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Mam’ Khanyi, a former businesswoman, has made it her mission to help child prostitutes and teenage mothers get off Johannesburg streets. In this moving interview with Ruda Landman, the Home of Hope founder talks about how she started her work with these youngsters – mostly orphans – and what her life is like, dealing with pimps, drug dealers and other shadowy types in the criminal underworld. – JC
By Ruda Landman
Khanyisile Motsa, affectionately known as Mam’ Khanyi, is the founder of Home of Hope in Berea near Hillbrow.
More than a shelter, Home of Hope is an awe-inspiring initiative aimed at taking street children, child prostitutes and abandoned teenage mothers off the streets.
Ruda Landman caught up with Mam’ Khanyi to talk about her journey from having her own import and export business, to starting Home of Home. It’s a story of perseverance, courage, faith and hope – watch the full interview below:
Here’s the transcript of the interview:
Ruda: Khanyisile Motsa.
R: Thank you for being with us on the Change Exchange. I was thinking of Khanyisile… Mam Khanyi, as everyone calls you. For a moment I had to scratch my head for the full name. We’re so glad to have you.
K: I really appreciate.
R: Now, these days you are Mam’ Khanyi of Home of Hope. But what was Khanyisile before that?
K: Before that I worked in an office. And then I had my own business after 1992, because I was working in Natal, employed by the Dumb Town committee. I worked there as a senior admin officer. And then, because of the violence of that time – my children were still at school. As a widow, I looked at the life … it won’t work for me. And that’s when I opened my own business, which was in imports and exports, I resigned from the town committee and then I moved up to Johannesburg. Why move up to Johannesburg? Because Johannesburg had all the companies which were manufacturing. I was just taking advantage. I was only exporting what other people were manufacturing.
R: How did you see that opportunity?
K: I schooled up in Swaziland. I knew what other people are in need of. I knew what Mozambicans needed, I knew what Lesotho needed, so it was easy to contract. Also the people that I knew in the neighbouring countries.
R: And then when you got to Johannesburg, did you immediately move into Hillbrow, Berea?
K: No, I was renting. I was staying in other places. So that’s why, when I saved a bit of money by the end of 1999, I thought Berea was ‘the thing’ because it had some beautiful apartments. So that’s why I moved up there.
R: Did you still children living with you – your own children at that point?
K: Yes, I still had the two. They were still at high school, and so they were still living with me.
R: And how did Home of Hope happen?
K: Home of Hope happened so suddenly, because the first week when I moved into Berea, my apartment, it was so straightforward. I loved the place, everything was just normal. But the second week, when I looked right across our apartment, seeing those children who were just standing there, making so much noise and giggling to each other, girls mostly. And what took my attention were the ages of the children. You know, being a mother, I just said: “No, this is not okay.” Why are they not at school?
R: Were they young children?
K: Ja, from about 10 and up. And maybe the eldest was around 15, 16. I just said no, these children are supposed to be at school. And what do they want there? So when I tried to find out from the security guard there, he said: “Oh, you are new here. Don’t worry, those are prostitutes.” You know, that clicked in my head and I said no, something is not right here. And my approaching the children – it was not about the children that I wanted to deal with the children. I wanted to know where the parents were, because I wanted to teach those parents some lessons. Really, I just said no. How can your girl-child be on the street at that time of the night? No.
R: And then? What did you find out?
K: What I found out changed me completely. Because number one, I discovered those children were not from Johannesburg. Not even one of them was from Gauteng. They’re from rural, rural areas. All our provinces. And so then, there was one thing common amongst the children, they were all orphaned children. So and I wanted to know about who were the people bringing them up, and when they told me they were working for pimps and drug lords, I demanded to see the pimps and drug lords.
R: Weren’t you scared?
K: No. That’s why it was just a bit of some madness there. Because when you think of this child on the street, and she’s doing all what she was doing – not because she liked it! And when you think the child is an orphan. And so I said no, not in my lifetime. I cannot allow this to happen to anyone’s child. That’s why I demanded to go and see the pimps and the drug lords. They took me there, innocently, you know the children are innocent. They’re not taking me because they wanted the pimps to do something to me, they thought I was strong enough to stand for them. Through God’s grace, when I went there, I saw those guys and started shouting at the top of my voice. And maybe got scared, but I demanded that they take whatever the children were having – which were drugs – that they were sending them to sell to their clients. And they didn’t shy away from it! They took and went inside La Rosa Hotel – that’s where they were staying, which was just next door to where I am staying.
R: And then you invited that group of girls up for tea?
