Khayelitsha Township, South Africa. Credit: KennyOMG/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“This story is about the pieces of my cup. Growing up in my grandmother's matchbox house with five other cousins, cups were an important part of my life especially during breakfast. My cup was red and no one could drink out of it in my presence. My fondest memories were shared with Tilly in my grandmother’s garden, sipping away at our make-believe tea from my cup brought to me by my gogo [grandmother] from Uhmlanga [a town in eastern South Africa].
We didn't play together on this day. Tilly had gone to see her mama. The uncle known to my family and I crept in slowly while I was taking a bath. The cup broke, leaving me with a bitter introduction to womanhood.”
Thuli told this story at a workshop on daily experiences of insecurity that I ran in 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa. Her story describes how violence interrupts the rhythms of daily life—and how it can find you even as a child in the bath.
When we read a story like this, we can feel a small part of the insecurity that Thuli felt. But violence isn’t just a problem for others or ‘over there.’ All of us may know parents in our neighbourhoods who go too far in hitting their children, or watch videos of police beating suspects on our streets, or shudder at the scenes of war and bombings on our screens that involve people we might know.
Increasingly, violence is all around us, whether you come from a matchbox shack in Johannesburg, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, a village in Syria, or sit at a café in Paris. We all face violence in our lives, and increasingly we watch it unfold in other places in full digital detail.
How can such everyday violence be confronted? Mostly, these problems are answered with superficial and top-down responses: France increases air attacks on IS in response to the Paris bombings. The US builds more “supermax” prisons to hold inmates in almost total isolation, while the overall prison population reaches epic proportions. Rio de Janeiro creates a crack police force to ‘pacify’ its favelas, while police violence continues at record highs.
Even more alarming, those responsible for controlling violence may be those who use it most. Violence often comes from those who should be providing safety and protection: a parent, a police officer, a neighbour or a lover. Despite the improvements that have been made to policing in Brazil, for example, levels of trust in the security forces are extremely low. A recent study found that 80 per cent of Brazilians are afraid of being tortured by their own police force after their arrest.
In South Africa, large sums of money are being poured into upgrading townships while centres that provide direct support to survivors of rape are in danger of closing from lack of funding. Meanwhile, levels of distrust in the police have reached a crisis point, and popular protests have led to an independent commission of inquiry appointed by the Western Cape government to investigate policing in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township.
Real solutions don’t lie through top-down directives or actions that pour yet more violence on the flames. Instead, we need to look at the things that help people to confront everyday violence in their lives, and then support them. In Thuli’s story, her experience of insecurity was deepened through her relationship with her father:
“It was later decided that I move to my mother and my father’s house. It was safer there after all. All that I knew, all that I was, was left behind. Over at the parents’ house they argued. I often saw it. They fought. How he slept at home sometimes. How I gradually stopped being the centre of his world. How he completely ignored me. The cup was smashed into a million pieces. Pieces of betrayal, love, pain, rejection, pity and lord knows what else.
It was at this point that I realised that I'm a fatherless child. It's all I've ever been, it's all I'll ever be. And I hope that you know that I will never, ever unlove you.”
Patterns of violence seem to repeat themselves through generations. Some children are abandoned, mistreated and abused, and some of them take out their anger and frustration in destructive ways as they grow older. Yet even in places where violence is pervasive there are people like Thuli who are willing to confront it.
Thuli now works in community development and violence prevention and is committed to gender justice. She has helped other people from the townships to tell their own stories about how violence affects them and how they can respond, using creative approaches to help different groups in the township identify problems and solutions.
What makes her and others like her take action when everything and everyone around them continues to let the violence take over, to become normalized and routine? A community activist in Khayelitsha put it to me like this:
“...we must try to help ourselves…Your child, your children, get raped, it is not somebody else's child, it is your child. So, you get abused from your husband, so you have to stand up. So we are trying our best to do it.”
Working with people who have made the choice to confront violence in this way, I’m constantly inspired by their courage and commitment. What seems to help them even in the face of overwhelming odds is their inner strength and the support they receive from those around them:
“Why do I do this? To love people, I can’t say, because it is not about the money, honestly, I just take their pain and make it mine, that’s my problem. But this is why my sister says you are going to get sick some day, because you go and take some people’s problem and make [it] yours.”
“I want to change people’s lives. I want make them understand and accept themselves and their lives. To change their way of thinking…like thinking it was accepted for people to be hit - changing this and making them feel comfortable in their homes, and making people feel comfortable as themselves.”
But personal efforts aren’t enough when the causes of violence are structural in nature. Although people use violence for many reasons, most of them boil down to power. In Rio de Janeiro, the military police, the drug traffickers and the militias all have long histories of using violence against each other and against those living in the favelas. Activists have to negotiate with those with guns in order to find the space to do their work.
In South Africa’s townships, some people use violence to get what they want - toilets, jobs, sex, or money. Many don’t believe that society offers them any other option to secure a living. Insecurity in an urban context has many dimensions—the threat of physical violence for sure, but also the violence that breeds in systems that don’t provide enough opportunities for young people to find decent work, for parents to feed their children, or for girls to get to school without having to use sex to hitch a ride.
Ultimately, confronting violence means transforming the systems that encourage it by building economies and social relationships and security systems that include everyone in ways that are just and effective in reducing violence and the conditions in which it festers; systems that don’t provide even more incentives or role models that portray violence as rational and successful.
That doesn’t happen from the outside in or the top down alone. It requires the bravery of people who decide to act differently, who decide to eschew violence and help others to do the same. And then it requires these acts to be scaled up, to inspire others, so that the whole system begins to shift. And that’s why Thuli’s story is so important.
Here’s how it ends:
“I have since collected the different pieces of my cups. The broken pieces. Also along the way, I've found other cups. Cups of different forms, ever changing cups. Cups of love, cups of courage, cups of peace.”
When someone decides to break out of a destructive pattern to confront the violence that surrounds them, something important is sparked off: the recognition that love and courage are potentially revolutionary in their effects. That’s the moment when Thuli collected the pieces of her broken cup and put them back together again.