Behind the scenes: my ultimate test as a new South African

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Spoek Mathambo, Laura Gamse, and Bernard Myburgh conduct an interview

It was with a heavy heart that I entered Pickwicks bar late one night on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street. I had spent seven long months scouring South Africa for musicians, searching for the future subjects of my documentary. Yet night after night, open mic after open mic, I was unable to find the perfect fit. Meanwhile, I received a proper “welcome” to South Africa’s dark underside; I had been robbed twice, received a death threat, narrowly missed getting hit by bb gun bullets and had the wheel from my rental car stolen while it was parked outside of a new friend’s home. I was in Cape Town on a Fulbright scholarship, working in the same township where previous Fulbright student Amy Biehl had been killed by a mob in 1994. Murder rates in the western cape had since increased.  As I found the last seat at yet another open mic, I resigned myself to a night of sober, solo listening.

I’m not sure what it was about me that caught Nahum’s eye. From my frazzled appearance to begrudging-the-world posture, I can’t say I was the most approachable person in the room. All I know is that a bright-eyed, emaciated-looking South African walked straight up to me and said, “Hello. What is your name?” Without any seats left in the house, I tried to make room for him on the bench next to me. As he squirmed easily into the narrow space, he wasted no time in informing me that he was looking for a job and a place to live. I mentally winced as I remembered the last homeless guy that I tried to help. That situation had led to the above-mentioned death threat: a drunken tirade promising to “bring violence” on my “American home.”

Yet as I sat with Nahum throughout the remainder of the night, I listened to his story. He was an MC from the Eastern Cape who had recently moved to Cape Town to earn some money for his fiance and the baby they were expecting in another four months. Unable to find work in the township he grew up in, Nahum moved to Cape Town (where South Africa’s rich and fashionable come to parade and sunbathe and, inadvertently, create jobs). But like so many other young people in a country with roughly 40% unemployed citizens, Nahum had no luck in his search. I was surprised when I asked Nahum what type of work he would like to do, and he responded, “Producing film and music. I am a producer and a creator.”  Resolved to ignore the nagging voice in my head that told me Nahum could be another thief or worse, I told him the truth. “I’m making a documentary on South African music.” Then, before I could stop myself, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

The next day Nahum was helping me navigate the Cape Flats — one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods — to pick up a musician for a shoot. We had met at the same cafe, Nahum holding a copy of his passport which I had asked him to bring “for insurance purposes.” The truth was that I wanted his ID in case he stole my camera. He silently complied, not asking any questions.

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Nahum at work

When we got to the musician’s gig, I taught Nahum how to zoom and focus my Sony EX3 – a camera that I had flown back to the U.S. to purchase (which was more affordable than simply buying it in South Africa).  It was also the biggest investment I had made in my life. A few weeks earlier, I had been filming in the middle of the day inside a band’s studio when a man broke down the door (not so hard to do since the studio was a shack made of corrugated metal). He charged me with bloodshot eyes, reaching for the camera as the band held him back.  He didn’t get the camera, but I got one hell of a shot.  It didn’t make it into the documentary, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Having had the camera nearly stolen a few weeks earlier, I watched Nahum like a hawk.   I was soon impressed with his slow and gentle approach.  It wasn’t long before Nahum was accompanying me to all of my shoots.  When gangsters would stroll by with their eyes on the camera, he would stand between us and tell me what they had been hissing (“Get it from the white girl!”).

Nahum won my trust when we packed up a shoot in a particularly dangerous area of the Flats. He told me that his friend lived nearby, and offered to take me there for dinner. Cautiously, I said yes; he proceeded to direct me deeper and deeper into the Flats. We parked on an avenue I had never been to before, and I locked my car about nine times before walking to the door of a small house. Nahum knocked as I surveyed the area, mentally registering the fastest escape route.

The door opened, and I was ushered into a loudest, brightest, friendliest room you can imagine. Children ran in and out as women worked in every corner of the small kitchen with babies strapped to their backs. Nahum quickly made off with the men and I was given the task of chopping meat. I shyly offered to chop vegetables instead; “I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t—”

“VEGETARIAN!” the host cut me off, not needing an explanation. “Like Nahum!”

“Really? Nahum?” I asked, wondering why I didn’t know this already.

“Yebo, Nahum is a vegan!” the women informed me, pushing me towards a cutting board with vegetables piled on top.

That evening, I dined with the friendliest people I had met in South Africa. The children climbed all over me, the teenagers asked what celebrities I had met, and the adults told me about African Hebrews — the group some had joined as teenagers that influenced their decisions to become vegans. Nahum explained that the group had prepared him and his friends to adopt healthy and independent lifestyles, unlike many who ate the fried meat and dough ubiquitous in the townships. Eventually he left the group, preferring, as he put it, “the messiah within.” He had remained a vegan ever since.

