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Tense Faces Around a Table

By Christine Gronberg

Thirteen tense faces sit in two lines down a long wooden table, not a smile to be seen. The class had come back from an intense meeting with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Committee (WC/AEC) and a family whose home they were trying to protect.

The Constitution of South Africa gives all citizens the right to housing. Mandela's post-apartheid government gave everyone who had been renting from the previous government the deed to their house in 1994 as compensation for the years black South Africans were legally prevented from owning property. But it didn't take long to find new ways to take the houses away from them.

We open the Noma China family's front door and walk into a dimly lit area that serves as a living and dining room. A small table with four chairs lies to the left of the sitting room. which consists of two run-down couches and a single stuffed chair. An old TV rested by the paint-chipped, mud-colored wall. A coffee table takes up the center space.

A few people are already seated, including a girl in grade 11. A baby girl sits beside her gurgling happily as she observes the new people who tries to squeeze into her tiny home.

The Noma China family welcomes us and tells their story. With the help of the AEC, they are fighting tooth and nail for the right to remain in their home. They have been living there for years, but, caught up in the cycle of poverty, they could not afford to continue the payments on a bank loan. Once they fell behind on their payments, the bank had sold their home to a of them says.

Emma Lucas, an activist, says the buyer hired a gang to come terrorize the family in order to force them out. A young man who had lived in the home for 27 years was asleep in the back the night this happened.

He describes how the police were called but the officers prevented the community from assisting the family, which was forced to watch their house torn apart. A door-shaped hole in the wall illustrates their story.

After telling this to 14 complete strangers, the AEC activist asks: What you are planning to do now that you know what is happening. What are you going to do?

We do not know how how to answer.

This question haunteds us as we sit down to eat an hour later. What we saw and heard has left us shocked, guilty, and incensed, and now we are at a beautiful township restaurant for lunch and live music.

The polarity of the situation is difficult to process, so when Professor Connell opens the floor for conversation, no one is eager to begin. Silence falls heavily on the table and eye contact is avoided. Most are hunched over, as if to protect our broken hearts from anything else that may be thrown at us. Eventually, we try to verbalize our raw emotions.

Several girls say they feel useless. There is no point to the class we are taking. There is no meaning in learning about the plight of these people when we are just going to do a homework assignment and move on with our lives. Our trip to South Africa feels empty--even heartless.

The fact that we have comfortable homes, access to higher education, and the opportunity to go on this trip abroad separates us from the family we met an hour ago. The inequality is devastating, but, as Mary Ying points out, feeling guilty that we have lunch will not change anything. Connell agrees, saying that guilt is a crippling emotion and not one to dwell upon.

Taylor Rapalyea bluntly tells the table that we cannot change the situation. It is too big for just one blog to make any difference. But we can get others to make changes. We can be that spark that starts a forest fire.

That will have to be enough.

Posted by South Africa Group on May 24, 2014 12:29 PM
Category: South Africa 2014

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