In My Grandfather’s Shadow
Western Cape townships have some of the highest crime rates in the country. For this reason, many communities have started neighbourhood watch groups who sometimes hold Kangaroo Courts - an unofficial court held by civilians to try someone suspected of a crime. 16-year-old Asemahle Gquma has been on the receiving end of one of these informal courts, and he tells us his story.
Born in East London in the Mdantsane township, Asemahle lived in his grandmother’s home until the age of three.
“My dad lived in Cape Town, so we moved to Gugulethu so my parents could get married. We stayed in my paternal grandfather’s house with my dad, mom, grandma, grandpa and aunt.”
Asemahle says that he only has good memories of this time.
“Those were the best days. I was the only child so I got all the attention. I was adored and nurtured, mostly by my grandfather and mother. I don’t recall my dad and I spending time together. I always remember my grandad comforting me.”
“My dad was strict, growing up in a traditional Xhosa family; respect was the most important thing for him. He wasn’t violent, but verbally he scared me. The cold way he would discipline me made us distant. He was a good provider but we did not have a relationship. I longed to be close to him, and to do things with him, like teach me how to ride a bicycle or just talking to me instead of shouting.”
Asemahle’s father worked as a machine operator and was the sole bread winner in the home.
“At home we had a comfortable life and we were never in need of anything. The warmth in the home came from my mom and grandfather. The fatherly advice about not being influenced to smoke, skip school, or hanging around the neighbourhood always came from my grandfather.”
“I remember a day when I was about 10 and I played outside and forgot about the time, so I got home well after dark. My parents were angry and wanted to beat me, but my grandfather spoke to them and said that he would speak to me, I remember him telling them that there is another way of dealing with this kind of situation.”
“He told me that my future depended on my choices. That through life I would encounter seemingly good people that would try to influence me to do bad things. That I needed to be wise and choose the right path. When he spoke to me he was calm, I felt he never judged me, we just connected. I wish this talk could have happened with my father, but I was fine because at least I had my grandpa as a nurturing father figure.”
Asemahle was very popular in primary school, achieving great results academically, but there were always negative influences around. He says that the only thing that kept him away from them was remembering the words of his grandfather: “You are the only one responsible for your future, and don’t you want to be successful?”
At the age of 11, Asemahle’s home life changed dramatically when his grandfather fell ill.
“A few months before he died he got really sick, he lost weight, and began forgetting things. He couldn’t go to the bathroom on his own and he moved around slowly. But with his grey beard he still beamed a beautiful smile. My Tamkhulu (grandfather in Xhosa) was still there for me, but I could see he was tired.”
“Life was very hard for all of us at that time because he was loved by all of us. It came to a point where everybody would stay with him; there were times when my dad would stay at home and miss work to be with my grandfather.”
“I would still talk to him, but he couldn’t respond, and there was nothing I could do for him, so I felt angry about that. Mostly, I would cry. He would be the person I would speak to about the way I was feeling, and I felt that no one else would be able to be there for me the way he was.”
Shortly after getting sick, Asemahle’s grandfather passed away.
“After he died I became distracted, my view of things changed. I was upset with life, I started smoking cigarretes and drinking alcohol over the weekends, I thought it would help take away the memories of him and I began not to care about anything or anyone.”
During Grade Seven, Asemahle’s behaviour began to spiral out of control, and by the time he began high school he was a very different person.
“In Grade Eight, I started smoking weed heavily, even at school. I got involved with the wrong crowd and we did all the bad stuff: smoked weed, unruly behaviour, sometimes stealing money or phones from other kids.”
Asemahle says that there were always gangsters around, and that he never wanted to join any of them. Until one day, the need for protection arose in his area.
“My friends - maybe 15 of us - were chased by gangsters from the area opposite ours because they thought we were part of the gang. We stayed in the same area as the gangsters that they were fighting with, so they confused us with them. They started throwing stones at us and we fought back with stones and bricks. So they attacked us with knives and sticks. My friend was stabbed in the back and had to be taken to the day hospital. It was the first time that this had happened to me, and I was in deep shock. He was bleeding a lot and became very weak. We had grown up together so it was difficult seeing my friend like this. Our parents asked what had happened, so we lied and told them that we were robbed, we were too scared to tell the truth.”
