AIDS shatters lives in rural South Africa

Reuters NewMedia - April 16, 2001
Allan Seccombe

INGWAVUMA, South Africa, April 16 (Reuters) - AIDS has stolen her parents and her future from 17-year-old Sithandiwe Nyawo. She is in a desperate struggle to care for her three younger siblings with no help from the South African government. The burden of caring for her family weighs heavily on Nyawo. "Our future is dead," Nyawo told Reuters.

Their homestead of four crumbling mud and stick huts on one of thousands of green hills in the north of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province has no running water or electricity.

It takes 45 minutes in a four-by-four vehicle to reach the children's homestead from the nearest tarred road at Ingwavuma, about 375 km (235 miles) north of the port city of Durban.

They won't leave. The cluster of thatched huts are all they have left of value.

Nyawo tells her story unemotionally. She doesn't look up and speaks softly, her hands lying motionless in her lap. Her brothers and sister sit with her in the shade of one of the huts. Their eyes are downcast and they don't utter a word.

The wind rustles through the long grass around the silent homestead and carries the voice of a woman singing plaintively further down the valley.

The youngest child, eight-year-old Nompumelelo, in a ragged T-shirt and shorts, has a nagging chesty cough, but Nyawo says there is nothing she can do if any of the children fall sick.

There is no money and no transport to get to the Ingwavuma hospital where 785 children are on a list started last July for an AIDS orphans care programme.

The children's father died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997 and their mother died in 1999. South Africa has more people living with HIV-AIDS than any other country, the United Nations says.


A survey released in March estimated there were some 4.7 million South Africans infected with HIV by the end of 2000 out of a population of 42 million.

"I am very worried because I can't understand why, being so young, I have to carry the burden of elders. If there is no food at home these children look to me to do something," Nyawo said. The family fails to qualify for government support grants, with the youngest child, at the age of eight too old to get a child support grant of 110 rand ($13.60) a month. Nyawo is too young to qualify for a foster care grant of around 400 rand.

"The only assistance this family can get is from our orphans programme that we are running with help from non-governmental organisations," said Anne Barnard, a doctor at Ingwavuma hospital, who was delivering food to the Nyawos. "In our case we have received absolutely nothing from the government for our programme. They have done nothing so far and the only help we have got is from private donors," she said. "I feel we are fighting a losing battle."

The government is revisiting its grants system, but the process needs more urgent attention, said Chris Desmond, a researcher at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS division at the University of Natal. "By 2010 there will be an estimated two million orphans and the grants system in place now will be wholly inappropriate.

The government must look at streamlining the process of granting aid. It needs to look at the whole system with the greatest urgency," Desmond told Reuters.

A quarter of the two million orphans will be in KwaZulu-Natal, the most populous of South Africa's nine provinces with eight million people -- the majority of whom live in rural areas.


KwaZulu-Natal is the worst affected of South Africa's nine provinces with 36 percent of women testing HIV positive in 2000 -- up from 32.5 percent in 1999 -- and the reasons are complex.

"They include, but are not limited to, political violence, a good transport system, urbanisation, poverty, unemployment and very little circumcision being practised, combined with low condom use," Desmond said.

While Nyawo battles to look after her family, the province's Social Welfare Minister Gideon Zulu reportedly spent 500,000 rand staying at five-star hotels for 101 days last year in Durban, the economic heart of KwaZulu-Natal.

The premier of the province, Lionel Mtshali, commutes to work in Ulundi, one of the province's two capitals, 300 km (185 miles) north of Durban, in a Lear jet, costing tens of thousands of rands.

At a national level, President Thabo Mbeki triggered controversy by questioning the causal link between HIV and AIDS and his government has denied the use of anti-AIDS drugs on cost and safety grounds in public clinics.

The world's most powerful drug companies resume their court case against the South African government this week in an attempt to strike down legislation which they claim will infringe intellectual property rights by allowing the importation of generic versions of their patented medicines.

AIDS activists have slammed the drugs companies for putting profits ahead of lives and say prices of key AIDS drugs have to be slashed to combat misery caused by AIDS across the continent.


The plea from Nyawo and other orphans is for the government to feed and clothe them and pay their school fees.

"We have nothing. Some people here chase us away when we ask for food or for little jobs to get some money. They say we are a nuisance," said Slindelo Mthiya, a 16-year-old boy looking after his sickly four- year-old sister and his eight-year-old brother.

The children, who live near Ngwelezane, are covered in sores and rely totally on handouts from the nearby hospital, which also runs an AIDS orphans programme.

The hospital has 477 orphans on its books, but there are many more who have fallen through the net, said Sister Ntombi Ndlovu, who heads the programme. If parents do not declare their HIV/AIDS status to the hospital their children will not be included in the programme and will have to fend for themselves.

"There are a lot of orphans we don't know about. There are those we know about but their parents did not disclose their status. It is so difficult to tell those children we can do nothing for them," said Ndlovu, with a helpless shrug.

The number of orphans heading households is difficult to establish and children are more likely to be taken in by grandparents as part of the extended family culture.

Some children hope their lives will improve, if only they can finish school and find a job to support their siblings. "I am hopeful that things will be okay even if sometimes we sleep without eating and our school fees remain unpaid. I am still hopeful," said Bongani Tembe, who has three more years of high school to complete and is looking after four brothers and sisters near Ingwavuma.

"We wish to be like all the other children with parents. We ask our teachers for mercy for unpaid school fees so that we can continue with our studies and be like other human beings." ($1-8.070 Rand)