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.

Rowers outclassed


The Wits men’s rowing team returned from the year’s biggest university boat race empty-handed. Photo:

The WITS men’s rowing team was blown out of the water at the prestigious Mutual and Federal University Boat Race held on the Kowie River in Port Alfred, Eastern Cape, last week.

The university had also failed to put together a women’s team.

The A boat – the university’s top eight rowers – did not do well in the heats and only qualified for the C final, a race-off for the fifth and sixth positions.

Stevan Johnson, 1st year BA Law, said he and his team mates were beaten by Rhodes by about two boat lengths in that final.

The Wits B boat – the university’s next best group of rowers – only qualified for the E final, a race-off for seventh, eighth and ninth positions.

Johnson said Wits won that final, beating Stellenbosch and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) by about 3 boat lengths.

The team’s coach, Advocate Alex Pullinger, was unable to travel to Port Alfred as he was in court but said the team performed reasonably well.

He said it was important to put the team’s performance in context and to consider the level of the University of Pretoria (Tukkies), University of Cape Town and University of Johannesburg (UJ) crews, which took the top three positions.

“Most of the Tukkies oarsmen are international oarsmen and some were coming back from a gold medal performance at the Olympics.”

Pullinger was referring to Tukkies rower Matthew Brittain, who recently won gold in the men’s lightweight coxless four event in  London.

Pullinger said the UJ oarsmen were also of international calibre.

Speaking about the A crew, Pullinger said: “It wasn’t a bad paddle. The guys rowed well and executed their game plan according to my understanding.”

He said the B crew had also performed well considering that they had not rowed together often before the competition.

Pullinger said he was disappointed that Wits was not represented in the women’s competition.

“It’s very sad for me. I spent a lot of time developing a women’s crew. Unfortunately, for various reasons, they were unavailable. Some of them have also decided to take a break from rowing.

“There’s not a huge amount of your top girl rowers leaving school and attending Wits or rowing beyond school.”

 He said Wits should work hard to attract such students.

Fired chefs fight on but struggle to survive


Chefs dismissed by Wits catering contractor Royal Mnandi Food Service Solutions have not been reinstated despite student marches and hunger strikes. The chefs have taken their case for arbitration, but they are struggling financially while awaiting the outcome. Photo: Tanyaradzwa Nyamajiyah

SIXTEEN of the 17 chefs dismissed by Royal Mnandi Food Service Solutions for “gross insubordination” earlier this year have not given up their fight to be reinstated.  But they are struggling to survive without a salary.

The Hospitality, Industrial, Catering, Retail and Allied Workers Union (Hicrawu) took the case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) last month.

National organiser for Hicrawu, Martin Modise, said the matter was heard by the CCMA on August 27 but had to be postponed to October 8 because there were many witnesses who still needed to appear.

Modise said he hoped for a positive outcome.  “The first prize for us is to have the people get back to work.”

One of the 17, Michael Mali, is working in the main dining hall again. Modise said Mali’s case was separate from the other chefs, who were fired after refusing to be reassigned to different dining halls.

Mali said he was dismissed after telling his manager he could not go into the cold room because his tonsils were sore. He said the manager took this for insubordination. But Hicrawu negotiated with Royal Mnandi on his behalf and he was reinstated.

Mali said he was pleased to be back at work but was unhappy he had not received any back pay.

Modise said “When you negotiate you concede something and you get something,” adding that Mali got his job back but not the lost income.

Meanwhile, the other 16 former chefs are facing serious financial problems since losing their jobs.

Searching for answers

Christine Mkize, one of the dismissed chefs, described her difficulties in a telephone interview with Wits Vuvuzela

“I’m struggling. I’m struggling. I can’t afford to do anything. My children are at school. I have two kids and I am also looking after my late sister’s kids and my granddaughter. I don’t have money for transport for my son who is at college in Dobsonville. And my son in grade 10, I can’t give him money for lunch. Sometimes they give him lunch at school, but he is allergic to some of the things, like fish and spinach, so he can’t eat.

