When first entering Tarkastad‘s Zola township, one’s eye is met by a prominent gated yard decorated with a small building near the back corner and a spacious neatly-tended food garden. This place belongs to the Masizame Disabled Centre. Masizame exists to be a sanctuary for people living with disabilities in Tarkastad’s townships.
Masizame was formed in 2010 by a group of individuals with disabilities in Zola. “We were encouraged to start this initiative by people in our community who have supported us,” says Roy April, the Chairperson of Masizame. “We were then able to establish this centre that we have today through the backing of the Department of Social Development”. Winki Beyi, a long-time member of Masizame, remembers how they struggled in the beginning. The group seldomly gained members for a considerable period of time because they did not have a physical space in their name. They moved from house to house for meetings and were sometimes turned out of these houses by the owners.
These experiences did not discourage the group, who continued to strive until their community and DSD started to take notice. The rest, as they say, is history.
Roy says that the intention behind Masizame is to provide community and refuge for people living with disabilities in the townships who are frequently at the receiving end of abuse, violence and exploitation. Members meet five days a week on weekdays for discussions, encouragement and general work on Masizame’s grounds. Mthetho Maneli, a member of the group, notes the positive effects membership in the organisation has brought for him. “You start feeling right and complete as person when you enter this space. The attitudes and negative behaviours of the outside world are drowned out by the positivity and encouragement we give each other.”
Masizame members almost all agree that attitudes towards disability have changed over time, albeit at a sluggish pace. Winki says family support would go a long way in unlearning stigma and misinformation around disability, specifically mental illness. “Sometimes people on the outside only start supporting and seeing us as human when our own families start treating us with respect and dignity,” she adds. “One of the problems we have is that people see us as objects or ATMs – to be used and disposed at convenience. CWP has also supported us by hiring some of us. Now, some of our members have families or intimate partners who take their hard-earned CWP wages or their grant money and send them back with nothing. This exploitation also becomes more prevalent when people with disabilities abuse alcohol for relief as they become easier targets for abusers and thieves.”
Despite these issues, the organisation has had a supportive relationship with the wider community. “The people in our community have given us a lot of support because they see the progress and wonderful things that we have been able to accomplish in this space,” says Roy. The support ranges from food donations, equipment and supplies for the work from community stakeholders. More than material donations, the support that is given by the community is mostly in the form of encouragement for the group not to stop the good work it is doing.
Masizame makes it explicitly clear to anyone who enters its gates that it is not looking for hand-outs and pity-donations. “We sew, do beadwork and some of us who do not have disabilities severely affecting our limbs tend the food garden or do catering,” adds Winki. “We are not asking for material donations. Do not give us fish. Teach us how to fish. When you give me the donation of a fish, I will eat it and then go bother someone else when it is finished. Rather than give us your old belongings, teach us how to sew so we can make clothes for ourselves and to sell to you. As a matter of fact, we can sew beautifully and have been able to sell our creations even though none of us have had formal training.” Winki says that they also have their community supporters to thank for their sewing skills.
The main support that the organisation is asking from the community and stakeholders is skills training, whether it be in the form of informational material, equipment or artisans who are willing to volunteer to teach their craft. Sydwell Felane, who is heavily involved with the garden work, says the group strives to create employment and income generation opportunities for people with disabilities in the township. “One of the things I would personally like to happen is to have art training here,” says Sydwell. “I love art and would like to learn from a professional.”