Siphokazi Saayman


On a list of the top 50 most violent urban areas on the planet, Cape Town has been singled out for its high levels of violence. The areas with the highest rates were found to be the poorest townships of the Cape Flats, with Gugulethu and Mitchells Plain being the worst afflicted. Siphokazi Saayman, 16, from Gugulethu has had humble beginnings. She tells us her experience of being raised in poverty and her ordeal with living in an unsafe community.

“My dad worked in construction and my mom was a casual domestic worker. We lived in a squatter camp in a shack, but I remember having everything I wanted. We were a happy family.”

“When I was five, my sister was born. I used to see my father smoking with friends often and afterwards all of them would fall asleep. I could not fully understand why they would do that, only when I grew up I realized they would pass out because of the drugs they were using.”

Siphokazi’s father stopped using drugs after a few years.

“A year after my father stopped using drugs, he became sick. He would have terrible headaches; he would scream and would say that he couldn’t stand the heat in his head. He would go out of the house to try to get cold, would cry like a woman and I would cry with him.”

“My mom came home from work one day and she realised that this couldn’t continue. She decided to take my dad to the hospital.  After many, many hours of waiting and time spent in three health centers – local clinic first, followed by the local hospital and lastly the main hospital – my dad was diagnosed with Meningitis. He stayed in the hospital for the next month.”

When Siphokazi’s father returned home, things changed.

“The first time it happened, I was with my dad alone at home, I must have been nine. He had a seizure; I thought he was dying so I ran to call the neighbours. After that, seizures became a common event. He would have one every time he was hot. On average it would happen once a week.”

“When he would have a seizure, I learnt to take off his shoes and put a towel on his mouth. Each time, I would stay home to take care of him and I would miss school.”

Siphokazi’s dad was prescribed medication for life, but due to the medication’s side effects he decided to discontinue the medication on a few occasions.

“Each time my dad stops taking medication he has strong hallucinations and he becomes paranoid. Once he had dreams about people attempting to shoot me and kept warning me to be careful. In the beginning, I almost believed him because I was quite young and he was my father.”

“On another occasion, he lost his memory and could not recognize any of us. My mom asked him why he had a knife in his pocket and he said it was to kill both of us. We ran out of the house and called the police.”

Siphokazi’s home situation deteriorated as the years progressed.

“My dad is unable to work and the little money he gets from the grant he drinks away. The government gave my mom and dad houses, so a few years ago my parents decided to stay in separate homes.”

“My sister and I stay with our mom. Her first born (23), that she had before meeting my dad, came to stay with us from the Eastern Cape because he wanted to study in Cape Town. So there are four of us in the house, and it is difficult for my mom to sustain us with her casual work. My dad visits often to get food; it is hard to see her struggling.”

“The majority of days we have bread, sugar and water. When my mom gets some assistance from her friends we get mealie meal and we mix it with yeast and lemon to make it sour – it is called Amageu. We let it ferment for one day. When it is ready we drink a glass with some sugar. This is our staple food at home; it is our breakfast and many times our dinner.”

After one year of studying, Siphokazi’s eldest brother had to drop out.

“My mom couldn’t afford it, so she told him he needed to drop out from college and find work to assist us. This situation scared me, because education is important and I got afraid that I might also not be able to further my studies.”

Siphokazi is determined to overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of her getting an education.

“In the meantime I have decided that I will not let fear stop me from pursuing my dream to become a pharmacist. Besides pushing myself not to allow my situation at home to overwhelm me, I also push myself to overcome the challenges of my surroundings.”

“My mom was lucky to be given a house by the government, but we live in a very unsafe area. Crime is all around us; we don’t feel safe even when we are inside our house.”

“Since we have moved to this area, I have seen many dead bodies on the street when walking to school in the mornings. The first time, I saw two bodies that had been burned alive. People suspected that they were criminals so they burned them. The last time I saw a dead body he was only seventeen. He was bluish and I recognized him; I would see him often walking around in our neighborhood. I found out that he died after someone had shot him in the head.”

“Besides the murders, we hear the stories about house robberies, and we count the days until it is going to happen to us. In the house or on the street you do not feel safe, they even steal your shoes – they come to you with a gun or knife and ask you if they can borrow your shoes and if you are lucky, they don’t hurt you and you walk home barefoot.”

Siphokazi’s routine has become essential to her wellbeing.

“I leave home at 07.45 am; by this time the streets are busy and there is some light. I run to school as fast as I can because my school starts at 08.00. When I leave school, I always walk back with a group of friends. We try to walk in groups as much as we can and when we are finally alone, we walk home fast.”

“Every time I arrive home, I stay inside. When my mom gets back, we lock ourselves and pray to be safe for the night.”

“I am determined to overcome my challenges and to keep studying. I know education is the only thing that will give me the option to be free.”

Siphokazi concludes by saying, “My motto in life is never to give up. Where there is a will, there is a way. I am convinced that education is the way to change my reality… choose your way and keep striving, regardless of what comes your way.”

Siphokazi is a Leaders’ Quest participant

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