When Mandla was 10, there was still hope.
Back then, in 2009, at least his family had food and a place to live. His mother was a domestic laborer, one who worked hard to put meals on the table for Mandla and his sisters. But she was pregnant again, and this pregnancy was different from the five that had come before. This time South African authorities jailed Mandla’s mother for killing the child after giving birth.
“We became orphans whilst our mother was still alive,” he says.
But what of their father, you ask? As Mandla will tell you, “It’s complicated.”
It’s complicated because Mandla’s mother had children with four different fathers. It’s complicated because his two older sisters have their own dad, who passed away before Mandla was born. Mandla and the sister who came after him share the same father, but they have never met him. They know neither his name nor any details — nothing that could help identify this man should they attempt a search. To them he is dead, even if he lives.
The other two fathers are known but take no responsibility for raising their children. That part’s not complicated at all.
With no parents, there was no income. With no income, there was no food. With no food, there was only a phone call placed to social workers who took the siblings — one of whom is disabled — to a local children’s home.
Thus began the cycle: place to place, home to home. Sometimes the siblings were well fed and cared for; mostly they were not. Some days they were sent to school, but mostly they were just demeaned, abused and neglected. And even when a home was reasonably safe, it was always temporary.
‘I will rise up’
Their mother was released in 2010. After all, somebody had to take care of these hungry kids. Mom took the brood to a relative’s house in the South African countryside — some say an aunt, some say a grandmother; it’s not completely clear. Either way, the kids’ living situation soon deteriorated again.
“[Our aunt] called us names and would beat us like slaves,” Mandla says. “Grant money that was meant to be used for taking care of us was instead used to buy the things needed to build the house for her and her family. We had no proper clothes, and we went to school on empty stomachs.”
Their mother couldn’t help, didn’t help, because she was hardly around. The siblings learned she was ill — and pregnant again. Eventually, they lost contact altogether.
“My aunt hated my mother,” Mandla says, “and because of that, we fell victim to all the abuse.” The children had no one to turn to; even the social workers stopped visiting.
Mandla’s mother died in 2012, shortly after giving birth to an HIV-positive daughter. The family’s oldest sister, who’d moved away several years prior, somehow heard about their mother’s passing and returned to arrange the funeral. The siblings begged their sister to take them in, to liberate them — no matter that her living quarters were far too small.
“We couldn’t wait,” Mandla says. “We just wanted to go.”
The whole bunch, including their new baby sister, moved into a single-room home. They didn’t mind — it was still better than the beatings.
Their eldest sister sent them back to school, and the family was safe and happy at last. And once again, it was only temporary.
Mandla’s eldest sister, the breadwinner, fell ill and died in 2015. That’s when Mandla determined that his present would not control his future. “I decided that no, no, no — I will never allow my sisters to go back to our aunt! Instead I will rise up.”
Was Mandla worried? Absolutely. Was he prepared for the responsibility of caring for his four siblings? Absolutely not.
“I was afraid,” he says, “but I had to stand up, no matter what.”
Learning to grieve … and forgive
Hope appeared in the form of Noluthando Moshesh, a qualified social worker and program specialist with Focus on the Family Africa. Noluthando was going from school to school, telling students about a new Focus initiative called Tales of Hope — a program to help families living without parents or guardians.
“Mandla was the only one in his school brave enough to come out as a child-headed household,” Noluthando says. “He shared his story, and I was completely blown away by this young man’s inner strength. . . . I couldn’t wait to start working with him.”
Tales of Hope began in 2015 with a group of 20 child-headed households; today the program has worked with nearly 200. The program helps those who, by all rights, should be playing with friends and focusing on their classes instead of watching over a wheelchair-bound sibling and administering antiretroviral drugs to a now-6-year-old girl.
“Mandla cares for his 24-year-old disabled sister and the three others,” Noluthando says. “Every day he makes sure there is food, he oversees their homework and even helps them get ready for school.”
Tales of Hope workers helped Mandla apply for the social grants that he somehow stretches into a month’s worth of food. The program supplied uniforms for school and furniture for their home. Mandla was taught the importance of education, of budgeting and of choosing friends wisely, and he heard about a God who loves him unconditionally.
Along the way, he also learned to grieve . . . and forgive. He learned to forgive a father he’s never known and a mother who left him and his sisters at the mercy of others. Sure, he still gets angry sometimes, but he’s learned to pray when the burden seems too great.
Hope for the future
Valerie Govender first met Mandla a couple of years ago when Mandla worked in Focus Africa’s offices during a school holiday.
“He spoke with such wisdom for his young age,” says the ministry’s communications director. “He changed everything I believed about orphans.”
After Mandla’s first day at Focus, Valerie went home that evening and wept before the Lord. In that moment, she says, she repented for taking so many things, so many comforts, for granted.
“Knowing that his home was an informal shack, with no running water or electricity . . . that he cared for his sisters without an income and shared a communal bathroom with everyone in his community, but still exuded the love of Christ — I was in awe.”
Mandla and his siblings still reside in the same single room where they’ve lived since their eldest sister’s death. They’ve spent years on a waiting list for larger housing, yet Mandla never stops dreaming of better days ahead. As of this writing, Mandla was just granted a scholarship to study at a local university; and when he needed new clothes for school, he knew just where to turn. “I have hope that God is with us,” Mandla says. “Discovering Focus Africa, as well as Tales of Hope, has changed our future.”