In contrast to the grinding cycle of set-backs that seemed to epitomize Cru62 life, mid-2016, was the emerging story of Maruwaan. By now he had been clean from heroin for 15 months, had become a full-time Cru62 staff member and was headed to Johannesburg with Jonathan to raise awareness for a project they were starting […]
“Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
It’s easy to become obsessed with ‘issues’ – from war in the middle east and the ensuing refugee crisis, to the negative gastrointestinal effects of gluten on our gut, there is no shortage of issues to address and causes to fight. If I’m honest, I’ve begun to become just a little skeptical about some of the fads of what causes churches adopt. (I’m aware the notion of there even being ‘fashionable’ causes for which to advocate is pretty grotesque, but it’s all around us.) These issues and causes can easily become all-encompassing and all-consuming. Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian activist, suggests a different starting point. He urges us, “don’t choose issues, choose people. Then the issues will choose themselves.” It never ceases to amaze me how polarized our advocacy can become. Couldn’t we be pro-life AND pro-choice? What about choosing to love the good in both Israel AND Palestine? What if, sometimes, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater? What if we carefully held the baby and loved it as best we could? And, if we poured the bathwater onto a flower bed or vegetable patch, we could even find generative ways to redemptively use something we’d previously written off as waste.
I didn’t expect one of the most upsetting aspects in being friends with young people in gangs and on drugs to be the misunderstanding and judgmentalism of others. Namely, the ear-bashing that more polished, less-obviously-addicted people, enjoying the trappings and conveniences of living in the centre of inequality-exacerbating systems, give me about the moral nihilism of my marginalized friends, whom they have never met. And from that skewed logic, the question is asked ‘how can you work with those people, aren’t you scared?’ or, even worse is the naïve notion that society’s problems would all be solved by locking all of them up in prison.
[As an aside – some thoughts on prison, why it’s a self-defeating idea, and will never solve the problem of gangsterism:
- Institutions don’t change people; people change people. (This shouldn’t surprise those of us who profess to following Jesus, because he tells us the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.)
- Pro-social change comes about when inner core beliefs are altered in a person. Punishment, or fear of punishment, will never change someone’s core beliefs. At best, it might bring about behavioural change – but when all those around you are dragging you down, your polished behavior won’t last long. Have a look at the re-offending rates for those who leave prison. – Retributive justice never gets to the root issue behind a crime. Want to reduce crime levels? Then have a go at addressing poverty, sexual abuse, hopelessness, trauma, absent or neglectful parents etc. (The epitome of hopelessly misguided retribution is, of course, the death penalty – ‘we are killing you in order to show that killing people is wrong’.)
- Because prison gangs run the prisons, to be incarcerated in South Africa is often synonymous with becoming more deeply embroiled in gang activity. ie, not only does prison rarely help, but it can actually criminalise you more.]
Please Don’t Feed the Trolls
A couple of months ago I came across a deeply distressing and violent story on a certain ‘Gangwatch’ Facebook page. It was a post notifying people of what had recently taken place in a Cape Flats community nearby. There were four photos of an unconscious young man lying on the street at night, with blood on the ground around his head and hands. In one of the photos, someone had taken the young man’s trousers off. The ominous title was, ‘Meet his match’, and the description to the update was as follows: “This is the after-math when u break in , he was caught this morning at 3,45am in… [a certain road], breaking in for the numerous time,, and he got a hiding of his life. [His name and address were then given]…he says that he steals anything of value and exhange it for heroin at a merchant in the Vlei.”
The young man in the photos was reported to have been addicted to heroin to such an extent that he had resorted to house-breaking in order to fund his habit. He had been caught and beaten to death by local community members. It was a brutally violent end to what had presumably been a troubled life. It disturbs me that, whether on a local or national level, people think that killing others is ever a legitimate way of showing the righteousness of one’s own cause. Yet what was equally disturbing was the barrage of hate-filled diatribe in the comments section. It seemed that the majority of those commenting genuinely approved of the killing of a drug addict. Such was the anger towards him that when one young female posted a comment condemning the violence, she was met with numerous personal attacks.
She wrote: “I don’t care what this guy done! This is inhuman and indignifying. I’m not justifying his actions but his crime does not make it okay to expose him like this. He is still a human. He needs to be dealt with accordingly but not like this. Whoever done this to him and still had the audacity to take pictures and expose him is no better than the drug addict who tried to break in.”
