Yesterday I watched a woman stand under a tree in Yeoville and cry. She was crying for a child not her own. She, a South African, was distraught over the plight of a 14 year old boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The boy came to South Africa with his parents. They left him here in the care of an ‘uncle’. According to the boy, the ‘uncle’ treated him badly, misused money sent by his mother for his schooling and had sex with his girlfriends in front of the boy. The woman crying under the tree worked at the school he attended in Yeoville. The school tried for over a year to get the ‘uncle’ to provide the boy’s documents and to pay the school fees. He did neither. The school, a small independent institution, could not keep him on indefinitely without the necessary documents and the fees.
The boy, in desperation, went for help to the police station and was referred to the Victim Empowerment Centre (VEC). Between the SAPS and the VEC workers, a place was found for him in a shelter in Alexandra. For some reason, between then (2011) and today, the boy was never referred to a social worker, something that should have happened before – or at least as soon as – he was received by the shelter.
It seems he had a fairly good year. He was placed in a school and did very well. His English and isiZulu improved dramatically, his knowledge of French and Lingala diminishing with disuse. However, things started to unravel towards the end of the year. It’s not clear why – as is usual, there are at least two conflicting stories, one of which involves xenophobic comments made to the boy. Suffice to say that he ended up knocking on the door of a woman in Alexandra who had worked at the shelter, but then left to start her own facility, though catering only for very small children.
She took him in. But, unlike the other shelter, she did have a social worker visiting her establishment. The social worker expressed concern about the presence of the boy in the shelter because of his age – he was too old to share with the very young children normally housed there. She referred the case to someone from Home Affairs who contacted the VEC worker who had originally received the child in 2011 when he presented himself at the police station, seeking shelter from his abusive ‘uncle’. Suddenly, it was her problem again.
She explored various options and then called me for help when she couldn’t reach a mutual Congolese contact of ours. I phoned a few people from DRC to see if we could get any help. Surprisingly not. We were told that they themselves have no shelter facilities or even networks of Congolese families who might take such a child in for a short while. However, a Congolese priest offered to call the mother and ‘uncle’ in DRC (we have their numbers) and to assist with approaching the DRC Embassy to see if they would help to repatriate the boy (after sorting out his papers).
I then contacted a social worker friend who arranged for us to talk to someone in her organisation to get advice on how to proceed. The person we consulted was concerned that the boy had no documents and also that, after all this time, his plight was not being addressed by a social worker because he had never been registered with the Department of Social Development. He said that, as a child, the boy could not simply be deported or repatriated. His rights needed to be properly and legally agreed-upon before any action could be taken.
He suggested that we get him into the Social Development system as soon as possible – once that happened, it would become the responsibility of the state to ensure that the boy was accommodated and that his rights and needs were addressed.
We went through to the Department of Social Development in the Joburg CBD. The service we had was, I am happy to say, very good. The place was not busy and the man doing the initial registration of the case was friendly, helpful and efficient. Within minutes, he completed the registration and sent us to a different floor for further assistance. There, the intake social worker was as friendly and helpful. He had a slightly different view on the challenges facing us. He said that, if a solution was not found, the boy could indeed be sent to Lindela Repatriation Centre where he could be kept for years while his repatriation was sorted out.
He organised a place for the boy, but made it clear that we would have to (collectively) find a lasting solution, otherwise he would only be able to stay in the designated shelter for a short while and then would be transferred to Lindela, something we all agreed should not happen. He was also concerned (presumably based on previous experience) that we would leave the boy there and disappear. However, we assured him that we would keep contact and that we would assist (with the help of people in the Congolese community) to try and track down his family in the DRC.
We dropped the boy at the facility and returned home, somewhat exhausted. Our day had started at around 9.30am, which is when we went to Alex to fetch him, and finished after 4pm when we dropped him at the shelter.
The experience was ultimately a positive one. From the woman in Alex who took the boy in when he had to leave the original shelter to his emotional ex-teacher in Yeoville, from the officials at Social Development to the social workers at the new shelter to which he was sent, we experienced nothing but concern for the boy’s welfare. People were courteous, helpful and efficient.
Most praise must go to my community colleague. She dealt with the boy’s case back in 2011 and considered her work done once he had been placed in a shelter. She was most surprised when, more than a year later, she received news that he was once again in a vulnerable situation and that she was expected to deal with the crisis. Nevertheless, she rose to the occasion and did what needed to be done, calling on people like myself for assistance in ensuring that the boy’s situation was resolved. This despite the fact that she no longer works in the VEC and, as an under-employed mother, has her own life challenges.
The issue is not yet fully resolved, but at least we know that the boy is safe and that his situation is being addressed.