Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dispatch: Riding the Elevator

Some of us have jobs where friends and strangers always say, “Wow, that must be so interesting,” and “what an incredible job,” and just “How cool.” But then for the person, sometimes me, being told that, I just think, well, its work. We all can be consumed by our work. And often in going so deep, immersing ourselves in work, experiencing the stress, we can unwittingly put blinders on. When we’re dashing from meeting to meeting, lobbying for quality childcare and innovations in education, do we always picture those kids and families in our mind? [Just an example, I am sure my parents do.] As journalists seeking the next good story or researchers doing dissertations, once we get back to the newsroom or office to write, do we remember the faces of the people we just interviewed? Sometimes, of course. But it is impossible for that to be always.

I have been filming and watching and cutting footage for the last several months, immersed in whether or not a certain bite makes sense, whether someone will misinterpret someone’s perspective, cutting out the umm’s and aaah’s, picking the perfect shot of Peter brushing his teeth and Vuyani at the mic, and trying how I remain true to all the young people, to the events they discuss, and to myself. But yesterday, as I was going through some archival footage from last May of refugees gathered at police stations and refugee camps, I realized that I had forgotten about the victim. Yes, I have found and filmed Peter, a 17-year-old Rwandan boy, but there were thousands of other victims and casualties of this violence.

It hit me yesterday, watching footage of a woman sitting on blankets in a room at a police station, crowded with other women like her, feeding pap to her son. She was being interviewed and speaking French. I couldn’t understand everything, but what I did understand was: “Nous somme pas vene ici pour mourir, non…. Nous somme des personnes comme vous.” “We did not come here to die, no. We are people like you.” Today, I can still see her face. Her French makes me think she is from DRC. She spoke passionately, her son had wide eyes and remains of food surrounding his lips. While my film only includes one young refugee, this film is about this woman. It is about all the people crowded into this police station. It is about everyone who experienced the attacks, on whatever level.

The tough part of my job lately is to create balance. To balance the story of those who experienced the violence with the stories of the perpetrators, the bystanders and the teenagers who live at a distance, who do not live in the space where the attacks happened, but whose ideas and experiences, to me, are just as important. In speaking about her life, one of these young people, a 16 year old named Carey, said, “Its almost as if we live in this very comfortable bubble and anything that happens outside the bubble really doesn’t matter because we are the most important people in our lives and that’s, you know, how we see things. Which is ridiculous because these attacks happened right outside the bubble.” Pretty insightful for a 16 year old.

So what is my bubble? Do I move in and out of my bubble? I don’t think I live in a bubble – well I like to think I don’t. I don’t know what the correct analogy would be. Perhaps I live in an elevator? Able to go from one place to another, remembering the previous floor I was on, even if I am 10 floors above? Maybe it’s not a great analogy. But I do move from one space to the other, I move from Peter’s lunch of jam sandwiches to my full fridge, from the bed Yamkela shares with her mom and brother to a seat at my favorite café, from filming in the suburbs of Constantia or lying on the beach with friends back to Dunoon or Masiphumelele or Nyanga or Khayelitsha, to lives of people that I know, people that I feel close to, and yet lives that I know I do not know. Can I ever fully know their lives, their challenges and joys? There are boundaries that we create unintentionally, boundaries we choose to put up and boundaries that maybe just are. And yet as I write this I wonder if I am wrong about that last one?

Last Thursday, I got up at 4 a.m., picked up my cameraman Bart at 4:30 and by 5, we were at Peter’s home in Masiphumelele to film his morning routine. Peter came to South Africa in 1994 with his mother and older brother from Rwanda. His father was killed in Rwanda, I don’t know much more of their story. When I asked Peter why they left Rwanda he said because there was a problem between the Hutus and Tutsis, but he wasn’t sure which one his mother was. Today his mother runs a crèche with over 100 children.

Last May, during the xenophobia attacks, Peter and his brother fled to stay with their mother’s friend in a nearby suburb. Their house was robbed, beds, mattresses, clothes, school things, anything you have in your home, just stolen. And until a new shack was built blocking the view, he could see bed through his neighbor’s window. He regularly sees a little girl wearing his 6-year-old cousin’s clothes. “Its actually shocking,” he told me, “cause you think in your mind, what did we do wrong to deserve such pain our lives? What did, where did we go wrong? What did we do to them? For what reason do we deserve this suffering? I ask the same question but no one responds.” He added, “Me myself I don’t think I have an answer for that. I don’t know if I have an answer for that.”

Reflecting on that day, Peter told me he was not ready to die. “I want to die a special way, instead of a violent way,” he said.

