Even the gangsters of Lavender Hill are on lockdown.
“You can look there, all those guys standing there with their bakkies are gangsters. But the gang leaders are quiet, and these guys don’t have work. They realise now that these gang leaders can’t look after them.”
Mark Nicholson, the force behind the Lavender Hill Sports Club, points to a group of men in their twenties and thirties, awkwardly clutching empty margarine tubs or plastic bakkies on the side of a large grass field where Nicholson and his wife, Shireen, feed about 60 children every day.
Mark and Shireen Nicholson have stepped in when the school feeding scheme shut down in Lavender Hill due to the coronavirus lockdown. (Photo: Jan Ras)
These adult men are last in the queue after the children have been fed. Hunger does not discriminate between the Mongrels, Fast Guns and Corner Boys.
The Nicholsons are the last line of defence between the children of this notorious gangland on the Cape Flats and starvation.
During normal times, Mark, who works as a maintenance manager in Maitland, runs a sports club for the children of Lavender Hill to keep them away from the guns and drugs. He coaches soccer, netball and rugby on this piece of land, also referred to as “die oorlogsveld” (the battlefield), where shootouts between opposing gangs were an everyday occurrence.
But these are not normal times and the battleground has united the residents of Lavender Hill against a common enemy: hunger. The devastating consequences of the government’s lockdown policy to curb the spread of Covid-19 are crudely on display in this impoverished area.
These children rely on the school feeding scheme for their only hot meal of the day. With schools shut, and no government-sponsored food parcels in sight, the Nicholsons have stepped up their feeding scheme to feed their neighbours seven days a week.
“We used to give food twice a week, after sporting activities, but the need increased drastically after the lockdown. People here work in construction and maintenance. They have been out of work for weeks. Some of them are too embarrassed to come out and collect food. We deliver food to their houses. We also take food to the elderly.”
Inside their humble home, the Nicholsons have two gas stoves running almost permanently. They now serve two meals per day, seven days a week. At noon, it is a hot stew with porridge, bread and apples. At 17:00, they serve another hot meal of pasta and pilchards.
By 11:30 the children from the area start to gather on the battleground with their bakkies. Their daughter, Natasha, and other volunteers put out orange traffic cones to make sure social distancing is observed.
Some of the children wear face masks, but most do not. It is not an essential item when you are in a daily battle against hunger.
At the beginning of the lockdown period in March, hundreds of children queued for food, but it was picked up by the government’s CCTV cameras and they were asked to lower the number. Luckily, more Good Samaritans moved into the area to feed some of the other blocks of flats, or as they are called here, “courts”.
Once the children are seated and the pots of hot, steaming food are ready to be served, Mark reminds the kids to wash their hands with soap. “How many times per day do you wash your hands? I wash 30 times. Remember to wash between the fingers as well. If you don’t wash, you will infect your grannies and mothers and fathers, and you don’t want that.”
He says a prayer and asks for Lavender Hill to be safeguarded from the coronavirus.
His helpers collect the children’s bakkies with serving trays and return them filled with food. Many of the kids immediately leave the field with their hot meals, probably to be shared at home.
“The children are depressed. They want to go back to school. They don’t understand what is going on.” Mark explains to them that when winter comes, they will deliver their meals to their homes, because they do not want the children to come out in the cold or rain.
The Nicholsons depend on volunteers and donations to top-up their own means to cater daily. During our visit, people from outside the area arrived with bread, maize meal and rice. The former Springbok hooker Dale Santon, who runs a support programme for SA Rugby Legends, delivered a few snoek and bread.
Professor Jonathan Jansen once called people like the Nicholsons South Africa’s “moral underground”. There are thousands like them all over South Africa at this moment, saving millions of people from the biggest, immediate health threat to their lives: malnourishment and starvation.
If you would like to donate to the Lavender Hill Sports Club feeding scheme, contact Mark Nicholson on 063 567 3739. They are in need of vegetables for soup; lentils; beans; dhal; spaghetti; pasta; fish oil; rice and sugar. Cash donations for food can be paid into this account:
Capitec savings account
Branch code: 470010