Words by Lee Middleton | 02 Jun 2023

The relative sense of safety manufactured by paved roads with names that come up on a GPS and working streetlights shining down on humanity’s bustle—commuters waiting for buses, kids returning from school—wanes and suddenly absents itself as tar gives way to dirt plunging through dunes. Clustered along the sandy slopes is a proliferation of ramshackle dwellings jig sawed from corrugated metal sheets and wood pallets, roofs anchored by stones and tires. “This is Monwabisi Park,” says Mercy Brown-Luthango, a researcher at the African Centre for Cities (ACC). “I don’t really want to stop here,” she adds with a nervous laugh. Headlines that lie dormant in the mind of most Capetonians—harrowing stories of child rape, abandoned bodies and torture by fire—stir in the subconscious, roused by this closed circuit of overwhelming poverty, extreme isolation and lack of visible escape routes.

Located just 30 kilometres from Cape Town’s iconic mountain, bucolic wine estates and urbane city centre, Monwabisi Park—or Endlovini as it is also known—sits on the southern boundary of the sprawling township area known as Khayelitsha. Cape Town’s largest and fastest-growing township (population about 400 000), Khayelitsha is one of the city’s most densely populated zones, and over 50% of its mainly black African residents live in informal housing. The township suffers extremely high levels of violence, surpassing Nyanga (also in Cape Town) as South Africa’s murder capital in 2012. A well-known crime hotspot in its own right, Monwabisi Park is one of over 300 informal settlements—a South African euphemism for what most would call slums—in this city of about four million.

Since 2011 Brown-Luthango has been analysing the relationship between violence and physical environments in Cape Town, specifically looking at the effect physical upgrades have on violence and perceptions of safety in the city’s informal settlements. To understand the way human manipulation of space has influenced dynamics of violence here is to attempt to capture something that initially appears a singular and conspicuous subject, but which fractures and multiplies, slippery as a bait ball come undone as one nears.

Cape Town is one of the most fucked up places i’ve ever lived. It’s two worlds

Having appeared as the only African entry in the world’s top 10 most-violent cities in 2015 (the rest are in Latin America), Cape Town is probably the only city on that list to invariably also rank in the top 10 of any continental tourism brag. This bizarre dichotomy speaks to the exceptional spatial determinism at play here. “Cape Town is one of the most fucked up places I’ve ever lived.” says Kurt Orderson, an award-winning filmmaker from Mitchells Plain, the city’s second largest township and the country’s worst precinct in 2015 for overall number of crimes, drug-related crimes and common assault. “It’s two worlds—the way space is demarcated as to who can live where and who can’t.”

Strewn across the sandy flood-prone Cape Flats some 20-35 km outside of central Cape Town, racially segregated townships like Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha were created by the apartheid government to dispose of non-whites evicted from desirable city-centre locations from the 1950s into the 1980s. “There you were entrenched by means of railway lines, highways, rivers, industrial areas,” recalls Joe Schaffers, now 77, of the very physical nature of that segregation. At the age of 28, Schaffers was evicted from District Six—a neighbourhood five minutes walk from Cape Town’s city centre and once inhabited by a diverse, majority non-white working class population—to Hanover Park, a predominantly “coloured” residential suburb that is today synonymous with extreme gang violence.

The project to remove non-whites from Cape Town can be traced to the origins of the city itself. Black Africans were segregation’s primary targets until the notorious District Six evictions pushed some 60 000 people to the Cape Flats in the years between 1968 and 1982. A pinnacle of apartheid aggression, the thoroughness of the community fragmentation and racial segregation effected by those removals was astonishing. In their wake, memories of the racial and ethnic diversity that had existed in city neighbourhoods like District Six, Sea Point and Claremont were replaced by what became—and to a discomfiting extent remains—Cape Town’s segregated social reality. “Because of intense brainwashing from grandparents to parents to children, you still find people believing, ‘This is my area, that is your area, you don’t belong here, I don’t belong there’,” remarks Schaffers, who serves as an educator at the District Six Museum.

The African National Congress (ANC) government inherited the results of South Africa’s twisted socio-spatial legacy in 1994 and immediately prioritized a spatial solution to undo the poverty, inequality and distrust seeded by apartheid’s dogged engineering. Under the country’s newly adopted Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), former president Nelson Mandela’s government promised the South African people that it would give away a minimum of one million houses within five years. In 1996 the housing promise was further bolstered by Section 26 of the country’s newly adopted Constitution, which enshrines “access to adequate housing” for all as a right in democratic South Africa.

