Riemvasmaak, more commonly known as “Riempi,” is an informal settlement technically known as Extension 27.

An Informal Settlement is a track of land that is owned by someone other than the people who live there.  This usually takes the form of  “shacks,” but what tenants reasonably prefer to call homes.   These homes are thrown together from any and all of the available materials.  The trade has formalized slightly in the modern age, with businesses selling pre-fabricated shacks of wood and metal.  Construction is simpler if only for the lack of plumbing and electrical wiring.

Material for shacks comes from the hustle of the streets.  Plywood originates from boxing used to ship auto parts from Germany.  Palettes used for walls and fencing are bought from factories for a modest price.  Cardboard can be picked up behind local businesses.  Roofs are of two types: sturdy, cement and asbestos, and various thicknesses of corrugated metal.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Nobel Prize committee could do worse than seeking its next beneficiary from the land of informal settlements.  Innovation and ingenuity are the rule.  Picking a random point and taking a 360 degree view would reveal a world of innovation: mattress box springs for fencing, old tires used in ways you couldn’t imagine.  In fact, shantytowns are the new architectural trend for green, efficient designs in the western world.

A private corporation named Urban Foundations owns the land on which Riemvasmaak was hurriedly situated.  The driving motivation of the committee is to gain the title deeds to the land and acquire brick and mortar housing.  The committee members have no doubt this will happen, and will happen soon.  They work with an organization called Informal Settlement Network, which supports them in their organizing. “We are the most powerful informal settlement in Port Elizabeth,” the Chairman of the Committee declares. Truly, Riemvasmaak is the most politically active community I have ever lived in.  In a nod to revolutionary predecessors, the members of the committee refer to each other as “my leader” and, less frequently, “comrade.” They work tirelessly, often meeting several times a day to discuss urgent community matters.  “Our shoes are wearing thin,” one of the committee members expresses.

Riemvasmaak is a “mixed” township, meaning it contains people from different ethnicities.  With the exception of one non-South African (and myself), this effectively means there are both Xhosa and Coloured.  This is remarkably uncommon.  The legacy of apartheid is still alive in the spatial dynamics of sub/urban residential areas, which functionally means that Xhosa live in black townships, Coloured live in coloured townships, and whites live somewhere completely different.  Riempi prides itself on breaking those barriers and is conscious of the image they project.  The Committee reflects the overall demographic, 7 Coloured and 3 Black members.  Before a recent protest march, the Chairman (Coloured) noticed that all the signs had been written in English and Afrikaans.  He instructed Thabiso to make a few signs in Xhosa to accurately represent the people.  The languages themselves are merging, Thabiso explains.  “Here in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa guys and the Coloured guys are mixing the languages.”

One man, “Pastor,” as they call him, owns a truck, but no one else in the community has an automobile.  “Our shoes are our cars,” Andre explains.

Dusty, rocky paths are the salient feature of Riemvasmaak.  The rocks present formidable obstacles to walking around at night, yet are convenient ammunition against the mangy, malnourished dogs that tend to block passage.  Metal wires are strewn about at every conceivable location and angle to dry laundry and to provide  protection against intruders who likely wouldn’t expect a wire at neck level as they’re running from the house.

Visibility at night is limited to the full moon and the glow from steep floodlights up the hill in neighboring “formal” townships.


My new home

I spent yesterday afternoon meeting with the Community Committee of Riemvasmaak, my new neighborhood in Port Elizabeth.  It is a four year old informal settlement, meaning that the occupants lack title and deed to the land, but are working diligently to receive it.   The name, Riemvasmaak, means “to tighten your belt,” signifying a knack for survival that one can immediately see in each member of the committee.

As I sat on a couch at the home of the man they call “Pastor,” enjoying pineapple Fanta (tastes like a lifesaver), I laughed jovially with everyone else as the committee considered my situation in a combination of Afrikaans, Xhosa, and English.  Everyone I met was the epitome of caring and supportive; they seem as excited to have me in their community as I am to be there.

After subtle twists and turns of conversations and gestures, I was informed that I would be staying “under,” which apparently meant down the hill on the far side of the community.  (Far is relative, there are only about 1500 people in Riemvasmaak; it’s probably a 5 minute walk).  A young man entered the room and introduced himself as Thabiso, my new housemate.

Thabiso built the shack himself.  It consists of one room, wallpapered with old newspaper, very convenient if you can’t sleep at night.  The floor was a sturdy plastic and supported two pieces of furniture, a full-size (?) bed and a small couch.  There are two outhouses with a unique, minimalist twist: three walls and no roof.  Water is from a tap a few minutes down the road.

I officially move in to my new digs this afternoon.  My current emotions are the standard ones: excited and apprehensive, just like anyone making a move to a new living situation with new people and new challenges.

More will follow, but probably very slowly, as I’ll be lacking electricity, much less internet access.  Thanks for your thoughts and prayers…

Thoughts on Separation, Safety, and Social Justice

Excerpt from Cry, the Beloved Country: A father reads an essay written by his recently murdered son.

