director in Rustenburg, says there are two next steps for SOS families in Rustenburg as they are already so independent. “We are creating a digital village. Families use the internet, for instance children need to do homework and mothers need to do online banking – which they also do on their mobile phones. But what we now encourage is for the SOS mothers to do their budgets and invoicing in ‘soft copy’ and to email that to us for reconciliation.”

The second step, says Mpho, is to complete the process of “SOS debit cards” for SOS families. This is like a normal bank card, and “when you swipe you pay less bank charges. The more they swipe, the more they save”.
Gabitele explains that she and her counterparts, including the assistant caregivers or “aunties”, get frequent and consistent training on financial management. “Our budgets can fluctuate from month to month and we need to be able to manage that. In one month, a big month, we would need R20,000 ($1,500) for new school uniforms or travel allowance for the children. A stable month would be half of that amount and it would cover clothing, food and electricity,” says Gabitele. The SOS families use prepaid electricity “boxes” (meters) installed in the kitchens. They purchase electricity and upload the units to the “box” from a code they receive on their mobile phones.

SOS Children’s Villages South Africa is registered as a non-profit organisation and is therefore exempt from paying taxes. Gabitele keeps purchase receipts and invoices to calculate her family’s tax rebates every month. This money is what they consider pasella [for free] and the family as unit decides what to do with it. “We use the money for DStv, but the simple package,” she assures. DStv is digital satellite television.

3. Equality for SOS families and family strengthening participants

SOS Children’s Villages in Rustenburg serves a community of roughly 18,000 people, according to the last national survey. Rustenburg has a population of 450,000 people. The SOS team assists 28 families with 178 children. The goal is to increase support to reach 500 children.
As of 2017, both SOS families and family strengthening participant families receive R500 ($37) per month from a major corporate KFC for food. The family strengthening team has an office in a warehouse within the community they serve. Food parcels are prepared here with the monthly allowance and include rice, oil, sugar, beans, milk powder and more. Parcels are taken to the families when parents are bed-ridden as a result of illness.

HIV incidence and prevalence is quite high in Rustenburg and especially women have high risk behaviour. According to a UNICEF report of 2008, districts in the Rustenburg area have the second highest infection rate in the major urban category.
It is considered a “mining town” owing to the platinum and other mineral resources in the area. Migrant labour is therefore another consideration. In fact, the SOS team finds that illegal immigrants or economic migrants without South Africa or proper documentation are often resource-poor and in need of family support.

One of the major needs for the team is to assist families to access the government grants (welfare subsidies) and to provide support in accessing documentation. Without identity documentation people cannot access public services.

*Names changed to protect the identity of SOS families in Rustenburg.