K: My going to the pimps, that was after I invited the children for tea.
R: How did you get them to trust you?
K: You know, there’s something I didn’t know at the time. For a child to tell you the truth, you have to be honest, first. The child will read the honesty from you. That’s the only thing, because all what I was saying to them was that I wanted them to tell me the truth. And so that I could help them, but if they are lying to me, I won’t help them. So that is what we are still using today, at Home of Hope.
R: And the decision to take some of them into your own home?
K: In fact, that was the only way I could rest. I didn’t think about anyone else to do that. All I wanted to do was to embrace the children. To make them understand that it’s not their fault that their parents are not alive. And I thought it was just only those children, but before the end of the month I was staying with 16 children.
R: How did your own, biological children react?
K: Thank goodness, my first girl was already working, she was working in Cape Town. And the second one was still at university, but he was doing his last year. And so now, with the ones that I was staying with, they didn’t say much when they come back from school and find that now they’re having sisters in the house. So … But it became a problem when so many children were staying in that flat. The noise … and now also my neighbours. I didn’t know my neighbours very well. I was new in the building and the body corporate started making so much noise for me and I was taken to court, up and down. Life was not the life that they were used to. That’s when they spoke to the elder sister to say something is not right now.
R: Who spoke to her?
K: My youngest daughter. She’s the one who called the elder sister. And so they discussed. She came up and then … You know, as they were growing up we used to have a family meeting so that we would sit down, if someone was not doing their chores – the way they were supposed to – we would talk, all of us. So now this time, when she came it was nice as usual and then she said: “Mom, we’ll have a meeting tonight.” And then I knew the meeting was going to be about me, but then I was ready to tell them what I wanted. But with love, because really, I didn’t see the difference between the two families. But when we sat down, she asked me do I see what is happening as I have been going in and out of court. If I lose this place, what is going to happen? I said I will see when it comes. And then she said: “No, ma. You understand that you are no more going to the office now.” I said: “Yes, I know that, but after some few days I will manage to.” In my head it was just like that I will always be on the top of my game. I managed to take care of the children and go to work and do … Whereas it was becoming very difficult, because the children were coming in …
R: But they needed you?
K: They needed me, but so many problems. The children were sick. Some were pregnant. And they didn’t have ID’s. They needed to go to the clinics, so I will have to take them to the clinic – not go to the office. So now, then when we were at the meeting my daughter said: “Mom, do you like what you are doing?” And I said yes. “Does this make you happy?” And I said: “Yes, for sure, it’s making me happy.” And she said “I know, I can see you are happy”. And so she said we’ll divide the family in two. “I’ll take care of my siblings; you take care of the other family, but we will always support you.”
R: And so did the youngest two move out?
K: She had to get another apartment in Berea for the biological family, and I had to remain with my Big Family.
R: That’s a huge thing to do.
K: And it didn’t last, because I was evicted. That’s when I went down to Catalina Gardens – I still had a bit of some money in my account from the business account. I had to get five apartments at Catalina Gardens. We were having 105 children. Relatives, friends disappeared. My relatives were concerned because they thought I was mentally disturbed.
R: But your children supported you.
K: My children understood and supported me. Even today they are still supporting me. For me to be still standing here, is because my children are supporting me. So with the extended family – I love them and I understand why they had to think like that. You see, all of a sudden you are driving your car doing this and that. Now, you don’t care. Now, you just walk because you don’t have a car. And when we didn’t have mielie-meal – there were times when we didn’t have mielie-meal, we didn’t have enough food for the children. I’ll just pick up the phone and try to find you, to phone you: “Hey, do you have mielie-meal in your house? Can I have mielie-meal?” First, you’ll say yes. But second, you will say no. When I call you just don’t pick up the phone because now you know this one is not okay. But yet through God’s grace we managed to pull through.
R: And you had to learn different skills, I’m sure? Fundraising is not something that comes naturally.
K: Yes. That one has been a problem. I’m still learning even today. You know, coming from the business side of life … you can rather do something, sell something until you buy it. But if I say ‘please can I’, you look at me and you are going to say no. What do I say? What do I do? What happens in my heart? I am learning the skill bit by bit, because there are professional people who always tell you: “No, the fundraising is for a good cause.” It’s not about you, so have to move from being you and then … that’s our life.
R: What is it like to carry the responsibility for more than 100 young people who need more support and more of everything than the average child in an average home?
