Kimberly Vrudny

J. L. Zwane Center

In Non-profits / NGOs, Religious Fundamentalism, South Africa on August 10, 2010 at 2:30 am

The drive into the townships is a startling exercise in contrasts. As border crossers leave Cape Town behind them, with its crowded promenade that runs along the ocean, bustling shopping centers, and active tourist industry, they encounter heavily concentrated areas where people designated “black” and “coloured” under the apartheid regime live in a variety of small homes: tens of thousands of shacks, government issue houses, and pride of ownership homes jumbled in a tangled network of neighborhoods built on every scrap of ground available between freeways offering access in and out of these poor but vibrant communities. The overwhelming sensation in the area is dryness: sand, dirt, concrete, and cardboard compete for attention. Water taps and toilets are shared by tens or hundreds of people, depending on the density of the population. Corrugated iron and sheets of metal form roofs and walls of places people call home, all of which seem strung together with cables of wire in a complex and unsafe network of electrical power. John de Gruchy, a longtime professor of theology at Cape Town University, writes about the striking disparity between Cape Town and the townships in this way:

Cape Town is a city of contrasts, awesomely beautiful, tragically ugly. Lying beneath Table Mountain, which rises sharply out of the Atlantic Ocean, it is situated on a peninsula that is the heartland of one of the six floral kingdoms of the world. The southern tip of the peninsula has been described as both the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape of Storms, depending on how it has been experienced by those who have sailed around its craggy sentinel. Cape Point represents the end of Africa, or its beginning, cleaving the icy cold waters of the Atlantic from the warmer currents of the Indian Ocean. Tourists are awed by what they see. Those who climb Lion’s Head to watch the summer sun set over the Atlantic are stunned by the beauty. Yet the city and its environs are saturated with aesthetic and moral ambiguity, the co-mingling of exuberance and pathos, creativity and destruction. A city of many cultures and political persuasions competing for space and control, yet bound together as one in the need to shape a common destiny.

As a human construct of several centuries, Cape Town embodies beauty in its architecture and its gardens. But alongside this beauty, whether natural or constructed, lies another, ugly reality, much of it the creation of colonial and apartheid legislation and oppression, an architecture that reinforces alienation from social others and the environment. Natural beauty has been scarred by greed and racism; by highways that separate citizens from the sea and its beaches; and by public works that reflect modernity at its worst. The stylish homes of the wealthy often reflect a vulgar opulence rather than the beauty of the surrounding habitat. Not too far from them, though designed to be out of sight and sound, are conditions of widespread poverty. These have spawned street children, gangs, drug trafficking, prostitution, and violent crime. The contrasting worlds of Cape Town are no different from those of many other cities around the world where rich and poor live and work cheek by jowl. But there are few cities where the contrasts are experienced so keenly simply because the beauty of the city and its environment is so breathtaking (de Gruchy, 176).

But rising out of the midst of all of this in Guguletu is a clock tower, creating an unmistakable landmark in the area representing hope to the impoverished community surrounding it. The J. L. Zwane Church was founded by Jeremiah Zwane who came to Guguletu in 1952 to reestablish the church as a vibrant presence in a region devastated by apartheid’s brutal practices. Operating initially out of a poorly constructed building, the church was a center of anti-apartheid activity until the elections voted the African National Congress into power in 1994, overturning decades of the cruel and racist practices of the former regime. In the same year, the J. L. Zwane Centre was established as a joint initiative of Stellenbosch University, the Church, and the Guguletu community to meet the needs of the people. Instrumental to all of this was the work and vision of Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile (his name means “gift” in Xhosa), who came to the church in 1989. In his tenure, he has developed a model for community-focused ministries made possible by creating strategic partnerships with people in business, academia, and government. By 2002, he had raised enough money to build the Centre with its striking architecture, hopeful interior, and tasteful art. He has nurtured the leadership potential of many men and women who have come through its doors by surrounding himself with an extremely capable and dedicated staff, among them both Edwin Louw (a Presbyterian minister who serves as project director for the Centre), and Bongani Magatyana (an accomplished musician and composer who works with the musical group Siyaya), and by thinking with precision about programs that will impact the community in a positive and sustainable way.

There are many such programs at the Centre, and readers can learn more about each one on the Centre’s website. Here, however, I will highlight only three:

The HIV/AIDS Support Group meets weekly to offer a safe haven to those who have tested positive. Members come together to share their struggles and challenges with one another. Staffed by social workers, members receive counseling and acquire quality information about the virus in a society still reluctant to receive medicine and information from the West. Through one another, they learn how to live positively and productively with an infection.

Siyaya is a 16-member musical group that practices daily at the Centre and takes its message of hope into the community to educate children about the dangers of sexual promiscuity and drug use due to the high prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The group has traveled internationally, and has won acclaim for the quality of its music, message, and movement.

The Rainbow After-School Program hires teachers to sit with children from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday to provide homework support and nutritional supplement to students from the township. As many as 150 children come for an after-school snack before settling in at tables in various facilities at the Centre to complete homework, play games, and socialize after a full day of school. The snack is provided through a wider program of nutritional support to feed the community, many of whom are undernourished due to high unemployment rates.

The J. L. Zwane Centre is a remarkable place with a staff that welcomes every human being who crosses its threshold. It lives out a spirituality of recognizing the inherent dignity of every human person in a context rife with racial, economic, and cultural tension and division. Please visit its website to learn more about this place of refuge and hope in Guguletu.

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