Maria Mathebula, a mother of two children, sat in the office with a very worried look on her face. She had worked for a company for five years.
It closed down in 1985 – and she was still waiting for the money she had paid into the pension fund. The office belongs to the Tembisa Advice Centre – and Maria Mathebula was just one of the people waiting to get help.
After Maria got up to speak to one of the advisers, it was our turn. Dan Mashingoako greeted us warmly and asked us what our problem was. He laughed when we told him that we were from Learn and Teach and our problem was to write a story on the advice centre.
“You have come to the right place. We help people with all sorts of problems here, so your problem is an easy one for us,” said Dan with a smile.
HELP FOR FREE
“The advice centre was started in 1982,” said Dan. “It was started by two community leaders, Abel Majola and Leonard Mavuso. Our job is to help the people of Tembisa with their problems – and also to help them learn about their rights.”
“We work closely with the Tembisa Civic Association. We share the same office with them. We always consult them before taking any steps or decisions. We always tell people that the Centre, like the Civic Association, belongs to them. So people feel free to come and share their problems with us.”
“Sometimes we find ourselves doing a job that is done by lawyers – because most of our people do not have money to pay lawyers for advice. It is not easy for our people to know the law because many of them cannot read or write. They get help here without paying even a cent”.
“Sometimes we get very difficult problems that can only be solved by lawyers. We send all these difficult problems to the lawyers at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg.
ALL KINDS OF PROBLEMS
We were joined by Moses Buthelezi and Sonnyboy Mmatle who also work as advisers at the centre. “This is a people’s centre. We deal with problems of the young and the old – even people from the hostel come here for help,” said Moses.
“We get many people who have been fired from work without a fair reason. Not only people who are working for the big companies get fired for no reason. It also happens to workers who work for black businessmen.”
“Many people do not know how to get money from the Unemployment Insurance Fund. We help people to apply for their UIF money. We also try to help women who get fired for taking maternity leave. We try to help them get their jobs back.
“People also come to us with problems after they buy something, like insurance or furniture,” said Sonnyboy.”For example, somebody will buy furniture on H.P. They miss one monthly payment and the shop takes back their furniture. Or the person will miss one or two payments on an insurance policy and lose all their money.”
“Some people bring funny problems to the centre. One guy who divorced his wife long ago asked us to tell the court that he wanted his wife back. We told him that the court will not do that and he must rather go and ask his former wife for forgiveness”.
THE STATE OF EMERGENCY
“When the government brought in the first State of Emergency in 1985, many people started to come to us for help,” said Dan. “They needed to know what they could do when a person has been detained – and what few rights these detainees had.”
“Our job is not simple. Sometimes the police give us problems. We are only helping people with their rights under the law but the police think that we are helping the comrades. Some time ago they came and took all our books. They did not bring them back.”
“But we feel that we cannot close our eyes even if people make things difficult for us. Our people need our help, especially in these troubled times,” said Sonnyboy. ” I would like to see advice offices in every community, helping people with their problems.”
A HOPEFUL FACE
We thanked Dan, Moses and Sonnyboy for talking to us. As we made our way out, we again met Maria Mathebula. She was now looking a little less worried and a bit more hopeful.
She said the people at the advice centre had received a letter from the pension fund. It said the money will be sent as soon as possible. The people at the Tembisa Advice were able to help Martha Mathebula. They make no promises, but they always do their best.