Braamfontein’s hip Mother Theresa

Hazel Meda tells the story of Mama Yvonne who has been running a soup kitchen in the city of Johannesburg for the last 32 years.

Yvonne Moloelanga has run the soup kitchen at Holy Trinity Catholic Church for the last 32 years. Photo: Tanyaradzwa Nyamajiyah

Yvonne Moloelanga has a shrill voice and powerful lungs. Dressed in a brown beret, blue housecoat and white sneakers, the tiny old woman shouts across the courtyard, telling one of the volunteers he has brought out the wrong box of bread and must go and get the right one.

She runs a tight ship at the 11 o’clock soup kitchen at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, but she also has a soft spot for the homeless people.

At the end of the meal, she distributes small, transparent sandwich bags containing an orange, a few biscuits and a packet of chips.

“Enjoy your weekend,” she says, as she hands the package to an elderly man.


She found her calling in 1980


Mama Yonne, 62, has been running the soup kitchen for the last 32 years but she will retire in three months’ time. The stomach ailment which necessitated an operation and six months of sick leave last year will force her to leave the homeless people who have, quite literally, become her family.

She used to work in a factory, making melamine cups, saucers and salt and pepper shakers. But she found her calling in 1980, when her best friend told her that the Jesuit priests at Holy Trinity were looking for a housekeeper.

Her predecessor, an elderly lady, used to make sandwiches and pass them though the window to the homeless people who came knocking.


A sandwich wasn’t enough to get the homeless people through the day


But Mama Yvonne thought a sandwich wasn’t enough to get the homeless people through the day and suggested giving them a proper meal. She told her bosses she was young and energetic enough to prepare the food, which she did in addition to her housekeeping duties.


Mama Yvonne prepares the daily meal for the homeless people of Braamfontein. Photo: Tanyaradzwa Nyamajiyah

She describes her work with the homeless in between preparing vegetables, hamburgers, gravy and rice for the priests’ dinner and answering the phone, which screeches to life every few minutes.

She says she enjoys looking after the homeless and they look after her too. She feels safe walking around any part of the city centre after dark.

“I will just hear them calling ‘Mama Theresa, Mama Theresa!’ from all corners. It’s what they call me, because Mama Theresa used to feel for people.”

“I feel for them. I really feel for them”, she continues. “Especially in this cold weather and in the rainy weather. When you sleep in your warm house you think of them: Oh, the poor children, the poor people, what are they doing now in this weather?”


Even those who are currently being helped at the soup kitchen spare a few rand to buy her treats to show their gratitude.


Her compassion led her to take two homeless boys, Thabo and Dumisani, to stay with her and her family in Soweto sometimes.

“And my children welcomed them. They never said ‘Who’s this? Who’s this?’”

She says Thabo and Dumisani are big men now. Thabo is struggling, doing piece jobs, but Dumisani is doing well, having been sponsored by a parishioner to go to art school to develop his talent.

“Even today they come and visit me. They are part of my family,” Mama Yvonne says proudly.

“They never forget me,” she says, her voice getting higher and louder as she gets more and more excited.

“They always say ‘Mama, if it was not for you, I wouldn’t be this today. Here’s a drink for you. Here’s something for you.’”

Even those who are currently being helped at the soup kitchen spare a few rand to buy her treats to show their gratitude.

Mama Yvonne pulls a small chocolate bar out of her apron pocket. It’s a present from Eric, a homeless man who now helps her to prepare the daily meal.

“He knows I like sweet things. You know, when you get old you like sweet things,” she says, laughing.

She crams the confection into her mouth and chomps on the ball which forms in her cheek.


She got her love of clothes from her mother


Mama Yvonne has always had a taste for the good things. She liked beautiful clothes and has many photos to prove it.

There’s a photo from 1970, when she was pregnant with Clementine, the first of her three children. She wears a fluffy white beret and a housecoat-style blue dress. In fact, the outfit looks strikingly similar to what she wears today, except for the big white-and-red embroidered flowers on the hip pockets, the chunky brown suede heels and the lipstick.

