Sheila Pienaar – A living legend


The Cape Town townships are a theatre of structural and social violence in their multifaceted experiences. Women, children and the elderly suffer daily from the scourge of violence without adequate protection. As I was writing this article, I read a news report about a young woman who has been killed by an abusive boyfriend in Khayelitsha. Ironically, all this has happened on the eve of women’s day while she was escaping an abusive relationship. Thanks to the power of social media because often these cases of violence are not reported nor attended to by the state institutions charged with the duties and responsibility to do so.

The townships remain in an unending circle of violence against women, children and the elderly. The Delft community in Cape Town is no exception in this challenge. I visited and conversed with Shiela Pienaar who, out of her humble home, provides a number of community services to children and elderly people. By her description of the services she provides to the community, she is a social worker that lives on the satisfaction of serving others. She is passionate about her service of caring for elderly people in the community.

In Africa elderly people are regarded as the vessels of generational wisdom to be transmitted to the young generations. Their role as keepers and transmitters of wisdom is sacred and respected. For this reason, the concept and practice of old age homes is foreign to most Africans.

But what happens when an elderly person does not have someone to look after them? What happens when they are abused by family members they live with? Who looks after them when they cannot afford to live in the homes for the aged?

Shiela Pienaar, a fifty years old mother of four from Suburban, in Delft, asked herself these questions and responded that she is the answer she was looking for. She has lived in Delft for twenty one years now and has been serving the community with voluntary child care, food provision for those who need it and cares for elderly people.

On the 20th May 2017, she arranged a breakfast, lunch and dinner event for two hundred elderly people in Heideveld. She organized transport to collect them at her house to the decorated venue with all the goodies for the day. As she was telling about the joy and the excitement the elderly people had, she shared printed photos of them taken while waiting for the bus at her home and at the event. And as the elders keep recounting their experiences of the day, they keep asking her when their next outing event is. Shiela tells them they will go out again when she manages to secure funds and resources for the program.

Shiela lost her mother when she was a one month and three weeks baby. She was raised by her grandmother until she was able to look after herself. Out of her longing for her mother’s love and care, she naturally grew fond of children and caring for elderly people. From a young age she began caring and looking after children and other people who needed care and support in her community. She had four children, three of which tragically passed away. Her only living son is in prison. She now lives with her partner, grandson and other children.

The house is a three room humble home and she shares it with the people who visit her whenever a need arise. With her humble home, she decided to keep an open door policy for children and people who are in need of her help. From observing her home and in our conversations, Shiela felt the need to open her home to the community because she knows suffering. She does not have much but she still gives.

Whenever children are hungry in the community, they visit Shiela’s home. They do not leave her home without being provided for in their needs. They all call her Mama. Two fifteen year old girls visited Shiela while we were having our conversation. Both of them have known Shiela since they were young and grew up in her care. As young children, they slept and ate at Shiela’s home when they needed to. Their relationship with her has not changed as she still provides for them even though they are now having teenage problems.

Her plans are to rearrange her house to make room for her kitchen area she uses to cook and an area she uses to serve meals for the people. She also bakes cakes and doughnuts to sell for pocket money she needs for her community services. When the elders are having birthdays, she also bakes cakes to share with them. When I arrived at her home she was backing doughnuts. She offered me a full plate and jokingly commented that I should support her the next time I visit her home.

Spending time at Shiela’s house and in my experience of doing research in Cape Town townships, I easily see the burden carried by black women in black communities. The existence of townships is a structural violence that reproduces extreme forms of gendered social violence. The burden of both structural and social violence is by default the responsibility of black women to remedy. If black women do not do anything about the effects of structural violence, in their communities, it is them who suffer from the gendered social violence it reproduce.

Shiela, like many other suffering and community serving black women, is a pillar of strength that recognizes this challenge and needs more support than she receives from her community. In recognizing the structural violence of township experiences, she has plans she wants to implement to build a sustainable community service program for the children and the elderly she serve. However, her resources are meager for her to implement the commendable efforts as a sustainable program. As I write this feature to commend and celebrate her community service efforts, I am also sharing her story for the attention of the people with the ability to support her. As a women’smonth gift to her, Shiela can benefit greatly from a pooling of resources by our community development loving South Africans. I have seen social media fundraising campaigns for students successfully send them to universities locally and abroad. Shiela and other community builders like her can benefit greatly from the power of social media and fundraising campaigns to support their commendable community services. Sheila is reachable at Number 9 Amandel Street, Suburban, Delft. Her contact number is 061 800 2278.

Lindiswa Jan is a Researcher & Masters Candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, UCT