Being neighbours did not end with the people living next door; someone who lived five blocks away, or 30, was still your neighbour. The notion that good fences make good neighbours did not apply in townships – or at least, where I grew up.
My grandmother’s neighbours knew where she hid her house key. When they announced themselves at the door, they were free to enter. She was a woman who died aged 93 and did not fear her neighbours.
The sense of community meant being able to borrow a cup of brown sugar or a candle when a power failure struck. But if someone next door was getting married, you heard: “there’s a wedding at my house”. When someone died, neighbours stopped being neighbours and became (distant) family members who offered help in a difficult time. Helping was not optional.
As a child, if I stepped out of line, our neighbour’s unspoken responsibility was to get me back in line. Back then, back there, the thought of consequences could have me shivering.
I miss that time and that society, which moulded us as people who were part of a community that was also family.
Fast forward to 2015. If a neighbour tries to send my child to the shop today, they get a sharp look from me. If our neighbours send invites for an event, we’re the last to show up – trying to dispel the idea that we are open to the idea of washing dishes and peeling vegetables.
Sadly too, when our neighbours pass on, that sense of community – of mourning together – no longer exists. We no longer trust our neighbours. Indeed, we can’t wait to move away from them. We build our walls even higher and avoid them as much as possible.
When Hector Petersen was shot, 10 years before my time, a total stranger picked up the boy and ran to his aid. We were born into a society of people who cared for each other. Now we have allowed a handful of individuals to tarnish the safety we had in our communities.
Blame it on nyaope, gangs, the media, whatever – the fact remains, people are no longer at home in their homes. Surely, the people of the Cape Flats want their children to be able to play in the streets or walk to the park without fearing that the SAPS will come knocking at the door to announce a tragedy.
Fundamentally, we build the communities we live in, not just with cement and bricks, but also with a sense of home. Domestic violence has increased and flourished because when we hear the lady next door scream, we simply ask ourselves: “why doesn’t she leave that abusive man?” Then we turn up the volume on our radios and forget that the person next door actually needs help.
The likes of George “Geweld” Thomas and other township criminals should never have had the opportunity to plant their seed of lawlessness.
We want to protect ourselves and our families, but we also need to protect our communities. I have an obligation to be just as concerned about my neighbour’s children as my own, if I want them to show me the same courtesy.
These “townships” are more than tin roofs and dusty streets. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be held to ransom. Our sense of community is being killed. We need to build this nation, one community at a time. And this needs active members of society. It won’t happen by magic.