Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Babalwa Zono was born on 12 July 1980 in ill-fated Crossroads, a shantytown near Cape Town International Airport. As the name suggests, Crossroads was originally established as a transit living space for non-white South Africans in the 1970s. Initially consisting of scrub and no infrastructure, men, women and children set about building informal dwellings or shacks from wood, corrugated sheets of iron and plastic. By 1977 some 18 000 people were living there including the Zono family.


Babalwa Zono was born on 12 July 1980. She says, “my mother said I was very beautiful”. Babalwa means ‘gifted’. “Am I gifted?” she says. “I don’t know but I know I was a blessing. I was a gift to my family. After my older sister, my mother suffered three miscarriages before me. I also have a younger sister. We are all very close”.

Babalwa describes her childhood as simple and happy. Her mother was quiet and loving and her father was gentle, thoughtful and kind. He was a foreman in the construction industry. Her mother was a stay at home Mom. They were always present in her young life.

Some of her earliest memories include playing with handcrafted dolls, pretending that plastic cups were cars, helping her mother cook and clean, spending time with her best friend Portia and listening to her father’s stories.

To kill a chief

Of the stories he told her, one that she remembers vividly is the one about the mob slaughter of his village chief. Pre-Crossroads, in the late 1960s to early 1970s, the township in which her father lived was overseen by community elders and a chief. This is customary in Xhosa culture.

Certain members of the community didn’t like the chief for various reasons. The local community became increasingly disgruntled and formed an angry mob that wanted the chief dead. Babalwa’s father tried to reason with them to find another way to solve their issues, but, gathering in numbers, the mob prepared to march to the chief’s house with spears in their hands.

Fight or flight

Babalwa’s father wanted to prevent bloodshed. So he implored the chief to run, but the chief said he was standing his ground. So he appealed to the South African Police (SAP). Years later the post apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission would unearth countless cases of police collusion in Crossroads violence during the apartheid era. Nonetheless, Babalwa’s father had run out of options and anxiously related to them what had happened. The police responded by accusing him of being complicit in what had taken place. They refused to corroborate what he had to say.

At first light of the following morning, Babalwa’s father went to the chief’s house to make a last plea for him to leave. When her father arrived on the scene he found that the chief had been run through with a spear and killed. The chief’s house was on fire. There was little Babalwa’s father could do to stop it from burning to the ground.

Sentenced to jail

The police arrived. He was rounded up with all the men who had been found on the scene and taken into custody. After a trial, the death penalty was handed down to all except Babalwa’s father. The families of those sentenced to death received financial payouts: Hush money from the police acting on behalf of the apartheid government. Babalwa’s father received 10 years in jail for trying to prevent a murder.

Life behind bars

The inhuman circumstances of her father’s incarceration are painful for Babalwa to relate. Still, she’s proud of the fact that although he became less trusting and more fearful, prison didn’t break him. It didn’t change who he was as a human being. He was a good man. He still found the strength to intervene on behalf of the innocent and he remained a respected member of the community.

While Babalwa understood the injustice of the situation, as a young girl she was not fully aware of the political machinations of an apartheid regime that encouraged township violence, the likes of which would stir up even more brutal and senseless neighbour-on-neighbour killings to come.

Eviction orders

From 1975 onwards, the local government made numerous attempts to clear the shacks at Crossroads and to resettle the inhabitants to a new township called Kayelitsha. When the Crossroads residents refused to move, their homes were destroyed by a band of local men known as Witdoeke (white scarves). Thousands were left homeless. Many were senselessly killed simply for refusing to move. Babalwa was 6 at the time.

Reign of terror

May and June of 1986 would become known as a ‘reign of terror’ in which it would later be revealed that police colluded with the Witdoeke by escorting them on raids and helping to transport the vigilante gang’s ‘prisoners’ to kangaroo courts at which often harsh sentencing including the death penalty would be carried out.