The shoot ended with Bart riding partway with Peter and his friend to school, first on a taxi, then on the train. Bart rode only one stop and left Peter to continue on to school. I met him in Kalk Bay and we went for coffee at a lovely café. There we were, at 7:45 a.m. A 10-minute drive from Peter’s life, at 7:45 a.m. surrounded by other people enjoying their morning coffee with a view of the Indian Ocean. So how could we have moved from one space to the other so quickly? We spent a good part of our coffee talking about that. In this country that is often so stratified, where many people never see how others live, we go from one space to the other all the time. Many others don’t – whether from one area or another, whether because of fear or language or race or access, they have difficulty moving between these worlds. But what does that mean for us? I don’t remember all the details of our conversation nor do I have an answer, I’ll just pose the question for now and leave you, perhaps, to help me with an answer.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dispatch: The New Year

Rosh Hashanah usually comes and goes for me. I enjoy the holiday, I celebrate, I pray, but I don’t normally breathe deep and take it as the beginning of a New Year. Tomorrow I am working from home to make my challah and this year I am taking advantage of a mid-September New Year. I am going to try to use it as it was meant to be, a time of introspection, a time to plan changes in life, to think about starting anew. An opportunity to make a new start -- despite this week’s rain, in the midst of the challenges of the editing process, and as I continue to sort out what it means for me to live in South Africa.

Why the last one? When I lived here in 2005, almost all of my days involved journeys out to Nyanga and Khayelitsha, teaching students or engaging in different spaces. For most of last year, while I wasn’t in the townships everyday, I was traveling regularly to new cities, sharing my work, engaging in debates about education, young people, this country’s future. And in the early part of this year, I continued as most of you read, in one of my favorite parts of my job – going from place to place, classroom to classroom and talking to over 200 young people about xenophobia, foreigners, feelings about their country, and everything in between. These days, my dialogue is between my head and my computer. Most days I find myself in my office, staring at a computer screen, turning hours of footage into a film. I am an inherently collaborative person but I do enjoy the editing process. It is a brilliant feeling to find just the right place for a shot or create the perfect sequence. But I am not deep in the South Africa I used to know. Sometimes people ooh and ahh that I live in “Africa.” “Deepest darkest Africa,” some people joke. Do you know many of my days start with the gym, move on to a cappuccino, sometimes some All Bran, sometimes a visit to my favorite café, work, making dinner, going out to dinner, seeing or renting a movie, spending time with friends. It is why, despite the fact that I like to write, I write fewer dispatches, for what should and can I write about? This life could be happening anywhere.

And yet I am here. In South Africa. Life ebbs and flows, I have been reminded, this too will take me through to next January or February and then who knows what a day will look like? But for now, I am renegotiating being here. I started reading Antjie Krog’s book A Change of Tongue a few days ago, to get out of the shell that can be my life and to remind myself of the richness of where I live. For those of you who don’t know Krog, she wrote an incredible book about the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings called Country of My Skull. She is Afrikaans and grew up in a small town in the Free State. This book is historical, sociological and also very personal. It is not always easy to get through but I find some sections so moving, so pronounced in their historical space. I read something so beautiful and profound the other day that I just stopped in my tracks. It is about watching the speech Mandela made in Cape Town on the day he was released from prison. Krog watched the speech on TV in her home, surrounded by friends and comrades. She writes:

“What Mandela says, or the fact that he has to borrow Winnie’s glasses to read his speech because he’s left his own behind at the prison, doesn’t filter through to us. We are suddenly so utterly aware, and linked as we have never been linked before. Each one with every one. He is of us. We could be the most beautiful colour of change the world has ever seen. The man is free and a new time has dawned.”

This is where I live. I live in a place with possibility and opportunity, also with frustration and sadness, that too. I live in a place where my friend Susan interviews Noluyanda yesterday for a job at her organization Students for a Better Future, and while Noluyanda doesn’t have the qualifications for a job, Susan believes in her and offers her a one month paid internship, a chance to gain new experiences and skills. A place where I cheer because Phila is starting her new job on November 1st as a clerk at Woolworth’s department store. Where I am holding my breath that she and Sithembele have successful auditions at New Africa Theatre in December and can start school next year. Where I have to say no when the aunt of someone in film asks to borrow 2,000 rand for her nephew’s male circumcision ceremony and worry which high school Siyabulela Mpaku will attend next year. My life may involve an office and a lot of time in front of a computer, but it also involves this.

On Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I will go spend time with Sipho’s brothers who I haven’t seen in almost four months. How that happened, so much time passed, I can’t tell you. I’ll look at Sunday as a new start for us in this New Year.

L’Shanah Tovah

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dispatch: Journeys Down Memory Lane

The world is small. Our experiences constantly echo one another. We learn from each other, from successes and failures, from wars, leaders, freedom struggles and social movements. Sometimes the connections are subtle and sometimes they are right in front of us.

On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday when I was 12 my father took me to the Uptown Theater to see Mississippi Burning. If my sister or my mother were there, I apologize, because what I remember is him and me, Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe, and the story of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the violence, and my keen interest and fear. I don’t think that was the single moment when I got interested in civil rights history, I don’t know that I can pin down a moment, but it certainly sticks in my mind. In high school I sang along to the theme song to Eyes on the Prize when we watched it in history class and wrote a paper for another class called “With All Deliberate Speed?” about the language in the of Brown v. Board decision. My interest in the civil rights movement continued through college and when my friend Caroline put forth her thought that if not born in the mid-seventies, she would have loved to live in Victorian England, I always thought I would have loved the chance to be in my twenties during the Civil Rights Movement, to sit on the bus during the Freedom Rides.

So a couple months ago, when I had coffee with an American woman working here for a few months and she casually mentioned her mother, maybe I had heard of her, Minnijean Brown, she was one of the Little Rock Nine, I nearly fell off my chair with excitement. Someone from my history book, who I have read about and talked about has a daughter and I'm having coffee with her?! And Minnijean Brown was coming to Cape Town. Since I work with an organization that works with history teachers, I was able to connect them. So it was that two weeks ago, I found myself sitting at a table here in Cape Town surrounded by teachers and a few students, listening to Minnijean Brown Trickey share her memories and experiences as one of the Little Rock Nine. I was so excited to meet her, this was Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine. And I was listening to her in South Africa.

It turns out that Minnijean Brown was the same age as Emmett Till. She watched him die in Mississippi before she fought battles for him and Black youth across the U.S. – battles that she perhaps never intended to fight. As this icon of history spoke, I was struck by her humility. She consistently emphasized that what is extraordinary is in fact ordinary. That she was just a girl who wanted to go to a school with great books and science facilities, that she did not set out to transform a town or a country, simply to get the education she deserved. “It’s always simple and it’s always about just plain people,” she said. “It’s not about having extra bravery or courage, it’s about being a regular person. We were 14 or 15 so we didn’t have any good idea.”

As she entered the school, she never imagined the vitriol and hatred she would get from some students. “I couldn’t imagine anyone hating me,” she said. She thought in a couple weeks or a month, the tension would die down. Another reason why she was not so concerned about racism at Central High she said, was because, “I thought this is about old people and these kids must think like me.”

I remember learning about the effort of the Little Rock Nine to get into Central High, but never about what happened to them once classes started. She said there were about 20 nice kids in the school, 100 bad kids and 1900 kids who said nothing, were “silent witnesses.” I thought about the kids I have interviewed about the xenophobia attacks and how many of them may have been silent witnesses. How often have I been one?

MinniJean was eventually expelled for calling six girls “white trash” after they hit her and threw at her a purse filled with six combination locks. She ended up finishing high school in New York, at a primarily Jewish school where she was “furious” to find out that no one in Little Rock had taught her about the Holocaust. I would imagine at that time it wasn’t really part of the curriculum in Little Rock, or many places in the U.S.

She was and still is a fighter. “The punishment is great for people who think for themselves and go against the belief system,” she said. “Does that happen here?”

It was this question that caused me to look around the room and wonder who these teachers were. I’d met many of them before. In struggles and movements, there are some names we know or our history books tell us – Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, the students of the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, Hector Pieterson, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu and of course Nelson Mandela. It may be cliché, that term unsung heroes, but as I sat there, listening to this dialogue, I wondered where some of these teachers had been during their struggle. Were they students fighting to learn in their own language? Were they in detention? Prison? Were they young believers of Mandela or Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness? If I have learned anything in my time here it is that everyone has a story. What are there’s? The history of these history teachers. I have been privileged to be in workshops when a few of these teachers shared some of their stories. But what of the others?


