THE British High Commission official who nominated local street children’s champion Tom Hewitt for a coveted award, knew it would mean so much to him to have the investiture in Durban.
“Tom has such a passion for Durban,” said Gary Benham, the first secretary for communication and sport at the High Commission in Pretoria.
Briton Hewitt was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s new year’s honour list and, according to tradition, should have been invested with the award in an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
But because of Hewitt’s love for his adopted Durban, where he established the Umthombo Drop-in-Centre for street children with his wife, Bulelwa, herself a former street child, Benham decided to “make a little cheeky request” and ask if Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, the queen’s daughter, could carry out the investiture in Durban, during her visit to the city where she was attending last week’s session of the International Olympic Committee as head of the British Olympic Association.
“Durban also has a long history of links with the UK and I thought it would be lovely to have it here,” said Benham.
Having got the royal nods of approval, the princess duly presented Hewitt with his MBE for his services to children at the City Hall on Friday.
Once a recipient is nominated for an award, he or she has to be seconded, and pop legend Sir Cliff Richard, who has visited Umthombo, was only too glad to second Hewitt’s nomination, recalled Benham.
It is the first time that such an investiture has been carried out in South Africa, Benham said.
Hewitt, who has been working for street children for almost 20 years, said he was “thrilled” that the investiture took place in Durban instead of Buckingham Palace.
“This means the world to me. It is where I live and where my two children, Sabelo, 6, and Siyanda, 4, are growing up. It’s an early 40th birthday present,” he said.
His parents, the Reverend Garth and Gill Hewitt, flew out from London for the ceremony and his mother dabbed her eyes as her son received the MBE from the princess.
“It’s a very moving moment,” Hewitt’s father said, recalling later how his son had first encountered street children during a visit they had both made to Maputo.
“He did not say much to me at the time, but I knew he could not get them off his mind,” Hewitt senior said.
The princess spent a good 15 minutes with Hewitt, his wife and parents, and told them that she was glad to have seen Umthombo for herself the day before.
“She is really down to earth and very engaging on issues with children,” said Hewitt.
The princess, an ambassador for The Save The Children Fund, was also very good with the children she met, he said.
“As she walked around Umthombo, the children were just milling around and when one boy came past with a yoyo, she asked him for a demonstration.
“It was the first time he had used it and after his demonstration, the princess joked that he was almost as bad as she was.
“It was said in a very funny way and they both had a good laugh.”
Hewitt hoped that getting the MBE would provide a platform to highlight the issues of street children.
Durban had entered a new era and the city (which used to take action against street children) had changed its approach towards them, he said. Durban people were also now very supportive. “It has been a long journey,” Hewitt said.
Now the biggest problem were the people selling glue to street children, he added.
An honorary MBE was also bestowed on South African national Tertia Habenga for her exceptional services to the British High Commission.
She is head of learning and development for embassies and consulates in 31 African countries.
“Wow, I am still dumbstruck,” she said after receiving the award and spending time chatting to the princess.