KEEP GOING … NO CHALLENGE IS TOO BIG
Chevario Swanepool, 18, from Manenberg, represents millions of youth in South Africa. Here she shares her story of a family life filled with drugs and physical abuse.
‘For as long as I can remember, my parents had a terrible relationship,’ she says. ‘When I was 13, they finally divorced. I felt relief. I thought that was the best thing they could do, seeing that they did not love each other any longer.’
Chevario’s father argued in court that his wife drank often and that she had had an extramarital affair. He was granted custody of Chevario and her nine-year old brother, and they moved in with him and their new stepmother.
‘I was disappointed that both my parents decided to remarry immediately,’ Chevario says. ‘A few months after the divorce, both were living with their respective partners.’ Chevario struggled to get on with her stepmother. ‘She was cold towards me and my father became distant. He started taking her side. My stepmother had a problem with the way I dressed. She said on one occasion, “I will never walk on the street with you because I feel ashamed.” I was extremely hurt by that comment and by the fact that my dad did not support me.’ After two months, Chevario told her father that she wanted to go back to live with her mother.
‘My brother remained with my dad. As soon as I moved to my mom’s house, I realised that things were not going to be easy, but I couldn’t go back. My mom and stepfather fought frequently; my mom was drinking more and more and my stepfather was using mandrax and chrystal meth (tik). He denies it, but we have found his drug tools several times in the bathroom.’
Chevario’s stepfather is seven years younger than Chevario’s mom and does not have a stable job. ‘For a few years, mom worked in a factory and he sold fruit at the traffic lights,’ she explains. ‘Things were already bad financially at home but when my mom fell pregnant she lost her job. After having the baby she needed to take care of him, so she could no longer do the factory work. She became a hawker too, and also sells fruit on the streets with my baby brother. Life is tough and many times it is only with my dad’s assistance that we survive.’
Things deteriorated at home. Chevario’s stepfather became physically abusive to her mom, and at the age of 14, Chevario started to fight back. ‘Sometimes it got ugly,’ she says. ‘I would punch and kick him until I was thrown out of the house for a few hours. I would sit somewhere and cry. I always felt guilty for what I had just done. One night when I was in bed, both of them were screaming again, but this time mom sounded different. I went to look. He’d stabbed her in the arm and there was blood everywhere. I took her to the nearby hospital and we spent almost all night there. The following day when I got home from school, my stepfather was inside, behaving as if nothing had happened.’
‘I failed Grade 9 and became withdrawn. Now that I know better, I think I might have been depressed. In the third term I stopped attending school and I slept all day. I just wished I was not in that situation.’
Chevario’s dad moved her to a different school out of Manenberg and she repeated Grade 9. ‘In this school I made new friends. They were more supportive and the overall environment was uplifting. I realised that if I did not stand up for myself I would end up in the same situation as my mom. I started studying harder. I waited each day for them to stop arguing and then I studied from 22.00 to 02.00 am. I got up at 06.00 and went to school and slept for two hours in the afternoon to recover before they got home.’
In Grade 10, Chevario found out that her father was not her real father. ‘One day I came upon my stepfather smoking in a corner with another man. He screamed at me, “have you met your father?” I thought he was high on drugs but his words bothered me. This man was a neighbour, and I saw I resembled him, so one day I confronted my mother. She confirmed that it was true. He had refused responsibility when she became pregnant, so my dad then offered to marry her and take care of us when she was three months pregnant.’
Chevario was once again overwhelmed. The only person who had really cared for her was not her biological father. ‘I was disappointed with my mother but I felt a deeper love for the man who had raised me. I knew he would always be my dad. I have never talked to my biological father and I am not planning to. I love my dad and knowing the truth has not changed our relationship.’
At the end of Grade 11, with school demands increasing, Chevario went to live with her grandmother in order to be able to study in peace. ‘I knew my grandmother was not in a very good place either, but I didn’t understand how bad things were. She was married to a man 20 years younger who became physically abusive when they drank together. Once, he pulled her down a staircase and she spent three days in a coma. Despite that, they got back together afterwards.’
For the first time, Chevario understood that her mother was repeating the same cycle as her grandmother. She also started to observe her extended family and note that she is the only one who does not drink or use drugs. Everyone her age or older is addicted to a substance. She is now in her matric year and is working hard to keep her place in the top 10 in her grade. ‘I wish to further my education and study law,’ she says. ‘I want to become a state prosecutor in order to one day become a constitutional judge.
‘This year, at school, we were tasked to do an assignment about a right violation. I chose to research domestic violence. I wanted to understand why women allow men to abuse them and why they stay in such relationships. I feel I am now better equipped to understand my mom and grandmother. My younger siblings motivate me. I want to be a positive role model for them. Maybe one day when I am financially stable, I can help them to further their dreams. I believe God does not place us in a situation that we cannot handle. So I keep going.’
Chevario was a Leaders’ Quest participant, an intervention offered by Salesian Life Choices.