Glebelands kids: growing up on the frontline

Community leaders allege that the number of child-headed households at Glebelands has grown substantially since the violence began in 2014. Pic by Vanessa Burger

The ongoing political motivated killings in Glebelands Hostel in Umlazi has claimed many lives and left families in disarray. Children are among the ones most affected by the violence.

Unnamed Road, Kwenkwezi, Thoyana, 4160, South Africa

Busi’s (not her real name) four children were aged 1, 5 and 6-years old respectively and her baby just 3-weeks old when thugs petrol bombed their room one evening in 2014. Her partner – who was not home during the attack – had been a former block committee member.

These community-representative structures are common to all hostels and play an important role in conflict resolution, keeping order, administration liaison and political mobilisation.

They also sometimes ‘sell beds’ (space in crowded hostel rooms), which was the pretext initially used for a bloody purge of Glebelands’s block committee and anyone associated with them, even their children.

During their eviction, Busi had been told her personal relationship presented a ‘threat’ to those carrying guns and cans of petrol. Her eldest son who had been playing outside at the time, became separated from his family in the confusion. It was only much later, after witnessing their room – and he thought, his mother and siblings – go up in flames, that the family was eventually reunited. Her partner, now with a target on his back, fled Durban. He was not to see his family for 9 months during which time neither knew if the other had survived.

Busi fled that night to a nearby informal settlement, but after a few weeks found she could not afford the R500 a month shack rent. When she returned to Glebelands she found her room occupied by friends of those who had destroyed her home.

Busi went to the eThekwini Municipality administration office where she explained to the superintendent what had happened and pleaded for a room. She was told: “All places are full.”

So with her newborn baby on her back and her 3 other children trailing behind her, she trudged across Glebelands’s vast grounds searching for a place – any place – that could shelter her family.

Eventually, she found a derelict building near the defunct swimming pool. There was no electricity, no water, no toilet, no windows, no locks on what was left of the doors. It was filthy and open to intruders and the roof was threatening to cave in. But it was a shelter so they moved in.

On the night of 16 January 2015, she and her children huddled together in terror, listening as Phumlani Ndlovu was gunned down a few metres away. Ndlovu had also been a block committee member. For many days she was too fearful to go out to nearby blocks to collect water and her children were too scared to play outside.

Her eldest son failed school that year. One day his mother found him with a stick, beating a lizard to a pulp.

“Something has gone wrong here,” she said, tapping her head, “He is always angry – it’s getting worse.” They all had nightmares and lived with daily fear of nightly horrors.

A young girl dreams of a better life. For more than 4 years the floor of the room she shares with her sisters, painted a violent red, has been several inches deep in water – leaks to which the eThekwini Municipality contractors’ sporadic attention have proved as ineffectual as the 2016 Peace Process. Pic by Vanessa Burger

Mary de Haas, violence monitor and human rights defender since before the fall of apartheid, majored in psychology, and as a social worker, has been a family therapist and principal for one of the Boy’s Town family homes. She has over the years written extensively on the impact of violence on children, and, having also tried to assist several Glebelands families including Busi’s, has personal experience of the increasing dysfunction within the social welfare system.

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De Haas said: “The type of violence that is raging at Glebelands is extremely serious for children and is almost sure to lead to a variety of problems in later life, especially a tendency towards using violence in their own personal relationships, and also other emotional problems including learning disabilities.”

Busi voiced concerns about approaching the Department of Social Development’s Umlazi Service Centre for assistance. Only after the intervention of the Commission for Gender Equality in late 2014, were women and children in similar circumstances able to approach the Centre for emergency aid.  Even then, of the hundreds evicted, only three mothers were given food vouchers worth R600 for 3 months. Many were refused help because their children’s birth certificates had been destroyed or lost during their eviction, or because they could not prove that they had been evicted as they were too fearful to obtain a case number from the police. Although a handful did receive a little trauma counseling, the majority were referred to Lifeline offices in Overport, nearly 30 km away. None could afford the transport costs.

Turned away at the shelters

Non-profit shelters and privately run places of safety, although admittedly severely under-resourced and over-extended, also proved less than helpful. In Busi’s case, a variety of shelters of abused women were approached. But because Glebelands’ carnage did not fit comfortably into the generally accepted definition of domestic violence, few were willing to even consider help in case it brought the killing to their doorsteps.

Almost all facilities stated that Busi’s severely traumatised eldest son, who was by then 7-years-old, could not be accommodated in the women’s shelter and would have to be placed in a foster home.

The bottom line was that Glebelands’ carnage had become a very contentious, highly politicized embarrassment for the ruling party, the fallout from which it seemed to be taking great pains to keep under wraps. Under these circumstances, few charities were willing to open their doors to what was to become a flood of traumatised, destitute, hostel violence victims, who, by their vast numbers, would drain scarce resources, maybe risk state support, or worse.

Eventually, community leaders found space for Busi’s family, but by then the damage had been done. The daily grind of fruitless job seeking, the humiliation of reliance on neighbours who had little themselves, the worry about a future far from certain for her children, and Glebelands’s ongoing trauma took its toll on Busi’s mind. She sank into depression, began drinking heavily and some claimed, turned to prostitution to earn a living. Her children – previously the centre of her universe – were neglected.

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Delays by the Department of Social Development

Three years too late to prevent the destruction of this fragile family, the DSD finally took action and removed Busi’s two youngest children to foster care.

In this instance, according to de Haas, “the DSD made matters even worse as they did absolutely nothing constructive to keep the family together. This is the first rule before removing children from the care of a parent.” She also expressed frustration that remedial actions by the DSD to provide immediate support to vulnerable women and children recommended by the Public Protector in her report on Glebelands had been ignored.

And it is not only the incidents of direct horror – the 3-year-old child burned to death during a petrol bomb attack at Block Y on 11 October 2015; or Makhosi Zide’s young son, who, after hearing the shots fired by his mother’s killers, thought his mother had been struck by lightning and tried to help her get up; or the countless kids who still do not understand why their father never comes home for Christmas anymore – that perpetuate a culture of violence at hostels; it is an insidious form of covert, or ‘social violence’ inherent in governments’ serial failure to improve hostel dwellers’ living conditions that fuels the carnage.

Role of hostels in destroying family life

Many years ago, De Haas included extensive research in her Masters thesis on the role of apartheid-era single-sex hostels in the destruction of family life.

“Research in hostels over the years has shown that even without the sustained violence of Glebelands, they are very violent places at the best of times and impact seriously on children growing up in them. What is disgusting beyond words is that this government has done nothing to improve things, quite the reverse!”

According to a church minister and longstanding Glebelands resident, it is the poverty and unemployment, the unhealthy living conditions, lack of privacy in vastly overcrowded rooms, and government’s persistent failure to respect the human dignity of hostel dwellers that continues to breed violence and social decay.

Children play amid overflowing sewerage at one of Glebelands’s ancient blocks. Pic by Vanessa Burger

He gestured to the overflowing sewerage, mounds of rubbish and crumbling buildings, slippery with the green slime that results from ceaselessly leaking pipes and dripping taps.

“A child that is forced to grow up in these conditions feels that no one respects him or sees value in his life. Later he cannot get a job and loses hope of improving his life. He will therefore probably end up losing all self-respect. How easy then will it be for him to respect or see the value in the lives of others? He could be offered a little money that could make a big difference to his life even though it might end someone else’s. Now you see why it is so easy to hire a young hostel boy to become a killer.”


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