Our Founder's Story
How It All Started

Two decades ago, Con and Marion Cloete were successful professionals raising their three daughters in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. Their upper-class lifestyle put them in close contact with people on both extremes of the apartheid ladder: the affluent whites at the top and the black female domestic servants at the bottom.

Many of these female servants were also wives and mothers, but their families were not legally allowed to live with them on the property where they worked. When they had children, the law required them to send their babies away nine weeks after birth, even when there was no one to care for them. Husbands, wives and children were kept separate all over South Africa.

These apartheid laws especially disturbed the Cloetes – they were witnessing the forced break down of black families, watching South Africa’s moral, ethical and social values fading away.

Marion Cloete felt compelled to do something. She dreamed of teaching disadvantaged children, hoping she could help stem the loss of culture and sense of value. In 1980, she began studying for her teacher’s diploma, but after two years, she became discouraged by the government education system (which at the time dictated that black students receive an inferior education to white students). She quit the teacher’s program and instead began studying for a university degree specialising in labour, anthropology, industrial sociology and psychology.

Taking Action

While studying for her degree, Marion decided to start an orphanage in the province of Kwazulu Natal. Intense faction fighting there was killing hundreds of people and creating unknown numbers of orphans. The Cloetes decided they could give the children there a home.

But word of their plans to leave spread. Two black school principals approached the Cloetes, asking them to please stay and direct their admirable efforts to help with problems the local schools were facing – the biggest of which was children traveling more than 180 kilometres back and forth to school by themselves.

So the Cloetes stayed and opened their home to about 30 children, giving them room and board, feeding them and helping the whole group get to and from three different schools. Their home in the suburbs soon became an informal school – they not only helped the children with their homework, but fortified their meagre, government-issued education with extra schooling.

As word of their compassion and Marion’s superior teaching spread, more people sought them out. Desperate families, orphans and single mothers inundated them with calls of help; friends and relatives of Marion’s students pleaded with her to officially open her own school.

The family soon found themselves caught between a strong sense of moral responsibility and mounting pressure from disapproving neighbours.

So, in December of 1990, the Cloete family decided to walk away from their five-bedroom house, swimming pool, servants and many of their well-to-do friends to continue their school in earnest.

Marion and Con used their life savings to buy a 40-hectare (99-acre) farm in Magaliesburg, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, converting old sheds and barns into dormitories and classrooms.

Marion concentrated on educating the students, while Con ran the business end. All three of their daughters, Leigh, Nicole and Shanna, joined them and eventually left a private school education to matriculate (or graduate) at the school their parents started.

They called their school Botshabelo, which means “place of refuge” in the Tswana language.

The Cloete family completely immersed themselves in their new culturally-rich, yet poverty-ridden community, experiencing both its heart-breaking challenges and its invigorating joys.

Botshabelo Grows

Once again, it didn’t take long for word of what the Cloetes were doing to spread. Botshabelo quickly expanded beyond the school into an orphanage, becoming a home and safe haven for children orphaned by AIDS and those whose families couldn’t afford to care for them.

Then in November 2001, a spate of illegal evictions brought local adults to Botshabelo in search of a home, giving rise to the Botshabelo village. The village, made up of the poor, the displaced and orphans who once lived in the Botshabelo orphanage, has since grown to about 1,000 people.

Botshabelo continued to grow, gradually expanding as the Cloete’s addressed the critical needs of the community one by one. Botshabelo now includes a medical clinic, an organic farm with livestock and a fish farm. And as soon as they have the funding, they plan to start a small business in the form of a roadside stand for residents to work in.

“The original vision is still unfolding, but it’s far better than we saw it,” Con said. “It’s coming to fruition, if something as dynamic as this ever does. Because as time goes on, each new generation applies its own solutions, drawn from their own period. That’s why we place so much emphasis on youth management and development.”

The Botshabelo community is currently home to more than 1,000 people and continues to grow at a steady pace, as do plans for a successful future. Con and Marion’s family has also grown, and now includes sons-in-law and grandchildren. They all live and work together at Botshabelo.

“We have all remained honourable and are more committed than ever,” Con said. “Everything else comes as it must.”