Squatters in South Africa – A Hole and a Community Pulling Them Out

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Exploring community and ways of life

The Polyoak community, just outside Cape Town center, refers to themselves as “Gatjie,” which means, “a hole.” The living conditions are, I don’t even know how to explain them, so you can look at the photos. The squatter camp started roughly 35 years ago on land that belongs to a company. The company supplied some of the materials for them to build their abodes. When they burnt down, the company gave them more materials. That’s the good news.

My friend Jessica serving residents of the squatter camp.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

I attended a soup kitchen at the squatter camp with Call to Care, part of the Eternal Flame church, which I went to with my wonderful new friend, Jessica. The first thing you see, upon getting to the squatter camp, are children. Many don’t have shoes. They run around happily playing, singing and dancing, like any child does. This surprised me since their lives, I would have thought, would lead them to lose out on the innocence of their lives. As they line up for food I learn this will probably be the only meal they eat that day.

“By the time these kids are teenagers, they will have been abused, multiple times.”

Charles, the pastor of The Eternal Flame church, has been trying to help this community for over 30 years. He tried, first, to reach the adults. One of the reasons squatters are stuck is they have no education. They don’t know how to read and write. Charles tried to teach them these skills and other principles to live by, but they rejected him. They didn’t want the education, they didn’t want the food, and Charles had to figure out what to do. 

The unfortunate normal path for these lovely children is that, by age 13 or 14, they’ll have been raped. A few times. Then they become part of the repeating story; innocence lost, abuse channeled into rage, rage pacified by drugs and/or alcohol, and so on. When I walked through the squatter camp, we passed some of the teenagers. They glared at me, like a pack of angry wolves, who, only because I was walking with their neighbor and a few other people, didn’t pounce on me. But they wanted to. I could feel the anger in them. In stark contrast, many of the adults I saw seemed passive, or perhaps inebriated. They have accepted this life as their life the rest of their life.

My guide in the squatter camp. She said, “I cannot explain it to you. I can only show you.”

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

The challenge Charles thinks about is, how do you change this? So, he and Call to Care are hoping that they can teach the kids to look forward to a different life. Instead of just soup, they’re now bringing food. They’re creating space in their church to offer education to the kids – teaching them about entrepreneurship as well as reading and writing, and encouraging the singing and dancing the kids love. More importantly, Charles wants these kids to have a sense of how to live their lives instead of just survive it. Can you imagine that? We all take it for granted that we can go make money and do things we want to do. We also take our safety completely for granted. These kids don’t get these luxuries in their lives.

The bathrooms.

One of the viewpoints Charles has, that I so admire, is that they can’t wait for the church or the government to change things. This is why he’s reached out to the community to help. This project is entirely owned by the community. Not by the church, not by the government. He feels it’s an example of what churches need to do – serve the community, not the church. He said the goal should be to move away from religion and take care of “the widows and orphans” that’s supposed to be the role of the church. I’ve never heard a pastor have a viewpoint like this, and I was bowled over, impressed.

My last Sunday in Cape Town, Charles introduced me to his son from Zimbabwe. He met him on the streets, homeless, orphaned, and decided to take him in and be his father.I feel so blessed to have spent time at his church. I went only twice, and yet the entire congretation, no questions asked, gave me a hug and welcomed me each time. I felt like I knew them all right away. Having been to Catholic mass and Jewish synoguage, I found the way people worship in Africa exhilarating. There’s singing, there’s dancing. I felt uplifted and surrounded by beautiful people and my feet couldn’t help but dance along with them. Now, imagine people like this, out in the local community, helping those kids have a better life. 

Charles with his adopted son from Zimbabwe.

I spent only an hour or so at the squatter camp, but it deeply struck me. I cried when I saw those houses. I felt sad and angry that those innocent kids may end up like those before them. I know there is poverty everywhere in the world, but I never spent time in the depths of it, before now. It’s not just the living conditions that are horrible; the houses might go up in flames, they might fall down, there’s no heat or air conditioning and I’m not sure where people can bathe. With no education, obtaining work isn’t easy, so that means hardly any money for food. This cycle creates anger but also distrust. It’s a horrible cycle but Charles is one of those people that believes we can help those kids, one child at a time. If I go back to Cape Town, I’ll be volunteering again – maybe by then the education center will be ready!
This Christmas, Call to Care is going to offer a box to each of the children in Gatjie. There will be food, clothing, toys and other gifts. I feel lucky that I was able to sponsor a box for one of those kids. If you’re reading this and you’d like to make a donation to Call to Care, please send me an email. This effort felt, to me, like a project that could be the impetus to help many children go on to better lives. This was another true eye opener experience for me. I didn’t realize all I take for granted in my own life. I was touched at the dedication and kindness of the community that’s trying to help. I don’t know where their efforts will lead, but one child at a time, one meal at a time, one class at a time, I’m hoping they change the world for the better.

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