Bloody literary agents
23 June 2017 05:16 (South Africa)
South Africa

Hope in Hillbrow: ‘If Jesus lived anywhere, it would be here’

  • Jessica Eaton
    jessica-eaton.jpg
    Jessica Eaton
  • South Africa
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The Daily Maverick visits a white, Christian family who moved into the centre of white fear: Hillbrow in downtown Johannesburg. JESSICA EATON finds out why. (Photos by THAPELO LEKGOWA)

Arriving at the NObama protest in Pretoria, one couldn’t help but notice the white family among the Cosatu cadre. Nigel Branken, his very pregnant wife Trish, and their five children were all dressed in hand painted signs in protest to President Barack Obama’s visit and in solidarity with their working class brothers and sisters.

After photographing the family I had to find out more about them. It turned out this family had given up their six-bedroom Midrand home, their garden, their DSTV, their medical aid and their safety, and moved into a three-bedroom high-rise apartment in the centre of white fear, Hillbrow.

It wasn’t long before I was invited to their new home. On Tuesday, we went to find out more about their life in one of the world’s most violent neighbourhoods and about the motivation behind their recent sacrifices.

The building, on the corner of Twist and Kapteijn Streets, is one of the nicer ones, sandwiched between two “hijacked” buildings, where rubbish clogs up the shaft, most windows are cracked or broken, and laundry hangs off the cramped balconies.

We are greeted in the parking lot by an immigrant social worker called Becky, who we had met at the march a few weeks prior. Becky lives on the floor below the family and helps look after the children and inform their community work. Together we navigate two sets of cold metal revolving gates, past a group of guards and the building’s caretaker, up the three flights of stairs and down a narrow corridor to the Branken family’s apartment.

We arrive as the family is sitting down to toasted cheese sandwiches for lunch in the kitchen and a chicken defrosting in the sink for supper. The youngest two children are running and gliding through the house, one wearing a silver disco wig, the other shiny white sunglasses. The two older daughters are sitting quietly at the table eating with their four-year-old sister and Trish, who only has two weeks to go until the arrival of her sixth child. She moves slowly to get everyone a cup of tea.

The children’s bedroom is well-equipped for the large family with a precarious-looking triple-bunk, a slightly shorter double-bunk, and hundreds of colourful toys packed compactly between them. Hannah, the oldest, has her own bed in another room but “she will be getting the baby in her room the week after next when he is born because she sleeps the deepest”, according to Trish.

Nigel takes me out to the balcony overlooking Kapteijn Street and points at all the people he knows. “The best way to keep safe around here is to know as many people as you can. If you know people, they won’t hurt you.”

This is the philosophy Nigel has adopted after being held up at gunpoint for his cellphone a few minutes from the apartment in their first week in Hillbrow. “After that, I gathered a bunch of people together and we went to the corner where it happened and we prayed. We prayed that my heart would stay soft, that the community would stay safe and that God would rescue the guy from his sin.” That night, “we went and bought as many fish and chips as we could and handed them out and we just sowed love where there had been violence”, he said.

Photo: What Hannah Branken sees every time she decides to look out of her bedroom window.

At this point, Hannah joins us outside, while her siblings play a game of miniature table soccer with three little boys from the seventh floor. “That’s what I like most about Hillbrow,” she says, “we have lots of friends here and most of them only live a floor up or down. In Midrand, my mom had to drive me to see my friends and we always had to make appointments. Here, they just pop in.”

I ask what motivated this move.

“I had been going through a bit of a journey myself … now obviously we are doing this as a result of our Christian faith and we looked at Matthew 5,6 and 7, huge scriptures for us, all about Jesus’s beatitudes and the same text that inspired Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and all of those significant leaders.

“They have all looked at those teachings of Jesus and have felt that their lives were totally different from how we live our Christian faith. And when I looked at those scriptures again five years ago, I was shocked because I realised my Christianity looked nothing like it.

Photo: A view of a run-down hijacked building from the Branken’s front door in Hillbrow.

“One of the things in Matthew 5 that is important is the talk about enemy love. It says give to anyone who asks; turn the other cheek; and so on. Then, when I was held up in Pretoria Street, I reflected on these tenets and, even though I got these guys to leave me and run away, I didn’t feel it had been a victorious moment. So that’s when I really started looking at the theory of non-violence,” says Nigel.

It’s not only Nigel who can talk eloquently about non-violence; 12-year-old Hannah also believes non-violence is the only strategy for confronting danger and anger in the world. “That’s why we were at the NObama march,” she says.

It hasn’t, however, been as easy for Nigel and Trish to make friends as it has been for the kids. “This is a very transient community, you know, it’s difficult to connect. The only time we met our neighbour in the year we have been here was the one day she was off sick,” says Nigel, as he leans over the short balcony wall. “There are these different rhythms in the city but what you find consistent are the street vendors, the homeless guys, and the prostitutes, and if you get to know those people, that’s your key to safety, and not just get to know them but to love them.”

Photo: Balloon pops and scares all the kids playing on the ground floor of their apartments.

