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WATCH — Cape Town exposed beyond the beaches

A new documentary short film produced by the Jesuit Institute South Africa provides an 8-minute snapshot into another side of life in Cape Town — other than the tourist beaches and the opulent hotels. The township of Nyanga is notorious for being the area with the highest number of reported murders in the country. Katleho Khang SNJM and Ricardo da Silva SJ visited the community for a week and discovered that amid the violence there is also great hope.

In the past calendar year, 308 murders were reported in the crime-infested Western Cape township of Nyanga, South Africa. This startling revelation is according to the 2017/18 national crime statistics.

For its latest short documentary film project, the media team at Jesuit Institute South Africa in collaboration with the Society of Jesus in South Africa (Jesuits), visited Nyanga for a week to shoot an 8-minute snapshot of daily life. This palisade-fenced area of the province encloses people as though they were caged zoo animals, a local Catholic priest said.

Cape Town exposed beyond the beaches (2019), reveals the despicable reality of the crime and desperation lived in Nyanga. In stark contrast to the Cape Town known to many — as a tourist’s paradise — we wanted to highlight the inequality and the multitude of problems faced by its people.

The fatalities in the township are numbing and, crudely understood, mean that a life is lost here almost every day of the year. This revelation alone should bring politicians and our national government to act definitely and with haste. Sadly, it appears little is being done. The latest statistics reveal an upward trend in criminal activity in the region of almost 10% — especially in sexually-related offences and murder.

Rampeoane Hlobo SJ, Jesuit parish priest at St Mary’s, the local Catholic Church in Nyanga, confessed that “if one tries to abide by the law, one may just end up being a victim and a crime statistic as well. The problem is not that people do not want to obey the law but that those who do not want to obey the law terrorise the rest of the community and there are no policing and law enforcement agencies to protect law-abiding community members who want the rule of law. Consequently, lawlessness flourishes and reigns.”

Almost a quarter of those who live in Nyanga are between the ages of 15 and 24, making young people in the area perhaps the most susceptible to crime. In many cases, it is these very young people who are the perpetrators of such odious crimes, making it difficult to escape “the cycle of poverty, violence and death”, said Matsepane Morare SJ, the former Catholic priest at St Mary’s. But, Hlobo says, “the Church becomes a necessary and indispensable haven, not least for its young community members. We find ourselves journeying in solidarity with the people of Nyanga, the murder capital of South Africa and giving hope to many, especially the young”, he said.

But that’s not the whole story.

Beyond the blood-splatter and filth-lined streets, there is an incredible joy and a hope among those who live there. It was encouraging to see young children playing in the parks, albeit accompanied by their parents for fear that they may be kidnapped or enticed into a life of crime by local gang lords. Nyanga residents also braai openly on the streets, sharing their food generously with one another, amid township song and sips of the finest brew from the local shebeen.

The sense of community is undeniable. We met with a group of mothers at St Mary’s Catholic Church. They come together to support each other through the grief and pain of losing their children to gang violence. I beheld their sense of hope, even amid the turmoil and senseless violence. One student we interviewed at the Church said: “No one pays attention to us”, but her warm smile showed that she held no grudge or contempt.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Ricardo da Silva SJ
Ricardo is a member of the South African region of the Jesuits and an ordained deacon of the Roman Catholic Church. In 2020, he received a master's degree in journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, where he was an African Pulitzer Fellow and reported on religion, mental health, housing and other social injustices. Before moving to the U.S.A., Ricardo served as acting editor of spotlight.africa and was on the team at Jesuit Institute South Africa. His preparation for ministry as a Jesuit has taken him to study theology in Brazil, philosophy in the U.K and brief working stints in Zimbabwe and Spain. As a Jesuit, he has ministered to refugees, migrants, people experiencing street homelessness, young adults, seminarians, the elderly, and high school and university students, staff and faculty. Before entering religious life in 2007, Ricardo worked in marketing, communications, and brand management before joining the Jesuits in 2007. Ricardo holds dual citizenship, having emigrated from Portugal to South Africa at the age of six with his mother.

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