The Praise Café is an out-of-place coffee shop in Ocean View. It was founded with an idea to reform its surrounding community and encourage neighbourly support. It’s a business like any other and needs to make money, but that’s not why it’s there. Its ambition is in its want to serve people. A simple notion, maybe, but not one easily recognised. By BRAD HARRIS.
I’m inside the café on a hot day and served a cappuccino, city-standard. Outside, the sun bakes dusty patios, beats upon the playing children… so bright.
Kenia Godard turns to me, uncapped enthusiasm for her new home flittering down.
“No one understands, though. No one can, because they aren’t here. I can tell you about the girl who was raped, or the couple who’s addicted to drugs, or about the murders and assaults… I can even tell you about the children throwing stones at our house. I can tell you about the people who are saved, the building of Praise Café and how people’s lives have been changed… But you can’t understand, because you don’t live here. I just mean that, well, unless you’re willing to come stay here with us and experience our kind of life – I just can’t explain it. You won’t understand unless you’re here with us.”
It’s her eyes that make it stand as something to remember. The blue irises expand as her pupils shrink to tiny pricks – blue – she has blue eyes. Her skin is white, her eyes are blue and her hair is dirty blonde. She’s different to them, and yet she’s loved by the community more than some of its oldest residents.
She looks at me, enthusiasm bubbling through once more. “My mom says I wasn’t meant to be born with this skin… I was Colombian at heart, and now I’m coloured.”
It’s a cold morning in the coastal towns. Mist hangs unmoving on the beaches, creeping towards warm homes, blending with their snake-like chimney smoke. It’s quiet. So quiet.
There aren’t fishermen out today – not today, it can’t be risked. In a few hours the devil arrives, in all his machinery, all of his criminal policy. He won’t ask, he won’t even tell – that devil will move in and push out.
It’s 1968 and the forced removals are still underway. Two years ago District Six was the media’s focus, but now, far from the city centre, these lonely coastal towns are also under attack. Coloured people are a major demographic in Fish Hoek, Simonstown and Noordhoek. They settled in these areas long ago and grew a fishing culture that formed the backbone of their small economies. They’ve got houses, not slums – and many have gardens and pets. It’s a whole community that’s threatened.
The residents of Noordhoek thought it might get this bad – sure, they thought it, but not one of them ever expected to see those bulking yellow arms enter their neighbourhood. It’s a nightmare. Something not meant to come true. But today is the day that it will.
Coloured families stand outside their homes, enjoying their sea-view gardens one last time. There’s no defiance in the children’s game on the swing, no understanding, but the adults are standing in the corners, huddled around fresh eviction notices.
Talk is that their time is near. The kids shouldn’t be here to see it. The house should be checked a last time, maybe something was forgotten. Something might be left behind.
The big question is where are they going? When are the buses arriving? Simonstown and Fish Hoek only move tomorrow, reminds someone uncertainly. Maybe the buses won’t arrive. Or can they fight? Should they run?
No one has to wait any longer, as the official lights round a corner.
He’s here. The devil is here in his five flashing-blue Toyota Corollas, and in his scuffed black shoes he steps out.
Move. It’s not the face that says it – it’s the navy blue uniform that commands them.
There’s no time. Quick. Quick, move. Bags packed, forgotten things grabbed and made waiting on their former roadsides. The buses will arrive soon, someone says, pointing across the way. But where were the bulking yellow arms? There is no force beside the words this time, yet the words brought a far worse realisation. They aren’t simply losing their homes, they’re leaving them. Are they giving up? They were forced, they later cry, but the children won’t understand so easily. They’ll become bitter, enraged… they won’t understand.
Lines of buses turn the corner, beige and white buses with dirty windows. One of the navy blue uniforms jokes about checking for their tickets, but they begin to climb on anyway. The children’s game stops in a hurry, and a refusing older resident is carried away with batons and blood. But still, they climb on.
Then the devil’s mouth pierces the still morning with an answer. Ocean View, the megaphone crackles. They’re going to Ocean View. At least they’ll get a view – at least the ocean will remain home.
Those photographs and testimonies of expelled residents in the District Six museum can only hint at the reality. I leave the museum’s memories, soon hitting the summit of Ou Kaapse Weg and continuing towards the settlement that sits before Noordhoek. A friend has come with me today – she has connections in the community that I need in order to enter as a guest. The intention is to talk, not interview.
