'Love from Manenberg' shows life in a community plagued by gang violence
From the second floor of Debbie Lottering's home on Cam Road in Manenberg, South Africa, Table Mountain is visible. An anchor in the landscape, the mountain has been chronicled in lore, words and images for millennia. When the conditions are right, white clouds pour from the flat summit in a dramatic formation known, now, as the tablecloth. It's breathtaking.
Surrounded by the city of Cape Town, Table Mountain is situated at the north end of the Cape Peninsula, a rugged piece of land that extends into the Atlantic Ocean at the southwest tip of Africa.
The Indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoikhoi and the San, jointly referred to as Khoisan, named Table Mountain Huri ǂOaxa (Hoerikwagga), meaning "Mountain in the Sea." Indeed, the rocky mountain and peninsula it caps have periodically been an island as sea levels rose and fell over the last five million years. The most recent time an island formed was about 1.5 million years ago. Then, the sandy floor of the sea slowly emerged and the peninsula joined the mainland. Today, the old seafloor is an area of Cape Town called the Cape Flats, and that is where you will find Manenberg and many Khoisan, including Debbie and her family.
Naomi Lottering, Debbie's older sister, first brought me to Manenberg in 2011. We had met in Sea Point, a wealthy Cape Town neighborhood strewn with beaches, where she was living on the streets. Fierce, funny and vulnerable, Naomi had been spending nights on the streets since her early teens. It was an escape from boredom and constraints. It was a chance to live without the predictability of going to school, dinner at home and sleeping in bed next to her little sister. She experimented with alcohol, drugs and sex, and the escape they provided drew her further and further away. She checked in with her family when she felt like it, sometimes every other week, sometimes not for months at a time. "I've never been homeless, I'm just a drifter," says Naomi.
Eventually, Naomi asked me for a ride home. From Sea Point onto the N2 highway, we left the predominantly white, tree-lined neighborhoods swaddled between Table Mountain and the Atlantic and drove roughly 12 miles to the east side of the mountain. At Exit 15, we entered the dusty Cape Flats, home to a vast number of distinct neighborhoods in which nearly everyone identifies as Coloured, the term used in South Africa for people of mixed ancestry, or Black. Manenberg is a largely Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community.
Established by the apartheid government in the 1960s, Manenberg translates from Afrikaans to English as "man and mountain." Roads in this dry wilderness were named after rivers (Seine, Thames, Rio Grande) and the housing blocks, or courts, were inexplicably given women's names (Hilda, Isabel, Lillian, Joyce, Pam). The first residents were forcibly relocated there from areas of Cape Town designated as white under the Group Areas Act.
Debbie and Naomi grew up in Grieta Court with their father, Franz, and mother, Harriet, who died in 2003. Franz is Khoisan. Harriet was primarily Xhosa, also Coloured and German. In 2011, Debbie — loyal, clear-eyed and full of faith — hadn't yet moved to Cam Road and was still living in Grieta Court with her dad, along with her first two children, Zobi and Meesie. From this first visit with the Lotterings, I remember the love and playfulness between family members and the warmth, mixed with a bit of incredulity, they offered me, a white American woman.
Love from Manenberg began that day. At first, there was a lot I didn't understand about Manenberg, Naomi, Debbie and all the other people I would photograph. Now, I have returned to Manenberg for more than 10 years and intend to return for the rest of my life. There are certainly complexities I will never grasp, but I understand much more than I did in 2011. I made thousands of pictures, I asked questions, and I listened. I became a mother. I grew older and more experienced, and I bonded with the families whose stories are reflected in Love from Manenberg. For over a decade, the women of the Lottering, Pietersen and Adams families have shared their lives, showing the texture, unity and comfort of Manenberg, their home.
"Manenberg is actually a very nice place," says Debbie. "We're all like family members here." Gang violence is "the only thing that brings this place down," she adds.
In August 2013, when I was days away from delivering Errol, my first of three children, and Debbie was pregnant with Zipporah, her third of three children, we started chatting on WhatsApp. Thousands of messages have been exchanged since then. Among the dependable "hi," "morning," "how r u," "nites," "sleep well" and "mwa," major themes have emerged: our pregnancies, our kids, the failing health of our fathers, Debbie's work and Manenberg's gang wars. The yearslong conversation is punctuated with personal hardships. In 2016, Naomi took Zipporah to where she was staying on the streets and then lost her. Debbie couldn't find them for days. At last, she learned the police had picked Zipporah up and brought her to a children's home. Debbie visited Zipporah there for four months until she was finally able to bring her home. That same year, I encountered a rare condition that resulted in the end of a much-wanted pregnancy. In the aftermath, my marriage, my work and my ability for self-care suffered. It took years to recover. Debbie was there at every turn. The chat transcript is also crowded with happy birthdays, pictures of our kids and dogs, holiday plans, doctor visits, bad days and sleepless nights. Debbie sums it up nicely by saying we talk about, "everything, everything. She'll tell me what's happening that side andI'll tell her what's happening this side."
