I’m at a loss for words. The normally self-entitled, ever-judging, critical me had to stand in awe as the ‘new’ South Africa slapped me in the face with something that felt like a hug. Life will surprise you if you put yourself in the right places. Sometimes, the right place is through sheer luck (providence) and sometimes it is through the dullness of duty.
I found my self in Umlazi for three days and my expectations were low. The third largest township in Mzansi, know for violent crime and extreme poverty. They say you enter Umlazi with a Citi Golf, you leave in a taxi. The rolling hills of RDP houses and informal footpaths characterise these KZN favelas. At least I was traveling with Doc the Pedi boy, so the Boertjie and the Pedi was in the Kingdom of Shaka…
We went to visit Ayanda, a long time friend who touched my heart the night he slept in my flat. It was about four years ago and I remember he posted on Facebook that the highlight of his time was that he used the same towel as me. It was one of those moments, and epiphany where I remembered that nation building was easy and beautiful. Fixing all the problems is not easy, but taking a step in the right direction of reconciliation is. We parked our car and took the little path to Ayanda’s home. Ayanda used to be a large and imposing Zulu man. Today he is literally skinny and fading. It seems that talking drains his energy. Yet his small business of selling airtime, DSTV and RICA for sim cards is doing well and giving him purpose. His business did so well that he is also selling clothes; all from his tiny shack in the bottom of one of the valleys in Umlazi. While hanging out at the shack, I heard Ayanda and Doc talk about a murderer who is coaching kids. Ayanda was upset, but Doc seemed to want to chat with the person first. My take was that no murderer should be allowed near kids, this type of person gives SA a crime stat of 50 murders per day. He should be ostracised.
From Ayanda’s shack we went up to Inselele school where youngsters were about to start football practice. It started to rain, but the kids kept training, on a field with no grass. They had a flat football and an old fake basketball. My warm-up kicking was with the old basketball. Doc threw out two new Nike balls. The speed of the session picked up, the energy levels jumped two levels. We were playing in the rain. Was the rain washing us? After the session we huddled together in the usual small circle. The conversation was in isiZulu, so I understood only a few parts. After about 20 minutes I realised the guy to my left, standing in my arms, hugging me, was the murderer. By this time I had a bond with him, through jokes and small connections we were chommies. I looked at his young body, just a kid: a kid with nothing. My rage was gone, my hatred and contempt had disapeared. I looked around the circle at the other boys. Two had shoes one that didn’t match. Three had sneakers that were cheap from the start, but now gaping open, almost impossible to run with. One guy had decent shoes, but three sizes to small so he cut holes in the front and his big toes stuck out about two centimetres. Here we were, a circle of men and boys, talking in the rain. The chat, led by Doc, was about honouring the guy who was trying to fix his life, coaching kids, trying to ensure they don’t repeat his mistakes. All the boys chose yes, that this guy, should not be kicked out, but that his efforts should be honoured. I stood there bare. So much noise was stripped away and in a moment of clarity, all I saw was young human beings who needed shoes, a ball and friendship. I couldn’t resist the jump to think of all the wealthy people complaining from their lives of luxury, and how easy it would have been to get each kid a pair of boots, to visit and to connect. We are failing the Rainbow dream, missing simple steps, because we are trapped in fear, resentment and philosophical debate.
I visited Thulani. He and his wife picked up a mentally handicapped baby. They are poor themselves, but they took in a throw away baby and started caring for it in one of the most courageous human acts I have seen in my life. The power and faith proclaimed by this act of unselfish humanity reminds us that ubuntu is not a debate, but a choice. They chose. I learnt that a lady from Unisa started to assist Thulani to buy food and care for the baby. A small modest amount, not even covering all the expenses. She was with me on the visit and when Thulani thanked her, she said: “no, my small donation is nothing, we thank you.” She then asked if the money she was sending is enough, and that she could increase. Thulani said no, that the money was enough, that they didn’t need more. I was slapped in the face again, at a loss for words. Is there anything as inspirational and beautiful as integrity and character?
From Thulani’s house we went to a run-down school where we were to meet two more friends: Sigwasa and Mfanafuthi who we spent a few days with in Shongweni last month. These two kids intrigued me in Shongweni, and blew me away in their home town of Umlazi. If someone deserves support in this country it is them. We arrived at the old run-down school, it was a Friday afternoon around 17:00 and the small hall was half full of local youths. They looked a bit different, each person showed something arty or unique, their was an air of art and culture in the room. As the youths arrived, some wrote their names on a piece of paper entitled ‘performance list’. The room became full and the youths started to recite poems, sing songs and perform whatever they wanted to share. The way the crowd listened was as inspiring as the items. I was touched by talent, sincerity, determination, hope and spirit; against all odds, these youths were killing it. We have to do something. I was left inspired. We are failing the Rainbow dream, missing simple steps, because we are trapped in fear, resentment and philosophical debate.
The Unisa visitors arrived. We had a programme where successes were celebrated. Izak, an Afrikaner from RSG Radio was there and when he heard a young girl, Sipelele recite a poem about the struggles of womanhood, he phoned the SABC and we went live with the poem being recited to Afrikaners all across South Africa. As she finished here poem she was in tears. Another moment of vulnerability and bravery; unseen in the day to day comfort of middle-class suburbs. What can the ‘rich’ learn or receive from the ‘poor’? My three days in Umlazi unlocked new dimensions of answers to that question! These girls, expressing themselves through song and poetry reminded me to be brave, they reminded me that I am okay. Before colour and cash, we are human.
We are failing the Rainbow dream, missing simple steps, because we are trapped in fear, resentment and philosophical debate.
Here is a five minute sound clip by Izak from RSG, narration in Afrikaans but interviews in English:
This post reflects on the events in Umlazi where true depth confronted shallow superficiality. Cheap complaints were faced by courageous courage. The youngsters from Umlazi inspired me: they literally lifted me up and energised me. They renewed me more than any holiday ever could.