Long fight to find hope

2018-11-05 11:00
Zandlie Khoza.

Zandlie Khoza. (Ian Carbutt)

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A childhood destroyed by apartheid, innocence stolen by watching acts of extreme violence and to top it all off, battling cancer in her adult life.

This is the life of a Cedara woman who, despite her tough life, stands as a beacon of hope for the children in her community.

Born onto the dusty streets of Mpophomeni in the early 1980s, Zandile Khoza’s childhood was swallowed by the wars and bloodshed between the ANC and IFP in the area during the last few years of apartheid.

“My childhood was terrible. My eyes saw things that no child should see, my ears heard things that no child’s ears should hear, my hands participated in acts that no child’s hands should.

“It is my every day prayer that the good Lord sees that it wasn’t my fault; we were forced to do all those things,” said Khoza.

Back then, Mpophomeni residents were still using the bucket toilet system and whenever there were riots, the children were forced to take the buckets and throw sewage onto the roads.

“We had no shoes on; no one could really afford shoes back then, so we were forced to walk barefoot on our own sewage.”

She said her father, who she is still very close to today, was forced to choose between committing acts of violence and his family. There was no in between.

“People were being necklaced [killed with burning tyres] right in front of us. I am a vegetarian today because of what I witnessed back then. I know the smell of burning flesh too well.”

To avoid also being a victim and being killed alongside the person being killed, Khoza said everyone in the community, including young children, were forced to participate in the killings.

“I think I was about nine or 10 years old when I first participated.

“An old unknown man who was an inyanga [traditional healer] was walking through our township, which was an ANC residential area, towards the IFP residential area, which was five kilometres away from us.”

Khoza said the man was accused of being the traditional healer for the IFP members. He was stopped and attacked.

“To this day I doubt that man knew why he was even killed. He could have just been on his way to visit relatives in that area and was caught up in the midst of our war.

“He was stoned. We as little children had to take stones and hit him. Everyone was shouting. He was burnt inside a plastic rubbish bin and the police couldn’t do anything. They stood there until everything was finished and came with shovels to clean up his ashes.”

Khoza said that incident has stayed with her ever since because the man kept screaming “years after in my ears that he had not done anything”.


Growing up in the midst of this warzone, Khoza said they lived in fear every single day. “I don’t even know how we managed to go to school as the school, Isibongo Primary School, was like two kilometres away from the IFP residential area.

“This one time we saw the IFP people approaching the school carrying traditional weapons. I remember my mother running to me and my three other siblings and grabbing us. She was bleeding on her leg but still managed to carry all four of us in her arms while running for her life.

“We could hear them singing and saw them ambush some of the mothers and their children. My mother was screaming while carrying us. I have never ever seen anybody run that fast ... I guess it was the fear and adrenalin.”


Khoza said she blames everyone who was around that time for her lost childhood.

“We fought a battle that no one knew what it was for; to this day no one knows what we were killing each other for. We’d sing songs saying “The Boer is a dog” but it was black on black violence. It made no sense whatsoever.

“We were told that we were fighting for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison but I had never seen what he looked like. No one really knew what he looked like as all his pictures were burnt that time.

“I had this notion that we had to fight because he was in prison with our freedom. Mind you, I didn’t even know what freedom was at that time.”

When Mandela was released in 1990 and visited Mphophomeni Stadium, Khoza said she was ecstatic, thinking Mandela would finally give them their freedom.

“I licked my hands clean because in my child’s mind I thought freedom was something Mandela was going to give to each one of us.

“I thought it would be so wonderful, he’d take us out of poverty and make life beautiful for us. I was longing for this freedom.

“So here comes this Mandela — I only managed to catch a glimpse of him — the man we had to fight for to get out of prison. He stood up there at the podium where he spoke for less than an hour then waved and left with my freedom.

“To this day I still blame him for walking away with my freedom because no one ever explained what freedom would mean to me. I am still not free because I still don’t know what is meant by freedom.

“Maybe the born-frees would know but us, the forgotten generation, don’t know what freedom is because Mandela left with it ... He left and we were still left to stew in our own filth in Mpophomeni,” said Khoza.


In 1990, the Khoza family were forced to abandon their Mpophomeni home and relocate to Cedara, which was more peaceful because her mother, who is of mixed race, was “apparently not black enough to live in Mpophomeni”.

After completing matric, Khoza had dreams to become a “top chef” but life had other plans for her.

There was no money to study further so she spent the first year after high school sitting unemployed.

Seeing the need for a crèche or daycare centre in her village, Khoza decided to open up a daycare centre of her own.

She used the tiny shack at the back of her mother’s house to open her crèche. “For a good six months I was taking care of one child and at some point my parents were encouraging me to go and look for a job, but I kept at it and after six months people started bringing their children to me. I ended up with about 30 children in that tiny shack.”

