The Grassroots Narrative Emerging From Manenberg
“Nowadays, the township of Manenberg may be synonymous with poverty, crime and violence…[there is] still a beloved anthem of hope, resistance and resilience and a celebration of human dignity in the face of brutality and evil. We can also hear in those entrancing chords and ebullient Cape jazz rhythms a life-affirming joy and the desire to survive against all odds.”
– Lindsay Johns on jazz song “Mannenberg,” (1974) composed by Abdullah Ibrahim, Cape Town pianist.
No one takes a visit to Manenberg at face value. When South African locals learn you are venturing into Manenberg territory, the general consensus is this: don’t. The responses are comprised of raised eyebrows, concerned inquiries (“Why would you ever go there?”), along with a mixture of flustered laughs and general bewilderment. These interactions are awkward and disheartening, yet not without merit. People are right to be at least a little tentative.
The township is widely known as a community riddled by extreme poverty and gang activity, notorious for their steady stream of senseless killings. A simple search of recent headlines out of Manenberg will confirm this narrative: “Living in Manenberg Increases Your Chances of Being Murdered” (Cape Argus), “Cape Town Neighborhood Rocked by Gang Shooting in Broad Daylight” (The South African), “Man Killed, Child Wounded in ‘Gang Crossfire’ in Manenberg” (Independent Online). To know Manenberg is to understand that the dialogue surrounding the community appears dim, seemingly hopeless.
A township of Cape Town, Manenberg was established in 1966, designed for low-income coloured families during the apartheid reign and a further implementation of the Group Areas Act. Born out of forced removal and designated solely for coloured South Africans (the local parlance for people of mixed racial heritage*), the township was intended to keep those who inhabited Manenberg at bay so white Africans could hold a favorable advantage in Cape Town’s city center. The township succeeded in doing what it was created to do: suppress upward mobility and limit, if not extinguish outright, opportunity in colored communities. Manenberg was birthed out of inequality, and it has been home to an ever-present outcry for resolution and justice since.
The main road leading into Manenberg is paved with discarded items, fragments of things lost and pulverized. Tangled plastic bags roll like tumbleweed across the empty street. Shards of sun-warped glass sprout from parched ground. Buildings are barred and graffitied, and there is an air of near desolation. It is a place removed, void of opportunity. It appears the strolling pedestrians of Manenberg are just as cautious as those who refuse to step foot in the township, both wary and somewhat puzzled by the presence of visitors. It is here, on this main road built of shattered glass, that the majority of killings take place, often in the crossfire of the most prominent gangs—rivals “The Americans” and the “Hard Livings.”
“Manenberg was birthed out of inequality, and it has been home to an ever-present outcry for resolution and justice since.”
Yes, this is part of Manenberg, but it is merely Manenberg at a glance, the surface of an entire world mishandled and dismissed.
Winding back through residential roads, the township is tidy, kept. Darting children play improvised games with pool poles. Damp cotton shirts strung out on high lines billow in the wind. There is an arching overhang of drying, rippling attire, a testament to the sheer number of residents who call Manenberg home—nearly 54,000. A few blocks away, around the corner, there is a taupe home with a gated driveway. This is the lovely, unruffled abode of the Lear family.
If you had asked Nick Lear in the beginning if this house would be the backdrop to his children’s formative years, if he and his wife Cate would choose to raise their family in a township, if he would ever leave his beloved London behind to build something new in South Africa—the question might not have even been dignified with a response. Surely it would have been no. Surely this was not something in the cards for the Lear family.
And yet, here they are. One of the three Lear children, their oldest daughter, is running barefoot in the grass. Cate is loading and rearranging the car for a weekend camping trip. The family’s guard dog, Benji, is off duty, dozing in the shade nearby. Here, the Lear family is living in the midst of a neighborhood shrouded with misconceptions. They make up the .02 percent of the population that is white in Manenberg, translating to a total of 11 white people living in the community. The Lears are the minority, the white British family who happened to move in next door.
Nick is soft-spoken and intuitive; Cate, someone who has mastered the crux of kindness and strength. Both are deeply intelligent. Their home has an air of refuge; an exhale embodied. In the backyard, Nick and Freddie Reed, his friend and partner at Manenberg Films, sit down on the stoop to share the vision for the township and the hope that is crystalizing before their eyes in the hearts of Manenberg.
A little over a decade ago, Nick was nearing the height of his career in London as a film editor. He was working with prestigious directors, partnering with top brands, editing music videos that garnered millions of views, and even directed his way into the iconic Cannes film festival, premiering a short film there in 2008. Everything was within reach; the life Nick had dreamed of creating for himself was taking shape.
“I was doing well. My career was really taking off,” he says. “And at the same time, I felt like God was taking me on a different journey, towards something else…and I was kind of resisting that, because it didn’t align with my career. My career was all day, all evening, weekends—it was pretty full on. But at the same time, I recognized I was on this other journey.”
Nick felt a subtle uneasiness begin to gnaw at him. He moved out of his flat in a wealthy part of London and relocated to an impoverished area, widely accepted as the projects of London. In wake of the move, the gnawing feeling continued to grow—a stronger wave of general discontentment mixed with a desire for something more. Around this time, Nick met Cate and began to fall in love with her. She was working for a radical ministry in London and profoundly influenced Nick, who was still taking on ambitious projects in the film industry. Out for an evening in London together, they encountered a homeless man, an inevitable interaction on the streets of the city.
“Suddenly I was just weeping…I felt as though the Spirit was trying to show me a vision. Like the kind of vision I would see for a film.”
“We stopped and chatted to this one guy. I had done some stuff with the homeless, but I was still a little bit uncomfortable. [I told Cate], ‘You chat with him, he wants to chat with you.’ She said, ‘No, just sit down.’ I ended up turning to this guy and hearing his story. The next day I said [to Cate], ‘Thank you for inviting me into that situation.’ Suddenly I was just weeping…I felt as though the Spirit was trying to show me a vision. Like the kind of vision I would see for a film. I could see very clearly, I needed to go on a completely different track. I needed to give up my career. I needed to be dedicating my life to those in need.”
Not long after that, I got a call from two massive jobs, easily bigger than any jobs I had ever done, and I had to say no. Not as in, ‘I have to say no…’ It was just so clear, like I almost didn’t want to do it anymore. Because even in that one time of prayer, God kind of healed this sense of grief, where you have a lifelong dream and then you give it up. He healed it and so it actually made it relatively easy to say no to these other things.” Nick pauses. “It was a bit like a lightning bolt. Suddenly God just showing me, get out and do something else.”
Newfound revelation in hand, Nick departed from life as he knew it and submitted to the next leg of the “other” journey. The process was filled with trial and error—attempts to strike a balance in the midst of immersing himself in the life he felt the Spirit was asking him to live. Nick started ministering to and dwelling with the homeless. “I reacted quite extremely to various things. I would go and sit on the street, even overnight, in homeless communities. Which was without support, I was doing it by myself. To be honest, it was a pretty unwise and rough time, because I was just hanging out with guys who were like really drunk, a bit violent. I was doing quite a lot, doing it by myself, pushing myself, just trying to do what I felt called to.”
Nick and Cate soon married. They spent those initial few months as husband and wife quieting their lives; they had slow mornings, read scripture, rested. Nick was working a bit on the side. Both felt those months offered a space to breathe and enjoy one another as the Lord ushered them into what was next. “We both wondered, ‘What do you really think we should be doing?’ And we both said, ‘We should be going abroad, doing missions.’”
Cate had read about a three month school offered overseas in Mozambique, a starting point for ordinary radicals seeking to dig deeper into meaningful, Gospel-driven life. “Shane Claiborne’s idea of heart logic had been a big influence on me. I really felt like I needed to go on a pilgrimage or a journey as a next step. We decided to go over land through Syria and Sudan, before arriving in Mozambique.” Nick and Cate started their pilgrimage, spending time in pre-war Damascus and parts of Sudan, before officially moving to Mozambique to start their school of development.
In Mozambique, Cate and Nick were in charge of a local kitchen, feeding around 2,000 kids a day. No one in the village spoke English, so the Lears started to learn Portuguese and the local African dialect. At the end of the school, the Lears chose to extend their commitment. “We felt God calling us to stay, so we ended up staying four years in Mozambique. At that stage, I didn’t even tell anyone I did film. I really felt that God would call me [to do so] when the time was right.”
During their four years in Mozambique, Cate and Nick became parents to two of their three beautiful children. During each pregnancy, the Lears would frequent South Africa, visiting friends in Cape Town. “Whenever we had a kid, we’d come to Cape Town. It was this totally different experience. We hung out with people, made friends with the people in the church. [We were] really excited by the ministry here.” Nick started to apply the concept of incarnational ministry to his view of Cape Town, an idea introduced in a book he had read by John Haynes.
“We decided to go over land through Syria and Sudan, before arriving in Mozambique.”
As he explains it, “You live in a marginalized community, you experience what they experience, you walk around and get a sense of what it’s actually like to be here, not just visiting. This idea [of incarnational ministry] really got through to me. It seemed to me that that’s what we should be doing.”
