Gauteng MEC for Social Development, Nandi Mayathula-Khoza, talks to the media. File picture: Simone Kley/Independent Media
Johannesburg - They put padlocks on the gates and mounds of burning tyres and stones around the entrances. That way, anyone who was inside would be locked in, unable to get out - for four days.

When Gauteng Social Development Department MEC Nandi Mayathula-Khoza and senior officials arrived at the Ga-Rankuwa Rearabilwe child and youth care centre on Friday, they found frightened and hungry children - some as young as 3-years-old - “abandoned” by striking social workers.

“The three caseworkers who had been barricaded inside cried when they saw us,” she told the Saturday Star, at a media briefing.

“They haven’t gone home since Monday. I wanted to cry myself. The children were so frightened and hadn’t eaten for days.

“They are HIV-positive children who need to take their medication, which they didn’t have. These are orphaned and abandoned children, and from backgrounds of abuse.”

Mayathula-Khoza visited four places of safety and child and youth care centres in Ga-Rankuwa and Soshanguve that were “negatively impacted” by the the countrywide social workers strike, organised by the National Health Education and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu).

“We received disturbing calls that the striking workers have barricaded entrances, barring essential supplies such as food.

“There was no food coming in, caterers not allowed in, there was no medication coming in and laundry has not been done. We saw piles and piles of dirty laundry.

“These children have not changed their clothes since Monday. There’s a child at Ga-Rankuwa Rearabilwe, who is HIV-positive, who could not get his antiretroviral medicine. There were three children who suffered from diarrhoea. The staff had to use home remedies. We are glad there have not been fatalities.”

“Horrified” by what she saw, she launched an appeal to “all community members”, particularly those with social work skills, to help “in the social development institutions and centres around their neighbourhoods”.

Social workers are demanding an increase in salaries and other benefits. Nehawu maintains its strike is peaceful, and the department failed to heed its demands tabled on February 10.

In Gauteng, about 600 social workers are now striking. On Thursday, the department was granted a court interdict against Nehawu, which yesterday described this as “bullying tactics”.

“We sympathise with the workers,” said Mayathula-Khoza. “What we wish is for them to go back to the negotiating table to find solutions.

“It’s one thing to protest to demand one’s rights but another to place the lives of the vulnerable in harm’s way.”

Five children housed at the Walter Sisulu child and youth care centre had “escaped”.

She had received “hourly updates’ since Monday, she said, on the growing crisis at the institutions. “By Thursday night, we were sending messages at midnight. I couldn’t sleep, I was so worried.

“We anticipated the strike was going to be one day and not protracted and had plans in place,” said Tebogo Itumeleng, who heads welfare services and institutions.

“Unfortunately, it’s now indefinite. We’re putting a more refined plan in place to ensure our children’s basic needs are provided for and that staff not on strike can go back to work.”

At the Don Mattera Child and Youth Care Centre, Mpho Zulu told how only three staffers had remained to care for over 70 children.

* For referrals for institutions in your locality, call Busi Kheswa at 083 870 1762 or at 082 611 0141.

Saturday Star