She says she got her love of clothes from her mother, who worked in a menswear factory, and who used to make Yvonne and her three sisters matching Christmas clothes which made them the envy of the neighbourhood.

“We were the best, with our stiff-neck dresses, like wedding dresses. They buy lace and they sew it and they will buy starch and it will look like a peacock.”

But life wasn’t easy for Yvonne and her three sisters and two brothers.

“My mother struggled with us.”

Yvonne’s father walked out on the family when she was 14 or 15. To make matters worse, he used their address to open an account at a furniture shop.

“He take things with our address. He never brought them home. He take them wherever he went after he depart with my mother,” she says shaking her head.

When her father failed to pay for the radio and other items he had taken on credit, workers from the shop came with a truck and took Yvonne’s mother’s furniture.


View Larger Map – the location of the Holy Trinity Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg


The family survived thanks to help from Yvonne’s relatives and to her mother’s sweat and “smarts”.

“I have learned a lot from my mother, because my mother used her hands, her brains, to do something. She never just sit and wait for income to just come from her boss,” Mama Yvonne says admiringly.

Her mother sewed clothes for neighbours and also sold food.

“Every weekend, she used to wake up early in the morning. We used to bake koeksisters and samoosas. Saturdays and Sundays we used to go out at six o’clock in the streets to sell all those things.”

“That’s why today I can also use my hands and my brains,” She says.

Mama Yvonne has run a catering and decorating business on weekends to supplement her income since her husband died in 1990.

“When you are a mother … you have to work hard”

She has catered birthday parties, including her granddaughter’s second birthday party, weddings for people in Soweto and Holy Trinity parishioners, and church functions.

She has beautiful photos of some of her work.


She will continue with the catering and decorating to get income when she retires from the church


She says she learned to cook from her mother, who was a very good cook, and decorating comes naturally.

“You know, this is so simple. People are going to school to do this, but if you can just use your common sense you see that something nice can come out of it.”

Mama Yvonne says she will continue with the catering and decorating to get income when she retires from the church.

Her children, Clementine and Patrick, are unemployed and she supports them and her three grandchildren and one great-grandchild, who all live with her in the small house she worked hard to extend.

Mama Yvonne and her husband Henry – also known as Prince because of his good looks and regal bearing – on their wedding day. Photo: Yvonne Moloelanga

Her children help with the business, but it was their late brother Eugene who was a very good baker and cook. Mama Yvonne has a photo of him cooking on a small grill in their garden.

She shows me about 30 more photos of him.

There’s a photo of Eugene wearing a smart black pinstripe suit, Bible in hand.

He was light-skinned, handsome and a snappy dresser, like his father Henry, whom Yvonne says was nicknamed Prince because of his good looks and regal bearing.

A few of the more recent photos are bordered with flowers, thanks to the magic of the digital age.

Most of the photos are from Eugene’s 21st birthday party. There’s one in which Mama Yvonne is giving him a big silver key while balancing a big blue-and-white iced cake.

There’s another one with her planting a kiss on his lips.   

Some are from his confirmation. She proudly tells me that he was shaking the hand of Bishop Mvemve of Klerksdorp.

There’s also a tiny photo of a chubby child in red clothes and a white bonnet.

At first, Mama Yvonne thinks it’s one of her grandchildren, but I tell her that the picture looks quite old and that it has the words “seventy three” scrawled on the back in black ink.


He died of a headache


Eugene was born in 1973.

He died in 2011.

Mama Yvonne says he died of a headache.

She says he went to Baragwanath Hospital on Saturday and the nurses gave him Panado for the pain.

When the severe pain didn’t go away, he went back on Sunday and was given more Panado.

On Monday night he called an ambulance and was taken to the hospital, where he waited for hours before being seen by a doctor.

On Tuesday, he was dead.

The doctors said it was meningitis.

Mama Yvonne says she wasn’t angry at the hospital staff. 

