From shame to pride


From shame to pride

In Woodstock in Cape Town you'll find a team who call themselves Souper Troopers. Instead of whining about poor people, they offer a psychological haven from antagonism towards the needy, writes HERMAN LATEGAN.


Hate is a lonely traveller on a road that leads nowhere 

— FA Venter

I AM sitting with my dear friend from London in a car at the Green Point traffic lights. Behind us is the enormous DHL Stadium, where the 2010 Soccer World Cup was held.

“Ugh," he says in his hifalutin English: “I hate all these beggars. Can’t they be shipped away?” The hate, the hate. The rooster loudly crowed and I, Judas, remained silent.

I remember very well how needy people, homeless and “bergies" were shoved into police vans and bakkies at night just before the football spectacle and dropped off at Blikkiesdorp on the outskirts of the city.

Blikkiesdorp with its shiny corrugated iron houses glistened in the sun like an apocalyptic concentration camp. I know about these events, I was there to write the story.

A friend, Rina Adams (departed), who slept on the Sea Point promenade at night, was thrown away there. Friends of hers told me. I went to look for her. The police stopped me at the entrance. “Leave me alone," I said. “I'm looking for Rina."

Seriously, I asked after Rina at two homes and one man said: “Rina from Sea Point?" I answered: “Yes, that's my Rina, my friend." I stood outside her house and shouted: “Rina, Rina!"

She ran out into the hot day, I caught her in my arms, we did a rondomtalie and laughed. Then she started to weep.

“Why do they hate us so much, Herman?" she asked. The day was sostill, it was as if everything were dead. I had no answer. I looked up and saw barbed wire and sand. Shortly afterwards, Rina died.

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I read up about the hostile attitude that some people harbour towards needy people, a term coined by the Spanish philosopher Adela Cortina (author of the book, Aporophobia: Why We Reject the Poor Instead of Helping Them).

It describes an unfavourable attitude of ordinary and rich people towards the poor, ranging from antipathy, disgust and contempt to fear and hatred. Aporophobia can also include an attitude of total hostility towards incapable people, or the belief that poor people are a nuisance, even within one's own family.

Souper Troopers’ Kerry Hoffman

When Capetononian Kerry Hoffman's relationship ended in 2014 there were no stars left in the sky. A darkness moved in.

She got up on Saturday June 7 and something told her to cook a pot of vegetable soup. The day was cold. She bought bread and made peanut butter and jam sandwiches.

She loaded everything into her car boot and drove to the bottom of the Company's Garden, where she parked on the pavement, just beyond St George's Cathedral.

Her boot smelt of home and love when she opened it. She gave food to anyone who was hungry (and there were quite a few).

Starving people heard about this via bush telegraph on the street. She tackled this collaborative job every week for a year.

After that, the project began to blossom. She found a space at the Service Dining Rooms in District Six, where you can buy a plate of food for R1. Here, people living on the street can also have their hair cut for free.

The food scheme Ladles of Love got involved. A cat's whisker away from the Service Dining Rooms was the Carpenters' Shop in Roeland Street, which offered more space. (These days it is the Hope Exchange).

Later, a monthly social jamboree was held for the displaced. Up to 700 people turned up to drink soup and have a good time. There were game tables, a second-hand clothing store, rummy was played and films were shown.

“Where can someone who lives on the street go to the movies?" Kerry asked. Where? I have to think, because I with my fat middle-class life have never thought of such a thing.

Nik Rabinowitz, the comedian, performed for them for free. The Community Chest in Bree Street invited Kerry and her team to share its premises. During Covid they continued to work among poor people when the tent villages started to appear.

They provided food and helped with vaccinations. She says homeless people are often treated harshly by the authorities. Their IDs are taken away, their dentures too.

In the meantime, sponsors heard about her work and they were able to get money to do even more. Caryn Gootkin is now responsible for full-time fundraising and finance. The Souper Troopers were born.

Their base in Woodstock is sponsored by Swindon Property. “They donate our rent, buy us coffee and often bring their team to liaise with ours," says Kerry.

Souper Troopers was born on a misty day, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in winter. Who would have thought? Come with me and meet members of the team.

The building where Souper Troupers is based.
The building where Souper Troupers is based.
Kerry Hoffman founded Souper Troupers.
Kerry Hoffman founded Souper Troupers.

Gideon Venter: admin and fieldwork assistant

I visit their building sporadically for three weeks to talk to some of the people there. The atmosphere is always upbeat with music playing in the background. Most of the people who work there used to live on the streets.

The work is divided into various sections, such as the sale and packaging of good coffee, the making of African Worry Dolls for export to America and Europe and, of course, social work. I want to know what happens, from the start. How people living on the streets get involved.

Simple: you ring the front doorbell and hear the sound of birds chirping. A blond man named Gideon opens the door. You are invited inside.

Gideon makes an appointment for you with the social worker, who will then assess you. This appointment is important because it is the first step to see if you are serious about your healing process. You must comply, as then the social worker will definitely speak to you.

First I sit down to learn more about Gideon. Talking to him, I hear Madonna singing Take a Bow. This music comes from another room where I see people doing manual work.

Gideon tells me he has worked for Souper Troopers for three years. During Covid, he and his partner, Phillip Slabbert, lost their jobs.

One was a manager at a liquor store, the other worked at reception in a guest house. Their money ran out and they had to go to a night shelter.