Responses were as follows (I have just edited out people’s names – the rest is copy and pasted):
“[You] live in an imaginary world where drug addicts just need a hug. In the real world this is what is needed a lot more of it and seriously with more brutality.”… “If you defending these criminals you part of the problem”… “This man got what was coming to him. If the law fails us, we do it ourselves… WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE! People like you help these scoundrels get away with murder! Or maybe you’re just from another planet. If so, welcome to Cape Town!”… “it rips ur heart out knowing you worked so hard for what you want paid so much money for your stuff and along comes mr druggie not only steals your stuff but to ad insult to injury he sells it for next to nothing. not trying to be rude or anything but stick a memory card up your behind and save that bs for someone who cares”… “he can be glad we’re not in a Muslim country…because then he’ll have no hands!!😯 so he should consider himself lucky ;)”… “he deserved it. Why does he not sell his fancy clothes and shoes to satisfy his disgusting habit. The problem is the justice system does no justice, he would be out on the street doing the same thing again. People are fed up and will not tolerate this type of behavior. Peace.”… “Moer die vark”… “He deserves its becoz all the pple sweat nd hard work just fell on him….pple must stop covering for drug addicts becoz that’s y they never cum right! Y must u work hard nd the next person just takes they had to chop of his hands then he won’t steal better of won’t do drugs too lol….”… “One less many more to go!”… “He got what he deserved! !! Let this be a lesson to the rest of the slime!!!!”… “he’s lucky i wasn’t there i would of burn plastic bags on him.”
This callous insensitivity towards those who struggle with drug addiction is fairly common place in Cape Town. It is another one of the things I find saddest – that those who have no clue about another person’s story make a moral judgment about them. There’s a line that says ‘your enemy is just someone who’s story you haven’t heard.’ I sometimes act judgmentally unthinkingly, almost instinctively, and I hate that I do. Ultimately, we will probably never know the amount of pain those even closest to us carry – let alone someone we meet in a fleeting encounter. Therefore, as each person we meet is most likely more broken than we would imagine, we should always aim to be kinder than others think is reasonable. Besides, if it boils down to choosing one over the other, I’d much rather be unreasonably kind, than just reasonably kind.
Beauty in Brokenness
One of my heroes is an Canadian Catholic theologian called Jean Vanier. Here, he writes about living life with the physically and mentally disabled. He is gloriously honest about his flaws, his propensity to anger, and his longing for plaudits. “They have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish, the fear of being devalued or pushed aside, the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable, or of feeling helpless in front of others in pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart. I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me. That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was! I did not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was.” (From Brokenness to Community, p.19)
This is something Manenberg teaches me better than anywhere else I’ve lived. High Risk Youth (who are in some ways marginalized by mainstream society in parallel ways to the physically or mentally disabled, in that many don’t seem to know ‘what to do with them’) are often dirty, always angry, masters of manipulation, violent to the extreme, and yet often they cry themselves to sleep at night. You can smell, see and touch their brokenness and pain – there’s no hiding it. And as one intentionally seeks friendship with these conspicuously broken people, one’s own less conspicuous brokenness rises to the surface. As this happens, you realize how we are all in the same boat, you see how much pain you’ve hidden from others your whole life, and how much grace others show you day by day. And so your heart becomes more thankful for forgiveness and friends, and you grow in humility and gratitude. This was a journey I hadn’t ever learnt living anywhere else. Growing up in the privileged mainstream, I’d always been taught that to be transparent about brokenness or pain is perceived as awkward at best or, at worst, shamefully weak. Friends and community in Manenberg have shown me that there is more than one story about each one us, and that there truly is ‘beauty in my brokenness’.
To what extent could society at large be held responsible for issues of gangsterism, drugs and crime in Manenberg and similar communities?
The Academic and the Elephant in the Room
One evening last week, Sarah and I, some friends visiting from the USA, and the Cru62 boys all went to a talk by a well-known journalist, academic and researcher of all things gang-related. He has just released a book about the nature of Cape Town’s gang pandemic and some of the contributive factors causing it. He was articulate and insightful as he expounded his ideas based upon four decades of research. But whilst his theories relating epigenetics to a chemical predisposition towards addiction, and his stinging critique of Patricia De Lille’s (Mayor of Cape Town) shameless neo-liberal agenda, were fascinating, by the time he finished his presentation and invited questions from the floor, I found myself bothered by something much simpler and more obvious. The entire audience, except a group of us from Manenberg in one corner, was white and middle class. The irony of this – a room full of white people listening to a white man talk about the gang problem – was not once mentioned. And whilst the questions that this demographic posed to Dr. Pinnock were worded eloquently and opinionated in tone, they betrayed an ignorance about or reticence towards two of the most undealt-with issues in Cape Town – race and inequality.