K: Life, as such a huge family … I think the children are teaching me more! I learned a lot of skills, and I learned so much about what is happening outside there. That’s why even today, we know we can still visit a brothel and get underaged children. Even today we know we can support a child who needs help. Because those children were telling us, were really telling me I learned a lot about their lives. And their resilience kept me going. And the love around me – I feel like I am the richest person in the world! Because you know that when you turn this side, you find love. And that side. And another. And another lesson that I have learned, is to Love Life so much, and you don’t have to love for a reason, you have to love because (He) gave us the life that we have.
R: But on a practical level, it must have been unbelievably hard, very often. How did you get through the low moments?
K: You get through the low moments – I’m a Christian – I will say that. That also helps me a lot. Also when you look at the problems these children have been facing … See them coming up, understanding that okay, this happened to me, but now I must accept the life.
R: Then you count your blessings?
K: You count your blessings. In the early age of Home of Hope, from 2000 to 2004, HIV and AIDS was really hitting us hard.
R: That was before ARVs?
K: It was before ARVs. It wasn’t easy, I must tell you, it wasn’t easy.
R: Did you lose children?
K: Ja, we lost children. So now, the way we are working, we have to work hard to get reunification, try to get someone who is a next of kin for the child. Try to get the relatives if there are any. You find that the people are not ready to accept what the situation … that you are coming up with. But also, we pulled through. Fourteen years down the line we are facing new challenges, but we are there. We understand. We know that everything comes and goes.
R: How do you make a space, which is very full … how do you turn that into a home for the girls?
K: If anyone can go to Home of Hope, I am very proud to say that place is very clean, and we make it very healthy for us all.
R: So those are the basics?
K: Basics. Cleanliness is just there. And respect. You teach a child to say thank you, and I’m sorry. That’s how we live our life. And to appreciate what you have. If someone gives us old clothes or something, we wash them, we iron them, we put them nicely to show that we respect what we have. And so, also telling the children the truth. When I talk to the children, I don’t say we’ve got money, we’ve got this and that. I tell them that this is our life. For us it’s just to love life unconditionally. Whosoever we are, we have to appreciate what we have and we have to believe in the present. Not say: “Whoa, so and so has got something and maybe one day … You have to dream, but you have to live in the present. If we don’t have something, we don’t have it. If we have, we have to enjoy what we have in the moment.
R: But it must be quite hard, those kids came off the streets. They were fighting with elbows and nails. Physically and psychologically. And you want to bind them into a place where different values hold?
K: We are spending a lot of time doing our group counselling. We’ll divide the children according to their ages, and what also helped is to give them a chance to talk to me. We will sit down and you will talk about yourself one-by-one. What is it that you want us to do to help you? Even those who are rough or something – the more we sit down and talk together. So many were coming up with wonderful decisions, and that helped us.
R: How did you know how to do this? You were a businesswoman?
K: It comes naturally. If you are in a situation … the situation demanded me to act. It demanded me to be somewhere. And you are finding that there is this child coming from this side, and they met somewhere and maybe they fought. Now here, they are here with you. And because now we each one has to tell us the truth about her in order for us to help. And then they would be saying: “You know, so and so, we thought when we were in such a place…” Then I’ll be telling you it’s because you didn’t know you were sisters. So we have to come up here and talk about it now. And we have to stand up and go.
R: Do you think … Well … Actually I think listening to you, that middle class people like myself are really quite innocent? We don’t know what is going on? You have seen a different side to life? Which must have been heart-breaking at times?
K: Heart-breaking and also you thank God for giving you a chance to understand life. Because maybe I was going a long way thinking that I knew life, when the real life is down there in helping another person. When I was in my business, I was always thinking that maybe if someone asks for something I can help, which was fine, I could help my relatives or whatsoever. I was helping my biological children, that was fine. But doing what I am doing now, it is more fulfilling. And you see the results, you see where you are going, but at the same time you don’t have to forget yourself. Because you can get lost in the …
R: In the small practical things?
R: What is it like to see some of these girls finding their place at a university, carrying on their education, making their way into life?
K: It is such … it’s like a reward to you. Even those who didn’t make it to the university – we’ve got children who are working for Pick n Pay and others. But to see the child being someone who can take care of herself. You know the person’s history. And you see the person blossoming, becoming someone different. So also with the ones who go to the universities and when you look at the results – they get distinctions! So now you look at yourself. If you didn’t help that child, where was she going to be? And there you thank God for all those things.
R: Tell us a story or two? Of these kids?
K: I will just … we are talking about their success. And we also do have cases that we open, because if I talk to a child, I find that something happened in her life. If she is from Napier, I go there. We had two cases from Escort and the other one from another area which I will not mention. You know, when we open that case, it’s because I spoke to the children. They knew exactly what happened, went back to check the facts and then we open the case.
