Dressed smartly for a big day, Mo parks his Hyundai hatchback on a dusty patch outside his office, greets Two-Kit the cat and heads towards the breakfast hall. He walks along a brick footpath, beneath the oaks, mulling over the weekend, the days that lie ahead and the significance of French toast and maple syrup. In a place where each small victory is precious, and money is always scarce, the boys and the cooks have done him proud.
The ginger cat breaks away to stalk the morning sunrays. Cape Town is delivering another hot, cloudless day. Water restrictions are killing the vegetable patches at the Ottery Youth Care and Education Centre and there’s no relief in sight. But at seven in the morning, the heat is mild, the construction crew fixing the water pipes is yet to arrive and the school is quiet.
To outsiders, the compound is a grid of windswept streets, peeling mint-coloured walls and broken water fountain figurines, their steel skeletons exposed to the relentless sun. It resembles an old movie set, a clash between a Western and one of Ray Bradbury’s desolate Martian landscapes. Those who work there know the centre looks run-down, but they like to say that beautiful flowers grow out of manure.
Moosa Mahadick, the principal at Ottery, tries never to miss breakfast with the boys. It’s his way of connecting with them at the start of each day. He makes announcements, celebrates birthdays and checks in with the kitchen. Yesterday, he was so pleased with the French toast he scribbled a quick note in the diary:
Mo signed the message along with the other teachers who monitor all the meals, right through to the late-night peanut butter sandwiches served at the dormitories.
Of course, it was never actually about the French toast. The episode began a few days earlier, when a group of boys approached Mo to complain that they were bored of eating jam on toast. As he always does, he invited them into his office to talk. They sat surrounded by rows of Mo’s colourful lever-arch files, with a bright red Che Guevara flag as a backdrop.
Just a couple of decades ago, such a scene would have been unfathomable. Ottery stands on the site of an old military base and was once a school of industry, where violent, troubled kids – young criminals – were sent to be straightened out, often through beatings and solitary confinement. But those days are gone now, faint echoes in empty workshops and abandoned buildings. Like South Africa, Ottery has changed and is today managed by a man who listens to Bob Marley, quotes Pablo Neruda and displays his books on Buddhism. The old guard ruled with fear and unshakable army-style discipline. Mo is armed with a philosophy: the “circle of courage”. He is respected for not saying no unless he absolutely must.
Mo’s solution to the jam predicament was to send the boys away to come up with an alternative. He wanted to see whether they could work together and take ownership of the project. They did, and suggested the school try maple syrup. The syrup was more expensive and Mo knew the financial implications. He was already renting out space to film crews and ad agencies to make ends meet. More recently, he started turning fallen Eucalyptus trees on the property into a small revenue stream by selling firewood. Government’s contribution, while generous, gets Ottery through only a few months each year. For the rest, some R2.5-million, Mo relies on donations, some from as far away as Britain. A couple of years ago, things got so tough he was forced to ask tenants on the property – trucking companies, panel beaters and carpenters – to pay three months of rent in advance.
As far as the maple syrup was concerned, Mo had made a commitment to the boys and so the tins were ordered… enough to feed 62 hungry teenagers. When they tried to smear it on toast, the experiment ended in a soggy mess. Failure loomed. Then, quite spontaneously, the cooks came up with another plan – the French toast - and Mo’s trust in his boys paid off. The breakfast was a hit.
Mo approaches Phoenix House, the hostel where the older boys live. Younger boys from the Never Walk Alone hostel would have marched along the same footpath moments earlier. The boys walk in silence, an arm’s length apart and with their hands behind their backs. Mo may have a soft heart, but Ottery must keep strict discipline when it comes to its young residents making beds, attending school or moving around the perimeter. Each new arrival learns the rules in his first week there.
On any other Monday, the young boys would have arranged themselves in a straight line outside the breakfast hall. The older boys would join the back of the queue and the Lord’s Prayer would be said. But today is no ordinary day and the boys, dressed in their school uniforms, have something special planned.
They form a guard of honour. Once Mo is within earshot, they begin to sing Happy Birthday. Sixty young voices make for a thunderous recital, followed by hugs and well wishes. Mo knows most of the boys by name or nickname and thanks them for the surprise. Skinny arms wrap around his waist. His hands get locked in and pulled in every direction. He greets each boy, from the youngest to the oldest. Some tease him about his age.
