||23 September 2012 07:00
Carol Albertyn Christie
Chantal Rutter Dros
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
"White" Johannesburgers of a certain age remember Hillbrow as a pulsating hotspot where you could hang out all night. These days the "whites" are long gone, but the pulse of Hillbrow hasn't. It's just a lot rougher around the edges. Drugs and prostitution are rife, poverty and squalor all over.
Trish Branken (Hillbrow resident): 'I feel like this is home for me.'
Trish Branken and her family have chosen to move to this vibrant multi-cultured melting pot, to work with those who need help here.
Trish: 'I love the people. I love... I love this kind of life. I feel... for me, this is real life.'
It certainly has a gritty reality. Hillbrow has a rich history - one of the first areas to turn grey in the dying years of Apartheid, it has attracted immigrants from all over Africa and the population density is high. It truly represents the new South Africa, one that many shy away from.
Nigel Branken (Hillbrow resident): 'About a week or two weeks after we moved in [to Hillbrow] out of the top floor up there in that block of flats there was a baby that was thrown out of one of the windows. Apparently the mother was a 17-year-old mother... little baby was thrown in a packet. The mother was later arrested and it is quite a hectic story to hear, just... once we'd just moved in.'
Chantal Rutter Dros (Carte Blanche presenter): "The block of flats that Nigel and his family call home is a regenerated building. And they share it with 600 other families. It also has 24-hour CCTVB and five security guards."
Like Trish, her husband Nigel is a devoted Christian and they've taken the decision to move their family into the heart of Hillbrow to help heal what's broken in this community.
Nigel: 'I think that in a sense it is a crazy thing to do, but I think there are some radical actions that are needed to tell the story of what's happening in this city. In Hillbrow we have probably the biggest humanitarian crisis that we've ever seen in South Africa. It is crazy to see so much death, so much suffering, and not to do anything about it.'
Inspired by men like Gandhi and Mandela, moving to Hillbrow was not a decision the Brankens took lightly.
Chantal: 'When was the moment that you decided it would be a good idea to move to Hillbrow?"
Nigel: "I think it was probably about four years ago that we started looking at our lives... I suppose I was having a bit of a mid-life crisis (laughs)... But the mid-life crisis for me was around purpose. Throughout Africa we've had the Gospel going up and down Africa, but we find Africa is the least transformed continent. It is a continent that is really struggling with huge issues. And so I also had a bit of a crisis in our faith, and saying, 'Well, what does a transformed community look like?' So I want to see our faith making a difference into communities.'
In a sense the Brankens are 21st Century missionaries, venturing into the unknown. They've chosen a spot many "white" South Africans would regard as the heart of darkness.
Chantal: 'What did you feel when Nigel came to you and said: 'Let's move to Hillbrow'?"
Trish: "I must admit, in the beginning I was a bit shocked. Hillbrow, I think, with its reparation of violence and crime was a bit more of a shock for me, but I also was very excited because I realised that this was actually what my faith was about and this was going to be an opportunity for me to actually consider the poor in a very real way, and to be close to them, and to live among them.'
Before they moved to Hillbrow, Nigel and Trish and their five children lived a comfortable life in Midrand.
Nigel: 'I was living in a six bedroom home and 1500m2 plot of land with a massive garden - back garden, front garden, huge vegetable garden... [of] Course we were trying to do good things from there, but it is very isolated in the suburbs. People, if they want to come visit you, they make appointments way in advance to come and see you. That was our life in Midrand.'
The family had to downscale dramatically. Their new flat has two bedrooms and a study, so they gave away excess furniture. Their youngest child is three. Hannah, their oldest, is 11.
Chantal: 'When your parents said that you were going to move to Hillbrow, how did you feel about it?"
Hannah Branken (Daughter): "At first I was a little bit scared... sad that I had to leave my friends behind, but then I realised that I'd make new ones."
Chantal: "So how does it feel to now share a room with all your brothers and sisters?"
Hannah: "It is fun because you get to experience sharing.'
Trish: 'The most exciting part of living in Hillbrow is the sense of community here. Our kids have lots of friends around. We are able to meet people every single day and we are able to help people.'
Nigel is a trained social worker. In this hijacked building, he's trying to help Enoch Mukanhairi, a blind Zimbabwean and his family. Water and electricity are a luxury here, not a basic human right.
