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Life in the rainbow nation

Dagmar Wittek, JohannesburgJune 11, 2014

The Brankens left their six-bedroom house and pool to move into Johannesburg's notoriously dangerous urban slum Hillbrow. They did it because they believe in the rainbow nation. They are the only white family there.

The Brankenfamily atop a building in a black-and-white photograph from Johannesburg, South Africa
Image: Warren van Rensburg

Rubbish piles and sewage litter the streets of Hillbrow, a notorious crime hot spot and urban slum in downtown Johannesburg. Hawkers harass passersby, trying to sell watches, sunglasses and cell phone covers. They could just as well be muggers who pull a knife or a gun. Life is cheap in South Africa - and especially so in Hillbrow. People have been killed for their cell phones. That's why Trish Branken, now accompanied by 11-year-old daughter Rachel, comes to meet anxious visitors on the street close to their apartment block.

The Brankens, the only white family in the neighborhood, walk the streets confidently. "I used to feel nervous," 42-year-old Trish, a small white woman with flowing blond hair, admits. But now this is home.

Familie Branken Johannesburg Südafrika
Image: Warren van Rensburg

Trish and Rachel navigate across the sewage and past the kids playing with garbage. Trish guides me into a grey high-rise building. Two guards are there to check the identity of those who wish to enter. The metal doors only open once residents' fingerprints are recognized by a scanner. This is one of the very few buildings in Hillbrow that is considered relatively safe. And the block is looked after: The lift works up to the 16th floor, there is water and electricity, the passages are neatly swept.

The smell of food and the sound of kids screaming fill the air. Rachel skips up the stairs to avoid the long queue at the lift. She say she likes it here because "friends just pop in and you don't have to book appointments."

We reach the third floor and arrive at the metal door to the Brankens' apartment. The doorbell has been stolen so often, that everyone knows they need to make themselves heard.

Nigel Branken, a massive 42-year-old who towers over his petite wife, opens up. He's eating sandwiches for lunch. Trish grabs one and rushes out with two of the couple's six kids. They need to go to the government clinic and must hurry to stand a chance of being attended to today.

The Branken family in their South African home in a black-and-white picture
Image: Warren van Rensburg

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Nigel leans back on the couch. His youngest child, a toddler, rolls around on the floor. Next door Rachel and Daniel are jumping from bunk bed to bunk bed. Since they left their six-bedroom house - and pool - in a northern suburb of Johannesburg two years ago, the kids have been sharing one room. They all enjoy sharing, Nigel says. "The best thing to do in life with the best things in life is to share them."

The family is deeply rooted in their Christian beliefs, which play a large part in their motivation to reach out and move to Hillbrow.

Downsizing - and simplifying - their lives was a gradual process, Nigel explains, which they started about six years ago. "[Today] we live off less than a quarter of what we were living off before."

The Brankens strongly believe that "if you cope with less, you find you've got more."

Once a week the family prepares piles of peanut butter sandwiches and cooks liters of soup to share on the neighborhood's street corners.

"This is one way the children learn to be compassionate and act responsibly," Nigel says, qualities he and his wife are trying hard to instill in the kids.

Nine-year-old Jordan saved his pocket money for months to throw a birthday party for his best friend. "He knew very well that this boy was not going to get a party or presents otherwise," Nigel explains, adding that the boy's father once tried to poison the family, the mother is a sex worker, and the kids have to stay out of their flat when she sleeps during the day.

Facing reality

There's the sound of jangling at the front door and Nigel says reassuringly that it must be his wife, who took the keys. Indeed, Trish returns victoriously and sinks into the couch with a cup of tea in her hands. They managed to be seen promptly at the hospital - a small miracle in South Africa where government clinics and hospitals are free of charge. More than 80 percent of the population don't have health insurance and depend on the state institutions. Most white people, however, pay for medical aid, which gives them access to private doctors and clinics.

In order to live like the majority, the Brankens terminated their medical benefits.

"We wanted to identify with the realities and the lifestyle of the people around us," explains Trish, a stay-at-home mom. "Even today, sitting with ordinary people, going through this same process - you build relationships with people that way. At the end of your three-hour wait, you've made friends with 10 people and you feel like you understand people better, because you have experienced what they have experienced.

Legally black and white people are equal in South Africa, but economically they are not. According to Statistics South Africa, 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, but only 1 percent of them is white.

Trish and Nigel want to make a difference. They established a learning center, as they call it, in another apartment they rent on the ground floor. The children in their building can come to read and play. All the books, toys, art supplies and games from Branken kids went to the learning center to be shared with the other children in the apartment block.

"It's an educational, safe and healing environment for the children here, who overwhelmingly do not experience that at home," says Trish, a trained musician, as she walks downstairs to give a music class.

On the way down, she is followed by a growing number of kids who want to take part in the class.

"You know the children here are often exposed to abuse, as on average there are nine adults in a flat plus the children." The learning center offers a positive escape.

Trish pauses to chat with a Maureen, a single mom whose two daughters often come to the learning center. She says she feels things have improved since the Brankens moved in. "We are so happy to live with them. They are helping the kids, keeping the children safe," she says.

Familie Branken Johannesburg Südafrika
Image: Warren van Rensburg

Maureen's not alone. One of the security guards at the entrance tells how he found it strange that the family chose to live in Hillbrow when they could have moved to a part of town where more whites live. He thought they were isolating themselves until it dawned on him that he had missed the point. The Brankens' move meant "the beginning of a good relationship between black and white people." Now he wishes more white people wouldmove to Hillbrow.

"It would change a lot. Because at the end of the day we'll realize we are all human beings. We use the same oxygen. We are the same."

Three floors up, Nigel stands on the balcony, which is packed with laundry and pots with herbs, contemplating the view. It is bleak: broken windows, no street lights, dirt and poverty. The average income of a South African family of four is around 300 euros. Nigel, a social worker who acts as a consultant at a university, earns about eight times as much, a problem even when you're part of the neighborhood in Hillbrow.

Nigel has been held at gunpoint and mugged several times. But that doesn't deter Nigel and his family. On the contrary, such experiences strengthen his dedication and belief.

"We started dreaming of a new world," he says. "We felt like Gandhi said: 'You must become the change you want to see in the world.'"