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A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.
Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed  the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist.  So since  we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am,  with you.  So this dear one  is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move  forward. I no longer wish to be  entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from  living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of  contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going.  Everything in its own time.

So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was  assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated  to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.

START FROM THE BEGINNING: A COLOUR PIECE

Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure  what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area.  It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner  political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country.  So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African  to be racially classified  this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between  races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese  etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a  “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together.  The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier.  When the group areas act law was  implemented  the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation.  Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale  but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.

I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it.  He smiled and said  “do it  for TV Radio and Online”.  I summoned the  courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was  the structure  I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what  event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?.  ” Ouma  Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.

TWIN-SOULS: NEVER CHANGE

Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools.  This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”.  The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa;   through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy-  running while the  limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.

WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE: SHIFTS HAPPEN

This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me.  I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.

SO THIS IS WHAT ALL THIS WAS ABOUT.

So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.

Can you imagine?

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CHANNEL O-OH! AFRICAN VIDEO AWARDS AND THE VIP SYNDROME

Nigerian R&B duo P-SQUARE, doing their thing at the 2013 Channel O African Video Awards in Kliptown Soweto.
Nigerian R&B duo P-SQUARE, doing their thing at the 2013 Channel O African Video Awards in Kliptown Soweto.

“Gloom and despondency have never defeated adversity. Trying times need courage and resilience..” Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, 2008 September Presidential  Resignation speech.

The Fairy-Tale

Let’s just say I was a fish out of water. I traipsed through the darkness over the railway line in 6 inch thin Wedges to get to the other side of the tracks in order to arrive at the entrance of the Tenth Annual Channel O African Video Awards in Kliptown, Soweto.  I was there at the invitation of Mr Bob Nameng, director of the Soweto Kliptown Youth Centre (SKY) in old Kliptown. The center featured prominently during the show part of  Channel O social responsibility initiatives. The channel build a music recording studio at the center to help train aspirant musos and the youth of Kliptown  some years ago.

At the entrance I received my orange tag, tightly tied around my right wrist and was swiftly greeted by two crew members one of whom informed someone via the intercom that “We have another screamer” coming in. I asked one of them “screamer? What does that mean?” I soon found out at the entrance to the main venue when I was asked for a card or ticket which I didn’t possess. “Wait here” they said seemingly confused about where I should go.  After I was let in and showed to the “screamers” section I realized what the confusion had been about. I was not dressed like the “screamers” – a word which here is meant to describe die-hard, star-struck largely young(er) people who would stop at nothing to see their favourite artists up-close and personal and so are placed standing around the stage to shout and scream at the performers throughout the live show.  I was with those guys that the “stars/performers” shake –hands with on stage, who they throw their pieces of clothing or accessories to. Some did too, a pair of sunglasses and a hat were thrown to the “beloved” screamers “without whom the artists would not be the stars they are” (sic) 

I laughed at my own presumptuousness. I had actually asked for a chair, but realized that my orange tag only afforded me standing room in a cage –like – Kraal among screaming fans.   Seated on the gallery were Very Important People (VIPs):  the stars, musicians, artists, performers, Music industry leaders, managers, producers, the media with their wives, friends etc.  I even spotted  Randall Hall, the famed Idols judge whom everyone loves to hate, sitting in the front row seats at the gallery his demeanor unchanged from what Idols audiences have become used to.  I had been spoiled by the “perks” of being a member of the press, though admittedly I have never in the past (nor presently) used my press card to gain access to events I was not assigned to cover or invited to. Tonight I was here as myself – Jedi Ramalapa – and that only provided access to the fan section – which in production terms is equivalent to the role of an extra, without benefits (food and refreshments).

THE SHOW…

After I settled into my standing “Screamer” position and taking pictures with fellow screamers. I took out my notebook with a view to writing about the Awards from a very different perspective.  Soon darkness descended inside the Marquee erected on Walter Sisulu Square of Remembrance as the countdown to the live show began.

Fire-works, Lights, Stage Smoke erupted around the stage which lite up the dome in a spectacular fashion. The fire works though were dangerously close to the “screamers” raising  alarm from my side about our safety. Soon   Red, Green, Yellow and Red laser lights blitzed, whizzed on the stage revealing two statuette-like figures of two well-built men, who were to be the main MCs for the show. Naeto Super C and AKA, names and faces which were until that very moment were unknown to me.