“Each one had a different thing to say to me,” Mo recalls. “There’s a new kid… he’s a big guy, a strapping lad… I had to stand on my tippy toes to hug him.” The boys have no way of giving gifts and Mo doesn’t expect any. Moments like this are why he came here thirty years ago (arriving for his interview in shorts and a Bob Marley T-shirt) and why he has stayed, despite job offers that promised more money. For Mo, these precious interactions reveal the gentle world of children who, out on the streets, must show no weakness. Boys who live adult lives and who must keep their guard up if they want to survive.
For three decades, Mo has stayed because Ottery is no regular school. This morning, he’s aware that two boys are absent, attending court appearances in town. One will return, but the other is being transferred to a more secure facility in Clanwilliam. At Ottery, some boys stay a few days, others a few years. Each boy arrives with a story.
There’s Whitey, who shot and wounded a rival gangster outside a train station and later stabbed a prison warden (who survived) as initiation to join one of the feared Numbers gangs. There’s Ronaldo, a recovering drug addict and former house burglar and there’s Mitsubishi, who matter-of-factly recalls robbing up to 15 people a day with a knife. He says it was an “easy job”.
There’s Clayton who watched his mother get stabbed to death by his stepfather when he was nine. Marvin, who loves working in the kitchen, reveals his mother did time in Argentina for drug smuggling. Jared says he was used as a drug mule between Brazil and South Africa.
These are teenage boys most of whom grew up in broken homes on the Cape Flats, a remnant of Apartheid’s sinister geography, where mothers position beds around their homes to avoid stray bullets. Ghettos where a 12-year-old boy can borrow his uncle’s gun and commit his first murder.
Mo has buried four boys. Three were killed after leaving Ottery and one was gunned down while on a holiday break. A week after Mo’s birthday, a drive-by shooting will rock Elsies River, a suburb north of Ottery. Ambushed while playing football, 13 people will be shot. Four will die, including a 17-year-old boy. The next day, a retaliation hit will claim another life. A few days later, the leader of the Sexy Boys will be rushed to hospital with a bullet wound in his neck. And so it will continue, gangs recruiting young soldiers for never-ending turf wars. On the streets, the Americans, the Hard Livings or the Mongrels will lure the boys in. Inside prisons, they will climb ranks in the 26s, 27s and the 28s. The lucky few will be pulled out of the grinder. They will find their way to Ottery, the last remaining centre of its kind in the Western Cape, a province with over 3 000 murders a year.
Dr Don Pinnock, a criminologist and author who has spent over 40 years working with gangs, says teenage gangs are exceptionally violent. He describes boys who are searching for respect and a way to show off their masculinity, but who are young and unpredictable, ill-equipped to handle devastating weapons, often doing so while high on drugs. He calls them the “warrior gangs” and estimates that there could be 100 000 or more kids on Cape Town’s streets with some gang affiliation. In his latest book Gang Town he talks of “adolescents on the road to nowhere”:
Ottery used to house 700 boys, but today, with fewer staff members and less budget, it’s at full capacity with just a fraction of that number. The boys who do land up there learn that gates aren’t always needed to keep people in place and that respect can be earned without a gun. They quickly understand why the other boys lovingly call Mo “Paalie” or “Bob Paalie”, a play on the Afrikaans word for principal (the “a” stretched out like an accordion). They regain their childhood – “a child who does not play is not a child,” Neruda once wrote - while Mo and his cat dart from meeting to meeting, fighting to keep the doors open at the factory of second chances.
Breakfasts at Ottery are silent affairs. As the boys eat, only the sound of spoons scraping plastic plates can be heard, along with the shuffling of feet as teachers move around the hall like waiters. Now and again, a boy will wave a slice of bread in the air, having found a bit of mould on it. The teachers will quickly replace it. Then they will come around with more juice or coffee. Most mornings, the food is simple: porridge and bread.
Once the plates and cups are empty, Mo, making an extra effort on his birthday, speaks to the boys. He tries to explain what a privilege it has been to serve at the centre all these years.
South Africa’s honeymoon with democracy is over and the nation is at a crossroads. After 23 years, the liberation movement that freed the nation – the party of Nelson Mandela – is losing popularity and power, while unresolved issues around race, education and the economy are being confronted. By some estimates, half the country’s youth is unemployed, along with about a third of the adult working population. South Africa’s poor suffer the most.
After breakfast, Mo heads back to his office. He’s got a management meeting at eight o’clock. Ingrid Hammond, who works at the laundry, bursts in unannounced and wraps herself around him.
“May God bless you,” she tells him. “May you always be the same and may you always stay on the straight road.”