 “My husband has got prostate cancer. He goes in and out of hospital at Helen Joseph and he can’t work full time at the taxi rank. He’s not a taxi owner. He’s a driver. My sister gives me some money. She is a domestic worker. She is HIV positive and can’t afford to give me a lot. She gives me R200. My mother-in-law also gives me a little money so maybe we can eat. I can’t pay my rent.

“I am not sitting doing nothing. When I see posters I send my CV. I struggled to get money to go and look for a job, domestic jobs, catering jobs. They looked at my CV and said they would phone me, but they never phoned me. I am selling sweets, peanuts and tomatoes. I don’t have much stock because I don’t have money. I sometimes get R40 a day. At month-end I get R80 a day, but it’s only for three days.

 “I am struggling. I am not lying. Please, please, if you need someone to clean your house, don’t hesitate to call me, please.

“Even my colleagues are struggling. One came to me crying the other day. Her mother was sick. They get some piece jobs, washing two days or one day. But they are single parents and can’t afford to do anything for their kids. If maybe they had husbands who could help them.

 “I am suffering a lot. I don’t want to lie to anybody and say I am ok. The doctor says I have high blood pressure and maybe it’s because of stress.

“I ask myself why, why.  (She starts to cry). If maybe I was doing something wrong at my workplace I can say yes, but now I’m struggling to find answers. I worked so hard for the company, every day. (She breaks down). I’m sorry, I didn’t want to cry. I cry every day asking God to please help us. Not only me, all of us.

 “We are going back to the CCMA on 8 October. Maybe God will answer.”

Wits projects help high potential youth


Wits professors are studying ways to help youth from marginalised communities to realise their potential. Photo:

A Wits Education project has helped 30 high-potential learners in the remote Limpopo village of Badimong to improve their reading comprehension from about 27% to scores in the region of 75%, Wits researchers heard last week.

The project report was presented by language and literacy professor Leketi Makalela at the High Potential Youth Symposium held at the Wits Club last week. The symposium was organised by the Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Faculty of Humanities.

Makelela described how he had helped the grade 4 to 6 learners to improve their Sepedi and English reading comprehension. Makalela will expand his research project, which focuses on bilingual literacy, to three more schools in Limpopo and a township school in Gauteng.

The projects presented at the symposium dealt with youth at different stages of their education.

Rhian Twine, the Community Liaison Officer at the Wits Rural Facility near Bushbuckridge, described her efforts to help marginalised secondary school learners navigate the complex and costly university application process.

She was joined by first year mining engineering student Nyiko Khoza, who told Wits Vuvuzela he was at the university because of Twine’s assistance.

Dr Jill Bradbury, who teaches cognitive and social psychology in the School of Human and Community Development, spoke about her Reaching for Excellent Achievement Programme (REAP), which started in the middle of 2011.

REAP focuses on Wits psychology students from disadvantaged backgrounds who “are doing well, but not yet excellently in the second year of study”.

Students who were getting about 60% despite difficult backgrounds, showed potential to excel, Bradbury said. “And potential means it’s not yet evident.”

Bradbury said REAP also aimed to increase diversity in the postgraduate psychology classes. She said REAP students had attended events like an international psychology conference in Cape Town  to get a taste of the kind of high-level discussions and activities they would participate in at postgraduate level.

“It’s creating spaces that would normally be postgraduate spaces and we’re saying: ‘Come and play here’,” said Bradbury, who added that “there has been considerable movement in the student’s grades” since the programme began.

Bradbury told Wits Vuvuzela she believes programmes focusing on high-potential youth are not elitist if they produce research which can be made available to educators everywhere.

“What we do must be more than just being kind to a small group of students or helping a particular school. It must deliver something that can help us to do education better in the long run for all other students.”

