When Khanyisile Motsa saw girls living on the streets, she took them home

Khanyisile Motsa is 'mother' to a very large family – 62 orphaned girls at her Johannesburg, South Africa, 'Home of Hope' orphanage.

David Canning
Khanyisile Motsa cares for 62 orphaned girls at her Berea Hillbrow Home of Hope near Johannesburg, South Africa.

What does someone do when confronted by "street girls" as young as 10 years old propositioning men on a street corner? An outraged Khanyisile Motsa, a businesswoman in Johannesburg, South Africa, marched over and confronted their controllers and pimps.

Demanding the girls' possessions, Ms. Motsa freed them and took them home to join her own five children in her small apartment in Johannesburg's Hillbrow neighborhood.

That was 13 years ago, soon after Motsa had moved her family to Johannesburg so she could run an import-export business.

Today, Motsa has become "mother" to a very large family – 62 orphaned girls as young as 4 months. Driven and guided by an "inner voice," she has navigated a tough road. It included being evicted from her apartment for overcrowding, being injured in a revenge attack, and sacrificing her business and career to start an orphanage known as the Berea Hillbrow Home of Hope.

Motsa – or "mam," as she is known to the girls – describes that first encounter on the street in 2000. "I approached the girls and told them they were so beautiful.... I had been warned they were cheeky and rude. I invited them to my flat for tea."

The girls had tea, ate, and left.

"The next day four girls came home for tea and fell asleep. When one woke up she started shouting, 'We are late, we are late.' At first she didn't want to tell the truth ... then she told me they worked for pimps and pushers and were prostitutes."

Motsa discovered the girls were also carrying small packets of drugs to sell.

All the girls were orphans.

The overall number of orphans in South Africa is hard to determine. According to some calculations, as many as 3.5 million orphans live in South Africa, more than half of whom have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. The fortunate ones are taken in by relatives or live in orphanages and shelters.

Many others fend for themselves in child-headed households or on the streets.

According to a report in Johannesburg's Star newspaper May 27, the government in Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg, has 737 social workers – less than a tenth of the number needed – to help hundreds of thousands of children who survive on very small social and foster care grants.

Financially embattled nongovernmental organizations struggle to fill the gaps while government authorities have announced modest plans to increase the number of social workers.

Girls make easy pickings for criminal gangs on the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa's largest and wealthiest city. Many of the children come from poor rural areas in other provinces like KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape – traditional sources of migrants who have headed off to work in Johannesburg (known as "eGoli," or the place of gold) for more than a century.

After the girls are abducted or coerced, Motsa says, they are trapped in the big city.

Motsa and her helpers operate out of two crowded but spotless premises – a flat that she rents in Hillbrow and a small three-bedroom residential house about six miles away in the suburb of Kensington.

Her operation tackles each challenge as it arises. One of these is the fear of abductions or revenge attacks for exposing and fighting rampant child abuse. Motsa herself was deliberately run over in the street and seriously injured a few years ago.

Victoria Gumede, a friend who helped Motsa after the incident, is full of praise for her work with orphans. Motsa "has really made a good difference in this [central Johannesburg] area," Ms. Gumede says.

In an interview Motsa talks about her goal to give the girls a family life similar to her own.

Born to a Swazi mother and Zulu father, she was raised in a rural town in KwaZulu-Natal. In her loving family, education was highly valued. "My parents were staunchly religious," she says. "We were taught to respect everyone and to take no one for granted. My mother was very strict."

A sense of respect is found in her home today "because of what each child is taught when she [first] comes in. I introduce myself and say, 'I am giving you a present – I am going to be your mother, and all these [other] girls share this present, which is me, as mother.' "

All the girls' possessions are neatly stored in small cubicles above tight rows of bunk beds. The number of soft toys on each bed indicates the length of each girl's stay – each annually receives a gift of a teddy bear or other soft toy. The girls are enrolled in schools or universities. Over the past 13 years many have graduated with degrees and have good jobs. The home owns a small minibus that shuttles them to school each day and to Sunday school each weekend.

Motsa says the girls offer each other mutual support. She reminds them that they were brought to the home through a sense of love and that "God's love is around them like a circle."

Wendy Cele (not her real name), a second-year student at the University of Witwatersrand, has been a member of the home for six years. She won a bursary that pays for all her studies.

"It [the home] changed my life. It's amazing. They don't look at your background but build your self-esteem," she says. She would like to be a corporate lawyer when she graduates.

Another girl, an aspiring journalist who has lived at Hillbrow since 2010, says it has offered her a wonderful experience, especially "learning how to deal with different people and situations."

The home uses peer educators – young women who have themselves come through the home and who stay on to act as confidantes and to care for a group of girls.

As part of this individual care, detailed investigations are conducted into the background of each girl – and attempts are made to trace any surviving relatives and to reunite them. Evidence of past abuse – including child rape – is pursued with the help of government agencies.

Motsa's influence spreads into the community through a core of 10 full-time and 26 part-time helpers. They work in the heavily populated area giving health advice and suggesting solutions to those living in often unsanitary conditions.

Working closely with government officials, they also keep a constant lookout for evidence of abuse. Vulnerable girls are identified and sometimes referred to other institutions.

Motsa describes the problem as enormous. Someone has painted her phone number onto a wall in the area, and as a result she sometimes receives desperate calls for help. "We will help any person in need," Motsa says emphatically.

The home survives on donations and by growing as much produce as possible in a small garden. The Kensington house was bought three years ago with the help of the staff members of a local bank, who joined together for this purpose.

Today, both Hillbrow homes are bursting at the seams – the Kensington house has grown from 20 to 32 girls – and Motsa continually commutes between the two homes. She would love to acquire an adjoining Kensington property that has become available and to consolidate the operation in one place.

Motsa's work with orphans is strongly endorsed by Peggy Povall, a retired administrative officer who previously worked for a large mining conglomerate in Johannesburg.

"I have seen so many girls rehabilitated and become good citizens," she says.

Motsa recently received a call from a distraught mother on the verge of either committing murder or dumping her infant on the street. She managed to identify the telephone booth the call was coming from and get there in time to find the mother and to take possession of the baby girl along with her birth certificate.

She renamed the baby Langalakle – Zulu for "Came on the Right Day" – meaning the child should never have any doubts about her blessed arrival.

• For more, visit www.hopehome.org.za.

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