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South African activist

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Apartheid fighter pushes for children’s rights.

By Jennifer Whytock

Sibongile Mkhabela has been fighting her entire life — for children’s rights, to end apartheid in South Africa, to improve the nonprofit sector, and for her sanity and life while held prisoner for four years under her country’s apartheid government.

Imprisioned at age 18 for sedition, she spent the first year in solitary confinement, not allowed to read, write or contact the outside world, wondering if she would live after hearing her friend and well-known freedom fighter Stephen Biko killed in a nearby room.

“When I got out, it made me want to keep on fighting,” she says about being released from prison in 1981. “If I wanted to fight before, I am now desperate to fight.”

Mhkabela now fights for children’s basic human rights as CEO of the Johannesburg-based Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which gave $5 million in grants in 2003.

Just before becoming president in 1994, Nelson Mandela launched the fund by vowing to give one-third of his money to help children, and challenged others worldwide to also give.

Mhkabela worked in the office of the vice president from 1994 to 1999, and helped create the National Development Agency, which aimed to disperse government money to community groups and act as intermediary between government and civil society.

Sibongile Mkhabela

Job: CEO, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, South Africa

Born: 1949, Akron, Ohio

Family: Married for 22 years, three children: daughters 21, 18; recently lost 5-year-old son

Education: Undergraduate, social work, psychology and industrial sociology, University of Zululand; business degree, University of Witwatersrand

Best moment: Achieving democracy

Hobbies:  Gardening, sharing books with daughters

Reading: “House on Mango Street”, by Sandra Cisneros; just finished “The Poisonwood Bible”, by Barbara Kingsolver

She spent this past October as a Joel L. Fleishman Civil Society Fellow at Duke University, where she analyzed South Africa’s changing nonprofit sector during its 10 years of democracy.

During apartheid, nonprofits were poorly funded and feared by the government, and the government provided few services for poor, black communities, says Mhkabela.

With the onset of democracy, the sector grew fairly weak, she says, because many nonprofit leaders jumped to the government and business sectors, leaving a void for young, inexperienced nonprofit leaders to fill.

However, those young leaders now have more experience and the sector is strengthening, but Mhkabela says the new leaders are more focused on being professionals rather than activists, and there is a gap between the larger, professional nonprofits and what is actually happening on the ground.

She also has worked with American and international foundations that come to South Africa to fund or launch projects, with some taking the trouble to understand the region, she says, and others arriving with preconceived ideas.

The Ford Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, for instance, take the time to consult with government, nonprofits and ordinary people, take guidance from local leadership and design their programs in consultation with local nonprofits, she says.

“I’m in this sector because fundamentally I am an activist, so I’m always driven by the need to change things,” says Mhkabela, who returned to the nonprofit sector after five years in government.

Nonprofits need to be activist, too, push forward on policy, and not become complacent by only treating day-to-day needs, she says.

“I don’t think my organization has any real value if it doesn’t play an advocacy role, otherwise it might as well not call itself developmental, and just do charity work,” she says. “Charity is good to do and nice to do, but it doesn’t advance us very much.”

Because there was no effective cross-population study of HIV/AIDS, which has infected roughly 5 million people, or 21 percent of the adult population in South Africa, she says, her nonprofit commissioned a study, and now is doing a follow-up study to analyze the startling findings.

“As part of our advocacy, we need to understand what’s going on with children, and the study showed children with no sexual contact being HIV positive, so now we’re looking into how,” she says.

Not only are an estimated 230,000 children infected with HIV in South Africa, but another 1.1 million are orphaned because their parents died of AIDS, according to the World Health Organization.

“I go to a family that was fine five years ago, but now has someone sick with HIV, and their resources are depleted, both human and financial resources,” she says. “The statistics say that poverty has come down here, but when I go to the villages I get disheartened, it seems like it’s getting deeper and deeper. HIV/AIDS is really compromising families in a big way.”

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