Story 2

A refuge from apartheid

The year was 1986. South Africa was literally burning as the apartheid government detained, killed and tortured its opponents.

Kumi Naidoo with friends

In the township where I grew up, three of my best friends and I were preparing to flee into exile. There were few places to meet where police did not have spies and agents. We wanted to say goodbye to our closest friends, and this was to take place late one night in the safety of what we simply called ‘Cheshire Homes’.

We had been regular visitors to the home: fundraisers, painters of walls, entertainers of residents and pretty much anything that we were asked to do to help. We were all members of the local Helping Hands Youth Organisation. The group had adopted Cheshire Homes as one of our main community projects, inspired by a visionary and compassionate leader who we called ‘Uncle LN Naidoo’. He was unique in that he was able to help us as young people who were alienated by apartheid to understand that resisting apartheid and community service were not in contradiction. Some of the best moments of my youth were spent there.

I learnt much from the residents of the home: about their triumphs, their fears, their challenges and frustrations. As is often the case, what we contributed to the running of Cheshire Homes paled into significance compared to what we received in return. The struggle against apartheid was always difficult and we experienced many setbacks, often leading us to wonder if we could ever defeat this brutal system. Cheshire Homes though was a place of hope, laughter, warmth and safety and was important for our morale. The most precious photograph I have from my entire life was taken there just before we fled in different directions into exile in early 1987. I have my arm around my best friend Lenny. A month earlier my brother chose to share his 21st birthday with the folks at Cheshire Homes while I was on the run from the security police, one of the last times I would see my brother before I fled South Africa.

My experience with Cheshire Homes gave me an understanding of the critical challenges that people with a disability live with daily and their immense courage, ability and sense of citizenship. I have carried this knowledge through to my work as Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. I am eternally grateful for what I learnt from my interaction with the wonderful people at Cheshire Homes in the humble township I grew up in.

I learnt much from the residents of the home: about their triumphs, their fears, their challenges and frustrations.