Even from here I have a hard time making out the ocean, and Ocean View is another ten minutes inland. They were put in a bowl between peaks, not quite a dustbowl, but the trees are sparse and what shallow puddles lie in the gutter show no evidence of oceanic origin. That devil was an ironic guy.
It’s 23 February, 2014. A Sunday. There isn’t cool-hanging mist, or thick cloud bearing down, or rain… it’s uncannily hot for even Cape Town summer. Everything is clearly revealed, and no nooks or crannies exist. The ocean is now nowhere in sight.
I pull right into a main street, tarred and busy with speed bumps. Industrial-revolution-like blocks rise up on the right, packed tight, and small houses sit on the left, less tight. Some of the houses have gardens, pretty gardens that are well kept. Everything’s dusty though, and my hayfever starts playing up already. Past the RDP apartment blocks lies the ‘dangerous area of Ocean View’. This part of the community resembles something closer to the inner parts of city townships: corrugated-iron homes, a heavy atmosphere and dirt roads. But it’s in the distance for now.
I turn left, onto the road of my connection in the community. It’s only late morning.
“When I came last time the dealer parked just there to sell drugs,” says my friend.
I wonder about the time.
“No, it was during the day. In the open too.”
The Hard Livings run the area. Led by Rashied Staggie, and locally in Ocean View by an enigmatic man called Unnie, the Hard Livings are one of the largest non-prison gangs in the Cape. The Staggies are renowned in South Africa for forming the Hard Livings in 1971, and since maintaining leadership of it. In late 2000 Rashied’s brother, Rashaad, was violently lynched by members of PAGAD, People Against Gangsterism And Drugs (a Cape Flats vigilante group). Since his brother’s death, Rashied has been the face of the gang, even after his arrest in 2004. Now Ocean View and its neighbouring community, Masiphumelele, have become concentrations for drug dealing, prostitution and gang violence. The Hard Livings fought for this land, and years ago they won the right to keep it when they chased The Americans out, their rivals. At least in their own minds, the Hard Livings possess the place.
We pull up outside Kenia Godard’s house. The sun is hot but the wind’s picked up, and before we get out I mindlessly check the car for unremembered valuables. Nothing: relief. Theft in Ocean View has risen considerably these past two years. So the sun-shade goes up and the gorilla-lock clicks on, doors are closed and checked, and we walk towards the house – looking up for the first time.
Five children play about Kenia’s property, focused on a tyre swing hanging from a nearby tree or peering into her windows by standing on their tippy toes. They each greet us, and we reply, before hurrying up to the doorstep and knocking on the frame.
“Coming,” a woman’s voice filters through the house. The door is open and only the security gate separates us. I smell something – Cream? Chocolate? The buttery notes of coffee.
She’s roughly my own age, twenty-one, but I never do get a sure answer. Curled, dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. White skin. Her accent is American, or something like it.
We start with little pleasantries. A laugh, a chuckle, a handshake and hug… at last sitting on the couches with coffees in hand (despite the heat).
It’s a comfortable home. Hip, modern – like those few clean student digs. The interior doesn’t feel right in the community. The dusty pavements and tyre swings are still too fresh.
Kenia smiles, “Yeah, I’m from Colombia. Not the state or city, the country – my parents were missionaries there. It was a bit hectic, but I loved it. We moved to Canada ‘cos of my brother… Well, he kind of started the thought. He wasn’t made for Colombia.
“It wasn’t easy when we were there. I mean, there were bombs going off, people we knew were killed and we couldn’t ever be sure how long friends would be with us for – people were always in and out of the house. And usually the people we had over would make it dangerous for us too, with the wars and everything. So, yeah, it was hectic, but I miss it.”
She takes a sip of coffee and smiles. She smiles often.
“And then I was in Hawaii for a while too. That was for YWAM, you know of Youth With A Mission?”
I nod. It’s a popular Christian missionary organisation with bases around the world.
“Yeah, I enjoyed that. I was really stretched during that time. I did the media side to it, so we learnt about photography and stuff – but it was all community-aid and evangelism focused. Our outreach was to South Africa, and that’s when I decided I loved this place. So, when my time at YWAM finished, I moved here.”
Our conversation is cut short – the church service starts in ten minutes. The coffee still sits steaming as we leave.