She said the university plans to compile the knowledge generated by the High Potential Youth research projects in a book.

Read more about Prof Makalela’s project at

Wits professor helps Limpopo learners to read

Wits University professors are conducting several research projects to help high potential youth from marginalised communities to succeed. Photo:

Like the learners at Badimong Primary School, Leketi Makalela experienced poverty as a child and went to a school where resources were scarce and teachers poorly trained.

He chanted or, as he calls it now, “barked” text he didn’t understand, moving his finger and his head as he followed the words on the page.

But despite ineffective teaching methods, he miraculously managed to learn. Now, with a doctorate in English, linguistics and education from Michigan State University, he teaches teachers.

Makalela, a professor of language and literacy at the Wits School of Education, is an example of the talented young people who were the subject of the university’s symposium on high potential youth from marginalised communities.

The symposium was organised by the Office of the Vice chancellor and the Faculty of Humanities. It featured current and future research projects which might provide solutions to some of the problems which prevent South Africa’s young people from fully realising their potential.

At the symposium, Makalela presented a report on the bilingual literacy project he recently concluded at Badimong.

A simple but effective intervention

Over the period of a year, Makalela and his three assistants helped 30 high potential grades 4-6 learners improve their reading comprehension scores from about 25% to about 75% in both Sepedi and English.

He did this through a simple intervention. He provided the learners with culturally-relevant Sepedi storybooks which he asked them to read to their parents for 15 minutes every day. For the first three months of the project, Makalela visited the families of the 30 children, a few every weekend, to monitor the learners’ progress.

Makalela also conducted interventions which benefited the other 300 children in grades 4 to 6.

Making reading less painful

He worked with them to change their reading techniques, which he said made reading “so painful a task”.

Makoma Makgoba, a grade 4 social science and grade 5 Sepedi teacher, told Wits Vuvuzela about the reading skills of the children before Makalela’s intervention.

“The sitting posture can hinder how they read. They move their head, as if they are conducting a choir.”

She said Makalela taught the learners to avoid following the words with their fingers and moving their heads and mouths as they read.

Enriching the classroom environment

Makalela conducted workshops with the teachers, encouraging them to enrich what he described as a “barren classroom environment with no visual support to provide opportunities for incidental reading”.

He solved the problem of a lack of money for posters by asking the children to read stories in Sepedi and then rewrite them in English or vice versa. The children then illustrated their versions and put them up in a colourful “literacy corner”.

This technique also achieved Makalela’s objective of encouraging learners to see their home language as valuable.

Makalela said he wanted to prevent the children from becoming “academic monolinguals”.

“It’s like driving on one wheel. You need both wheels to get to your destination.”

Makalela will expand his project to three more schools in Giyani, Polokwane and Thohoyandou (Limpopo) and one in Soweto.


Sex at “a certain age”


Catherine Burns, whose research interests include the history of sex, says people do not like to think of older people as sexual beings. She says older people are portrayed as being romantic or affectionate, never sexual. Photo:

Rosalind Jacobs cartwheeled onto the stage in the opening scene of her autobiographical play That Certain Age.

 She said she used to cartwheel everywhere as a child. It made her feel alive, proud and beautiful. Jacobs, who is 59, said she now looks “like a cushion that’s lost its stuffing. Breasts dangle hopelessly as if they just got tired of hanging on, as if they too had lost their sense of purpose.”

 Jacobs’ play, which was staged at Wits on Monday August 20 as part of Drama for Life’s Sex Actually festival, highlighted the issues of ageing and sexuality.

After the performance, the all-female audience of five discussed body image and sex in what Jacobs called the “invisible age” , when a woman is not yet “a lovely old little lady” but is no longer considered a “hot babe”.

The discussion was moderated by Dr Catherine Burns of the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research (WISER). Burns, who studies the history of sex, said people did not like to think of older people as sexual beings.