“What could I do? I couldn’t wake him up,” she says. “When he’s gone, he’s gone.”

She is comforted by gospel music. Her favourite song is Rebecca Malope’s Umoya Wam’.

“When you sing it, you can see there’s something come into you. You feel like you are next to God. You think of all the people that have passed, all the people that have left you behind,” she says wistfully.


She took off the uniform, revealing trendy trousers and started dee-jaying


Mama Yvonne hasn’t let her son’s death rob her of her joy.

She is still fun-loving and mischievous.

About a month after her son’s death she took part in a DSTV programme which was filmed at a church in Soweto.

Wearing a St Anne’s guild uniform which she had borrowed from her sister – she is a devout Catholic but doesn’t have time for all the guild activities – she stood in front of the congregation. She took off the uniform, revealing trendy trousers and started dee-jaying.

“I was dee-jaying. I’m serious. Yes!” she shrills at my amazement. “With all the records and things. And jiving.”

She says they called her DJ Gogo.

She has always loved performing.  As a child, she loved reciting poetry and would volunteer to give speeches at assembly when inspectors visited her school.


A fellow detainee begged her not to kill herself


Her performance skills once saved her from spending a night in jail. She had forgotten her dompas or “pass book” at home and was arrested, along with many others, while waiting for the bus one day in 1977.

The police took the group to Booysens Police Station and said they would have to spend the night in the cells unless they told their families to bring R50. She had no way to contact her family and came up with a plan.

Two days earlier, she had gone to the doctor to get medication for the flu and she had the medicine in her handbag.

“I said ‘Oh, I am going to kill myself. I will drink all these tablets. I can’t sleep here.’ ”

Taken in by her act, a fellow detainee begged her not to kill herself, saying his family would pay for her as well.

“That’s how I was safe to go home,” she says, chuckling.

“And since that day, I never left my ID behind. It always stays with me in my handbag, even up to now.”     

Long and costly quest for a cure

Wits Vuvuzela journalist Hazel Meda addresses the issue of depression and somatoform disorder in her first feature.

Somatoform disorder can be very debilitating, says psychiatrist Werdie van Staden. Photo:

Thembi* slammed her fist onto her friend’s kitchen counter.

“I am not depressed! I’m sick!” she shouted.

She pointed at the small yellow packet of pills which lay next to Hlengiwe’s laptop.

“He didn’t even spend five minutes with me and he’s giving me anti-depressants,” she said, her voice dripping with contempt.

She was fuming, because she had searched for the name “amitryptiline” on Google and discovered that the pills Dr Jones had given her were in fact a powerful anti-depressant.

Thembi had always avoided consulting the doctor, because she thought he was useless. But he had been the doctor on call at the surgery in Mbabane that Saturday afternoon when she felt so dizzy she thought she’d die.

Thembi may have doubted the doctor’s competence back then, but today she is grateful to him for setting in motion the process that would eventually get her the help she had been seeking for almost a year.


Thembi had never heard of somatoform disorder, but she was relieved to know that what she’d been feeling actually had a name. She wasn’t crazy and she hadn’t been making it all up to get attention.


A week later, Thembi was sitting in the office of Swaziland’s only psychiatrist, Dr Walter Mangezi. He handed her the green National Psychiatric Centre outpatient card which she had filled out an hour earlier.

“Major depression and somatoform disorder” he had scrawled.

Thembi had never heard of somatoform disorder, but she was relieved to know that what she’d been feeling actually had a name. She wasn’t crazy and she hadn’t been making it all up to get attention. She thanked Dr Mangezi for putting an end to her long and costly search for a diagnosis.

According to the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, several conditions fall into the category of somatoform disorders. They include undifferentiated somatoform disorder, pain disorder, hypochondriasis and body dysmorphic disorder.

What they have in common is that patients complain of symptoms which don’t have a medical explanation, but which are also not intentionally made up. It is thought that these disorders are physical manifestations of emotional distress.


