Some of the residents of the Twilight Centre in Hillbrow two years ago. Social worker Emily Langa is on the right, while long-serving board member and fund-raiser Cathy McDonald is seated on the bench, second from left. | Image: supplied.
Some of the residents of the Twilight Centre in Hillbrow two years ago. Social worker Emily Langa is on the right, while long-serving board member and fund-raiser Cathy McDonald is seated on the bench, second from left. | Image: supplied.

Plans in place to breathe new life into Hillbrow's dilapidated Twilight Centre

By Kevin Ritchie Time of article published Jun 30, 2020

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In the heart of Hillbrow stands a dilapidated blue building. The window panes facing the street are cracked. The glass doors onto the street are locked. This is the Twilight Centre.

It’s called that because the street children would emerge in the half-light of the early evening before night fell properly, to seek sustenance from the soup kitchen that once ran there.

The soup kitchen would evolve into one of the most successful children’s shelters in Hillbrow, then the epicentre of the street children pandemic, able to house up to 106 youngsters at its peak - most of them abandoned by their extended families in the wake of the HIV/Aids pandemic, says Emily Langa.

Known to the young men as Mam’Em, the legendary social worker, was there during the centre’s heyday when Jane Pritchard was the executive director. Langa is still there today, trying to breathe new life into a dream.

It was a place of hope, remembers Sandile Mdlalose-Zulu. Forced to go to school barefoot in midwinter, he saw other children, street kids like himself, who had the proper uniform and a decent pair of shoes. When he heard the child was from Twilight, he was determined to get in there.

The Twilight Centre though would collapse under the triple blows of Pritchard’s death in 2012, the change in legislation, and the mismanagement of a new board.

Heartbroken, Langa would leave in disgust, powerless to stop what was going on because the board was ignoring her warnings.

In June 2015, Twilight asked all the men over the age of 18 to leave because they were no longer allowed to stay there in terms of the new laws. The young men came back, though, after the school holidays in July, but they found themselves locked out.

Some slept on the pavements outside the home until they were chased away, finding refuge on the pavements at the nearby Cambridge Supermarket. Some relapsed into addiction. Some were determined to finish their education, even though they were homeless.

Cathy McDonald, Twilight’s longest-serving board member and biggest fund-raiser, begged Langa to return.

Langa took to the streets of Hillbrow to try to track her lost charges.

“I stood at the robots and watched these boys pass me. They didn’t recognise me,” she remembers.

Thabang Mvundlela, left, and Sandile Mdlalose-Zulu stand outside the rooms that once housed the Hillbrow radio and TV station, but which will now be turned into a boxing gym for community members.

They had had to take to the streets to beg, to raise enough money for the right to sleep in ruined buildings run by predatory men. The boys she spoke to were bitter, especially those who had been midway through matric when the home closed. They’d lost everything. They were also deeply ashamed. It was this most of all that convinced Langa to go back to Twilight to see what she could do.

The problem then, as it had been before she left in despair, was that the new regulations allowed for children to be kept in a shelter until only the age of 18. For many of them, though, the shelter was all they had known. They had become institutionalised, scared of venturing onto the streets, unprepared for life outside, even at the ages of 20 to 23.

Langa was determined to reimagine Twilight as an outreach centre, based on the US Street Youth Outreach programme designed for youth who want to exit the streets.

“We would invite the former Twilight kids to come back and wash their clothes, and we’d give them food that we would often buy out of our own pockets. Those who showed commitment, I admitted. Two of them were doing Grade 12 even though they were homeless. By 2017, I’d managed to rescue 15.

“The idea was to keep them for two years to let those who wanted to finish their schooling do so and for the others to get vocational training, so that they could all leave and lead productive lives. We depended on donations in kind, living from hand to mouth, until one day the Angel Network arrived.”

For Angel Network founder Glynne Wolman, the Twilight Centre was precisely the opportunity her organisation was set up to help.

The Angel Network was recently entrusted by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to disburse a R9million donation to Covid-19 communities in need. The board also recently made donations to Twilight.

“When you go there, you see the pride of the young men who live there. They have so little, but they take such great care of that which they have, and Emily is absolutely phenomenal, she’s a mother to them all. She’s determined to help them for a life on the outside and it’s something we are as determined to help her do. This is not about handouts, but hand-ups.”

For the past three years, Wolman’s Angel Network has been helping provide for the young men’s needs: school uniforms and study material for the seven young men finishing school, as well as their bedding and food supplies. One of the others is studying at the University of Johannesburg, paid for by Australian Angel Network member Louise Fisher.

Twilight Outreach has also been at the forefront of Covid-19 relief efforts with Mdlalose-Zulu and his fellow former Twilight alumnus Thabang Mvundlela, operating a food bank for inner-city recipients as part of the Community Action Network (CAN).

Thabang Mvundlela and Sandile MdlaloseZulu stand on top of the roof at the Twilight Outreach Centre, with Hillbrow’s iconic Telkom tower just behind them. | Picture: Kevin Ritchie

Lisa Lowenthal runs the CAN in the inner city, but she is also enthused by the opportunity of working with Langa, Mdlalose-Zulu, Mvundlela and Wolman to turn Langa’s dream into a fully-fledged community centre and the beacon of hope it once was.

“When I walked in there, I was blown away by the possibilities. There are three buildings: the old shelter, the old IT centre and the building that once hosted Hillbrow Radio. We want to rename them to honour Emily, Jane and Cathy McDonald and create a wonderful self-sustaining centre for the community and help young men get off the street,” says Lowenthal.

Her plan involves education innovator Rael Lissoos the founder of MOOV (Massive Open Online Varsity) and well-known child safety activist Luke Lamprecht of Women and Men Against Child Abuse, among others. There are plans to revamp the industrial kitchens, create urban gardens, establish a boxing gym and open a community college.

“There’s so much space, the potential is endless. There used to be a library, a pottery centre and even a radio station there,” says Wolman.

Today, the library, still with the books on the bookshelves, has been turned into the temporary food bank.

Mdlalose-Zulu’s pride is obvious. He came to Twilight in 2007. Today he is a photographer, videographer, pastry chef and tour guide. He also the resident manager of the centre with Mvundlela, who came to Twilight in 2008.

Mvundlela is a community sports coach, when he is not coaching soccer at Montrose Primary School, a job that the Angel Network secured for him.

“I was staying across the road in a damaged building. I used to see a lot of bad things happening; prostitution, gangsters, drugs A Wits student was trying to get us to go to the shelters.”

Mvundlela was only one of two who volunteered. And the only one who stayed.

“When I came here, I saw a family,” he says simply.

“I’d like to see Twilight Outreach develop,” says Mdlalose-Zulu. “I’d like it to fulfil Jane Pritchard and Mam’Em’s dream. I want to be part of that movement that does it.”

If you would like to donate, visit The Angel Network's website.

The Saturday Star

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