June 02 2008 at 06:02PM
By VIVIAN ATTWOOD
Thirty-two years after the death of Steve Biko, former street children in Durban are using the tools he employed to lay the foundation for the liberation of South African street children.
"When I did the training I was reminded that Biko said mankind was created in the image of God. It was hard for me to accept that about myself. I still felt I was some of the things society had labelled me; inferior, a second-class citizen.
"I thought the terrible things that had happened to me were in some way my own fault. Finally I realised that while I had internalised the messages society sent out, that didn’t make them true."
Bulelwa Hewitt, former street child and co-founder of the Umthombo street children’s project, was talking about the Street Child Consciousness Programme run by the organisation, and modelled on the theories of South American human rights activist Paolo Freire, and martyred South African black consciousness leader Steve Biko.
At Umthombo all former street children who work with children who are currently on the streets are required to follow the Street Child Consciousness programme.
Tom Hewitt describes the theories underpinning the project: "Street children are an oppressed group, just as most South Africans were under apartheid. Society at large, and the authorities, reinforces negative perceptions about street children every day.
"It is inevitable that they internalise their second-class status.
"Street Child Consciousness is a process whereby they learn to re-envision themselves as full human beings.
"It is crucial, because initially they don’t understand the structural basis of their oppression. They took the decision to go onto the streets, yes, but they did not have the full range of choices that should be available to every child.
"Television is a good analogy. If you stand right up against the screen, all you can see is a blur of colour. It’s only when you step back that the details of the picture become apparent.
"On the streets a child feels the pain of each day, but has no conception of how he came to be there, or of his own self worth."
The Street Child Consciousness programme is a process whereby street and former street children undergo an awakening.
They begin to see the situation for what it is, and break through their internalisation of the myth that they are inferior to others.
Hewitt stresses that, while former street children serve as the best role models for those still on the streets, they cannot be allowed to work with them until they have reclaimed their lost identities.
"It would be as much of an anomaly as black South African policemen were in the apartheid era," he said. "Until you have disassembled the process of marginalisation, you cannot look at it with true objectivity."
Street Child Consciousness is rooted in the writings of Brazilian educationist Paolo Freire, whose writings were smuggled into South Africa during apartheid and avidly read by activists like Biko.
Just as Freire’s philosophy enabled oppressed South Africans to slough off the identities imposed on them by the engineers of apartheid, it is facilitating a metaphorical rebirth for former street children, and helping foster their desire to change the reality of those who are still oppressed.
"The former street children of Umthombo have vowed to lead a revolution in the way that street children are perceived and treated in South Africa," Hewitt explained.
"I have no doubt that this will happen."
Bulelwa Hewitt said the one redeeming feature of her former life on the streets was the spirit of caring she experienced among the other children.
"We shared the little we had, and showed ubuntu. Street children have lost everything else, but they cling to that vital bond. When one of them is sick, the others nurture that child."
Former street child Sipho Mfeya, 26, joined the staff of Umthombo in 2005. His open nature has made him a favour-ite with children on Durban’s streets.
Drawing on his own experiences, he helps counsel the children and guide them on the path that will lead them out of the city and into caring, safe communities.
"I took to the streets when I was 10 years old," Mfeya explains.
"I was living in Umtata, but my mother worked all over – in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London. I was taken in by my uncle when I was eight years old, and we moved to the Jo’burg CBD.
"Between 1990 and 1992 I attended a multi-racial school there.
"In mid-1992 I became a bit rebellious, and my uncle punished me harshly. I didn’t see it as discipline, but abuse, so I went onto the streets of Hillbrow for a year. It was a pretty rough area, even then.
"My uncle would track me down and take me home, but each time I ran away. In 1993 he took me to PE to live with a younger uncle who owned a tuck-shop. When anything went missing, I’d be blamed for stealing, so I returned to the streets. This time I went to East London, because I thought no one would find me there.
"After just two days I met Tom (Hewitt), and he told me about a good shelter where I could stay. I lived there for four years, and then entered anoth-er shelter. In 1999 I heard my father had died the previous year. It really shook me up.
"When I went back to my father’s family, the cycle was complete. I felt great sadness that I had missed seeing my father before he died, but I no longer felt alienated. I went back to school and got my matric."
In 2005 Mfeya reconnected with Tom and came to Durban to work with Umthombo, while studying IT and following the Street Child Consciousness programme.
"Street outreach soon became so important to me that I suspended my studies to work full time with Umthombo,"he said.
"I am going to register for a law degree next year. I want to make sure that when street kids are in conflict with the law, they get fair treatment and a fair trial. Often there is no one there to act on their behalf."
Recalling life on the streets, Mfeya said that one need is paramount in all street children’s hearts.
"A street child’s greatest longing is to gain acceptance as a human being; to have a sense of belonging. That is first and foremost, even before the need for food, education and a safe home."
o This article was originally published on page 9 of Daily News on June 02, 2008