(historico-cultural word choice may be objectionable.)

“It is hard to be born a South African.  One can be born an Afrikaner, or an English-speaking South African, or a coloured man, or a Zulu.  One can ride, as I rode when I was a boy, over green hills and into great valleys.  One can see, as I saw when I was a boy, the reserves of the Bantu people and see nothing of what was happening there at all.  One can hear, as I heard when I was a boy, that there are more Afrikaners than English-speaking people in South Africa, and yet know nothing, see nothing, of them at all.  One can read, as I read when I was a boy, the brochures about lovely South Africa, that land of sun and beauty sheltered from the storms of the world, and feel pride in it and love for it, and yet know nothing about it at all.  It is only as one grows up that one learns that there are other things here than sun and gold and oranges.  It is only then that one learns of the hates and fears of our country.  It is only then that one’s love grows deep and passionate, as a man may love a woman who is true, false, cold, loving, cruel, and afraid.

I was born on a farm, brought up by honourable parents, given all that a child could need or desire.  They were upright and kind and law-abiding; they taught me my prayers and took me regularly to church; they had no trouble with servants and my father was never short of labour.  From them I learned all that a child should learn of honour and charity and generosity.  But of South Africa, I learned nothing at all.”

The father is stung by these words, pauses, protests, mourns, and is compelled to continue.

“Therefore I shall devote myself, my time, my energy, my talents, to the service of South Africa.  I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.  I shall do this, not because I am a Negrophile and a hater of my own, but because I cannot find it in me to do anything else.  I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe.  I am lost when I ask if men, white men or black me, Englishmen or Afrikaners, Gentiles or Jews, will approve.  Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true.

I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul.  I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another.  I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that.  I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die.  They died rather than live, that was all.

Yes, it would not be honest to pretend that it is solely an inverted selfishness that moves me.  I am moved by something that is not my own, that moves me to do what is rights, at whatever cost it may be….”


In post-apartheid Cape Town, there is a lingering and now cemented separation, an inevitable yet unchallenged result of the policies of separation.

Like any modern city, Cape Town is a study in contrasts.  A cursory glance reveals the swarthy European Southern Suburbs, with its shopping malls, razor-wired gates and ADT protection; the swimming, muddied and sotted bars and clubs of Long St., swarming with tourists and laced with beggars; the harsh, sandy, fire-prone townships of seedy roofs and tin shebeens.

Every day, men and women wake up on different sides of the city to rise and stumble into the bathroom in preparation for the day.  They slap cool water around the curves of their face, blink the sleepiness out of their eyes and look out the bathroom window at what must be the most stunning and majestic city on the face of the earth.  Table Mountain, peeks up out of a bed of clouds and smiles at the crashing, crushing waves of ocean at every edge of the compass.  Patches of fynbos frame the wayward slopes all the way to Cape Point, where the baboons bounce about and bully tourists.  Up and out.  Up and out.  And then back, back, back…turning from the omnipresent, ageless beauty, back in the bathroom, each must return to her life, to look himself in the mirror.

An army of domestic servants fills the train at the east of the city every morning around five a.m., determined to destroy and dismantle every soiled cloth and sullied corner in some distant house in the suburbs.  The same army returns in the evening to the dirt floors and rusty, corrugated metal of home.  Every day of the week, servants of Philanthropy and Humanitarianism load into white mini vans and VW Beetles to volunteer in schools, orphanages, and medical clinics, full of goodwill and good feeling, confident in the efficacy and legitimacy of their contribution.  These same speedily return with a vague but thankful regret, to walls of brick, floors of marble, and kitchen appliances of shiny metal.  These cultures interact only briefly, superficially, ocean waves resting ephemerally on the shore before retreating back to status quo.

Pleas and please, don’t ride the train, don’t walk at night, please, please.  you can’t go there, do that, be like that.  make sure the alarm is on, lock the gate.  don’t look, don’t give, don’t.  please, don’t be naïve, you’ll get used to it, it’s just the WAY THINGS ARE, please…


I understand too little and judge too quickly.  I make a lousy judge at that, a person of privilege from a privileged culture.  For all the ways that I do feel courageous and honest, brave and noble, Lord, help me.  I am fresh off the plane, a neophyte in comprehension, laboring to discern, decipher and find meaning.

I am no South African.  I did not grow up in the bush or love the veld.  But I know what it is to love truth and justice, to seek to dedicate, perhaps sacrifice one’s life to the idea.

The forces working against reconciliation here are strong.  Large among these is the mythology of violence.  Perpetuating this meta-narrative becomes the new justification for separation, which has famously proven a means for systematic group oppression.  It exacerbates the problem and proves self-fulfilling.  Whole communities are defined and imprisoned by the story.

Safety is often cited as a motivating priority for people’s action or lack of durable action.  It would be foolish to dismiss the high potential of violence or the legitimacy of concern.  Nonetheless, the driving question must be whether the outcome is worth the risks.  Why should people groups live apart?  Where will liberation come from?  How will justice and transformation be enacted?  Is it too much to ask for the Kingdom now?