Pete Portal (Sc 98-03) was interviewed in February 2020, before he gave a lecture talk to the Tonbridge community about his work and life in Manenberg township, Cape Town.
|29 Jun 2020|
|In one of the last Tennant Lectures, before the coronavirus brought large gatherings to a halt, OT Pete Portal (Sc 98-03) returned to Tonbridge to give his reflections on his life in Manenberg - one of Cape Town’s most notorious townships. Before his talk, Pete answered questions from two Sixth Formers, Archie Capon (WH5) and Charlie Thurston (JH5), about the scrapes he got into at Tonbridge, his motivation of faith and his views on imperialism and charity. |
Archie: Thank you so much for making time in your schedule to talk to us. I start with the question, “Did you enjoy your time at Tonbridge?”
Pete: I enjoyed it more as time went on. I was like a rabbit in the headlights when I first arrived. I came from a choir school of 36 boys, with six in our year. At Tonbridge, everyone seemed to be talking about very adult things and I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a tiny little fish in a huge ocean. But as time went on, I began to love Tonbridge, and some of my most fond teenage memories are from school - I loved my time here.
Archie: You were deputy head at school and, forgive me if I have been grossly misled, but there was also a rumour that you were in fact de-praed?
Pete: Yes, I was rusticated in Lent Term 2003. Do you really want to know about that?!
Archie: Yes, we'd love to, if that's alright?
Pete: We snuck out of the house and went to a club down on the High Street called Source of Sounds - SOS - it was a dodgy club, horrible. I remember we snuck out, leaving a trainer by the School House changing room door, and jogged down the High Street. It was a mediocre night at best, we did it more for the thrill, I think. I was talking to my mum about it recently and she was very embarrassed at the time, but it was pretty harmless. There's such good pastoral care here, such accountability, such a great house system and friends, that this sort of trouble was about as bad as it got.
Charlie: But bad enough to lose you the deputy position?
Pete: Yes, exactly! I remember it all came to a head when I was on the Eurostar going to Paris with the First XI football team - I had scraped my way in as centre back. I remember getting a message from a friend, again a nameless friend, saying “deny, deny, deny” and we came back, had a big meeting and agreed we had to come clean and do the right thing even though it cost some of us our school prae positions. But I'm sure worse things have happened since!
Charlie: Leaving Tonbridge and your various nameless friends behind, you’re currently based in Manenberg with The Tree of Life, so can you tell us the story behind your inspiration for going to South Africa?
Pete: It’s a long story, which is why I wrote a book about it. At the age of 15 I became a Christian and I found faith in this God that I previously thought was a complete joke - boring, trouble, that sort of thing. That sparked an interest in me to share the message with other people around the world. One day, when I was at University, a friend came up to me at the end of a lecture and invited me to join him on a short term mission trip he was leading to South Africa, working with people in townships and visiting prison gangsters. At the time I was working for CBBC during University holidays as a production assistant at Blue Peter, which was what I really wanted to do, so I said to my friend, “No thanks, I’m not at all interested in South Africa. It sounds like a great thing but I want to earn money and get on the career ladder early.”
He then used what I have subsequently learnt is a trump card that Christians play on each other and said, “Well, will you at least pray about it?”
So I prayed about it, and I didn’t have any particular epiphany, but the next week I got a letter from the NHS scheduling an operation to fix my shoulder that I had dislocated playing rugby in my gap year. The date of the operation was smack bang in the middle of my friend’s South Africa trip. When I told him I definitely couldn’t go, he persuaded me to phone the shoulder consultant’s secretary and find out if the operation could be postponed. So, I had a long conversation with the consultant’s secretary. It turned out she was a Christian, from South Africa and from Paarl, the same town, outside Cape Town where my friend was going. She said that she sensed I was meant to go on the trip and that twisted my arm. I went on the trip and just wept for six weeks.
I'd never been to Cape Town, but it's the most racially segregated city in the most economically unequal country on earth, so I really was in at the deep end on racial and economic segregation. I was mugged by gangsters, we heard gunshots, we were broken into, we met prison gangsters who all spoke about living under oppression, trauma, fatherlessness and poverty. I came back to London and moaned about it to anyone who would listen - no one really cared - but after graduating I went back to South Africa in January 2009 and have been there ever since. I bought a house in the township, invited heroin addicts to come live with me based on the premise that faith is stronger than addiction and we're beginning to see - amidst much tragedy, relapse, death and death threats and difficulties - that it is in fact true.
