Last week I returned from South Africa, where we raised a record R11,000 for charity at the annual Johannesburg Skydiving Club and Raise the Sky tonto Boogie. The boogie is a rocking skydiving party, and for me also a time to celebrate my late partner, Eric “tonto” Stephenson. For the last seven years, I have driven into Soweto after the boogie to deliver skydivers’ donations of food and clothing to the Pastoral Centre Pre-school and Creche in Kliptown, a haven for vulnerable children. This special place was founded by Pam Mfaxa, who protected and nurtured the next generation of her community with the force of a warrior and the conviction of a saint. Pam passed away in January, suddenly and too early, but her legacy, like Eric’s, lives on. This year I made the familiar drive just the same. Alone in my car, I realized how strange it felt to be carrying on this work, these rituals, when the people who anchored them for so long are both gone. The sadness made me ask, what is more powerful than loss? What actually soothes loneliness? Turns out for me, it’s gratitude. For love. For deep and real friendship. For the way both of these extraordinary people changed my life and continue to inspire good. In gratitude and memory, here is the story of how I met Pam, and the very first time I went to Kliptown.
Less than two months after I had packed up everything I owned and moved from San Francisco to South Africa, I was waiting to eat lunch at a community building in the middle of a slum. I was determined to build a meaningful life, one shaped outside the predictable forces of my Harvard cohort. I had recently started skydiving, which gave me the courage to make other jumps: as far away as possible from the vortex of startups, parties, after-work martinis, and hung-over brunches.
A group of us had just toured Kliptown’s Freedom Charter Square informal settlement, learning about how families subsisted in shacks with no electricity or running water, marking out territory by placing locks on the port-o-loos and fighting for access at the outdoor taps. Unemployment was high; HIV rates were high; the post-apartheid dream was deferred; privacy was non-existent.
As the name implied, this is where the Freedom Charter was officially adopted in 1955, the document that first enshrined the core ideals of a non-racial South Africa. “The People Shall Govern!” it declared, and “There Shall Be Houses, Security, and Comfort!” In this utopian vision that supposedly kicked off with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election to the presidency in 1994, “Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.”
So there we were, taking in the stench of untreated sewage and bearing witness to the piles of garbage that constituted the playing fields, a walking cliché of foreign white do-gooders engaging in ghetto voyeurism with young black men as guides.
At lunch, the men talked a lot about the importance of women, but none were actually present at the table. I got up on the pretense of finding a bathroom and didn’t have to go far before I heard laughter bursting from a tiny, cramped kitchen. There they were, the women. Chopping vegetables. Preparing food for us.
Pam and I found each other the moment I stuck my head into that overcrowded kitchen. With authority, she denied my offer to help with the meal, but something about my privileged indignation at the gender imbalance at lunch made her laugh. “African men don’t do much, but they do talk,” she chuckled. “If you really want to see this community in action, come back and stay the night. You are welcome at my place.”
I made my way back to the lunch table, looking around at our group: mostly white North American women in their 20’s; a guy with very white socks from Minnesota who had studied anthropology and, five months after arrival in South Africa, was throwing around township slang in a way that made him look even more ridiculous than the socks, if that was possible; and our cool “feminist” shepherds seemingly ignorant of their own ironies. I counted myself among the hypocrites, though I couldn’t pinpoint (or didn’t think through) exactly why.
Months later, once I had settled in to some kind of routine, I boarded a shared taxi from downtown Johannesburg to take Pam up on her offer.
Kliptown, June 2002.
I spent my first Youth Day in South Africa in and around the shacks of Kliptown.
June 16th, 2002 was Youth Day for the politically conscious and Father’s Day for everyone else. Youth Day commemorates the beginning of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings against “Bantu Education”, a segregated system with Afrikaans (the language of the ruling National Party) as the required medium of instruction in the township. Riot police fired tear gas followed by live rounds, and a lethal bullet struck thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson. Fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up his limp body and carried him from the scene, running alongside his wailing sister. More than 400 people were reported dead during the uprisings, but photographer Sam Nzima captured this moment on film. The image, widely distributed in the international news, marked a turning point in the world’s understanding of the regime’s brutality.
I was seeking refuge with people who wouldn’t ignore history in favor of a trip to the mall. I was excited to spend time with Pam. My new friend had chosen a life dedicated to the youth of a country she had adopted – a country I was trying to call home.
Pam came from rural Swaziland to South Africa in the 80’s and lived through apartheid, transition, Mandela’s presidency, and more intimate trials than I could ever know. She stayed in one of the only concrete structures in town, where she graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the common area with her children, Zoleka and Nomaswazi (nicknamed Gogo). On Saturday we visited people in shacks of varying size and quality, talking about everything from child abuse to hand-crank telephones.
One tiny shack had the ten residents’ laundry hanging out to dry in front. A large woman came charging out, ranting at the top of her lungs. She was drunk, her huge breasts sagging under a loose shirt. The stale smell of home-brewed beer lingered as she yelled about her troubles—no money, no food, too many children.
“God may come to others, but He doesn’t have time for me! He doesn’t have time!” she moaned.
Shaking her head, Pam said, “Eish, wena. It is your responsibility to make the first move, especially when it comes to God.”
Like a jilted lover, the woman scowled and would have none of it.
“You see? This is what we still struggle with,” said a woman standing nearby. “We finally have our freedom and she spends it on beer. Her children will be hungry tonight.”
The kids ran around me, giggling and taking turns jumping up to be held.
Saturday night was black, with a sliver of moon blurring through the haze of township smoke. With a group from the youth center, I set out into the damp darkness of a different Kliptown. We walked carefully on the dirt paths, narrow and flanked by barbed wire in places, stopping to talk with huddles of people gathered around tin buckets filled with glowing coals.
The groups warming their hands and smoking pungent-smelling joints were mostly men – men who as young boys choked under apartheid and the tyranny of Bantu Education designed to keep them servile and who spent their adolescence without access to basic rights, education, or meaningful work.
It was the textures and smells of that night combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been dozing a bit in the suburban comfort of Melville where I had found a place to live, and Pretoria, where I had found a mentor and an internship at a think tank.
Few whites see Kliptown in the dark; they would say it’s far too dangerous, and they may be right. Spend the day and take sunny images of smiling kids to impress your family and friends with your “African experience”. Spend a winter night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes impossible not to challenge the status quo.
Sunday dawned clear and freezing, heralded loudly by an overzealous rooster right outside Pam’s house. The kids from the youth center were running excitedly to the old Battery Center. The bare cement room was now a makeshift theatre with “United We Stand” and a picture of Hector Pieterson painted on the wall. Performers of all ages hammed it up for the audience, all people from the community. The kids did gumboot dancing, recited poetry, and sang about the new struggle: HIV/AIDS.
HIV was a mental sledgehammer: freedom was won by the previous generation, but life itself was hanging in the balance for this one.
I felt that my life was hanging in the balance, too.