My Escape from Poverty – Part 6

I later went home, but I was not accepted like the lost son I was hoping for. My Grandmother was glad to see me but wanted me to apologise to my uncle and my Grandfather.

I decided not to apologise. I could not see how any of what happened was my fault. My Grandfather was not pleased with my attitude and badly wanted to discipline me. But he restrained himself. It was also a Sunday, so the alcohol was finished, and he was sober. So he gave me an ultimatum. I can continue living with them and obey his rules or leave if I was not happy. So I took my stuff and leave.

The people I was working at during holidays also had a truck stop. So my plan was simple. Drop out of school and work full-time as a petrol attendant. I knew that petrol attendants at least had a place to sleep and shower while doing their shifts.

When I got there, someone I respected a lot was working. She was like a mother to me at work. I explained to her what happened and told her that I could not take it anymore. I also told her of my plan to drop out of school and become a full-time petrol attendant.

Like a mother, she listened carefully and attentively.  After listening to me, she explained that I was making a mistake; I was busy chasing a fantasy. She also said to me that I, too, knew that this was not the path. She asked me to consider returning to my grandparents and apologise for my behaviour. I knew she was right.

She also said she knew it would be difficult for me, but I have to because I could not look after myself. My best option was to stay with my grandparents and get through high school. Then, once I completed high school, I could start thinking about living on my own. She asked me to take my time and think about this. She encouraged me to return home when I felt ready.

I later went home with my few belongings. Everything I owned fit into a plastic bag. When I got home, I apologised to my grandparents and uncle. I said I was sorry and that it will never happen again.

I was never really angry at my grandparents, but I was pissed at my uncle. Hence, after that incident, the fighting with my uncle continued because he disrespected my Grandmother. But as I got older, I let it go. He only did it because my Grandmother allowed it.

My Grandfather and I, after the incident, had many arguments. But I learned to handle it better. I started running and made sure I left when they started drinking. I knew if I stick around, it would not be long before I was called “Grietjie se gemors” (Gerthel’s rubbish). So I learned to avoid certain situations, and I still do that until today.

It would take me another four and a half years before I could finally escape that abusive environment.

To be continued

Embracing Change

Everything good comes to an end. It is either the start of something better or something else. But things can never stay the same. And this is simply because death and change are the only two constants in life.

Our only certainties in life are death and change. The rest is uncertain.

So if you experience something good or bad in life, your situation is bound to change. For example, after ten years of being in a friendship, relationship or marriage, you cannot expect everything to stay the same.  Somehow one party will change, which can temporarily or permanently change your relationship with that person, especially if you were unprepared for the coming changes.

If you are in a friendship, relationship or marriage, and you are in a transition period, please take your friend or partner with you on the transition phase. If you can sense the changes coming, speak openly about them and listen to what the other party says. Remember, it affects the other party just as much as it affects you.

Now that I am much older and hopefully wiser, I realised the damage I caused by just cutting off people, breaking friendships and just moving on. I did this without talking and letting the next person in. I also know where this came from and how I came to be like that. But it is no excuse for how I moved on and the state I left people in. For this, I apologise.

Moving on doesn’t have to be a selfish process. You also have every right to do so. But remember, there is a history in every relationship. So naturally, there would be resistance when you want to move on. Breaking things off is a painful process for both parties, and sometimes one party does not want to let go. However, the other party’s resistance to change cannot keep you trapped in a prison.  

But, in the end, moving on cannot be prevented. It is part of life.  So the only piece of advice I can give is to be kind.

“Steek my Weg / Save the River”

“Save the River / Steek my weg” came about while I was working on one of my documentary film projects, “Wie se dans is dit” (whose dance is it). “Wie se dans is dit” is about the |khaba ra dance or “rieldans.” One of the groups that I was interested in filming was the Barrydale “rieldans” group of Barrydale. I set up an interview with the group leader Peter Takelo in December 2018. However, in the interview, he kept talking about the Redfin Minnow. He explained that they annually have a giant puppet parade in which they raise awareness regarding certain topics. That specific year it was about the Redfin Minnow. He said that the Redfin Minnow is one of the oldest freshwater fish and is on the brink of extinction. The biggest threat for the Redfin Minnow appears to be agriculture. We set up an interview with another community leader the next day.

