The vision that gave hope to PMB children

2009-05-21 00:00

SOUTH AFRICA, Christmas Day, 1973. A white boy, nearly 11 years old, is sitting on a lounge carpet listening as his family chat. All too soon, as it so often did back then, the talk shifts to race.

As the prejudiced words begin to fly, the boy thinks: “How can they mock people who are living in poverty — people who aren’t living in proper houses and who can’t get a decent education and who struggle every day to put food on their table? How?”

So, as children do, he looks up at one of the adults and says what he’s just thought. Silence follows. Then a pat on the head and a patronising voice saying: “Ag, but you are so young. You don’t know what is really going on.”

Everyone carries on talking, leaving the little boy with no real answers.

Thandanani Children’s Foundation director Duncan Andrew (45) still remembers it all vividly.

As he reflects on the organisation’s 20th anniversary recently, Andrew has found himself reflecting on his own life. He says he feels a personal closing of a circle since that day as a child.

Andrew saw Thandanani, which works with orphans and vulnerable children, through its greatest challenge, a financial crisis in 2004 and 2005. He was employed as a development programme manager, and then took over as the director after the crisis struck. Five years later, his turnaround strategy has been hailed as a huge success, with Thandanani being nominated for a national award recently.

“It was strange reflecting on that Christmas Day,” says Andrew. “Where did I get those questions and thoughts from? It wasn’t like I was exposed to a life in the township. It was just basic fairness of common humanity. I just couldn’t understand how people could ignore the suffering that was taking place and respond in such a callous way.”

Born in 1963, Andrew grew up in Ladysmith and Durban. He attended Queen’s College in the Eastern Cape and then returned to Durban to study. With a masters degree in psychology, Andrew moved to the Pietermaritzburg campus in 1991 to do his internship with the student counselling centre.

Andrew recalls how some of the interns went to Edendale Hospital in 1991 to observe a group of volunteers looking after abandoned children. Those volunteers were a part of Thandanani, a newly established group that tended to about 70 children living in the hospital.

Andrew remained at the counselling centre for seven years and got to know Pietermaritzburg intimately. In 1998, he was promoted to director of the student counselling centre at the Natal Technikon in Durban, where he remained for four years.

Andrew then moved to Cape Town, where he entered the world of NGOs. “I was appointed as the public education and training manager at Triangle Project, an NGO that did HIV-Aids-related work,” he says.

Three years later, Andrew decided to come home, and got a managerial job at Thandanani. He arrived for work on October 15, 2004. He hadn’t been there a week when he was informed by his acting director that he — and the rest of the staff — would not be getting paid for the rest of the year because there were simply no more funds. “I thought they were pulling my leg at first, but then it became very clear that they weren’t.”

Andrew helped the staff process the news that their jobs were more or less doomed, but also tried to find solutions to prevent that doom. “We had our backs against the wall. We were either going to close or we could fight to carry on.”

Andrew and the staff chose the latter option. “There was some very hard and quick thinking. We engaged internally in a very consultative process, because it was up to all of us to pull this organisation out of the situation.”

Andrew started to see hope. “What became clear after interactions with the staff was that over the years Thandanani had done extremely good work and had a good reputation — but that reputation had been slightly tarnished in the period leading up to the crisis.”

With outside stakeholders volunteering to get emergency funding, Thandanani had to operate on a limited budget.

“We had formulated a short-term survival strategy, which included operating on reduced hours and reduced salaries for a period of time to allow us space and time to generate income for the organisation again.

“Fortunately, the goodwill that did exist towards the organisation —and because we had a clear plan to get out of the crisis and knew what we needed and for how long — meant that a lot of the existing donors did then come on board and contribute additional funding.”

During the crisis, the director, a lot of management staff and the board resigned. A new board was appointed and the position for director was advertised. Andrew got the job.

The wave of resignations meant the organisation could start afresh. “Thandanani emerged with a much clearer understanding of who it is and how it functions.”

Andrew’s developmental approach as director has given freedom to his staff to take their decisions in order to grow.

“It’s a type of organisation that needs a director who facilitates in an open, co-operative, transparent and inclusive style of decision-making. People have to be involved in decision-making, so they understand the rationale behind each decision.”

The little boy sitting on the carpet wanted to make a difference to those living in poverty. The full circle Andrew has travelled means he can do that now.

“My role at Thandanani has been the most fulfilling position I have ever been in. A gogo will just go off at one of the development facilitators in absolute gratitude, or a kid will just smile and not stop smiling when you give them their new pair of school shoes. It’s those little moments that make this all worthwhile.”







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