Have we planted enough seeds of loveTo seek peace in this wicked land?
-from a poem by “Common Man”, a spoken word artist from Yeoville
I arrived in Cape Town the morning of December 31 after a grueling flight from Boston via London. It was about 80 degrees and sunny at 7:30 in the morning as I walked off the plane onto the shimmering tarmac. I had heard that this was the place to be in South Africa for New Year’s, so I decided to start my journey where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean—a romantic notion inviting thoughts of transition and possibly even nice beaches.
The colored community in Cape Town celebrates New Year with what they call the “Coon Carnival.” The first time I heard the terms “colored” and “coon” thrown around, I felt myself squirming with discomfort. As the parades began after midnight of the New Year, the feeling only got worse. There’s nothing like seeing mixed-race and black people wearing blackface and exaggerated makeup mimicking the American minstrels of the 19th century to jump start some culture shock.
The coons are troops of neighborhood-based men, women, and children consisting of a brass band and dancers. The entire festival is local. Troops organize themselves, raising money for costumes and practicing along the streets of Cape Town throughout the year in preparation for the carnival and subsequent competitions that determine the most talented group. The parades start at the leveled area of land that used to be District Six, a vibrant multi-racial community that was destroyed piecemeal by the apartheid government starting in the 1960s. All that remains is a grassy area in the middle of town, but the start of the celebration there pays tribute to the ideals of the formerly thriving place that flew in the face of racism until it was literally bulldozed out of existence.
I learned very quickly to get used to being out of my comfort zone. The coons marched for two or three days consecutively, through the middle of town and down unexpected streets in more suburban areas. Many of them had American-themed costumes. Adding another layer of irony to the scene, most of the colored community in Cape Town is Muslim. There is plenty of anti-American sentiment floating around these days, which you wouldn't know from the sparkly green Statues of Liberty waved during the parades and the brass bands playing the "Because I got high" song by the American group Afroman. I witnessed a gang fight between members of rival troops. One was part of a gang called the Americans. The other one was from the Sexy Boys. No one was seriously hurt.
The Cape is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, similar in landscape to Northern California. South African wine country is an hour’s drive from the city, offering beautiful views of mountains and picturesque vineyards dotted with the pastel symmetry of Dutch architecture. If you closed your eyes for the drive past the townships, you could very well be in Napa or Sonoma. But after my week in the sun, it was time to head north to the gritty mine country and crime-filled excitement of Johannesburg.
You can look to the left and see a world that looks a lot like Los Angeles, and then glance to the right and glimpse the grit of the transient communities just next door. Contrasts: the sparkling beauty of the coast and the dry, cool highlands of Gauteng. The wealth of the elite and the extreme poverty of the underclass. Luxurious malls and sewage-filled swimming holes. Johannesburg’s northern suburb of Sandton and the nearby township of Alexandra. Somewhere in between the squatter camps and the largely white, gated communities, I found the neighborhood where I’ve chosen to settle in. It’s called Yeoville.
Yeoville is a racially mixed, working class community where Orthodox Jews walk their dogs past Rastafarian communes and spoken word poets occasionally give slightly intoxicated but very inspired impromptu performances at the local bar. It’s one of the few places where people of all colors and national origins live side by side with few serious walls in between houses and no racial or social barriers at all in the neighborhood eating and drinking establishments. The catch, of course, is that I feel about 85 percent sure I’ll be mugged somewhere around my house before the year is out. But I’d rather live with that risk than spend all my time running from it.
It's incredible how much significance a living situation takes on in a country where race and social status is constantly in your face. I have tried to negotiate a lifestyle that I feel okay with, that doesn't completely isolate me from the crime and hardships of life for most people here, yet doesn't put me in a long-term situation where I have to deny my needs for certain types of comfort. As a white American, I have more freedom to do this than a white South African would. My roommate is a 26-year-old black Swazi jazz musician. We have promised not to bring any suspected black or white racist friends home, and so far it's working out fine. But as she pointed out to me, white South Africans who have no problem becoming close with me will not even set foot in Yeoville out of fear anyway.
I’m negotiating with several organizations to determine which one I will go to permanently. No matter where I end up (I’ll be deciding by the end of this week), I’ll be doing policy research and community outreach in the area of legislative reform, gender-based violence, and HIV/AIDS. This involves questioning, learning about, and challenging problems like child rape and abuse, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and local implementation of new laws defining various crimes under the new post-apartheid constitution. I want to put the atmosphere here concerning violence and human rights in perspective, so I’m going to share a few recent newspaper headlines:
Traditionalists revert to virginity testing to prevent HIV/Aids 18-year-old boy free on bail: guilty of raping girl, 5 Policeman free on bail again after third rape of young girl Couple faces charges of murder, abuse after child dies Swaziland government announces five-year sex ban for Swazi women New finding: rape and abuse by teachers rampant in South African schools Girl, 13, questioned about morality after being raped by 56-year-old policeman Young girl’s body found raped and mutilated Two youths shot for their cell phones Jealous boyfriend shoots community worker and daughter, 8
There are at least five of these every day. There are many approaches to dealing with problems of crime and abuse. There are organizations that counsel victims, provide referrals, and offer short- and long-term shelter for those on the run. There are organizations that focus on building local government awareness and capacity, and groups that focus on implementing laws under the new constitution that target the worst kind of crimes. There are lobbying groups, community based projects, and grassroots education campaigns. The non-governmental organization (NGO) sector is thriving in Johannesburg, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to share in this work. I’m trying to find a good balance between higher-level research and grassroots activities. I know I will burn out if I spend all my time counseling children or rape victims, but I want my research to address the issues without losing touch with why I’m doing it in the first place.
To balance the search for long-term strategic and cerebral community work, I’ve been spending time in Soweto (short for South Western Township, the huge black township just outside Johannesburg) on a regular basis. Kliptown is an extremely poor area of Soweto where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955. It now consists mostly of tightly packed tin shacks with one freshwater tap for every 50 families. The narrow dirt roads winding between clumps of ramshackle dwellings are full of children. They have no school, no viable plumbing, and very few open spaces to play. But they do have Brother Bob, a remarkable Rastafarian community worker who dedicates himself full time to the operation of a small grassroots youth center called SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth). I’ll be doing side projects with the kids there throughout the year. The first time I saw a horde of small children run yelping towards me with huge grins on their faces—against the depressing backdrop of a community crippled by poverty and pollution—I knew this was the kind of perspective I had been looking for.
On a very personal level, I was also extremely lucky to be “adopted” by a family in another area of Soweto where I go to get comfort food, motherly love, and the privilege of being handed a baby and told to wash the dishes after dinner. Between the bartenders at Time Square (my local place in Yeoville) buying me drinks to celebrate my turning a Quarter Century two days ago and my newly adopted family calling to sing me happy birthday, I feel that I am building community here in more ways than I can even understand.
Seeking peace is a difficult undertaking, especially at this extreme moment in world history. It requires a lot of investment, and some days it's much harder to "sow seeds of love" than others. When I read about children being raped and then denied the drugs they need to prevent HIV, I wonder what impact I can possibly have on the enormous challenges facing South Africa. Why am I here when these things are too big to tackle? I find that focusing on the small moments is the only way to feel sane. I can share myself with my newfound family in Soweto, with my friends in Yeoville, and I can share their stories with you.
In peace and optimism,