What made a girl from Cape Town’s leafy southern suburbs move to Manenberg, which many people associate with gang violence and substance abuse? KAT FARQUHARSON asked her
When her parents divorced, Sarah Portal (31), moved from Johannesburg with her mother and brother to Bergvliet, leaving her older sister and father behind. She attended Herschel Girls Prep School, then Reddam High School before studying international relations and French at Stellenbosch University. She has lived in Manenberg since 2014
‘By the time I was 21, my life seemed fairly directed. After working with street children in Senegal and child soldiers in Uganda, I was keen to work with youth in Central Africa, and planned to study overseas to equip myself. In my final year of undergrad, I went one night to my best friend’s 21st birthday party. I noticed immediately when a guy whom I didn’t recognise walked in. As the evening wore on, he made his way over to me, and we instantly dived into ‘small talk’ (haha): South Africa’s xenophobic attacks, gangsterism, the coltan issues in the Congo! Pete’s passions matched mine in many ways. He came from the UK and had fallen in love with the people of South Africa on a previous visit. This had led him to relocate to try to be part of the light and hope he found in Jesus and the Scriptures in communities that were battling with darkness.
That night, I caught a glimpse of the integrity of Pete’s beliefs and how he wanted to live them out. It was very compelling.
A young Sarah with her mother, Diana Dixon
‘His integrity was very compelling’: Sarah with husband Pete | Photo: Bev Meldrum
Pete had been living in Manenberg for six months with a recovering addict called Dowayne. I later found out that he was taking strain when we met, and in fact had journalled that he was feeling tempted to walk away from it. But if God would help him find a wife, he thought he could continue to do it for life. That was the night we met.
I think it was obvious to us both even then that the meeting was significant. But the night was coming to an end. Pete walked me to my car and awkwardly asked for my number, with a disclaimer about wanting to connect me with the organisation with which he was working. He was very Hugh Grant about the whole thing. I remember laughing and replying, ‘Or we could just go for coffee.’ We still laugh about the polite English boy and the blunt South African girl.
I had a sense in the core of my being that I’d met the person I was going to marry. Except this wasn’t in my 10-year plan. I was only 21, had a deep faith and big dreams. But we often only see part of God’s plan for our lives, it seems. Two months later, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer and limited time. That put my plans on hold as I stayed in Cape Town to be with her. The beauty of the time was that even though I was not yet ready for marriage, she got to meet Pete. In fact, my best friend and I went shopping and bought the dress that I’d wear a few years later when Pete and I did get married, so Mom would be able to see what I’d look like on the day. The time was bittersweet, but a precious gift. Pete was able to get to know Mom, and to ask for her blessing on a future marriage proposal!
Our very first ‘date’ started the journey directing my steps to Manenberg. Pete and I were going to meet in town for dinner. He was already at the restaurant waiting for me when he got an emergency call from Dowayne, who felt he was close to relapsing. He begged Pete to come to him. The night was not going as Pete had planned, but he knew he needed to go and help Dowayne. He called me and asked if I could rather meet him at a petrol station in Long Street. Here, he told me what was happening and asked if I’d like to join him. He didn’t know I’d never been into Manenberg. I knew that if there was a future with this man, Manenberg would be part of my future. So despite my fear, we left my car at the garage and drove there together.
Diverted from their first date at a restaurant in Cape Town, Sarah and Pete came to this house to spend time with Dowayne before walking round the neighbourhood | Photo: Freddie Reed
Established 50 years ago under apartheid for people the regime deemed ‘non-white’ and forcibly removed from their communities, Manenberg has produced disillusioned and traumatised young men who are easy prey for gangsterism and drug abuse, says Sarah | Photo: Bev Meldrum
When we got there, we hung out and prayed with Dowayne at their home for a bit and then went for a walk around the suburb at about 9pm. I was really scared the whole time we were there, but didn’t tell Pete until later. I’d grown up with all the fears associated with areas like Manenberg for many people with my upbringing. Established 50 years ago under apartheid for ‘non-white’ people it had forcibly removed from their communities, it produced disillusioned and traumatised young men who were easy prey for gangsterism and drug abuse. When I was fairly young, two people I knew were killed in the Cape Flats on separate occasions. Another time, the son of one of my mom’s friends was beaten by gangs there, and the hospital workers were too scared of reprisals by gang members to let him in. He died on the hospital steps.
So for me, Manenberg was a place to be terrified of. But feeling I might be called to join Pete in Manenberg eventually, I shouldered the fear and spent the next year going in and out of the area. Over that year, while my mom was sick, I joined the NPO, Fusion Community Trust, that Pete worked with, which supports young people moving out of gangsterism and drugs. As I got to meet the young people there, I started to feel God’s heart for this community and overcame the fear.
Sarah: ‘I’d grown up with all the fears associated with areas like Manenberg for many people with my upbringing’ | Photo: Freddie Reed
‘As I got to meet the young people there, I started to feel God’s heart for this community and overcame the fear,’ Sarah says | Photo: Freddie Reed
We were married in April 2012, and later that year we both went overseas to study for our master’s degrees. Pete studied political theology and I did war studies, both at King’s College, London. This was to equip ourselves better to serve the communities in which we planned to live. I think many of our friends and family thought we would end up going into politics or academics, but for us, it was never a question: we were going back to South Africa to move into Manenberg.
At Fusion, Pete and I had realised that the level of trauma was so high in the people we were working with that we needed to provide residential care. What we felt called to give couldn’t be a 9-5 intervention: people needed 24/7 support to have the chance to heal and choose a different future.
‘we were very young and inexperienced’
I’d inherited some money from Mom and we felt God calling us to buy our house in this suburb and open it up to young men looking to change their lives. We had just enough to buy the house and pay the transfer fees. The house needed a lot more work. We felt God saying He would provide the rest after we had given all we had. And He did. People rallied behind the vision, and in January 2015, when I was 25, we opened the house for the guys to move in.
It took us less than 12 hours to realise what we had done. Dowayne was in the house with me and Pete, and had been clean for a few years by now. We brought in three guys from the day programme whom we’d known a few years. But within the first 12 hours, there were arguments, a physical fight broke out and someone ran away. Reality quickly set in and we realised how hard this was going to be, and also that there was no going back now. Our whole lives were invested in this. Our unrealistic expectations of how easy this would be quickly crumbled. Over the next months I spent many hours chasing runaways, crying, feeling like a failure and sure that God had chosen the wrong person.
Wedding day: ‘I had a sense on the night we met that I had met the person I was going to marry,’ says Sarah. A few months later, she went shopping with her best friend to buy a wedding dress so that her mom, who had terminal cancer, could see what she would look like when she married Pete | Photos: Rebecca Groves
Everything was set up to help the guys experience healthy life rhythms in community. We felt God had called us to offer people the opportunity to choose freedom and love if they wanted it. We named the house Cru62 (named for the redemptive promises in Isaiah chapter 62), as it aimed to help guys deal with addiction, violent life experiences, and rediscover their identity. The guys each have a mentor, follow the 12 Step Programme, share their stories, do woodwork, exercise, and attend addiction support groups as well as following the weekly rhythms of the Tree of Life Church (which Fusion eventually became and with which Cru62 is connected), learning of God’s love in daily devotionals. While we are not a rehab, we have strict rules and boundaries about living in the house that are similar in some ways to a rehab. Everything we do aims to bring some physical, emotional and mental healing, to give guys the opportunity to be loved and the opportunity to choose to heal.
But we were very young and inexperienced at the beginning. I think the root of many of our mistakes, especially in our first two years, was our definition of success. I think I felt pressure to see clear-cut healings. Later, I felt God telling me that all he called me to do was to open my home so people could be loved and He would do the rest. This was a massive lesson, but over time, brought me much freedom and joy as I let go of trying to control what only God could do, and focused on doing what He’d equipped me to do.
A different kind of high for some of the guys on the Cru62 programme | Photos: Freddie Reed
The second difficult lesson was realising that true love is letting people choose for themselves. If they choose suffering and death, it’s their choice. I can’t control their decisions. When we got robbed or betrayed by the guys staying with us, when they relapsed or got into a gang fight and landed up in prison, our responsibility was simply to choose to love them still. As much as possible, we open our homes for guys to come back. There are some cases where wisdom and safety mean we can’t let everyone back in, but we will support each one of them with the friendship and love that we can give.
