The South Africa Grandmothers Gathering

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Watching Mama Darlina Tyawana at the podium, it is clear that she is no stranger to the struggle for human rights. “To the international community we say: You have overlooked us for far too long!” Darlina proclaims, as UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé and International AIDS Conference Co-Chairs Chris Beyrer and Olive Shisana look on.

“To the international community we say: You have overlooked us for far too long! Remember: Nothing About Us, Without Us!”

—The South Africa Grandmothers Statement

“Remember,” she cries, to enthusiastic cheers from her fellow grandmothers, “Nothing About Us, Without Us!”

A History of Activism

It’s not Mama Darlina’s first time saying those words, and it won’t be her last. The one-time anti-Apartheid activist is now a powerful advocate for the human rights of AIDS-affected grandmothers, and an outspoken AIDS and children’s rights activist. Like so many of the other women at the South Africa Grandmothers Gathering, Mama Darlina has been engaged in social justice work in Africa for decades.

That work has now taken her to the doorstep of the world’s most attended conference on HIV & AIDS. Inside, the plenaries and panels are filled with academics, world leaders, and other dignitaries, but outside, the scene is altogether different. Some 2,000 grandmothers are gathered as far as the eye can see, each of them sporting a brightly coloured t-shirt bearing the locally-designed logo of their Gathering: two fists clasped together in solidarity and a third raised defiantly in the air. They carry signs demanding that their human rights be recognized and their voices heard. And the collective sound of their voices – raised in song and indignation – is undeniable.  

A Powerful Call to Action

These grandmothers have gathered from across South Africa to run workshops for one another, and to discuss the pivotal roles they are playing in turning the tide of their country’s HIV & AIDS epidemic. These workshops have address their shared concerns as grandmothers and caregivers for orphaned grandchildren—from food security, to sharing expertise on how to raise a whole generation of orphaned children. The grandmothers have discussed how to help children begin to heal from the grief of losing their parents, and navigate the dangers that will confront them in their teenage years. Self-care was also critically high on the agenda. With so many young lives depending on them, the grandmothers are clear that their own strength and well-being must be treated as an urgent priority.

Their historic assembly has culminated in this triumphant march to the steps of Durban’s International Convention Centre, where they are issuing a powerful call to the international community and to their own government: “It is time to do right by your grandmothers!”

Bearing Witness to Change

Place Holder infoIn South Africa – as in so many sub-Saharan African countries – grandmothers have been at the heart of community-based responses to the scourge of AIDS. They have nursed their own dying children, and have parented their orphaned grandchildren through grief, poverty, and illness. They have kept families and communities together.

African Women’s Development Fund CEO Theo Sowa has borne witness to the grandmothers’ vital work, and beams as she looks out at the crowd of South African ‘Gogos’ gathered before her. “This movement of grandmothers has grown from strength to strength!” she proclaims to resounding cheers from the crowd.

“We have seen a great, great change,” agrees South Africa Grandmothers Gathering Organizing Committee member, Cwengi Myeni. Cwengi is the Gogo Support Group Manager at Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust, the Foundation’s facilitating partner for the South Africa Grandmothers Gathering. While she is quick to acknowledge the advances of grandmothers, however, she is just as careful to highlight the challenges which AIDS-affected communities continue to face.

“People are still very scared,” Cwengi explains. “Even if they suspect that they have HIV, they come very late to be tested... Because there are still people who would rather not know that they are HIV positive.” Thus, grandmothers have also come to play a crucial role in fighting the stigma that continues to account for so many AIDS-related deaths today. 

“People must not keep quiet. If you are available and known in the community, you can change people's lives!”

—Mama Zodwa Ndlovu

“People must not keep quiet,” declares Mama Zodwa Ndlovu, another member of the Gathering’s formidable Organizing Committee. “If you are available and known in the community, you can change people’s lives.”

The Grandmothers' Agenda for Change

The Grandmothers Gathering in Durban was not only a cathartic exchange of expertise and strategies for coping with HIV & AIDS; it was also deeply political. After such monumental efforts to keep their families and communities from succumbing to the ravages of the HIV & AIDS epidemic, these women know that it is past time for national governments and the international community to step in and finally do their part. The memory of the struggle to free South Africa from the grip of Apartheid is not far from the minds of many of the grandmothers, who were also deeply engaged in that long struggle. They know exactly what must happen next. And – for the sake of the generations they are raising – they raised their voices in workshops, demanding the following and more: 

“Gogos have the right to a decent place to live. They shouldn’t live in shacks all their lives. We should have proper housing, because we made this country what it is today, and we fought for this country. Right now people apply for housing and they wait for years and years. They wait forever.”

“The hospitals don’t want to help older people. They make us wait in long lines and then tell us there is no medication. Grandmothers are spending all day waiting for care, tired and hungry. We need more support in the clinics.”

“Grandmothers are so vulnerable. There are no safe spaces for us. We are not safe in our homes. There are sexual assaults and robberies, and the government should get involved. We have the right to physical security and protection from abuse.”
“The old age pension is far too little: 1000 rand. We have to do everything with this 1000 rand and it is too much to ask. The childcare grants can also take 5 or 10 years to arrive, so we end up using our pensions to pay for school fees.”

“The Government needs to give us seats in Parliament. Right now they are making decisions and then telling us about it, forgetting that Gogos are the backbone of our country. We were in the forefront fighting for democracy in South Africa – they forget!”

A Growing Movement

The challenge now, is to ensure that the grandmothers are able to pursue their claims for justice. As Mama Darlina declared at the Gathering, “The Grandmothers Movement of South Africa is born today!” That movement requires concrete support to ensure that grandmothers from across the country can continue to network, build, and advocate for their rights.

Profound Thanks

The South Africa Grandmothers Gathering would not have been possible without the committed leadership of its Organizing Committee members: Eunice Mangwane, Daisy Mapheele, Cwengi Myeni, Zodwa Ndlovu, Darlina Tyawana, and Nosintu Yokwe. Nor could this historic Gathering have occurred without the generous financial support of the Slaight Family Foundation and the leadership of Gary and Donna Slaight. Finally, we extend a special thank you to members of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, and of Canada’s Labour Union Movement, who travelled to Durban to bear witness to the historic Gathering. Thank you!

Next: South Africa Grandmothers Statement >>


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