I’m more comfortable walking along the dusty pavements than sitting and drinking coffee – this is the community.
Two children walk past us on the opposite pavement, away from the church. One is wearing his Sunday best: a metallic suit, white shirt and pleather shoes. The other blends into his surroundings with ordinary clothes.
Kenia swings around and calls out. “Lucas! How’re you?”
It’s the suited one that looks up and smiles nervously.
“You going to church today?”
“No, not today. We’re going home now.”
“Oh… okay. Keep safe though!”
She turns to me as they strut away from us. “He’s addicted.”
It’s a shock. Children aren’t addicts, that’s what the suburbia believe. But later, I hear about a father doing drugs with his son – a small boy called Piesang, who can’t be older than seven. Where parents accept drugs as part of their culture, the children are bound to follow. Many of the elders don’t see drugs as a problem, or they won’t admit that it’s a problem, not when it’s one of their few pleasures. Fortunately, a member of House of Praise church took Piesang in – now he’s found a new home and role-model.
“Lucas? He’s twelve now, but even a lot of the younger kids are addicts. It’s cocaine mostly. Drugs and religion. Those are the biggest problems in Ocean View.”
It’s a confusing duo, especially coming from a missionary on her way to church.
“Yeah, look, drugs are pulling people down and then religion is pulling people away. Many of the people who have the power to help believe that the addicts are just sinners, or choosing to sin, and don’t want to help.”
Kenia is talking about a socio-religious hierarchy. It isn’t specific to the area, and it’s largely how the secular West has come to understand religion as a whole. With evidence of the ancient Crusades, or priests being convicted of sexual perversion, it’s difficult to understand the spirit behind Christianity.
“But it’s their own idea, not Jesus’. It’s all twisted and not from the heart of what God wants for his church. Many of the addicts become bitter towards anyone who does try to help them too, so it’s just creating a divide. Churches should be involved in their communities, not pulling away from them. And the communities need to see when they are trying to help, and then let them in.”
We arrive outside the church doors soon. The House of Praise. It’s in a community hall and stuffy inside, but not bustling nearly as much as I expected. Only the Jazz-influenced gospel music drifting through cream-coloured hallways keeps me expectant.
I walk behind Kenia, hanging in the background. The people won’t have it. As soon as I’m through those church doors the chains of my cold Southern Suburbs culture are shaken –
“Good morning! How’re you! I’m Bernie.”
Bernie fulfils the definition of jolly. She’s quiet only in comparison to her community, but her round cheeks, wide smile and soft laugh make her louder. I soon find out she works at the Praise Café, and promises to take us there after the service.
Numerous hugs and introductions go around in the hall. The conversation isn’t light or meaningless… but neither is it ever too serious. Someone nearby is laughing. Giggling. Chuckling at the little children playing in between plastic chairs set up for the service.
The hall is roughly the size of a tennis court, with no stage for the worship-band and about two hundred plastic white chairs set in fat rows along the centre. For some reason, a bright yellow bee is painted on the front and side walls. A lone bee, buzzing to gather honey.
We find open seats and sit down, waiting for the service to begin. But there is no beginning – people are already singing along to the worship-band, and others aren’t. Pastor Raymond, the head-pastor of the church, is dancing in front, laughing and singing as loud as it seems he can. The children are still around too, and some stop to dance, but otherwise they’re in and out of the side-rooms or climbing over the chairs. Even beside me people are still greeting each other with tight hugs and chuckles, and scattered about the older women are bursting with ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’ Little by little everyone joins in, but there was no beginning and there is no structured end in sight.
It’s a lengthy service, and about two hours later I find myself being led down the road again, towards Praise Café. The building that the café is in was abandoned before, and housed prostitutes and addicts in its walls. It was noticed because it’s near to where a few members of House of Praise church meet to pray every Saturday, at five in the morning. It’s hard to imagine the potential it seemed to have from the description of mouldy ceilings, broken walls and undesirable inhabitants – but that it came from that encourages a sense of hope.
The café isn’t meant to be open today, yet for two newcomers they change their mind. Bernie leads us up the road. She joined the House of Praise church about a year ago. Although she attended churches in the past, she struggled with alcohol and was “in a bad way”. Here she found a job at the Praise Café – not a job that pays money, but which offers her a sense of meaning. She is the face of the café, and the pillar that people have come to rely on when they want a quiet conversation.
