Khayelitsha, my Khayelitsha

2010-12-12 16:31

It took me 16 minutes to retrace the 15km journey that was to be Anni Dewani’s last. In the middle of the night, it would have taken much less. I’m sure for Anni it was both the ­longest and shortest car ride of her life.

This was an ordinary journey for my five-year-old daughter, who was strapped in the back seat, as she regularly visits one aunt in ­Gugulethu from Khayelitsha on weekends.

But I found my voice catching in my throat when I thought about the woman who travelled on the same route three weeks ago only to make international headlines as a murder victim.

I can picture her in the silver Volkswagen Sharan van, cowering on the floor between the seats, shaking, face streaked with black tears from her mascara, desperately whispering “please, please, please?…” over and over again.

I can imagine her thinking this was all a cruel joke, a terrible dream that she would wake from soon.

Then the realisation that it is all too real. She is in a strange ­country, driving at a dangerously high speed in a strange car, with some strange menacing young men pointing a gun at her.

As I drive around ­Khayelitsha later, I try to look at the township that I grew up in with the eyes of a stranger, and to my dismay, I find that it is not difficult.

In the 10 years since I left home, a lot has changed.

While the place has been ­beautified with parks, paved ­sidewalks and shiny tarmac, the people have also undergone their own metamorphosis – only theirs is psychological rather than ­cosmetic.

People here don’t look you in the eyes any more. There is a sense of quiet desperation under the veneer of carefree, hard living.

People work hard all week and party even harder on weekends at the big taverns dotted all over the sprawling kasi.

But the most glaring change for me is in the way the sense ­of ­community seems to have evolved.
It feels now like it’s every man and woman for themselves.

Gone are the days of community meetings in open spaces to discuss the problems that plague our ­neighbourhoods and to commend the ­triumphs of the community.

Strangers are welcomed ­reluctantly, but are regarded ­suspiciously.

As I drive through C-Section, where two of the three suspected murderers are rumoured to come from – just a short walk from the high school I spent five years at – for the first time I feel like a stranger in my own hometown.

Too many people are basking in the sun for a midweek afternoon.

There is a group of young men ­huddled over a couple of bottles of beer outside someone’s gate.
Some girls in shorts and ­hairpieces hug the wall next door.

Around the bend, two mamas are reclining in camp chairs in another yard, taking refuge in the shade while minding some preschoolers playing rope on the street.

All of them follow my progress with suspicious eyes and a hint of panic.

“They probably think you’re a cop from out of town or ­something,” says my nephew, ­gesturing at my rented SUV with Gauteng number plates.

They certainly act like ­characters in a film, you know, the residents of a mysterious small town in Nowheresville, USA, where everyone knows the secret but would rather kill the stranger in their midst than reveal it.

I’m fiercely proud of where I come from and I defend my ­township to anyone who dares try to put it and its people down.

So when it came to light that the two young men accused of ending Anni Dewani’s life come from Khayelitsha, I was convinced I’d find a community that would cry foul and defend its sons.

Instead, I find people who are ­jittery, tightlipped and scared.

Even the neighbourhood ­gossips have clammed up, saying things like: “Eish mfethu, I wish I could help you but?…”, “Sorry sana maan, I haven’t heard anything,” or “It’s not a good idea to go around asking things like that”.
No one is talking, but their eyes are shouting. What? I don’t know.

One of my kasi contacts puts things into perspective for me.

He says: “These days, things happen behind closed doors. The young do their drink and drugs in back rooms and come out to hustle at night.

“We know when to be behind locked gates. If you don’t stick your nose in other people’s ­business, then you and yours are safe, and you’ll live to enjoy your sound system and DVD player for another weekend.”

So it’s like that now, huh?

Our homes have become ­prisons. Our time out on the street is regulated by a renegade few who will do ­anything for a few R100 notes.

And now that “economic ­development” has finally come to our humble hoods in the shape of shopping malls and clubs, it looks to me that we are even more ­shackled than before – only now our cage is slightly gilded.

And to think the likes of Steve Hofmeyr believe us darkies have it easy.

I really hope all those involved in Anni Dewani’s murder are ­punished as severely as the law will allow.

And I hope that strikes the fear of God in the hearts of these ­criminal elements who have ­poisoned our communities with their greed, cowardice and reckless disregard for the rest of us.

And I really hope that one day we will be able to reclaim our streets, neighbourhoods and townships, and rebuild the sense of ­community we had only two ­decades ago.


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