A BETTER VERSION OF ONESELF
Xhantilomzi Jacob is just 25 years old and has lived to tell the tale of a short life marked by alcohol abuse, toxic patterns of masculinity and a random accident in his childhood that left him bedridden and uncertain about his ability to ever walk again.
Xhantilomzi was born and raised in Mbekweni, Paarl as an only child. His formative years were spent in his grandfather’s house along with his grandmother, mother and extended family.
“There were fourteen of us in the house. At that time, I was very young so I wouldn’t say that anyone was infringing my space. As I grew up, most of them in the house moved out and actually moved on with their lives. It was mostly cousins and aunts living there. At that time, we had four extra rooms outside. All the children slept in one room which was me and three cousins. My mother and her sisters stayed outside in a basic flat which was just a room. Our home life was okay, I had something to eat every night.”
The house they lived in, was extended to accommodate a *shebeen which his grandfather ran. Xhantilomzi recalls that it was mostly older men, his grandfather’s peers, who frequented the shebeen.
As a child, one of Xhantilomzi’s chores was to help remove the empty liquor bottles from the shebeen. He, along with his young cousins, would drink the dregs from the bottles. He remembers being 6 years old at the time.
“For us, we saw how the grown-ups drank and we were just experimenting. They were also talking and laughing. It looked cool when they were drinking.”
When Xhantilomzi was in Grade 6, while running an errand for his mother, his life took an unexpected turn.
“I remember that it was Summer, probably December. My mother sent me to take money to my aunt who did not live too far away. I was walking there with my friends. They had crossed the road and I was behind them when I saw a police car driving really fast in our direction. I turned to go back onto the pavement but still, the police car was heading in my direction, I ran into the front yard of a house. When I checked again to see where the car was, the car hit me in my mid-section.
“When I woke up I was in the general hospital in Paarl. I was all alone in a wheelchair. I knew no one in that trauma unit. Apparently, the police officer who was on duty at the time picked me up and rushed me to hospital in his police van.”
Xhantilomzi remembers adrenaline pumping through his veins and not really feeling the pain of his injuries as he sat alone in the trauma unit.
“At first I was scared because I didn’t know what happened to me. It didn’t sink in what was going on, I was probably in shock.”
After a few hours, his mother and uncle fetched Xhantilomzi from the hospital and transferred him to a private hospital where he underwent a battery of tests to determine the extent of his injuries. Since he could not move his toes, the main concern was spinal cord damage. Fortunately, the tests ruled out that possibility.
“At that time no one actually knew how they were going to pay the bills of the private hospital. My mom and uncle saw the condition I was in and how full the hospital was and that I hadn’t received medical attention yet. So, they just took me to the private hospital which was very close. My uncle had started working and I think they thought he would pay it later.”
The accident left Xhantilomzi bedridden for six months at home. He could only manage to sit up but had no feeling in his lower limbs. The policeman who had driven into him visited his family home to apologize. He admitted to having been drunk at the time of the accident. The policeman also lived in the same area as Xhantilomzi, though his family did not personally know him. He offered to pay the medical bills incurred.
His family accepted the apology from the policeman and his offer to pay for the medical bills. They decided not to open a criminal case against him.
“Since he offered to pay for the bills we thought we’d be done with it. We just left it. We thought he had learned his lesson.”
Xhantilomzi began to walk again after the feeling in his lower limbs returned. He went back to school and entered Grade 6 mid-way through the year.
“I had to write the exams I missed and assignments in order to pass and go to Grade 7. I worked out a routine to catch up on the work I had missed and to stay on course with the current workload. I successfully passed Grade 6 that year. I actually felt proud of myself.”
He fully recovered from the extent of his injuries but was dealt another blow by the very same policemen a few years later when he was in high school.
“I learned that the policeman was involved in an accident where he hit another child with his personal car. This time the boy died. The child was 14 or 15 years old. My mother and the child’s mother were friends. It was the same circumstances as mine. It happened in Mbekweni and he was drunk. He was off duty at the time.
“I started blaming myself for the boy’s death. I thought if we had opened up a criminal case against the policeman after he drove into me, he would have been prosecuted and probably sent to prison and another child would not have died. I felt I had allowed it to happen to someone else and that thought kept coming to my mind non-stop. I began to feel rage.”
Xhantilomzi’s father’s denial of him as his son also surfaced feelings of guilt in him during this time.
“I think when you become depressed, other unresolved issues begin to surface. Since before I was born, my father denied I was his child. My mother in a way protected me by not saying much about him and their relationship. I only knew who my father was in primary school when she took him to court to help pay for my school fees because I attended a former model C school. That’s where she made him pay. I have never spoken to him.
“The fact that he didn’t want me, it was a confirmation that something was wrong with me. “Now, I believed I allowed a boy to be killed and this also confirmed my unworthiness.
What followed was Xhantilomzi’s downward spiral into alcohol abuse and skipping school regularly.
“In my family, I wouldn’t say there was alcohol addiction but alcohol was familiar. Drinking made me feel confident - almost like Superman. I drank to dumb down my feelings and thoughts and to run away from feeling anything.
“I kinda realised that as men we grow up understanding that men don’t cry and show emotions. “I was trying to emulate the image of what a man should be. So, at any opportunity I got drunk.”
Even though he was drinking and missing school he kept up with his schoolwork and matriculated in the top ten at his school.
“It was a strange time in my life, even though I showed a lot of self-destructive patterns I also kept going. For some reason, my mom had blueprinted in me the desire to succeed and not become a statistic. Deep down, I was aware that I was doing it to run away from my problems. “I knew that there was going to be an end to the running away but I didn’t know how yet. I knew it was wrong. I was actually kidding myself.”
After matriculating, Xhantilomzi spent two years studying law at University but a glitch in the disbursement of his bursary funds forced him to drop out since he was left with unpaid fees.
“To be accepted to university allowed me a new beginning. It was like the university acceptance email confirmed that I had value. I was not as bad I thought I was. I began sorting myself out and decreased my drinking habits. When I dropped out for lack of funding, the disappointment did not bring me back to my drinking habits. I know what I want and nothing is going to stop me from achieving it.”
When Xhantilomzi was asked his final thoughts, he concluded, “There were two key lessons in my life; first, I needed to forgive myself and all the characters in my story. We all try our best, even though many times our best sucks. Secondly, in our darker moments when we are losing ourselves, we need to keep holding on to the possibility of what we could become. If we keep moving towards a better version of ourselves, one day we will become that version.”
Xhantilomzi is a Life Choice Academy graduate.
*Shebeen - an unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcohol.