A Resiliency Reemerges in the Wake of a Violent Uprising in South Africa
South Africans are not its Politics.
As a South African born American, I have always had a mixed relationship with the country of my birth.
An abhorrence of nationalism was an expected outcome of growing up under apartheid, and it was difficult for me to find pride as an American for that very reason. Especially given America’s past and the current state of affairs. Yet there has always been a love for South Africa as a geography and for the people more than a nation state.
The looting and violence that erupted last week in the wake of the imprisonment of former president, Jacob Zuma, for violating a court order was characterized as the worst upheaval in post apartheid South Africa. Dozens of malls and hundreds of stores in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces were looted and often destroyed causing billions of rands in damages and stolen merchandise. Supply lines and commercial infrastructure were disrupted causing severe food shortages in the Kwa Zulu province, and unease throughout the country and abroad.
Media fixated on the violence and the damage, painting an extremely grim picture of South Africa.
My friend, Warren King, had forwarded me an audio file of someone who had picked up a broom and gone to help clean up one of the many looted malls, and the sense of satisfaction it yielded. We agreed to do the same thing. To leave the comfort of our privilege bubbles, and physically help, using our bodies and sweat. The question was where, and under what conditions, given the precariousness of the situation.
I had urged my sister, Candice Etberg, to arrange for us to help in Alexandra Township. Candice had founded an organization Feed SA, retained contacts in Alexandra, and had previously introduced me to the legendary Linda Twala, also known as the Father of Alex. If anyone would know where we could be the most useful and of service, it would be Mr. T.
Mr. T suggested Mandela Day, July 18th, and so prepped with rakes, black bags, brooms, (and diapers and bum cream for babies from Warren) and lots of enthusiasm, Warren, Iselle Combrink and I set off.
We were met by a police van and police car, one in front and one behind, as Warren, Iselle and I were escorted to the heart of Alexandra Township. Although we neither asked nor requested a police escort, and that it was reflective of Mr. T’s eminence and influence, the privilege didn’t go unnoticed by us.
We were met by Thulani Magcai, who runs the center founded by Mr.T, Phuthadichaba Centre, which means gathering and taking care of nations.
Mr. T arrived shortly thereafter to distribute some food packages from a drive that Candice had spearheaded last week.
Warren and Iselle at Phuthadichaba Centre.
The gogos receiving some sustenance. Donations of tea, sugar, coffee, cremora are still always appreciated.
The Fight Club was there, like angels, providing massages to weary feet.
Mr. T’s merry band of youth, or cubs, love and respect him for good reason.
Very good reason. He inspires respect.
Everyone chips in, no matter how young.
And while not everyone in Alex wears masks, everyone at Phuthadichaba was masked — young and old alike.
Under the watchful, smiling eyes of Mr. T’s granddaughter. Service runs in the family.
Iselle with the leopards.
Fight Club sponsors and Mr. T.
Song and dance from a group of young girls honoring the seniors at Phuthadichaba.
We proceeded to the Alexandra Heritage Center, opposite where Nelson Mandela once lived in Alexandra many years before his imprisonment.
The Alexandra Heritage Center.
Mr. T, the Father of Alexandra. Power to the People.
Despite the abject poverty, Alex is a vibrant hive, brimming with activity.
A bustling intersection with truck carrying fresh produce.
Gogos waiting for sanitizer.
Mr. T participated in a Yes Youth drive to provide sanitizer.
And in a UNICEF effort to provide backpacks.
For the youth of Alexandra Township.
Entrepreneur showing prototype of shoes made in Alex.
An incredible day. Sure, there is a lot of work to do in South Africa, and the hangover from this latest spate of violence will be long lasting.
As we drove — unaccompanied this time — through the central business district of Alexandra, and where the Pan African mall was looted and burned, the devastation was evident. Yet stores across the road had reopened selling everything from haircuts to popcorn. Protected by a strong and armed military presence, who had deployed to restore law and order. People appeared to go about their business, perhaps comforted by their presence. Perhaps resigned to it.
The future may be unpredictable, as it always is in South Africa, but never, ever underestimate the resiliency of South Africans.