January 23, 2008

MAZON Mission to South Africa, Days 1 & 2

By Sarah Steinberg

The MAZON mission members have arrived safely in Cape Town, South Africa and we hit the road running.  On our first full day we did a site visit and volunteer work for an organization called the WAREHOUSE, which is operated by the Anglican Church. The executive director, Craig Stewart, gave us an overview of their operations and functions. We learned that amongst all indices of world data, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies. There is a large post-apartheid gap between the rich and poor. The WAREHOUSE is six years old and has done amazing work at the intersection of the following areas: 1) mobilization of communities 2) training and 3) innovative projects to get more affluent communities to create job developing enterprises. They are developing these jobs through micro-venture capitalism. We also learned that unemployment in some townships reach 35-40%. Sometimes, the conditions seem overwhelming: there is a 30% infection rate of HIV/AIDS here. We learned from the American Ambassador”s staff in our “country briefing” that an entire generation of mid-level public servants maybe potentially wiped out due to the epidemic. In Cape Town alone, some 100,000 orphans are floating from home to home because of the loss of both parents to the epidemic.

The MAZON delegation helped with packaging food for poor orphans and their adopted families at the WAREHOUSE. The main staples were rice, cooking oils, tea, and cans of vegetables. We also helped to pack baby cloths from community donations. It was very touching to know that small infants were made warmer and fed just a little more through the efforts of our manual labor and the amazing work of this grass-roots organization.

At lunch we heard from Robert Forney, the CEO of the Global Foodbanking Network (GFN). He was in country to continue the efforts to construct a South African Food Bank system. No easy feat, but highly necessary to allow more food into the emergency food system. Food insecurity is on the rise here and the small NGOs cannot handle the increasing demand. According to Mr. Forney, the food banking system should be up and running in the next 6-8 months. MAZON has been one of the early funders of GFN and it was really educational to learn about all the developments in the field while we were here in South Africa.

Later that day, we had a golden opportunity to connect with the leadership of the South African Jewish community. There are some 80,000 Jews here. They are important players in the “new South Africa”. We visited the Holocaust Centre where we learned of the role the center plays in teaching diversity and tolerance to the next generation of civil servants, teachers, police personnel, students and correctional officers. It is a critical role to play in this community.

In the evening the U.S. Ambassador Eric Bost and his wife Rose Mary opened their residence to host the MAZON delegation and the local Jewish leadership. We made some permanent friends and new allies in the battle for social justice and hunger relief. We hope to spawn a “MAZON South Africa” and help provide technical resources to grow our collective Jewish response to hunger.  By the way: Already in existence is a MAZON Canada and Australia, which speaks volumes about the capacity in each country to enable the Jewish community to come together for a common cause and purpose.

More to follow. Thanks for reading. Peace out.