BLACK & GOLD

The fashion theme for the show was overwhelmingly black and gold. Black Military-esque outfits, suits, body hugging evening dresses for the female presenters and Vjs embellished with thick gold chains and an assortment of jewelry from tooth to toe.   The show was fast-paced and I soon discovered the advantageous position I was in as I could see the performers up close and also had a view to the scripts they were reading through the tele-prompter.  From my standing position one could observe the demeanor of the performers and presenters as they propped themselves up for a cue to action and read from the set-script.  Many of them improvised, made up their own words as they went along and some did a poor job of reading which meant that had I been sitting on the main gallery, I would not have had a clue of what they were saying.   The stars read as if spitting a rap tune, but I understood this as they were in-fact artists who are more often than not prone to go off the script and perform whenever the mood arises. No one is perfect.

“I am just one poor woman among millions, in their name I want to greet a freedom fighter”   Belgian Woman to Patrice Lumumba following his release from prison and arrival in Belgium.

THE ASS (ET)   FACTOR.

What I found most interesting (read disturbing) about the show was the prominence and dominance in all music genres of male artists. Female artists were mostly supporting acts – dancers who gyrated half-naked, limbs in the air, massaging the floor with their thighs and buttocks in half-twerking-twists and splits behind King-Like- Male artists. My fellow screamers were in heaven. The women among us faked fainting and made comments to the tune of “he looks so delicious” – all is equal in love and war.  The Men wanted to leave “ let’s go and have a drink somewhere”  It was indeed a live show  true to what Channel O music videos are about –  the trusted old script of the Male lead supported by half-naked gyrating women behind them. It made me think about what it is in fact that make male artists more “successful” or prominent, hard work, less time looking after the family? Fraternal brotherhood?  Has nothing at all changed? I suppose women aspire to be background dancers because that is what popular culture sells to them, advertising excessive sexuality on the dance floor as a way to get in, be seen and admired by men and envied by other women.  I have often had my doubts about whether or not it would be prudent to force commercial entities such as Multichoice which owns Channel O to provide “diversified” forms of entertainment  thinking that it would be better for us to do our own thing on the side.

But “we” independent artists who function on the fringes of the mainstream do not have the platform, and one can’t influence popular culture if we don’t go were young people are – which is the Channel O and  MTV’s of the world. So how do we change? Change does take place yes, is taking place, but at a much slower pace – ultimately we’ll have more young people aspiring to those forms of entertainment as career options than we’d have true artists who have a real message  or craftsmanship. Independent artists need to infiltrate the established mainstream ultimately. How?

The performance by South African DJ Ganyani of her hit song  Chibombo  ( a former supporting act for Thembi Seete of  Boom Shaka) was perhaps the only powerful female  led performance act, which brought to mind images of the late 80’s singer Paul Ndlovu   and Brenda Fassie in one tiny package.  Admittedly non-gyrating-fully clothed male and female music duos received a resounding reception from the audience particularly a performance by The Soil. The audience stood up to sing with the artists word for word.  Mafikizolos’ 2013 hit song “Khona” also received a  warm reception as it brought the show down to a close with more fireworks, dancing Africans, stage smoke and confetti, to a spectacular close. Even the ever popular Alingo –  by the Nigerian duo P-Square;  which got me moving one Sunday afternoon, though popular did not  generate the massive support. It was altogether a night for South African artists, which also made me wonder where the  African(ness) was in the awards.

All things being equal, I imagine  that  certain sections of the public are also slowly getting tired of the male on top type music videos and are also looking for performances that are much more substantial – though the latter still dominates.

Michael Jackson was alive at the Channel O African Video awards, with almost all dance choreography mimicking the pop-legends infectious moves. This is also true to worldwide mainstream dance acts from Beyoncé to Chris brown. The show left me wondering if this generation has anything “original “to offer? Perhaps it’s time I considered adjusting my expectations.

The Crossing

Lindiwe Jedi Ramalapa - Having fun inside a mini-bus Taxi. 2013. All rights reserved.
Lindiwe Jedi Ramalapa – Having fun inside a mini-bus Taxi. 2013. All rights reserved.

In Kliptown there is a railway line, separating the ghetto and new urban residential section.  I have been crossing the line quite frequently in the past couple of months, weeks and days. Each time I am about to cross I always feel guilty for not using the pedestrian bridge built at the far end of the street connecting old Kliptown with the Walter siSulu Square of Dedication (WSSD). I look around often for the police who have been known to diligently arrest everybody seen crossing the railway line in the past, from the wayward youth and even seniors or the elders.  The other day an old woman with a child on her back sheepishly asked me if I saw any police around and admitted “ I don’t want to be arrested” .