She described the strong reaction her acquaintances had to The Mother, one of the few films which showed older people having sex.  In Roger Michell’s 2003 film, Daniel Craig plays a 32-year-old man who falls in love and has a sexual relationship with his girlfriend’s 65-year-old mother, played by Anne Reid.

Burns said: “Many people have told me it’s the most revolting film they have ever seen … They had to turn it off or leave the cinema because it disgusted them.”

The idea may be unpalatable to some, but older people are sexually active and they risk getting sexually transmitted infections. Burns said older women were vulnerable to HIV infection because their vaginal tissue was thinner and more likely to tear.

Older women might also be invisible to HIV/AIDS awareness campaigners, who often targeted the youth. They might lack knowledge about condom use.

She said negotiating condom use might also be difficult, since menopausal women could no longer tell their partners they wanted to prevent pregnancy.   

Audience member and Wits graduate Margaret Fish said: “Many older people don’t feel that they have a choice if they want to keep that man. And how are they going to say: ‘I’m afraid you might give me a disease?’”

Witsie wins national Lover+another poetry competition


A shy Wits metallurgical engineering student stole the show and walked away with the top prize in the Lover+another National Performance Poetry Challenge held at the Wits Theatre last Saturday night.

The competition was part of Drama for Life’s Sex Actually festival, which opened last week.

Nosipho Gumede blew the judges away with her poems The Breeze and I just pull up my panties and walk, on the theme of multiple concurrent sexual partners and the spread of HIV.

Gumede and fellow Witsie Vuyelwa Maluleke, 4th year drama, were chosen to represent Johannesburg in the regional finals held at the University of Johannesburg two weeks ago.

During Saturday’s grand slam, Gumede and Maluleke competed against 10 poets from Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Grahamstown, Durban and Zululand.

Gumede, who had never participated in a poetry competition before this, had modest expectations on Saturday night.

“Can I just get through to the second round so that I can get to say my second poem?” she told Wits Vuvuzela.

Her poem dealt with the way people fail to talk about their emotional problems, but try to “fix” themselves by “pulling up their panties and walking” into one sexual relationship after another. It had audience members clicking their fingers in appreciation.

Competition organiser Malika Ndlovu of Drama for Life said “originality of perspective” was one of the criteria in the judging. Gumede’s fresh angle and innovative metaphor was just what the judges were looking for and secured her a spot in the top six.

She performed another hard-hitting poem, comparing the way people ignore HIV prevention messages to the way they ignore the weatherman’s predictions that there will be a strong wind rather than just a breeze.

Maluleke’s poem He said was about a mistress who regretfully accepts that she and her lover “are not for keeps”.

Maluleke, who is well-known on the Jo’burg slam poetry scene, was disappointed not to make it into the Top six, but focused on the message rather than the outcome of the competition.

“I told them a story and I hope they heard it. If they heard the story, then that’s all that matters,” she said.

Gumede won R2000. The second and third prizes went to poets who used vernacular languages and audience involvement to great effect. Durban sound engineer Mzamo Dlamini won R1500, while Pietermaritzburg rapper Nqobile Ngcobo won R1000.

Rural makeover

The university is planning a multi-million rand expansion of its research complex in Limpopo to accommodate increased research demand and contribute to its vision as a “knowledge hub” for rural development.

The R45-million project at the Wits Rural Facility (WRF), which is located near Bushbuckridge, is due to start in October.

Prof Yunus Ballim, vice principal and deputy vice chancellor (academic), says the construction will be done in two phases. The first phase will see the construction of a large teaching/conference facility with seminar rooms, a basic life sciences laboratory and additional accommodation.

Phase 1 is expected to cost R23-million but Ballim says Wits will only contribute 10% of that amount.

“Some R12m has already been raised from the Department of Science and Technology for the infrastructure part of Phase 1 and we are hopeful of a further grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for the rest of the funding. Our plans may change depending on the response from DHET.”

