Freedom Park

Tsholofelo Community has been working in squatter camps for 20 years but may be it would be good to tell you something about one called Freedom Park. This squatter camp started in 1986 when some women set up tin shacks to sell liquor to the miners. Every so often the Bophuthatswana police would come and knock down their shacks and take them to the police station where they would be fined for squatting. As soon as they were released they went back and built their shacks again. When President Mandela was elected President of S.Africa in 1994 and Bophuthatswana had become integrated into S.Africa, then the police stopped knocking down the shacks. The people then called the place Freedom Park as they felt free. Over the years the population gradually grew to its present number of approximately 20 000 as people came looking for jobs, or others came searching for family members who were working in the mines and finding no accommodation they squatted. The people came from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, E.Cape and the surrounding areas.

Freedom Park Squatter Camp

In the apartheid days the mines did not provide housing to black miners and they were obliged to leave their families in the traditional villages and live in mine hostels, 16 men to a room. Due to the prolonged break with their families, the miners set up second and third families in Freedom Park. This became a type of subculture among the miners and has continued until today resulting in a rapid spread of HIV/Aids.

Freedom Park Squatter CampFreedom Park Squatter CampFreedom Park Squatter Camp

A terrible event happened in December 1996 at Freedom Park, 36 people were killed in faction fighting between the Sotho and the Xhosa people. Bro Joseph and Sr Georgina spoke about this and it was decided to go and meet the leaders there. We asked them to sit down together and prioritize their needs so that we could discuss the type of help they wanted. For them their biggest need was running water, toilets, rubbish collection, roads - none of which we could help with as that was the work of the municipality. Then they said they desperately needed a clinic, a school for the children and for the adults, a créche, skills training etc. We said we felt that we could help them with some of these requests,so the next step was to set up health, education, créche, skills committees so that they could decide the next step forward in each of these areas. In the mean time we went to the Bafokeng tribe to ask permission to set up projects on their land. They agreed as long as the structures that we put down were not permanent

We decided to start with the clinic. A building contractor offered us a 2.4m x 6m prefab office which stood on 4 iron legs and was converted into a clinic. Sr Georgina requested that 6 members of the community be chosen to help her at the clinic. She arranged to take them home every day for 2 weeks to train them in basic skills. When that had been done and the clinic furnished, the clinic opened on the 5th May 1997. There was no running water or toilets available, no electricity and nowhere for patients to sit while waiting to be seen. She would bring water from home everyday and a cool box for the vaccinations. Despite its drawbacks people began coming. One of the Medical Practitioners, Dr Van Schalkwyk accepted to offer his services voluntarily each Wednesday afternoon, to see the very sick.

Freedom Park Squatter CampFreedom Park Squatter Camp

Within the first few months of opening the clinic it was evident that some of the women and their babies were very ill and some died. Often we would send them to the nearest hospital which was 20kms away but they would send them home and they would die with no one to care for them.

Something needed to be done to address this problem. (At this stage nobody really knew what they were dying of. We had no means of testing the HIV status of people). As well as this there were no social workers who would come to this squatter camp as it was illegal and many people were illegal immigrants (economic refugees) and therefore could not apply for social grants for their children. The other problem was that when the men from the mines saw that their girlfriends were very sick, they would strip the tin shack of their belongings and return to the mine hostels never to be seen again, leaving the girlfriends and the children destitute and to die alone.

Then one morning when reaching work Sr Georgina was asked to go and visit an 8th month pregnant woman in her shack. On arrival she found a Lesotho lady dying on the floor who was being cared for by the neighbours. They then related the story that two days previously this woman had revealed her HIV status to them. She had been tested at the provincial hospital. Later in the morning she died and an hour later her baby was born dead on the floor in the tin shack. Everyone was shocked. The health committee met to discuss what could be done to address such problems. It was decided that a home based care nursing service was needed to assist the destitute and dying.

Freedom Park Squatter Camp - Home based careFreedom Park Squatter Camp - Home based careFreedom Park Squatter Camp - Home based care

In 2001 Impala mines offered to donate HIV rapid test kits to the clinic every month. Through the statistics documented at Freedom Park and the experiences of the home based care givers, it was evident that the HIV/Aids infection was going to reach pandemic proportions in the next few years. Dying mothers were being cared for by 6 and 7 year old children, who would be left alone to wash cloths, prepare food and tend to the needs of their mothers. Over 40% of the pregnant women tested at Freedom park were HIV positive. The implications of this was enormous for the community. Questions were being asked. What would happen to these children when the mothers died? Where could these HIV/Aids sufferers die with dignity instead of dying on the ground in tin shacks. And were the babies of all these pregnant women going to also die with HIV?

Freedom Park Squatter Camp - Home based careFreedom Park Squatter Camp - Home based careFreedom Park Squatter Camp - Home based care

At the end of 2004 the Diocese of Rustenburg (Catholic Church) opened a 20 bedded hospice for the dying, as well as 8 centres for the distribution of Anti-Retroviral drugs to treat HIV/Aids sufferers. Today we care for over 1000 adults, children and babies on treatment. In 2005 an orphan and vulnerable children project was also started in response to the consequences of the HIV/Aids pandemic. There are 400 children 0-18yrs on this programme. Many of them attend a crèche that is also shipping containers at Freedom Park. The feeding of the children was financed by the De La Salle brothers Proyde project in Spain. A Primary School and an Adult education school was also set up in 2000 by Bro Joseph and has now been taken over by the Government. The mines built 2 new schools a primary and secondary school which were opened this year 2008. Skills projects such as bread making, sewing, knitting, bead work, fence making were set up 6 years ago and some are still functioning.

Freedom Park Squatter Camp - ClinicFreedom Park Squatter Camp - Clinic

Freedom Park Squatter Camp - ClinicFreedom Park Squatter Camp - Clinic

It is over 15 years since we opened the clinic at Freedom Park the people are still very poor but they have a sense of ownership of the community projects and their well being.