R: What case? Child abuse?
K: It was a rape case. It dragged, but because I’ve learned with previous experiences, is that if you are not attending the court, it will be withdrawn, it will be drawn out …
R: You must be there.
K: You must be there. So I thank the people that are working with me, the caregivers. And the volunteers who are supporting us. Without them I wouldn’t be here. I get people who are really dedicated. If you think of Escort, from Johannesburg to there …
R: How did that case go? Or is it still on-going?
K: No, the perpetrator was given 28 years.
K: It’s one of the successes that when I look back, I know that justice in South Africa is there. And the second one – it was the same year, it was 2012 – the other one the perpetrator was given 23 years.
R: That must mean an enormous amount to all the girls in your care.
K: That’s right.
R: That at least some of the people who hurt them had to face that?
K: Yes. So now, this is what I am seeing now. Home of Hope is going up with all these years of experience, now we can manage to stand and look to other people’s faces and say no, this is not right. And so, I am really grateful for that.
R: Tell us one of your success stories? Where someone who really came from a bad place and is standing on her own two feet?
K: The story of one girl who when she joined us … The first evening … We pray every evening and in the morning. So the first evening when she came, I said we are now praying. She said: “Mam’, I won’t pray, because God didn’t do anything for me.”
R: How old was she?
K: She was 15, and I said: “Okay baby, you can go outside. We will call you.” And we prayed and she came back. You know, we are now doing that almost every day.
R: What were her circumstances? Was she working as a prostitute at the time?
K: Yes, she was from the street. She tried to make life there and it didn’t work. And so it made her more angrier. Because what made her go to the street, it was because of the background of her … her mother passed on, and she didn’t get a good treatment from the family. And then she thought maybe she was going to make it when she go to Johannesburg. She was introduced to the life of the street, and so now, when we said: “Let’s pray.” She said: “No, I don’t want to pray, God didn’t do anything for me.” I accepted that. You see, in my heart I had to juggle this thing, because I had learned now that what we used to judge is like adults and everybody. It was not the right way. We have to learn to look at the situation and see how we can help the person out.
R: Not judge.
K: Not judge. So many times it was happening. And then I was still thinking of how am I going to show her that it’s God’s Grace that we are all here now? So one day she was busy helping me in my office. Cleaning, preparing the papers, we were singing, because I like singing. And then she said: “Oh Mam’, I am happy here.” I am so happy now here at Home of Hope. I love it here, I love everybody. I said: “But why did we meet? Because I don’t believe in coincidence.” She said: “Hau Mam’, you don’t believe in coincidence?” And I said no. This was really arranged from somewhere. I love you so much, I have a daughter now. So beautiful like you. And then said: Why do you think we met? I said it was through God’s Grace that we met. That evening, she came. She was praying with us. And she made it at school, through university, very brilliant. Today she is working in another country in an embassy.
R: Sjoe, in a South African embassy?
K: No, we don’t mention these things …
R: Okay [laughs]
K: Because people still discriminate against a person. They still stigmatise. If you say: “We are from Mam’ Khanyi, we grew up … ” Do you know what they think? Were you a prostitute? Are you HIV positive? They still label children. It’s not all the children that we have. Especially now. We are erasing so many social ills that are happening to children. But our society, they’ve got a way of thinking. So we can’t stop them from thinking. Anyway, we have to live our lives.
R: Has Home of Hope changed you?
K: It has changed me. It has humbled me. When I look at a person, I don’t look at a person with other people’s eyes like before. When I meet a person, I know it’s for a reason. I don’t know whatsoever it is, but it is for a reason. Because all the people that I’ve met, it’s either that person needs to get information, needs to get some knowledge, or that person has to teach me something. So I am always open to learning, ja. Circumstances also, they teach us a lot.
R: And your own, biological children? How have they fared in life?
K: Very well. They are really a pillar of strength in my life. I love them to bits and when I call them and I do this and that, they take care of me. Even when it comes to clothing, to find or buy clothes for me, they take care of me. Sometimes when we are going to functions or something. For me if you say come, I just go. But with them they will be asking: “Mam’, what are you going to wear, what is this?” And also the children at Home of Hope – they care! They plait my hair, they do this and that and say: “Mam’, this does not look okay now!” I am lucky. I find myself lucky.
R: We are just in awe. And we are so happy that South Africa has someone like you. All of the very, very, very best.
K: Thank you.
R: Go well.
K: Thank you so much.
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