“The other ladies, the ones that just joined the church or even those that have been there for a while, they don’t understand,” says Bernie. “You know, at first they’re interested and want to come help out at the café too… then they hear that I’m not getting paid and they’re over it. They want money, not to serve. It’s a problem.”
The House of Praise church is connected to the Praise Café, but only in so much as members of the congregation help run it. The church provides no formal funds for the café, and even emotional support is sometimes lacking.
“Ja, some of the ladies try convince me to get an ‘actual’ job,’ says Bernie quietly. “They say I need to support my family.”
She wants to support her family, but she has a heart for the entire community to be supported.
We turn right into a wide alley and Bernie walks up to a strip of store-fronts on our left, feeling for a key. That corrupted sweet smell of old rubbish hangs around the area, and it’s dusty outside again – it’s always dusty.
The sign above the chained doors says ‘Praise Café’ in a fun, sun-yellow font. The doors themselves are painted but peeling, and the windows are stained at the bottoms, with heavy burglar bars nailed over, but inside are clean chairs and tables. It’s an intimidating place that’s trying so hard to welcome me in.
Then the doors are pulled open and we’re shown inside.
Kenia bounds behind the patisserie-like counter. “Do you guys want coffee?”
The café isn’t small. It’s not expansive, but it’s comfortable and warm. The chairs and tables aren’t exquisite, but they’re not that clinical plastic either – thought has gone into the place. Most of the appliances have been donated or sourced for discounted prices, from members of the community and their friends, and the coffee arrives city-standard.
A glass cabinet lies empty, but promises to hold cakes and sweet things on busier days, and so we order toasted sandwiches off the menu. Yet, although the menu looks good, so far there’s only the smell of clean floors and countertops – it’s disappointing when you expect coffee grounds and melted cheese to greet you.
“Okay, we must just wait. Stephen’s bringing the stuff now,” Bernie tells us, and sits down at the table beside Kenia and me.
Stephen Peterson is the owner and founder of Praise Café. Growing up in Ocean View encouraged him to envision a healthier community. He wants the people to lift themselves out of drugs, prostitution and gangsterism. Compassion and a sense of ‘servant heartedness’ is his battle-plan.
The entire café was funded out of his own pocket, with donations coming in here and there and some support given by House of Praise church members. Strangely, the majority of support comes from outside of the church congregation. But this is the man with the vision and dedication to bring the café into existence.
“Yeah,” smiles Kenia, “people here haven’t been served before. This is, really, the first time many of them have had a chance to be waited on – and by someone from their own community.”
But her explanation of the café is cut short as Stephen arrives in a white bakkie and hurries inside. He gives various ingredients to Bernie and she disappears into the back-kitchen. Stephen sits beside me.
“Hi, yes I’m Stephen. I really want to speak to you, we want people to hear about this place. I’m excited about where it’s gonna go.”
I’m interested to know why the café isn’t regularly open on Sundays, especially if it has such a strong connection to House of Praise church.
Kenia serves Stephen a coffee too, and he smells it after saying thanks. ‘Well, Sunday’s our rest day usually. We only open about every second Sunday, and then we’ll be open during the rest of the week. Usually like seven to four, but we’re flexible if people want to stay or if anyone needs to talk. I mean, if people want to stay, we don’t want to stop them, but we also have to be realistic – I can’t be here all the time.”
Stephen’s got a family at home to support. It casts him in a new light, because the café is more risky than it seems – he’s pouring his time, effort and money into something which isn’t in an area that promises great profit. From a business standpoint, opening up the first coffee shop in Ocean View isn’t necessarily a great idea. But he has hope for the future. There’s hope in the fact that he still finds time to take his daughter to The Sound of Music on her birthday. It’s her birthday today.
“Yeah, we’re going tonight,” says Stephen, his eyes bright. “Ah, she’s going to love it!” But he stops himself and turns to Kenia, “Hey, how’s that girl doing?”
Kenia nods. “She’s at The Ark now, last I heard.” Kenia faces me again and explains, “She’s an addict and wants to stop. We helped her get to The Ark. It’s hard to stop if you just stay in the community, because drugs are so available, so a couple of safehouses have been set up nearby. Like rehab centres, you know.”
I haven’t heard about The Ark before. Like Living Hope, which is situated just Noordhoek side of Ocean View, The Ark is a rehabilitation centre in Simonstown that deals with drug and alcohol addictions.
