The Bible - to be Lived or Read?
Fair Trade - the Stories in your Shopping Bag

Walking Down Dada Street


It is a warm winter South African morning and I am alone, walking casually down Dada Street, wondering how on earth I got here and my broad smile gives away the ecstasy of the epiphany in my soul. “Malo” I say to those I meet along the road. It is the only word (apart from Bafana Bafana!) I know in their language. It is enough to feel the deepest sense of connection. I am on the Khayelitsha township, where my skin would have been a crime big enough to hand me down an execution just over a decade before. Indeed, it is a place that most of the white South Africans I meet tell me I need security still. Luckily, indeed blessedly, for me I know these streets a lot better than they do even though I have come 6,000 miles to walk them. As I walk, feeling as happily content as anytime in my entire life I ponder on the miracle of this place and the joy of feeling a part of it and I toss up a prayer that that miracle might continue as these people that I have come to love with all of my heart fight the enemies of the shack, poverty and now HIV/AIDS.

So how did I get here? Well I think it all began in the early 1980s when the Students Union at Queen’s University in Belfast where I was then a student and am now a Chaplain changed the name of the McMordie Hall, where the likes of U2 played in their earliest days, to the Mandela Hall. It was the first time I had heard of Nelson Mandela, though at the time the Protestant community where I spent my formative years would have seen him as a terrorist and associate with the IRA. His cause would have been dismissed. It took the likes of Little Steven with his Sun City single and album to make me suddenly aware that something was askew that 87% of the population of a country had no right to vote. Peter Gabriel’s song about Steve Biko’s torture and death at the hands of his white oppressors whipped up some rage within me and U2’s Silver and Gold raised the ideas of sanctions and brought Bishop Desmond Tutu out of the shadowy reputation I had been given of him. There were then the Mandela Day concerts and his release from prison that I followed with excitement and a sense of history. It is interesting to me that it was not from ministers in pulpits that I heard of such injustices but in the songs of a radical and prophetic rock stars. That may be a book for another day.

Next in the chain that brought me to this place where I belong so comfortably was my then girlfriend and now wife coming to live in South Africa. Janice’s parents were involved with a missionary organisation that Janice later worked for. Of all the countries in southern Africa where they worked, Janice got to do short term projects in South Africa. The second of these in 1993 caused me to come and visit. It was an interesting time. The week Janice had arrived Chris Hani was shot dead and Janice was nearly sent back home in the midst of a brewing bloodbath between Mandela the former Prisoner and Mandela the future President.

My time in Peitermaritzberg was enjoyable, stimulating but ultimately very uncomfortable. I had never been in a place where I sensed that my being there was at the expense of the black people I met on the street and knew that there was a chasm between us. I felt wrong just being there. I had a strong opinion of getting out and dragging everyone with my colour of skin with me. The only way to live here would be to relate and be part of the black community and culture. To live in the white culture would be to be part of a horrendously unjust regime. But the chances of being allowed to merge into the black community was an impossible dream. My Irish shining white skin would be conspicuous and how would I have a valid reason to interact in townships like the one I visited with Janice when she went to do her knitting class in Hopewell. Well here I was, walking down Dada Street with a sense of deepest connection.

When Habitat For Humanity came to Belfast in the early 90s I knew little about its work but soon took advantage of being able to mix with those in the opposite end of the cultural divide from me as I went to dig foundations and paint bedrooms in the predominantly nationalist Iris Close in west Belfast. When I got around to thinking about an overseas trip for the students I work with they were the obvious organisation and when I heard they built houses in South Africa I knew that that was where I needed to go. I’d holidayed in Cape Town and loved it. Let us go there. Let us make some kind of a difference and let us look at division and reconciliation, so necessary in our own place, as we do so. So, back in 2000, we went. Fifteen of us came to Khayelitsha and built two houses and the foundations of another. It was so good to be back.

There have been many good changes in the two years since I last walked these streets. The aim in this suburb of the vast Khayelitsha township known as Harare is to get rid of the shacks by 2005. When they first shared this slogan with me, I laughed. There was no way that was going to happen. It was a crazy dream. Yet as I walk down Dada Street today I notice the steady encroachment of real brick houses. I believe now that they can achieve it and we can move on to some other area to continue the eradication of this particular enemy.

In some ways for those of us who visit, it is a sad thing. The shacks are so colourful. They are so unique. So artistic. The spell out an individuality on the skyline that is sadly erased by brick and mortar. They photograph with a beauty and sadness that is hard to match. But they do not do well when the Cape Doctor comes to call with its stormy gales and heavy rain. For us they are an intrigue but for those who live in them they are no shelter. Neither are they a home in the truest sense of the word. I did say in township Churches where I was given the privilege of sharing a few words that we were no building homes and that the love and sense of relationship that make up homes could be just as alive in shacks as in bricked walls, but for the Xhosa people of Cape Town most have come from eastern cape looking for work and the shack will never make them anything but a migrant people without root or sense of belonging. Maybe the solidity of a house might allow them to sense a home and a stable future.