Khoza said there had been a low-cost house built by the municipality in the area, as a sample of how people’s homes would look, which she was offered by community members to accommodate the kids.

“The house had been vacant for a very long time and it was starting to fall apart. The grass was overgrown, the toilets had maggots and there was no roof.

“My parents, who have been my biggest supporters, helped me clean the place up. I managed to get the school registered as a non-profit organisation and from there I have never stopped.

“I knocked on every single door, I spoke to anybody willing to listen and told them that this is what I was doing, help me. Local churches and local businesses came on board and funded us ... The government did not help at all. We are solely dependent on our sponsors.”

Khoza said her efforts to get the government involved have failed and she felt let down.

“This school is black excellence but I do not attribute it to my black government. My government has failed me.

“It failed me as a child, it failed to protect me when I was a child and robbed me of my childhood. That same government is still failing me now in my adult life.”

She said there are times when she feels like giving up and looking for a job that pays a proper salary that will allow her to buy a house and a car like her peers, but the voice of the little girl she lost in her childhood whispers that this is where she is supposed to be.

“Some of the children under my care have experienced tough things. One girl had to witness her whole home burning to the ground when her uncle fell asleep leaving a home-made heater burning.

“For me that is a revelation that God is saying you are where you are supposed to be. These children have seen what you saw as a child and have smelt what you smelt. If you were able to make it to adulthood, help them do the same. That is what drives me,” she said.

Whilst running the school, Khoza has managed to further her education and among many other qualifications, holds an Early Childhood Development level five qualification, National Professional Diploma in Education, Diploma in Education skills, psychometric qualification and BEd in foundation phase.

She envisions that her school, Never Never Land Full Service School, will one day become a community centre that embraces everyone’s needs.


In 2011, Khoza was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said it has been a long battle that has made her a stronger person. “People often ask me if breast cancer is painful. Honestly, I don’t know, all I know is the treatment was painful.”

She said she was getting dressed in front of her sister who told her that one of her breasts looked funny.

After reading about breast cancer, Khoza went to a doctor, who transferred her to Grey’s Hospital where many tests were done and after a while she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I was in denial. I thought cancer was a white man’s disease and just couldn’t believe it. It took a week to process the diagnosis before starting treatment that was … oh, oh so horrible but I managed to beat it.”

She said the cancer came back in 2015 and she again started the gruelling fight against it. “I couldn’t cope with the cancer on top of my childhood problems. I felt like it was too much and I just wanted to run away. So I started running marathons, including the Comrades Marathon, to get away ...

“When the cancer came back in 2015 I felt like I had no control over my life or this illness so also I started horse riding because with that I could at least control the horse.

“I wanted to feel in control.

“The support I’ve received from the children at my school has been absolutely amazing. I remember when I had lost all my hair due to treatment and my children would complement on how beautiful I looked. They’d say ‘you look pretty pretty’,” laughed Khoza.


Khoza advised those around people going through difficulties to embrace them because “when a village does not embrace its children, the children turn around and burn the village so to feel the warmth from the fire”.

“We are all dying silently in our little corners because we are not embracing each other. It doesn’t hurt to greet your neighbour but nowadays everybody is sitting in their own corner not willing to embrace anybody,” she said.

“Embrace the people in your community and around you, give a smile, it does not hurt but it surely makes a huge difference. I do not believe that there is a problem that cannot be solved, when it gets too much give it to someone else.”

An Apology to a six-year-old

Taken from Zandile Khoza’s Facebook page:

I’m sorry you have forgotten how mama smells like because she leaves before you wake up to make sure her employer’s child is ready for school. Make sure Jessica’s lunch is packed, her uniform neatly pressed, had a hot bath and a full tummy ready for class. I’m sorry mama left you alone to get the fire going, bath yourself and get yourself to school. Jessica is 6 and you are 6. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry granny shouts at you. I’m sorry you walk all the way to school in tears because the “crime” you committed did not equal the punishment. Granny is tired, frustrated because there’s 13 of you to look after. I’m sorry mama lies under the cold Earth and Granny is left to play mama to you. Granny is 86 and you are 6. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry the bad man, a stranger you know - your uncle, daddy has touched you and made you do things no child should do. I’m sorry for the pain, the tears, the blood. I’m sorry you had to find out the terrible way privates are not only for no. 1 & no. 2. The bad man is 38 and you are 6. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that life has left your parents with deep self loathing and because they lack self love, they cannot love you. I’m sorry your shelter is a shack, a matchbox of a house - RDP where 16 members are cramped and tempers rise and boil and you dear child, you are on the firing line. You are only 6. I’m sorry

I’m sorry you are failed and suffocated by a system which is extremely cruel and unfair. I’m sorry ...

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  pmb people

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