“Yeah, The Ark is one of them. Then there’s a few others, like The Open Door and stuff… all pretty nearby, but we need more.”
“That’s why the café is important. People come here and are able to talk – otherwise no one knows they’re struggling with anything, not until it’s too late. I wanted to create an atmosphere where people share, where they feel comfortable to share. Then the community can help itself. And then I started thinking, ‘What’s this place missing? Well… we’ve never had a coffee shop’,” he laughs. ‘So that’s how the idea happened. I just wanted to help people talk about their problems and look for help, and Ocean View’s never had a proper coffee shop before. It seemed like it would work – so far it has.”
A little girl wanders into the café as I smell my chicken-mayo sandwich toasting from the back. Stephen and Kenia know her and she wanders around the café freely. She’s shy and besides giggling won’t say much, but finally she settles next to me, stacking sugar sachets. Later I find out she wanted to take the sugar sachets home, but the café is careful with even small requests like this – even though it’s helping the community find its feet, it is still a business and needs to run like one. A cappuccino costs R14.00, and Ricoffy sits in the corner for those who can’t pay. Stephen makes that point clear: compassion, not handouts.
“Drugs and religion,” Kenia implores again, through the rich toasted-sandwich scents wafting over us. “They’re the biggest problems.”
“But as long as the gangs stay here, the drugs will too,” adds Stephen. “So we’ve got to change their minds about how the community moves forward.”
Certainly, there are police to keep laws and governmental policies in place. Coming from Ou Kaapse Weg, you pass the police station just before you turn into OV from Slangkop Road. They are there to control the gang activity. But they have a poor track record.
“The guy who owns the place next door… he… prostitutes the girls,” says Kenia.
“His case isn’t doing well, ey,” says Stephen. “His court case, I mean.”
Kenia tries to look hopeful. “Yeah, but he knows people, Stephen. You think…”
“He knows the cops,” cuts in Stephen, turning to me. “So it’s been hard getting a case against him, you understand.”
I nod, wondering about the local police and recalling an article about Ocean View vigilantes on iolNews. Only last year members of the community, fed up with the police’s efforts to stop gangsterism, grouped together and attacked “the house of an alleged drug lord”. Further back, in 2008, two hundred Ocean View citizens “won a fight to keep foreigners out of their community” by opposing a council proposal to house refugees and immigrants. The spirit of these people, although sometimes shut to vreemdelinge, is strong and vibrant. History at least shows us that they understand what it means to work together for a common goal.
Getting ready to leave for a follow-up interview with Kenia, my phone vibrates and I unlock it:
Hi brad! So our café’s electricity cables got stolen last night. Surprise surprise haha. We are closed today unfortunately. So sorry! Kenia
I sit down heavily, trying to deny the relief of not having to drive out and over Ou Kaapse Weg. But two hours later I get another message:
Back in business!! Plans can continue as usual!
On the road. An hour later I’m pulling up outside Praise Café.
I hardly notice the scenery and background noise this time. It isn’t strange to walk into the café over dusty grounds and non-city-like sounds – it’s normal. Pleasant.
Kenia and Stephen welcome me, Bernie calls from the back, and we start with easy conversation about the stolen electricity cables. The full story no one seemed to know, but they had been stolen and then replaced, or fixed, or found again.
Already there’s another man in the café. A little boy runs around too, but returns to the man now and then for a secure nod to continue his game. I sit down near to the door, and he sits opposite me. Kenia and Stephen are at the table beside us.
We nod at each other and smile. I’m nervous.
The man’s face is worn. Not old, but wrinkled from work or experience, and his eyes are turning dull. He’s wearing jeans, a t-shirt and has new bandages wrapped around his neck. Moving down, his hands and arms are covered in tattoos (I wonder if they also run up his neck). His right hand I first noticed before we were introduced, and leant back to take a moment.
It’s between his thumb and forefinger. I revert to the bandages and so begin the wild thoughts racing. Prison. Gangsters. Knives.
The 28’s are one of South Africa’s leading prison-gangs. The Numbers are known throughout the country for their control of and influence within prison systems. Jonny Steinberg popularises their history and purpose in his book The Number, focusing on a member of the 28s. There are the 26s, the 27s and the 28s – and a small contingent who are the 25s, but these members are largely overlooked. According to myth, the Numbers were birthed from a rich history in which crime is believed fundamental – and now each faction controls a specific area of gang politics or economy within and outside of South African prisons. The 28s mostly control the sex economy of the Number gangs, but there’s no strict definition even in Steinberg’s research.