Yesterday, a long day of shooting in the sun ended over scrapbooks of old articles and photos from the eighties. The parents of one of the students in my new film, Becca, were activists during apartheid. Yesterday afternoon, we planned to just do an interview with Becca outside and then film her and her family together. Nothing too profound. Since Becca references her parents in the film and how they are a big part of what inspires her to want to make a difference in the world, my cameraman and I thought it would be cool to see old photos from her parents back in the day. Of course, they didn’t really stop to take photos at that time, however her father has three scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. So it was I found myself listening and filming as Becca and her mother went through these scrapbooks. And so I come back to my thought from above – everyone here has a story. One article inspired Becca’s mother Jane to tell the story of a particular night of riots and protests in Crossroads when she was worried about her husband and his safety. It was not an unusual feeling in those days, but the irony that night, it turned out, was that the Security Police came for Jane and detained her for three months. I have to thank Jane for going through the scrapbooks and her memories and for sharing these stories with us – this journey down memory lane was not particularly enjoyable for her and I imagine not exactly easy either.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dispatch: Witnessing the Contradictions

I don’t remember a specific moment when I learned right from wrong. Clearly I learned it, over time, from my parents, grandparents and teachers and others, but I don’t remember a single conversation where I was sat down and told right, wrong, good, bad, moral. Moral. That word has so many connotations. In the last several years it seems that and the word values have been co-opted– people talk about “values education” and whether or not our leaders and politicians have the right values. Often that word “values” is directly associated with things like abstinence education, prayer, republicans, but whose values some people ask? Whose values are we talking about? Whose values are we supposed to follow? And how do we develop our own? Who helps us grow them, who nurtures our values and beliefs when we are young and helps us to get to the place where we can make our own choices, to follow our own consciences. How do we become the kind of people who step back or walk home when a crowd of friends is looting a shop instead of diving in to grab chips and 5 kg of rice? To not act simply because “my friends were doing it.” To feel shame or sadness at seeing someone’s humanity being stripped from them. And to put that before one’s own hunger?

The one word in my mind lately is contradiction. When I set out to do this film, I had four categories in my mind – the victim, the perpetrator, the bystander, and the resistor. It turns out that these categories are somewhat fluid, that the 16 year old who tried to stand up identifies as a bystander. That the perpetrator didn’t act out of hatred for foreigners but for other reasons. That the perpetrator is ashamed of his or her wrongs, says the violence was wrong, and admits that the pull of wanting to join friends and of one’s own stomach is powerful, but also offers that there are more disadvantages than advantages to having foreigners in South Africa.

Luyalo’s story is unique. He saw his Zimbabwean neighbor bleeding on the street and he and his father brought him into their home. This was a risk and the only story I have encountered where a young person stood up amidst the chaos to help someone. I am sure there are others but this is the only one I have found, after talking to over 100 youth who live in areas where looting took place. Why was this a risk? “My friends might think I’m against South Africa because I help those people [foreigners], but I’m not against them, they are the same as us.” One’s immediate assumption then might be that Luyalo feels it is good to have foreigners in his community and in his country. “They bring opportunities, they sell us things at good prices,” he said, affirming my assumption. But when I probed further I got a different answer. Having foreigners in South Africa, “its bad and right. Shopkeepers can stay, but people who bring disease and take low salaries should go.” So its 50, 50 according to Luyalo. Those he perceives as helpful can stay. Some foreigners are okay, others are not. It doesn’t depend on where they are from, it doesn’t seem to be fear of the other completely, perhaps more those he perceives as a threat or who could cause problems must go. Again, so much contradiction wrapped up in this young man.

Sometimes it is the contradictions of this country that become illuminated for me. And sometimes the words of the young are unnerving. I recently conducted more interviews at a suburban (privileged) boys school. I heard sympathy for foreigners and talk of foreigners who come here illegally or bring and sell drugs. I heard stories from boys who participated in the relief effort and aided refugees and boys who wanted to stand up but were afraid. Some of what I heard disturbed me. The boys are 15 and 16. They are boys.

One said to me:

“When foreigners come they do little things (like selling goods on the side of the road) to get money but South Africans take it so easily, most people who were mobbing are hijacking people instead of buying at a shop. We had a hardworking Zimbabwean domestic worker. Now we have a South African and she doesn’t work as hard. Just the work ethic from foreigners to South Africans is such a big difference…Its just another point of how South Africans value other people’s lives. It has the highest crime rate in the world. People are hijacking. No South Africans find jobs, they just hijack people and have food for a month.”

I have heard this sentiment echoed out of the mouths of many young people, both in the suburbs and in the townships. Not the criminal, hijacking piece. This boy was the first. But I have had young people in townships tell me that members of their community do not take initiative, do not create jobs for themselves like foreigners do. I have also had one young boy tell me that, “Black people don’t know how to work. They think that money floats into their hands.” I never know what to do with these statements and sentiments and generalizations and I am invariably still surprised to hear them, but I share it here in contrast to the above and as something for you to contemplate. The boy above, of course, has little to no exposure to the people he is stereotyping. Then again, we usually don’t.

