This is the story of a son of Lavender Hill, who travelled the world and then came back home. This is his community. These are his people. This is his story.
Ralph’s grandfather, Jacobus September Appolis, was the proud owner of 16 acres of land in a place called Rondevlei Retreat, Cape Town. His family lived there for more than half a century and, as well as plenty of land to farm comfortably and support the growing family, they had chickens, ducks, a bird sanctuary and the most beautiful garden. This was their forever home.
However, three months before Ralph was born his grandfather and family were evicted and bulldozed off the land they called home to make way for a highway. The Government gave the Bouwers family three days to move with compensation of R3800 (about US$300) before they bulldozed the land and buildings. The Bouwers lost their home along with many other families in the forced removal which gave birth to the informal settlements still spreading on the Cape Flats.
Baby Ralph's new home was a wood, cardboard and sink-plate (corrugated iron) structure built using all the money they received as pay-out for the farm. Ralph's new playground was a forsaken area of sand dunes and bush in the middle of nowhere.
Today in Lavender Hill, the township that has grown from those early shacks built in October 1971, thousands of families build their precarious homes next to each other, sharing walls and support in order to stretch the limited budget and materials. The forced removals gave birth to the informal settlements on the Cape Flats-now struggling with life on every level.
Disaster was never far from the Bouwers family. When Ralph was three it struck again. The Bouwers house burned down and they lost everything. The children with only the clothes they were wearing. The ‘house’, a structure lined with cardboard, wood and corrugated iron, was soon a heap of ash in the darkness of the night.
Ralph almost perished in the blaze. The family checked the children and Ralph was the only one missing. Ralph's father, Daniel Samuel Bouwers, said to his mother "Martha Elizabeth Bouwers, it's too late.” However, she braved the blaze and went back in to fetch Ralph. Saved by a mother’s love. Lavender Hill families continued to cope with hardships and struggle as these families never been able to leave poverty behind.
In 1986 the Government moved the Bouwers family again, from the plot they owned to a council property. They were no longer home owners, however small and meagre that home was, and now paid monthly rent, for a second-floor apartment with three bedrooms was too small for a now ten-strong family. Another move to a ground floor council apartment saw Mr and Mrs Bouwers finally close their eyes on the world, leaving behind seven sons and a daughter.
Despite a troubled childhood, few opportunities and a hand to mouth existence as the sixth surviving child of eight, Ralph did well at school, passing exams, matriculating from High School and going to college.
Ralph was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Bursary and Standard Bank Undergraduate Bursary in 1991 which allowed him to study Dispensing Optics at the Cape University of Technology on a full scholarship from 1991-1993. This training changed his life, opening up new opportunities and possibilities. When he qualified as a Dispensing Optician in 1993 he started work with the optical chain Spectacle Warehouse in Cape Town developing his health care and customer service skills, winning in-house awards and using his natural affinity with people to help them.
An advert seen in the local paper sparked a new turn in Ralph’s life. An optical chain was recruiting in South Africa and offered Ralph a job in the UK. Soon he was on a plane destined for a job with Vision Express as a Dispensing Optician in Guildford in Southern England.
Using his South African qualifications and knowledge he was able to study and qualify as a British Dispensing Optician and add FBDO to his name in 2006. With this new qualification and his excellent leadership and management skills he was quickly promoted and took practice manager roles with Vision Express before being offered the role of Eye Surgery Manager for Optical Express, working in the prestigious field of laser eye surgery, in London’s Harley Street and the flagship store Westfield (next to the London 2012 Olympic Park).
Throughout his time in London, he never forgot his Lavender Hill roots and, every month, he would send money home to his mother to support his family. Sometimes he left little to live on himself and struggled to make ends meet in the expensive city, London.
At this time, he also established a charity to help his community (The Lavender Hill Sport and Recreation Project NPO 014-671, registered in 2001, and now under the umbrella of The Guardians of the National Treasure).
After 13 years in London, only flying home for Christmas, Ralph made a tough decision. He had a good life in London but he could not do as much work to support his community as he wanted. He was too far away. So, in May 2017 he returned to his home, Lavender Hill, Cape Flats, South Africa.
His calling was to help his people. Ralph had to return to the Cape Flats because his community needed him. After many years of struggle, gangs, drugs and substance abuse had become the norm to the communities on the Cape Flats. They had lost all hope.
Ralph searched his soul for answers and The Guardians of the National Treasure was born. He has been back in South Africa for nine months and now spends his days working with the community from the advice office he has opened from his house, to assist local people with personal, legal, medical, educational and socio-economic issues.
When asked what would fix the Cape Flats? Ralph replied, "Our people are working against the system of change for the good. Only because they don't want to see the wrongs of their own, and the wrongs their children are doing.
"On the other hand, you have the children without hope using crime to support their dire need for drugs. Such a system can only be tackled with socio-economic alleviation and boarded support. It requires a great financial commitment which the government is not prepared to undertake due to the lack of funds on top of the already failing SASSA handout."
He founded GNT because he could see the children sitting in the shadow of neglect with a bleak future ahead in a community with no facilities and no state intervention. In order to heal this community and change the drug and gang culture the GNT offers families support to lift their spirit with new found hope. Ralph hopes to make the Guardians of the National Treasure a household name on the Cape Flat to help those in need, to create all round upliftment and transformation in his community.
His vision is for a safe and poverty free Lavender Hill where children and families can live in peace: Give until it hurts, asking nothing in return; Care because it feels good inside; Completely believe in all you do.
So, if the Government and outside influence is not making a difference in Lavender Hill, then Ralph is committed to helping support the community in finding its own solutions.