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MANENBERG is a depressed community on the Cape Flats, where gangsters roam, drugs are readily available and unemployment is high.
It is also home to Kyle*, a young man whose life was tracked over two years by researchers to highlight the daily life of coloured people who feel the end of apartheid has not bettered their lives.
Kyle represents the clichéd young coloured man – uneducated, unemployed and a drug user.
The coloured community has long been a conundrum for political parties, who have fought tooth and nail to get their vote, but the sense among them is that not much has changed since 1994.
Coloureds make up the majority of people in the Western Cape, but a minority in the national demographic. Guidance is rare and opportunities to escape grinding poverty appear to be non-existent.
Drugs such as tik and heroin have flooded the Cape Flats, and Manenberg has not escaped the scourge.
Kyle feels it is easier for black people to rise out of poverty and inequality, that coloureds are easily forgotten, and that affirmative action has not changed the lives of coloured people.
This week his story will be presented during a national conference at UCT on overcoming poverty and inequality in the country.
The conference, in conjunction with the National Planning Commission, is part of the third Carnegie inquiry in SA. It is meant to encourage debate about overcoming poverty and inequality.
Lead researcher Ariane de Lannoy of the Children’s Institute at UCT, says SA remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to the latest World Bank report on SA, “the top decile of the population accounts for 58 percent of the country’s income, while the bottom decile accounts for 0.5 percent and the bottom half less than 8 percent.
De Lannoy says Kyle and his peers have a strong sense of isolation from the broader, national “democratic experiment”.
Very few indeed sense that they can exercise any real agency in this post-apartheid South Africa, feeling largely excluded from socio- economic and political decision-making,” she says.
The research team often found Kyle at their base, the Manenberg Self-help Centre.
“Several times Kyle explained how he perceived the new South Africa as overlooking his community and their lives entirely,” says De Lannoy, whose paper shows how historical isolation, lack of social and cultural capital, and the shortfalls of institutions such as schools continue to affect youths’ lives and life chances.
“Their future aspirations are low, if not non-existent, resulting in a fragile, or even absent, sense of belonging and citizenship,” she says.
At the age of 28, unemployed, and with only a Grade 10 certificate, Kyle often sounds lonely and isolated, a stranger in his family’s home. Having stolen from his mother to fund his drug addiction, and after several attempts to get him on “the right track” and back to school, his mother turned her back on him.
She had him arrested during the research period because she no longer knew “what to do with him”.
When the team fetched him at court, his entire body shook and he hid his face in his hands in shame.
De Lannoy says it was a sign of “this is not how I want you to see me”.
“Yet when we walked out on to the street, he straightened his back, smiled at some of the young men sitting along the pavement with a look of ‘just got back from Pollsmoor. All fine’.”
Kyle told the researchers that going to jail is like a man’s initiation, the way going to the bush is for Xhosa men.
His family tree – with not a single male figure not either having done time in jail, joined a gang or been killed by a gang – illustrates the impact of crime and perpetuated gang violence on residents.
When asked who he looked up to, Kyle shrugged. There wasn’t “really anyone”.
And his isolation extends to the broader community, the city, and, eventually, the country as a whole. He seldom leaves Manenberg, unless to buy meat for his mother “on the other side of town”.
On the few occasions the team took him out of Manenberg for a cup of coffee or something to eat, he looked like a small child being treated to the most special event.
“Mostly though, we found him wandering aimlessly, hungry and without a cent to buy food,” they say.
It is the kind of life that leaves Kyle with very few people he can really trust and rely on. Most of his answers to questions about social networks that were accessible to, or supportive, of him suggested that besides his mother, brother and sisters, the only person he felt he could rely or call upon in a time of need was the head of the self-help centre. He and his mother said they can’t ask neighbours for help because it will be seen as “a sin”. It’s simply impossible to trust anyone in the neighbourhood, she added.
She described Manenberg as a place of very little or no social fabric, a place with no sense of community, or hope. She said she could not leave even a broom outside because it would be stolen. She did not talk to her neighbours, since they “have all been involved with things I do not want to be involved in”. She would only argue with them.
Kyle did ask people for help at times, but the lack of proper guidance for a lonely young man was devastating.
Since leaving school he has held only a couple of short-term contract jobs. “Whenever we asked him whether he was looking for a job, he would imply no one really wanted to give him a job anyway because it is “mostly black people getting jobs these days”.
The government with its policies favouring black South Africans was largely to blame, he felt, for the current state of affairs. But also, in general, just “people” offering nothing but empty promises.
For Kyle there have been many empty promises, moments of hope that one or other project would come along with the promise of a better life, a better chance for young adults on the Flats. “But this is how the youth of Manenberg is treated. We are nobody. Just thrown away, here in this Manenberg,” he says.
* Not his real name