And here are a few other thoughts I found interesting:

“The scariest thing for me wasn’t that a guy [foreigner] was being hit, but it was the people who were walking away from him and not paying attention.”

“The first time I found out [about the xenophobia] through my dad because our domestic worker came and said there was unrest in Mandela Park [township]. I didn’t think much of it, it seems far away, you think its not coming to Hout Bay. One morning on my way in the car I saw guys attacking another guy with a panga and that’s when I realized. At first it doesn’t seem real, you don’t think much of it but then it is shocking how people value people’s lives and say, “they are foreigners, they mean nothing.”

“I didn’t know how far the xenophobia would spread and what it could turn into. You began to worry about your own safety. You wondered would they come to your house? Next thing foreigners are kicked out then it could have been White people attacked and killed.”

“We tend to make reasons why this is happening. White South Africans were also worried. My family got passports ready because if they could attack their “brothers” what is stopping them from attacking us, we were worse to them in apartheid. White people tend to live in their own perfect world and tend to think it won’t happen to them, what life is like for blacks and coloreds is happening (like poverty or violence). I talked to my friends and my domestic worker and I asked them how long has this hatred for foreigners been around and my domestic worker said that her mother and father hated foreigners and I asked them why and they couldn’t give a reason and I think they were just waiting for an excuse.”

“All I know is that foreigners have rights. But if you look at first world countries and all the immigrants they have and the strict control they have and look at us, we are third world, we have bad hygiene and water and we have weak border control. We let everyone in and we’re third world and can’t cater for them. If first world countries are so strict then we should be too.”

I am troubled by some of this and saddened by the massive divide in this country. But I believe it is important not to judge, and certainly not too harshly. To remember that these -- the boys who speak above, the other young people I have talked to, the perpetrators, the bystanders, those who stood up, are all kids. Kids with massive, perhaps disturbing, preconceptions of other South Africans, kids who have learned to fear, kids who have learned that they are better than others, kids who are convinced there is a difference between stealing and taking when they are looting, but yes, kids. Kids who are still learning and can still be taught, who will grow and change as they experience life and encounter new people, who are each still looking for and finding their own moral compass.

The working title of this film is Where Do I Stand? I don’t presume to ever try and understand where all of these kids come from nor all of their baggage and I don’t wish to make them think exactly as I do. But I know where I’d like them to stand – or at least near – and I am making this film to help them get there, or help them start thinking about it. And perhaps it is as much a question now of what we as adults, teachers, parents, friends – of what you do -- to help them get there.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dispatch: Conversations on Xenophobia

Wednesday is Election Day. Barring something radical happening, Jacob Zuma will become South Africa’s next President. The campaigning is becoming more aggressive. My favorite new poster, for the Independent Democrats, reads “Put Criminals in Jail, Not in Government.” Babalwa is in East London handing out pamphlets for her party, the African Christian Democratic Party. Their presence is not huge, but she is a member and it is her first presidential election, the first she is really engaged in which is exciting. On Friday morning at my favorite café, I was procrastinating and eavesdropping on a neighboring table – three women talking about their concerns of South Africa degenerating into another Zimbabwe, people being trapped and unable to leave. Fear? Paranoia? They too will vote on Wednesday. I know people who are voting for the new Congress of the People party (COPE) – some are heavily involved in local party leadership, others may not be 100% sure but see it as an alternative, and many still hope. Others are ANC stalwarts and will vote for the ANC – some are not Zuma supporters, but it is the party that matters. Others still, like my friend’s boyfriend, are ANC stalwarts but do not like Zuma and therefore will simply not go to the polls at all.

The large posters on the side of the road are my constant reminders of the impending elections but I am immersed in new reflections on youth, on how we rationalize our actions, separate what we do from what we think, develop our moral compass.

In the past month, I have been crisscrossing the area, conducting interviews with young people – in groups, one on one, whole classes – about xenophobia and in particular the violence that erupted last May. I have been to Masiphumelele township near the beach town of Fish Hoek, to Imizamo Yethu, in glorious Hout Bay, I have been to private Jewish schools, to a surprisingly diverse former Model C school, and to very exclusive all boys private schools. That last one was a bit intimidating -- the first time I have stood in front of a classroom filled with boys or young men sitting up in uniforms, a school of looming pillars that breathes its many years and very establishment. I have also spent time at Vusisizwe High School in Zwelethemba township outside Worcester, about an hour and a half from Cape Town. Every time I drive into Zwelethemba, through the one road that is the entrance to this township, I am reminded of the incredible strategy of the apartheid government as it built these townships with only one main road to come in and out, so much the better to control people.