Mo doesn’t rush Ingrid and politely thanks her. He throws a handful of pellets into Two-Kit’s bowl and heads off. The cat usually attends Mo’s meetings, but this one is at another building.
With his management team assembled, Mo runs through the weekend, which he spent at the school. The boys who didn’t go home were taken to the beach at the Strand, there was football and a “generosity pot” drop-off in Freedom Park, where the boys fed the homeless. All in all: a “wonderful, remarkable weekend”.
The managers discuss how several new children are settling in, the lack of space at Never Walk Alone hostel and the much-awaited arrival of new sports equipment. There’s still no money for new school tracksuits.
The first seven boys were sent to Ottery in 1948 from a nearby coloured suburb. The school sprawled across some 650 hectares of land and was one of more than a dozen such provincial centres, which were designed to cater for different race groups. The laws that brought them into existence go back a century, when it was decided to try and divert children who had minor run-ins with the law or were displaying behavioural problems.
Having trained as a teacher and after picking up a qualification in psychometrics, Mo started out in the school’s counselling services. At the time, with hundreds of boys living in repurposed barracks, he was carrying 140 files at any given time. There were eight school psychologists and all their support staff.
In the nineties, came new legislation and new thinking around how these boys should be cared for. A new Children’s Act was introduced and a movement began to transform old schools of industry and other places caring for children into more robust youth centres. Some of the services were privatised, budgets were slashed and Ottery was moved out of the Department of Education and into the Department of Social Development.
By the turn of the millennium, Mo had accepted the position of deputy principal. He increasingly stood opposed to the changes being implemented by government and realised that “the voice of the counselling services was too faint” when it came to matters of policy. Five years later, he was heading the school through a turbulent transition.
By 2013, a full-blown storm was raging. Relying on pro bono legal assistance, Mo led a David and Goliath-like court battle against government over Ottery’s future. At the heart of the dispute – which dragged on for three years – was whether Ottery would be forced to comply with the new laws and change the way it operated. This would require it to start accommodating not only boys who had been given another chance by the courts or were in need of care and protection, but also those who had committed crimes and had been sentenced. Mo and his staff resisted, arguing that this amounted to a “one size fits all” approach that spelt disaster. No matter what security measures were taken, they claimed, the two groups of boys would mix and the ones who were still considered innocent in the eyes of the law would be “caged with criminal offenders”.
Ottery also insisted that the school couldn’t be closed until government came up with a new, comprehensive strategy for the future.
“Very few people raised the alarm because these children are not really seen,” Mo explains.
Ottery won a convincing victory at the High Court, with a judge delivering a poetic ruling, which declared children to be “the seedlings of our country’s next bloom”. But government appealed to a higher court, which took a far more clinical look at the law and ruled against Ottery. The Supreme Court of Appeal found that courts should not meddle in government policy and should respect the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive. Not only did the appeals court rule against Ottery, it also ordered it to pay the state’s legal fees, which forced an immediate surrender.
Other centres in the Western Cape, places like Die Bult, Eureka and Wellington Youth Centre, changed with the times and fell in line with new legislation. Oddly, despite the court case, which attracted a fair amount of media coverage, Ottery continued as before. It had opened its doors to a group of juvenile offenders, but only briefly, and then went back to caring for boys who had been referred there by judges, but who had mostly escaped criminal records. It entered some kind of a grey zone as a service provider to government – a baton being passed between two departments, neither one taking full responsibility and only one allocating budget to it. Government granted Ottery a provisional license to operate, but only until October. What happens after that is not yet known.
“The relevant government departments still have to finalise whether this facility will be required as a Child and Youth Care Centre beyond October 2017, and the implications of the decision,” says the Western Cape’s Education Department. “Full registration is dependent on the centre meeting the minimum norms and standards for Child and Youth Centres, which it does not fully meet at this stage,” adds the province’s Department of Social Development.
Mo says the boys at Ottery are free to come and go, but few run away. Compared with juvenile prisons, many compare it to a stay at a hotel, which offers a chance to “clean the mind”, hide from gangs and learn a useful trade.
Mandela and Che Guevara may well inspire Mo, but he is a very different kind of revolutionary. In his second year of working at Ottery, Mo managed to take some photographs of mass caning that was taking place at two hostels. All boys were lined up and whipped as punishment for some or other transgression. Mo approached the principal to complain, even though he was still regularly re-applying for his job and risked being fired.
The principal issued Mo with an ultimatum: hand over the camera spool or don’t bother coming back.
