Breathing NEW Life into Hillbrow

There are those in the world who are fragile by virtue of their socio-economic circumstances. To call these people fragile is not to take away from their humanity, rather it acknowledges their humanity, and ours.

In a place like Hillbrow many of the fragile are women and children. It is so easy for women and children living in poverty to become the invisibles of society. It’s already happening all over world as I write and you read this.

It wasn’t easy to remain dispassionately objective when I visited the Hillbrow Health Precint (HHP). Listening to and witnessing the great work NGOs like the Wits RHI (Reproductive Health Institute) is doing made me doubt the path I’ve chosen to take, the life I’ve chosen to lead.

Hillbrow, once vibrant and bustling was renowned for night-time entertainment, cosmopolitan coffeeshops and 24-hour music and book stores. It was the playground for affluent Johannesburgers. People from all over Johannesburg went to Hillbrow for a night of fun, much like we now go to Montecasino, Melrose Arch and Rosebank.

However, even in its heyday Hillbrow had an edge to it. It’s still bustling but perhaps not as vibrant any more. It’s become an area synonymous with poverty and crime, where dishonest people hide, the displaced seek refuge and the fragile become invisible.

The Shandukani Maternal and Child Health Centre provides a safe haven for women and children. It’s reception is orderly and an atmosphere of peace prevails. I was struck by the gentleness and compassion of the nurses I met. Women in all stages of pregnancy, some with toddlers in tow, sat quietly waiting for their appointment with the doctors. Working here is labour of love in action.

Outside the entrance was this beautiful mural and I was struck by the cleverness of the message – breathing NEW life into Hillbrow – literally and figuratively.

I was humbled by my visit to the Wits RHI and the HHP. It’s easy to remain in my suburban cocoon of comfort, but these issues are not only the Wits RHI’s (and the government) to deal with. They belong to all of us, South Africans, to do something about.

Hillbrow mural iPhone_2968

Some facts about the Wits RHI:

  1. We were taken around by Dr. Sebastian Sickle, Deputy Executive Director for Strategy and Development – he talks about “nimbility” – this resonates with me on so many levels – solving problems, quickly, with a sense of urgency in an agile and creative way.
  2. The Wits RHI also partners very closely with government with regards to the Anti-Retroviral Programme (ARV). The prevalance of HIV infection in SA is one of the highest in the world and the South African HIV ARV treatment programme is the biggest in the world – 1,3 million people, which is only 20% of HIV positive people in the country. This programme is run free of charge by the government.
  3. Everyone who works there is bound by their values and the vision is predicated on the notion of social justice. There is the belief that robust debate, a sense of urgency and recognsing the many tipping points allows them to catch the waves of opportunity.
  4. Even though they are not supported by goverment, they partner with them and other stakeholders (including brothel owners so that healthcare services can be provided to sex workers) providing a foil and helping to shape policy.
  5. They believe in a non-linear approach to solving issues when dealing with the very complex issues of health, HIV and poverty in South Africa – dealing with these as they arise with a strong ethos of innovation and encouraging leadership at all levels.

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