If you drive down Merle Street, an unremarkable tree-lined avenue in middle-class Roodepoort, one of the dormitory towns surrounding Johannesburg, you will glimpse a way of life created decades ago. In its neat suburban houses and gleaming lawns you will see the benefits that were reserved for whites under apartheid. By Hamilton Wende.
Not all that much has changed. Most of the inhabitants are still white and enjoy a lifestyle that millions of black South Africans cannot even dream of experiencing.
However, tucked away here is the Baby Moses Baby Sanctuary for abandoned infants. What’s happening inside this modest ranch-style home is emblematic of the way many South Africans are changing how they react to race and long-entrenched privilege.
The overwhelming majority of the children who are being cared for here are black, while its founders, Christo and Lanie de Klerk, are white Afrikaners.
“We started it in 2003,” Lanie explains, “after we both had a religious experience. We felt a pulling at our heartstrings to make a place for abandoned babies.
“We knew when we started that it would be mostly black children. We felt we had to give back. We wanted to pay some penance for what had happened under apartheid” – the strict separation of the races under white minority rule that ended two decades ago.
Christo worked in a bank, and Lanie was staying at home looking after their three biological children and the child they have adopted.
Soon, however, the need for Christo’s services at Baby Moses became too great: Now he works from home and has joined Lanie in running the sanctuary.
Baby Moses has grown in the past nine years. In addition to their home on Merle Street, where they look after nine babies and young children, the de Klerks run two other homes in the Johannesburg area and one in the rural west of the country.
In nearly a decade, they have cared for some 180 children, including 65 at present.
“Almost 120 of our children have either been fostered or adopted over the years,” Christo says.
Johanna “J.B.” Russell, a trained nurse who helps out with the children at Baby Moses, says of the de Klerks and their work: “They get the children from many different places – from the police, from social welfare, from the courts.
“There are other places that provide a place of safety, but Lanie and Christo go further than this,” she says. “They provide a loving home, emotional security, and healing for the children. They make a difference to the lives of children who would otherwise not have much hope.”
The soft-spoken couple have found themselves at the heart of a growing crisis. The number of babies abandoned in the Johannesburg region is soaring. In answer to a question in the provincial legislature last year, Faith Mazibuko, the representative on community safety of the governing African National Congress party, replied that the number of abandoned infants found alive has grown from 49 cases in 2007 to 138 cases in 2011.
In total, more than 800 babies were discovered in this period; tragically, 468 were already dead when they were found.
“The number of abandoned babies [in South Africa] is escalating,” says social worker Anschke Van Der Watt. “They are found everywhere: on railway tracks, in public toilets; some are even left at hospitals.
“There are various reasons; the economic situation is part of it. Everywhere in the world it’s tough – look at Greece and other parts of Europe. When [the Europeans] go down, we go down with them. We are all one global village; what affects them affects us.”
A more tragic reason has also influenced events, Ms. Van Der Watt says.
“The government gives grants to young women who have children. Especially in the rural areas, this is the only form of income they have,” she says. “So they think to have a child will bring them some money.
“They don’t look at the costs that child care involves. So they find they can’t cope, and they abandon the children.”
For the de Klerks, though, what matters above all is each individual child.
“We don’t know the reasons most of these mothers abandon their children,” Lanie says. “Sometimes it’s because of rape or poverty. But we never point fingers at the mothers.”
They’ve personally experienced the growing number of cases.
“When we started, we got one referral a month, or even every two months,” she says. “Now, sometimes we get three a day.”
Van Der Watt has known the de Klerks for 15 years and says she believes what they are doing is invaluable.
“The [South African government] system is just not coping,” she says. “In a small way, Baby Moses is making a difference. From there the children get placed with families; they are put into foster care, taken into private homes, and even adopted sometimes.
“It might seem like only a few children when you look at it on a daily basis, but over a year you can see how many they take care of – it’s often 30 or 40 kids a year.”
One aspect of the tragedy of abandoned babies does seem to be changing for the better, and it involves HIV.
“The number of children we get referred that are HIV positive is drastically reduced,” Lanie says. “We only have three kids now who are HIV positive, but before it was many of them.”
According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa is supplying anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV to some 700,000 people, although, by his own admission, this is only half of those in need.
Still, an increasing number of adoptive parents are now willing to take on children who are HIV positive, Christo says.
“It’s just not such a big issue in South Africa as it used to be. People are not so scared of it,” he says. “It used to be almost impossible to get people to adopt HIV positive kids, but now people know there is treatment.”
Christo and Lanie are modest about what they are doing. They speak self-effacingly about how much their work means to their own lives.
“For us, it’s about sharing,” Lanie says. “We get a small salary, but we share everything with the children. When we cook, we share our food with the children. We don’t cook separately for them.”
For a moment, she pauses, unable to speak. Then she looks over and smiles at her husband.
“I’m the emotional one,” she says and laughs shyly. “He’s the practical one.”
In response, Christo stands up and walks across the small, crowded living room. He reaches up and takes a framed picture down off the top of a wardrobe.
There are seven children in the picture. He points to each one individually and explains who they are and how they came to live with the de Klerks. “This one came to us with HIV.This one had fetal alcohol syndrome; this one, too. This one has spina bifida….”
He looks up and continues quietly.
“They’ve all been adopted, and when I see now how they are normal little kids running around, I know they have a future now, a chance.”
Lanie suddenly interrupts.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but I have to go. I have to take a child to the doctor.”
Just before she leaves she shares a final thought.
“These kids are changing South Africa,” she says. “They are changing people’s hearts.
“We hope that our kids can go back to their communities like Moses did and make a difference to their people.”
Photo collage by Baby Moses Baby Sanctuary.
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