At 7:30 AM, like the rest of Cape Town, I hop into a taxi to go to work. Unlike most of Cape Town, I am white. I am wealthy. And instead of heading from my one-room township shack to clean a suburban guesthouse, I am heading from my guest house to work in the shacks of the black and Cape Malay townships.
I’m doing admissions visits with Christel House, reviewing applicants’ cases and determining whether they qualify to get in. This means I hop into a van with Shaheen every morning. [Shaheen is my favorite person in Cape Town. He’s a school driver. He’s 5′ 10″, Cape Malay, has light grey eyes, and a small black mole on his left cheek. Neither of us understand each other’s English. I bake him challah, he supplies me with vetkoek. I’m hoping he’ll teach me to drive stick, but can’t explain to him what I’m asking. Shaheen is 52 years old and I consider him my closest Cape Town friend]
Shaheen, social worker Danielle, and I shoot down the highway to Langa, Pumlani, Manenberg. We drop by to an applicant’s house, unannounced. We’re here to determine the family’s poverty level. I can do the interview portion by heart.
“What’s your family’s combined income?”
“How many child support grants do you receive?”
“Where is the applicant’s father?”
“How old is your microwave? Where is your water heater from?”
“How many people share this bed? Does anyone sleep on your sofa?”
“How far away is your bathroom? Water source?”
All of these are veiled versions of the same essential question: Are you poor enough to send your child to this school? It is very sad. Are you poor enough, are you poor enough, are you poor enough… over and over. I am a shitty judge. There are so many people who I am not allowed to help. (I’ve attached the evaluation form at the end, for those interested in the determining poverty aspect).
Then, I walk around with Christel House’s digital camera (one that could pay this family’s rent for three years), and take pictures inside their cabinets and fridge, look for hidden microwaves, try to find hidden cables and speakers. One family was in danger of being turned down for having expensive cheese. The expensive cheese was $4.
One visit sticks out. For once, it was a father who was home, and before the interview, he asked us to hold hands, to invite God to join us. His left wrist revealed a few tattoos. He told us about his life, which revolved around church. He met his wife there, he’s a youth leader, wants to be a pastor. Their house was standard, one room.
The dad rolled up his sleeves and showed us his gang tattoos. He told us, with the distinct detached earnestness of an addict practiced in telling his story of self, about being in a gang, selling drugs, protecting his territory in Manenberg. One death too many brought him “into Gods’ palms,” and he gave it all up. Got a bursary, took night classes at the high school nearby, and started to repair gangsters’ computers for some cash. Now he’s taking classes at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and wants to be a software engineer.
I barely have time to absorb the story as I scribble notes, but I recognize this is going to be a green, an acceptance. The story, which will be reviewed by the head honcho “Joe” at the school’s headquarters in Indianapolis, is so very Rockefellerian. It stinks of the American Dream, with the faintest whiffs of Pope of Greenwich Village gangsterism. Joe in Indianapolis will eat it up.
Other people, like the mom making R1500 a month (about $100) for an extended family of 7, won’t make the cut. Her husband bought her a DVD player before he left a few years ago, and Joe in Indianapolis is going to flag the application with the words “sign of wealth.” Her income is really considered too high. When I climb into the van after that interview, after talking with the crying mother and sitting on the couch where three people sleep, I tell Shaheen “I hope they’re poor enough.”
The rest of my days are spent with the Christel House kids.
Enter Rivaldo. He’s 9, and is escorted to my office by a girl twice his height. From what I gather from her story, Rivaldo has been sent to the office because he has four pairs of scissors, only one of which is his. I realize this is the famous Rivaldo, described by a woman in the office as an unfeeling sociopath, the source of her nightmares for the past three months, and the devil in child’s form.
So 9-year-old Rivaldo has four pairs of scissors, and has been sent from math class because “Miss, my teacher can’t deal with me anymore, Miss.” Rivaldo has threatened to stab everyone in his class, but “I wouldn’t stab you, Miss. You are nice.”
I am a little afraid of Rivaldo, whose tall female classmate says I’m not allowed to send him back to class. I turn my attention to the girl, and she tells me she wants to be a lawyer, a public defender. For good career practice, I suggest she develop a case for Rivaldo, try to defend him. Rivaldo is happy with me. I am safe. We are having fun.
Rivaldo, I decide, will be defendant, judge, and jury. I’ll be court stenographer. The stuffed therapy bear is prosecutor. Rivaldo shouts instructions to the girl while she writes her case in red marker, then runs away to find a witness.
Rivaldo comes by two days later with a scared-looking 10th grader (“my witness!!”) who tells me it’s “totally fine” that Rivaldo has his scissors and Rivaldo can “totally” keep them for as long as he wants. When Rivaldo decides he only needs one pair of scissors anyway, the teddy bear and I are satisfied with the arrangement
I’d have kept those scissors, too.