“I am here because at the end of the day I did decide to hand in that spool,” Mo admits. “I realised it was more of a strategic retreat than a surrender. The beautiful thing is that there was no mass punishment after that.
Mo and the teachers like to say they “walk the road” with the boys. Mo’s road was different, but also filled with struggle. His father ran a corner grocery shop in an Indian suburb at a time of apartheid segregation. He died when Mo was 12, leaving his wife to raise five children.
One of Mo’s biggest influences was his uncle, who was deep in the struggle and worked as an underground librarian for liberation movements. He took Mo to bookshops and to meetings, introducing him to key figures and literature that would shape his thinking. There was little money and Mo had to find a sponsor for his university studies.
He was registered to study law, but his uncle appealed to him to change direction.
“Education is where we shape people,” he said.
Mo recalls that it was at the university registration table that he changed his mind, changed his subjects and changed his life. He joined youth movements, got involved in magazines and student politics but, like his siblings, he gravitated towards education.
Together with his sisters, Mo now cares for his ailing mother, who is approaching 90. He lives with his family and seven cats. Both of Mo’s sons have chosen to pursue psychology.
On the day of his 54th birthday, his father-in-law arrives for an unannounced afternoon visit at the school. Mo is pleased to see him but wonders why he lingers after they’ve had a chat. Soon the rest of the family arrives to surprise him. It’s another happy moment and a welcome distraction given he’s working with the school’s accountant on the annual financial report. Numbers tend to leave Mo frazzled, especially given that it takes over R4-million per year to run the school.
Aside from the daily academic and practical work, the school offers or accommodates a variety of programmes like surfing, karate, football, cooking, pigeon racing and dog training. If a child shows an interest in acting, Mo has been known to okay trips to auditions. As often as he can, he uses his networks to organise free tickets for the boys to attend football matches or comedy shows. He also has a strict rule for the 20-odd businesses that rent space at Ottery: when the time comes, they must be willing to offer work experience to the boys. Ronaldo, who beat a drug addiction and is three years clean, works at a panel beater not far from Mo’s office. He cleans cars and is starting to help with spray-painting jobs. Eugene, who spent three years at Ottery, helps fix trucks and rides along on deliveries between Cape Town and Bloemfontein. While not all boys can land jobs, and not all jobs guarantee success, the scheme helps some avoid being sucked back into gang life.
Rashaad Allen, one of the school’s childcare workers, is a perfect example. This year he turns 46, having spent almost half his life inside a prison. On the streets, he ran with the Americans. Behind bars – serving three separate sentences for armed robbery – he turned to the 26s for protection.
When his last stretch ended in 2006, with newfound faith, Rashaad began a crusade to save boys in his neighbourhood – which he calls his “kingdom” – from making the wrong choices. He was on a local radio station late one night, when Ottery called him and asked whether he would be willing to work there. He drafted his first CV and arrived for the interview.
The experience has been transformative. Rashaad opened his own “halfway house” in Parkwood, where boys can transition back into society or just run to for help. He and his friend and fellow Ottery counsellor, Saleh Booley, work the streets, pulling kids out of dangerous situations or driving them to football matches and surfing spots. They confront drug dealers, keep up appearances with gang bosses (a necessary evil if they are to continue operating in these areas) and visit families of Ottery boys. At the school, they counsel kids at Grace House, a non-residential hostel, which doubles up as a psychological “intensive care” unit. Outside Grace House is a symbolic tombstone with the names of some of the biggest gangs in the province.
Rashaad is a larger-than-life character, who laughs easily. He lives at the school with his wife and children. He says what creates the magic at Ottery is that it’s an open space where the adults don’t treat the children as criminals. What he searched for when he joined the gangs, that sense of belonging, Rashaad has found at Ottery. Many of the boys experience the same thing.
Saleh has worked at Ottery for 27 years, almost as long as Mo. He finds it exciting and unpredictable. For him, the magic is in the “acknowledgement of humanity in every kid we meet”.
Saleh believes if Ottery were to close, it would be disastrous. With a country in transition, he says, many families are not coping and their children need refuge – a safe place where they are treated humanely. Rashaad says that if Mo came to him tomorrow and told him the money had run out, he would probably work for free.