More importantly though I look for oncoming trains from either side, left and right. While crossing I make sure not to step on the steel tracks – following my brother’s advice. Sometimes like the other day while crossing the railway tracks – I was reminded of my childhood. It is actually  an unbelievable irony that I am brave enough to cross the railway line today considering how petrified, scared and afraid to immobility I was just as at the sight of the railway line as a child. Trains and everything associated with them haunted me in my childhood.

The hole on the wall

We didn’t live far from the Railway Station, in  Phefeni Orlando West Soweto. In fact Phefeni station is just a street way from my childhood home.  Not old enough or allowed to ever venture out of the black corrugated iron gates unaccompanied, I would climb up the Apple tree at the back of house number 7224, Thabethe Street, and stare at the trains which moved faithfully in and out the station’s platforms, much like my other hard working, crawling friends, the ants, whom I enjoyed spending a lot of time observing.  On weekends my grandmother would take my older sister and I to Meadowlands zone 2, to visit our close relatives, her sister known to us as Koko No-rain. An unfortunate mis-translation of her Zulu name Nomvula which means the one with rain or the rain queen in its proper Zulu context.  For us,   Meadowlands or Ndo-fia as it was  known to locals (a reference to the forced removal s of Sophiatown residents to Meadowlands by the then apartheid government in the 50’s), represented “freedom”.  In Meadowlands we were allowed to play out in the streets and the nearby park (which had a trampoline, costing us 50 cents a turn) all day until way after dark, moments which made our trips to Meadowlands much like Christmas– holidays! We would go wildly into the dusty streets like little animals released from a cage – we had the freedom of movement, we could go anywhere as far as our little legs could take us. Even though there was some adult supervision, the weekends away were equally great holidays for our grandmother(s) who worked as domestic workers. They who would sit out or indoors chatting and laughing out loud in Koko Norains’ tiny matchbox lounge, in 594A Moemisi Street. You could hear their laughter from miles away, they often laughed so hard until both their faces would be wet with tears. Tears were a regular sight in our home.  With enough drink and smokes to go around we were left much to our own vices, which were quite innocent and simply sweet compared to what children get up to these days.

So though I was always excited to reach destination “freedom” the trips there were quite perilous for me, as we had to walk across the bridge (over one of the busiest (still) four way crossing in orlando, near Makhedama Butchery (were my gran used to buy meat) and old Maponya Mall (now Shoprite-Checkers) over the railway line to catch taxis on the other side near the hostels, which were also at that time notorious for violent crime. The best way for pedestrians was to walk through the petrol station which bordered the railway line. I would hold to my grandmother’s dress  so  tight and use my sister as a shield to protect myself from the sight of the hole. It was a standing joke for one so brave even at my age to be petrified of a hole so far from me.

The Station.

The train was also something else, after one incident when  my mother  needing to go somewhere “disappeared” –  leaving me with my aunt, and searching for her without any success – sowed deep seated fears of being abandoned which I have carried throughout my life – and has meant that I struggled to trust people. I was my mother’s cry baby, never ever wanting her to be out of my sight. No one could console me if she left me anywhere. I would cry and cry and cry and cry, and when at home wearing her clothes and high-heeled shoes would be the only thing that would make me feel better.  I would literally as my mother often tells me, cry myself to sleep while sucking my thumb in my mothers oversized clothes. I have never taken a train at the station since that incident.

Until now.  At the Kliptown Trains-station is amazingly clean and well run. I felt the same feelings come back but also knew that I was not alone and would be okay. Not only did I cross the railway line on my own a few timess, I also took a train ride from Kliptown to Johannesburg and back on my own in my hometown almost 20 years later! I’m all grown up  now – haha. It was – still is, a bitter sweet experience  A lesson in letting go and holding on for  new things, experiences, people  to come.

WHO I AM

Ultimately I am a Sowetan through and through and every fabric of my being has been created, shaped by the struggle of our freedom and liberation whose roots runs so deep I can not begin to describe. After so many years of running from who I am I have finally found me. Lindiwe Popane Zulu- Jedi Ramalapa. I have found confidence in myself through you.

To those who paved the way, my ancestors:  Nyangane Steven Zulu,  Mabhobane Popane Violet Zulu,  Nomazulu Zulu, Nomvula Zulu, Vusumuzi Zulu, Nohlanhla Jopi Ramela,(Zulu) Thente Zulu: Thokoza!

ZULU!

