Tshepo Machaea will never forget the moment that changed his life. It was the brutal rape and murder of 10-year-old Nontombi Timakwe in Zimbane Valley outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. She was walking home from Ikhwezi Community Primary School in October 2005 when she was abducted and murdered. Her family didn’t have enough money to give her a decent burial.
This tragedy – which happened in Nelson Mandela’s home town – and the family’s misfortune touched Machaea deeply and he decided to do something about it in the spirit of Madiba. He rallied the community to donate money to help the family bury the girl.
Recalling how Mandela once shook his hand, Machaea said he knew from the tragedy that helping the less fortunate was his calling.
“The day Mandela shook my hand, he told me that if you take care of God’s people, He will take care of the rest. And that is what I have been doing,” he said this week.
Every year at about this time, his organisation is overwhelmed by Mandela Day generosity with offers of help from numerous people.
And after that initial act of goodwill, requests for assistance from poor families started streaming in.
Over the years, Machaea has become the go-to person for poor families who cannot afford to bury a loved one. With some of his church members, Machaea registered a not-for-profit organisation, the Ibandla Lasemthini Evangelical Movement.
“We decided on the name as mthi means tree in isiXhosa and that is where anyone, whether you are poor or rich, can get shelter from the sun or the harsh conditions of life,” said Machaea.
Although he has a full-time job and a family, Machaea says he still wants to help people who are struggling or alone.
One of the organisers in the movement, Babalwa Mtumtum, said one of the saddest projects she worked on was that of a 73-year-old woman from Lusikisiki, who was raped, wrapped in a grass mat and found three days later. “When we were called in, she couldn’t even walk. She was living in one room with her grandchild, without a stove or anything.
“We got to work by speaking to businesses, asking for donations and getting her medical attention. It was truly sad, but now she has a wheelchair and her new house is nearly finished,” said Mtumtum.
She said earlier this year they also buried a former criminal who had died three days after he was released on medical parole.
“His wife had died, his children were young and had no idea what to do with his body in their home. The community and his family had shunned him for the crimes he had committed.
“We decided it was not our place to judge him and made sure he received a dignified funeral, at least for the children’s sake,” she said. Over the years, their work has evolved to reaching out to people living on the streets. “We assist in feeding them from a soup kitchen every day. We ensure they wash and feel some level of self-dignity. Our town has a lot of what people call casual workers, who also sleep on the street,” said Machaea.
“People pick them up from the street and give them a piece job, but at the end of the day they have to return to the streets. “We help them by ensuring that, when they go to work in the morning, they have had a good night’s sleep and are well fed.” Machaea said he had always had an affinity with the poor and less fortunate because of his own difficult upbringing. His father had died when he was very young and his mother was left as a single parent with children to care for. The movement is the place for people in Mthatha to go if they want to volunteer.
Mtumtum said they were inundated with calls every year during Mandela month – with people wanting to find out how they could spend their 67 minutes.
“This is our daily work, but it’s always appreciated when people want to help, no matter what. We have many social ills in our poor communities, and the more awareness there is, the more people we can get to assist when we need to bury someone or feed or clothe a child,” said Mtumtum.