The Lears learned of Manenberg through Pete Portal (who has recently written of his own experience moving in), a friendship that had formed during their trips to Cape Town. Pete had visited Manenberg ten years ago while on a short missions trip, then relocated permanently after he felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to do so. Pete and his wife, Sarah, still live in Manenberg, running a discipleship house for those affected by addiction only a few houses down from the Lear residence.
Nick surveys his hands, then smiles. “After our time in Mozambique finished, we came here [to Cape Town] and both got to a point where we were up for moving in. Which obviously took time, and there was fear and so on, and we have three young kids as well, so everyone says, ‘What are you doing?’”
The Lear family moved into the neighborhood.
The Lears began integrating into Manenberg, seizing opportunities to form connections with their new neighbors. As the family adjusted to life in the township, Nick’s draw to film was slowly, pointedly reinvigorated. “I had kind of given up film for five, six years and moved here [Manenberg] to be part of the church. At the beginning, I was just sitting with a friend’s child in class, which was quite an experience…schools here are very rough. Then things started coming up, [film-related] projects and such that I could help out with. As things came up, I thought, ‘Yeah, I could make a video for that. I could do that.’”
After a tragedy struck in the community, Nick crafted a ten-minute film as a testimony for his friend. This project broke open a new wave of holy creativity in Nick. He made an informal, rejuvenated return to his medium of choice, finding ways to connect to the community through visual storytelling and editing skills within film. “[I realized] I could start a company with a difference. I read a long time ago about social businesses, exploring this question: What if the aim of the business was not to maximize profit, but maximize social good? I just loved that idea. Until I came here, there wasn’t really a place for it.”
Out of this idea, Manenberg Films was born. Lear imagined a film company that would put all its profits back into a community, with a film school that would embolden disadvantaged and curious students in the neighborhood. The hope was to not only train and provide opportunities for students to enter the film industry, but to run a production company. Manenberg Films would be paid to create films that would then fund the school. “I’m excited to be a part of this whole space of social enterprise, showing that business can make a difference, in a different way than charity can, and potentially even in better ways. It’s more empowering, and in a way where people are the example. There’s not loads of that in Cape Town.”
As Nick explored this idea of Gospel-driven social enterprise in the context of Manenberg, a young director of photography (DoP) from London, Freddie Reed, reached out to him. He had felt the Spirit’s pull to South Africa and wanted to join forces with Nick in the work at hand. “I messaged Nick, and we met here one or two weeks into my stay in Cape Town,” Freddie says. “We shared both of our stories and then things just sort of clicked into place, in many, many ways. Relatively similar stories, even to the fact that I am a DoP and he’s an editor. Even in making a film, that’s sort of a dream combination. That was the beginning—it wasn’t planned really at all. I thought, ‘I’m sure he’s got everything he needs, he probably doesn’t need me to help him at all.’”
“What if the aim of the business was not to maximize profit, but maximize social good?”
Little did Freddie know, Nick’s most fervent prayer that year was, “Please, send someone to work with me.” Nick continues, “The quality in terms of Freddie’s film technique, his servant heart, how he is with our kids—it was just so much more than I expected. Since Freddie has come, it’s absolutely blossomed. The number of open doors and the amount of favor is unbelievable.”
Manenberg Films took shape. In October of 2018, after hitting a few dead ends, Nick and Freddie started promoting the school with a poster. “Nick knew good places to share the poster. In three, four days over 10,000 people in the community knew about the school. A grandma would show it to a friend, and we had 30-40 applications within a week of sending it out. Nick and I raced around Manenberg. We decided we would meet with everyone who met the criteria, people who lived in Manenberg. We met with them to hear their context, to see if they were ready.”
That next month, in November, the week-long course was held, bringing in 11 students from ages 18-35 from the Manenberg community. The students were taught technical skills, developed an eye and ear for storytelling, and were given both authority and tools to reframe their own stories. The influence of the first school was huge; the students were empowered, curious, excited. It was a smashing success.
Freddie’s face lights up as he talks about the experience. “They were incredibly keen and hungry to learn. These students are chasing after opportunities, but it’s really hard to create. A lot of them aren’t in employment…and they were great at what they did. They would go and make films about each other, three different films. I edited them and we did a screening. The films were really, really good. What the students learned in such a short space and time was incredible. A technical ability, or the knowledge…what was different, in my understanding, after seeing a lot of different creative shoots, is that they really wanted it — they really enjoyed it. They were so interested. They had a lot of hope for what they could do with it. And they still do. And that was the beginning.”