NdabeZitha

Mtwana

Zulu kaMalandela ngokulandela izinkomo zamadoda

Zulu Omnyam’ ondlela zimhlophe

Wena WakwaPhunga noMageba

Wena kaMjokwane KaNdaba

Wena wenkayishana kaMenzi eyaphuza umlaza ngameva

S’thuli Sikandaba

S’thuli sikaNkombane

Wena kasihhawuhhawu siyinkondlo bayikhuzile ngoba ikhuzwe abaphansi nabaphezulu

Wena kanogwaja omuhle gonmlenze

Wena KaMbambelashoba

Ndabezitha!

Thokoza!

 

Charlie and the Sky Factory

Love at first sight. Charlie  arriving back from School
Love at first sight. Charlie arriving back from School Pic: Jedi Ramalapa

By Jedi Ramalapa

October 2013.   On the 31st of August during a fundraising event for the Soweto Kliptown Youth   (SKY) Center, Charlie called me “mama” and I was so touched to hear this – I didn’t even know I yearned so much to have a child of my own or that I had hidden secrete desire to be called “Mama”. And there he was, ready-made, calling me mama and I took the bait. It wasn’t much but he came to me saying his hands were dry and I had a number of  hand lotions.  I physically oiled his hands, with natural honey face cream, vaseline-hand lotion, baby oil, all the lotions I could find in my bag  and then some. I bought him food – hot-dog- he in turn looked after my bag. For a day I could  pretend that I was actually his real mother. I was a guardian to someone, was responsible for somebody’s existence. Somebody needed me, wanted me, somebody’s life depended on me.  For a day I fully belonged somewhere – to someone, at least in my mind.

I first noticed Charlie during  my day visits to SKY while making preparations for the fund-raising-event.  Unbeknown to him he got me  at my softest, softest spot  the very first time i laid eyes on him – through his  books.

I was sitting out in the sun taking pictures of an artist painting a portrait of the late midwife and  Kliptown community  worker and builder   Eva Mokoka on the wall of her former house (which she used as a  community clinic). I was also taking pictures of sister Ntombi and Gloria  who were busy cooking the days’ meal on an outdoor fire, with extreme dedication and focus. They spent the whole day cooking!

I was truly minding my own business when Charlie arrived back from school, neatly  kitted out in full school uniform.He me  greeted respectfully  and stood to stare at  the evolving  picture of Eva Mokoka, in what I read as complete admiration (see above) and then he proceeded to go the book storage/container kept outside bob’s door – I assumed they kept their home-work.  He took his books out  and proceeded to show Jabu and other volunteers his work. They all sounded impressed with his achievements. I  thought wow, at least they are getting something right.

So I was already in love with Charlie by the time he uttered that four letter word. Mama. I wanted to adopt him, make  him mine.  I already had thoughts of having a constant, loyal companion ( life can be unbearably lonely sometimes, when you are me: -an independent, single,  childless ,uncompromising woman), travelling the world etc. I told my brother that Saturday.  “Something amazing happened today – Charlie called me mama” I exclaimed. He just looked at me and smiled his beautiful big eyes. I had now found another solid moral reason to exist.

The next day, Charlie watched me gather my things and asked me where I was going, and when I would come back.   He wanted me to stay he said. “When people come with bags it means they are staying” He said removing a piece of paint from the wall. Mama I would like you to stay he said. It broke my heart to leave him there in that place like that – what kind of “mama” am I? I felt as if I was betraying him, abandoning him “again” –  taking away his only chance at being “loved, cared for”.

When I returned to last SKY and this time to stay I was looking forward to seeing Charlie and  to spending more time with him. But Charlie had disappeared, he was nowhere to be found, nobody knew what had happened to him.  I was quite surprised  and shocked that nobody seemed too bothered about his where abouts. People just moved on.

I asked everyone what happened to Charlie.  The the story slowly emerged that  Charlie was not the sweet little boy I had met or thought I knew. Charlie always dressed neatly in the morning as if going to school, while in actual fact he would go elsewhere, and spent days only God knows what in  Johannesburg’s CBD. He must be around 12 or 13.  I didn’t know him well enough.  Never had a detailed conversation with him actually. I did not ask any questions. He was a great performer, and he knew exactly what to say to get the right response from adults. It was his MO they told me, to disappear into thin air. “He always used to lie to me about going to school, ha  uCharlie!’ they exclaimed.   But has anyone even tried to search for him to find him?  i asked softly, hesitantly, trying not to sound worried, alarmed or disappointed.  “Yes,  we went to his school and found that  hadn’t been there for weeks, even though he woke up every morning going to school and back”

I realized then that there  was no point  in burdening my little heart further inquiries of Charlies whereabouts.  It seemed to me right then that life for people at  SKY is highly transient and unpredictable. Members of the “youth club” came and went as they pleased and there was no one who was the wiser   about the goings’ on the children’s lives  except perhaps bra Bob Nameng who understandably shared very little about the people’s personal histories.  They were accountable to no-one, and no-one could be held accountable for their disappearance.   At the time there were no records of how many children  lived at SKY, when they came in or when they left.  Somebody later added “Maybe he is at the suburbs with a relatives, an aunt or something”.  I slowly began to realize that though they may indeed be vulnerable and be troubled – the children and the youth at SKY were not  necessarily  “orphans” and I should not get emotionally involved thinking they had no one, even if they were, orphans, I could not “save” anyone let alone myself. SKY is a free thinking society.  ‘Here you are free to be and express yourself, no one can be the judge”.

Food - Gloria's Food!
Food – Gloria’s Food!

Now that I have time to reflect, I can see how easily children can be used or manipulated. How they also quickly learn to manipulate if such behavior is rewarded. Food is  often used to lure children ( even adults) to do all sorts of  crazy things. Children are  beautiful and innocent – and that is why they will always be so vulnerable, they learn by doing what you are doing. They repeat often, always and almost without fail, the same things you say to them or to others in private or public as truth. They are sponges that take in everything – especially behaviour. They emulate. They are what we make them. They didn’t ask to be “born” or exist. So you  place them in conditions  that would generate untold sympathy from ‘adults”  who see themselves reflected in their innocent eyes, and hope to somehow use the children as a way of attaining some form of salvation – healing or “good karma”.

Mothers begging with infants on the street is becoming a common scene on the streets of Johannesburg.  People may not sympathise with you as an individual, but for the sake of the “innocent” child they will give you something, do something which you as the bearer of the child will invariably benefit from their “donations” anyway since you are the custodian.  Both men and women (consciously or subconsciously) to get their way in life sometimes, to stay together or to separate, in divorces, in marriages, use children to justify their actions “I’m doing it for the children” is always the righteous response of people who insist on staying in toxic relationships,  having children when they know they are in no position to take good care of them,  to gain power, hoping that they  can “change” people and sometimes they do, but often people don’t change for anyone except for themselves.

It tore me up inside when  in  Dakar and St Louis in Senegal. So many children as young as  two years old with huge bowls begging on the streets  at all hours of the day, working, while  their parents stay at home  feeling sorry for themselves.  Life on the streets is no childs’ play and I think that children who live like that  in many ways are no longer children, they grow up, they become mini hardened adults.  In South Africa,  I have seen and observed how women with children –  used them as pawns to keep and or control men, get cash, have a roof over one’s heads, get married etc. It works because men want to fertilize the world with their seed, leave some kind of a  legacy. In some cases children have become real life-sized dolls, their personal toys, mini-mes,  machines. ?Things people – someone  they can finally have “control” over, indoctrinate , brain wash.  A “second” chance at creating a life you never lived. Your very  own creation, personal DNA – your blood  that you can direct,  control, this is what children have become.

Their innocence is continuously being manipulated by everyone.  Everyone “says” they “care” for children because they are “innocent’ but most often as with everything else they are just using them to fill a void, to “get” something and when they become “too-much” we abandon them – discard them – blame them, for  everything. For money spent or wasted after they fail to become our perfect creations.  We do all this to suit our personal needs, dreams, to make us feel “better’ about ourselves. Who has the children’s best interest?

Children are a dream for advertisers or anyone in business, who wants to make a quick buck – ‘for the children”. They are fertile ground to plant all kinds of  ideas good and bad. Children = money. Everyone wants to give to children… something or inversely everyone uses children to gain some advantage in life, women do this more than men.

It’s a dangerous trend ( even though it’s part of human nature to have children) a fait a compli.  I just shudder when I see how people treat  children today. I am scared almost to live in a world where these children will be all grown up, all-knowing and seeking revenge.