“Hey, hoe gaan’it!” his hand is outstretched with the cape Afrikaans twang. “Marco.”
His neck attracts my attention.
“Ja, I’as stabbed. Just now, on Tuesday. I’as walking just over there,” he laughs, pointing towards the church, “just by the fence. You know how it is – I’d had a bit to drink and stuff, and then I saw him standing down the road. I had a bad feeling already, you know, and then he started running. He stabbed me in the neck and left me there – ” But the boy runs up to his legs and makes a non-descript sound. Something like “dad”.
“Ah, Jamie… gaan vir Bernie vra.”
Jamie runs off to the back and Marco smiles.
“Nah, he’s not mine. His ma’s at home, I’m lookin’ after him. She brought me here first. It’s good – got me right, you know. She says I should report this,” he points to his neck. “So I’m going later… or tomorrow. I’ve never reported anything before, wasn’t right to do it before.”
I don’t understand. Maybe the police wouldn’t help before.
“Ja, no, I used to be in the Hard Livings. See? Wasn’t right to do it. Couldn’t talk to them. See, it’s ‘cos I wanna leave – Unnie ordered it. I know he did.”
I smile uncertainly.
“Unnie? He runs the stuff ‘round here. ‘Specially the drugs, but only in Ocean View. Staggie is the bigger guy – he’s back in prison now. His parole got done,” Marco laughs. “Ja, he got caught on camera at a meeting. Gang meeting. Stupid, ey?”
I smile. The relief that he never maintained his parole is clear.
“He was looking for property in Ocean View,” says Kenia.
Stephen, who has been quiet up until now, clears his throat. “He kept looking at the same properties that we were looking at too – ”
“For safehouses,” finishes Kenia. “We want to try create some more safehouses for the women coming in. ‘Cos The Ark can’t take all of them, and they don’t always stay there – that girl we told you about last time ran away just the other day. And they have strict rules if you run away – I mean she’ll get a second chance to go back, but they need to be harsh if they want to make a change. But anyway, Staggie kept offering the owners of these other properties more money… they didn’t say it was him, but they wouldn’t say it wasn’t.”
Jamie distracts her, though, and I turn back to Marco.
He knows the man who stabbed him, he tells me, but he seems unsure if the culprit will be brought to justice. Justice is dealt with differently in Ocean View – one can’t simply oppose the Hard Livings, or simply expect the police to.
‘None of my ‘friends’ helped when I was lying there neither,” he continues. “Don’t blame them.”
Here is the evidence of the gang’s influence: helping a targeted victim creates yourself as one. Eventually two strangers stopped to help Marco, but the hospital is an hour’s drive away and they didn’t want to drive all that way. Not without petrol money. Coming from the city with a steady job makes it difficult to process this – but poverty changes perspective. Family comes first in these areas, and if you don’t have enough money to feed them, then your ailing neighbours can’t be helped. General Western morals become far more complex in Ocean View. It’s not about cruelty or desensitisation, it’s about priorities.
Marco chuckles and taps the table. “I had to sell my cellphone for petrol money. Ag, I knew it was coming. A guy came to visit me when I’as ‘bout to leave prison and said things like ‘Unnie’s gonna be happy to see you’ – but they weren’t my friends. You know, friends would’ve visited, or brought me tobacco… it’s everything in that place. But they never came before. And then I started thinking ‘bout God and stuff. You know, in prison, they respected that I changed. I told them and they were okay with it, ‘cos it’s also part of their history. I was done with the stuff. You never leave them, but they respect your choice. They don’t ask you for anything. It’s your choice. So I said that to the guy who came, said I’m done, and he left – ag, I knew it was coming. These guys, the Hard Livings, they don’t just leave it. ‘Cos I used to help run things and Unnie wants to show he’s boss now. I don’t want a part of it, but they wanted to make a point.”
I still wonder about the local police’s involvement.
Marco takes a sip of coffee and leans forward, “Ag ja, they’re paid off – most of them are paid off by Unnie. You can’t do anything, but I’ll report it. I have to report it.”
