’Adopt-a-Son’ campaign determined to give young boys a chance at a better life
By Kevin Ritchie
Antonette Thabapelo was buying stationery for the upcoming academic year. She was planning to start studying biomedicine in Midrand. She was flush. She’d made a lot money that December in 2017, working at a carwash she had started outside her granny’s home in Bekkersdal to make money to pay for her own studies.
But she wanted to do more, so she went to her grandmother and asked which kids in the neighbourhood she could help buy stationery ahead of their new school year. Her gran gave her some names. Thabapelo chose two boys and two girls.
“I’d seen an insert on TV news when I was a child about the shortage of hospital beds at Charlotte Maxeke hospital in Johannesburg and I promised myself that one day I would be able to help – at the time I thought you had to be a doctor to make a difference,” she remembers of her initial study choice after matriculating from the Lenasia Muslim School where she had been a boarder.
Walking down the local shopping aisle, she didn’t stop when she came to the end but continued adding toiletries to her basket, ending up ultimately with a pair of shoes too before she paid at the till. The response from the mother of the boy who had received the gift was a revelation: “She told me he finally couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to go to school because he now felt and looked like the other kids.
“Then and there, I realised how much the boy child is neglected in our country.”
It was an epiphany that would lead her to change her course of study to psychology and enrol at Wits as well as set up a foundation “Adopt-a-Son” operating between Bekkersdal and Westonaria.
“One day I’ll end up with a man, who would have been a boy one day, so I thought let me fix that now, let me start a programme to develop boys into the men society would like to become fathers one day,” she explains.
There’s a lot to fix in an oppressed society, she says, from gender-based violence to the rape culture prevalent in townships where there is little hope, rampant unemployment and a growing drug problem as jobless youth mill aimlessly around; young boys becoming men and adopting destructive coping mechanisms in the process.
“They sit at the street corners. The problem is bad. There are new drugs like Moo, along with crystal, marijuana and alcohol. They’re destroying their futures.
“I followed the tragedy of Uyinene Mwertyana (the UCT student raped and murdered by a postal worker in 2019). Everyone was focusing on the what and not the why?”
The why, she believes, is a lack of decent male role models, a dearth of actual fathers. Her foundation Adopt-a-Son, which she registered last year, aims to remedy this. She has 20 ‘sons’ ranging from 6 to 29 – even though she herself is only 22 – assisted by seven ‘fathers’, men who volunteer their time and effort to step into the breach and be father figures.
The ‘sons’ who are still at school get stationery, school uniforms and toiletries, the ‘sons’ who have dropped out of school are helped to find work and vocational training. They all get together regularly; the ‘sons’, their adopted ‘dads’ and herself.
“We chill together, it’s where I can find out what their actual needs are and find sponsors to help. All of my ‘sons’ come from broken or child-headed households. Their biological fathers were never there in the first place, or abandoned them, some died.”
It’s a problem that was made even worse by the COVID 19 lockdown, when the schools closed.
“I would drive to my granny in Westonaria and see some of them sitting in their school uniforms, which is a status symbol in the townships. I’d ask them what they were up to. I do get scared that they won’t want to go back to school when this is over which will be another problem that we will have to deal with.”
She spent much of the lockdown ensuring they didn’t get hungry by distributing food parcels from the Angel Network, thanks to an intervention by Charisse Zeifert from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), now she, the ‘dad’s and the sons’ plan to get together for the annual Adopt-a-Son birthday celebration on December 6.
“It’s the birthday they celebrate as adopted sons,” Thabapelo explains. “We get together all of us, we talk about things, we will spend the day together. They’ll get presents.”
It’s also in the middle of the annual 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children campaign. She’ll use the opportunity to get them to speak about their fears and learn to be able to express their emotions.
“Men don’t know how to express their emotions, it’s the root of toxic masculinity. They are scared of being mocked. They should be able to deconstruct patriarchy, redefine masculinity and, most of all, liberate the boy child.”
She’s being helped in her quest by a number of sponsors; Kgosihadi Trading and Projects which has provided office space, the local South Deep Gold Mine, the SAJBD and assorted businesses in Azaadville.
Her message to them and to all the others the foundation helps with tutoring and preparation for the current matric exam season is simple: “just because you come from a bad background, doesn’t mean you can’t change your future”.
Her dream, starting next year, is to start working on creating an academy to teach boys in the townships IT skills to make them employable. Ultimately, she wants to start a boys’ only academy with a difference, producing young men not imprisoned by the current concept of masculinity they grow up with.
(bold dot) If you would like to know more about Adopt-A-Son, you can write to [email protected] or WhatsApp 076 139 0456