The hope of the school is to eventually usher the students into the film industry. One of the former students, Aldrige Beck, is currently interning at Manenberg Films; hopefully the first of many. Nick grows excited as he shares the vision. “It’s all about the film school students. The idea they could really get into the film industry. In Cape Town, with the kind of racial stuff and the poverty, and the lack of opportunities, it would be way beyond their grasp to get into that. There’s still a lot of racism, a lot of profiling. ‘Oh you’re from Manenberg? Don’t come to our shoot.’ There’s a lot of different barriers to that. And we can kind of smash through the barrier. We can hold their hands and other people’s hands and join them…and then back away slowly. And what’s amazing is that both people on either side of that equation are really interested.”
There is a shift in the conversation back to Manenberg in its current state; it is a mixed bag of depravity and redemption, seemingly without hope to South African authorities. The toil towards a better tomorrow is slow, tedious work. “[I mean] the government created this place to separate people. Townships, these projects, were created from scratch so you had somewhere to live. They [the government] really mucked them [coloured and black people] around. They had been living with friends [of all races], and friends knew their kids, and suddenly they lost all that social cohesion. Out of that is how gangs grew up, drug use and violence grew up. How they were birthed was in pain, it tore away their social cohesion. And it hasn’t massively changed…it hasn’t really healed from the 60’s to now. If anything it’s probably gotten worse. There’s been some real dips. It’s not as bad now as when we first moved in. You never know if the gangs are going to fight or not. Two months fighting, four months off. Suddenly they fight again with no warning.” Nick speaks about his neighborhood’s gang violence without fear; there is only deep sorrow in his voice.
Freddie nods, then recounts his first experience with the rampant gang violence in the community. Freddie’s car was caught in a surprise crossfire between The Americans and the Hard Livings as they drove down the street. “The car in front reversed into my car as it was trying to get out of the way. It was chaos. I was quite shaken up, but the people (Manenberg locals) in my car were unsurprised.” Freddie shakes his head, both slightly amused and disbelieving. “I’m almost grateful for it. It gave me an insight to what people here really experience. Shocking to me, nothing to them.”
Nick closes our conversation with an encounter he had with a hit-man in the neighborhood. Upon discovering how the mercenary made his livelihood, Nick asked him, “Do you not at all fear judgement?” To which the man responded, “I am already in hell.”
Nick pauses. “But the truth is he’s not. There is so much light here that won’t be there in hell, so much beauty. There are hundreds of invisible, faithful pray-ers here who’ve been praying for years.” He continues, “We aren’t bringing the light. The light is already here. The church life in Manenberg is quite healthy. There’s so much white savior mentality, almost colonial, ‘We need to come and teach you the Gospel’—yet so many people here know so much more than I do. I think part of my story is that I’ve read history, and I’ve realized that the British caused a lot of this [systemic racism]. I can be a small part in rewriting the narrative. It’s so much easier to cause a mess [such as apartheid] than to clean it up. I don’t think we can do it by ourselves; we need each other. But I know the light is already here.”
Manenberg is resilient, disarmingly beautiful, as raw as it is dignified. Trust is a conversation Manenberg is not only willing to engage in, but initiate. The community is closely knit together, despite what gang alliance and violent acts might have others believe. Mothers are fierce and respected, wise matriarchs advocating for their dismissed youth. Hope is infallible. As Freddie says, “Our film students are hopeful. I think it’s amazing that they have this hope. I feel responsible to hope as well—it is a powerful thing.”
“There are hundreds of invisible, faithful pray-ers here who’ve been praying for years.”
A recent headline out of Manenberg: “Gangs Down Weapons as Thousands Gather to Break Fast in Manenberg” (Times Live). Manenberg carries hope as if with child, waiting but expectant. Redemption is not only coming but has arrived, pockets unearthed in communal gatherings, in homes, in churches, in township streets. Found in the Lear home and in Freddie Reed, found in the neighbors down the road and in the students crafting films at Manenberg Films. It is evident that the residents of Manenberg are indeed expectant, ready to tell their own narrative with refreshed language and eyesight. To know Manenberg in full is to know a renewed world is on her way, reframed and robust, told best by those who belong not only to her, but to one another.
Photos by Charlotte Simon.
Visit the Manenberg Film School website for more information.
*Author’s note: The Group Areas Act of 1950 further solidified the distinction and separation of three people groups in South Africa: Blacks, Whites, and Coloureds. This was not the first time “coloured” was used to describe those of mixed racial heritage in South Africa—the term dates back much farther than apartheid. Within the landscape of American language and politics, the term might cause confusion or bring offense. While we at Nations Media acknowledge this, the South African landscape is notably different from the United States and thus should be treated differently. Both those inside and outside South African coloured communities associate the word coloured with a distinct culture, a term to mark a people group with its own customs and sensibilities—it is even something to be celebrated. Out of respect for this cultural context and the stories we are honored to share from this country, we have chosen to use the word coloured in our South Africa reporting to provide the most accurate and honoring storytelling we can.