Before I went there with Naomi, I hadn't heard of Manenberg. A South African friend was sure I had gone to Muizenberg, a beach town, instead of the infamous Manenberg. The community is singularly represented in mainstream media for drugs and violence, most of which is gang-related. Complex narratives that address Manenberg's brutal founding and transgenerational trauma are pushed aside.
A total of only 1.29 square miles, statistics reveal that people living in Manenberg are three times as likely to get murdered than anywhere else in the country. Headlines reflect the relentless bloodshed of the gang wars. Occasionally, there is peace. Then a conflict will erupt, forcing people inside for hours, days or weeks. Those who have to go outside to catch a bus to work or walk to the bulletproof fence surrounding their school — or for any reason at all — are regularly caught in the crossfire.
The forced relocations during apartheid intentionally ripped apart many of the social, economic and educational networks that men, women, youth and families relied on for their well-being. For men, in particular, secure employment and means to support a family became exceedingly limited. The late Dr. Elaine Salo, a South African scholar who specialized in gender studies and African feminism, explained that in this scarcity of resources to uphold their view of masculinity, men turned to illegal activities and violence to support their families and assert their manhood. Generations later in Manenberg, where opportunities and resources remain few and far between, the rites and practices of belonging to a gang affirm masculinity and individuality, especially for young men.
Not long after I started spending time in Manenberg, I became interested in learning about the gangs. Debbie introduced me to Ashwin Pietersen and his family.
When I met Ashwin, he was 19 and a member of the Hard Livings, one of the largest and most storied gangs in Manenberg. He was soft-spoken, but never hesitated to lock his eyes into mine. He moved thoughtfully and liked to keep his hands in his pockets. Ashwin rarely left Manengerg. He gambled for small coins, listened to music, drank and got high — fairly typical behavior for a lot of youth, yet carried out in a marginalized community like Manenberg, these activities are judged more harshly. Perhaps because with little hope of higher education or a career, their appeal seems indefinite.
At the time of the last national census, in 2011, it was reported that in Manenberg, nearly 75% of residents age 20 and older had not graduated from high school. The estimated population was between 60,000 and 80,000, and 61% of households earned 3200 rand (equivalent to about $250 in 2011) or less per month. A mere 35% of the labor force in Manenberg was employed.
Ashwin, whose nickname was Guru, was a leader among his friends, and young boys in the neighborhood looked up to him. What the kids didn't know was that Ashwin didn't want to be in a gang anymore. He told me this when I took him and a few friends to Sea Point, where they swam in the ocean, searched for crabs in tidal pools and played pick-up games of soccer. Outside Manenberg, they let the armor of ganging and machismo fall away.
Ashwin was murdered outside his home in Gail Court in a gang dispute on Dec. 21, 2014. I woke up to a message from Debbie with the news. "Hi Sarah Ashwin has been shot dead last night," she typed. "Dnt hve all th details nw Bt all i know he was shot dead @ midnite."
Since Ashwin's death, his older sister Nalle has asked me to bring her to the cemetery to visit his grave each time I visit. Nalle had guarded her little brother resolutely, and my relationship with her evolved in the void his loss created. She told me she sometimes sees Ashwin at night, sitting on the bench that faces the spot where his body lay after he was shot. Everyone knows who killed Ashwin. The Pietersens filed a case with the Manenberg police but were told the files were stolen when the lead investigator went on holiday. Nalle has four children: three girls, and her youngest is a boy. His middle name is Ashwin.
About halfway between the Pietersens' and the Lotterings' is the home of Jessica Adams. Since being introduced to Jessica at a prayer meeting in Debbie's living room in 2014, I've knocked on Jessica's door every time I'm in Manenberg. Long conversations about the meaning of family drew us close. Jessica is tall and fashionable, and she's a giver. She prays and prays and prays, and is forever busy helping her two daughters with preparations for high school, college and church events, making room for her son, Joshua, and his friends to play, assisting her husband with his business and offering tea and cookies.
Since 2011, I've printed thousands of pictures to leave with the Lotterings, Pietersens, Adamses and the people of Manenberg. For three years before the pandemic, I set up lights and a blue backdrop in Manenberg Library and invited the community to have a portrait made. Everyone who was photographed received a print. The images have been framed and taped to water heaters and cinder block walls. They've been cut into collages, tucked between pages of books and have settled into drawers. They are stored and displayed alongside family photographs made long before I ever stepped foot in Manenberg.
I am constantly struck by all that has happened — and is waiting to happen — in the Lottering, Pietersen and Adams families, and in so many of the homes in Manenberg that hold and remember multiple generations. Birth and death. Deeds and words. The vibrant texture of Manenberg is woven inside the rooms of these homes, it floods the streets like the strong rivers whose names they bear, and touches the light, wind and clouds that perpetually tangle with the mighty Table Mountain.
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