Saturday, 18 June 2011

Heaven or Hell

It is winter here in South Africa. Our winters are generally not as harsh as those in the northern hemispere, as we consider -10 °C as very, VERY cold. My friends in Canada and northern Europe only smile knowingly about this.

Nevertheless, for us, this is cold. Very cold. Years ago, I lived in Bloemfontein, a small city slap bang in the middle of the country. Bloem has dry weather in winter and the cold is sharp and penetrating. It clamps onto your bones and dries your skin. It was not an unusual thing to still have frost in the shade by noon.

Here in the Western Cape where I live now, we do not have that kind of cold, because in the wintertime it rains. Were everything is dull and dead upcountry, the grass here is brilliant geen in wintertime. I call it "Hallelujah Green". And I LOVE it!

This kind of temperature is of course problematic to the hundreds of thousands of people living in "squatter camps" or informal settlements. Right next to the highway that we have to travel towards Cape Town, lies the sprawling township genreally referred to as Khayelitsha, where the dwellings consist of little boxes of houses built of corrugated iron and tar poles, and "waterproofed" with big sheets of plastic. It is a terrible and dismal place.

When it rains, everything gets wet. And it stays wet. My heart breaks for these people! When the wind wildly moans around the corner of my house and angrily pushes the rain against the windows, I often think of the children in those shacks, who are cold and wet and scared, and more often than not, also hungry and sick. 

I have read a lot about this township.

It has its roots firmly planted in the apartheid policies of decades ago, and the dire circumstances that are present there today are invariably placed at the door of the pre-Mandela government. I was surprised to learn that in the 1980's, Khayelitsha was actually not that bad.

According to a report on research done at Brown University in the US, The Khayelitsha that was established in the 1980s "is defined by formal houses on relatively decent sized plots, with wide streets and some amenities ... Schools are abundant in the neighbourhood – driving around we would often happen upon another concrete (1980s apartheid special) block with spacious, but hard to maintain, grounds. ... Ultimately, T1 V2 appears to be a 'normalised' township neighbourhood in a superficial sense: it has formal houses, planned streets, plotted yards, piped water, bulk sanitation, electricity, schools, shops (debatable), churches, playgrounds and parks, some street lights, etc. It has all the basics and is established, with 25 years of history."

But that is not the Khayelitsha the world knows.

The world only knows the miserable face that it has turned towards the Cape Town International Airport and the N2 highway: colourful boxes containing the lives of close to a million souls - a number which presently grows at a rate of  100 000 per year, as citizens of the breathtakingly beautiful and fertile - yet heartbreakingly poor Eastern Cape flee to this, a latterday promised land ... 

Every time we drive past this sea of quaint boxes, with its vibrand washing flapping merrily against sapphire blue skies, goats tippytoeing through emerald fields and barefooted children gleefully kicking brightly coloured soccer balls, I wonder what life is like in the squattercamps.

Of course it is extremely hard, unbareably hard, with everybody poor and many sick. But is it JUST hell? If it is, why do the people stay? Why don't they return to the fertile fields of the Eastern Cape? Because maybe, relatively speaking, the hell that they experience here, is heaven compared to what they had left behind?

On the blog Reaching Cape Town (, Sinoxolo Rasimeni, a resident, says:

"As with every township, Khayelitsha is faced with many challenges. There is a lot of crime due to poverty, poor educational resources, and alcohol and drug abuse. Children who attend schools in the townships often struggle to speak or understand English, because they are taught in their home language, isiXhosa. This becomes a problem as good job opportunities pass them by, because they cannot communicate well in English. There are also many teenage pregnancies, and a lot of the youth become infected with HIV/AIDS. Sadly, there is also a lot of gang violence. But all these things do not defeat the amazing vibe and energy Khayelitsha has. The locations with poor housing, water, and sanitation still push forward, still have hope that one day their living situation will get better. Khayelitsha is a diverse township, with many different things to offer. New homes continue to be established in Khayelitsha, keeping the spirit of life and energy of this township alive."

Somehow, despite the hellish circumstances, there indeed seems to be the belief that maybe someday, they will catch a glimpse of the Angel of Hope ...

Heaven or Hell

I had so many conflicting thoughs while painting this picture:
The beauty of the landscape with Table Mountain in the background
 vs. the squallor of the township in the foreground
Is the goat "evil"? Or is it a source of nourishment?
Is the angel "good", or is she the harbinger of sadness
 in this HIV/Aids and TB infested settlement?
It is a bright painting, about a painful subject...

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