Spreading the love

Beyond the walls and barbed wire, Tim Walker finds hope for marginalised people in South Africa

"When all is said and done, no matter what you have achieved, no matter how many summer homes you own, no matter how many cars sit in your driveway, the quality of your life will come down to the quality of your contribution . . ." It was that line from Robin Sharma's The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari that inspired James Fernie, a 36-year-old white South African who in a previous life was a sharp-suited lawyer at Clifford Chance in Canary Wharf, London, to set up an organisation called Uthando.

The word means love, and Fernie is into what he calls its "practical applications". Working in the tourism industry until last month, he came up with the idea of levying roughly £15 on every itinerary to South Africa sold by the top-end tour operators - a number in the UK have already signed up, including Bailey Robinson, Safari Plus and Tana Travel, as well as Travel Focus in Ireland - and then channelling the money into organisations that help the country's destitute and marginalised communities.

It's all done transparently, with the operators drawing their clients' attention to the levy. There's a reputable firm of auditors involved to keep an eye on the books. And, what's more, from the beginning of August Fernie plans to take interested donors to see for themselves how their money is being spent. "We'll be going in small groups and in such a way as to educate, inform and inspire while also respecting the dignity and privacy of the people concerned," he told me. "The places we go to will obviously not be treated as tourist attractions. The aim is to make the people being helped become real to the people who are helping them."

Fernie took me on a pilot visit to Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town in the Cape Flats. From the Mount Nelson Hotel, where I was staying, it took scarcely half an hour by car, but psychologically the journey was somewhat more substantial. Among the rows and rows of dilapidated shacks that line the dirt tracks to this, reputedly the third-largest township in the country, is the Khumbulani daycare centre.

Gloria Bebeza, a bright, cheerful woman of 46 with an infectious laugh, came out to greet us. She was holding the hand of a child no more than five years old and who is HIV-positive, one of 160 children who attend the centre.

"It is estimated that 40 per cent of the people here have HIV/Aids," said Fernie. "There is no such thing as a traditional family unit in these townships and so families are unable to look after their own." The project had originally been intended as an orphanage but its application was turned down by social services because the official policy is to move towards foster care. Gloria, who co-founded the daycare centre, and her friend Nondomiso have adopted ten children between them.

"They have a need for love, like everyone else," said Gloria. "That is what we provide here, in addition, of course, to advice about this illness, and food. We also grow our own beetroot." She laughed once more: Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister, had lately scoffed at the idea that antiretroviral drugs were the answer to HIV. Better, the minister had said, that people worried about the virus should eat plenty of garlic and beetroot.

Next stop was Bishop's Court, an exclusive enclave high in the hills above Hout Bay, with thick walls, barbed-wire fences and signs warning potential burglars that "armed guards" were on patrol. We were welcomed to a grand old colonial house where, on the perfectly manicured lawn, we found the old ladies of the Jewish Seniors Society being serenaded over tea and cakes with the music of Cole Porter.

I looked quizzically at Fernie, who had clearly learned about being a guide from A Christmas Carol. He pointed to the black youngsters who were singing. "They are from the Hout Bay Music Project, another organisation that we are supporting. People think of Hout Bay as a beautiful place but they may not be aware that 95 per cent of the land is occupied by the white inhabitants. The black and coloured people are crammed into the remaining 5 per cent of land in shacks and little brick houses. It is from these that the youngsters performing today have come."

As we left, I asked Fernie what would become of the young people who had been singing so beautifully. "It'll be up to them," he replied. "The point is they have been given a chance to develop a talent and they have got to join an organisation that has a good reputation. A lot of them will go on to perform professionally."

The next stop was the Sentinel Primary School in the coloured township of Hangberg, home of the Jikeleza dance project, where 150 children between the ages of six and 18 receive daily classes in classical ballet, contemporary, street, African and Spanish dance. Fernie introduced me to Edmund Thwaites, a professional dancer of some repute in South Africa, who runs the project full-time with his partner, Atholl Hay.

He handed me notes on the dancers. One on the list caught my eye: "Age: 15. Father: Unknown. Mother: Seen him only once. Notes: Severe burn scars on his legs. A born ballet dancer." In the townships, Thwaites said, there is a terrible stigma to young men dancing, but many of them have, along with the girls, gone on to establish themselves professionally. "I try to let them express their problems such as sexual abuse and Aids through dance," he said. "Dancing and movement can often express a child's feelings better than words."

If anyone had thought, as I had, that having got to the top of Table Mountain, sampled the fine wines of Franschhoek and Hermanus, and seen the African penguins and the Big Five in Kruger, they had "done" South Africa, I'd recommend they have a word with James Fernie. "Apartheid is over but its legacy, and the shacks, remain. Nobody can say they understand South Africa until they understand that."

Tim Walker is editor of the Mandrake diary in the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. He is also the latter paper's theatre critic

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet