‘You have to dig deep but when you find gold it’s a precious thing’: Anton Cuyler | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
What made this corporate man give up a comfortable London lifestyle to work with a Cape Town community struggling with addiction, gang violence and fiery protests? ANTON CUYLER told NANINE STEENKAMP how he ended up in South Africa’s Vrygrond
Anton (46) grew up on South Africa’s East Rand, matriculated from Hugenote High School and gained a BComm in marketing at the University of Johannesburg before entering the corporate world as a business development manager. He’s married to Elana and they have six-year-old twins, Keenan and Keren
I had a wild time in London in my twenties with my then-girlfriend Elana. We had a life of privilege and access to resources, even drugs. We bought property and I was very well established in a large corporation involved in business development.
But something in us yearned for deeper things. Eventually, God became real to us thanks to our relationship with a South African friend whose faith was intriguing us, and this started us on a whole new trajectory in life.
Anton and Elana Cuyler: ‘We had a wild life of privilege, but something in us yearned for deeper things’
Elana started studying applied theology and became a youth pastor at a local church, and I helped her out with weekend camps.
But I felt a calling, a pull to come back to South Africa to help people in any way, shape or form that I could. We had never planned to come back to South Africa so it was really scary. But three weeks later I told Elana, and she caught the dream too.
One day I saw a front-page newspaper article about the 2010 FIFA World Cup which had a map of South Africa on it. I saw Muizenberg in Cape Town and felt an internal tug, even though we knew nothing about the area. Elana and I contacted Bay City Church to see if we could volunteer and we bought a house and flew over from England!
Vrygrond means ‘free soil’ but many of its residents are far from free. It has no state services, is overcrowded and unemployment, abuse and addiction are daily challenges | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
Very soon we learnt about Vrygrond, an area next door to Muizenberg. Vrygrond means ‘free soil’ and it’s a forgotten community. Very underserviced: no high school, no police station, no clinic, no community hall, no baby clinic, no community services. All the services are provided by the non-profit organisations (NPOs) that have come over the years.
Overcrowding is a big problem in Vrygrond as 45 000 people live in a square km. Young people have to walk through gang-controlled areas to get to school: a very dangerous journey. Not only is there massive youth unemployment, there is also massive youth unemployability as many young people have grown up with systemic violence and abuse.
Early days: Anton and Elana began an after-school programme in this shipping container. The programme continues to grow and, every year, The Sozo Foundation offers skills and educational programmes to more than 200 young people
We started meeting young people from Vrygrond and realised how few options they had in life. We began an educational after-school programme in a shipping container. This multiplied to three containers, and eventually we occupied the local library too.
A year later, we set up The Sozo Foundation. Sozo is Greek for healing, saving, making new, and we had a vision to take the young people we had met from a state of brokenness to a state of wholeness. Our heart was to show them that they have choices, and can change the course of their lives. While I believe in the power of the gospel, I don’t believe God wants Elana and me to merely preach it, rather to be a living example of Jesus by loving people unconditionally.
Today, the Sozo Foundation has fully equipped computer rooms where high-school students can study in safety | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
An old lady put down 20 pounds
The educational programme kept growing and, in 2014, we felt God nudging us to build a purpose-filled centre in the community. The Vrygrond community had given us a plot of land because of the work we’d been doing. However, we had no funds. We were hoping to raise around R50 000 to build a small little building.
During this time a British friend, Steve Morris, who’d volunteered over the years at Vrygrond, spoke off the cuff about the Vrygrond community at a Christian camp in the UK. He didn’t ask for money but as he spoke, an old lady got up, came to the front of the tent and put 20 pounds down at his feet. People started passing money from row to row to the front. That day, over a million rand was poured out on the carpet and we felt God’s vision was a bit bigger than what we’d been dreaming!
‘We felt God’s vision was a bit bigger than ours,’ says Anton | Top photo: Leentjie du Preez
We built the centre ourselves, with our own people from the community. Miracle upon miracle happened: flooring, bricks and paint were donated, all as we needed them.
Today we have two centres (one rented), and we run year-long skills and educational programmes for more than 200 young people, six days a week, every year. We have 40 staff members, 80% of whom live in Vrygrond, and we offer courses in graphic design, hair and beauty, construction, coffee and baking. We also run a school for people who’ve dropped out of the formal education system. We aim for this to be a place where young people can experience love, peace, discipline, grace and safety that can transform their lives. A place where they belong and are loved.
‘WE GET TO EXPERIENCE THE HOPE’: ENJOY THESE PEOPLE OF STRENGTH!
Today, Sozo teaches a wide range of skills for free to unemployed young people aged between 16 and 24, mostly using teaching staff from within Vrygrond. It also partners with businesses and organisations inside and outside Vrygrond which can offer internships for young adults, leading to work experience and full-time jobs. Enjoy these fab photos by Leentjie du Preez!
Thousands of young people have come through these walls over the years and they’re doing fantastically well. They’re changing lives: their own lives, their family’s lives. Some have become the first matriculant in their families.
Part of our programme is mentoring and we also partner with businesses and organisations who offer internships to young adults which can lead to full-time jobs down the road.
Being in this community has not come without personal cost. In 2014 I was assaulted by four young gangsters. It was a very traumatic time for our organisation. What was really scary on a personal level was that Elana and I were now parents of twin babies. My question at this time was: Is this really worth it?
But I felt God hadn’t changed His mind and it was a time for us to dig deep. We remained here and our staff completed the project. The building process took us 18 months and in September 2015, it was finished.
Anton and Elana with their new twin babies. Not long afterwards, he was assaulted by gangsters. As a new father, he started to wonder if this work was really worth it
A month after Sozo opened its centre, two weeks of protests and riots in Vrygrond brought about shooting, chaos and death. The centre was under threat but offered itself as a facility for people to air their grievances
A month after we opened the centre, the community was afflicted by extreme protests and riots. For two weeks there were taxi wars, people shot dead, buildings burnt down, looting. Our building was under threat. In fact, they were coming to burn it down, but we decided to offer it as a place for the community to meet. It was quite scary because a number of the people walking in through the door had started the protests. But while it was an intense time, it became one of reconciliation as hearts were poured out about years of neglect. People could start to put their voices together.
Unfortunately, several weeks later, I had a nervous breakdown. This was quite a crisis for us as an organisation. Elana and I were forced to take a sabbatical. I was admitted to a clinic for a few weeks and diagnosed with anxiety, depression and burnout while Elana experienced secondary burnout. For the next six months, our staff had to hold things together. We were kept out of the community for that whole period.
After the riots, Anton had a nervous breakdown, struggling with burnout, anxiety and depression and was advised not to work at Vrygrond for six months in order to heal from his stresses
I began to realise the importance of solitude, slowness, stillness and resting in God. It was a very difficult time but I realised that transformation needs to happen at a deep level and it really changed the way I do wellness, both personally and at The Sozo Foundation, where I have realised relationships need to be truly deep.
a journey of transformation
So the last few years have really been a journey of recovery for Sozo as a tribe. In March 2021 we’ll have been here for 10 years, and each of us has been on a journey of transformation and restoration. Our latest dream is to build another skills centre.
I believe we mustn’t look at communities like Vrygrond simply as communities of decay, poverty and brokenness. When you move past the material differences between people and get to someone’s emotional, spiritual and mental parts, you find that we’re all lacking and yearning for something. Let’s look at each other with a non-judgmental lens, I call it the Jesus lens! Let’s be patient, listen to each other’s stories, share our pain, allow our problems to resonate with each other.
The wonderful thing I have found is that when you cross the divide and build deep relationships with people, you find joy among this brokenness. You have to mine, to dig deep, to break open the quartz, but that’s where you find the gold. And then you have to heat it! It’s a lot of work to refine that gold but when you find that gold it’s a precious thing.’
Sozo’s Wild Goose Artisan Baking School equips and trains young people, and offers a support network of youth workers who mentor students and help them access work in the hospitality and catering industry | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
Former gangster and ex-convict Neville is now a barista trainer and mentor at Sozo | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
Six months after The Sozo Foundation opened its centre, the Department of Social Development awarded it a Gold Award for Excellence in Youth Development in the Western Province
As there is no physical high school in Vrygrond, Sozo offers an online programme that’s accredited by the UK and approved by the SA government as an equivalent to Matric | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
‘I believe we shouldn’t look at communities like Vrygrond simply as communities of poverty and brokenness. We’re all lacking and yearning for something, and you find joy among this brokenness’ says Anton | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
ENJOY THESE ADDITIONAL PHOTOS OF THE SOZO FOUNDATION COMMUNITY!