Moving on to the next dragon

2009-01-22 00:00

The name of Yvonne Spain has become synonymous with Cindi, the Children in Distress Network, which was formed back in 1996, so it comes as a surprise to hear that she is leaving her post as director. It’s a move she put in place 18 months ago when she informed the Cindi board of her intentions. Her reasons are pragmatic: “It’s unhealthy for the identity of an organisation to become conflated with the pioneer,” she says. “What happens if that pioneer dies and there are no succession plans in place?”

Cindi acts as a referral network with members drawn from non-governmental organisations (NGO), community-based organisations (CBO) and faith-based organisations (FBO) involved in the care and interests of children affected or orphaned by HIV/Aids in KwaZulu-Natal. When Cindi began life it had nine initial members and a desk at Youth for Christ behind which Spain sat as a part-time administrator. It now has over 100 members and an international profile.

Spain has a long history of activism — as a teenager she canvassed for Helen Suzman. She has also been involved with the Street Children Project and was dubbed “Mrs Aids” while she was an independent city councillor in the nineties for her championing of Aids issues and the rights of children.

Ask Spain what motivates her activism and the answer is prompt: “The Holocaust,” she says. “My dad talked about it when I was growing up and it was just inconceivable to me that people could take prejudice to such levels. I saw it mirrored in South Africa.”

Spain herself is not Jewish and she has no religious affiliations. “I’m an atheist. I haven’t always been and I acknowledge that faith can be a catalyst for social justice. But at the same time it can and does divide people. I’m a humanist. I try to live an ethical life with tolerance as the cornerstone.”

Another formative influence was Spain’s mother, Clarice. “She was a member of the Black Sash. Among my earliest memories are her badge in the form of a book with a black sash of mourning [for the death of the Constitution when coloured people were denied the vote] across it.”

Spain grew up in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandringham and was educated at Sandringham Primary and Northview High. At 16 she worked as a canvasser for Suzman, then for the leader of the Progressive Federal Party. “By then my parents and I had parted company politically. They were United Party and I was a Prog [Progressive Party]. They didn’t want me to work in the same constituency as them, as it would be embarrassing.”

Matric was followed by two years of secretarial training at Rhodes University. “My mother said if you have shorthand and typing you won’t have to rely on a man, and she was right.” But a regret still lingers. “There’s no doubt the course took me to bigger things, but I wish I’d done law.”

After Rhodes, Spain travelled around Europe and returned to Johannesburg to work in commerce. A high point was being a fashion buyer for Edgars.

So how did Spain come to Pietermaritzburg? “I had good friends whom I had met at Rhodes, Bobbie and Chris Keal. Every holiday or weekend I would visit. We would go running, cycling and hiking in the berg. I was quite sporty.”

Marriage to Mike Spain saw her settle in the city permanently. “Mike provided the financial security that made it possible for me to work in NGOs.

“I’m fortunate to combine my passion for human rights with my profession,” says Spain. “And I could never have done it without Mike and my domestic helper, Prizer Cele, who manages our home and cared for our children while I was out slaying dragons ... Domestic workers free many women to pursue their careers. They are the unsung stalwarts of our country.”

Spain’s first venture into NGO work was as a part-time administrator for the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) and then for the Five Freedoms Forum. There was also some canvassing for the Democratic Party.

Spain appeared content to work behind the scenes, but in 1991 she was persuaded to stand for council. “It was bloody Haswell,” she laughs, referring to Rob Haswell, then a Democratic Party member, who, along with his wife Penny, Spain acknowledges as friends and mentors. “Rob phoned and said, ‘We would like you to be on the council’. So I ended up standing in the 1991 by-election after Mark Cornell went to Australia.”

Spain stood as an independent candidate. “That way I could do work that cut across party lines. The election was held on my 40th birthday and I won by 40 votes.

“I found it a very intense place,” Spain says of her time in council. But there was also a time for friendly rivalry with Haswell, who had moved from the Democratic Party to the African National Congress. Their mutual ribbing in the run-up to the annual Capital Climb became a regular feature in The Witness. “They were tense times — this was a bit of levity,” she says, adding: “I’m faster than him right now.”

