Adoption in South Africa

When I had my first child, I was warned that I needed to get used to the fact that I would now forever have a piece of my heart walking around outside of my body, vulnerable, open to ridicule, pain and disappointment.  I would hurt when they hurt, cry when they cried and carry their disappointment with them. For more than half a million children every year in this country, they hurt, they cry and they carry disappointment alone; the number of parentless children in SA is on a steady rise. These children face few possibilities: the street, an older sibling stepping in as a parent, state-sponsored homes, or for the lucky few – adoption.

Adoption is the pinhole of light at the end of a very lonely and dark tunnel, but this pinhole is wracked with a variety of heated opinions and emotions. Depending on your background, adoption is crucial, charitable or downright ludicrous. For some it has always been a possibility, for others it has become a necessity. Over the course of the next two issues, we will examine the complexities of adoption; we shall meet two families who have entered into this process and we shall explore the challenges, both practical and fundamental that they and many others face.

On average, there are 2400 adoptions per year. This, compared to the 500 000 children who could benefit from adoptions, shows us that there is a significant gap that needs to be addressed.

Nearly one year ago, Alwyn and Izelle adopted a young girl, Liboko, into their family. They also have an older, biological daughter, Sarah.

Cece is 35 years old, and is in the process of seeking to adopt. While Alwyn and Izelle fall into the nearly 70%, white majority of prospective parents, Cece is somewhat of an enigma – not only is she part of the miniscule minority of parents (only about 5% of prospective parents are black), she is also single, making her truly remarkable in the world of South African adoption. These two cases begin to frame the intricate picture that is adoption in this country…

 Did you always know that you wanted to adopt? What were your reasons for adopting? 

(Izelle) While my husband and I were still dating and we started talking of a future life together, I asked him if he would consider adopting a child with me and he agreed. However, we decided to have a biological child first, because as one of the youngest in my generation in our family, I had absolutely no experience in caring for a baby.  

I had the experience of growing up with friends, a brother and sister, who were adopted into the minister’s family of our local church. I remember thinking that it was a remarkable act of love to voluntarily accept children into a loving home. The Bible spoke of caring for orphans and widows but I didn’t know many widows at the time. However, I remember thinking that I could care for an orphan. After all, God had ‘adopted’ us.

(Cece) I have always known that I wanted to adopt in some way or another. Growing up with a mum as a social worker, we always had a child in our family that my mum was putting through school or taking care of somehow. As an adult, I think the reason for me beginning this process was a combination of not having any of my own children, combined with my childhood dream of wanting to help a child/children in need.

How have your friends and family responded to your decision of adopting? 

(Izelle) My parents - after loving their first granddaughter, our biological daughter, so much – wondered if they would be able to love an adopted grandchild equally… they have. Other family members simply expressed their admiration.

(Cece) My friends and family have been extremely supportive, even the most conservative ones. This has been very exciting for me! My mum has been a pillar of strength during the process and I am so glad I have done it.

How do you feel society respond to adoption in general?

(Izelle) We live in Johannesburg and seeing adoptive families around is no longer strange but in more rural parts of South Africa I have to remind myself that we are a strange sight, or at least an unusual sight. I have experienced some real highlights where random people, often and mostly black adults, come up to us to bless us for adopting our beautiful daughter. There are also moments though that I feel we are trapped inside a silent bubble where people observe us like an experiment, but don’t make a sound at the risk of being caught staring. This approach is often borne out of a lack of understanding, but for the brave few, willing to burst the bubble, we happily take the questions fired at us.

(Cece) I have been very pleasantly surprised to find how excited and supportive people around me are when they hear the news. I really did not expect this kind of feedback. I think people are willing to explore these opportunities, but like me, it takes years to make this kind of decision. My colleagues and people in my life have been asking regularly when the baby is coming because they want to shower her with gifts. However, amongst all this joy, there are the naysayers who believe it is not right to raise someone else’s child.

Did you have any reservations about adopting?

(Izelle) We tried to prepare ourselves as much as possible. My mom bought me a little book called: “So You Want To Adopt… Now What? A Practical Guide for Navigating the Adoption Process” written by Sara Dormon and Ruth Graham. We also attended workshops where social workers led us through understanding more about adoption and we heard the testimonies of birthmothers. Because it was something that we had long since prepared for, I can honestly say no!

(Cece) No I did not. To be honest though, it did take me years to make my final decision to begin the process. I think I was more nervous than anything else. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to bond with the baby and if I would indeed be able to give this little person a better life. I now feel I have the tools in place. This being my support (mum, sisters, work and friends), I am financially ready to take care of someone other than myself and I have an excellent nanny on standby. I don’t think you can ever say that you are 100% ready. Some days I wake up in a hot sweat wondering if I can do this, but on most days I’m dying to get the call from my social worker to say “it’s time”.

These are the stories of two families seeking to shine a light, however small, at the end of the tunnel. However, the tale of these stories is most often fraught with challenges, both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. A journey that we will explore further in our follow-up feature, where we look at the ups and downs of living life in the world of adoption.