In Phase 2 a well-resourced laboratory will be built for science teachers and learners to use as a part of a Wits school development programme for Bushbuckridge.

Dr Wayne Twine, a senior lecturer at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES), has done research at the WRF for over a decade.

He says the plans for development at the facility are “exciting”.

Twine explains why an urban university such as Wits needs a research facility in a rural area.

He says “rural areas are inextricably tied to the large urban centres through ubiquitous migrant labour and rapid urbanisation”.

Twine says it is important for the university to generate the “knowledge and human skills needed to tackle … complex challenges along the rural-urban continuum”.

He says the WRF produces graduates who are equipped to make a difference in society.

Ryan Wagner, who completed his MSc in Medicine last year, is one such person. He did research for his dissertation at the WRF, focusing on the prevalence of and risk factors for epilepsy in rural South Africa.

Wagner was inspired by his work at the WRF and is now exploring the burden and cost of epilepsy and its treatment.  He hopes to come up with cost-effective interventions for the treatment of the disease.

Twine says the results of research conducted at the WRF are often made available to government policy makers and sometimes lead to an improvement in the lives of rural communities.

He says one WRF project found that poor households could not access child grants because the Home Affairs offices where they were supposed to get birth certificates and ID documents were too far away. The findings were shared with the Department of Home Affairs, which sent mobile offices to villages in the region. Eight thousand people were able to get formal documentation as a result.

Everything in its proper place

I didn’t shed many tears when my grandmother died three weeks ago. Instead, I rejoiced. Like the many speakers at her funeral in Zimuto, a dusty village in south-eastern Zimbabwe, I celebrated a life well lived.

My grandmother was 96. Or 98, or 100 or even older. No-one knows for sure. When she was born, the colonial authorities didn’t record the births of black people. She may have been non-existent in the eyes of the Rhodesian administration, but for my family she was our matriarch: “the Queen” as her eldest granddaughter called her.

She had 23 living grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. At the funeral, some of them remembered her lessons, such as the importance of order. Her fellow villagers call her “Mrs Smart”, because she was a stickler for tidiness.

She insisted that clothes be properly folded, saying disordered drawers were the sign of a disorganised mind. She wanted firewood stacked according to length and thickness. Logs that weren’t the same size were considered unsightly and burnt immediately.

Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the habit. She would be dismayed by my precarious piles of books on top of clothes on top of more books. But I did learn a few things from her, like the importance of living simply.

When I worry about finding a good job and earning enough, I remember how my grandmother told people to stop buying her dresses: she had enough clothes. She taught me that a person only needs so much “stuff”.

My grandmother appreciated the small things in life, like the colourful plastic mat I bought in Uganda. She sunned herself on it every day until someone forgot to bring it indoors and the dog shredded it.

When I am tempted to make a rude retort during the stressful production of Wits Vuvuzela, I am reminded of my grandmother’s other nickname “Mrs Private”. She never humiliated or shouted at people in public. She would speak to them privately until the problem was resolved. 

My grandmother only had a few years of primary education, but she knew what was important: keeping material things in their proper place and living peacefully with other people.

Her name doesn’t appear in my country’s birth registry and won’t appear in any history books. But she did live, and she lived a simple, beautiful life. Zororai murugare, Mbuya. Rest in peace, Granny.

Getting noticed and gettting hired


The Wits Counselling and Career Development Unit says graduates need to work hard to stand out from other jobseekers. Photo:

Before landing his job as 5FM’s breakfast host, Gareth Cliff pestered station management with regular phone calls until someone took notice.

Raj Naran, a career educator at the Wits Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU), says the station wasn’t keen on hiring Cliff, but “he kept phoning in persistently, using different accents every time he called and eventually they succumbed.”

 “But I’m not necessarily sure that that’s a technique that will work for everyone,” Naran warns.

Naran spoke to Wits Vuvuzela about some of the techniques job-seekers could use to find employment.

