Thirty minutes from the millionaires-houses of central Cape Town and yet still set against the distant backdrop of beautiful towering mountains sits Lavender Hill. It feels isolated. This small community of those who once lived in District Six in inner-city Cape Town, moved during Apartheid because of the colour of their skin.
They had worked and enjoyed good lives, but in 1973 they were re-located and now live in low-rise apartment blocks rising out of the dust, the neighbourhood is called Lavender Hill and it is a warzone.
We are the first international people to enter the community. Ever.
Four gangs occupy the township. The Mongrels, The Corner Boys, The Junky Funkies and The Fast Guns. It’s territory war. And the territory is small. It’s street on street, corner on corner.
What strikes you first is the children. They are everywhere, tiny beautiful children, playing in the sandy streets. When they go to school, the neighbourhood turns into the war zone and guns are fired and young men are killed. A huge proportion of the young men here are involved in the violence.
Drugs are a huge problem, they are sold on the corners. About seventy percent of the community are taking crystal meths. We were offered it as we walked around. You can see the drugs in the physicality of the people in the community. Most babies are born having to withdraw from addiction.
There is nothing to do and no jobs. People go to school, but their qualifications mean nothing. So they end up in gangs. It’s a vicious circle. Huge amounts of people in the community have been to prison for murder.
But nobody wants this. It’s all about survival. It is literally life and death. When you don’t have anything and everyday is a hustle, and life changed - you can still remember when you had a job and you weren’t marginalised because of your colour. When you would enjoy life and your children had hope.
Walking around the community felt very tense. We knew that we had Turner (who is untouchable), but there is a feeling that things might kick off at any moment.
I spoke to members of the community. Those who were numbers (had been in prision), those who were current gang members and those who were born there and had returned back to help the community. The first thing I felt was that these are good people - the leader of The Corner Boys, Walid, who had converted to Islam for his wife; or Gary who had spent fortune years in prision and didn’t eat his lunch, so his pregnant wife could eat; or Turner, one of the most notorious gangsters in South Africa who changed his ways because of his love for his mother. These are good people, caught up in a terrible cycle of pain. When we interviewed the head gang members they said ‘we just want a better future for our children’.
Sitting down and eating with Gary, who reminded me so much of the young guys we’ve worked with in Medellin in Colombia, made me understand that the life is hard, but prision is harder. He never wants to go back. He said the day he was released, ‘you can never imagine a feeling like it’.
It is all about survival. And survival in it’s most real sense. Everyday you need to hustle to live.
The other thing that struck me was the disconnect between the world and this place. No one goes to Lavender Hill, they are too afraid or they have preconceptions about the people there. Not even people from Cape Town. The place is left with no resources, the people with no jobs, everyone addicted to drugs and battlefields by day.
It made me realise the weight of what we want to do there and how it will really save lives. Absolutely. The creation of a physical neutral creative space, bringing young people together to create - making music, theatre, dance and more. Expressing themselves creatively.
Over the past day having not just left the community of Lavender Hill but Cape Town and South Africa itself, I feel this huge sense of responsibility, but I know what we can help to do there will absolutely save lives and help the community build opportunities on their own terms.
People can not be blind to Lavender Hill. For me, it’s about shining a huge spotlight on the beauty amongst the conflict. The dynamism of the men and women there, the beauty of the children.
So we will do just that.
Ruth Daniel is an award winning cultural producer and social entrepreneur. Inspired by the transformative use of hip-hop in the drug cartels of Medellin, Colombia, when a young MC said: ‘If it wasn’t for hip-hop, I would be dead. Hip-hop gave me another option and I’m truly thankful for that.’ Ruth believes art has a capacity to make change in the toughest of contexts.
Over the past 15 years, Ruth has worked to make change with creativity in the most marginalised communities across the world working in 24 countries. Ruth has taken an organisation routed in research around the impact of arts in conflict zones, to an organisation supporting grassroots change-makers in 24 countries to amplify their socio-economic impact.
Ruth initiates new work, develops and implements In Place of War’s strategic vision and connects the organisation to stakeholders from community to global level. Ruth is passionate about the capacity of young people to make change and believes in equality and the representation and inclusion of the most marginalised people in order to make a better world for everyone.
Ruth has spoken at over 100 music and creative industry events in over 30 countries, including two TEDx talks.