But my third and biggest lesson was recognising how my own insecurities and pride trip me up far more than the people or situations we face!
I had a great fear of losing people when we started Cru62 and when Maruwaan, one of our greatest joys, who had been healed of addiction and was raising funds to help others, was hit and killed by a car on a fundraising walk, I had an emotional breakdown. I had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and felt I’d reached the end of myself. Ultimately, however, through slow and at times agonising months of healing, I came to understand that God Himself knew great loss and can sympathise with our suffering. That in this life, we see miracles, signs and wonders but also death and suffering. I believe that through the pain, God walked me to a deeper and more profound faith.
Sarah and Maruwaan: ‘When he was killed by a car on a fundraising walk, I had an emotional breakdown,’ she says
Over time, Pete and I have grown in experience, and the stories of hope and healing that have happened in the house have grown people’s confidence when they come to stay. The runaway rate has decreased. We’re now in our sixth year of running the house and, finally, we feel we’ve found our feet. Thanks to our support from individuals and churches, we’re currently in the process of renovating a second property, so we can work with more guys at a time.
On a macro level, things in Manenberg are getting statistically worse. It suffers daily, and the effects are seen throughout the whole family, fractured relationships, high levels of domestic abuse and, for many, a home environment that does not provide a safe place for young children to grow up. But on a micro level, we’re dealing with people who are becoming free and whose lives are influencing others. We see a chain of transformation.
‘I wish people beyond Manenberg could know how amazing its people are, their ability to find joy and humour in the midst of pain and darkness,’ says Sarah | Top photo: Pete Portal, bottom photo: Bev Meldrum
I love Manenberg. Understanding and experiencing the joy and suffering extremes that everyone faces here. Seeing how integrated healing and family are. We have experienced community in a way that I’m not sure I would have experienced in other contexts. One day, shooting broke out close to our home, something uncommon as our street is considered neutral territory. A family across the road had four kids and we knew the parents were at work, so I went across to check on them and ended up sitting with them until the parents got home. The next day, they brought Pete and me two bags of groceries, including meat, a lavish act of generosity from a family which didn’t have much. Pete and I’d been stressing because we didn’t have much money ourselves and weren’t sure how we would make it through the week! The kindness of the community, the lavish generosity of people who don’t have a lot, and the levels of joy are not things that the news captures.
But they are here. Among the pain, suffering and violence, rusty burglar bars and rubbish-filled streets lives a vibrancy of people, faith and humour. I wish people beyond Manenberg could know how amazing its people are, their ability to find joy and humour in the midst of pain and darkness. Having a young drug addict with a learning disability offering to teach me to speak better Afrikaans while I teach him gardening is a humbling and profoundly beautiful community experience that I wouldn’t get if I headed home somewhere else at the end of my working day.
Sarah: ‘I believe I’m where God wants me’ | Photo: Leigh Newton
I believe I’m where God wants me. Even my degrees have helped me to develop strategies for Cru62 and the Tree of Life church, and to understand better the conflict zone symptoms that Manenberg has aplenty. But for me the most important thing is that Pete and I have seen God’s light shining brightly through the people here. I wish more of Cape Town could see that.’
‘I love Manenberg, we see a chain of transformation here,’ says Sarah | Photos above and below: Freddie Reed
MARUWAAN’S JOURNEY: WATCH DOWAYNE, SARAH, PETE AND MARUWAAN HIMSELF DESCRIBE HIS HEALING FROM ADDICTION. ‘ANYONE, NO MATTER HOW BAD OR ADDICTED THEY ARE… CAN BE CHANGED,’ SAYS PETE
Read more about Sarah and Pete Portal’s experiences in No Neutral Ground, a book Pete wrote as ‘therapy’ and to remember some of the triumphs and tragedies of their experiences
‘WHEN YOU SEE LIVES BEING CHANGED IT’S ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL’: SARAH’S HUSBAND, PETE, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH THE SABC