Sunshine’s fight for survival
An open letter to those who want to know…
In 2010 I started working for the ACVV Koeberg where I assisted in opening my first preschool, Clever Kids Academy. I did it because I saw the deficit with which impoverished children begin life and how the system works against them having any hope at a future.
I did it because I understand that the vicious cycle of poverty is a very real thing and I wanted to help make a positive change in the lives of generations to come.
I knew that Clever Kids Academy would only realistically reach so many children as most of the kids in the service area of the ACVV Koeberg were beyond our feasible reach – so I started looking into what other settlements were in the area that would not have access to the preschool and our daily services.
It was then that I discovered Skandaalkamp, a remote settlement physically situated on a landfill site on the outskirts of Melkbosstrand and Tableview. There were 4 settlements on this dumpsite but Skandaalkamp was by far the largest with 175 houses, some of which with multiple or extended families living in one housing compound.
I fell in love completely with the people of Skandaalkamp – especially the children – on first entry. I can still vividly recall their faces, what they wore, how they smiled and how they received me with open hearts and smiles.
I knew immediately that there would be no turning back – I had found my calling! This is what I was born to do. I knew I had to – and could – make a difference.
At this point, Skandaalkamp was nothing but makeshift shacks consisting of whatever scrap materials the community could salvage on the dump. The houses were unsafe to say the least. Roofs were made of a few strategically placed pieces of wood covered in plastic. The plastic never lasted a whole year due to exposure so roofs were always leaking. There was 1 tap and 1 chemical portable toilet for every 6 families. No-one was doing anything for these people. It seemed as if no-one even knew that they existed.
My initial work within this settlement was whatever people needed. I listened to the community, bought school shoes, stationery, blankets, covered roofs annually, fixed dilapidated structures, built shacks from scratch for a woman who lived in an upside down plastic swimming pool placed over wooden poles and a man who had been hit by a truck and had a cast, whose roof had near collapsed and was literally balanced on a single pole in the centre of his shack.
I planted vegetable gardens, built goat shelters, supplied jackets and shoes in winter and gifts and food parcels at Christmas. I did all of this with the assistance of volunteers and the generosity of sponsors who believed in my vision for this community.
I also invited and introduced the previous and current mayoral committee members for social development to this community. They assured me they would do whatever they could to assist but I had grown used to officials making such promises and then never hearing from them again.
For all intensive purposes, it was just me alone (and of course my loyal supporters) trying to make a difference in an area so forgotten that it might as well have been in a different country.
It was in Skandaalkamp that I realised that even a single meal a day was not guaranteed to the children. For many, a daily meal consisted of just rice, pap or dry bread. These children were not only starved of education but also of nutrition and nurturing. A holistic approach was needed. I tried to get approval for land in the area to start a preschool. I asked, begged, pleaded and even tried the media. I was told by an official that I would never be permitted to start a preschool there because “it would only attract more people to live in the settlement” if any further services were provided to “them”. Primary school kids had busses that took them to school but they couldn’t all attend as there was no place for preschool aged children to go while parents scavenged the dumpsite or chopped wood for domestic use. Several school aged children stayed home to babysit siblings – depriving them too of an education they were promised by our Constitution.
It was whilst walking around the settlement one day that I heard constant, bitter crying. I followed the sound and came across a 9 month old baby sitting in her own filth – no diaper – her nose running into her little mouth… Her bum was burnt red and covered in flies. I was devastated. I investigated and discovered that her single mother had to go to work and no-one was prepared to watch the baby, so she left her infant in the care of her 5 year old son so she could earn enough to put food on the table, at least for a day or two. The 5 year old forgot about the baby and ran off with his friends.
I knew I had to do whatever it took to give these innocent children somewhere safe. I tried to erect a hut in an open area – totally unused by anyone – but the City’s Land Use Invasion department stopped me. So I collaborated with one of the local women and started the “school” in her shack in less than two weeks. We opened our “door” to children in 2012. It wasn’t much but it was better than being left with a 5 year old sibling. It was a safe place where adults looked after children, where they got hugs and played and received two cooked, balanced meals per day.
In January 2014 we received new buildings as a donation from KILROY and erected them in the same open (still unused) area as before. We wanted the school to be more than a dark room in a dirty, mouldy shack. We wanted the kids to have grass to run on, to be away from drunken adults who kept walking into the classes, to have classrooms with light and to be able to separate the children by age instead of having babies to 6 year olds in a single room. Thus Sunshine Educare was officially born.
Talks about moving the people from Skandaalkamp to a new area started around the same time. As I introduced several officials to this community and because I was operating the preschool, I was asked if I would be interested in moving across to the new area – I naturally said yes! I had established a relationship of trust with the community, the children had crept deep into the chambers of my heart and I could not dream of abandoning them. Several issues came up during the move negotiations with the community that they were deeply unhappy about and they asked for my help. I was asked (and elected) by the community to represent them in the dealings with the City. It made me unpopular as several officials must have thought that I was forcing my opinions unto the unhappy community but this was not the case.
The move continued with the people of Skandaalkamp (and some of the surrounding communities who were also involved in the move) insisting that they want the preschool to move with them. I believe they may have said that they would not move if I was not permitted to move with them. This further agitated several officials.
So the school was permitted to move across. Meetings were held to discuss this – minuted by the City but minutes were never made available to the community or myself. A site meeting with Siraaj Samsodien and Nomfundo Mdingi from different departments of the City was held where we discussed possible sites for the preschool to be located. We discussed it at length as Mr Samsodien wanted to assure that we had access to water points, sewerage points and electrical points for the preschool. We agreed on three small sections available for Social requirements. Two would be combined for the kids aged 18 months to 6 years and one would be right next door for the infants up to 18 months. That afternoon I received an email from Mr Samsodien saying that the Mayoral committee member for Social Development suggested an alternate location, adjacent to but outside the boundary of the settlement. He assured me that, should I choose that location instead, all the relevant access points would be made available to the preschool to be set up properly for compliance. (This never happened). We negotiated with Nomfundo Mdingi who assured me this would be a better location. She asked Mr Samsodien to leave a portion of perimeter fencing for the school and she arranged EPWP workers to clear the agreed upon land for the preschool.