About 60% of patients who are seen in clinics are actually suffering from a somatoform disorder


Dr Werdie van Staden, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pretoria and the Editor in Chief of the South African Journal of Psychiatry, says he has treated many patients with somatoform disorders for about 20 years.

Van Staden says there is no reliable data on somatoform disorders in South Africa. He says it is difficult to determine the prevalence of these conditions, because patients often present to general practitioners rather than to psychiatrists and are often not diagnosed in these terms.

Dr Mangezi told Thembi that about 60% of patients who are seen in clinics are actually suffering from a somatoform disorder. A 2007 paper by Dr Kurt Kroeneke of the Indiana School of Medicine says 10 to 15% of patients seen in a primary care (general practitioner) setting in the United States have the condition. Kroeneke says the condition “leads to excessive healthcare use, costing the US healthcare system an estimated $100 billion annually”.


Thembi first went to her general practitioner complaining of severe pain in her left breast


Kerri Alexander, a psychologist at the Wits Counselling and Career Development Unit, says it takes a long time before patients eventually end up in the office of a mental health practitioner.

“Generally, clients will initially be seen at a hospital or health clinic, and are then usually referred for neurological tests etc.” Alexander says.

“Only once all of the possible medical conditions have been ruled out do they then think it might be psychological.”

Thembi incurred thousands of rands in unnecessary medical expenses as her doctors went through their process of elimination. She was lucky that her employer offered a very good medical aid scheme which paid most of her bills, but she still spent a lot of money out of pocket.

Thembi first went to her general practitioner complaining of severe pain in her left breast. When the pain persisted despite strong painkillers, he ordered a mammogram to rule out breast cancer.


She read about a deadly new type of breast cancer which occurred in young black women


At the time, the only mammogram machine in Swaziland was broken and Thembi had to travel to a specialist breast care clinic in South Africa. The mammogram was clear, but Thembi was still worried. While visiting relatives in Texas, she read about a deadly new type of breast cancer which occurred in young black women and which couldn’t be detected easily by mammograms because it occurred in sheets, rather than lumps. She insisted on another mammogram, which she paid for out of pocket. Again, the radiologist found nothing.

Back in Swaziland, Thembi visited her doctor repeatedly to discuss the breast pain and the other symptoms she had developed – shooting pain in her legs and arms, a foggy brain, slow thinking, serious forgetfulness, dizziness which prevented her from driving, and palpitations. The doctors ordered a CAT scan, which came back clear. Thembi didn’t know whether to be happy or sad.

Besides trying to cope with the symptoms, she also had to try to hide her problems from her employer, since she was afraid of losing her job.

According to the DSM, for undifferentiated somatoform disorder to be diagnosed, “the symptoms must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”.

Van Staden says the disorder varies in severity, but that it can be “very debilitating in all aspects of daily functioning.”


She felt she was dying and nobody could help her


Thembi struggled to get through her work day. She was so dizzy that she couldn’t stand and had to teach her English classes while sitting on top of the desk and leaning against the blackboard. She felt exhausted and groggy all the time. She couldn’t remember the students’ names and made spelling mistakes on the board, something she had never done before.

She monitored her symptoms obsessively. She felt she was dying and nobody could help her. Her persistent symptoms, her doctors’ failure to find a solution and her inability to do her work drove her into depression.

Somatoform disorder seems to be associated with anxiety and depression, but researchers Roselind Lieb, Gunther Meinlschmidt and Ricardo Araya say no one can tell whether the disorder causes depression or vice versa.


Somatoform disorder is often treated with anti-depressants. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps because of this link, anti-depressants are often used in the treatment of somatoform disorder.

According to Van Staden, there is no medicine that works specifically for somatoform disorders, although some medicines show promise for the treatment of body dysmorphic disorder and pain disorder. However, he says anxiety and depression generally respond well to medication.

“Treatment of these concomitant conditions often helps and even cures the somatoform symptoms,” he says.