By 1988 Joseph Ngxobongwana, the leader of the Witdoeke had been elected mayor of Crossroads. In 1989 tensions were brewing between Ngxobongwana and one of his Captain’s, Jeffrey Nongwe over alleged fraud and corruption on the part of the Witdoeke leader. This resulted in a split and open conflict between the two from the end of 1989 into 1990.

Amid the chaos

Babalwa and her sisters were leading as normal a life as possible amid the chaos under the protective care of her parents. In particular, their mother kept a watchful eye, never allowing them to venture too far from the house.

Babalwa was a good student. She was sporty and spent most of her free time with her best friend, Portia. They shared everything from school lunches and clothes to girly secrets.Still her life was far from idyllic.

By the age of 10, she had witnessed necklacing: People burned to death by petrol-filled tyres which were forced down the victim’s chest and arms rendering them immobile and then set on fire; police throwing tear gas; friend fighting friend; neighbour fighting neighbour. One morning she opened the front door to find a dead man lying in the doorway. His eyes had been partially removed from his head. She shakes her head as though trying to delete the memory.

The Witdoeke come knocking

All the men in the local community were being called upon to choose sides and fight. One day, one of the factions was banging on their door to fetch Babalwa’s father. He was told that he and his family would be killed if he didn’t participate. Reluctantly, he went with the band of vigilantes.

While the extent of his participation is unclear, what is clear is that the person who came back was not the father she knew. He was admitted to Tygerberg hospital for observation and never came home. He died three days later. She says, “It was the violence that killed him”. He was buried in the Eastern Cape, the place of his birth.

Without my Father

When her father died, their living conditions, which, until now had not been easy by any means, worsened. They lived in poverty. Babalwa’s mother was angry and bitter for a time. She cried a lot. Babalwa leaned on her friend Portia. Babalwa says, “She is my sister. Everything she had, she shared with me”.

Two years later, the two friends completed grade 7. Portia moved to the other side of Gugs (Gugulethu) township. While Gugs was adjacent to Crossroads, for the two friends it seemed worlds apart. Still, they saw each other as often as possible, once a month or so. Babalwa never forgot Portia’s generosity, particularly when her father died. The two remain close to this day.

Her mother is still a major presence in her life, and, although her father passed away a long time ago, his memory is a comfort to her. That said, she has never been able to completely reconcile the violent circumstances of his passing with the kind and gentle man she knew him to be.

Becoming a mother

Now in her teens, Babalwa was a star netball player, she sang in the high school choir, loved to read books and spend time with her school friend Nthombokhanyo. In high school, Babalwa had dreams of becoming a nurse. She wanted to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves. She says, “In the old days, in our culture we cared for older people, we cared for our community. I wanted to bring back the old ways, the ways of our culture”.

In 1999, Babalwa now 17 and still at school, fell pregnant and had her first child, a little girl she named Khanyo. Three days after giving birth she went back to school to complete her education. After completing her schooling she set aside her dreams of becoming a nurse and went in search of work to support herself and her child.


Thobela is Babalwa’s first love and the father of her children. They had their second child in 2008, a little boy, called Uyathandwa. Babalwa smiles sadly and says, that while she has never broken any hearts she’s had hers broken, only once, on 30 October 2010. It was Uyathandwa’s second birthday and preparations were underway for celebrations at their home in Crossroads.

Babalwa was in the house; Uyathandwa was in the care of a neighbour who was holding his hand while attempting to cross the road. A car came hurtling down the road, mounted the pavement and hit Uyathandwa, who in spite of being rushed to hospital, passed away. She says, “I lost my mind”. She fell apart. Even with the love and support of her family, depression medication and counselling, every day felt as though she was reliving the horror of that day.

Reaching out to my father

Her cousin who lived in the Eastern Cape suggested that Babalwa come and stay with her. She says, “Lying in bed I could still feel his little body lying next to me". She had to get away so she decided to visit her famiIy in the Eastern Cape. She says, that while there, “I visited my father’s grave and prayed for guidance. It was painful. I had to tell my heart that my baby was gone”.

Even though she felt as though she was going to die from the pain she dug deep. She says, “My parents and all that I had experienced in my life up to that point had taught me to be strong. Even though I felt as though I was pining away from the pain, I started focusing on Khanyo. She was also my child. She was suffering too. I had to go on for her. Looking back, it was when I visited my father’s grave that I began to heal”.

The road to GOLD

In 2012, two years after Uyathandwa passed away, Babalwa joined GOLD Restaurant where she currently works as a chef. Crediting a woman called Emily Njengele as being the biggest influence on her career she says, Emily was the one who welcomed her to Africa CafĂ©, her first job and the restaurant she worked at before working at GOLD. She says, “I had always loved to cook, but she taught me so much more about African food”.

Sadly, Emily who had also joined GOLD, passed away, but by then cooking and sharing through food, particularly dishes and techniques from all over the continent, not just South Africa, had become a big part of Babalwa’s life.

One of the first things Babalwa discovered at GOLD is that, “This is a place that takes care of its people. We love each other. Our hearts are open. We argue like family but we share our problems”.

In her current role as chef, she says that her employer, Cindy places great care in ensuring the menu is authentically African and equally tasty. In turn, Babalwa and the rest of the kitchen take great care in its preparation. She maintains that everything guests experience, including the food, is made with love. She says it’s the reason people from all over the world come to GOLD.

Beware the Indubula

In spite of everything she has experienced, Babalwa says she is afraid of nothing. Then she smiles and says, “Except for indubula” (frogs).

One year, when visiting family in the Eastern Cape over the festive season when she was a young girl she came face to face with a huge croaker. She covers her eyes as though trying to block out the memory and says, “The cattle were grazing outside when it leapt into the house through the front door. It was a BIG frog. Still today, I’m afraid of their bulging eyes and the noise they make when they croak”.

While life has taught her to be strong and outwardly tough, Babalwa has a reflective sensitive side. She smiles wistfully and says, “I cry when I think of Uyathandwa but I don’t only cry tears of sadness. I have joy in my life and I cry tears of joy too. However, I’m also quick to anger. I struggle to control my anger. I don’t know why I get angry so easily but I’m working on that”.

In a surprising revelatory twist she reveals that Nongwe of the Witdoeke was her Uncle. One day – she can’t remember the exact date – and though a teenager, as his relative, she was tasked by the community with asking him to leave Crossroads. They felt he might listen to reason if it came from her. They didn’t want the blood of innocent people anymore. It didn’t matter whose blood or whose side you were on. He agreed. The community packed his things in a truck. He left and the bloodshed stopped.

Avenging the circumstances of her past

Coretta Scott King once said, “Revenge and retaliation always perpetuate the cycle of anger, fear and violence”. In spite of her anger, Babalwa feels no spite and no need to avenge the circumstances of her past.

Looking back, she’s grateful to her parents for who she has become. She says, “I am humble. I share. I give. I have learned not to underestimate people, good and bad. I have learned that being a mother is about teaching your children how to deal with life. I have known pain, and may know it again, but I also know the great joy of having children”. Revisiting the dreams of her girldhood, she is currently studying a part-time course in community health and nursing.  It’s in her nature to do for others.

The people I admire most

Her mother, now 69, left Crossroads for good in August 2017 and returned to the Eastern Cape. Babalwa says, “We are friends. I share all things with my mother. She inspires me”. When asked about whom she admires most, she says, “I salute Mandela but I admire the ordinary people who struggle everyday, like the people of Crossroads”, where Babalwa lives to this day.

In 2012, the year that she joined GOLD Restaurant, she and Thobela welcomed their third child into the world. Her face beams when she says, “His name is Oyisa and it means blessing”.


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