One lady with a plump face and frizzy blonde hair asked (somewhat rhetorically) whether the speaker agreed that the gang problem could be solved by imposing a year of military service. He gave a nuanced and rather gracious reply, suggesting this could be a small part of an answer. Another lady, bespectacled and demure, aired her views that better town planning would sort everything out.
There were a few elephants in the room that evening. Yet the biggest elephant was also least acknowledged. The majority of opinions given by the middle aged, white audience, aired in the form of questions, were all centred around a single narrative. In their eyes, coloured youth that join gangs are a problem to be solved, a threat to their suburban security, and an embarrassment to an otherwise world class city. There was no mention of the fact that 95% of people in that room were still, 22 years into non-racial democracy, surfing the wave of wealth, entitlement and privilege left to whites as an inheritance from apartheid – and that this might just be a significant factor in perpetuating violent crime, anger and hopelessness amongst vast swathes of young coloured men.
Saul Alinksy, the father of community organizing, wrote that “to unslum the slum… [means] battling all of those forces in the city and the nation which converge to create the human junkyard.” In other words, there is “a dynamic interrelationship between a community and the general social scene.” (Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p.59,61). These words were written in Chicago in 1946 by a Jewish American of Russian descent, and yet they encapsulate the grand narrative that desperately needs addressing in Cape Town today. Manenberg’s gang problem is dynamically interrelated to the rampant racism and economic inequality in Cape Town today. Every time a gangster is shot dead, it’s a reflection of the state of Cape Town as a whole. Very little, if anything, will change until the violence and drugs and crime in Manenberg affects those in wider Cape Town beyond just motivating people to build higher walls, and install more armed response panic buttons. And until the ‘haves’ stop pointing blame-assigning fingers at the ‘have nots’, no amount of expert research and eloquent opinions will count for much.
Let me tell a couple of stories in an attempt to illustrate my point. In a period of three months during the first year of running Cru62, whilst driving with the boys around various parts of Cape Town, Sarah and I were stopped and search by police seven times. Neither of us had ever been stopped and searched previously, except for an occasional police roadblock. One evening when Dowayne was driving the boys to Narcotics Anonymous in Observatory, they were stopped and searched and made to lie face down on the road as the police stood on them, interrogated them and checked that the car wasn’t stolen. What was it about the sight of five young men driving a citi golf in Observatory that sounded alarms for the police? What was it about that totally normal scenario that led them to suspect criminal activity? Another time, five of the boys were prohibited by security guards from entering a shopping mall, with no reason given. They had saved up money they’d earnt working at Jou Ma Se Kombuis (our community’s coffee shop in Manenberg) in order to take a trip to the mall to play video games. Their planned trip was ruined, just because security didn’t like the look of them. Recently, at a cinema, a group of white people got up and left when Sarah walked into a movie with the boys with her, and she is regularly followed by shop attendants when food shopping with one of the boys.
You’re Sitting on My Dinner
One Saturday evening, I went out with the boys to buy gatsbys (footlong sub rolls filled with meat, chips and salad – a firm local favourite). We decided we would like to go to a viewing spot about 20 minutes drive away to watch the sunset over the city. We arrived at the car park to see that the gate was closed, prohibiting cars from entering. So I turned the car around, and we decided to head home. As we were turning out of the road, a police van pulled up alongside us and two black poliemen told us to get out of the car. We complied, though slightly confused as to what we had done wrong. We were made to put our hands on the vehicle as police searched us and then the inside of the car. As they searched, they asked us what we were doing there.
“We’ve come to watch the sunset and have dinner.”
“Where’s your dinner then?”
“You’re sitting on it.”
“Don’t be cheeky.”
“I’m not – you are literally sitting on our dinner.”
“Where are you from?”
“We all live in Manenberg.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“We just explained – we’ve…”
“But if you’re from Manenberg you shouldn’t be here. You need to come to the police station with me so I can take your finger prints.”
Of course, we put up a fuss – why ‘shouldn’t’ we have been there? Especially galling was that the policemen made all four of the boys sit in the back of the police van on the way to the station – as if they were criminals who had been caught breaking the law. Once at the station, finger prints were taken (though I had to make them take my finger prints too – I was equally (un)guilty), questions were asked and when, to the police man’s utter disbelief (he was convinced we were dealing drugs), a more thorough search of the car yielded no illicit substances, they had to let us go. One of the policemen picked up a semi-automatic rifle and marched us to the door, with the words, “now get out of my area.” The single story rearing its ugly head through figures of authority.
You Know they are Planning to Mug You, Right?
Three friends from Kansas City were visiting our community in Manenberg for a couple of weeks. On their bucket list was a climb up Lion’s Head – which is also one of the boys’ favourite things to do. So they went together. As they reached the top, a concerned-looking young white South African approached Jordan.