Kenia turns back to me and laughs. “Yeah, they come ‘look’ for drugs on my street sometimes. We’ve called them and told them where Unnie puts the drugs. But they don’t even try pretend that they’re looking when they’re there, not well. The one time they lifted up the rock next to where the drugs were, and then were like ‘Aw, there’s nothing here, man. Wasting our time!’ They’re in with Unnie.”
Later that evening I email the SAPS general office and Ocean View department, asking to set up an interview. I need both sides to these accusations, because as interesting as Marco and Kenia’s stories are, there’s a hint of naivety in their eagerness to tell me of police corruption. But the department’s reply is generic and avoids discussing any topic that I raised. A week later I resend the mail. After two weeks with no further response I mail the Ocean View department again – now the allegations are laid bare and called for defence. But four days later there’s still no response. I send one more mail then, but there’s little hope at this point of ever hearing their rebuttal. In that one might suppose a whole number of things.
“It’s already helping,” says Kenia, regarding the café. “People are already starting to talk about it, and… All right, it’s quiet now, but this isn’t what it’s usually like.”
“It’s the atmosphere of the place, I think,” adds Stephen from the side. “People want to talk about their problems, but no one’s ever really listened before. No one’s ever served them, or even wanted to serve them.”
I turn to Marco. He’s watching Jamie with a massive grin.
“Ja, you know when I come here it’s different. I can – it’s different, you know. It’s not like at home. When I go home or my family come and visit, it’s like ‘Ah, goeie môre, hoe gaan’it?’ and ‘Goed, goed. Julle?’ – five minutes,” he pauses, waving his hand in the air. “Then they gone again. It’s not like how we talk here, it’s easy to talk in here. They not like this place… they don’t talk the same… you know, it’s never real. People here want to listen. That helps.”
I want to keep going, but from nowhere Jamie appears and grips Marco’s right arm. “Milkshake!”
Marco chuckles. “Shake milk?”
“It’s ‘Shake milk’.”
Jamie giggles. “Milkshake!”
Both crumple into hysterics. “Uh-uh. Shake milk, Jamie!”
It’s two weeks later when I follow up.
“Marco? He’s doing well,” says Kenia, grinning over her coffee. “Stephen helped him get employed as a mechanic. So yeah, I mean, Marco’s only in training for now, but if he doesn’t do anything terrible then he’ll get to keep the job. He wants to keep the job. And he’s still with Jamie’s mom – so far they seem to be good for each other. He comes into the café every now and then. People are starting to understand why it’s there, I think. It’ll take a while, but already it’s starting to help.”
Then, two weeks after I hear about Marco’s apprenticeship, Kenia passes along some unfortunate news. Marco’s now gone back to dealing drugs and, so far as anyone knows, has broken off contact with Jamie and his mom. You can’t simply leave the Hard Livings, even after they try to kill you. Gang relationships are still something largely misunderstood, something which even Jonny Steinberg has recognised.
But, the café continues running and people are still being affected by it. While gang shoot-outs have started up again over the past few weeks, and with three victims dead, the Praise Café’s intercession is needed more than ever. It’s still difficult for the community to understand the real purpose behind the fun sun-yellow font on their front doors, but more and more stories are pouring in.
Kenia tells of two policemen sympathetic to what the café is doing, and it provides some hope for the Ocean View department following my unfortunate correspondence. Then, a Muslim woman has offered to donate baked goods and hot food for the café to sell – the café which is centred around Christianity, which could have made it exclusive, but people are beginning to understand the heart of it. It’s not about religious denomination, and judgement is left outside its paint-peeling doors. Inside is only a pursuit of truth and change.
I, wearing my scuffed black shoes, entered the community with an intent for collecting stories of broken lives radically changed, but what was revealed is far more realistic. Worrying to some, the Praise Café’s vision is built around Christianity, but it means that the team working here is concerned with serving their community without reward. Their reward is what change they hope to make. It’s not about evangelism as much as it is about community. The idea is one of development. It’s not a quick fix – it is a slow change of hearts and attitudes, and already it’s taking hold.
They didn’t get an ocean view, they’re overrun by drugs and gangsterism, but they’re still there. They didn’t get an ocean view, but they kept their community together. They kept their spirit, and that is what allows the Praise Café such effect. Spirit. DM
Photo: A polluted stream runs through the urban area of Ocean View in Cape Town, South Africa, 08 March 2011. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
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