Charlie: Would you say this is something you feel you have been fated to do?
Pete: Yes, I would use the word calling which comes from the Latin vocatio which really is ‘to be called’. People say to me, “There are gangs in London,” and I say, “Look at me, how am I going to reach gangs in London, honestly?” But I do feel called to Manenberg and I feel like my life should be lived there. My wife Sarah is from Cape Town and she went to similar schools to Tonbridge. For her, moving 20 minutes across railway lines and highways that the racist apartheid government built to keep whites and people of colour away from each other, was in many ways a harder and longer journey than London to Manenberg. Such is the nature of things in Cape Town.
Archie: When did you feel in most danger during your time in South Africa and did it make you rethink your involvement, or did it make your mother try and get you to come home?
Pete: For me Cape Town is home now. I suppose being gun pointed by gangsters a couple of times, and we've had a couple of death threats in the last 18 months, those were tricky. But you go and speak to the gang leaders and work it out. They apologise because the guy making the threat was off his face on crystal meth and you know ultimately, they see we're doing a good thing. It was probably back in 2010 that I felt most in danger, when I just moved in. I didn't have many friends and I couldn't speak the language very well. During the Football World Cup in 2010, I got back home about 1:00am one morning and I was putting the car into the carport. There was a long procedure of opening padlocks and getting out of the car to walk around and at that point guys came up to me with hats and face coverings and asked for a cigarette which I didn't have. I offered them oranges from my car, which they didn’t want! One of them got me in a head lock, the other pointed the gun at me and so I gave them my wallet and my phone which was held together by masking tape. I got my SIM card back though. Useful knowledge if you get mugged in South Africa you can ask for your SIM card back. I managed to reason with them not to take my driver’s licence and bank cards, so they went away with $40 rand (about £2) and a phone that belonged in a museum. That was traumatic and that was about ten years ago so I would have been 24 at that time.
Charlie: Do you ever feel like you come across somebody whom you think you're simply unable to help?
Pete: That’s a profound question. It’s hard for me to explain, but we don't help anyone particularly. We bought a house in the township and opened up our home for 18 to 25 year olds involved with gangs, drugs, criminal activity and we say, “Come and live with us and come and experience what it means to belong in a family. Come and learn agency and responsibility, come and heal from trauma.” We do that through prayer, through Bible study, through reading and introducing guys to this person - Jesus. This might sound wacky to people who've never thought of it like this, but we begin to see people change as they discover who they were really created to be because no one is born an addict, no one’s born a gangster. You're born into various conditions but I believe everyone is made in God's image and nobody is beyond redemption, so whatever bad things you've done whether in Tonbridge or Manenburg, whether in Timbuktu or Hong Kong, whatever echelon, whatever secrets and skeletons there are in your closet, there is no one I believe who is beyond redemption. That is the relentless hope that is the foundation of our faith that then fuels and motivates us in seeking out those that society, and even the church, will openly reject.
I heard a great definition of love from a man named Simon Sinek who does corporate leadership training and social commentary. He said, “Love is giving somebody the power to crush you and trusting them not to.” What we are saying to young men struggling with addiction and gangsterism, is “Hey, we have open arms. We will embrace you; we will offer you a place to belong and heal. We’re giving you that power to crush us and trusting you not to.”
Archie: You talk in your book about the ‘White West’ not only in the imperial sense but also in terms of storytelling and determining what is normative and what is different in global history. Was your decision to work in South Africa, and produce a book about your experience, in any way driven by a desire to rewrite the archaic, white centric, male dominated narrative?
Pete: Yes, which is ironic because I’m a privileged, white, English male, so wherever I travel, I find myself apologising for the Empire and all that Britain has done over the years that isn't balanced out by roads or sewage systems. Why do Afrikaners hate British South Africans so much? In the Anglo-Boer War the British came up with the idea of concentration camps way before Hitler 40 years later. So we can either live in that guilt and think we have to give our life to this guilt. But guilt, like anger or condemnation, is not generative, so if I make you feel guilty I can't really make you generate something creative or beautiful, I can only make you self-flagellate and give money or whatever, so guilt can never be a good motivation even though NGOs and churches use it all the time.