More than 20 years and approximately three million houses later, extreme inequality, segregation and violence persist across South Africa. Many would argue that the three collide most spectacularly in Cape Town, a city whose unique geography forces its contrasting worlds—from magazine-spread lifestyles to places that make certain war zones feel ordered—to exist in relatively tight proximity, bound and yet mostly incoherent to one another. And while history has proven that human engineering can successfully create a city divided, the ability to demolish that social construction by upgrading physical space remains very much in question.

t is a crisp and windless late summer day in Freedom Park, Mitchells Plain. The sun streaming outside, Ledofica Kellingson sits inside the three-bedroom cinderblock house she shares with her father and niece, waiting. “Since the day I got stabbed I never feel safe,” the bright-eyed 16-year-old explains of her reluctance to go outdoors. Leaving two wounds three inches from her lungs, Ledofica’s stabbing—ostensibly the result of tapping the shoulder of another teen blocking her passage through a nearby pool parlour—is evidence of how little it takes for the anger and frustration simmering in communities like this to erupt into harm.

Like so many Cape Town residents, Ledofica lives in a state of limbo, waiting for something to happen, semi-captive to the numerous threats permeating her world. Having left school at 14 to care for her young niece, Ledofica joined the nearly 50% of South African youth who drop out of school before grade 12, closing off one of the few routes to something else. But Freedom Park—once a poster child for the power of community organization—was not supposed to be a place one needed to flee.

Occupying a piece of vacant land in April 1998, the Freedom Park settlers were threatened with eviction by the city within just a few days.

Quickly uniting, the settlers won permission from the city to stay, but only after forfeiting their rights to basic services (water, sanitation, etc.). Already made up of 485 shacks, the informal settlement soon struggled to safely dispose of human waste, leading to a health crisis resulting in several deaths. With technical and organizational support from the Development Action Group (DAG), a non-governmental organisation working for urban land equality, residents eventually wrested a commitment from the newly restructured City of Cape Town (CoCT) to provide Freedom Park residents with basic services. That victory was followed by right of tenure and permission to upgrade the shacks to formal houses through a “participatory process” for housing. Instead of receiving the so-called RDP structures manufactured by private contractors whose infamously shoddy work marred the national government housing programme’s first decade—and to date has cost the country upwards of R2 billion—Freedom Park residents helped to design their new homes. The result was a neighbourhood of diverse and attractive structures with features like pedestrian-friendly roads and open spaces earmarked for recreation and parks.

Those open spaces are now littered with building rubble, broken glass and garbage, their grounds nocturnal battlefields for the area’s rival gangs. “A lot of people sold the trees,” Ledofica says when I comment on a rare garden as we walk through the neighbourhood. “My sister chopped ours for firewood,” she adds. Throughout Freedom Park, shacks have sprung up in yards and alleys around the colourful houses. A number of roofs are missing solar geysers. Bullet holes pock outer walls.

Freedom Park was the first site where Brown-Luthango studied the impact of housing upgrades on violence. Previously employed by DAG, she had history in the area, having witnessed its evolution from informal settlement through its 2007-09 building process. “I was shocked and saddened,” she says of what she found upon return in 2011. The majority of those living in the new houses said that although they mostly felt safer inside their homes (“bullets don’t go through brick”), the neighbourhood was decidedly more dangerous. “People had lost a grip on their community. Things were more out of control than when it was an informal settlement,” the soft-spoken researcher recalls.

The Freedom Park findings challenged Brown-Luthango’s personal beliefs about the importance of housing to South Africa’s transformation. They also catalysed a larger analysis comparing the effect different upgrade approaches had on violence. Curious if Freedom Park was an outlier, Brown-Luthango moved on to look at another informal-to-formal upgrade, this time in Site C, Khayelitsha. “Site C was more positive than Freedom Park,” observes Brown-Luthango, “but … not now.”

As had happened in Freedom Park, about 122 Site C households had organized into a savings group that made them eligible for a housing upgrade into which they invested capital and “sweat equity”. Like Freedom Park, residents would later feel that violence in the area increased after the upgrades. “Site C is the worst place in Khayelitsha with crime,” insists Khaya Sobekwa (26), who lives with his mother and sister in a Site C cinderblock house still awaiting plaster. Khaya, like many in Site C, blames unemployment, kids dropping out of school, and easy access to drugs and alcohol for the chaos.

Operating from the premise that inequality plays a big role in violence, Brown-Luthango had hypothesized that upgrading informal settlements (the “most visible manifestations of spatial inequality”) would have a positive effect on crime and safety. However, the social dynamics that changed were not the ones she anticipated. In both Freedom Park and Site C, residents observed that the sense of community that animated the area when they had lived in shacks dissipated after upgrading. The community had lost the protective power of its “eyes on the street”, to borrow a phrase from Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). As Brown-Luthango sees it, the upgrades inadvertently led to both communities losing “social cohesion” or “collective efficacy”—a concept social scientists use to explain how communities can exert informal social control to reduce anti-social behaviour.

“When I set foot in my house at night I cut myself off from the outside world. I [only] hear about what happens the next day,” says Adielah van Schalkwyk (43), an original Freedom Park resident and a leader of the upgrade process. Van Schalkwyk doesn’t blame the increased violence in Freedom Park on eroded community relations. She does however blame loss of community on city authorities’ decision to construct double the number of houses as there had been original Freedom Park residents, using the surplus to move 204 households plucked from the city’s housing list into the neighbourhood. “People from other communities came to live with us. This made our community more vulnerable [to] the gangsterism which is so high in our area,” she says. However, in Site C, where no ‘strangers’ were brought in, people also ceased to act collectively, with a neighbourhood watch and street committee that residents say had maintained safety prior to the upgrade ceasing to function.

Some argue that whatever the risk factors, social cohesion is not sufficient to keep urban communities safe, and evidence linking the two is lacking. Further, it is not difficult to find examples across the globe of well-off neighbourhoods where people barely know one another and yet safety and security are top notch. Brown-Luthango is well aware of such examples, but argues that in the context of the poverty and inequality in Cape Town’s townships, social cohesion acts as “one of the very few protective factors” available in a battle against an extreme concentration of risks. “In better off communities there are more protective factors,” she says. “People have ways of dealing with trauma, they can afford private security. So social cohesion is not as necessary as it is in a poor community.” Which leads to the depressing observation that, like so many other things the South African state is mandated but fails to provide adequately (think schools, public transportation, security, health), the poor must get by on community while those with means pay the difference.

ack in Khayelitsha’s Monwabisi Park, the road loops around a soccer field of red dirt. Above the field, a few shipping containers sit on an elevated platform, below which an old school bus painted in bright colours serves as a library. Other than a few children playing by a water tap, the area is quiet. “They are trying to get those gangsters to have something to do, but they don’t like playing soccer. They just say ‘Ag man, I’m right being what I am’,” says resident Mike Mtshikwama (18) of this Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) installation.

A German Development Bank (KfW) funded programme run in partnership with the City of Cape Town (CoCT), VPUU seeks to reduce violence in Cape Town’s poorest areas by altering the built environment in ways that specifically target the local dynamics operating in violence hotspots. The methods are basic and sensible: well lit pedestrian walkways for commuters vulnerable at dawn and dusk; more taps and toilets to reduce the distances separating homes from these vital services; open spaces and multi-use buildings in areas where residents have said more “eyes on the street” would be beneficial.

In comparison to VPUU’s larger and better-known first intervention, rolled out in 2007-2009 around a crime-hotspot in neighbouring Harare—and inclusive of a large library, mixed-use business kiosks and playing fields—the Monwabisi’s upgrade is modest. The crudely spray-painted numbers on the area’s 6800-some shacks—part of the housing enumeration required to officially recognise a household’s presence and thus a prerequisite to basic service provision—and the web of cables arcing the sky and supplying electricity—would be easy enough to miss. These, plus an increased number of water taps supplemented by small paved areas with benches intended as safe play areas for children, and the soccer field and its containers constitute the programme’s visible footprint. They are the fruit of other less visible processes of community participation and leadership training, which resulted in several social service programmes, most of which lacked the community buy-in needed to thrive. The exception is an early-childhood development programme, which takes place at the enhanced water tap areas known as emthonjeni. According to Brown-Luthango’s research, the emthonjeni are considered safe places for children and were linked to a perceived reduction of violence against children.

“Overall I expected better results because compared to the other [upgrades] VPUU is very holistic and integrated,” Brown-Luthango says of Monwabisi upgrade. Detailed in a 200-page report, Brown-Luthango’s research found that VPUU’s effect on safety in Monwabisi largely came down to a sense that the electricity and emthonjeni had helped, but fundamentally people still felt unsafe. Residents also expressed disappointment in the programme because it didn’t deal with unemployment, housing, roads and toilets. Putting aside the fact that those things are the CoCT’s responsibility and weren’t on VPUU’s agenda for the period in question, such feedback underscores an important reality. That is, when you are unemployed, living in a shack and your child must walk through the bush to relieve herself at night, anything that doesn’t directly address those immediate concerns is superfluous.

“They are helping our community,” Mtshikwama says of the VPUU project after giving it some thought. “Bringing soccer to keep the children busy, and the electricity helped a lot.”

I don’t like to be here. I see my friends taking [drugs], being gangsters, killing each other.

When asked if VPUU affected safety, Mtshikwana—who is known by his neighbours as ‘the surfer’—laughs and shakes his head. The best strategy to stay safe in Monwabisi Park, he says, is not to be in Monwabisi Park. “I don’t like to be here. I see my friends taking [drugs], being gangsters, killing each other. So I’m running from my community, from those things, to get out of here.”

t’s high noon on a Saturday. Mike Mtshikwama calls out as he approaches his best friend Thabo’s* shack. Before he can knock, the young man stumbles out, nude but for a pair of red boxer shorts. Bleary-eyed in the bright sun, he smiles. The two punch fists and shoot the breeze, the bro-love palpable. The surfer tries to convince his friend to join him and the kids down at Monwabisi Beach, a ritual initiated by Thabo in years gone by. Thabo stalls—explains he has “a friend” over—smiling bashfully and promising to join once he’s cleaned up. It’s hard to believe this shy teen is a gangster.

“I don’t think he’s coming,” Mike says about 45 minutes later. Nearly 50 kids aged between 8 and 15 mill about in wetsuits, smiles frozen behind chattering teeth. They’ve spent the morning practicing lifesaving skills as part of Waves 4 Change (W4C), a youth surfing and life-skills programme that runs one of three branches on Monwabisi Beach, a 15-minute walk from the informal settlement where the majority of the 170 children who participate regularly live.

“Our community is not a healthy environment—there’s no place to play, no mentors,” says Gyver Ngeyake (28), a W4C coach from Enkanini, the informal settlement neighbouring Monwabisi Park. “If you want to be someone you look to the big gangster. Everyone is scared of him, so he’s the role model,” he says, having lived and escaped that life. Around Ngeyake, the exhilarating freedom that is a day at the beach manifests in the children’s behaviour—Ledofica would have thrived in a programme like this. Although Freedom Park is less than 10 km away, the lack of affordable public transportation and the cultural divisions long separating communities in Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain mean it might as well be 10 000.

Theories abound as to why the Cape Flats are such a hotbed of violence, how the area has come to account for an estimated 70% of the worst forms of contact crime (murder, sexual and common assault) in Cape Town. The blame list is long, ranging from gang activity, apartheid’s legacy, poverty, unemployment, racism, inequality, drugs, alcohol, PTSD, foetal alcohol syndrome and a lack of resources from housing to education and health. Whatever its root cause, it is undeniable that young people are bearing the worst of its devastating brunt. A 2016 Statistics South Africa report on youth recently found that “young people constitute the majority of both victims and perpetrators of crime”, attributing this bleak statistic to unemployment and mobility—in other words, kids with little or nothing to do, and scant prospects of change.

One of the great disappointments of VPUU’s Monwabisi intervention has been that despite the extent to which it understood youth needs as vital to violence reduction, it has so far failed to establish programmes commensurate to those needs. Then again, is that something for which an NGO should be held responsible?

“One has to start addressing the fact that it’s an absent state that leads to a breakdown in communities like these,” says Dalli Weyers, a researcher at the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), an NGO advocating for resource equality in Khayelitsha. “The state has a role to play, and we need to hold it responsible for providing the services that it is mandated to supply.”

ess than 15 km away from Monwabisi Beach, a young girl skips along the edge of a busy road in Philippi. Seemingly oblivious of the commuter minibus taxis speeding by in the rush-hour frenzy, she veers down a small alleyway into an unlikely space of calm: Sheffield Road informal settlement. From 2010 to 2012, 167 shacks crammed together on a small strip of land reserved for road expansion were shifted and shuffled in an upgrade known as “re-blocking”. With the assistance of multiple partners, including the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), Informal Settlement Network (ISN), Federation of Urban Poor FEDUP and the City of Cape Town (CoCT), households organised into a savings scheme and invested their capital in the re-blocking exercise. Removing the gaps between shacks and transforming the resulting space into groups of shared courtyards from which all front doors were visible, the community-led upgrade leveraged support from the CoCT to increase water and sanitation services. The result was an improvement from seven functioning toilets to 25, and an additional water tap that brought the working total to four. The dwellings were also reconstructed with fire-resistant sheeting.

“We were used to guys demolishing shacks, people being evicted without even a notice, we were afraid of that before,” says Akhona Tshete (37), a Sheffield Road resident, who, like so many informal dwellers in Cape Town, migrated from the Eastern Cape seeking employment. Sheffield Road residents know not to expect formal houses on this site, as the land is legally classified as a road reserve and can only be utilised in the long term for public roads. Nonetheless, everyone is quick to acknowledge the improvements provided by increased basic services that now also include electricity, as well as the benefits of an open channel of communication with the city. “Things are definitely safer and better overall,” affirms Akhona.

Despite being the simplest upgrade in time, cost and aspiration, Sheffield Road’s incremental changes—which left the small community intact but better organized, and the shacks as shacks but fire-proofed and with improved basic services and small public spaces that residents can easily control—was by far the most successful in terms of perceptions of improved safety. Brown-Luthango’s research found that 80% of residents felt safer since the upgrade, mostly due to reduced risk of fires, children having safe play areas, improved community relations and better visibility around the houses. Now neighbours can watch each other’s doors, and gaps between the shacks, once used by criminals as escape routes, have been closed.

The city’s investment in incremental upgrades of the kind seen in Sheffield Road speaks to a vital shift in approach to the housing-inequality crisis. In 2004, acknowledging the limitations and failures of the RDP housing process (it was much criticized for replicating apartheid’s spatial inequalities), national government policy turned away from the frenetic production of poorly located houses and towards the development of so-called “integrated human settlements”. Despite changing the name of the government unit responsible for housing from the Department of Housing to the Department of Human Settlements, the new thinking (enshrined in the policy “Breaking New Ground”) has yet to manifest in robust adoption by the country’s 257 local municipalities, which were also given greater responsibility for housing delivery.

In this context, developments like Sheffield Road, though tiny, potentially represent a major breakthrough in city administrators’ attitude towards working with informality. That is, a new willingness to resource rather than demolish it.

Returning to Brown-Luthango’s original question of how well physical upgrades affect levels of violence and a community’s sense of safety, the simple answer is not much. “This research has confirmed … that if we don’t change things at the top in terms of the bigger structural issues, giving people a house will make very little difference, and in fact might even make things worse,” she says. Her multi-year study, bundled into the ACC research report Mainstreaming Urban Safety and Inclusion in South Africa, leaves one paradoxically feeling that the state must do both less and more to change the status quo. The concept of incrementalism might be part of the less, and could be applied to housing upgrades that make better use of what already exists; meanwhile the more would be about rabidly endeavouring to ensure better quality and coverage of services across all sectors and neighbourhoods—especially in areas known to be underserved.

Organizations like the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) have long been demanding far more when it comes to services, particularly transparent and equitable delivery of adequate policing. With an average of 190 police personnel to 100 000 residents, Khayelitsha is the least resourced police precinct in the Western Cape. Meanwhile in 2015 it ranked first nationally for robbery with aggravating circumstances, and consistently remains in the top 10 worst precincts for a variety of other national crime statistics, including murder and attempted murder. Attention was brought to this disparity by the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry, which from 2012-14 investigated hundreds of claims of police inefficiency and neglect amassed over a decade.

Sitting on a bench outside the SJC’s office on a quiet street in one of Khayelitsha’s more established areas, Reseacher, Dalli Weyers recounts the 2015 publication of a classified letter from former National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, composed a year after the Commission’s findings were released. “It said a prerequisite to policing in informal settlements is geospatial planning, streetlights, numbering of houses and accessible roads,” Weyers says incredulously, pointing out that some 1.9 million South African households live in informal conditions. “So you’re ultimately saying you’re not doing it now, because those things don’t exist. So [despite] the shift from housing to human settlements, you still have people in government just being like ‘actually [informal settlements] shouldn’t exist, and as long as they do, we’re just not going to do anything’.”

difuna Ukwazi’s (NU) warm Strand Street office hums with the youthful dynamism of an activist staff that mostly holds legal and other degrees while also looking like it could be the cast of a South African Coca Cola ad. Located in the heart of central Cape Town, NU’s casually hip space—filled with bicycles, bookshelves and action plans mapped out in colourful chalk on massive blackboard-painted walls—makes for a jarring contrast with any of Brown-Luthango’s research sites. An NGO providing legal, research and organisational support to urban land justice campaigns, this is the administrative home of the Reclaim The City (RTC) movement. Its motto “Land for people, not for profit” sums up its agenda: increasing the stock of affordable housing for working class people in Cape Town’s city centre.

“It’s a political struggle about how public land is used in the city,” says Gavin Silber, NU’s deputy director of research, speaking of RTC’s current mission. Focused on 19 valuable state-owned properties belonging to the city’s urban regeneration programme, RTC aims to ensure they are used for affordable housing rather than sold to balance the city’s budget or woo private investment. Launched in February 2016, the campaign’s arrival simultaneously excites enthusiasm and wonder as to why it has taken over 20 years to target the city centre as a key site in the battle to fix Cape Town’s housing and inequality crisis.

Part of the reason for the lengthy wait lies in the priorities highlighted on the front page of the local Cape Argus newspaper that day. Silber points to the big bold font of the leading headline: “City’s R8bn Boom”. The story that follows details the bonanza, with downtown properties now worth four times what they were 10 years ago and new developments increasing apace. Meanwhile, to the right, an easily bypassed column appears under the smaller headline: “Sale of School Site ‘Unlawful’ Court Told”. The news story describes NU’s attempt to block the sale of Tafelberg School in Sea Point to a private school, rather than repurposing it as mixed-income housing. “It’s a question of power,” says Silber of the sale and the way so many Capetonians are held in thrall to market interests. “It’s so skewed to private interests in the city. [Investors] gloat about how property values are doubling. There’s no one saying that’s actually a problem for your average person.”

And average people are indeed the victims of Cape Town’s inability to reconcile its two worlds. In one of those worlds the majority of working class and poor people live far from jobs and opportunities in poorly resourced townships where basic service delivery can never quite get ahead of population increases, and the vandalism that comes from the same place of frustrated outrage as the violence with which residents must contend daily. In the other world, a largely middle class (and in some cases extremely wealthy) population lives relatively close to work, pristine outdoor spaces and a plethora of urban diversions, enjoying an exceptionally high standard of life relative to their pay grade, in part because “the structural stuff” has yet to fundamentally change. For the one to transform so must the other. And for that, a reimagining of the city must occur.

According to organizations like DAG and NU, such a vision would boldly address the need for land and property market reform, including regulations and standards for development that protect people over profit. It would challenge notions concerning what constitutes adequate housing and who can live with whom in what neighbourhoods. Ultimately it would find a way for more Capetonians to participate in defining what kind of city they want to live in. Whatever happens, both organizations insist that Cape Town’s future development should be guided by a long-term urban development plan (currently lacking), which (ideally) sees land more as a resource like water or education—a part of the public good and protected as such, rather than a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Until then, history is likely to keep repeating itself, and as far as safety goes, housing upgrades such as the ones Brown-Luthango studied may only ever amount to higher walls, stronger gates and more lights to shine down on the dangers outside.

ack in Freedom Park, Ledofica, who dreams of multiple careers—air hostess, actress, writer, filmmaker, it depends on what day you ask her—waits for her friends who are still in school to visit, hoping they’ll bring some homework “because it’s nice to learn”. Although she wishes she could go back to school, she knows it’s unlikely. The sister whose young child she dropped out of school to care for has recently returned with another baby, just three-weeks old. “She’s just leaving the baby by us and going out most of the night,” says Ledofica, who, contemplating the situation, for the first time betrays a hint of weariness.

When we get to the subject of her own biggest fear, Ledofica does not talk about the gang shootouts or getting stabbed or hurt by someone else, but about what she herself might do while she waits for something to happen, for her situation to change, for the system to give her a break. “I’m scared I might get pregnant, or do drugs, or … I just don’t know what happens, how life goes. It can happen easily. I don’t know why, I’m just scared. I don’t know what’s happening outside, but I don’t want to be out there anymore”