The interview the next day was with Lando Esau. He was also critical of the big agricultural projects along the Tradouw Valley and its effects on the environment. He also spoke about the force removals that took place in Barrydale. His family and many other families were forcefully removed along the valley during apartheid. Lando also spoke about the pain these forced removals caused and which they are still experiencing daily. For Lando and Peter, the answer to dealing with this pain is culture or holding on to their Khoi roots. They spoke to me about the lack of access to their ancestral lands and about a cave full of rock art to which they also do not have access. I realised that I would have to go back to visit the cave.

I returned in 2019 for their annual giant puppet parade. The day after the parade, I went to the cave with the two guides and a camera person. We drove to a hiking trail, climbed through a fence and did a 20-minute hike to the cave. The energy we felt going to the cave was excitement and expectation. Yet, once we entered the cave, we became still as if we were entering a sacred space. I did not expect the magnitude and the beauty of the rock art in this cave and it was not the first time I visited a rock art site. My intention was to see whether the Redfin Minnow was painted on the walls of the cave. However, I found more. The rock art is telling a story of the early inhabitants. How they lived and what they valued.

I decided I will attempt telling the complex Upper Barrydale postapartheid story, and this film is my attempt to tell their story.

Jacob Cloete

My Escape from Poverty – Part 5

Five kilometres outside Bitterfontein, there was a reservoir next to the road. This was where I decided to quickly take a bath and wash my t-shirt. The sun was not out, and there was no time to wait until my t-shirt was dry. So I put it on wet and start walking to Bitterfontein. It was cold walking with a wet t-shirt on.

I arrived in Bitterfontein very early. I think it was around five o’clock. It was summer. I was still too scared to go home, so I decided to go to work. I was also glad I did not run into anyone because I was not ready to explain anything.   

The Café where I was working for the summer holidays wasn’t opened yet. So I decided to wait at the petrol attendants. Since Bitterfontein is a very small town, they heard what happened the previous day. They kept asking me where I was the previous night, but I decided not to say anything.

When the Café finally open, the workers were surprised to see me. And they, too, had a lot of questions. They asked me where I was and where I slept. But I decided not to say anything. I was too ashamed and scared to tell them what happened.

Later on, one of the local cops came to see me. He was notorious for beating up or“disciplining out of hand youngsters”. Without asking what happened, he scolded me and accused me of being “uncontrollable”. He insinuated that I did not appreciate what my grandparents were doing for me. Little did he know that I was working so that we did not starve to death.

But like many outsiders, he did not have a clue what was happening inside our household. He did not see the abuse, nor did he live in the environment I did. Like many outsiders, he only looked at that event. To him, I was another problem child who needed the system’s discipline to set me straight.

More shocking was the realisation that my grandparents called the police on me. I never asked them why they did it. Was this because they were scared something might have happened to me, or was this an attempt to intimidate and discipline me.

I felt betrayed. It did not make sense to me why I was the one who supposedly needed discipline, whereas I was the one who needed rescuing.  To me, it was clear that there was not much protection for poor abused children in the society I grew up in.

To be continued

Normality and Post-Traumatic Stress – Part 2

The emotional trauma of Covid-19 is similar to what people are experiencing in conflict and war-torn areas.  The trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic is now so pervasive, we now know someone who is affected by it, or we are personally affected by it.

At this point, we have lost someone close to us, or someone close to us has lost someone to the virus. We also know people who lost their jobs and even their homes. These effects are becoming “normal”, and this is blunting our emotions. Our emotional response is not what it was at the beginning of the pandemic.

Since people are carrying a lot of trauma, it seems as though employers do not understand this. Or they do understand, but they care more about the bottom line than the employees. Employees are expected to function optimally and be their old selves as before the pandemic. But they are not. They are hurting and are dealing with loss at a grand scale.