I have encountered passionate, dynamic, young people. I have been surprised, delighted and challenged by their views and by my own. And I have learned how little I know and how much my own opinions and views of the violence last May are influenced by what I read and watched about it in the news, and how complex things are when one really begins to interrogate things. I see that the issues presented and the themes here reach far beyond xenophobia.

I have met many young people who participated in looting and were very upfront about it. But what surprised me were their reasons why. We have an image of perpetrators that is a flat image – they are bad people, they committed wrong, they hate foreigners. In fact it seems more complicated and layered now. Many were not xenophobic, are not. They did it for fun. They did it because their friends were doing it. They did it because they were angry. They did it because they were hungry. All of this is just as disturbing. As one boy told me, “Many people were in the streets, some to get food, some do it for fun. Not all people hate foreigners. Others do it for fun or they have poverty at home, others they hate foreigners.” This boy, Alutha, whose Xhosa name means struggle, was in the street, picking up errant sweets that had landed on the ground from the looted shops, singing with friends and having fun. Fun. The violence in Zwelethemba erupted in March – two months before the country exploded. It started when a Somalian shopkeeper killed a 20 year old named Eddie. I was not there. His friends say he was a lovely open person. They say the shopkeeper was robbed earlier in the night, and “rest his soul,” they add, Eddie was drunk. He had purchased cigarettes and not gotten proper change. Then again, as with so many crimes of this nature, we were not there. A friend of mine says that these incidents make the looting and violence that happened after more complex than clear xenophobia in other places – that some might look and see, not something excusable, but a rationalization for the violence.

“When I marched,” Alutha says, “I have in mind the struggles from apartheid. I thought how did they do that. I thought let me do that and have that imagination that I was in the struggle.” “I wasn’t thinking right or wrong, I just wanted hair cream,” one girl told me. And who doesn’t want to look beautiful. Others were angry, wanted to destroy. One, who says he likes his Zimbabwean neighbors and he now understands how important foreigners are to the country, says he just wanted to destroy. He was angry and looted and wanted to destroy. But his moral compass would not push him over the edge to physical violence, to hurt another person.

And several of his classmates simply want foreigners out. One seems to define xenophobia as the violence that occurred, not the belief or energy. He can separate the actual violence from his fierce desire to rid his community of foreigners who he feels take their jobs and strain the community. He told me that “it” was wrong but foreigners still need to get out. “It” is the violence clearly. The idea of that separation is so interesting to me. To see a behavior as wrong but not a sentiment. Like people who have feelings but if you do not act on them the do not exist. People who are anti-Semitic, but have a few Jewish friends who they do not place in the category of Jews they dislike.

I also met many students who felt that they lived miles, a world, a universe away from this violence. Some did not know their place, could they speak up? “As a white South African,” explained one girl, “I was not directly involved. I felt scared to say something to offend people – a black South African or a foreigner might be upset and say, ‘Why are you talking, you aren’t involved?’” She continued, “The husband of my domestic worker is from Angola. What are you when your husband is Angolan and you are South African, what are you? What side are you on?”

Another girl struck me when she explained, “I had a perfect image of South Africa, you are sheltered but when your friends are affected you become part of this terrible vision that is South Africa.” She attends a school with several foreign students who stay in hostels and couldn’t figure out how to comfort her friends.

Many wanted to help but didn’t know what they could do. A big debate ensued about the impact of collecting food as an act of assistance, how we define help and action in these situations. What is enough, but also what makes us feel like we have really made a difference. Several were involved in school, youth group, or church efforts to assist – by making things, collecting, cooking, and engaging with refugees and victims.

One girl admitted to being a bit cynical. “Even though you thought it might not make a big difference you still try,” she says, “despite the big feeling of hopelessness, that giving hope just prolongs their suffering. Befriending people and talking to them in a real way is more helpful than food…They’re not just taking shelter, but they take that feeling.”

Some felt there was not much they could do besides make sandwiches or blankets in their school hall. Could they really go into the townships? “It’s a long way,” said one girl. “If its not in front of our eyes then its like its not in our universe. You have to make a balance between not putting yourself at risk and not being ignorant.”

One group of girls approached their principal to help, they wanted to have a protest outside the school, hold events, take action. The principal was not encouraging and told the girls that these things would scare the foreign girls living in the hostels, but she would think about it. “We were deflated after,” said one girl. In the end they had a drive for food and personal items. And another, “When you have a big vision and you’re told that all you can do is bring a toothbrush to someone, you feel frustrated.” That line is one of my favorites and never fails to make me smile.

Sometimes as the conversation went deeper into the reasons for the xenophobia and what may have motivated some Black South Africans to take this kind of action, it moved into the class and race divide here and I heard things that I didn’t expect. “When I look back this country has been a war zone for many years,” explained one 14-year-old boy. “I heard on the radio, ‘Once we’re done with the foreigners we’re going for the Whites.’ It scared me. None of us have good job opportunities when we’re older. It’s really unfair. Xenophobia is an example of how they act ruthlessly when they don’t get their way. They have no sympathy and it’s their brothers. Its not whites. Its so scary how they do this to their own.” It makes me wonder where youth get their opinions and beliefs. How they are influenced by what they read, what they learn in school, teachers… and parents. Family dinners and the conversations that come with them are powerful forces.

One girl who grew up in a township and attends a privileged school reminded us that poor Black people are not the only xenophobic ones in South Africa. “Everyone says the perpetrators were from the townships,” she said. “They were, but last year catching a train home at peak hour, a lady was in the train and a Somali guy came in the train and by mistake he steps on the lady and she loses it. She said, ‘You’re not even from here.’” A classmate then asked if the woman was White and she confirmed and continued, “It’s easier to say perpetrators are so stupid but you get a lot of people sitting in houses saying people are stupid but inside people are for it. They feel the same way.”

Often it is adults who get to tell a story. But it is a privilege to sit at the table with these young people, be able to ask them any questions I can think of, hear them open up and share their experiences, their honesty, their struggles to find their place, their values systems, their identity and for me, just to listen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A New Year, New Stories

It has been over three months since I last dispatched. A month of that was spent at home – I managed New York, Florida, Boston and the inauguration in that time. I returned to Cape Town on January 23 and picked up my exceptional skills visa, which lets me stay here until the end of 2011. I can’t envision that far ahead and imagine that I will move home sooner than that, but it does open up possibilities and make life easier for the interim. Three weeks after returning to Cape Town my sister Liza came to visit. We had an incredible time, relishing the beaches, spending time with my former students and just experiencing this fabulous country together.

So now it is back to reality and back to work. The start of 2009 has brought a new project, a short documentary film about young people’s experiences in and perspectives on the xenophobia crisis in May.

During the xenophobia crisis last May, one of the scenes that panned across television screens was of young people, some in school uniforms, picking up pangas, throwing bricks, looting shops and homes. I am working with an NGO Shikaya to create a short film about the experiences and perspectives of youth during the crisis. I will profile young refugees, perpetrators, people who stood up and did something different, and bystanders, who simply stood by, and try to understand and explore all sides. The film will be used in workshops with teachers who will in turn use it in the classroom. We plan to do some broader outreach as well. The goal is to get young people to reflect on the lives of other youth, their own actions in May and how they might act in similar situations, and also consider how they can be agents of positive change in their communities and active citizens in South Africa. It is a powerful thing, the potential here, and the idea of working on a film that will be used to affect change and engage young people in the world around them is exciting.

For now I remain on step one, finding those youth. I define youth as between 14 and 21 and began my search in Johannesburg a few weeks ago. A man who heads the Alexandra Civic Organization in Alexandra township where the violence started promised to take me in to meet some guys he knew who were involved in the violence. But to my frustration, he cancelled on me twice because he had several meetings for COPE, the new political party. Good for COPE, not so great for me. I was extremely frustrated, feeling a little like my entire trip to Joburg was all for naught, when I called Bishop Paul Verryn and made a plan to go to his church on a Wednesday evening. Bishop Verryn heads the Central Methodist Church. The church is very well known here and around the world for its massive effort to assist refugees and the poor. Currently around 1,000 refugees, mostly from Zimbabwe, but also across Africa and some South Africans, find shelter in the church where they also get some social support services including food, basic health care, counseling, advocacy and help finding jobs.

I had read a lot about the church by the time I walked in at 5:30 p.m. But there is no way to imagine this place by simply reading about it. It is dark, the stairs are lined with people lying down, sitting on steps, on landings, people everywhere. Men, women and children, many of whom made the journey here without their parents. There are people who have lost limbs, others limping or on crutches. Their lives and pasts are difficult to truly envision. Many have run away from something, many are here in search of a better life. Have they found it here in this country? In this church? One man approaches me and asks if I have any work for him -- I– sweeping, varnishing, electrical, anything.

