Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dispatch: The Murder Capital

Yesterday I went to the murder capital of South Africa. I find myself there often, at least once a week, took my parents there a few weeks ago and several of you have been and didn’t even know it. If a personal murder capital is the place where more people you know have been killed than any where else, then it is my murder capital. Between the time that I left Cape Town in January 2006 and when I returned for a short visit in July 2007, three of my former students, one of them a close friend, have been murdered – first Luvuyo, then Sipho, then just a week later Sivuyile. When I left there were 48 students in class 12A. Today there are 45. People would say they were gangsters, I would say they were my students, I would say they tried, while I only talked to Sipho extensively about the future, I would say they all wanted more from life. Is it too much to say they were victims of circumstance? I don’t think so, but I’ll let you decide.

As you may have already guessed, it is Nyanga that is, for the second year in a row, the murder capital of South Africa. The latest crime statistics were on the front page of Tuesday’s paper. South Africa is the fourth most violent country in the world. And then on page 7 in big bold letters – NYANGA MURDER CAPITAL. 303 murders reported in the past 11 months. So what does it mean to live in the murder capital? I would think it must affect your psyche to be labeled such. To have the place you live, where you grew up, your home, splashed across newspapers as the most violent place in the land.

When I asked Anele, Sipho’s brother, if he had heard the news, he had and it didn’t seem to surprise him one bit. “I think murder is the welcome note to Nyanga,” he said. The welcome note. Gangs and drugs are rampant. The police have a lot of work to do here and are quickly defending themselves, saying they could solve the problem with 85 more cops on the force. But it seems the citizens of Nyanga are not surprised. Just like I know that the neighborhood I grew up in is safe, they know that there’s is not. So maybe I am making too much of this, over thinking the label’s impact on the community. It certainly makes other people want to avoid Nyanga. But I also believe that these labels diminish the community.

As I write this I am wondering how my mother will respond, knowing that I regularly travel in and out of this space. I hope that since she has been there, knows and loves people who live there, that she will read this and remember what is good about Nyanga rather than begin to worry. I have never experienced violence in Nyanga, never felt unsafe, rather I, in my whiteness and Americanness and even with my camera, have been embraced.

So tomorrow I will go and pick up Anele and Siya for a movie and next Saturday, I will bring some visitors from the U.S. to meet people, visit Nyanga and eat meat. (If you are reading this and coming to visit South Africa soon, I hope I have not made you afraid.) Then I will go back to Rondebosch, I will return to the suburbs. And they will stay in the murder capital. What does that mean?

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