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Ongama (Ongx) Mona on guitar, filmed by Bernard Myburgh and Laura Gamse

It’s one thing to be a vegan in the middle of Portland.  Another thing completely in the middle of a barren township in South Africa.  Impressed by the first homeless vegan I had ever met, I began to chat more with Nahum on our daily drives to and from the townships. He told me that life without a home was exhausting, and that he would be alright if he simply had a place — any place — to lay his head down at night.

I asked my English South African housemate whether Nahum could surf our couch for a week or so. His immediate response: “No.” It didn’t surprise me. Though many young white South Africans I met recoiled at the word “racist,” they also recoiled at any suggestion of interracial living. Gumtree, South Africa’s version of Craigslist, was littered with apartments posted for “whites only please.”  “No disrespect.”  Many people had suffered multiple robberies or car-jackings and used these incidents as evidence against any real-life manifestation of South Africa’s famed “Rainbow Nation.” Though no one would say it out loud, it was clear that some white South Africans felt that black people had their place: in the townships.

Nahum did not want his first born to grow up in a township. For one, the murder rate is devastating. Even after apartheid ended in 1994, the number of murders in South Africa exceeded the number of American soldiers’ deaths in Vietnam – by four times. The rate of violence against women is among the highest in the world. And the schools are falling apart, attended infrequently and often taught by untrained and undereducated teachers.

Nahum wanted more, and I could not blame him. He had been through more than those of us who live in the world’s wealthier nations could imagine. So when my housemate left on a month-long business trip, I took a chance. Against my housemate’s wishes, I invited Nahum to come stay in the empty bedroom. Nahum accepted, but would not sleep in the bedroom of someone who did not want him there. “Bad vibes,” he said. He slept on the couch.

By this point, I knew Nahum well enough to be sure he wouldn’t pillage the place. What I couldn’t have expected was the supreme peace that he brought into our home. He taught me how to bake delicious vegan pizza. I helped him write a cover letter for his college application. He laughed when my wet clothes were stolen from the community washing machine and taught me how to wash clothes “the African way” — in the bathtub.

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“Become the owner of the land we occupy!!”

Living with Nahum prepared me for my ultimate test as a new South African. One day I returned home to find that the external hard drive containing my documentary footage was missing. Days, weeks, months, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of footage, gone.  Six months earlier I might have broken down and asked Nahum to leave. As it was, I muffled my gut reaction. I asked Nahum if he had seen the drive. He said no. I asked the friends who had been in my room. They all said no. I locked my remaining hard drive in my closet (I had backed up half of the footage, but only half) and went out again with Nahum the next day to start shooting all over again.

I continued to live and shoot with Nahum for about two weeks before I found out what had happened. I had racked my brain over whether to trust Nahum, and racked Nahum’s brain over whether we could trust our maid — a woman who my former housemate had hired to clean the house once a week. Nahum refused to overthink it.  He didn’t pass judgement or expend breath defending himself. He just said that he didn’t know. He didn’t show any shock or indignation over the loss.  He wasn’t unsympathetic, but his silence reflected a reality I might have otherwise overlooked. The loss of a hard drive full of documentary footage is nothing compared to real loss; the type of loss that is a fact of everyday existence for South Africans who have lost their homes, families, communities and traditions.

The next week my housemate’s maid did not come to work, but the following week she showed up. Nahum and I were out on a shoot when I received a text message from her. “I found R900 under the speaker,” she wrote. “I will place it on your desk.”

“Thank you” I wrote back. I didn’t need to ask any questions. I had not left any money under the speaker, and neither had Nahum. She certainly hadn’t placed the money there as a gift — it was more than the amount my housemate paid her each month. The R900 amounted to slightly over $100 – about the amount one might receive for a used hard drive sold on the street.

She continued to stop by each week, and I told her that it didn’t feel right for her, a young mother, to clean up after me. She said that she needed the money, and we agreed that she would stop by each week and have lunch with me instead. She continued to clean the house afterwards — she said she didn’t want to accept money for nothing — but the dynamic of our relationship changed. I learned that she was a religious woman and that her son had recently been so sick she had to take him on an expensive trip to the hospital.  Luckily, she “found” the money and he lived through the incident.  She continued to express interest in whether I was able to re-shoot the scenes I needed for my documentary.

I’ll never know what exactly happened to that hard drive, but now it is the least of my concerns. I could make the choice to mistrust my fellow people, like so many have done during apartheid and afterwards, or I could invest my trust in a new future for all.

No one could have made this more clear to me than Nahum, the producer of The Creators.  After we finished the documentary, he moved into a new home with his fiancé and their four-month-old daughter. No longer homeless or jobless, he is working professionally as a producer in the South African film industry. His daughter will grow up in a new world, with the best of guides.