I joined a line of people waiting to talk to the Bishop, and after 45 minutes the Bishop came by, asked if I was waiting for him, remembered that I was looking for youth and asked if I was staying for the service. When a Bishop asks if you are staying for the service, you say yes. So I stayed in line talking to Emanuel who was looking for a scholarship to college and then after an hour or so, went down to the service. The chapel was filling up and groups of men and women were dancing and singing in Shona, waiting for the service to start. As it did, the Bishop walked over to me and took me to meet the principal and vice principal of the church’s new school. These men had been teachers in Zimbabwe. A few months ago, noticing the large numbers of children at the church and the need, the Bishop and these men decided to start a school. We talked, made a plan for me to come to the school at 7:30 the next morning, and then enjoyed the service.

It was an unusually cold day for Joburg in February on the morning that I arrived at the school. Some students were wearing uniforms, donated or bought with donations; others were in whatever they had. I recognized some from the church service by the clothes that I saw them in the day before. The school is attached to an old church and is not very big. Classrooms are packed; some are divided and shared between grades. I passed through a room of about 75 third graders crowded around three long wooden tables with two teachers. A class of very young children was sitting in a hallway. As the vice principal walked me around, he would pause in a class and ask, “Raise your hand if you are from Zimbabwe.” “Raise your hand if you are from South Africa.” Mozambique? DRC? Swaziland? He would continue. Over 100 of these students are unaccompanied minors; they have come to South Africa alone. I talked to several of them.

Takudzwa is 16. Both of his parents died in 1997 and 1998. He came to Joburg in August after walking through the forest for a week and slipping by gangs who prey on foreigners near the border. He came from the border at Messina to Joburg by hiding on a train. “What goes around comes around,” he says of the xenophobia in South Africa. “We will show them we are good. Now it’s our turn. We are people, we eat, they eat.” Takudwzwa loves school and wants to be a lawyer. In the mean time, for fun he goes to Johannesburg Park to play chess and soccer. Sometimes the police stop him to ask for papers, sometimes people call out to him, “Move out Makwerekwere,” a slang word for foreigners, especially illegal immigrants. He is happy because he is learning and with this education he believes he can help Zimbabwe. “What they are doing is not democracy or freedom. I will bring democracy, there will be freedom,” he says. But when I ask what is the best part of being in South Africa, he starts, “The best part of being in South Africa…” Then he smiles, pauses, is silent, laughs, and has no answer.

His classmate Wellington, a head boy at the school, came here after seeing his father tortured by members of Zanu-PF (Mugabe’s party) after being accused of being a supporter of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). His father died a few days later and Wellington fled south, through the waist deep water and crocodiles of the Limpopo River. “I expected to live better than in Zimbabwe because now everything there is expensive,” he says. “I thought life would be good. Its not so good for me for the moment, there are challenges. If you are walking in the street or in a shop, people are rude and it embarrasses me, they say, ‘you are a foreigner.’ But I am an African and you are an African.”

I interviewed about eight students in total, boys and girls. The last was Nkosinathi. At 14 he has lost both parents and his two older sisters. His favorite author is Shakespeare. After his family died, he stayed with relatives, but they didn’t send him to school after grade 5 and wanted him to work in the yard and the house. “One day my aunt hit me,” he says. “I had a bike and I sold it and boarded a train to Beitbridge [a town on the border with a major border post] and then got a taxi to Johannesburg. I’d heard of a school in Joburg.” It was this school. This crowded cold place, warmed by the sounds of learning, which holds the futures and hopes of Nkosinathi and over 300 others.

Tomorrow I am going to visit a school just outside Worcester, about an hour north of Cape Town, where a teacher is doing an anti-xenophobia project with his students. Several Somali shopkeepers here were forced out, their shops looted and some burned and destroyed. One of these shops is directly outside the school’s gate. Thursday, I’ll return to Masiphumelele, a township known for its effort to assist foreigners after the attacks. A couple days after foreigners there were attacked, residents publicly apologized and asked them to return. People went door to door to collect stolen goods and return them to their owners. However, Masiphumelele is not a panacea, there were attacks and since May there have been incidents of violence against foreigners who have returned.

This step in filmmaking is exciting and can be quite frustrating as well. In the next few weeks, I will continue to talk to anyone who will talk to me about these issues and ask as many people as I can if they have suggestions of young refugees, perpetrators, resistors and bystanders who I can meet. Soon enough, I will have found my youth and be ready to pick up a camera and share their stories.