After leaving council in 1996, Spain had a brief flirtation with national politics in the shape of Roelf Meyer’s New Movement Process (NMP), which had joined forces with Bantu Holomisa’s National Consultative Forum (NCF). “But I very quickly became disillusioned with party politics because loyalty to the party must be unquestioning and may get in the way of service to the people.”

Spain was busy back behind the scenes again. First with Youth for Christ setting up the registration of the Khayalethu street children shelter in Havelock Road, plus she had also gained a reputation as an HIV/Aids activist.

The impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic was brought home to her when she attended an Aids awareness course. “It changed my life,” she says. “Here was something that affected every human being. We are all sexual beings and the very impulse that is procreative holds the seeds of our destruction and strikes at the very time when we are young. It was the stuff of science-fiction nightmares. Once I knew about it, nothing could be the same again.”

Spain’s involvement with Aids issues and the rights of children was the seed that grew into Cindi, which drew its name from a study by Neil McKerrow titled “Models of Care for Children in Distress”. A grant of R10 000 from the Transitional Local Council in memory of Tennyson Shange, the street children worker who was murdered in 1995, funded the founding summit of Cindi in 1996. “That was the beginning of Cindi,” says Spain. “We started with a budget of R120 000 per annum and now we handle and disperse R13 million per annum.”

Cindi moved into high gear in 2001 when an e-mail, which has since been framed, arrived from Ireland offering £1 million in aid. “That Irish Aid grant put us on a trajectory we could never have foreseen,” says Spain. “Eight years later they are still our major partner.”

Over time, Cindi graduated from that single desk to three offices and four staff in the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity Precinct, then to “a whole house” in Temple Street and finally to 55 Jabu Ndlovu (Loop) Street purchased by the Community Care Centres and rented for a nominal sum. “That was Cindi’s final homecoming,” says Spain. Cindi House now accommodates 15 staff members.

And now Spain is leaving home. She reiterates her reasons adding that “the player is not more important than the game”. But Spain is not leaving the game and she has a new goal in view. “It’s to help realise a vision of paediatrician Dr Neil McKerrow’s,” she says. “His vision is to set up an NGO for children in hospital wards in KwaZulu-Natal in order to enhance the experience of children in hospital wards. Children in hospital often come from rural areas. They are in trauma and they are plucked from all that is familiar. Hospitals can be scary places.”

Reflecting on her time with Cindi, Spain says she experienced both the best and the worst of times.

The worst? “Cindi was forged in a time of enormous political antagonism,” says Spain, citing the Aids-denialist stance of Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

“And then there was fighting the three Ps — politics, patriarchy and poverty — three things still begging to be addressed. But Cindi is the sum of its parts and its members are heroic. Their ownership of Cindi will ensure its continuity.”

But will the donors? “The challenge for NGOs and CBOs is that some donors are moving away from South Africa,” says Spain. “This is because we are seen as a middle-income country with money and infrastructure. And yes, there are the funding organs of state, the National Development Agency, the Lottery and Youth Fund. But they must become streamlined and accessible in the face of donor withdrawal. That’s the big fight ahead of us.”

A Feisty father

Yvonne Spain’s father, Gerry Ray, once enjoyed the dubious privilege of being knocked out by light heavyweight boxer and future Nazi spy Robey Leib-randt. “It was at the Feathermarket Hall in Port Elizabeth. There was a meeting supporting the war and it was bust up by brownshirts. My father was a cocky little Jew and he got into fisticuffs with Robey Leibrandt who knocked him out into the fountain. His mates pulled him out otherwise he would have drowned.”

Spain grew up in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandringham that consisted of plots sold to returning ex-servicemen after World War 2. “My father had been very quick to enlist to fight against Nazi racism because a cousin had emigrated from Berlin in 1936 with stories about Jews not being allowed to attend the opera or sit on certain benches.”

Three days after Spain’s parents were married her father left for Egypt. “They didn’t see each other for five years.” In 1942, when he finally got some leave to come to South Africa he got a puncture while driving to the airport in Alexandria, arriving just in time to see the plane take off.

General Dan Pienaar was aboard the plane. After refuelling in Kenya it crashed, killing all on board. “Dad should have been on that plane. And it was Pienaar’s farm at Sandringham that was divided into plots for ex-servicemen.”

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