Amitryptiline worsened the switched-off, foggy-brain feeling Thembi had and Dr Mangezi put her on another drug in the same family, fluoxetine, commonly known as Prozac.

He also advised her to see a psychologist.

Alexander says talk therapies “may help in getting the client to express the emotional pain and in this way relieve the physically displaced pain”.

Thembi isn’t sure that the talk therapy helped her, because she didn’t discuss much with the psychologist.

“She just used to ask me how I was feeling that week and encourage me to persevere with the medication even though I wasn’t seeing results quickly.”

After a few months on the medication, Thembi realised one day that she no longer had the breast pain or the shooting pains in her limbs. Her mind felt clearer and she was no longer felt so dizzy. Her palpitations had stopped and she was no longer anxious about her health. Maybe she wouldn’t die after all.

*The names of the patient, her friend and her general practitioner have been changed to protect their identities.

A confiscation of livelihood

Luyanda Majija’s first feature for Wits Vuvuzela tells the story of Johannesburg hawkers’ struggle to make a living against the JMPD’s duty to enforce the law.

Police patrol the streets of Johannesburg. Pic: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

Nkhangweleni Nemakonde’s day started off the way it usually did. He woke up at 3am, and instead of heading to his stall to start working at 4.50am, he went straight to the market to stock up on mangoes because he had run out unexpectedly.

He arrived from the market with 30 boxes of mangoes, each worth R48, and put them next to his stall.

An hour later he left the stall under the watchful eye of his assistant to run a few errands. On his return, in place of his fresh mangoes was a ticket from the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD).

This ticket said that he was in violation of a Johannesburg municipality by-law and was to pay R1000 to claim his stock from the JMPD compound.

The mangoes were worth more than the fine, he organised money and went to pick up them up. But they seemed to have disappeared.


“JMPD officers can confiscate hawkers’ stock for which they issue tickets used to collect their goods from the impound”


The Johannesburg municipality has devised several by-laws concerning informal traders (hawkers) which regulate such factors as designated trading areas as well as environmental health and safety.

In terms of designated trading areas, hawkers are either allocated standardised stalls provided by the city or designated blocks marked by painted lines. Hawkers are also provided with trading permits as proof of their legality.

The JMPD has a unit whose mandate is to enforce the city’s informal trading by-laws against hawkers trading illegally. The offences range from designated area violations to the trading of counterfeit goods (punishable by imprisonment). In the event that any of these laws are violated, JMPD officers can confiscate hawkers’ stock for which they issue tickets used to collect their goods from the impound.


“JMPD carries out raids at 6am, 11am and 2pm every day”


JMPD Superintendent Zed Mangaliso explained that the situation was more complex than just confiscations of hawkers’ goods however. “The main problem is that there are parts of town designated for hawkers but there are just too many people wanting to sell in the same parts of town and there are not enough designated spots,” said Mangaliso said.

He stressed that the laws were meant to deal with the congestion of hawkers on the pavements in the inner city not to harass them.

An aerial view of Johannesburg. Pic: Lars Haefner

According to Mangaliso the JMPD carries out raids at 6am, 11am and 2pm every day and the fines issued are determined by the municipality: R1060 for perishables and R2115 for non-perishables.

“We are merely doing our jobs”, said Mangaliso.


“They believe metro police operate under their own rule of law”


JMPD claim to be doing their “job” however hawkers see things differently. That may be the law but they believe metro police operate under their own rule of law.

Nemakonde has a stall and a permit that he received in 2005 yet his mangoes worth close to R2000 were confiscated and never recovered. He believes they were stolen by JMPD officers.

“They took my mangoes home to feed their children while I am struggling to feed mine.”

After Nemakonde made several complaints, he was advised by JMPD administration to lay a complaint with the police. “But all they [police] told me was that I couldn’t open a case against other police.”

“So I lost about R2000 that day, money I don’t have.”

At 2pm on one Friday a JMPD raid was set to happen. A convoy of four JMPD cars carrying a team of about 15 officers left for the Park station area with a mandate to confiscate the perishable stock of hawkers trading illegally.

