Doef! Doef! Doef! The pounding music thumps and reverberates; the floor shudders; the walls expand and contract. It sounds like the mother of all parties at one of the local shebeens, or perhaps, a passing minibus taxi at full throttle. But no, it’s actually an exercise session at the Siyazama Service Centre for the Elderly in Zwelihle.

Evelyn Nomathansanqa Mwanba enjoys the dance exercises. PHOTOS: Taylum Meyer

No question: these oldies are definitely not going ‘gently into this good night’; they are making their voices heard and asserting their right to dignity and a meaningful life in the community. Membership of the centre is open to anyone over the age of 60 and most of the current 42 members are well beyond that threshold. The lives of the majority of them have not been easy; indeed, some are still bringing up grandchildren on their meagre government grant. Yet, stick in hand, they make their way to Siyazama every week day, sometimes from the furthest limits of Zwelihle, but even after the long walk, it’s all systems go when they arrive.

At the moment, for example, some of them are preparing to take part in the regional championships of the government-sponsored Golden Games for the Elderly which will take place in Bredasdorp on 13 August. Under the guidance of a Department of Sport coach, they can choose from a range of events, like the ‘brisk’ walk, passing the ball, soccer, and goal shooting. Not all the members are fit enough to participate, but the rest are very much up for it and are vying for a place on the Siyazama team. It’s not for nothing that the centre’s name means ‘We are trying’.

Siyazama was the brainchild of Mrs Nellie Tebele, a long-time resident of Zwelihle, who identified a need for the establishment of a social club for the aged residents of the community. At first, they met once a week at her house where, at her own expense, she provided a very basic mid-day meal, while they each brought their own teabags for morning tea. Before long, there was a membership of 30 and they had outgrown her small house. It was clear that there was a need for a service of this kind and she obtained permission from the municipality to make use of the community hall for their meetings.

As Siyazama started providing additional services and meeting more often, this arrangement, too, became impractical and the intrepid Mrs Tebele managed to acquire a large stand opposite the community centre. Intergenerational programmes were introduced with pre-schoolers, a minibus was donated and a laundry was built on the property and equipped with about six industrial-sized washing machines, enabling each member to bring a basket of laundry to be washed there.

Sadly, Nellie, who has recently passed away, grew old herself and as her health failed, the project began to experience serious management and financial difficulties. In 2017, her daughter-in-law, Priscilla, took over the task of managing the centre. However, by this time things had literally started falling apart and two major burglaries last year only rubbed salt in the wound.

Esther Meusel (seated right) and Priscilla Tebele (standing front right) with some of the Siyazama members

Enter a young veterinary surgeon from America, Esther Meusel who began to cook one lunch a week for the members, on a voluntary basis. A vet? Elderly people? “My late grandma suffered from Alzheimer’s and I felt so sad that I couldn’t be there for her that I thought I would try to help someone else’s grandmother”, she explains. She became so caught up in the welfare of the centre that, although she practises in Cape Town, she has joined the Board of Siyazama and she and Priscilla are bursting with plans for its full resuscitation.

They have recently acquired the services of a CWP gardener who was trained by Trevor Nkoyi at the RDP Centre and is laying out an extensive veggie garden. The 42 members attend the centre five days a week and receive a cooked breakfast and lunch, together with morning tea or coffee, and the garden produce will go a long way towards saving on food costs. The centre receives a subsidy from the Department of Social Development, but this covers no more than roughly 50% of the centre’s running costs.

Esther and Priscilla believe there are upwards of 200 older citizens of Zwelihle who could benefit from their services, but to start with, they are hoping to raise the membership to 70. The centre’s bus is available to transport the members to Siyazama in bad weather and also to take them to the bank, to town and to pick up their SASSA grants. Meals are also delivered to three members who are confined to their houses, but petrol costs are a constant drain on their resources. They would like to reinstate the laundry service which has been out of commission for some time because of the high cost of water. “A water tank for the garden and the washing machines is an absolute priority” says Esther.

“And as you can see, the rondavel where we meet is literally falling apart round our ears. The concrete floor is so cold, we put scraps of old carpeting under the members’ feet, but it’s our dream to be able to redecorate the centre with pictures on the walls and flowers in the front garden to make it feel cosier and more homely.” Another service they would like to reintroduce is the regular visit of a clinic nurse to check on members’ blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, etc. And so it goes, on and on … The needs are great.

The last word goes to Evelyn Ngqabe (86) who has been a member of Siyazama since the very beginning. “Oh, we love to come here every day. It’s so nice to be with our friends, but we want to keep busy, you know. Some of us have got arthritis in our hands, but we’d love to be able to have wool to knit with and maybe some embroidery and crocheting. All we need is for someone to come and teach us and then we need a bit of cloth here and there or a little wool – you know, I can still thread my own needle – it would be so nice. But now they must also build me a little flat here, so that I don’t have to walk so far and someone can help me with the housework. I’m trying, but I’m getting a little bit tired now.”

A fundraising brunch for Siyazama with all the bells and whistles will take place on Saturday 20 July at Lizette’s Restaurant in Voëlklip. Tickets are only R150 and no more than 30 people can be accommodated, so rush to book. There will also be raffles with fabulous prizes, so bring a little more of the folding stuff with you. Tickets can be obtained from Esther at 063 126 6978 or or Priscilla at 072 4516829 or

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