While he admits that people looking for work in the arts and the media may need to use creative tactics, Naran says students in other fields can still get noticed by employers using more conventional job search methods.

 “It could be counterproductive to [try to] be too creative if that’s not the person that you are.”

He says a successful job search begins with self-awareness and that students should be clear about what skills they have to offer a potential employer.

 “If you don’t have something to offer, no-one’s going to stand up and take notice.”

Having packaged themselves into a “product”, students should identify the organisations they would like to work for.

Naran, who has been advising Witsies for more than 20 years, says students should look beyond the companies which come to recruit on campus. He says arts and general science graduates can find jobs with government departments, social service agencies and NGOs, which don’t normally come to campus career fairs. 

He also emphasises the importance of a well-written application.  Naran says Wits teaches students “the capacity to read, write, analyse and discern”, but they don’t use those skills in marketing themselves.

He says his office is frustrated at seeing students who bring “a CV that’s so poorly prepared [and] shows they’ve not put any effort into it”.

After putting together good CVs and cover letters, Naran says students should make contact with people in their preferred organisations who have influence in the hiring process, such as the chief executive officer or the head of recruitment.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a successful job search is learning how to deal with rejection.

Naran says students shouldn’t take rejection personally or feel that they are “unworthy” because they didn’t get a particular job.

“The job search is a full time job in itself. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of resilience as well. We’ve got to continue knocking at doors.”

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Food for thought


Some Wits students on bursaries can’t afford a healthy, balanced diet and survive on cheap, starchy foods like bread. Photo:


A group of students at the Wits School of Education has brought the problem of student hunger from the wings to centre stage.

The postgraduate students staged a play entitled Why Hunger? on Wednesday during lunchtime, to highlight the plight of Witsies whose bursaries don’t give them enough money to eat nutritious food. 

The play’s director, education lecturer Gao Lemmenyane, says: “The students suffering in this situation are regular students who try and keep up the pretence that everything is fine. They don’t tell anyone about their problems because they are humiliated.”

A study conducted by Siyakhana, an organisation affiliated with the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences, last year found that students were embarrassed about their situation and would not easily admit to experiencing hunger.

Siyakhana’s Moira Beery says the study found that 1% of the students interviewed were “severely vulnerable to food insecurity” while 6% of the students were in the moderate group.

Beery says the students most vulnerable to food insecurity and hunger were those who receive financial aid and live off campus.

Dr Yasmine Dominguez-Whitehead, a lecturer in the School of Education, focuses her research on access to food as an indicator of inequality.

She says some students may not experience a lack of food altogether but may lack a balanced diet.

“In order to make their funds stretch, they purchase less expensive items such as bread,” she says.

Dominguez-Whitehead also says “inequalities between students are reflected and reproduced in their food-related troubles talk”.

Wealthier students talk about eating too much and wanting to keep their weight down, while poorer students talk about “depleting their funds before the end of a term and not being able to purchase healthy food, such as fruit or vegetables,” Dominguez-Whitehead says.

Dr Jean Place, head of student affairs on the School of Education campus, is often the first port of call for students in need. Place believes problems like hunger can prevent students from concentrating and performing well academically.

Assistant dean of students Pamela Townsend says the School of Accountancy discovered that some of its students were writing tests and exams on empty stomachs last term.

The school tackled the problem by providing students with a muffin and coffee for breakfast. The project catered for all students, so that students in need weren’t singled out and stigmatised. Unfortunately, the project has not continued due to a lack of funding.

Dominguez-Whitehead says very few universities have well-funded programmes to help hungry students. She says most projects depend on “donations and short-term and insecure funding”.

Whatever the weaknesses of such projects may be, their beneficiaries are grateful for the assistance.

Place says a small group of students whom she helped a few years ago are giving back by raising money for her small “food and clothing bank”.

 (Additional reporting by Luyanda Majija.)

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