In South Africa, the debate is between saving lives or saving the economy, which one should we prioritise. If we prioritise people, the economy suffers, and more people will lose their jobs. If we prioritise the economy, more people will die. The end result of both scenarios is loss. The debate has become personal because it is expected of people to lose something.

Our situation in South Africa is definitely a result of the global political economic system. Governments have bought into the fallacy that economic growth results in jobs. Hence economic growth and tax breaks are prioritised when drawing up national budgets. However, poverty is never the priority. The view of economists in South Africa is that poverty reduction and alleviation are the results of economic growth. That is a fallacy because South African economic growth thrives on cheap labour and unemployment. The postapartheid economy is no different from the apartheid or colonial economies. They are structurally the same.

However, I do not see us fix the global political economic system in my lifetime. But organisations can at least, during the COVID-19 pandemic, recognise the grand scale loss and support their employees more effectively. For example, something that is at least more thoughtful than an email about alcohol abuse during the pandemic.

I know many staff who are working from home and are now working more than they have before. Some are expected to be available 24/7. They are using their electricity, water and their homes as office spaces. They are also not compensated for these expenses. Their homes have become their places of work, and places of mourning. They are now trapped in this environment 24/7. They are burnout, and there is no psychological break for these employees.

Given this, I am advocating for a better and more thoughtful response to employee wellness. Employee wellness must now be the focus at work. Employers’ response must be one that will give them hope and help them deal with the loss. A response that will help them overcome the pandemic at a psychological level. If not, the psychological effects of the pandemic will be around even after everyone are vaccinated.

Normality and Post-Traumatic Stress – Part 1

I was deployed in 2004 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a South African peacekeeper. Several weeks before our deployment, we were “mobilised” at a military site somewhere in South Africa. During this “mobilising” period, we received several briefings by intelligence officers about the situation in Congo. We were taught about the different rebel groups, the conflict hotspots and where we would be deployed.

Intelligence briefings indicated that the fighting was along the eastern corridor, which included South Kivu, North Kivu and Beni. Some were deployed to Kindu, and I was part of a group that was deployed to Goma in North Kivu. But we were constantly reminded that we were a peacekeeping force. We could not interfere. If we saw rebels shooting or killing civilians, we could not engage. We could only engage when defending ourselves. Even then, we had to wait on a command from our section leader.

Based on our briefings, I expected scenes from Black Hawk Down and Tears of the Sun. But that is not what we got when we landed. The soldiers looked like regular soldiers, and the city of Goma seemed peaceful. But I soon realised that this apparent peaceful environment was a front. Something felt off. People were going about the everyday business in a “normal” way despite so many soldiers present in Goma, Lubero, Beni and Bunia. There were weddings, children were going to school, and people were doing their laundry. This normality felt forced. However, there was a moment I realised that people were aware that what they were experiencing was not “normal”.

I was deployed as part of the corps, and part of our tasks was to build new bases and purify water. The South African Army did not provide us with bottled water. It was our task to provide clean drinking water to every South African soldier. This meant that we had to go to the river twice a day to fill the water truck. Each trip took us approximately two hours.

One day I decided to take my camera with me. That day near the truck, a group of children were sitting, having a conversation among themselves. I estimate that it was about 50 metres from the truck. While I was sitting on top of the truck, waiting for the tank to fill up, I decided to take a photo. When I pointed the camera at them, they scattered in different directions. They thought I was pointing a gun at them. But when they realised that it was a camera, they came back and continued their conversation. That incident stayed with me.

In South Africa, we knew violence but not on the scale that people in Eastern experienced it. The photos my friends shared with me from the sites they were deployed to were horrific. The photos were of dead women and children killed by militia. Their heads cut open with machetes. Some photos show women who were raped, mutilated and killed. Some women’s breasts were cut off. There were also photos of men who were killed and had their genitals cut off. Photos of militia posing with severed heads and other limbs of their victims and photos of people’s homes burned down.

Also, in South Africa, we did not experience poverty on the scale as people who lived in the conflict zone. We had a government that alleviated some of the poverty. In the Congo, there was no functional government. No government that built houses or who was providing electricity, or who build public infrastructures like roads and dams. The poor were left to find ways for their survive and fend for themselves.

Before we left the DRC, there was an attempt by South African Military Health Services (SAMHS) to debrief us. But the 5 minutes with the councillor did not help at all. So when I returned to South Africa, I felt empty and drained. I had post-traumatic stress. Soon afterwards, I completed my contract with the South African Army, and I never spoke much about my experiences in the DRC. Many people over the years have asked me to tell them about my experiences, but I never truly opened up. I felt like I lost a part of myself in the Congo. There were many days the conflict lingered in my mind. But as the years went by, it slipped from my mind only to enter it again in 2014, when I started my PhD. By then, I think I was ready and mature enough to deal with the trauma.

To be continued

My Escape from Poverty – Part 4

It was this kind of sleep where you do not dream about anything. When I woke up, it was completely dark. For a moment, I did not know where I was, and then reality hit me. I was running away from home.

It was then that I realised that I was busy with something stupid. So I decided to go back home. This moment in my life signalled a turning point. I knew running away was not the answer to my problems. So I decided to go back and face them.

I started running the way I came, and I soon realised how far I ran. It was dark and cold. I couldn’t see much in front of me, and I wasn’t dressed for the cold. I also realise that anything could happen to me, so I just kept running and praying.

I do not know how far I ran before I was too tired to run any further. I stopped in a ditch in the road and decided that I will rest there for a bit. I remember I bought matches before I took the road, so I decided to make a fire. I was so scared and cold.

I went through a broken fence of one of the farms to look for some firewood. But it was so dark I had to light a match to see what was around me. I eventually got some sticks together to make a fire but struggled to light it. After a while, I got it going.

I cleaned an area around the fire. My plan was to sleep next to the fire until the next morning. I fell asleep, but it was not long before I was awake again. The air was cold and misty. I realised the fire burned out, and I had to look for more firewood again.

Again with great struggle, I started a new one, and as my body was heated by the fire, I drifted off to sleep. Just to wake up again because it started drizzling. So I decided to make the fire bigger. A bigger fire helped, but I could not fell asleep again.

I kept wondering what would happen to me when I return home. Even though I was scared, I knew I had to go back home. Later the skies cleared, and I saw it was a full moon. The full moon lit up the road and everything around me. So I killed the fire and started walking back home. It was a long walk.

To be continued …

Grit: The Secret to Success

I think the best way to describe my mindset is “aanhouer wen” (perseverance pays off). It is a principle my Grandma taught me at a very young age.

As a kid growing up on a farm, my job was to sometimes collect firewood and bring it home. Close to the farmhouse, I think about 500m was a river, and along the river, acacia trees were growing. Regularly I was sent to the river to collect small pieces of firewood. At the time, I was 5 or 6 years old.

One day I decided to take the jigsaw with me to cut off a dead tree branch I saw on one of the acacia trees. To me, a bigger piece of wood would save me from making many trips to the river. It took me a while to cut off the branch, and once it was on the ground, I faced the challenge of dragging it home.

Since I was not strong enough, I could not carry the saw and drag the branch simultaneously. I first put the saw on top of the tree branch and tried to drag them both, but the saw kept falling off. So I came up with a new plan. I decided to carry the jigsaw 100 metres, placed it down in the footpath, and walked back to drag the tree branch 100 metres past the jigsaw and then walk back for the saw and carry it 100 metres past the tree branch. I repeated this process until I got home. My Grandma was so impressed when she saw what I did, and that evening praised me in front of my Grandpa.

Sometimes my Grandpa and uncle would collect and bring firewood home. My job was to cut it into smaller pieces. And this is where I developed the “aanhouer wen” (perseverance pays off) mindset. Since my Grandma had other tasks to complete, and my uncle and Grandpa would be busy until late on the farm, they relied on me to cut the wood into smaller pieces.

