3 August 2007
Where apartheid officials once enforced the notorious pass laws, children now laugh and sing. Johannesburg’s old Albert Street Pass Office has become a refuge for abused and homeless women and their children.
The building epitomised South Africa’s old regime; it was a place where black people stood in long lines to get their passbooks or dompases. With a flick of an official’s pen, a person could be endorsed out of Johannesburg – and thereby out of a job, a livelihood and security for their family.
Today, children rush at visitors, hugging their legs in welcome. Then, once seated in their colourful classrooms, they sing Incy Wincy Spider, with the accompanying actions.
The Little Fish Nursery School accommodates 55 children from the shelter and others from the immediate surrounds. And although the children don’t have a sand pit or green grass to tumble on – they have a small concrete courtyard with a jungle gym and swings under a solitary plane tree – they exude a confidence and exuberance that belies their unfriendly surrounds.
The school is just a small section of the former Albert Street Pass Office, a four-storey, red-brick building on the south-eastern edge of Johannesburg’s CBD. It is now the Usindiso Women’s Shelter, run by chief executive Jay Bradley. Although the shelter has been running since 1994, Bradley has been involved at the pass office since 2001, when Usindiso Ministries took over the running of the shelter.
Thousands were probably endorsed out of the city from these offices, to apartheid South Africa’s wasted homelands, as officials administered a swathe of apartheid control measures: the Pass Laws of 1952, the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Population Registration Act of 1950, among others.
The principal means of control was through the dompas, a pass, originally introduced by the British in the Cape in 1809, used to control the movement of blacks to the cities. Under the 1952 Act, black women and men were only allowed to live in cities if they were born there, had lived in a city continuously for 15 years or had worked for the same employer for 10 years.
Opened in 1954 as the Non-European Affairs Department, the Albert Street office was enlarged in the 1960s to accommodate the intensification of influx control as it became more established. But by the mid-1980s, the system had become unmanageable and, together with protests and anti-pass campaigns, the Nationalist government was forced to admit failure – pass carrying was abolished in South Africa in 1986.
The offices closed, remaining empty for a number of years before they were occupied by the Transvaal Provincial Administration in the early 1990s. They were converted into a shelter in 1994.
The building has been listed on the Johannesburg Heritage List, and is to be recommended for inclusion on the Provincial Heritage Roll, so as to be preserved and protected for historical reasons.
Pass legislation resulted in broken homes, separating husbands and wives and leaving children to be brought up by relatives in the distant “homelands”.
Bradley’s vision for the shelter is that by the time each person leaves, they should have had skills training and counselling so that they can stand on their own two feet and be contributing members of society.
“It does happen,” says Bradley, “but not as much as we’d like.”
The shelter gets funding from the City and the province, and donations help Bradley balance her budget. Usindiso is a non-profit organisation and has 25 staff. A retired doctor visits once a week.
Usindiso (“the saving place”) can cater for up to 85 women and children, although at the moment there are about 75 people at the shelter, ranging from 17 years to women in their 60s. Boys of eight years and older are sent to one of several boys’ shelters in Hillbrow and Berea.
Bradley says the shelter ideally aims to house the women for three to six months, but generally they stay for about a year. “Each individual is assessed on her needs. Six months is just not long enough.”
While at the shelter, they are given counselling and skills training, which includes workshops on HIV and Aids awareness, parenting and computer training.
The building consists of four floors, with a sick bay, a receiving room (for those just brought in and needing to see a social worker), a clinic, a dining room and kitchen, a lounge and TV room, communal bathrooms, a chapel (previously the pass court), a large hall (the former pass issuing and renewal office, with two rows of counters), and several dozen rooms for women and their children.
Bradley is on the brink of opening the fourth floor for accommodation for teenage girls. Workmen are busy finishing off the painting, creating bright sunny rooms for the girls. A lounge with cheerful purple couches is ready.
