“We are treated like slaves in our own country”

Two decades after Nelson Mandela’s release out od prison, the legacy of apartheid prevails in Manenberg, Cape Town’s largest township.

written for the Peace Boat website on January 14th, 2013 >>

  • Mario Wanza founded the civil society organisation, Proudly Manenberg in 2005 after an innocent student was killed by gang violence.
  • The organisation aims to turn the township around -leading it from crime and desperation to friendship and dignity.
  • Mario Wanza fights against the invisible barriers between black, white and coloured that continue to exist, even two decades after the end of apartheid
  • The South African government built many new stadiums for the World Soccer Championship of 2010, but local children often don't have any place to play. That's why Peace Boat decided to build a soccer field in the Manenberg township.
  • During the first visit of a Peace Boat tour to Cape Town's largest township, Manenberg, participants and local children painted a mural together.

Shiraj Fredericks opens a photo album on a dusty car bonnet. “This is District Six. I met my wife only one street from here” he says, pointing on a black-and-white picture. It shows a wooden art-nouveau verandah in an urban setting, with people leisurely walking down a street. He frowns. “Well, this was District Six.” In 1966, the apartheid government bulldozed Shiraj Fredericks’ home town and forcibly moved its 60,000 black and coloured inhabitants to Manenberg, the biggest of the so called “townships” around Cape Town. These “group areas” were far away from the white “suburbs” and often cut in two by a road, river or a railway, without any bridges to cross to the other side. Two decades after the official end of apartheid, the separation is legally abolished, but in practice it continues. Few Black or Coloured South Africans have made their way out of the overcrowded townships and nearly no Whites have moved in. When a group of 30 young Peace Boat participants left the bus in the middle of Manenberg, hundreds of children came curiously running along. Upon invitation by its partner organisation, Proudly Manenberg, Peace Boat visited the settlement as part of an in-port programme for the first time.

“Our hopes flew high when Nelson Mandela was released from prison” remembers Mario Wanza, founder of Proudly Manenberg. He was still a child when he, too, was forced out of District Six. “After apartheid was abolished in 1994, we expected the system to be reversed. We were sure that we would finally get our land back and have equal access to social services.” The start was promising. After he had been working in the underground as an anti-apartheid activist for decades, Mario Wanza could suddenly make a career at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ,established in 1994. But as the years passed, he realized that his vision of an integrated and equal society was far from being fulfilled. “People just went to sleep” he says in a low voice. In 2000, Mario Wanza quit his job and moved back to Manenberg, hoping to achieve in his old neighbourhood what he couldn’t achieve at the national level. He left his well-paid regular job as a commissioner in Cape Town for a life in Manenberg, where only one out of six children were finishing high school, where the unemployment rate had reached 60 per cent and rivalling drug gangs were fighting each other.

Believing that education is the key for change, Mario Wanza started working as a high school teacher, until 2005, when one of his students got caught in the cross-fire between local gangs and was stabbed with a knife. “That was the moment when I thought ‘enough is enough’.” Together with colleagues and friends he founded the civil society organisation Proudly Manenberg, which soon grew to have 1000 active members. They aim at nothing less than turning the township upside down – from crime and desperation to a “vibrant, proud and dignified Manenberg”. For this goal, the group relied on idealism, private money and euphoric rhetoric. “Where there is underdevelopment we bring development” their website reads. “Where there is unemployment we create jobs, where there is crime, grime and violence, we create an environment based on caring and sharing and which is clean and green.” The NGO has developed a Social and Economic Development Plan and implements programs in the sectors of youth and education, business and environment, health and sports, arts, culture and faith, safety, gender and housing. Peace Boat participants visited a cultural centre established by the NGO and bought clothes made by local tailors. But Mario Wanza and his team are still aiming higher, encouraging drug lords of rivalling gangs to talk to each other in a so-called Peace Garden and establishing sports institutions to bring people “from grass roots to glory”.

The first step to glory was made this time, when a team from Manenberg beat Peace Boat in a friendly football game during the visit. During the 2010 Soccer World Championship in South Africa, the attention focused on professional players, whereas township inhabitants could neither afford to watch the games nor play soccer themselves. This led Peace Boat to the idea of financing and building a mini soccer pitch for the people of Manenberg. The motto of the World Championship was “Ke Nako”, an expression of the Sotho language meaning “It is time!” Mario Wanza and his fellow activists feel that this is also true for uplifting the living conditions of black and coloured South Africans. “Like many other townships we have a housing crisis” he explains. “Manenberg was built for 60,000 people, but it serves 150,000. We are living on top of each other, usually with six family members in one room.”

Mario Wanza dreams of social “integration” as he calls it. “The rich people are still living in the legacy of the apartheid” he laments. “We are treated like slaves in our country. After Egypt, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. We also need an upheaval like the Arab Spring. The time has come for the wealth and the land to be shared among all. It is unnecessary for a few to be stinking rich while the rest live in poverty.” On the way to a march towards the Rondenbosch Common, a public area mainly used by the white elite, 41 members of Proudly Manenberg were arrested in 2011 only to be released soon afterwards. Mario Wanza, however, was held in custody for four days. He was accused of organising an “illegal protest”, but Proudly Manenberg described the march as a “summit” on land, jobs, housing and other issues relevant to Cape Town’s poor. The accusation could not be maintained and the charges were finally dropped. “Instead of supporting us, the government tries to break us” Mario Wanza explains. According to him, the government ended its initial partnership with Proudly Manenberg and founded a similar institution which employs 900 of the 1000 former activists. Their regular attempts to get funding for programs have all failed.

Together with Shiraj Fredericks and Mario Wanza a man called Adolphes Johannos “Dollar” Brand was expelled from District Six and moved to Manenberg. Some years later he became known as Abdullah Ibrahim, one of South Africa’s most famous jazz pianists. His instrumental song “Manenberg – Where it’s happening” became the anthem of black consciousness and anti-apartheid struggle. On the margins of Cape Town, so little has changed since those days that it feels as if he composed it yesterday.