The vast majority of South African children do not grow up in a home consisting of the “traditional” nuclear family. As Sivenathi Mabena explains, there are many different ways to define a family.
Sivenathi (16) was born in Gugulethu, Cape Town. “I was the youngest of five children (19, 18, 13 and 6), only my brother stayed with my mom. All the other siblings stayed in the Eastern Cape with our uncles.
“I remember since I was young (4) my mom traveling often to the Eastern Cape and we would stay with my aunty. She had two kids (a boy and a girl) and we had a nice time with them. She was less strict than my mom and the environment was more relaxed.
“When my sisters moved to stay with us in Cape Town, they took over my care. My mom would send money for the basics (food and clothes) and visit from time to time. I always had mixed feelings when she visited, part of me was happy because I would be able to get more things besides my basic needs. However, the environment at home would be tense, my mom was tough on everyone and she didn’t take any nonsense. We would all walk on egg shells afraid to upset her.”
Sivenathi’s dad was practically not in the picture and would only visit sporadically. “It was normal to have a single parent, all my siblings experienced the same. I never questioned why my father would visit me only twice a year. Every time he visited he would bring me presents.
“I remember this one time, I must have been six years old, he visited and gave me a few big trucks and cars. I was so happy with the gifts that I spent the next day on the street playing with my new toys. I was playing with my friend in front of his house, the other side of the street there were bigger boys playing soccer. We were sitting on the ground playing and enjoying ourselves. I noticed a gentleman pushing a wheelbarrow full of sand walking in our direction.
“One of the boys playing soccer made fun of the man by shouting – ‘are you not tired of carrying such heavy stuff to make only few pennies?’, everyone laughed. The man got very upset and threaten to beat him up. The boy then sent his dog to attack the man, he manged to stop the dog by tilting the wheelbarrow, but the dog kept barking so he picked up his spade and threw it to the dog.
“I can only remember my friend shouting ‘be careful with the spade’, then when I turned my head the spade hit me on my forehead. It knocked me down and I blacked out.”
Sivenathi’s friend ran for help and a neighbour drove him to the hospital.
“I was taken to the Red Cross Children hospital and I only woke up the following day. I remember thinking that I wanted to go home to play. My mom came from the Eastern Cape and told me that I had a traumatic head injury and I needed to have an operation. I was scared because they told me that they needed to cut my skin. I had a skull fracture and during the operation they put a metal plate on my skull. I was in the hospital for five weeks to recovered before being sent home.”
Sivenathi went home soon to realise that things were not normal. “The metal plate in my forehead would move when I was breathing, in and out, it was very strange for me and the people looking at me. I was told to wear a cap when it was hot, however even with a cap my head would get very hot … my brain would heat and I would act abnormal.
“My mom reported the situation to the hospital and they asked a second opinion from a doctor in Australia. After three weeks, I returned to do another operation. I stayed in the hospital for four months this time and my mom stayed with me full time.
“I kept asking to go home but I was ok. The people were nice, I made some friends and NGO’s would come and teach us, I was doing Grade 1.”
Sivenathi returned home this time with the instructions to remain indoors for two weeks before returning to his normal life.
“For two weeks I watched TV, it was a nice time. It was good being back, people were more caring towards me. I remember one of the days the gentleman that threw the spade came to visit. He brought 1 kg yogurt and R50, he wanted to apologise for what had happened. My mom was so upset, she kept shouting at him and kicked him out.
“After a short while we heard that the man had been stabbed in a shebeen* and he had passed away. The community thought my mom had organised it and they began to gossip about it. It was a difficult time for my family, everyone was speaking about it, even my friends. My mom went to speak with his family (sister) to explain that she was not involved with the incident. The family accepted it and the community stopped talking about it.
Sivenathi’s life then returned to normal. “When I went back to school there were conversations about whether I should remain in Grade 1, the year was almost over and I had lost too much time. They decided to do a test and I scored the highest mark in my class. I had learnt more at the hospital than my peers at school so they promoted me to Grade 2.
“My mom returned to being absent the majority of the time, she would travel to the Eastern Cape and come back every few months. My eldest sister took care of us but when I turned 10, she got married and moved to live with her husband in Khayelitsha. My brother (16) and I remained. My sister would visit us once a week to bring us groceries but the rest of the time we would be alone.
“We kept following the rules of the house, we were too afraid to break them because if my mother found out she would punish us badly. We went each day to school, played with our friends and returned home always before 20:00 pm. My brother would cook food for us and together we would clean the house on weekends. I did not mind living alone with my brother, however we did fight often.
“We would fight mostly about money, we had a PlayStation and every time I brought my friends to play my brother would say they could only play if they paid R5 each. We would have a tournament and the winner would get all the money, my brother was often the one winning. Every time I asked him to share the profits with me, he would say no and that he was going to use the money to pay for electricity. I never trusted him. My brother makes me work for any money I need and says it is to teach me a lesson.”
Even though Sivenathi adapted easily to being raised almost by himself, he secretly longed for adult guidance. “I was 12 when I decided to join a friend and go to church with him. People were friendly and I immediately had a sense of belonging. The elders were wise and I felt they could become a good support. After that experience, I started going to church every week by myself. Church has become an anchor in my life and a true family to me. They taught me to distinguish good from bad and they helped me to build my moral compass.”
Sivenathi is a top student in Grade 11 and a youth leader in his church. To conclude he says, “no one chooses their families… families are like playing the lottery, few of us are winners but the majority are losers. Unfortunately, many youth in South Africa do not grow up with a nuclear family that care and support them. However, that should not stop us, we should not give up … when we look around we might be able to create our chosen family, a family that we shared values with. We have the responsibility to find the support we need in order to strive. If you haven’t found it, keep looking… I am sure it is not too far away.”
Sivenathi is a Leaders’ Quest participant.