That is what I am doing on Dada Street; heading from one house that my student group are building down to another one. Mixing some cement, bagging a few walls, carrying some bricks, making the trusses for the roof and being general labourers to the black builders. There again is the revolution. White labourers working to black builders would have been unheard of in the old South Africa and in some ways does not sit easily with the black builders whose conditioning will take time to unravel but it is our contribution. Turning how it has been upside down to conjure something else. It is trying to bring new order of things in this place where the old order was so unjust, uncivilised and just plain unbelievable.

Indeed, we try to imagine sometimes the lives of those we work with and become friends with. Did these men, some of whom cannot read or write and have lived through apartheid ever dare to think that they would know any kind of freedom from that evil. As an aside in a meeting with FW De Klerk he pointed out not as a way out of the blame but as an excused to the sin that all the National party in South Africa did was to write down and make law what the rest of the world and particularly the United States Of America were doing with colour division in the late fifties and early sixties, so let us all repent of our past racism. Anyway, after five weeks walking down Dada Street, I wanted to ask everyone their story. What was life like for you in the apartheid years? How were you involved in the emancipation? What has it been like since 1994 coming to terms with the new ways of things, the good things and the disappointments of realising that it would take years to undo the poverty and psyche of a people caught up in such a regime. Certainly it takes a nimbleness of mind gymnastics for these builders to see us on level terms. That is another of the positive signs that we see two years on. The builders we built with last time have developed in so many ways and there is less of a problem in connection. Time is probably not moving fast enough for these people but it is moving. We just want to be part of the acceleration.

Of course if the poverty of the shack or the evil of apartheid were not enough enemies South Africa is feeling like Job before God again, as the horror of HIV/AIDS strikes. During our few weeks in Cape Town South Africa rose to the top of the HIV/AIDS league tables and most of the cases are right here in the township communities around Dada Street. It is an every day reality and friends here have the every day dilemma to date someone or not and how to pick a husband or wife and stay alive.

Our Aids awareness came through the other part of our trip. As well as building houses we wanted to look at issues of reconciliation and by seeking out Rev Dr Spiwo Xapile we opened up a new visit of Cape Town experiences. Spiwo is quite some man, brought up in rural Eastern Cape at Ngqeleni near Umtata, he is now the minister of JL Zwane Memorial Presbyterian Church in Guguletu. A charismatic man in and out of his pulpit he has not shirked the challenges of being a pastor in an Aids ridden, impoverished and divided society but instead thanks God for the privilege of having to make the words he preaches real in the actions he does. That includes reaching the hand of forgiveness to the white man oppressor, educating his people to take up their roles in the new South Africa and caring for those with Aids while seeking to educate those who still have the chance of avoiding it. As well as deep satisfaction in what he does he has among other things won the prestigious Presidents Award for community development for the Community Centre that he and a white Africaaner Professor from Stellenbosh University built with vision, energy and the ability to sell their mission to people with money.

That his colleague Jan Du Toit was working in Stellenbosh University is quite a story in itself. A bastion of apartheid it was the very University that the theology of apartheid was designed and yet when Spiwo went seeking help for a student from Guguletu who was struggling with language problems he got more than he asked for and more than he dreamed. Jan is an Africaaner and the two men though deeply fond of one another and comrades in the trenches are never slow to admit the huge chasm between them. They come from very different conditioning on how things are done and Spiwo can become too pushy for Jan while Jan can be too patient for Spiwo. They had every reason not to start working together and in the journey they have come many reasons to walk away but their desire to change things, to give hope and a future to their people both in Western Cape where they live and in Eastern Cape where they are from and have begun another project drives them on, to give and take with each other for the higher goal. It is inspirational in the scope of the dream and in the nitty, gritty of how it works out.

That focus on the future is maybe what we from Ireland were most taken by. The forgiveness of the past in order to reach that future is what overwhelmed us. As I walk down Dada Street getting those people who had been oppressed in the vilest of ways by people with my colour of skin why would they greet me with the whitest and brightest and warmest of smiles? As we built houses why would they want to befriend us, laugh with us, share their conversation with us? Why would the children make us into popstars? How can this welcome be? Why and how can they forgive? I am not saying that there are not those in the shacks of the Cape Flats who would not be so welcoming and who would perhaps harbour a grudge and act upon that grudge but none of these people should give us the time of day and yet they gave us all that they had. They have an ability to forgive that is a miracle of humanity itself.

