Things fall apart
Poverty, lack of opportunity and a legacy of disempowerment and oppression make up the evil eye at the centre of a dangerous storm brewing over the most vulnerable people in society.
It’s a storm that spits out casualties like orphaned and vulnerable children, young women who have little option but to use sex and pregnancy to access money and grants, and men involved with crime or who hit the bottle and drugs as employment opportunities continue to dwindle.
Trudie Harrison is a co-ordinator at the Anglican Church ministry NGO, Mosamaria. She and her team have watched for years how these social miseries have made it nearly impossible for people to break the cycles of poverty, seen resources being ploughed into stop-gap measures, and witnessed a situation where symptoms are treated even though broader systemic solutions are needed.
‘In a place like Bloemspruit (outside of Bloemfontein), where we do door-to-door visits for voluntary HIV testing, we are seeing more and more young mothers and unplanned pregnancies. Often one woman’s children are fathered by different men.
‘It’s a desperate situation because these young women think that having a child will at least give them access to the R310-a-month per child government grant. There is very little long-term planning about the children’s futures. Rather, it’s a case of being able to buy some groceries for the week – their most immediate need,’ says Harrison.
Over the last five years or so she says the organisation has also seen the phenomenon of ‘sugar-daddies’ entrench itself in the community. While Harrison says intergenerational sex has probably been happening for years, and across the breadth of South Africa, she believes it is now more widespread and out in the open. ‘It’s become a perverted norm. There are even websites promoting the relationships enticing ‘sugar babies’ to sign on to the sites. They use pitches like: “Interested in meeting someone in South Africa who will give you what you need to live a better life?”’
Harrison says: ‘The implication of these relationships is that women lose the power to negotiate their sex lives. They’re stuck and they are exposed to disease or unwanted pregnancies. The much older man is seen as her provider of all things, so she doesn’t have a say even on things like insisting that he wears a condom during sex.
‘You’ll see sugar daddies arrive to pick up students who live in the communes and flats near the university in town. The men provide for everything from a few rands or airtime through to wining and dining them. These men represent something for them at that time in their lives and that’s why they stay in those relationships,’ says Harrison. She says community workers have also observed that the sugar daddy plague has filtered down into schools, where school teachers are having sex with their pupils in exchange for better marks, airtime and pocket money.
‘It’s a desperate situation because these young women think that having a child will at least give them access to the R310-a- month per child government grant.’
The Mosamaria community workers also note that men with employment are frequently ‘ambushed’ to become fathers. They are seen as good prospects to be providers, or men who’ll be able to pay maintenance if a relationship turns sour. It’s a warped reality that Harrison says means children grow up with absent fathers, drop lower on a priority list, are left in the care of grannies as moms look for work, or simply fall through society’s cracks. One of Mosamaria’s community projects is the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) programme. It’s a programme that Harrison says is one critical access point to try to help young people understand the consequences of their choices, and to develop long-term goals rather than grasping at instant gratification.
‘Our childcare workers try to encourage children to delay sex and if they are sexually active to use contraception and to take responsibility for protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
‘It’s very tough for teenagers especially those who, by their nature, act recklessly, take chances and only live for the now,’ she says. Harrison believes the Free State is in social meltdown. She says: ‘It’s like tinderbox waiting to burst into flames, and if we don’t do something about it now, chances are it’s a cycle that will just keep repeating itself.’