Absolutely I wanted to spend my life trying to dismantle the white saviour narrative that either calls us heroes for doing what we do, which is frankly not true, or romanticises living with the poor. Hollywood does this all the time. There are loads of films about white do-gooders helping people of colour in squalor and hopelessness and until we begin to see these as the narratives that fuel our whole worldview, we will keep perpetuating it. So Sarah and I don’t use the word ‘missionary’, we just say we are neighbours living with other neighbours in the little Muslim corner of Manenberg in a community of Cape coloured people, which is a local term for the people there. Historically, the Victorian missionary movement put Jesus and British culture together - Jesus and the Empire - which is a huge irony because Jesus was completely against empire. The Victorians made a two-for-one deal and got to wear tweed whilst establishing Anglican churches all over Africa and calling it Christianity which was ridiculous because Jesus was a man of colour, a Palestinian Jew born to poor parents, a homeless refugee and an ethnic minority living under occupation. It could not be more different from the white-centred Christian, or Western, narrative.
So yes, we spend a lot of time chewing over these things and the question I keep asking myself is, “How do I give away power in whatever room I’m in?” The message we try and live and preach is, “How do I give away power, wherever I go?” That requires a strong identity, and is the complete opposite of the ‘small man syndrome’, where the guy is continually trying to assert himself.
Charlie: One final question about your book. You talk about the glaring gulf between biblical promises of a fulfilled life and the reality for many people living in the world today and it seems like you are challenging people to rise up and take life by the reigns and put themselves forward. So, do you think that proactive action is the best path to self-improvement?
Pete: Yes, but I’m not sure the best goal is self-improvement. I think if you want to self-improve, then absolutely, go on courses, research things, expose yourself to new things. But I think ultimately self-improvement puts self at the centre of the entire narrative. And so when I begin to see myself as a small part of this huge, old story, where for me I see the overarching meta narrative being God creating and making new and redeeming life, my question is not ‘what can I do with my life?’, but rather, ‘Lord how can I surrender my life to serve others in a way that you've got uniquely for me?” It’s a process of dethroning self.
The Tonbridge Society got back in touch with Pete in May 2020, before publishing this interview. With the frightening predictions that Covid 19 could kill more than 40,000 people in South Africa, we asked Pete to conclude this article by giving us an insight into how life has changed in Manenberg, in the two months since his visit to Tonbridge, with the arrival of coronavirus.
COVID 19 has exposed things rather than changed things. It has exposed the level of food insecurity in Manenberg, where most of those who work are only employed on a casual basis and so have no financial safety net when daily work dries up as in lockdown. It has exposed the gross dichotomy between rich and poor, where the latter are simply unable to socially distance due to overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to running water, or high rates of addiction. And it has exposed the indefatigable human spirit in those living in poor communities – in Manenberg specifically, Tree of Life is part of a locally conceived initiative that has organised over 30 feeding kitchens across the community, feeding up to 3,500 people a day.
So when we talk about ‘the new normal’, we have to acknowledge that here in South Africa there have always been two very different normals.
One normal is used to hanging out with friends with successful careers and big dreams for the future, on long term contracts with medical aid, in coffee shops and enjoying safe, green spaces whilst sporting pricey active wear. Returning each day to a home with a spare room. Rarely witnessing death or trauma. Being able to walk around malls and shops freely. Looking forward to an upcoming holiday. Feeling represented by mainstream media. Pursuing personal comfort and fulfillment. Acquainted with and feeling entitled to having a level of power and influence. In this normal the poor are viewed as morally suspect and are generally seen as lazy and/or addicted.
Another normal has nowhere safe to hang out and so resorts to standing on corners of streets with friends in yesterday’s clothes, most of whom are unemployed or only have a casual job that pays by the day and with no medical benefits. Returning each day to a home which, far from having any spare room, is home to 11 other family members. No green space – but shacks of friends’ families in the sandy back yard. Trauma and death are part of life. If ever you’re in a mall you are followed by security guards, so you find most public spaces intimidating. Holidays are something people do in movies. You’re either ignored or condemned by mainstream media. Survival is your life’s pursuit. You are used to powerlessness and irrelevance. In this normal the rich are generally seen as morally suspect, selfish and/or greedy.
So what will the new normal be, if the old normals were so mutually exclusive? We are at a crossroads – as lockdowns ease around the world we have the chance to forge a new normal together – and that is exciting!
Read Pete’s book: ‘No Neutral Ground’ on his experience in South Africa so far. Amazon