It is late on Friday afternoon when we arrive in Richard's Bay in Durban, South Africa. The purpose of our mission is to visit Red Cross projects in KwaZulu Natal. In the early evening, we are taken around to familiarize ourselves with the area before visits begin in the morning.
As we pass through Slovo village, an informal settlement which has been in existence for the past decade, we cannot miss the sight of young children carrying out household chores; carrying firewood and buckets of water on their heads, cleaning plates, etc. It looks as if these children have no time to play. We decide to visit one of the families.
Mrs. Busisiwe Ngwekizi, 70 years old, opens the door. "I am staying with my two granddaughters, Phindile, 8, and Thandeka, 13. Their mothers died four years ago," she explains. Sadly, this story is typical of the situation in the region. Not only are children living in difficult circumstances because their parents died of AIDS, but grandparents are being denied their retirement and care from their own children in their old age.
"They all passed away the same month in 2001, and I was looking after both of them on my own during the time they were sick," she says, as tears start to flow down her wrinkled cheeks. "It was a difficult period for me, looking after my sick daughters and their children as well. I had many sleepless nights as their conditions were deteriorating everyday," she adds.
"We experienced a severe drought that year and food was not available. Both my daughters were on medication and they were required to eat before taking pills, but food was not available."
Busisiwe, like other elderly people, receives a monthly pension of about 720 South African Rand (about 88 Euros or 105 US$), but given the added responsibilities, the money was just not enough. "I only bought a tin of maize which I took for milling so that we could have some food in the house."
Despite all her efforts, Busisiwe's daughters bade farewell to their loving mother, leaving her with the huge responsibility of two young children. It's been almost four years now since they passed on; there are no chances of the situation improving as age is taking its toll on her, while her grandchildren's needs increase as they grow.
Her small pension forces her to make difficult decisions. "From the same pension, I am supposed to pay school fees for the children, buy them food, clothing, and other requirements," she says. She had not been able to pay school fees because the money was used to buy medicine for her diabetic condition. She hopes to pay the fees next month, which means she will not have enough left to buy food.
"I am getting old and tired. I do not know what will happen to these children when I die but I do want them to grow," Busisiwe sighs. A few meters away from her home lie the graves of her daughters. When things get too difficult, she prays there, hoping that her daughters may answer her prayers from their deep sleep.
By this time it is dark and yet there's no fire started for supper as there is nothing to cook. "I've just come home from a piece job in someone's field, but I have not been paid yet because I have to finish the task. Tonight we will eat a piece of bread that was left three days ago," says Busisiwe.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has removed a whole generation. For the elderly, the situation is critical. Instead of being looked after by their children, they are now taking care of their grandchildren. Busisiwe's situation is typical of many in KwaZulu Natal where grandparents have to look after young children.
"It is so difficult for elderly people to look after young children," says Anne-Marie Kazungu, HIV/AIDS coordinator for the Richard's Bay branch of the South Africa Red Cross Society. "Many children have withdrawn from school for several reasons. In some cases, it's because of a lack of funds to pay school fees, not having good clothes or having to help their grandparents work in the fields," explains Anne-Marie, adding that some children are hired as cheap labour or even prostitute themselves to support their young siblings.
"We are currently giving out food packs and sometimes blankets and other items to some families but we do not have enough resources to help all the vulnerable families. And this is a drop in the ocean considering that the number of orphans is increasing," she notes.
"We are concerned about the future of these children. At least if they complete their education, they will be able to look after themselves and other young siblings," says Anne-Marie, appealing to other partners to come on board to help orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
The International Federation in southern Africa recently launched an advocacy campaign, under the theme Our Children, Our Future, to scale up support to these children.
"We are concerned about the future viability of some states in Southern Africa, if all stakeholders do not rally to protect and support orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS," stresses Françoise Le Goff, head of the Federation's regional delegation in Harare.
She underscores the need for all partners, especially the private sector, governments and other humanitarian organizations, to play a more active role in ensuring that orphans and children made vulnerable by the HIV/AIDS pandemic have access to basic services such as food, health, education, shelter, clothing and protection, to give the entire region a brighter future.
"A silent tsunami is wiping away an entire generation, leaving millions of children at risk. It is imperative for all partners to come together in support of this cause. If we do not do something today, we will lose the administrators, business leaders, workers and customers of tomorrow. We have to start investing in these children now," she adds.
It is estimated that there are more than 4,132,000 children orphaned by AIDS in the ten countries in which the Red Cross Societies of southern Africa operate, one quarter of whom are in South Africa. This figure is expected to double by 2010.