THE CASE OF SHANNON—OUTCAST CAPE TOWN: a personal reflection by Andre Marais
My nephew Shannon is about to be sentenced next week. He is currently languishing in Polsmoor as an awaiting trial prisoner. As I watch him being brought from the holding cells to court in leg irons and chains barefoot I struggle to swallow back my tears and I am forced to wonder if I could have influenced and intervened in the trajectory of his life somehow. I remember fondly the day he was born and how we waited keenly for the arrival of the first grandson born to my eldest sister in my family.
His story is not untypical of many other young people in the area where we live.
Showing signs of a severe learning disability at school, we had neither the foresight nor the knowledge to seek help. The badly resourced school he attended didn’t bother to identify his problem early enough and never provided remedial support.
It is sad to say that even back then I feared what was going to become of him. To find evidence of the deep crisis facing Cape Flats youth, I have to look no further than my own family. I grew up in a working-class Anglican family in Hanover Park on the Cape Flats, where my parents worked hard to protect us from the ravages of the apartheid holocaust of forced removals and social dislocation in the early 1970s. These forced removals flung us into the desolate, windswept hellholes we would eventually grudgingly call ‘home’ .The biographies of many families here have to include the hardships of making a life in these soulless, bleak dormitory towns where you feared for the safety of your children daily.
Well I survived, but my nephew, who comes from a later generation, did not. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps from the beginning the odds were stacked against him in more vicious ways than they were for me. His deescent into drug abuse came early and was almost an inevitability – in addition to a difficult, blighted childhood, he experienced a horrific family trauma at the age of seven, when on Christmas Eve his four-year-old sister was snatched from his person and later found murdered and raped. Consumed by our own grief around the violent death of a child in the family we, in retrospect, regrettably did nothing to assist him to work through the confusion and pain of that event. His school and social services were not adequetly equipped to council a young child through that pain. Apartheid schooling was not big on prioritising trauma and the effects of the monsters it created.
The bleakness of his home circumstances and self-imposed amnesia did not help things much. Many of us adults wrongly found solace in alcohol abuse to cope with what had happened and with the devastation of the thought of losing a young child in this way. How much more trying it must have been for a young sibling to deal with loss of this kind.
It’s therefore not surprising that he found comfort in places and formations that his immediate surroudings could offer. As an early school drop-out, he left school virtually illiterate. Our schools hold no appeal for kids like this; they are unable to accommodate students who have special needs and yet have certain skills, and this destroys their self-esteem and wreaks permanent damageWe failed to recognise this at the time.
Shannon’s immediate post-school work history was an assortment of short bursts of employment in monotonous, low-paid jobs. By the age of 14 most of his peers in Hanover Park, if not already in ‘reformatories’, had regular contact with the criminal justice system. It was common for them also to have drifted into the gang and drug culture of no return, with its own set of rituals of belonging. A generation earlier, I can count on one hand how many of many childhood friends were even alive by 16.
Just a bridge or a highway away from Hanover Park in the leafy well-healed suburbs the experience of the journey to adulthood might be totally different, where youthful indiscretion might not have such devastating and lasting consequences.
Standing in that court room in a moment of total recall I could remember playing with the bubbling, laughing young boy – full of hope and wide abandon. This was a far cry from the almost unrecognisable young prisoner in the dock bearing the scars of the living hell of incarceration in one of the world’s most brutal penal systems; a far cry from the child that brought so much joy – that indescribable something that babies bring, filled with so much hope and promise for the future. The metamorphis was at once devastating and complete, and will stay with me forever as a metaphor for Shannon’s tale and his unique, hard and troubled journey.
Could this all have turned out differently? Yes, probably. But only if the set of circumstances were different. The approach of politicians and the media has been to encourage the fear and loathing of working-class youth, making no attempt to understand the root causes of their behaviour. Often left out of their narrative is that Shannon’s generation took the major hit from the wrenching economic turmoil of factory closures, job losses and lack of work opportunities. Instead, the politicians and the media accentuate the misplaced gallery calls for revenge and tougher prison sentences.
Our prison system certainly does not rehabilitate, and most of these youth reoffend. But some organisations such as-a community initiative in Hanover Park called Community for Youth at RISK (CAYAR) have tried to intervene on behalf of prisoners like my nephew by embarking on preventive measures to assist drug offenders before they reoffend and become part of the prison system — accompanying young addicts to court, they argue for sensitivity and a second chance, with the added assistance of enrolling many addicts in the desperately overstretched rehab facilities throughout Cape Town. But it is unforgiving, thankless work where only a few can be helped.
And meanwhile the apartheid city of Cape Town stays firmly intact. The common prejudice is to lump working-class kids together as some ‘alien other’ far removed from the population of the sanitised city safely going on with their lives within a plethora of recreational spaces. Take Long Street or Observatory with its bourgeois bohemian decadence over the weekend, where people drug as hard as anyone on the much-feared Flats and probably even more – the crucial difference being their access to expensive rehabs if things start going off the rails. Also, contact with law can be negotiated in a protected ‘anti-establishment cool’, and a perverse solidarity exists with the under-class across the railway line far away – with the operative words being ‘far away’. And if things get too intense, one’s parents can access the best legal representation money can buy.
I still need to process the combined feelings of guilt and hopelessness at his situation, as I get ready to visit him in Polsmoor prison. The leg irons on my nephews feet are connected to chains and bondage going much further back into his own life – a system that failed him every step of the way. The challenge is breaking those chains and creating possibilities for personal and collective liberation