In recent events, I have become hyper-aware of outside perceptions of Itipini. I found out early on that when I say “I work at Itipini” to someone in Mthatha, the response that usually comes out of their mouth is “Aren’t you afraid?” Itipini is viewed as the hub of crime and violence where desperate people do whatever they please. To some extent, this is true. The people of Itipini are ignored by their government and fellow citizens and left to their own devices. So, yes, it is a perfect breeding ground for crime and some people take advantage of that. Where people get the picture wrong is when they say that all people from Itipini are criminals and thugs, which is simply not true. A former YASCer, Jesse Zink, summed up some of this (much more eloquently than I can) in his blog.
So people in Mthatha hold this view of Itipini as the one place in town that you would never want to be. Trying to get a police man or social worker to come down to Itipini is like pulling teeth. And yet, somehow in the last few months, we had achieved getting a city counselor down there, policemen down there, a social worker coming regularly, people from the Home Affairs office coming to conduct interviews for IDs, and handfuls of people from other municipal departments. Somehow, with the upsurge of violence in recent months, it seemed like the government might actually be starting to pay attention and, even more, CARE about what was happening there. It seemed like everyone – the counselor, the social workers, the Social Development department, and the Home Affairs department – were going to pitch in to get housing and IDs for everyone. It seemed like they were all going to pitch in to help people get off of the dump.
It seems that finally having the attention of the municipality, though, has come with a price. However, being on the radar meant that when the incident in Waterfall happened, the police and municipality pounced. Itipini, to the municipal government, was always the problem that they just never dealt with. Now they’re dealing with it, but in way that completely disregards the humanity of people at Itipini. The way they’re handing it is dehumanizing, destructive, and utterly reckless. The community was demolished with little aforethought as to where people would go or what they would do. That, however, didn’t seem to be the concern of many people; the exception being one man from Disaster Management who told me he spoke against the demolition at a meeting (on grounds of not having a place big enough to keep everyone) but was overruled by all other parties present. Has this stereotype of people who live in Itipini become so engrained that they are not seen as people anymore? When does smoke start preceding fire instead of following it?