Read a human for a life change

Stepping out of the house of one of Hanover Park’s high-ranking gang members — who had been shot in another of the area’s gang battles — Glenn Hans seems pleased by the conversation he’s just had. “We visited him to see whether he is talking of revenge. But he seems to be very toned down, just focusing on building his life up again.”

The visit is part of Hans’s work with Ceasefire Hanover Park, a programme run by the First Community Resource Centre. The largely coloured township on the Cape Flats has long been a notorious gang hotspot, with innocent people regularly killed in crossfire between rival groups.

Hans is one of a about dozen people who identify young men wanting to leave gangs. Along with a small team of outreach workers, they then help to get these gang members back on their feet. Weekly home visits, phone calls and on-the-street meetings in the poverty-ridden township are part of the three-year deadline he has to reintegrate each gang member back into society.

A former gang member himself, the 35-year-old speaks with disarming frankness about how he eventually escaped his nine-year affiliation to a gang.

Gangs were appealing to a teenager: “They had everything — wearing the Buffaloes and the nice clothes and driving nice cars. That really attracted me.” Working himself up through the ranks, he went on to sell drugs “wholesale”.

“But people stole drugs from me, so one Sunday evening, [another high-ranking fellow gang member] decided to kill me, because a lot of the drugs disappeared — about R20 000 worth of tik,” he says.

“That night, he told me to get one of the guns I was hiding. He wanted me to give it to him so that he could kill me. While I was doing that, I started doing a prayer in my heart, asking God to take me out of this guy’s hands. That if he could do that for me, I will turn my life around, you know?”

The gangster then asked Hans if he had stolen the drugs. “With tears in my eyes, I said, ‘no, I didn’t do it’. He took that gun, left the house and went out and shot some [rival gang members]. When he came back, he told me: ‘Glenn, all those bullets I shot those people with were bullets [meant for you]. So I want you to go back to your mother’s house and just be a child to your mother.’

“That is when I turned my life around.”

This turnaround, and his willingness to share it so openly, has seen Hans become something rather unexpected: a “book”. Not the paperback or hardcover kind but, as a participant in the South African branch of the Human Library, a walking, talking one.

An international nonprofit organisation, the Human Library started in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000. Events, now held in 80 countries, see readers “borrowing” these human books.

The organisation says the point is for people to learn “about the other person, and also challenge their own prejudices”.

Madi van Schalkwyk is the local director of the Human Library. A former graphic designer, she says it was while 

“looking for a platform where I could get engaged on a social justice level” that she heard about human libraries.

Because the libraries were a safe space for discussions, and a way to challenge stereotypes, she went ahead and started a South African chapter. The first event was held last year and now there are about 50 volunteers nationally.

The most recent event was held at Cape Town’s Central Library. As at any of the other events, the titles of the human books were compiled in a booklet and given to would-be readers. The titles range from Domestic Violence Survivor to Gay Christian and Ex-Drug Addict. After choosing a book, the reader is then escorted by a librarian to their book. After a few minutes’ introduction by the book, readers then ask their questions. If these questions are too uncomfortable, the book simply answers: “That part of my story has not been published yet”.

Van Schalkwyk says that some of the conversations can get a bit heated but this is rare. “Mostly, though, it’s kind of an exchange of courage on both the reader and book’s part.”

As to why people choose to sign up as books, Van Schalkwyk says: “I think it’s just because so many people have survived so many things and want to make a difference through sharing their story.

“But I also think that South Africans realise that changing people’s minds about something is not going to happen on social media platforms … but actually [by] having a conversation that will allow them to share their personal experience,” he adds.

Zeta Alexander is another book. Speaking with a candour similar to Hans’s, the 30-year-old talks about suffering from –depression and how it pushed her into the clutches of drug addiction. This, in turn, forced her to put her two-year-old son in the care of her family and, later, led her into an abusive relationship.

“I thought he would be able to control me and pull me in line, because I obviously couldn’t pull myself together. The abuse didn’t start immediately, maybe six or seven months into the relationship,” she says, adding: “But I also think that at the time, my mindset was, ‘this is what I deserve; this is my punishment for giving my son up.’ ”

The abuse became more and more severe until she eventually told him she was leaving.

“But he started hitting me really, really bad. One of his friends tried stopping him. They ended up stabbing each other. My husband was killed.”

By being a book Alexander has to regularly relive her trauma, but it helps her. “It’s my way to get my message out there, because I’m not able to do the whole public speaking thing — on stage or in churches. I can’t do it. I get so nervous. So Human Library is perfect for me, because it’s one-on-one conversations. So it’s easier for me.

“It’s my therapy. How I deal with things. I’ve learnt that keeping things inside destroys you even more,” she adds.

“My main thing is I want to tell people who might be in my situation that it’s not okay. It’s not okay for somebody to hit you. You know, in our coloured communities, [being hit] is, like, it’s okay. It’s how we grow up. But it’s not okay. With the first slap, there must be no turning back. My mission is to help others who are in my situation.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa
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