“We came here with a dream of changing Hillbrow but you soon realise you can only be a sign of hope amid of all this and we are certainly not convinced that we can bring total hope to this broken part of town.”

There is one thing that the whole family seems sure of, though. “We are the ones who have changed most from this move. When you sow your life into brokenness, you can’t help but change,” says Nigel, in different ways, but repeatedly, in a reflective but emphatic voice.

Believing that poverty and inequality are the two biggest challenges in the country, Nigel and Trish have spent many of their nights writing to the local municipality since arriving in Hillbrow, to improve various aspects of city life. They have slowly started seeing improvements. “We now have lights on this street, the rubbish is being collected regularly and the sewage running through that parking lot over there has been fixed,” he says, pointing.

During the day, while Nigel works his old management job at the University of the Witwatersrand, Trish teaches their five children and others in the building at home. “We used to use the house for lessons but it got too crowded so we rented another apartment on the first floor of the building and we have called it the learning centre. “I anticipate that the kids will write the National Curriculum Matric, but I’m not trying to turn them into academics here. But, the beauty of teaching your own children is that you quickly pick up their strengths and weaknesses and I’m able to share that with other kids too.”

Trish was tired when she finally sits down to join us for tea. She had been up since 4:30am to get in line at the Hillbrow ante-natal clinic by 5am. “I was first in the line this morning; I think it was too cold for the usual early birds,” she jokes.

As part of their journey, the family has taken the decision to rely on the same public systems as the people who live around them. “This sixth pregnancy is complicated because I am over 40,” she says, “and if we have problems we won’t hesitate to go to private care but we know that’s a privilege and we understand that can be perceived as hypocritical.”

Nigel nods and adds, “Our journey is not always perfect but we have got to be the change we want to see. Nobody powerful uses these services so they never change. We will stand in solidarity and have our birth here so that we understand the struggles Hillbrow’s residents’ face.”

“The most important thing for us to do here is to further the reconciliation agenda that has been off the table since 1994. There is still a lot of healing to be done,” says Nigel, after Trish gets up to clear the tea. He is keenly aware of his whiteness and what that means to black people in Hillbrow. There is no doubt that part of his mission in the community is to change perceptions about race and to rectify the past to some extent. “We can’t deny what whiteness means in South Africa. Our race has been responsible for so much.”

From the balcony, Nigel points to his 67-minute project he is planning out of love and respect for his hero, Nelson Mandela. On 18 July he plans to plant a bed of flowers along the front of the building as a sign of respect for a man who epitomises the non-violent, colour-blind approach to life that Nigel is working towards. “Mandela is the man who restored white people’s dignity, you know.”

“With Mandela in mind we want to be a bridge between the suburbs and the city; between our rich friends and our poor friends; blacks and whites.” The struggle icon is important to Hannah too. She recently left a poem for Madiba outside the hospital, wishing him well. Half joking, Nigel says, “She loves writing. The other day she wrote a list of 42 special things about me for my 42nd birthday and one of them was, ‘all my dad’s friends are homeless’. I don’t know if that’s quite true.”

Homelessness is an issue Nigel cares about deeply. “There is a humanity that a family represents. A family can normalise a community that is broken, it can normalise forgotten people. When a little kid comes into your presence and touches you, no one can resist,” he says. He strongly believes that touch can play a powerful role in releasing humanity from these untouchable members of society.

Sensing my enthusiasm to explore the streets, Nigel softly says, “Let’s take you to the most dangerous intersection in the world.”

Nigel could be a Jo’burg tour guide. He knows the history and the people and has a passion for both. As we walk the filthy pavements, Pakistani store owners wave at him; he greets the car guards; and introduces me to some of the homeless people he helps feed and clothe. “On Thursday nights we do solidarity sleep-outs with the homeless” he says. “This week we will be washing feet and putting socks and shoes on some of these guys, you should come.”

Photo: Hannah and Rachel with Becky and their dad Nigel, corner Twist and Kapteijn in Hillbrow.

On one corner he stops and points up to a high-rise residential block where he once convinced a suicidal young man not to take his life by jumping from his balcony. “He had girlfriend problems and he had been kidnapped. A few hours after I got him down, his dad phoned and said we were too late.” The man had killed himself by jumping down the shaft. A few steps later, he points to a window from which a new-born baby was dropped onto the street by a desperate teenage mother. His daughters, Hannah and Rachel, seemed unfazed. They look as if they have heard these stories before.

“I think the church has lost its path, you know. It is so entertainment-focused. The true place of the church is here, where Jesus would be and we are trying to bring that back. We are motivated by convictions around justice, and looking at the life of Jesus, and the book of Matthew in which we learn to love our enemies. The job of the church is to be a sign of hope for a community and the greatest weapon we have as Christians, is love. At the end of the day Christianity is about sacrifice and the cross.”

“The gods of this age are individualism, materialism, and consumerism; they are the three big powers that control the world. The world revolves around these things and that manifests the two biggest challenges in South Africa: poverty and inequality. We took over from Brazil about four years ago as the most unequal society in the world. That’s shocking. We certainly don’t have an idea that we can bring about total transformation in Hillbrow but I think you come alive in this context. That’s the purpose of life.”