A letter from our founder

Paralleling the plight of South Africa, Zizanani got its start in the mid-90s from the restoration of what had been lost. The story of Zizanani, however, is personal in origin.

In the 1970s and 80s, I worked as an artist for a music company and then for various engineering firms. I loved what I did despite the long days working under halogen lamps. In my late 30s, around the time my family and I decided to move to Hong Kong, I began losing my vision.

I was nearly blind by 1993, when the announcement was made that there would be general elections in South Africa the following year. I returned home immediately. On the plane, I asked the woman next to me if she could read the menu for me. She asked about my condition and referred me to an eye surgeon in Johannesburg.

Reluctantly, I went to visit the surgeon because although I was thrilled by the prospect of regaining my sight, I had no money to pay for such treatments. The surgeon and I agreed that if the experimental procedure he wanted to try on me was a success, I would pay him back not in money but in making our society a better place to live.

The surgery was a success and I found myself wondering what I could do to help others. One day as I was passing by the Witkoppen School, I felt something pulling me there. I presented myself to the headmaster and began teaching art to students who had been victims of abuse. The pictures they drew saddened me profoundly and made me curious about their lives. As all of the students lived in Diepsloot, I decided to investigate for myself.

Diepsloot was originally intended to be a place where displaced people from Johannesburg could live temporarily until a more permanent location was chosen. Those who live there face poverty, mal sanitation, abuse, overcrowding, crime, unemployment, and a generally unhealthy environment. White women weren’t a common sight in townships in those days – and still aren’t – but I had found a place that needed help. Having grown up in poverty, living in a shack and having to deal with my own abuse, I was back in my element.

The first thing I did in Diepsloot was set up a birthing centre with a midwife so women wouldn’t give birth to their babies on the side of William Nicol while waiting for an ambulance. In two years, we delivered 325 babies in a caravan without electricity or running water. These were dire conditions, but better than the alternative.

Education in Diepsloot has always been a challenge, and many of the children simply aren’t in school. The first primary school I established was in 1997, and have since set up eight crèches, two schools, and one orphanage, in addition to three houses of safety.

In 1996, Zizanani, whose name means “helping others” was born when I secured a plot of land from the Methodist church and got a personal check for 1000 rand from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We began modestly with a garden for HIV patients and a sewing group, the precursors to today’s Seeds of Life and Creativity in Action programmes.

With so much need in Diepsloot, I could accomplish more with others than I could on my own, so I brought together the Basa school and MaAfrika Tikkun to form The Wings of Life Partnership. Currently the Basa School has 775 primary school students, while MaAfrika Tikkun runs a crèche with 150 children on our property. Zizanani works in conjunction with our partners on some projects and independently on others to improve the lives of at-risk women and children through empowerment.

To this end, we have expanded our project offering from two to eight, with more planned for the future. And no longer is Zizanani solely my baby. We have a passionate and energetic executive director and a team of volunteer professionals who oversee the general management of our organization and strive to provide a stable future by securing funding for maintenance and growth. We are now looking to start a youth sports programme, and are forming an alliance with the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network. Our big dream is to open a birthing centre, just as I did years ago – only this time with electricity and water! We already have an MD who has committed her services, and are now in need of donations of building supplies, medical equipment and medicines.

The story of our roots is never far from our minds as we continue in the same vein and with the same aim as I did when I first came to Diepsloot: to help others help themselves.

Thanking you for your support,
Glenys Van Halter

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