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Difference Maker

They opened their home – and hearts – to South Africa's abandoned babies

Christo and Lanie de Klerk have founded the Baby Moses sanctuary for abandoned babies in South Africa.

By Hamilton WendeContributor / May 7, 2012

Lanie and Christo de Klerk, directors of the Baby Moses Baby Sanctuary, in front of one of their houses for children near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Hamilton Wende

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Johannesburg, South Africa

If you drive down Merle Street, an unremarkable tree-lined avenue in middle-class Roodepoort, one of the dormitory towns surrounding Johannesburg, you will glimpse a way of life created decades ago. In its neat suburban houses and gleaming lawns you will see the benefits that were reserved for whites under apartheid.

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Not all that much has changed. Most of the inhabitants are still white and enjoy a lifestyle that millions of black South Africans cannot even dream of experiencing.

However, tucked away here is the Baby Moses Baby Sanctuary for abandoned infants. What's happening inside this modest ranch-style home is emblematic of the way many South Africans are changing how they react to race and long-entrenched privilege.

The overwhelming majority of the children who are being cared for here are black, while its founders, Christo and Lanie de Klerk, are white Afrikaners.

"We started it in 2003," Lanie explains, "after we both had a religious experience. We felt a pulling at our heartstrings to make a place for abandoned babies.

"We knew when we started that it would be mostly black children. We felt we had to give back. We wanted to pay some penance for what had happened under apartheid" – the strict separation of the races under white minority rule that ended two decades ago.

Christo worked in a bank, and Lanie was staying at home looking after their three biological children and the child they have adopted.

Soon, however, the need for Christo's services at Baby Moses became too great: Now he works from home and has joined Lanie in running the sanctuary.

Baby Moses has grown in the past nine years. In addition to their home on Merle Street, where they look after nine babies and young children, the de Klerks run two other homes in the Johannesburg area and one in the rural west of the country.

In nearly a decade, they have cared for some 180 children, including 65 at present.

"Almost 120 of our children have either been fostered or adopted over the years," Christo says.

Johanna "J.B." Russell, a trained nurse who helps out with the children at Baby Moses, says of the de Klerks and their work: "They get the children from many different places – from the police, from social welfare, from the courts.

"There are other places that provide a place of safety, but Lanie and Christo go further than this," she says. "They provide a loving home, emotional security, and healing for the children. They make a difference to the lives of children who would otherwise not have much hope."

The soft-spoken couple have found themselves at the heart of a growing crisis. The number of babies abandoned in the Johannesburg region is soaring. In answer to a question in the provincial legislature last year, Faith Mazibuko, the representative on community safety of the governing African National Congress party, replied that the number of abandoned infants found alive has grown from 49 cases in 2007 to 138 cases in 2011.

In total, more than 800 babies were discovered in this period; tragically, 468 were already dead when they were found.

"The number of abandoned babies [in South Africa] is escalating," says social worker Anschke Van Der Watt. "They are found everywhere: on railway tracks, in public toilets; some are even left at hospitals.

"There are various reasons; the economic situation is part of it. Everywhere in the world it's tough – look at Greece and other parts of Europe. When [the Europeans] go down, we go down with them. We are all one global village; what affects them affects us."

A more tragic reason has also influenced events, Ms. Van Der Watt says.

"The government gives grants to young women who have children. Especially in the rural areas, this is the only form of income they have," she says. "So they think to have a child will bring them some money.

"They don't look at the costs that child care involves. So they find they can't cope, and they abandon the children."

For the de Klerks, though, what matters above all is each individual child.

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