Pinnock believes what the province and the country face is not a gang problem, but a youth problem. He describes a “lost generation” created by a slow economy, poor or non-existent schools and high levels of unemployment. Unable to earn money or respect, gangs become the only option for many children. “We’re violating the rights of young people in this country on a daily basis,” Pinnock says. “These kids are not getting what they were promised in terms of the Constitution and the bill of rights. And then we blame them for the problem of high crime and gangs. Yet we put them in a situation where that’s sometimes the only alternative for survival.
Mo is anticipating a budget cut this year. This will place even more pressure on Ottery in its battle for survival. The principal says he’s encouraged by the money government has invested in Ottery’s infrastructure, a possible signal that it’s not about to be shut down. More than anything else, he craves certainty.
Together with the governing board, Mo is preparing a proposal for Ottery to start taking more children directly out of the province’s schools. As he reads the situation, the levels of school violence are rising and more children are exhibiting behavioural problems. This could be a chance for him and his staff to intervene earlier, before the police officers and judges.
The Education Department confirms this, saying: “Our Inclusive and Specialised Education Support staff are piloting a short-term observation and intervention programme at Ottery for learners with severe behaviour challenges.”
Clayton, the boy whose mother was stabbed to death in front of him when he was nine, has presented Ottery with a test case. He was expelled from two schools but has settled down well at Never Walk Alone hostel. He’s thinking about becoming a teacher.
“These kids live on the margins of society, where no one really worries. If things go wrong, what’s the problem? They are destined to populate gangs anyway. This was the kind of thinking we needed to disrupt, in the children themselves, in their families and in our staff,” Mo says. “These are young men. They are potential leaders. They are community builders. It’s about changing narratives, it’s about reclaiming a space of pain and making a space of empowerment, a space of resilience.”
Pinnock agrees, saying that children with horrendous backgrounds can experience the most incredible epiphanies once they hit a moment of panic. “Some of these boys go, ‘pop!’ and they suddenly click. You provide the basis for transformation and they make the final jump… it’s possible and it’s an extraordinary process.”
Pinnock adds that what’s important is to offer these children, many of whom don’t have father figures in their lives, with mentors or role models and to create rituals that give them an opportunity to succeed.
Honouring his political heroes – Chilean poet Victor Jara and Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis – Mo thinks about fixing bonds between family, community and country in abstract terms.
“A wave starts with a little drop,” he muses. “How do you take the drop out of the ocean? The ocean is within the drop and the drop is within the ocean.”
One of the organisations helping Ottery keep its doors open is the EMS Foundation. Earlier this year, it donated R250 000 to the school. The foundation’s Elizabeth Margaret Steyn says Mo has a lot to do with that decision.
The thing that jumped out most to Steyn when she met Mo, was his approach to education
“He draws you in to his passion and his absolute belief that he can make a difference for those kids and the community at large through those children. We looked at a lot of projects, and we liked many of them, but this one stood out, it’s incredible.”
Whitey, who watched his best friend be shot dead when his gang clashed with a rival, and who was half way through his initiation into the 27s, has found a new passion: surfing. Bobbing on the water, further than all the other boys, the 16-year-old thinks about his life and his new dream of becoming a traffic officer. He’s so talented on a surfboard, he’s being considered for an instructor role.
Recently, Whitey pulled Mitsubishi back to safety after he swam beyond the breakers and panicked. Mitsubishi says at Ottery, his mind feels calm and his anger is subsiding. The boy who spent years living on the streets, who robbed countless victims and survived being hacked with a machete during a drunken fight, is attending classes, playing football and taking an interest in plumbing.
With a few years’ worth of experience in the kitchen, Marvin wants to become a chef on a cruise ship. Jared is waiting for his big break in the movie business. Ronaldo says he’s enjoying the panel beating business, but still wants to become a carpenter to support his two sisters.
Mo firmly believes the second chances that these and many other boys get at the Ottery Youth Care Centre can help them discover a new way of being in the world, an opportunity to become something more.
His birthday ends with a quiet night at home. He’s tired and is pleased there are no more surprises. In the morning, the roosters will wake him, Two-Kit will greet him at the office and another day will begin. It may be a quiet day, with some routine meetings. Or a boy may storm into his office pumped full of adrenalin and will need to be pinned down on the floor for five or ten minutes. There is no way to tell. All Mo can do is continue to “set the table” for the boys and hope to see them at breakfast.
Written by Alex Eliseev / Storyboarding by Camilla Bath / Photos and Videos by Jennifer Bruce / Layout by Chad Roberts. /
Special thanks to Moosa Mahadick and the Ottery Youth Care and Education Centre.
* Names of minors have been changed to protect identities. In some instances, nicknames have been used.