They’ll have a large rooftop space, which will soon contain potted plants. Bradley is conducting interviews to place a housemother. She wants to take runaway girls off the streets and offer them a temporary home.
One of the major tasks is to help the women get grants and pensions for the women over 60. This sometimes requires helping them to get their IDs beforehand, assisted by social workers.
Today there are three women in the receiving room – one is sleeping, another is sitting on a plastic chair and the third is propped up on a bed, surrounded by her three children. No one smiles. They wait patiently for a social worker.
Down the passage a knock on a door reveals a smiling face. Inside are three young women, one lying on her bed with her baby. She is 22; her baby is five months old.
The walls of the room are covered in large posters and curtains are drawn across the windows. The women are chatting happily and there’s a cosiness in the room. The baby smiles contentedly when Bradley coos at him.
Down a floor and another door is opened. A women leaves her six-year-old child lying on the bed, invisible under a thick blanket. She is in pyjamas, her hair tied back. Her face is swollen.
She says she was beaten by her husband when she went to fetch her ID book and some clothes for her child. He wanted her to sign a letter – the business is in her name and he needs her signature.
They had something to eat at the house, but she thinks he has poisoned them both. “My child hasn’t had anything to eat for 24 hours,” she says, gesticulating to the bundle on the bed, “and I’ve been feeling sick.” She is bent over as she sits on the edge of another bed.
An empathetic Bradley says she will return soon to speak to her.
Burglaries and patrols
Across the road from the shelter is a miniature squatter camp, with about a dozen shacks. There are no toilets, no taps and no rubbish bins.
Bradley thinks the burglaries the shelter has had recently emanate from the camp; or perhaps from the two chop shops alongside, or from the many factories that surround the shelter. The chop shops were recently raided by the police, but were back in business within a week. The shelter now has electric fencing along that side of the wall.
She is discussing with the police a proposal to train some of the shelter’s women to patrol the streets. The police will train the women, who will pass on information to them, but they won’t confront anyone. For this service, they will be paid R50 a day.
“Once they have a job, they can take responsibility for their lives,” Bradley explains.
She’s noticed that some women don’t take responsibility for their own lives, seeing the position they’re in as “everyone else’s fault”. This creates problems for her. “It’s difficult to get them to move on . We will never put them out on the street but we have rules and regulations.”
What this means is that some women move from shelter to shelter or, ultimately, back to their families in the rural areas. Some just don’t want to be helped.
Bradley says her aim is for them to have their own homes, eventually, once they have jobs. About 15 women have got jobs in the upholstery sector, after receiving training through the shelter.
“We hope that something has happened here,” she says, lifting her hand to her chest, with a smile.
The two resident social workers are Betty Mabunda and Rosinah Hadebe. Sitting at a desk, their expressions are a combination of conscientiousness, warmth and concern.
Over the past three years, the two have re-united 36 teenage girls with their families. Mabunda and Hadebe know when they’re going to return the girls to their families – the parents phone and ask after them.
The girls often won’t disclose the whereabouts of their families – one of their biggest challenges. Mabunda explains that the girls don’t want to trouble their families, who have rejected them after they have disclosed their HIV-positive status.
And they often find themselves in the invidious position of becoming the brunt of a boyfriend’s anger – he will phone and threaten them. He sees them as having taken his girlfriend away from him, even though he’s abusing the girl. But then the girl will go back to the boyfriend on payday, to make sure he buys her clothes and food.
Another challenge is getting the girls to realise that the shelter is a temporary home. “They don’t want to move – it’s very, very comfortable here. They fight you to stay, saying “I want my place, room 101,'” Hadebe says.
But it’s not all negative. Bradley’s personal assistant and receptionist came to the shelter as teenagers – they now both own their own flats. And there is a low staff turnover.
When things get her down, Bradley says, she keeps her spirits up because it’s a Christian ministry. “My heart is here; my experience can help these ladies. Without the Lord, this is not possible.”
Source: City of Johannesburg