It’s easy to want to help, to be a do-gooder, to feel good about our good deeds. But I think we should all ask ourselves more honestly,  really interrogate ourselves critically and honestly answer the question why? We do what we do  with, for, on behalf of children? Is it really for their benefit? for the benefit of the individual child? Or are we part of a machinery that is producing children who will become machines, clones, extensions of our super Egos?  Capitalism, society, is creating people machines and soon machines will be more valuable than human beings.  A computer rarely questions your motives and reasons. You press click and it does what you want, if it fails, you can always get another one.  It reminds me of a verse in the Bible where some general was asking Jesus to heal his daughter, Jesus asked him if he believed, and he said “I am a man of authority, I have servants under me. I tell this one to go and he goes, and I tell this one to do this and he does it. Just say the word and I know my daughter will be healed.” We want to live in a world where can remote control people like we do  machines, robots. We want  people we can  have complete  and “absolute” control over – children are easier to control and manipulate because they are completely powerless.  We want people to obey us, to have authority over,  we need to be needed, wanted. So we practice with our children and used them as an experiment for our failed lives, projects. We want to  own them like a prized pair of expensive shoes, which we use step on still  regardless of  their value.  Charlies’ disappearance made me realize how easily I fell into the trap of trying to “own” someone so I can feel “worthy, needed, wanted, to leave  some kind of a  “legacy”, “immortalize myself forever” .    Out of all the selfish things that we humans  do and are capable of the need to live vicariously through other human beings, to decide on people’s destiny’s to rule over and to control them; make them do our bidding – must count as the most despicable and deplorable of them all.

A girl Childs' Shoes. Pic Jedi ramalapa
A girl Childs’ Shoes. Pic Jedi Ramalapa

 

OF MICE and MEN: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.…

Nelisiwe Xaba in X-homes 2010, Kliptown. A Project by the Goethe institute which was a collaboration between South Afrcian Artists and German Artist who staged performances in people's homes while they continued with their lives in the background. Neli the Kliptown Open Air Museum where people are not performing. Her interpretation was amazing. She threw her urine at visitors ( asking them was they want to "see") revealing her bare breasts and a bit of her buttons, I almost cried. Now I get it.
Nelisiwe Xaba in X-homes 2010, Kliptown. A Project by the Goethe institute which was a collaboration between South African Artists and German Artist who staged performances in people’s homes while they continued with their lives in the background. Neli the Kliptown Open Air Museum where people are not performing. Her interpretation was amazing. She threw her urine at visitors ( asking them what? they want to “see”) revealing her bare breasts and a bit of her buttocks ( I was in the audience on a guided tour like so many of the ‘tourists” I almost cried. Now I get it.

30 September 2013: This has to count  as one of my favourite books of all time, which also left  an indelible mark in  my childhood memories.  My older sister and I loved the book.  I enjoyed reading  this book enormously  and watching the movie afterwards  completed the story for me.  The saying goes “ Won’t believe it, till I see it”.   It’s a  must read  novel in my books – if you haven’t  read it yet – do! I  am reminded of it yet again in my  reflections  about time spent at the  Soweto Kliptown Youth center or SKY. Which I am immensely grateful for the experience – a place to sleep and a world full of books. Thokoza!.

I admire Steinbeck’s writing and his willingness and effort to  “understand people” as he cites in his journal:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.— John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry[

Of Mice and Men is a novella written by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it tells the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in California, USA.

Based on Steinbeck’s own experiences as a bindle stiff in the 1920s (before the arrival of the Okies he would vividly describe in The Grapes of Wrath), the title is taken from Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”, which read: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)

Required reading in many schools, Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century

This book comes to mind as I write this series of “curious-incidents” in Kliptown  and  the story or base theme of , Of Mice and Men is at the core of this series  – especially with regard to how I got there in the first place ( in search of my brother) and our subsequent combined  search for a “home”  and the relationship(s) we  have developed since then.  All done in an effort to “understand”  him, myself , and  the world in which I found myself in. It’s the news story which could not let got of me somehow! I am waking up to the “connections”that have led me here ( both personally and professionally) and it all began with a search for a home just like George Milton and Lennie Small the main characters  in the book “Of Mice and Men”.   Over the years there have been many protests in Kliptown demanding service delivery and housing by the Kliptown Concerned Residence (KRC) , a detailed account of all their demands and troubles is listed in the Anti-Privatization Forum’s Website. As this account from 2008 suggests – their protests and demands have fallen on deaf ears in all these years. Because as I mentioned in a “A TWISTED HERITAGE” Kliptown was sold as an “open air museum / ecomusee” the first of its kind in South Africa. Following very closely on the  failed model of development through Privatization (Restructuring).  an economic policy strongly  pushed during Former President Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s  tenures.  Which has meant that Kliptown ( and most privatization cases) has relied  heavily on (FDI) from foreign tourists for sustenance over the year. Kliptown Concerned Residents have been systematically silenced over the years by the police. No one is protesting Anymore. At least not recently.  I have chosen this entry because it’s the most recent and was published on my birthday:

Arrested for demanding housing – the trial of Kliptown protesters continues

4TH APRIL 2008

Friday 4 April 2008 by Ahmed

On the 03rd September 2007 more than twenty comrades were arrested in community protests organized by the Anti Privatisation Forum against the slow or non-delivery of services in Soweto (Kliptown and Protea South). Fourteen comrades were arrested in Protea South though only four of those charged were taken to the Protea Magistrate’s court on the 4th of September 2007 and the others were released after being held captive for more than 24 hours without any charges being laid. In Kliptown, twelve comrades were arrested for public violence including five juveniles (underage, school-going children) and have been appearing in court since September 2007. Their next appearance is scheduled for 16 April 2008.

