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Congolese refugee reaches out to South Africa's underprivileged

Congolese refugee reaches out to South Africa's underprivileged

Mufumbe Mateso Felix, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has set up a non-governmental organisation to help women and children in Johannesburg's Tshepisong Township. Projects range from computer, catering and sewing classes, to a centre for AIDS orphans.
22 March 2004
Congolese refugee Mufumbe Mateso Felix with children at the Tshepisong Care Centre in Johannesburg.

TSHEPISONG, South Africa (UNHCR) - It is away from the high-rise buildings and bright lights of Johannesburg, southern Africa's economic hub, that Mufumbe Mateso Felix, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), finds his purpose in life. Johannesburg's underbelly is home to many of South Africa's desperate and disillusioned. Unrealised dreams of a better life have pushed many people to the fringes of society, unsure of the future.

Tshepisong Township, a sprawling shack settlement, is one such place. Established in 1998, Tshepisong's population of 13,000 is a seething mass of would-be labourers and retrenched workers nursing shattered dreams. Ill-advised youth and weary women spend their days on street corners, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Stories of domestic violence and the abuse of women and children are commonplace here. The spread of HIV/AIDS is steadily on the increase and attending funerals has become a community pastime.

Felix is hard at work. When he and Portia Manthatha, chairperson of The Power of Women and Children (PoWC), aren't writing proposals and raising funds, they are out and about in Tshepisong doing what they do best - providing support and assistance.

PoWC is Felix's brainchild. Started in 2002, it is a non-governmental organisation that aims to empower women and children by developing their skills. It offers computer, catering and sewing classes, while also assisting communities with selected projects. The organisation is also affiliated to the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), the largest single umbrella body of non-governmental organisations in the region that work on issues affecting South Africa's development.

"I became involved with the community of Tshepisong after I heard of their plight," says Felix. "Some very determined women from the community led a protest march against the abuse of women and children, after the arrest of a resident who had raped three little girls. The women fought to have the case heard at the Johannesburg Supreme Court, where the accused was given three life sentences. I was instantly drawn to these women and it was only natural that I became involved in their concerns."

Felix studied Rural Development and Regional Planning in his country of origin and boasts an impressive work record. He worked with several international organisations like the UN, CARITAS, Care International and Oxfam in the DRC between 1993 and 1996, and was a logistics officer in a refugee camp in eastern DRC until he fled the invasion of the Tutsi movement in October 1996.

It was the plight of women and children in war-torn situations that pulled at his heart-strings all those years ago. Today it is the plight of women and children in South Africa's underprivileged societies that propel him into action.

One of the projects Felix is supporting through the PoWC is the Tshepisong Care Centre that looks after AIDS orphans. When he visits the centre today, a gaggle of wide-eyed children rush out and gather around, happy to see him. With a passable grasp of Zulu and a smattering of seSotho, two of the languages spoken here, he gives them his undivided attention.

The centre's teacher, Thobile Ngubo, says, "One day Felix came to check on us. It was almost mid-day and the stove wasn't lit. There was nothing to give the children that day but cold stiff porridge. We knew that stiff porridge alone wasn't nutritious, especially for the sick kids. You could see them looking expectantly at us because they knew it was almost lunch time. It was heart-breaking."

"Like an answer to our prayers, Felix arrived and we told him that we didn't know what to feed the children. He didn't question anything but got back into his car and drove off. He returned with minced meat and tomatoes, which we prepared for the children's lunch. We were so relieved!"

Coordinator Wendy Maseko agrees: "He was the first person to ever donate food to this project. Nobody else did. No member of this community, no South African either."

The Care Centre is a two-roomed zinc shack that is stifling in summer and freezing in winter. Maseko and the PoWC are negotiating with the local city council for a plot of land the team has identified. On it, a new Care Centre will hopefully be built with proper facilities to accommodate the children, who are increasing by the day.

Sadly, everything here involves a lengthy process. Getting health care from the local clinic - a four-roomed structure run by four nurses for 13,000 people - can be a nightmare. Thankfully, the children's physical and intellectual health has improved remarkably since PoWC negotiated for food parcels and some financial leeway from the local schools.

"I am not a qualified teacher," says Ngubo. "But as a mother, I can see improvements in the children's appearance and their attentiveness in class. When they are tested informally, their responses and reactions are very good. They are alert, active and look forward to our time together. Some children came here with bad cases of diarrhoea but have become much better now."

Tshepisong Care Centre, which has 65 children under its care, has 10 HIV-positive children who have been admitted to hospital. Three of the children, now in the final stages of the disease, live with Maseko.

"Felix's role is very important as he does a lot of fund-raising for us. While we have put in an application for support with the Department of Social Welfare, Felix is fund-raising on a smaller scale. We have been disappointed several times by people who came here, shed a few tears and promised something, but who then disappeared without a trace. Felix has never done that to us," says Maseko.

Although Felix is one of many refugees making a positive contribution in the lives of South Africans, some people would still question his sincerity. In a country where the levels of xenophobia run high, he has stood his ground when confronted.

"I have met good people in South Africa who are sympathetic towards refugees and there are certainly people who are xenophobic too," he acknowledges. "Apartheid was thorough in destroying people's belief in their potential and abilities. People struggled to get through each day. With new faces and cultures coming in, surely their suspicion of foreigners taking what is theirs is understandable, to a degree."

In December 2003, Felix became a Permanent Resident of the Republic of South Africa. The envy of many of his refugee counterparts, he believes that his good work is being rewarded. This is a sign for him to continue what he is doing and to do more.

"In my way I am also trying to break down the divisions that exist particularly between African people here," he says. "In communities like Tshepisong, where people really feel threatened by our presence as non-South Africans, I also take the opportunity to show people that we are here because of the political situation back home, not because we want to take their wives."

"We are very happy that Felix has become a Permanent Resident," says Maseko with a smile. "For us though, this was just a legal formality. Felix is a community member. He can't go anywhere now. He is one of us."

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa