In Memory of Vicky Ntozini, Township Entrepreneur and Friend

Last Friday, as news of the Sandy Hook killings spread, I learned that my good friend Vicky Ntozini had been murdered--stabbed to death in the township where she lived in Cape Town. 

My first thought was that she had been robbed, or had been targeted out of jealousy at her relative success, having run a successful bed and breakfast in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. 

And then I learned her husband was the killer.

I came to know Vicky as a Rotary Scholar in early 2000, shortly after I arrived in Cape Town. I took a tour of the townships and met a smiling, rotund, humble but ebullient woman who had taken a tourism management course and set about turning her shack in the squatter camp of Khayelitsha into an international destination. At that point, her proudest achievement was hosting four Dutch girls on New Year’s Eve without incident.

I was intrigued by what she was doing, and returned a few months later to stay with her myself. Vicky and her husband walked me around the township, accompanied me to the local shebeen (informal tavern), walked me to the local church for services on Sunday. 

I found myself returning frequently, first as a guest and then as a volunteer teacher at the local library, helping students study for matriculation exams and starting a chess club.

I helped Vicky build a website and an e-mail system for bookings. Her fame continued to spread throughout the world, and her house was almost constantly full. Big tourism companies approached her to form symbolic partnerships; local politicians stopped by for photo-ops. (Once, a group of provincial cabinet members from the then-ruling ANC governing coalition came for breakfast one morning--and neglected to pay their bill.)

As I developed a closer connection with Khayelitsha, I began to question my long-held left-wing political views. 

I saw how the effects of state-centered policies, particularly in housing and education, had trapped people in poverty. I learned that even the poorest residents, for example, were prepared to pay more for a private “minibus taxi” to take them downtown than to risk their wallets and their lives on formal public transportation.

I saw how Vicky’s entrepreneurial spirit lifted her entire community. She created jobs for more than a dozen of her neighbors, supported local businesses, and distributed toys and school supplies donated by guests among the children of the community. She helped organize a “street committee” to keep the area relatively safe from crime, and stood up to drunken and abusive police who occasionally harassed her foreign visitors.

For Vicky, government was largely a hindrance, not a help. She continued to vote for the ANC, largely out of a sense of identification with its anti-apartheid history and its African culture, but held no illusions about what the party was doing whether it had the people’s interests at heart. “The first of many,” she murmured one cold evening as we watched a news broadcast together about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s conviction for fraud. 

Vicky’s home became a refuge for me, and I stopped by several nights a week. During a particularly rough stretch, after I had broken up with my girlfriend back in the USA, Vicky and her family were the best support I had. 

And every friend that visited me in the years that followed would find themselves at Vicky’s place at some point in their trip. Everyone who crossed her threshold felt a sense of wonder at her tenacity, creativity, and warmth.

I was amazed, on a return visit in 2009, to see how Vicky’s neighborhood had changed. The new provincial government, run by the opposition Democratic Alliance, had given residents the opportunity to build their own housing with public funds, provided their community had a reasonable plan. Houses went up overnight. But Vicky kept her home a shack--albeit fortified from the inside by cinder blocks--to retain a sense of romance.

Vicky did not have grand plans for her bed and breakfast. She just wanted to do the best she could to make a living for her family. Her husband, a mechanic, had suffered a back injury and was no longer working, but proudly supported her efforts, decorating the shack and reinforcing it against the wind and rain of the Cape Town winter. Her one goal was to travel to the U.S. to further her studies, once her five children were grown. 

The grief at losing a close friend--as close as family--is almost outweighed by the shock that her husband could have done something so brutal. (He tried, and failed, to kill himself afterwards.) I had always known him as a gentle soul, a soft-spoken father. I remember him weeping at the hospital bedside of his toddler son, who had wandered into the street and was hit by a passing truck--and who soon made a dramatic recovery.

I don’t know how to make sense of such a terrible crime, any more than I know how to make sense of what happened in Newtown. Nor can I think of any solutions. Violence against women is, unfortunately, endemic in South Africa. And gun control has never worked, anywhere in the world--nor are more guns the answer. (Vicky’s husband did not need the family’s two guns to kill her, nor could Vicky reach them to defend herself.)

Evil is a problem that ultimately lacks a government solution. I thought President Barack Obama’s attempt to use a memorial in Newtown to launch a political call to action had more than a touch of hubris. Vowing to “use whatever power this office holds” to stop future mass killings is on a par with his promise to stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. (Fact: such killings have already been declining, without government help.)

That is not to say there is nothing to be done, but the factors that create a less violent society are more likely to be social and economic--and more visible in retrospect. I am less concerned about the public policy steps to be taken (there may be none) than I am about the everyday task we face of holding onto hope for a better world when children are killed in cold blood and a woman like Vicky can be suddenly taken from God’s earth.

Everyone I know is struggling to deal with what the Sandy Hook massacre means. I am finding it especially difficult, as the father of a ten-month-old child, to imagine that there is nothing I can do that will absolutely guarantee her safety. And I feel chastened by the knowledge that children in inner city neighborhoods die violently every week; only when they are killed so theatrically, and in wealthy suburbia, do we seem to take notice.

It is just as difficult to interpret Vicky’s death. It is almost tempting to give up the hope that anything can improve the lives of the poorest. What is the point of trying, if everything can be lost so horrifically? 

But then I remember that Vicky lived with danger and despair constantly at her doorstep--and persevered. There may be no answer for evil except to confront it wherever it arises, in ways both large and small, for the sake of hope in itself.


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