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NCC-Habitat for Humanity 2002
"Durban Build Team"
Forty-four volunteers from the U.S.A traveling in South Africa with Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, are getting an inside look at how many black residents of Johannesburg and surrounding townships are living in this post-Apartheid era. In fact, they have been told several times by knowledgeable authorities that most white South Africans have not been inside the black townships, into homes, churches and community centers visited by the Americans. The U.S. group includes people from all parts of America, ranging in age from 18 to 82. About a fifth of the group are theological students from a variety of seminaries. Next week the group will join hundreds of other volunteers in Durban for the Jimmy Carter Work Project2002/Habitat, to build 100 houses.
Today the NCC group visited Oukasie Township near Brits, an hour out of Johannesburg. They saw what the Habitat Affiliate in this part of South Africa has accomplished in the past year 30 small new brick and plaster houses in a small community that until now consisted mostly of shacks made from tin, oddly laid boards and other assorted material. The shanty town was founded in 1928 by blacks who were not allowed to live in most residential areas of the country. Per the Habitat rules, the families who would eventually live in the houses worked alongside volunteers in building the new structures.
Staff members of Habitat showed the U.S. group around the community. Traveling with the NCC group is the Rev. Ken Bensen who heads the very successful Habitat Affiliate of Michigan, and is on the Habitat national board. The American visitors asked why the same black families were continuing to live in the same town where sanitary conditions are still lacking. Tim Groom of the S.A. Habitat staff explained that although the political system of apartheid has ended, "economic apartheid" is unfortunately alive and well. With unemployment in excess of 40% in many populous areas, most black Africans are so poor that they cannot save the funds to move. Also, the communities have become "home", and many people would rather improve the situation where they are than to move.
The NCC visitors toured a preschool at Oukasie where 106 toddlers are enrolled. The schools name is ltireleng which means "do it yourself"; the theme of self reliance is imbedded in the philosophy of this school and all the others visited by the NCC. At the Oukasie school, the parents pay tuition that is the equivalent of $10 a month, necessary because there is little or no support from the government for these schools outside the city of Johannesburg. This amount comes out of the pockets of parents earning an average of 800 to 2500R a month ($80 to $250).
One of the tour leaders was Kelli J. Givens, resource development associate for Habitat in this region. Until recently, Kelli Givens (age 42) owned and operated several Pizza Hut and McDonalds franchises in New York City. A couple of years ago, she sold her businesses and moved to South Africa to work for Habitat. She arrived in time for the ground breaking for the first house in Oukasie, a ceremony participated in by South African President Mbeki. The first house was built by and for a woman whose family had "squatted" on the land since 1959. The U.S. group was welcomed by this homeowner and given a tour. The "shack" she had lived in for more than 40 years is still standing on the property behind the new house, and in fact is lived in by extended family members. Like many of the shanties that have been standing for years, this one has a neatly tended garden and several small trees.
Ms. Givens has used her business know-how and vibrant personality to recruit corporations and businesses to assist Habitat. They not only are urged to make financial donations, but they also are told that they MUST partner by allowing employees to work on the buildings and the fix-up of homes and schools. Two weeks ago a team of 200 men and women from the firm of Deloite came to the preschool in Oukasie to paint the building, decorate it with colorful designs, fix the doors, and erect a magnificent jungle gym.
Emphasizing the importance of working with the community, Tim Groom said that the "reconciliation" aspect of Habitats work is as important as the construction work.
The American group heard this theme emphasized when they visited Ivory Park, another black group township outside Johannesburg, and also at EdenVale Methodist Church in a suburban white neighborhood.
For the visit to Ivory Park, the Rev. Simanga Kumalo was the guide. He explained that Ivory Park began as a community in 1990 shortly after the laws changed in the country.
"People began flocking from rural locations to the City, including people from neighboring countries," he related. "The government, the social agencies, the churches-no one was prepared. So we saw people just begin to `squat building out of any materials they could find. A landowner would demolish the shacks only to see them rebuilt the next day. This situation persisted in the area now known as Ivory Park until the government bought some land and gave it to the people. That was the start of our community. It was very difficult, and still is difficult, because the church was not prepared. The situation is aggravated by 60% unemployment of the residents here in this community."
As a result of a joint ministry, Reverend Kumalo, an ordained Methodist minister from Soweto, was appointed to minister to the church in Ivory Park in 1990. There were 50 people worshipping then. Now there are 1,000 members spread among six Methodist churches in Ivory Park, all overseen by Rev. Kumalo with the help of lay ministers, women and men, that he trains. "Because of the material as well as the spiritual needs of people, we cannot expect people who have not eaten all day or for days to hear the `Good News of our spiritual ministry," He explained. So he showed the group the buildings where computer training will take place for adults, and the primary and grade schools where dedicated teachers are working as volunteers because there is no money to pay them salaries. The children, dressed neatly and often in uniform-type clothing, were eager to learn. But the schools have few books or other necessary education tools. At these schools also, the parents living in poverty...pay tuition of $10 a month.
At one of the centers in Ivory Park, women of the church have special candles called the "Peace, Hope and Justice Candle." The candle is set in a wooden base and wrapped with barbed wire. The minister explained the base represents a call for justice and equality; the frame represents the violence in our society that manifests itself against women and children especially. He said, "The light of the candle represents the coming of Christ to light the darkness everywhere."
The last stop on the tour of Ivory Park was the site where the community had put up the first church in the community; it now is being used as a community center. Workmen were putting the last touches on a handsome new red brick building that would be christened as the new church building in a few days. Tonight it was to be the site of the meeting of the Synod.
EdenVale Methodist Church was a very different setting but the commitment and ministry was equally sincere. The minister there, Rev. Cecil Rhodes, said, "We want people to experience the Love of God through our compassion and care for those who struggle and who are suffering." The church is the site for operation of projects sponsored by the Khanyisa Trust, a joint venture of many of the churches in the suburb of Edenvale. These include a soup kitchen where 200 people come for a meal each day, a skills training and job placement project, and a Hospice for victims of AIDS. A building for the Hospice is under construction across the street from the church.
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