Hostels like this don't accept couples and Gideon had to live at a Safe Space under a bridge in the city. They gave him a blanket and mattress. Philip went to the Pride Shelter Trust in Oranjezicht.

Gideon swept streets for four hours a day and earned a meagre R60. During the day they met in the Company's Garden for emotional support. One day you have a roof over your head, the next you need the mercy of other people.

Yes, life sometimes is like a solar eclipse.

Tasneem Hoosain: social aid worker

When you arrive for your appointment you are taken up the steep stairs to Tasneem. They follow the CAST model they have developed themselves over the years.

C is connection: You fill in a form and Tasneem learns more about you. “I'm starting to take the Band-Aid off here," she says.

A is for assess: They tell Tasneem what their plans are, what they want to do, how they feel about themselves.

S is for support: “We offer workshops where we take people back to their childhood, something happy they remember. There was a time when they once had beautiful memories," she says.

“You have to learn to stop thinking you are a failure, you can make your dreams come true. We help you to find a night shelter, to put together a budget.

“Many ask for help with an ID document. Then someone goes with them to the Department of Home Affairs by 3am and brings coffee and a muffin.

“They can also get toiletries from us, have their hair cut and take a shower."

The workshops are where people learn to control their anger and participate in role play. How should you behave when you go for a job interview? What body language do you use?

You must tell yourself every day: “I forgive myself." Many people are angry with themselves. Furious. You must realise that you are not worthless. They are taught to celebrate every small victory.

There are also people who depend on alcohol and drugs, they are helped to knock on the door at a rehabilitation centre. Tasneem says they do so much to help people mentally, it is almost too much to explain.

T is for transformation. By the time they get to this step, they are new people. They must continue to work on their self-respect and forgiveness.

Jake Gluckman: counsellor

There is also a qualified counsellor, Jake Gluckman. I sit with him in his comfortable office and notice that the rubbish bin is full of tissues. A lot of crying is done here.

He has a comfortable, gentle demeanour, someone with whom you can feel safe and share your pain. Jake comes from a privileged home but has decided his destiny lies with people in need.

Many of his customers come to talk to him about their broken relationships with their families. There are people who have been molested, who mourn their childhood, who have lost years on the streets and are full of self-blame.

He builds a relationship with them and makes plans. Goals for the future are discussed. Trauma is a big part of their lives and time is spent on it.

Trauma settles in your body and manifests itself in different ways as soon as something triggers you. Jake says people sometimes get addicted to tik because it keeps them warm at night. Also because they want to forget about the rough conditions on the street.

“Remember, when you're out there, you're in a permanent mental and physical state of survival," says Jake. “It's unbearable, something has to break."

He offers workshops on, among other things, how to deal with anxiety and stress. His customers also have to work on love: how do you show you love someone, how do you give love, how do you love yourself?

When I realised that there are people who need to learn about love from scratch, I froze.

Left: Jake Gluckman is the counsellor; top centre: Gideon Venter lost everything during Covid and now works for Souper Troupers; bottom centre: Tasneem Hoosain is the social worker; right: Nawaal David ensures the building is clean.
Left: Jake Gluckman is the counsellor; top centre: Gideon Venter lost everything during Covid and now works for Souper Troupers; bottom centre: Tasneem Hoosain is the social worker; right: Nawaal David ensures the building is clean.

The African Worry Dolls

A major success story of the Souper Troopers is their now world-renowned African Worry Dolls, which are exported to America and Europe. They are made right here in Cape Town, in two rooms, mostly by formerly homeless people.

Each handmade doll is assembled from recycled materials. The African Worry Dolls are loosely based on the miniature dolls Guatemalan children use — they whisper their fears into their ears before putting them under their pillows at night. In the morning you wake up with the necessary wisdom.

Two groups of people work on the dolls and each person has their own  task. I decide to sit down with Sharon Petersen, who makes the dolls' heads.

She will talk to me, she says, but I am not allowed to take a picture. In her hand is a stick and she shows me how she forms the heads and puts them together then wraps them with pieces of old pantyhose.

“When I'm done, it has to go to the one who works with the arms and legs. From there, the eyes are inserted and beaded, and the clothes go to the designers. Then the supervisor comes and checks if everything is fine."

African Worry Dolls under construction.
African Worry Dolls under construction.

The conversations are jolly, the music cheerful. While Sharon works she talks softly to me. She used to be a senior chef at a hotel in the Waterfront, then Covid took her job. She lost everything.

She knocked on the door at the District Six night shelter. She has many goals, such as hosting motivational talks. Souper Troopers helped her with self-confidence.

“I can play the drums too," she whispers. “I always make sure that I look good and that I eat healthy."

She shows me her lunch box, lifts the lid. Inside are various types of tea, honey and cans of tuna. She is proud of her lunch box and touches the cans of tuna.

“Oh, the tuna, the tuna, too good," she says. “But my favourite food is steak with a mushroom sauce, Greek salad and then cheesecake. Also meatballs.”

She takes a doll and looks at it for a long time: “Yes, the dolls are for talking to in the evenings, or any time actually," she says.

A moment of silence.

“There are people who are suicidal and the dolls bring happiness." She strokes the doll's head.


For more information or to get involved, visit the Souper Troopers website.

On a lighter note, feel free to dance to ABBA's Super Trouper:

♦ VWB ♦

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