Mr Samsodien arranged a single tap to be put up on the grounds.
Nora Grose, ward councillor for Melkbosstrand assisted us to arrange funding for the moving of our structures to the new area – we had the same structures from Skandaalkamp.
We erected a temporary fence around the area with the idea that we would erect a more permanent fence once all the right documentation was in place for us to arrange proper sponsors. We started negotiations with potential sponsors for a compliant, brick structure that would allow us to become a registered preschool so we could – besides for giving our children the very best – qualify for grants to assist in the operation costs of the school.
I asked on more than one occasion for a land use (or even rental) agreement from the City to prove that we had the right to use the land – without which we could not upgrade the school, could not register building plans, could not apply for funding of any structures, could not apply for access to electricity or for flushing toilets – all of which we were promised. The emails went unanswered. No referral was given to a different department or contact person. A sponsor got involved (who was looking at funding a multi-million rand structure for the children) and tried to obtain the land use agreement on our behalf – but she was given the run around too. We eventually received a letter of endorsement from the City but it was not sufficient to enable us to comply to the legal requirements for registration or for the upgrade of the facility.
We continued operating to the best of our ability in the meanwhile.
The move took place in June 2015 and we had been trying for months to get the proper paperwork from the officials involved – to no avail.
In May 2016 – 11 months after the move – suddenly and without warning our state of operations was deemed unsuitable and unsafe for the children. It was better and stronger than the shack we started in or the school in Skandaalkamp. Yes – we had erected a roofed area between the classrooms as we were once again approaching our cold, rainy winter and we wanted the children to be safe and dry. We did so without building plans because we had still been unsuccessful in obtaining proper land use agreements – without which we could not register building plans. We erected the roofed area at a cost of over R80 000! A cost we would never recover because the materials would not be reusable. We did it (in our thinking process) as a “meanwhile” solution to the brick structure we were planning with a sponsor.
Almost every child in the preschool at this point started as an infant – they grew up in front of me. The school runs 100% on private sponsorship from KILROY and obtained by me from individuals who share my vision for a safe place of learning. We provide 2 cooked meals, toothbrushes for daily hygiene, vitamins, first aid not only for the preschool but for the entire community who only have access to a mobile baby clinic every two weeks. We support foster houses with food, formula and diapers. We supply food aid to those in need. We get sponsorship to provide every child in the community with a warm jacket and closed shoes in winter. We get sonsorship to provide every child with a gift for Christmas and every family with the ingredients for a Christmas lunch. We are emotionally invested in this project and its sustainability. We want nothing more than to give our children everything they deserve – including a compliant, state of the art, registered early childhood development centre. We do not want to operate a substandard centre but until we receive cooperation from officials in the form of proper documentation for land use – our hands are tied!
We have secured fantastic long term sponsorship from the KILROY foundation in the form of monthly financial support as well as from South African Volunteer Experiences including international volunteers who work with the children daily and assist with the daily running.
We literally require only a single land use agreement document in order to set all of our plans for compliance in motion. A document we have requested time and again from the day of the move.
In May 2016 the City launched an all out attack on the school. Despite several preschools operating in much worse conditions in the nearby area of Dunoon, despite our continued efforts as the only safe place for children within our area, despite our efforts of setting up sponsorships, fundraising and donations to become a complliant centre – we were told that we will be shut down. In a closed, unminuted meeting with the City we were sumarily told that we will be shut down. Only after a potential sponsor spoke of her involvement were we told that we would be assisted to become compliant. The next week the City brought every single department involved in compliance to do a mass inspection of the school. We were spoken down to and community leaders were not permitted to enter. I recorded the meeting on my mobile phone. The departments were told by the official in charge that, should they find the school compliant in any way – their heads would be on the block! Of all the departments who came to do the inspection, only one department made their report available to us – strange as the process was supposed to be to show us where we were lacking so that we could improve and comply.
A week or so later we were served with a notice to hire – at our own cost – a structural engineer to look at the safety of the structure. We did so. He said that although the structure was sound, it did not comply with traditional requirements and we agreed that we would take it down and rebuild to his specifications. He even offered to draw up the plans for us. We gave all of the relevant documentation regarding this to the City.
Just one week later we were served with a notice to cease all operations as of the 8th of August 2016. the reason provided was that the school was located on land zoned for agriculture. The penalty for non-compliance was listed as criminal charges, a fine of up to R800 000 OR a jail term of up to 20 years! 20 years of imprisonment for operating a preschool for children who have nothing!
This matter is being dealt with by our fantastic attorneys who are offering their services pro-bono.
We are being painted as unwilling to cooperate, we have been called a “rogue operation” in the media. We are portrayed as nonchalant and it is said we deem ourselves above the law.
We are operating a safe place for children where they receive two meals and holistic care in a place where they would otherwise be playing in a rocky, bare and unsafe environment with several risks. We are operating on land designated to us by the City after negotiations with several departments including Social Development and Human Settlements. They chose our location – we simply agreed to it. We were not given any of the bare essentials necessary to operate such as access to electricity, access to sewerage points and we were given one tap to operate a preschool and a vegetable garden. We requested the proper documentation essential to our efforts and were not given so much as a courtesy response. We receive no assistance in the form of goods, services or funding.
Yet we are the ones who are not complying? We are the ones who are not cooperating?
We are the ones caring for the children who are the victims in this…