By MOSIBUDI RATLEBJANE
You would think a Safe House dedicated to suppporting victims of domestic violence would have a refuge to call their own, but here in Makhanda, that’s not the case. As the 16 Days of Activism approaches, staff and volunteers believe the Safe House needs a permanent home, if they are to continue providing services to survivors of Gender Based Violence.
“The festive season is here, which is our busiest time of the year. We are not sure what we are going to do because we can only accommodate one victim at a time,” one staff member says.
Since its inception in 2003, The Makana Rape Survivor Support Group (RSSG) and Safe House has been renting homes in different locations within the Makhanda area. But years of rent is costing the organisation. The only Safe House within the Makhanda area, serving survivors from communities in Alexandria, Port Alfred and other surrounding rural areas, the MRSSG Safe House is in dire need of support and and a home they can call their own.
The government subsidised non-profit organisation aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and children and all vulnerable individuals. The Safe House provides emotional support, prevention of secondary victimisation and empowerment programmes for survivors of domestic violence, sexual offences, abuse and other crimes including human trafficking.
The Safe House aims to expand its offering to men, and gender non-conforming people within the LGBTIQ+ community. But those dreams are out of reach at the moment, as they struggle for basic amenities.
“Accommodating the LGBTIQ+ community and males would require more staff,” the co-ordinator of the non-profit says. “For instance, it would mean employing a male victim supporter to stay with the male victims.”
A survivor from Port Alfred arrived at the Safe House one night in October. She had been in an argument with her partner that ended in physical abuse.
The survivor does not have family nearby and was expected to stay for a month, until she was able to find her feet. The safe house coordinator had to rush to Shoprite Supermarket the next morning, to stock up the house with a month’s worth of groceries and other needs.
Each month, the Safe House gets a little less than R2000 to accommodate survivors in need of their services. As the Safe House coordinator scrambles to get cash, standing outside the shopping centre, she strategises a way to carry two 20kg packs of rice, mielie meal and other groceries to the undisclosed Safe House location. She uses a taxi because the organisation does not have a vehicle. They use taxis when doing their door to door campaigns and sometimes get lifts in unmarked police cars.
“We are in a vicious cycle, because the Department of Social Development told us we are not housing enough victims,” one staff member said. “Therefore they’ve reduced the funds over the years. So we had to reduce one of the biggest expenses – the rent. Which resulted in a smaller house that can only accommodate one person.”
The RSSG Safe House staff is a group of volunteers, who receive stipends ranging from R1500 to R4000, and at times use their stipends to fill in the gaps. The two Safe House mothers take 24-hour shifts to stay and comfort the survivor. It’s a one-bedroomed house furnished with two three-quarter beds, leaving no space for anyone else.
This is something survivors like Nombulelo Ngxuku (59) never experienced.
It’s been a few years since Ngxuku was assisted by a fully equipped Safe House. Her husband has since passed on, but she remembers the many years of fighting and abuse.
Uncovering her free party T-shirt, given to her during the last elections,. Ngxuku reveals her left shoulder. At first glance, it looks-like a burn mark with a pencil-length stretch of stitches down her neck.
“This is a stab wound,“ she corrects. “He liked using knives, every time we fought.” Pointing to the many scars on her arms from blocking his knife strikes, she says, “He would have eventually killed me had I not insisted on calling the police every time we fought.”
In 2014, Ngxuku called the police, once again. “He used to cheat, get drunk on weekends and then come back home to cause havoc,” said Ngxuku.
This time, she’d had enough and feared for her life.
“At that time there was no way I could stay in the house with him. I opened a case and was surprisingly asked if I wanted to go to a Safe House and I agreed. I didn’t know I had that option, or that there was even a place called a Safe House because all I did was call the police so that he can stop,” said Ngxuku.
The Safe House back then was a place for Ngxuku to think about her next steps without fearing for her immediate safety. “There was another white lady from Port Alfred whose husband had pulled a gun at her and the organisation housed us, fed us and we got counselled, for about two weeks. We were both safe at the Safe House,” recalled Ngxuku.
“The old home was [bigger]. We could take in three or more victims,” staff said. “But the rent started affecting our ability to sufficiently provide food and toiletries. Sometimes victims have their clothing covered in blood (when fleeing physical violence) and we need to find something for them to wear but we can’t afford it.”
This prompted the organisation to rent a cheaper and significantly smaller home. Since then, they’ve been moving from one lease to another.
Department of Social Development spokesperson, Mzukisi Matinise, said as the sole funder of the Safe House, it encouraged organisations to try to find other revenue streams “for sustainability”.
We asked if the department expects the Safe House to conduct their door to door awareness campaigns to validate their allocated funds and their outputs. Matinise’s response was that the Department in collaboration with stakeholders, including the Safe House, has programmes to fight gender based violence in our communities. “The door to door campaign is one of them.”
In 2016, the Safe House approached the Mayor’s office, to ask if the municipality could allocate a house for victims. “The Mayor referred us to the Department of Human Settlements, who told us they cannot give us a house, but they could rent it out to us for R2500.”
This they cannot afford either, said one of the Safe House mothers.
President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced that a further R500 million will be added to the R1.1 billion set aside for the GBV Emergency Fund. The Safe House can only hope that these funds will trickle down towards getting assistance or even a house.
Approximately R179m will be allocated to education, awareness and prevention programmes to address patriarchy. R517m will fund care and support programmes like the RSSG Safe House, and the hiring of 200 social workers in the Thuthuzela Care Centres nationally.
Part of the problem, however is that the bureaucratic system within the Department of Social Development transfers the allocated funds late. This stymies proper planning or operations for an organisation like the Safe House. .
Allegedly, in this financial year a few organisations funded by Social Development, including the Safe house, received their funds only in August 2019. The financial year starts on 1 April.
”We have to make sure that we spend only when absolutely necessary, because rent doesn’t stop, stipends don’t stop, and victims can come in at any time,” a staffer says.
According to the Department of Social Development, some organisations failed to submit the required documents, such as bank statements. Officials would have to abort the process and go to those organisations to collect the documents, or assist them in opening bank accounts, including making certified copies of identity documents.
The Safe House has found ways of stretching their funds – reduced by 40% from the 2015/16 financial year to date. “We would try to carry over our finances to the next year.”
But government’s use it or lose it policy meant the money was lost rather than saved.
Matinise said National Treasury reduced funding for an entity if it was not able to use up the budget it was allocated. “Underspending by [some]organisations affects the funding of the organisations that have 100% spending of their budget due to the reduced budget the Department receives from Treasury.”
Without assistance from the Department of Social Development, the RSSG Safe House would not exist at all. The Safe House staff continue to step in to help survivors of gender based violence and appeal to the public and the business community to donate food, clothing, toiletries and transport services.
Maybe kind support from the community will even assist this NGO doing such valuable work to finally achieve a home.