Sixteen-year-old Thandeka was five when her father was murdered in front of her at home in Uitsig, a shanty town outside Cape Town. Her family fell apart and she was taken in by a man who used her as a drug runner. By ten she was living on the streets.
Today she's at secondary school, getting good grades and dreams of being a singer. She's one of many children whose lives have been turned around by the New Life Community Project, which trains local women to support and educate street children. 'No one ever wanted me, my mother wasn't there for me, I had nowhere to sleep, but New Life changed everything,' Thandeka tells me.
Last year, British Airways launched Flying Start, a new charity partnership with Comic Relief UK. BA's new CEO Keith Williams and long-term supporter of Comic Relief UK and Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding are in South Africa to raise awareness of some of the projects they fund. 'I wanted to see for myself the work that's being done,' says Harding. 'I feel privileged to be here and hope we can help make a difference.'
Our planned walk around Uitsig is cancelled because of a spate of shootings, so we meet New Life's director Gerrie Smit, some of the women he works with, and children they've helped, in their HQ on an industrial estate on the edge of the township.
Smit talks of the harshness of daily life in Uitsig: the poverty, the crime, the drug problems (crystal meth or 'tik' — cheap and highly addictive — and glue-sniffing are endemic). He shows us heartbreaking drawings by children depicting violence, rape and drugs — the grim realities of their world.
The problems are complex, but Smit's team of street workers and home-schooling mothers help children recover a sense of worth, try to reintegrate them with their families, teach them during the day, and eventually get them back into school and in the community. The children we meet are testament to the scheme's success.
'It's incredible to see the work they're doing,' says Williams. 'These women rise above the difficulty of their environment and work to educate and bring children back into the community. It's only one of the great projects Comic Relief UK funds and by making a donation you'll make a difference. It's important to get involved.'
Comic Relief UK currently funds 23 diverse projects in South Africa, from legal centres fighting for land rights to daycare for children affected by HIV/Aids. Across in Khayelitsha, another shanty town that's a world away from the glamour of downtown Cape Town, we head to the Michael Mapongwana clinic, the base for Mothers2Mothers, an organisation that helps HIV-positive pregnant women protect their unborn children from the virus.
In South Africa, around 11 per cent of the population is HIV positive and one in three women aged 25-29 is living with HIV. But mother-to-child transmission is almost entirely preventable. In the West, paediatric HIV has virtually been eliminated, but rates remain dangerously high in Africa.
Mothers2Mothers works by recruiting 'mentor mothers', who are also HIV positive, to support and educate pregnant women who discover they are too. With stigma still surrounding the condition, many don't want to attend the clinic and hide the fact they're infected. The goal is to destigmatise the disease and encourage 'disclosure', so they don't need to live with their secret, have access to the right treatment and have HIV-negative babies.
One by one a group of young women tells us their stories. 'I was three months pregnant when I discovered I was positive,' says 29-year-old Melissa, now pregnant with her second child. 'It was a shock, I was crying, confused and felt I couldn't tell my partner. But the support group helped me — and I had access to the right drugs so my baby is HIV negative,' she beams. The statistics speak for the project's success: up to 30 new pregnant women come here daily - in 2010, none had an HIV-positive baby.
'It was amazing to hear these women's experiences. They were HIV positive but living positively,' says Harding. 'They are proof there is hope. Mothers2Mothers needs money to keep educating people, so that more children can start their lives HIV free.'
On 18 March, Comic Relief UK hosts Red Nose Day, a huge fundraising event that harnesses the power of entertainment to change lives. And every day on every flight during the year, BA is collecting for Flying Start. So why not check your pockets and wallets for any loose change in any currency and put it into the envelope provided.
'Please just give whatever you can,' says Harding. 'You can help turn lives around — I've seen it first hand.'
Your small change is making a huge difference to disadvantaged lives around the world thanks to British Airways and Comic Relief UK.
Donations can be given to cabin crew or online at ba.com/flyingstart.