South Africa - Township in Capetown

with Patricia Matolengwe

Patricia grew up in the Eastern Cape and went to school there. She had to leave school just before completing her final year because she became pregnant. So her dream of becoming a nurse faded. Instead she became a part-time domestic worker and a meat hawker to earn a living for herself and her daughter. On behalf of the meat hawkers Patricia lobbied with the municipality of Port Elizabeth to have a shelter made with running water in order that the meat sold by the hawkers could remain fresh longer.

Those early entrepreneurial and visionary attributes of Patricia’s came to the attention of the African National Congress. (At that stage still banned in SA). They sent Patricia to a conference on Poverty where she met a group of women from Bombay. The women were representatives of the pavement people who called themselves Mahila Milan, “Women together,” and were supporting their families from their daily savings. Patricia decided that she could start a similar daily savings scheme that could help the destitute and homeless build their own homes. How did Patricia start to implement the savings/building scheme?

Patricia returned from the conference and inspired 12 women to work with her to implement a savings/building scheme. It was difficult to begin with as traditionally Xhosa women do not hold meetings or spearhead movements. That is the men’s role.


Often it was discouraging and Patricia had to keep her vision and maintain her enthusiasm while dealing with extreme skeptics. Slowly this group of 12 gathered more women together. They were women who wanted another way of life for their families, who wanted to own a house with a roof and solid walls rather than live in shacks of plastic, wood and corrugated iron.

They wanted to live free from the fear of the fires that rage through the shacks from a dropped candle or spilt paraffin. Free from the cold, drenched water-logged shacks in winter. Free from the daily, back breaking task of hauling water in buckets from a communal tap.

From the 12 women who, with Patricia, formed the nucleus of the SA Homeless Peoples’ Federation in Cape Town in 1991, the Federation has grown to 100,000 members nationally in 2002. Patricia is now the National Chairperson of the SA Homeless Peoples’ Federation

All her hard work to start a national savings/building scheme was recognised when in 1998 she was awarded the Humanitarian Award of the Year by the United Nations Secretary General, Koffi Annan, for the person who had done most to alleviate poverty in any country.

When ex-President Clinton visited the Victoria Mxenge village he said that the savings/building scheme used by the women should be copied world wide - the poor helping each other to build houses for themselves.

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