A few months ago, I wrote a column on the orphan crisis that is gripping South Africa in general and KwaZulu Natal in particular.


This column resulted in something of a breakthrough. Readers of this blog and many in the online community heeded our call to action and the KwaZulu Natal Adoption Coalition was relaunched to address the situation of adoption in the province.

Concerned parties gathered in Durban for the inaugural meeting. It was a significant moment because for the first time in many years, people concerned about the future of vulnerable children in our province got together in one room, parked their own personal agendas and asked how they could play a role in ending this crisis.

More on that in a moment. A week after that meeting I received an email containing statistics that inform the use of the term ‘orphan crisis’ in South Africa. They are utterly overwhelming. Two are worth keeping in mind:

  • 3 million orphans nationally; up to 1.2 million are maternal or double orphans.
  • In 2016, there were 8 adoptions in KwaZulu Natal, the province with the lion’s share of 1.2 million orphans.
Yes, just 8 adoptions in one year. 

Let me qualify: not all orphans are eligible for adoption. At any one time there are approximately 500 children legally adoptable. But 8? Something is seriously wrong.

Back to the relaunch of the Coalition. It is noteworthy that the gate-keeper of adoption – the Department of Social Development – was absent from the meeting. This initially frustrated me, but it became clear that this was providential for adoption.

In South Africa we are quick to blame government for everything. This restricts our creativity in finding solutions to the problems we face. If the Department of Social Development been there, we would not have grappled as we did with the question: “What contribution am I making to the current orphan crisis?”. We would have turned the spotlight onto them.

Yes, the Department has only processed 8 adoptions in one year. This is totally unacceptable. But we must ask ourselves why the Department tasked with caring for our vulnerable children put a virtual end to adoption?

Such a monumental disparity in numbers cannot be explained away by incompetence or laziness. 8 adoptions simply makes no sense. Unless, you do not consider adoption to be the best option for a vulnerable child. What then? What if you fundamentally disagree with adoption? What if it is completely counter-cultural to you? Would you be prepared to advocate for and even process adoptions? Or would you do everything in your power to limit, if not do away with adoption?

I am not sure if these positions are true of senior members of the Department of Social Development – but frankly I would understand if they were. About a year ago I had what I call a flipside moment about adoption: What if my family, that consists of Cathy and I (two white parents) and Lolly (our six-year-old black adoptive daughter), looks to some like the rainbow nation and to others like modern-day colonialism?

I know we get warm smiles from many people and hostile stares from others, therefore this might be the case. What if these stares are coming from people who esteem their culture highly; people who understand that colour is a proud and very integral part of culture. What if they see us as thieves rather than loving parents: “You took everything else – and now our children?”

Formal adoption is not African as such. It is a Western concept; in Africa, a product of colonization. That is why the vast majority of the people in our coalition meeting, adoption social workers nationally, and adoptive parents, are white.

Now, we can huff and puff all we like: “But isn’t this all about the children?” and “why can’t we just move on from all that colonization/apartheid stuff?” But these questions are not only insulting, they are unhelpful. We need to start asking different questions that will move us into a new space of engagement and understanding.

Tell me what you see when you see Cathy, Lolly and I walking down the street. Is our family beautiful to you or is it painful to see? Can adoption ever be black African? If so, what do we need to do to help make it so? If not, how do we deal with that as a society? Would you be prepared to help us – an adoptive family – to bring some black into our white?

Once we ‘go there’ in terms of these kinds of conversations – what I am calling the decolonization of adoption – I imagine that adoptions in KwaZulu Natal will increase again.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.