I guess as you walk around Robben Island and see where Nelson Mandela spent so many years of his life, peer in at that cell with its bucket and cup and mattress and room for little else and imagine how he was not broken by the hostility of that prison regime but instead turned it into a factory of magnificent souls you see in one man’s story the story of millions of others. These are a people who can love their enemies, who can pray for those who hate them, bless those who cursed them and do good to those ill treated them. South Africa is a modern miracle and the people of streets like Dada Street are those who have made it so. They are an inspiration and challenge to all of us who live in divided communities. They scream at us in their gentle humility that there can be another way. As Spiwo Xapile says it is a privilege to be a Christian in a place where you get a real opportunity to do what the Gospel is about and forgive people so his people become a shop window to the world of how the cross of Christ and the teachings of Jesus can be lived out to make a world of difference.

And yet there is still a huge need for more difference. Every Sunday in Spiwo’s Church there is an Aids testimony. Someone infected by the disease or affected by it shares their story and where God might be sought and found in their tragic experience. We listened one of the Sundays we were there to a woman whose sister died of Aids and whose niece a gorgeous five year old girl who was HIV positive. She shared her anger with God her struggle to care for her niece in case she or her family would catch the virus but how God had given her then deepest love to change her attitude from the girl being a disease to being her little treasure. It is moving stuff and everyday life. A doctor in Spiwo’s congregation is out caring for people dying of the disease 24/7. It is again a tragic scenario that allows the grace of God to be shown in a moment by moment reality.

The singing on a Sunday morning in JL Zwane Memorial is something you could never dream of hearing. It is the sound of heaven itself. Xhosa with all its clicks is a language of great poetic sound to begin with but when this Church starts to sing there is a melody that rises and surrounds you to almost consume you with an angelic whoosh! However, in the midst of the singing, it would not take long though to see a similar problem to Church life back home in Northern Ireland. There is a serious lack of men. And so the Church is helping Ace through college as a football coach. Ace is a former professional soccer player and an all round dude who has been mentored well by Dr Xapile. He exudes warmth and respect and has down to earth relational skills that draw you to simply want to be his friend and most people are! Ace is attempting to reach out through soccer to the young men of the township. It is a difficult task. When our students played Ace’s team a match, the rematch had to be against another team because one of his team had been shot dead days before the game. It is again the reality of the place of the dreams but the dreams go on and the dreams will come true. This is the kind of place where that is easy to believe in the most impossible of situations.

So what did we do? In truth; not a lot. We built six houses, three on Masiphumelele out near Fish Hoek and three on Khayelitsha. We also built a few walls in the KTC township and helped lay the slab in Mandela Park at Hout Bay. In the midst of a country, even a city so vast this seems like very little but when you do what some of us had the privilege of doing and visiting houses you had built two years previously you sensed that you were doing something. People appreciated the effort. In the end I would say that in all the preaching I have done over twenty years, these weeks of helping top build houses are the only useful things I have done in my entire life. Hopefully we broke down stereotypes of whites, maybe we encouraged South African whites to go into places they would have been fearful to tread had the Irish not gone first. Maybe we encouraged those bringing about miracles to keep on going. In the end though we brought back to Northern Ireland more than we took away. We brought back serious challenges about what it is to live out faith in Christ and not just talk or preach about. We brought back hope that our wee corner of the world might end up a place of miracles too. We brought back friendships that will never end and challenges to help those we met and became friends with in the longer haul. We came back determined to go back and to help make a difference in some ways until we do. When we asked Spiwo what we could leave he answered as simply and profoundly as usual – “your hearts.” Spiwo and Ace and Lucas, Vusi, Tyholani, Vuyisile, Bom Bom, Nsoka, Grant and Donné you can be sure that our hearts are there and we will be coming back to join them soon.

As I walk down Dada Street untangling all of his epiphany and smiling to myself at all this of which I have the privilege to untangle, there is one lingering thought that will haunt me for some time, provoking my spirit and searching me deep to the soul. When FW De Klerk shared with us the lessons he had learned in the South African peace process he told us that the first one was to search yourself right down to the bone for your motives and sins and weaknesses. Lesson two was to make sure that after you’ve searched you did not delude yourself that you had done it. That is a life’s work in the personal and in the political realm. It is not just vital to peace but whatever else we hope to do that is useful during our time here on earth.


nic paton

Amazing Steve! Our paths have crossed again - I have been recording in recent months with Siyaya, the choir/band based at the Zwane centre. I met Spiwo at Amahoro this June and am quite good frieds with the director of Siyaya, Bongani.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)