Friday 17 November 2017

Mellon trust helping to build hope in South Africa

IN the township of Wallacedene, an expanding settlement in the western suburbs of Cape Town, a three-year-old girl stands on a couch in her living room with a thumbs-up and a wide smile. Her name is Hope. It couldn't be any more appropriate.

When Hope was born, there was no couch, no living room, no house to speak of. For her mother, Sylvia Nolutando, there was little to smile about when the evening shortened aside from her precious bundle of joy. This time last year, during the South African winter, they were battling rainy season. The modest shack they called home was exposed to the worst of the elements.

Last December, everything changed. A dream became reality and the catalyst was the generosity of the Irish people through the medium of the Niall Mellon Township Trust, the largest charity provider of social housing in a country where so many people are crying out for it.

Now, Sylvia is able to invite guests into a house 40 square metres in size with a living room area leading into a bathroom and two bedrooms.


A few friends and their children are sitting outside, capitalising on a rare day of June sunshine, a contrast from the downpour they suffered in the days before, which caused mini-floods in the sandy streets that run through this locality.

Later on, when the light fades, they will retire inside to watch television or listen to the radio, luxuries which they can now accommodate. It is in the comfort of this abode where they have watched the World Cup. They have no reason to be afraid of storm clouds any more.

"We were in a shack for seven years," Sylvia says. "Now the children are not getting sick anymore. That is so important."

Hers was one of 12,500 homes completed by the Mellon Trust before the end of the calendar year 2009. The building never stops; across multiple sites in Cape Town and the Gauteng region, which includes Johannesburg.

The Irish stamp is everywhere, the residents here will never be able to forget where the impetus for change came from. We approach a corner where Simon Ntsitshe stands outside his house, otherwise known as 'The Auld Triangle'. Further down the road, there is 'Tir na nOg', the residence of Elvis Mganuaza, who is lounging on the porch smoking a cigarette. Painted tricolours serve as the coat of arms.

Every year, a team of volunteers from Ireland, who raise funds to cover the cost of their trip, arrive for a week-long building blitz. It accelerates the work that goes on around the year, and sets new targets.

There are other charities in South Africa endeavouring to improve the plethora of impoverished areas; the significant difference with the Mellon Trust is that it insists that the people from the township assist in the process and learn valuable construction skills that can serve as a trade and be passed down through generations.

The initiative, set up by the Dublin entrepreneur back in 2002, is making a real difference. Take Inzi Williams, for example, a shy lady with three children and a fourth on the way.

She grew up in modest housing but when she moved out to get married, her situation deteriorated. Left to raise the kids in appalling conditions, it was a struggle. Then, the Mellon Trust came along to change their destiny.

"I can't quite put into words what it feels like," she says, through a translator. "It's great to see my kids living in their own home.

"The main thing for me is that I only learn the following morning, when I go outside, if it has been raining the night before."

With every township, there are presumptions, largely related to drink, drugs and, of course, crime. Wallacedene isn't free of vices, yet the reality we encounter is different from the stereotype. There is no intimidation. The natives stick together; negative incidents generally relate to minor tensions with neighbouring townships.

In the light of day, people go in and out of each other's houses, mingling freely. There's an old-fashioned sense of community. Few have jobs; the best chance they have is during their summer months when the nearby farms offer seasonal work.

"Crime is not bad in these townships," says site agent Theo de Villiers, who has been working with the Mellon Trust for two years, "The people tend to deal with it themselves."

Everywhere, there are groups of kids, some kicking a football, others taking turns on the vuvuzela. Our driver, Morne Henderson, a member of their Public Affairs team, stops the minibus in front of a gang of children no more than seven or eight years old, who elect their most accomplished vuvuzela player to entertain their guests.

The others roll around laughing. You wonder what it would teach them about the world if the lobby to ban the plastic trumpets got their way. For them, it is a symbol for this World Cup and a source of happiness. There's no PlayStation to entertain them.

"I worked in civil construction for 10 years before I joined the Mellon, and the feeling you get from this job beats anything I experienced previously," continues de Villiers. "When the family moves into their new home, a simple 'thank you' gives you a great boost."

Noeki Gous, the director of public affairs and volunteerism, echoes the sentiment. She hopes the World Cup can destroy the perception that danger lurks around every corner in this country; as a white woman, she has never encountered any intimidation in her work. It irks her that so many of the visiting tourists arrived with their minds made up about large sections of the population.

That's why the Mellon mission is not just about building houses; it's also about removing the negative connotation that is automatically attached to any mention of a township.

After all, where there's life, there are many children like Hope.

Irish Independent

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