Criminalization of protest

Public violence ranks as a criminal charge which allows the state to demand higher bail amounts. The Kliptown defendants were all released on R500 bail each. The reason given by the magistrate for his heavy hand was that communities have to be discouraged from taking to the street to demand service delivery while there are other options to ensure their voices are heard. Since he’s been granting the police ever-extra time to ’investigate’, the trial has not got underway and he doesn’t yet know the lengths to which the Kliptown community has gone to raise their grievances with the municipality and the Department of Housing. On the 14th of August 2007 – less than a month before their arrest – the Kliptown community handed over a petition together with a memorandum to the Eldorado Municipal Offices, demanding the recall of the useless ward councilor and further demanding that the Department of Housing address their housing needs. No response to the memorandum was received from either the municipality or the Housing Department.

The police have been delaying the submission of their evidence to a court of law because it is going to be difficult to hide the facts of their brutality. The school children – who’ve missed more than five days of schooling since September – were arrested while they were crossing the railway line running away from police who were shooting randomly at anyone on the streets of Kliptown (people going to work or children going to school). Fight for your constitutional right to access basic services as a member of a poor community and you are more likely to get a bullet in you back than a roof over your head. If you have something to say, put it in a memorandum to your local ward councilor and pray if that helps you but forget about hearing a response. Ward-councilors don’t call consultative community meetings and they can’t be recalled for non-delivery of services until their term is up in five years.

In the recent People’s Inspection in Kliptown on the 6th of February this year, all relevant stakeholders were called in to come and witness the living conditions of the working class in Kliptown but there was no response from certain organisations including the mayor’s office. This further illustrates that there are issues our government officials find more pressing than addressing community concerns.

Problems with Legal Aid/Assistance

Criminalising protestors makes it more difficult to find free legal representation. In the past, there has been distrust from the community to the use of Legal Aid Board lawyers given experiences where defendants have been effectively forced to submit guilty pleas so that they could get suspended sentences. However, in recent months, through engagements between poor communities organised by the APF and the Legal Aid Board, the relationship with the Legal Aid Board has taken a more positive turn. Nonetheless, securing committed and affordable legal assistance/aid for community members arrested for legitimate social and political protest, remains a huge challenge for organisations of the poor. In this regard, the APF renews its call for progressive lawyers to step up and be counted in the struggle of the poor for their basic rights..

National housing crisis

It is our view that there is a huge backlog in the delivery of houses nationally and this can be witnessed in Durban and in Cape Town where the community of Delft has been evicted to the streets and they are left stranded with the police refusing access to anyone who wants to come and assist (with medical aid or food relief). The APF strongly condemns the police violence against the poor community of Delft, as well as the violence perpetrated by the eThekwini Municipality against the community of Abahlali base Kennedy Road in Durban whose shacks were burned down on the 16th of February 2008. More than fifteen shacks were destroyed by a fire caused by a paraffin stove after the municipality disconnected their electricity supply. A war is being waged against the poor while our country continues to have a budget surplus and poor working class communities get no relief or a better life.

There is no answer to community grievances to be found in the speeches made by ministers, mayors or premiers who are divorced from the realities of people living in Kliptown, Delft and Kennedy Road. These communities demand that police and municipal violence be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted so that justice can prevail for our people to be set free. While fighting for their constitutional rights, they didn’t violate any other citizens’ rights. The only crimes committed have been by those in authority shooting down the rights of poor people in pursuit of basic services.

ends

Of course  the reader should be reminded that in the case of Kliptown, there has been social engineering, all of it as been constructed – designed as part of the grand plan by the JDA and Blue IQ. The  PLAN.

