When you live in a community surrounded by overwhelming poverty and hardship you cannot just sit back and watch people suffer. Grandmothers with no roof over their head, children with no shoes or jerseys in winter and many people who every night go to bed on an empty stomach. When this is your life, you need to act to change the circumstances.”

So say Gcobani Ndzongana and Sicelo Gxamesi, two of the leaders of the community organisation, Zwehlihle Renewal who helped organise the initial march to the Municipality on 22 March to demand land for backyard dwellers.

“What followed after this peaceful march is a tragedy, with a criminal element hellbent on creating as much chaos as possible, hijacking our protest. This led to clashes with the police and law enforcement, millions of rands worth of damage to properties and businesses, and foreign nationals fleeing out of the township in fear of their lives. This should never have happened,” says Sicelo earnestly in the small take-away shop where they have agreed to meet.

“We take what happened very seriously as we will not tolerate that kind of behaviour. We do not want destruction. We do not want violence and we do not want people to fear for their lives. To that end we have already found a donor to repair the library and police station that were torched during the riots. We have also called a community meeting where we as the leadership of Zwelihle Renewal apologised to the foreign nationals who not only had to flee but lost their businesses due to fires and looting. The apology comes from deep in our hearts,” he says.

As an example, Sicelo refers to the protest march on 10 April to the Magistrate’s Court to demand the release of those arrested during the riots. “More than 6 000 people marched peacefully and spent the day in front of the court singing songs and building community spirit. Not one person was arrested, and no property vandalised or damaged. That is how we organise marches – peacefully.”

Sipping on a cappuccino and constantly answering messages on his phone, Gcobani is animated in his discussions of the problems residents of the township are facing.

Whites invited to visit Zwelihle

Sicelo Gxamesi and Gcobani Ndzongana, two of the leaders of the community organisation, Zwehlihle Renewal, who helped organise the initial march to the Municipality on 22 March to demand land for backyard dwellers. They have said that they have no interest in politics or political parties and that their organisation has no ambition to contest local elections in future. They simply want to give Zwelihle residents their dignity back.

“This has nothing to do with politics, it has nothing to do with race or nationality. This is about humanity. People living in these conditions are losing their humanity and it is heart breaking to see what people must suffer though.

“We are serious when we say that this is not politics. We do not want to become involved in political parties showboating and playing power games with each other while the residents are suffering,” says Gcobani.

“That is why we are in the process of registering Zwehihle Renewal as a non-profit organisation. Our honest ambition is to help the people of our communities gain their place in the sun. People come first, the rest will follow. Zwelihle Renewal is anti-politics, anti-racism, anti-sexism, fighting for social justice, equality, promoting human rights, values, morality, ubuntu, peace, diversity and a united community.”

After spending his childhood years in King Williams Town, Gcobani became involved in the ANC Youth League at a young age. “I have always wanted to help my community and as a youngster I tried to do that through the Youth League, but I was soon disillusioned by the politics. In 2008 I divorced the league and after moving to Hermanus I become involved in Zwelihle Renewal.”

Leaning forward in his chair, Gcobani shows me Zwelihle Renewal’s mission statement on his phone. It reads: “A home to build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problem our problems and solve them together.” He leans back in his chair and smiles. “Yes, that is what we are about. We are all brothers and sisters. It does not matter if you are white or black. If we see a white boy walking to school in winter with no shoes because he cannot afford to buy them, we want to be in a position to do that for him.”

Sicelo, who also hails from the Eastern Cape where he studied Public Administration at the Walter Sisulu University, is adamant when he says the time for change is long overdue. He also worked in Government’s Social Development Department, is part of the Abagold Development Trust and serves on the board of the Overstrand Training Institute.

“All of what is happening here in Hermanus is a result of years of exclusion,” he says. “Just look at the IDP (Integrated Development Plan) for our region. More needs to be spent on creating equal opportunities for all communities. Every year the Municipality has a clean audit and for many years we have been hailed as one of the cleanest towns in the country.

“But what does that mean when you drive up Rotary Way and you look down at our town? If you look to the left, you see beautiful scenery and prosperous neighbourhoods. If you look to the right, you see beautiful houses on the ocean’s edge and sprawling development towards Vermont. But if you look right in front of you, what you see are thousands of people cramped into little houses surrounded by shacks. You see an ugly place.”

This is indeed ironic if you consider the word Zwelihle means ‘beautiful place’.

“If you look at the business leaders and the municipal management, where are the people who grew up and live in that middle bit? Where are the young black leaders who are busy with training to become the future leaders of our town? They are missing, relegated to junior positions with no hope of one day reaching the highest echelons. If only we can all work together to give everyone an equal chance in life, we will be a so much better place for it,” says Sicelo.

And what about race relations and the future of the Overstrand? “I see a bright and wonderful future,” says a smiling Gcobani. “Starting by making small differences in people’s lives we can all look forward to the future. We have now said ‘kwanele kwanele’ (enough is enough). We have been heard and now we are only looking forward.”

Starting to say our goodbyes after the interview, Gcobani comes up with a last idea. “I want to extend an invitation to your white readers. If they have a domestic worker or gardener or even a colleague, drive home with them one day and see where they live. If you are happy with the circumstances they live in, then go home. If you find that they live in a shack that does not keep the cold and wet out in winter or if they are sharing a room or bed with several other people, go home and start working with them to improve their lot.

“A donation of a blanket, clothes, a heater or even a stove or bed can be life-changing for some people. If the people are scared to come into the township, we will accompany them and ensure they are safe. Let us start to understand where each of us is coming from.”

Driving home in the dark past Zwelihle I realise it is indeed ugly. I will be visiting soon, especially after learning of Ntombokqala Bambiso (63) who lives with her two children and three grandchildren in a roofless house after it was destroyed by a fire in December. Donations for this family can be dropped off at The Village NEWS office in Royal Street.

Zwelihle has all the potential to become a beautiful place. And a happy one.

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