A group of traumatised women who were evicted from their shacks along the N2 highway have found healing and a way to make a living: giving massages, writes Biénne Huisman
For the past three months, from Mondays to Fridays, eight women travelled from Nomzamo township near Strand to a massage school in Kloof Street in the heart of hipster Cape Town – 50km from where they live in a very different world.
At the Cape Town Medi-Spa on Kloof Street with its panpipe muzak, crystals and sacred wild fig tree, the women have learnt to use their hands to heal and found ears willing to listen to their painful stories.
In the early hours of a rain-soaked winter morning in June last year, hundreds of families were evicted from their homes in Nomzamo minutes before police burnt their tin shacks to the ground.
In the predawn blur, Sandiswa Shweni (31) became separated from her year-old son, who was trapped inside their shack. Petrol and screams hung in the air as she clawed her way back past police to save him – unharmed. “The police, they were shouting ‘Get out, k****r!’” says Shweni.
Their shacks had been illegally built on land along the N2 owned by the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral).
The agency said it needed the land for road extensions and got a court order for the eviction. But Nomzamo’s ward councillor, Mbuyiselo Matha, claims the eviction was done without warning.
Rain continued to pelt down as more than 800 people fled to the Nomzamo Community Hall. Many of them have been there since, sleeping on mattresses on the cement floor of the hall with its bizarrely opulent velvet drapes.
This is the place at least 300 displaced people still call home. Women and toddlers sleep on the right side of the hall; men and boys older than six, on the left. A hastily convened committee of 10 leaders enforced rules in the cramped space.
The department of social development provided toilet paper, nappies and stew at night. Conditions were tough: families were broken up and infidelity was rife.
Used condoms gathered in heaps in the corners, babies screeched and bored children with no toys and nowhere to play sat around listlessly.
One night in October last year, a woman gave birth inside the hall. With the mother’s consent, the baby was given up for adoption. Two months later, a 26-year-old man started coughing blood and collapsed and died on the floor. His body was sent for burial to the Eastern Cape. Doctors were called in and, by some miracle, the tuberculosis that took his life did not spread.
To counter this misery, the City of Cape Town and business facilitator BpeSA sponsored massage therapy training for 10 women living in the community hall. Two women dropped out of the programme, but the remaining eight became eager students at the Seta-accredited Ubuntu Touch Project at the Cape Town Medi-Spa.
Shweni was one of those women and on Thursday, she and her Nomzamo colleagues wore beautiful, glittering dresses to their graduation.
City Press met the eight students at the Nomzamo Community Hall.
Phakama Mzwentsini (27) spoke of her terror on the night of the evictions.
“Yes, my babies were there when it happened,” she says. “All their toys were gone. I can’t talk about it without wanting to cry.”
As Mzwentsini’s emotions spill over, Nosipho Noiolo (28), stands behind her, massaging her shoulders.
“This technique is called ‘effleurage’,” says Noiolo. “It means lightly skimming someone’s back – it’s how you start treatments to warm up the muscles.”
Mzwentsini and Noiolo may have lost their material possessions, but have not lost their sense of style. For the City Press interview Noiolo wore bright-red lipstick, a smart pencil skirt and black boots.
Bongiwe Gcilitshane (25) seems to be the group’s spokesperson and is credited with rallying them to get on to the minibus taxi every morning to start the long trek to the city.
With a baby strapped to her back, Gcilitshane’s enthusiasm also translates to her newfound massage techniques.
In her spare time, she gives school lessons to disabled adults in Nomzamo.
The Nomzamo group is the third to be trained in massage techniques through the Ubuntu Touch Project at the Cape Town Medi-Spa. Alumni of the programme include an air hostess based in the Middle East and a local police constable. Two other graduates have started their own shoulder-and-neck massage business.
Chewing on a root from his wild fig tree in the spa’s courtyard and urging City Press to try one, spa owner Ian Macfarlane says, “We’re really just about giving people a sense of self-worth and hope.”
Macfarlane has prominent supporters, including Lechesa Tsenoli, Parliament’s health-conscious deputy Speaker; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has had Ubuntu Touch students come to his Milnerton home to treat his staff.
One of the programme’s first graduates, Pearl Mpange (45) from Nyanga, has worked as a therapist at the medi-spa for a year. She offers reiki touch therapy at R395 an hour from her own soft-lit room scattered with neatly rolled towels and flowers.
After giving City Press a facial treatment, the single mother of two teenage boys describes how she practised reiki on her son’s shoulder after he was stabbed in a knife skirmish with a “skollie”. She says it healed despite a doctor’s prognosis of permanent damage.
Mpange’s career highlight? Definitely the neck and shoulder massage she once gave Desmond Tutu. She also helped to train the students from Nomzamo, explaining the more technical aspects in their own language.
The Nomzamo group proved to be a particular challenge because the women arrived unmotivated and with broken spirits.
“When they arrived, the prevailing mood was despair. It filled the room,” says Macfarlane.
Between massage classes, the women were given healthy lunches and got a chance to open up about their trauma at storytelling sessions held by Macfarlane’s sister, Michele.
So what’s next for these massage therapy graduates?
Thanks to a R100 000 donation by the Protea Hotel Group, they have three months of contract work lined up for them to bring relief to call centre operators who sit at their desks all day.
Back in Nomzamo, things are beginning to look slightly brighter. The City of Cape Town has undertaken to provide the evicted shack dwellers with houses near Macassar on the Cape Flats by November. In a near farcical move, it has built temporary homes for them on the very land they had been removed from.
The issue has spilt over to the Western Cape High Court where, in court papers, the council and Sanral accuse each other of reneging on their responsibilities towards those left destitute by the removals.
Inside the Nomzamo Community Hall, about 300 people still sleep on mattresses. Mostly unemployed and unmotivated, they wait.