As the first car, a small Ford, entered the area traders looked around them, alert with anticipation. In what seemed like a few seconds, this turned into panic as the two Quantum mini buses, followed by the truck, entered the target area. As soon as the officers jumped out of the cars, hawkers knew seemed to know exactly what to do.

They grabbed whatever they could and ran to try hiding it. One hawker who sold his tomatoes and onions from a trolley just pushed his trolley as he ran. In all the chaos, he was unable to outrun the two officers who grabbed his trolley and lifted it onto the truck effortlessly.

He like several others, was not issued a receipt. The few that were did not bother taking them saying there was no point of paying R1060 to get back stock worth less than that amount and by the time they gather the amount their fruit would have perished in the JMPD storage rooms.

Watch a video showing a JMPD raid:


The JMPD have been accused of confiscating hawkers’ goods without issuing receipts or their goods “disappearing” from storage. In May this year The New Age reported that the South African National Trader’s Retail Alliance (Santra) was applying to the High Court for an interdict preventing JMPD officers from confiscating hawkers’ goods.  This followed allegations of theft by the JMPD. There were incidents where no receipts were issued to hawkers resulting in them not recovering their goods.


Moratorium on confiscations – Law Review Project


Tebogo Sewapa, a legal researcher from the NGO involved in the court application, Law Review Project, said JMPD raids were a violation of human rights. Sewapa and his team who are representing Nemakonde and others have requested a moratorium on these confiscations.

One of the reasons for this moratorium was what they said was an inhumane nature of punishment leading to “the poor losing their only possessions”.

They also mention that cases where hawkers’ goods are never recovered serve as evidence of corruption in the JMPD. In addition, the cost of getting back their confiscated goods is often higher than the value of the goods taken making the process theft from the hawkers by the city.

Legally, they said the raiding process was unconstitutional for hawkers mainly because when their goods are essentially being punished before they can defend themselves in a court of law.

“We want the High Court to declare that the by-law that gives metro police rights to confiscate traders’ goods without following the due process of the law, that by-law has to be declared to be not in line with the constitution,” Sewapa said.


Hawkers in Pretoria


It is not just hawkers working in Johannesburg experiencing such challenges.

News24 reported that hundreds of hawkers in Pretoria went up in arms in during several protests in August this year alleging that they were harassed by the metropolitan police there.

An article in The New Age about the same protest cited the protesting hawkers’ spokesperson saying officers were harassing them by confiscating their wares and trading permits without valid reasons.

To explain the confiscation process, Mangaliso stated that perishable goods stored at the JMPD compound were kept for a maximum of three days and if they were unclaimed at the R1060 fee they were donated to NGOs. He said this might be why some hawkers’ goods might be removed from the compound before they claim them hence the allegations of “disappeared” goods.


“It hurts because I am not breaking the law”


While Sewapa and his colleagues continue in talks with the municipality, the raids continue three times a day – every day affecting the lives of hawkers like Nemakonde and their families.

“The JMPD really harasses us. It hurts because I am not breaking the law I have a permit to trade but they still take my stock,” said Nemakonde while organising his fruit.

“I don’t make a lot of money to begin with, I live from hand to mouth … when they take our stock and leave us with high fines it doesn’t make sense.”

Despite the challenges he has faced with the JMPD, he still has the dedication of the 21year old he was when he started selling fruit at this very spot on Bree Street in 1988. His motivation is his three children, wife, sister and mother who all depend on the fruit that he sells.

He says he has not once made demands on the government for handouts – all he wants is justice served for him and others like him – people making an honest living.

See the map below for the location of Bree Street in Johannesburg

View Larger Map

Nemakonde will continue to start his days when he wakes up at 3am, arriving at his stall at 4:50am to start selling to his earliest customers.

He only packs up to go home at 7:30pm all the while hoping he will not be a victim of any of the three raids to take place each day  – and that he would have sold almost all if not his entire stock.


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