“After that incident we would befriend the gansters in our area, so less people messed with us.”
“Thoughts of my grandfather came to mind, because he would always advise me not to get involved with those kinds of people. But I wanted to look cool, and by then I had reached a stage of being popular in my area. I enjoyed it because of the attention I was getting at school and within my community. If there was a fight, my group would be called to defend our area. Also, if we didn’t fight, we would have been picked on because we didn’t want to defend our area against thugs who were robbing people in the neighbourhood.”
“At the time I didn’t think I was one of the gansters because I was fighting for my area. I didn’t sit on street corners, and I attended school and didn’t smoke tik.”
Asemahle’s negative behaviour continued for the next two years, with his parents trying to encourage their son to change his actions, but their plea falling on deaf ears.
“I would come home drunk and be disrespectful. I was really caught up in the lifestyle of being the tough guy in my area. People from the community also began thinking and saying that I was involved in the gangs.”
Asemahle’s behaviour soon caught up with him.
“One day, on our way home, the community patroller approached us. I think he wanted to search us, but we responded by shouting and swearing at him. We even grabbed our belts and pretended we had guns and signalled to him that if he didn’t leave us alone we would shoot him.”
“We were all drunk and noticed that he was following us home so we split up. They caught two of my friends. On my way home, one of my friends came to me and said that I had better not go home because there was a van there and people were looking for me. My friend was walking with me and we were too scared to go home, so we walked around in the area for a while, but then decided that it was pointless and that we should go home to my house. I also thought the van would have been gone by that time.”
“When we got home, my dad saw us and told us to get in the car. He said nothing else, just to get in.”
“He took us to a container in another area where I saw my other friends and their fathers or uncles. The neighbourhood guys were their too, about 10 of them. They first spoke to us about what we had done earlier and asked us where the guns were that we had threatened them with. We told them that we didn’t have any guns, but they didn’t believe us. They also said that we were the ones breaking into houses because I have the same name as one of the gangsters was breaking into the houses. I told them that I’m not that guy but they didn’t believe me.”
“They were getting really angry and they believed we were lying. They were standing around us with sjamboks (a long, stiff whip, made of cowhide) and they started hitting us. Our father’s stood around while we were being beaten up. They hit us on our bare skin and the pinching pain was terrible. They beat us for a long time, we were bruised and cut. We didn’t fight back because it would make things worse. I kept thinking ‘I deserve this because of my past behaviour.’ ”
“After the beating, the patrol guys spoke to our fathers and they took us home. I felt angry because my father had just stood there, watching me being beaten up.
Asemahle says that after the beating, he began changing his behaviour almost immediately and that many of his friends did too.
“I kept thinking about the pain of the beating and that I never wanted to experience that again. At school, I began concentrating more.”
Still upset with his father, Asemahle says that he knew if he wanted to change his life completely, he would need to reach out to his father as well.
“In the past, I had never initiated a conversation with my father. I would wait for my father to talk to me, because I never felt comfortable with him. So, I decided to make an effort and just talk to him when I felt like it. We never spoke about what happened that night, but I have forgiven him. I understand why he did it; I suppose it was his way of showing that he cared about me. Today we have a better relationship.”
“I think if my grandpa was alive, he would have a lot to say about the stuff I was involved in. I think he would also laugh because I had to go through all of it in order to understand his message, but most of all, I think he would be proud of me.”
Asemahle concludes by saying, “When I realised that I was trying to fill the gap left by my grandpa and father with being liked by my peers, I understood that popularity was self-destructive. I also had to let go of the idea of the kind of father I wanted him to be, and rather accept him for who he is. When I did this, I realised he had been there all along.”
Asemahle is a Leaders’ Quest participant