“Hey broe, those coloured guys who were chatting to you and followed you up here – you do know they’re planning to mug you don’t you? You’re welcome to walk down with us if you want – it would be much safer.”
Jordan replied that ‘those coloured guys’ were actually his friends and they walked up together. He called out the young white South African’s racism, and said “I appreciate you trying to be kind, but you’re actually being a jerk.”
Multiple unrelated occasions. Different parts of Cape Town. Police and public, white and black alike. A single story circulated and recirculated. Fear, distrust, condemnation.
How would you view yourself if everyone else in your city saw you as an urban menace, good for nothing, inherently bad, a social ill to be contained?
Think about it this way – if you told someone you knew, every time you saw them, that they stink, they might begin to wash more, though simultaneously start resenting you. If you continued to tell them they stink, despite them washing multiple times a day and wearing deodorant and clean clothes, they might begin to believe that they really do smell and that there’s nothing that can be done about it. And they would probably hold some level of anger towards you for so rudely telling them they smell but not doing anything to help them with what you perceive to be a problem they have. It seems to me that this isn’t dissimilar to the problem faced by young coloured men trying to leave gangs and drugs behind. Systems, authority structures and individuals are all against them, continually telling them they stink (despite the fact that they don’t), doing nothing to help them, and refusing to examine prevailing judgmental presuppositions, all the while compounding the lie that ‘people like that will never change’. Cape Town, we have a problem. It’s not the gangs, the drugs or the crime. It’s us.
I live and work in a community called Manenberg on the outskirts of Cape Town. It’s fair to say that Manenberg is quite well known – potentially for all the wrong reasons. The prevailing view amongst most Capetonians about Manenberg is that it is a hopeless hellhole populated entirely by gangsters and drug addicts. In short, people are asking ‘can anything good ever come out of Manenberg’? (that should ring a bell…) Sure, I’m generalizing, but this generalization is based on six years of repeatedly attempting to justify the hope I have for Manenberg, to countless locals who obviously know better than this clueless Brit. You’ll just have to trust my ever-so-slightly-generalised assertions. I do know there are some gloriously hope-filled Capetonians around, too!
Fusion, the organisation I’m part of, working with young gang members and drug addicts, holds quarterly 24/7 Prayer Weeks. [Jargon alert. A 24/7 Prayer Week is simply non-stop prayer, night and day, for a week.] You sign up for hourly slots, and come to pray in our little prayer room in a dark corner of a tired community centre in the middle of contested gang turf. Sounds idyllic, right? Well, in this inauspicious setting, we’ve seen friends receive the gift of tongues whilst de-toxing off heroin, we’ve heard of Muslims encountering Jesus, we’ve witness people break down weeping the moment they entered the room, we’ve shared communion as bullets flew through our office window, and sometimes late at night we’ve fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion (don’t tell anyone).
Each prayer week has a theme. The most recent one was “Truth vs Facts”. In other words, acknowledging that whilst there are some fairly grisly facts out there, eternal truth trumps temporal fact. Every time. So, for example, it is a sad fact that drug related crime has risen in Manenberg by 600% in the last decade. Yet the truth is that drugs can only offer a dull counterfeit to Holy Spirit-fuelled community, and God is stirring Christians in collaboration with police and government to work towards sustainable solutions to addiction and its negative spill over.
Another fact is that fatherlessness and unemployment are two significant factors in young men joining gangs. There is a greater truth that trumps this – that God is father to the fatherless. Having opened a house for such young men just two months ago, we have seen God work in each of their hearts to especially affirm his love for them as father. These young men, whom we are ‘re-parenting’ as part of the discipleship process, have chosen to leave gang pasts behind and are now working two days a week in our coffee shop to learn how to become employable in the long-term. Sure, it’s very small scale at the moment, and there’s a marathon to run, but I’m learning to not write off the ‘day of small beginnings’.
We are told that God “calls into being things that [are] not” (Rom 4:17). This isn’t a call to gloss over the facts, nor is it a call to naïve ignorance. It is a reminder that followers of Jesus are privileged/entitled/empowered (whichever word you prefer, I think they’re all true) to live lives of generative hope, through the practice of feasting on truth (even – especially – that which is not yet visible).
When I, in my weaker moments, allow temporal facts too much airtime in my mind, I attribute to them a ‘truth’ status they do not deserve. I recently heard it suggested that ‘faith for the future generates power for the present’ – and here in our little corner of Manenberg, I’m learning the daily discipline of believing the best over fearing the worst.
And you? Where is your fact vs truth battleground today?