A Vrygrond mother left three year old Sizwe (not his real name) outside a shebeen for a day and a night. He was taken in by neighbours, but after several days they complained of having an extra mouth to feed. The boy’s nine year old sister Nomathando decided to run away with him to try and find her father. A community member spotted them on the M5 highway walking south and went with them to Masiphumelele where she handed them to their father. For a long time Sizwe would only fall asleep on his father’s chest.

Colette worked as Community Coordinator for the Payback Foundation, a small NGO in Masiphumelele. The Payback Foundation placed Sizwe and Nomathando in private schools where they had art therapy, drama therapy and psychotherapy. Sizwe had suffered irreversible brain damage from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, but he benefitted from being in a safe environment and painted beautifully. The first time Colette gave Nomathando sweets, she broke them into pieces and gave them away to the other children in the playground until she had nothing left. These privileged children were surprised but ate the sweets happily. Teachers and therapists were generous in donating time to facilitate childrens’ healing from trauma. Beautiful pictures were painted, the children learned karate. Then their mother appeared and took them away.

Colette went to see a lawyer. For a one hour consultation she paid the equivalent of what a NGO worker normally earns in a week. She could find no attorneys prepared to work pro bono. The NGO emptied its pockets to pay the lawyer’s fee for getting custody of the children awarded to their father. After that the Director refused to pay any more legal bills. Yet almost all the children had legal problems.

This situation is common to all South African NGOs. Dedicated people, often volunteers, work very hard to improve the lives of others or protect the environment. Their work would be much more effective if they had access to legal services, yet the fees lawyers charge put these services out of reach for civil society.

Colette decided to do something about this.

She went to law school and started HeadHeartLaw.