Cutting through tree stumps at the age of 5 or 6 with a jigsaw and splitting it into smaller pieces with an axe was always really hard work. My muscles would often burn, and when I complained to my Grandma, she would always tell me, “aanhouer wen.” She urged me to always keep trying, and that allowed me to complete my tasks. My reward afterwards was always praise, and I liked it. That not only helped developing grit, but it also developed my self-esteem.

For me, grit is the ability to keep pushing when everybody has given up and when the odds are against you. Grit is the ability to believe in the result even though circumstances are not in your favour. Grit believes in “I can do this” and transforming that into “I am doing this.” Grit is developing an unwavering belief in your ability to do something when you put your mind to it. Grit is about hard work – showing up and continue working even though you do not feel like working.

Grit, for me, is “aanhouer wen” and the secret to success.

My Escape from Poverty – Part 3

The first time I tried to escape was towards the end of 1998. My life as I knew it was falling apart. The school I just adjusted to was closing down, and I knew my grandparents did not have the money to send me to another school. I was frustrated and scared.

So one morning, I exploded. I was working for the holidays, and as I was preparing for work, my uncle instructed me to comb my hair. I decided not to do it. So he pinned me down with his knees and violently brushed my hair, hurting me in the process. So I got mad. I wanted to fight him, but I knew he was stronger. I ran outside pick up stones and stoned him, and in the process, damaged the roof. I then ran to work.

I worked the whole day and thought that everything would be cooled off when I returned from work. But when I returned home, my uncle and grandfather were waiting for me. They decided to give me a hiding. Both of them were already under the influence of alcohol. So I decided I had enough and decided to run away.

My plan was simple, I would take one of the dirt roads until I get to the coast and then walk along the coast to Cape Town. I did not plan for what I would do in Cape Town, but I knew I had to get out. I did not have money, no food or any clothes with me. I had a pair of worn-out shoes, a pair of green trousers (I got from someone) and I think a white t-shirt.

I was high on adrenaline, and I was walking and running almost 15km before I got tired and decided that I will rest. There was a stormwater drain next to the road, and I decided to hide there for a while. I was hiding because the road went through various farms, and I was scared of the farmers. I knew too many young people my age who have been beaten up by farmers. While I was sitting in the stormwater drain, I fell asleep.

To be continued


The world is filled with pessimistic people, and now they have phones in their hands to spread their negativity.

This pessimism was so visible with the announcement of the Bill and Melinda Gates divorce. Social media was flooded with memes, and these memes focused on all the negative. They range from alimony settlement to working from home memes. Some people even brought up Bill’s 2019 tweet wishing for another 25 years of marriage. Some people might tell me that those memes were funny, and I would politely disagree. It was pessimism masked as jokes. It is more a reflection of their true feelings towards marriage and relationship in general.

To me, it revealed how some social media users are thriving off negativity. They influence those around them, and this spread pessimism across the internet. The danger is the longer you stay on the internet, the more you become pessimistic.

The internet is not the only place pessimism thrives. Workplaces are just as bad. I have worked with my fair share of pessimistic colleagues. They always had a problem with everything. If it is not the job, then it is the salary. If it is not the salary, then it is the working hours. It always felt like they do not want to be there. I seldom wondered if they were ever happy.

In any organisational setting, there is always a problem with working hours, salary and job expectations. Some employees are exploited, and they are usually the ones who cannot say no. And I felt for them, but they rarely offered a solution to the challenges they were faced.

Please do not think of me as an optimistic freak. I am not. I, however, do appreciate negative feedback and setbacks. A legend in the ANC says that when former South African President Thabo Mbeki took over from Nelson Mandela, Madiba said the following to him: “Criticism is the lifeblood of the struggle. Please do not surround yourself with “yes men.” I took this as a guiding principle the first time I became a team leader in an organisational setting. I allowed for critical feedback and criticism and always tried to improve and do better.

The problem with pessimism is that it does not offer a solution. It is just negative, harmful and damaging. Pessimistic people rarely provide a solution to a problem. With every answer, they respond with more negativity.

Will this ever change? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.