By Kevin Ritchie
Linda Mbatha rubs his eyes with his knuckles. “It’s been rough,” he says, speaking about the rigours of lockdown in Alexandra township – literally within sight of Sandton City and the richest square mile in Africa.
It’s 10.30 on a Tuesday morning. He’s sitting in what used to be his part of the family homestead in the Far East Bank Extension of the sprawling township – a detached dwelling with a kitchen, lounge, bedroom and bathroom. He moved out several months ago to make way for the 10 girls from the community who had nowhere else to go.
The girls are at school at the moment. In an hour’s time, the kitchen behind him will be a hive of activity as some of the people who make up Sibamambisene Foundation get to work preparing meals for the 800 school children – all orphans or vulnerable children – who attend the four primary schools nearby.
When they’ve had their lunch, they’ll fill their “skaftins” (tuck boxes) to take home for a meal that evening before they go to bed.
That night, the Sibamambisene Foundation team will head out to the Johannesburg CBD to feed the homeless. They’ve been hitting four areas in succession, fortnightly; Joubert Park, Doornfontein, Braamfontein and Gandhi Square right in the middle of the CBD. They normally prepare enough soup and bread for 1 000 people at a time. They always come back with empty pots.
“The homeless complain that the shelters and the government are failing them. They tell us they don’t get fed and how they’re forced to work there, which is why so many of them took to the streets in the first place when the lockdown started, to hustle and beg to get money to eat.”
But the children and the homeless aren’t the only ones who have to be fed, there are 150 elderly who live nearby and in “Deep Alex” who receive weekly food parcels.
“It’s important to give them the food, especially the fresh vegetables because we know that they feed many more people than just themselves.”
He sighs. The lockdown and the pandemic have totally derailed what his foundation wanted to achieve this year. He co-founded the foundation which translates as “we are raised by lifting others” in 2017, the year he graduated from Central Johannesburg TVET College with a national diploma in hospitality.
This year the foundation wanted to work on educating the youth, especially young men, about gender-based violence, it wanted to empower women to give them skills to get out of conflict. Most of all it wanted to open doors to a better life for those who stood half a chance.
“I’ve come across people who fall into drugs and despair; girls who had good enough marks to get into university and get bursaries but didn’t know how to get access,” he says. This year, the foundation would have hosted a careers expo that would have addressed exactly that for pupils in Grades 11 and 12.
It was just one of the plans for 2020, but COVID put paid to that. They’ve used whatever resources they had trying to meet the demands. Today they’re kept going by financial support from the Angel Network and South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
“We never set out to be a food relief organisation,” he says.
Mbatha though has always been feeding people. When he was studying hospitality, he would use some of his NSFAS bursary funds to feed hungry students who were less well off than he was. It wasn’t just the TVET students who benefitted, Mbatha would feed UJ and Wits students too.
It didn’t stop when he qualified, instead he began to do it full time from the family house for the desperate school kids nearby. In 2018, he took on a full-time job as a chef at the Protea Parktonian All Suite Hotel in downtown Joburg to use his salary to keep the foundation going.
The Angel Network has asked the foundation to help out further afield too with food relief programmes; first assisting another 3 000 families in “Deep Alex”, the old sprawling slum part of the township; 2 000 families in Tembisa in Ekurhuleni, 2 500 families in Orange Farm and another2 000 families in the Johannesburg inner city.
The homeless don’t get food parcels.
“We can’t. We learnt the hard way,” he says. “If you give them material things, they’ll sell them to get money for drugs. It’s just the way it is, so we give them food that we have prepared here. That way we know they’re getting the benefit directly.”
Drugs are a huge problem. He walks through to what used to be his bedroom until a couple of months ago.
“These girls who came here, not all of them are orphans. Their mothers take the grants they get from the government and spend it on drugs and alcohol. They are addicts, irresponsible. Their children have nothing to eat and they aren’t safe in their homes.”
“You can’t call where some of them stay homes. They’re broken, dirty, dangerous.”
In Mbatha’s room, there’s a double bed and a cot. There’s space for mattresses on the floor. There’s a door. The toys neatly stacked against the wall bear mute testimony to the range of ages of the children who now stay there. Across the corridor, there’s a washing machine in the bathroom, with a flushing toilet and a shower. Here the children can be safe, clean and fed.
He walks out beyond the tables where the vegetables will be cut to the house that stands alongside, where his mother and sisters stay.
“We want to achieve so much more. This could be a community development centre running programmes that help people.”
To do that, he’ll need help.
“Obviously we are appealing for donors and volunteers, but we are also keen to collaborate with other charities in other parts of the city to help make a difference. There are many organisations all doing what they can to help, but the truth is there just isn’t enough.”
(bold dot) If you would like to know more about the Sibamambisene Foundation you can email [email protected] or WhatsApp him on 079 551 7550