Ashburton, KwaZulu-Natal - There is a long winding dirt road that leads to the White Cross Disabled Hope Centre in Ashburton.
The manager of the home, Stuart Knight, calls it the “road of the shadow of death” because so many children have succumbed to evil along the way.
Most of the 20 children at the home cannot walk, talk, see or eat and suffer with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, severe epilepsy or are psychotic. Many of their conditions were worsened by their families, who sought to cure them using traditional means, said Knight.
But some are safe for now, he says proudly.
White Cross Disabled Home is one of the safe havens waiting to be registered by the Department of Social Development as a partial care facility whose case has been taken up by the DA. At the moment it’s registered as a non-profit organisation.
Although the children live there permanently, the home does not receive grants or subsidies for them.
Knight has to raise between R45 000 and R47 000 every month to meet expenses.
“The grants and subsidies would cover all our monthly expenses and we have applied to change our registration so many times, but the department is full of excuses. We have exhausted our savings,” said Knight, who took over the running of the home four years ago with his wife Jackie.
“We don’t earn a cent and we pay our caregivers R1 000 a month. I have begged friends and family to help make ends meet – you have to when there are bills to pay. Businesses in town have also been very generous with their donations.”
Knight has run a cleaning service for many years and said the profits from the business are also used for the home.
“We have nothing left, besides the shirts on our backs. We have poured our lives into this home.”
Social department spokes-man Vukani Mbele says the application to change the home’s registration status was received in February and is under consideration. He gave no reasons for the delay, saying there are no obstacles regarding the application.
He says that a monitoring and evaluation visit was done recently.
“The assessment was finalised and the organisation needs to lodge a formal application and submit a health in-spector’s report.”
Taking the Sunday Tribune on a tour of the home Knight, who carries his gun at all times after the attempted kidnapping of a child a few years ago, warns us before entering the building that it is “unlike anything we have ever seen”.
The property is well maintained, although the buildings are run down. Knight says the extensions were built with their own finances. The children’s home has separate boys’ and girls’ dormitories, with rooms for caregivers who are on 24-hour call. The kitchen is clean and each child’s medication is is lined up in labelled boxes.
We enter the communal room with a door leading to the yard. Caregivers closely monitor the children’s movements between the two areas. Some children lay on mattresses unable to walk, talk or see. They are fed through their stomachs with liquidised food.
Others lay curled up on the floor in a ball staring into space, while another child screamed incessantly despite the efforts of the caregivers to comfort him.
Knight says a little boy, who is about two, was brought to them by a social worker last week. A previous home had refused to care for him any longer.
He introduces us to another boy, Thabo*, who is unable to speak or eat because his tongue and throat have collapsed.
Knight says Thabo’s family thought he was possessed because of his epileptic fits, and forced him to drink body parts and shredded glass to cure him.
Watching him eat is a sad sight. He has to stuff fistfuls of food into his mouth and down his throat. It is a painful, messy process he has to endure and he makes strange gurgling noises as he eats.
The other children follow us around. One hugs the photographer and holds his hand.
Knight says a nine-year-old boy had been “perfectly normal” at birth, but because he was born out of wedlock, his mother’s family wanted to teach her a lesson. They tied a noose around his neck, hanging him until he was unconscious.
“They killed half his brain cells and now he will be like this for the rest of his life,” says Knight.
Almost every child at the home has lived through a horrific ordeal that caused or worsened their conditions, some of which could have been controlled with medicine.
Recalling his visit to the home in 2008 as chairman of the local community policing forum and someone involved in community outreach programmes, he says he was outraged at what he saw.
“While there was a children’s home here, the other buildings were used as brothels and a drug den by squatters … There was no running water or electricity, the property was in a terrible state. Initially I volunteered to assist, but after a few months I knew I had to take over the running of the home.”
He admits that unwanted children are dumped there and he shudders to think what would become of them if anything happened to him or his wife.
“That is the reason I am staying, no matter how tough it gets… No one is ever going to hurt these children again. They will have to get through me first,” he said.
He has plans for the home, including reclaiming the land and putting it in trust for the children. It is now in trust to a pastor overseas.
A farm producing eggs, milk and chickens is run on the property, with some chickens sold to earn extra income.