COVID-19 in the townships: A brief grassroots report from Minah Koela, CEO of Beautiful Gate South Africa

Beautiful Gate has been uplifting the lives of children in Cape Town townships for 25 years.  They have done this by being involved in Child Healthcare through supporting the local clinic in Lower Crossroads, through family strengthening and family preservation in the community, as well as in Education through having established relationships with local schools. Because of this we were uniquely positioned to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and the realities of lockdown in the townships.

From one meal to a thousand

Lockdown had an immediate and severely negative impact on the income earned by families in the townships, creating a food shortage crises. We started providing children with food parcels, this quickly grew into providing weekly food parcels to some families in desperate need, and then (as lockdown continued and the impact of unemployment worsened) grew into distributing monthly food supplies to each family participating in our programmes. Our most vulnerable children were looked after and fed by our Child and Youth Care Workers on a daily basis. Often these children would bring other children with them.

In responding to the overwhelming need and in collaboration with our Sustainability Development programme, Beautiful Gate became a temporary food distribution centre which then serviced not only our beneficiaries but the larger township community. 

Stay in school and stay out of trouble

Although the schools were closed (and therefore our school-related programmes were closed as well) we realised that by adapting our educational approach, we could still fulfil an important educational role. We not only created and distributed educational packs for children, which we handed out together with the food parcels, but we also put the children into smaller groups with a tutor. The challenges that we face is that a lot of our children have no access to online schooling and their parents are not able to help with schoolwork.

We started teaching the community about Coronavirus, about the importance of washing their hands, wearing masks (which we distributed for free) and keeping their distance as much as possible.

We then made our facilities available to the government at no charge, to set up a local testing and screening centre. As well as our Director of Sustainability was key in supporting the community with the partnership with Pedi, a sustainable feeding project.

The reality of living in the townships, however, is that the physical lack of space makes proper social distancing (not to mention self-isolation for those who have contracted Coronavirus) impossible. The risk of infection is everywhere. So we have a situation where it isn’t safe for the children at school, and it isn’t safe for them at home, either. Playing outside the shacks exposes them to daily incidents of violence and shooting.

And four months have gone by already… Unfortunately, not all of the children will keep up, or even return to school once lockdown ends. Some will drop out of school, some will be drawn into crime, and some will become pregnant…

Resilience amidst fear and fatigue

Coronavirus, lockdown, and the far-reaching effects of widespread unemployment have tested the usual resilience of the people in the townships to breaking point. The reality is that when people lose their jobs and families are left without income for long periods, other social problems emerge. Previously financially and emotionally stable homes are no longer stable, and it is (mostly) the women and children who pay the price. There is a general sense of fear and fatigue in the townships – people don’t know what to do, and many feel that ‘no-one cares about us’. They keep their hope alive by remembering the saying in Xhosa “kuzolunga” things will eventually turn out alright.

Interestingly, Coronavirus has attracted a high level of stigma in the townships, even in comparison to HIV/Aids. At Beautiful Gate our team has had to intentionally focus on speaking about Coronavirus openly, providing people with accurate information, and refusing to let it become ‘this unspoken shame’.

Leadership and team dynamics

Our team at Beautiful Gate has had to learn as we go, redefining our ‘way of working’ along the way. For example, most of our Child and Youth Care Workers and Tutors are from the local townships of Philippi and Crossroads, and to them before lockdown being at work, meant visiting children at home, being onsite at the schools or being on site at Beautiful Gate. Suddenly, they were stuck in lockdown, with no space to work at home, and no wifi. We have had to continually devise new strategies to serve the community, while keeping our own employees and volunteers as safe as possible. Everyone in our team has the appropriate PPE, but still some have tested positive for Coronavirus and this affected the team spirit. Others have pre-existing conditions that increase their mortality risk, but they insist on returning to work ‘in the field’. As a leadership, these are all factors we have had to take into account.

Our normal challenges as a non-profit organisation (NPO) have also been amplified in this season – we not only carry the normal stress of looking after vulnerable children  and families in a volatile environment, we now (quite literally) carry people’s lives in our hands. As a leadership, the pressure has been relentless – we have had to keep in mind the needs of the community, the financial security of our own employees, and the sustainability of our organisation in the long term.

How do we stay motivated? Firstly, our leadership team meets every second week to discuss which strategies have been effective and which can be improved. This means we can avoid wasting precious resources and respond appropriately to new challenges. Secondly, we have regular one-on-one meetings with team members to ensure everyone is coping emotionally and practically. Thirdly, we send out a short motivational video to the team once a week via our WhatsApp group. Not everyone in the team has a laptop, and data is so expensive, so communicating via WhatsApp has been the most effective way of staying in touch and keeping everyone motivated.

Accountability and reporting to funders

Throughout this journey, we have had to keep in mind the expectations of our funders. Most of our funding is provided by big Corporates and are restricted to specific programmes. So even when those programmes were not running as they normally would, we couldn’t simply make our own decisions and divert the funding to something else.

On the one hand, the reality is that Beautiful Gate is not actually a food distribution organisation – our funding is specifically allocated to help vulnerable kids through the clinic, the schools, and family strengthening interventions.

On the other hand, the reality is the schools were closed and people around us didn’t have food to eat. We had to reinterpret our mandate of providing ‘healthcare’ and ‘education’ to fit the current context, and then we had to raise extra funding which we could use specifically for food parcels.

Even if we won’t be able to technically meet all our standard monitoring and evaluation requirements (for example, we won’t be able to report that ‘500 kids attended our education programme’, but rather that ‘1,800 kids received education packs, and were put into groups with tutors’) we take our accountability very seriously.

Business and its role in the townships

There are three important roles businesses can play in this tough season in the townships:

  • Trust those involved at grassroots level.

Please trust experienced NPOs with a good track record (like Beautiful Gate, which has been operating for 25 years) that we know what we are doing. For example, providing unrestricted funding (rather than restricted funding) empowers the leadership of NPOs to better respond to the needs in their communities, and to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

  • Focus on what your business does best, and create employment.

This restores dignity to parents and enables them to provide for their own children. Earning a stable income is an effective antidote to a host of social problems.

  • Provide both leadership and practical support to the schools.

This could include connecting with principals and teachers to transfer leadership skills, creating opportunities for them to attend further training, donating old tablets and phones, or even paying for SIM cards and data (so children can access free online educational resources). Directly investing in schools is one of the best ways to uplift communities and create a better future.

Minah Koela will be co-hosting the 6th Annual In Good Company Conference with Dr Michael Mol on the mornings of 17 and 18 September 2020. Book Now!

Beautiful Gate SA cares for and protects children in the Crossroads and Philippi community in Cape Town – through child healthcare, education, and family strengthening support. Between March and June 2020, they distributed 1,600 food parcels and/vouchers to over 3,000 people, distributed over 3,600 face masks, and spent R500,000 assisting those in need.

 Follow them on FB @beautifulgatesouthafrica and/or partner with them, as they provide essential services to thousands of children, while infection rates grows and lockdown continues.