Roxy* is 14 years old and lives with her SOS family in Rustenburg, a 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 work during the day.
This innovative approach to alternative child care is aimed at providing the best care possible to children who need a family. 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.
“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 as of 2017, 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.