Nigel: 'I think that we have changed the way that we work. I think in the past I used to, with my social work, come with this very top-down kind of approach to social work intervention. And we felt to do what we do differently. So what we're doing now is, we're forming friendships with the poor and, out of those friendships, identifying what are the key issues that people are facing and what are the challenges that they are facing... and then standing with them as they face those challenges.'
Nigel and Trish have helped Enoch, his family and 36 other families find new accommodation with electricity, water and sanitation. They also gave them food, medical treatment and helped them find employment.
Nigel consults two days a week at Wits University, but the rest of his time is devoted to helping Hillbrow.
Chantal; 'How did you feel about moving your family into a high-risk area?"
Trish: "I think obviously the kids... we did have concerns about their safety. You know, whether they'd be kidnapped or some violent crime would happen to them. But we have really tried to protect them as much as possible.'
The Branken children's lives are certainly contained. They are home-schooled by Trish, who is a classically-trained musician. And they're never told to run outside and play - parental supervision at all times.
Chantal: 'But you have consciously decided... made a decision to put your children in an area of high crime, with child prostitution, with kidnappings. Is this fair?"
Nigel: "Obviously as a father I am concerned for the safety of my children. The advantage that I have is I've got the means to ensure that they're protected. I think what's not okay in this suburb is that most of the children in this area are unsupervised during the day and that we think that's okay. It is not okay. So, if it's not okay for our kids to be here, how can it be okay for other children to be here?'
In winter, Nigel often hands out blankets to the homeless. But he can't ignore the danger. The night before we filmed, two policemen were gunned down when they stopped a suspicious car. But it's a reality that Nigel wants to confront... like those who are forced to, Themba and Jabulani who have been sleeping on the streets for more than a decade.
Themba Nhlapo (Vagrant)'It's dangerous. Especially if you walk around at night you will see everything that is happening around here. People getting shot, people fighting for ladies, people getting drunk in the street, people getting robbed... some of them, they even get killed.'
Chantal: "Hillbrow is notoriously dangerous after dark. If you take to the streets you place your life at risk, which is why the Brankens prefer not to go out after 6:30 at night."
Nigel: "Okay, Hannah, you pray for us."
Hannah: 'Thank you for the food and thank you that we live to see another day. Amen!'
Although they have been cautious about their safety Nigel's life has been threatened four times in the three months they have been living in Hillbrow.
Nigel: 'He came to me and he had a gun inside of his jacket and he said to me: 'Give me your cellphone.' I didn't register what he said and I said to him, 'Sorry, I've got absolutely no money; I'd love to help you next time.' And then he put the gun right to my head and said to me, 'I'm going to kill you, pass your cellphone.''
Nigel handed over his phone and, although shaken, was back on the same street the next day, spreading love.
Chantal: 'Your father told you about some of the things that had happened to him. How did you feel about that?"
Hannah: "I got a little bit scared because I realise this was a dangerous area, but then I realised once we made so many friendships it wouldn't be dangerous anymore.'
We asked Nigel how he thinks it has affected his children knowing that his life was in danger?
Nigel: 'They view me differently as well because they've started to see me as a man who has courage, who stands up in the face of injustice, who stands up in the face of even a gun being pointed at my head and loves in a different way. So when a gun is pointed to your head, how do you respond? Do you respond with hatred and anger and violence, or do you respond with love? Bad things are going to happen to every single person, and I think we're teaching our kids how to respond well to bad things that are going to happen."
Chantal: "Is life better, or is it the same?"
Hannah: "I think it is better because I've got so many new friends, so many new relationships."
Chantal: "Although Hannah says that she's enjoying it, aren't the others too young to know the impact?"
Trish: "I don't think they're too young. I think we are protecting them as much as we can from some of the harsher realities, and I think that they're actually loving it. And I don't think they even miss their old home.'
Although they've only been here a few months and know that things may change, the Brankens are enthusiastic about what they can do here. To Nigel, it's more than just a social experiment.
Nigel: 'I think our story is a story of hope. It is coming here and saying: 'We want to live amongst the broken and the poor.' And we want to say that they've got dignity, they've got rights, they've got values, just like I've got values. It is a social experiment, but it is one that hopefully will inspire others to participate in as well. And when we get more and more people to participate then we'll see real change.'
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.