One man's mission: To turn the Lavender Hill battlefield into a dreamfield

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Man with a mission: Despite being unemployed, Mark Nicholson operates a feeding scheme, sports club and soon an arts and culture centre in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats.
Man with a mission: Despite being unemployed, Mark Nicholson operates a feeding scheme, sports club and soon an arts and culture centre in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats.
Jan Ras
  • Mark Nicholson has a dream: to lift the people of Lavender Hill above their circumstances.
  • Being an ex-drug addict himself, Nicholson works tirelessly to keep children from the Cape Flats busy with sport and arts.
  • An arts and culture centre will be built on the notorious "battlefield" this year.

When Mark Nicholson stood over the lifeless body of a five-year-old boy who was shot in the head by gangsters in Lavender Hill, he knew what his life's mission should be.

"I cried and cried. I was highly affected by it. I knew it could have been my son or nephew. I realised my focus was to change lives and make Lavender Hill a better place for everyone."

Today, Nicholson, who has lost five of his own nephews to gang shootings in the notorious Cape Flats suburb, runs a successful sports programme, feeding scheme and community project in Lavender Hill, despite being unemployed himself.

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Until two months ago, he worked as a contractor on building projects to feed his family and fund the Lavender Hill Sports Club, that operates from the notorious "battlefield", a big public field off Blose Street. When the kids aren't playing soccer, rugby or netball on the field, it turns into a crime scene for fighting gangs.

mark nicholson
During school holidays, Nicholson and his family host game and fun days for the children of Lavender Hill.

"I was in drugs most of my life, from when I was 12 to when I was nearly 30 years old. I was basically a vagrant, collecting scrap or stealing things from people's yards. I didn't forget what it felt like. I don't wish this life for any young person," says Nicholson, who has managed to secure funding of R3 million from British NGO In Place of War to build an arts and culture centre on the battlefield.

The centre is expected to be completed in the next month or two. Sports presenter Dan Nicholl is raising R1.6 million for a modern fence to be built around the battlefield, that will also host rugby and football fields and a tennis and netball court.

He said:

We brainstormed and decided to name the centre Rise Above Development or RAD. The people of Lavender Hill have been down and out, we want them to rise above their circumstances. In sports development, arts and culture.

Despite lockdown being over for all practical purposes, Nicholson and his family still serve 250 to 300 meals per day to the children, elderly and disabled of Lavender Hill. He says unemployment has not recovered from dramatic layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Under Level 5 lockdown we fed about 350 people per day. Now it is almost the same. After the first week of the month, the numbers go up." When I visited his feeding scheme at the end of 2020, children were running home with their food containers to share with the adults in their homes.

Lavender Hill, feeding scheme, lockdown
Mark Nicholson and his family have operated a feeding scheme in Lavender Hill since the beginning of lockdown. He still feeds between 250 and 300 people per day.

Unemployment in Lavender Hill has led to an increase in bullying at schools.

"The parents lose their jobs, they go through depression and take it out on the kids. Then the kids go to school and look for the vulnerable ones to bully."

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Nicholson is actively involved in speaking to school children in the suburb about the dangers of gangsterism and drugs.

"I get ex-gangsters to come and speak to them about the disappointment of getting into gangsterism and drugs. We need to tell them the truth of what is happening in our communities. I've joined up with parents who lost their kids to gang violence. We started an organisation called Healing and Restoration for Future Leaders.

"The gangs now get the kids into drugs. They get them hooked and know they will come back to buy every day. Our strategy is to get one out of ten kids to change their ways. We won't save all of them, but the ones we save will come back and speak to the kids."

Gang violence is a common sight in Lavender Hill. Nicholson believes he can't get rid of gangs, but wants to save as many children as possible from joining the gangs.

I ask Nicholson if he speaks to the gang bosses and what they think of his projects. 

"I have to notify them of changes happening (on the 'battlefield')… if we have a big event, I go to them and say, 'we have an event, keep your guys in check', and they always comply. I've got a fair relationship with them.

"We won't stop the gangs… but the gang leaders don't want war anymore. It's the youngsters who are trying to make a name for themselves. The police won't stop gangsterism either, they are part of the problem. There has been no mediation between the gangs, the community and police at all."

Nicholson says his biggest needs at the moment are funding for sports affiliation fees and two minibuses to transport soccer and netball players to their matches.

"My car is falling apart. I do about seven to 10 trips per day on weekends. The taxis ask us for R400 for two trips."

He receives a monthly donation from the Kolisi Foundation that covers his basic expenses. 

But nothing will stop him from continuing this mission he has chosen for his life.

"God has placed this in my heart. When I was still working, I was wondering about the kids all day. Are they eating? I will be getting lists of kids not attending school soon and I will go to their parents and ask what is wrong. There is too little ground support. I will survive in what I'm doing."

- News24 readers who want to assist Mark can contact him on 063 567 3739 or mark@riseabovedevelopment.org.


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