A TWISTED HERITAGE

Lerato: A teenage girl in the room she shares with other orphaned girls at SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth)in Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. Pic: Julia Seister
Lerato: A teenage girl in the room she shares with other orphaned girls at SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth), a youth center looking after disadvantaged children and orphans in Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. pic/copy right: Julia Sestier

So It is True…

I thought it was  my little bit of a sick joke, journalists are famous for those. And for that reason I sometimes think I could be a comedian, people always laugh when I tell the truth.  I must have verbalized my thoughts out loud in an unguarded moment.  Because I lie awake at night sometimes, trying to make sense of it, to find out what is really going on in Kliptown, because something did not sit well with me Though truth be told, lately I must admit that I find it is the mosquitoes and various other as yet indefinable bugs and rattling rats that keep me up and night waiting for the soothing rays for the morning sun.  Until this one day, while on volunteer duty cleaning-out the learning center at the Kliptown Soweto Youth Center (SKY) that I found my first piece of evidence to add to a very large jigsaw puzzle.  A copy of a newspaper article, written to my calculated estimation in 2001/2, as there was no date on the page.  In its “development” Kliptown was always meant to be a tourist attraction. It’s a place “designed” for the tourist market.  In other words, the current seemingly dysfunctional state of Kliptown was “planned” to be that way.   When developers, Blue IQ and JDA (Johannesburg Development Agency) were planning the development of Kliptown, their aim was to show case the past, present and future of the historic town, and keeping old Kliptown as it was when the freedom charter was signed in 1955, was part of the plan. Why? Tourists would not really have an interest in Kliptown because had old Kliptown been developed  in the style of the RDP’s  houses we see today  there would be nothing extraordinary to see other than the Walter siSulu Square of Dedication, with a flame long-gone out, which was meant to burn 24-7 – 365 days a year.  Other than that Kliptown would look much like the rest of communities in the greater South West Township (SOWETO) region, more especially the famed A – list tourist attraction Vilakazi Street in Phefeni, Orlando West.    That is where  the first black  democratic  president, Nelson Mandela  bought his first property which he shared with his first wife Evelyn and later after a divorce, with his second wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela and their children, before being shipped to  Robben Island for nearly three decades.  Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world in which two noble peace prize laureates, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived.  No one is as famous worldwide as these two men in South Africa. So Kliptown had to offer something different – but within a controlled environment to attract tourist/ visitors called “The Open Air Museum/Ecomuseums” .  Ergo. I have retyped the article below, verbatim.

The children: who entertain tourists on the other side of the tracks
The children: who entertain tourists on the other side of the tracks. pic copyright: Julia Sestier

“Kliptown Ready to become a Tourist Attraction

“Kliptown has made a start in becoming a major tourist destination in the city. Already in time for the World Summit (World Summit on Sustainable development 2002), a visitor’s center has been established to showcase the past, present and future of this historical Soweto area.  There is a hive of activity with artists and crafters on the premises showcasing their talents. A video and CD are available showing the future developments of the area. A model of the new Freedom Square of Dedication which will be erected in Kliptown to commemorate the launch adoption of the freedom charter is also on show. The formerly neglected area of Kliptown and its surrounds will soon become a mixed-use area of residential, commercial and retail with a new freedom square as the centerpiece. The area is expected to be revitalized with 6 900 new housing units, shopping, tourism and markets. The redevelopment of Kliptown and the development of Freedom – the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Soweto were recently added as a Blue IQ project.  The area is of historical importance because it was where the freedom Charter was signed.  Thousands of people have been living in squatter camps in surrounding areas, says Kliptown project manager, Aubrey Manganye. “ We have planned a holistic approach which entails several different aspects.” He says. One is the environmental development of the area. A major part of this is the clean-up of the Klipspruit River which is severely polluted. An environmental consultant was brought in to investigate the problems of river, and its environment. “The river will form an important part of the development and we plan campaigns to educate the public on keeping the river in a pristine condition. “ He says. The Economic aspect of the project is also vitally important. “We have to find ways to create employment for residents and we are looking at the establishment of markets for this. The Metropolitan Trading Company is assisting us in this regard.” He says. A consultant is currently doing an economic impact assessment in the area to establish the economic needs status quo and growth potential. Infrastructural services designed for the housing component and the upgrading of existing services have started. The first phase will see the construction of 1200 units. A community Development Forum has been established to represent community needs on the entire project. “Ultimately the project belongs to the people of Kliptown and we will aspire to improve the lives of the people of Kliptown and therefore it is essential that their needs are taken into account guided by their wishes” he says.”

The Future is now

We know what the future is – we can see it over the railway tracks.  The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication (WSSD) with its Monument greets you in the morning with its grey walls. A tourist trip to the  Soweto Hotel , revealed how architects designed  building , – and the hotels  boardroom so that – the small Kliptown valley servers as a beautiful (living painting it has nice panoramic views of Kliptown. The hotel offers three to four star living for travellers, with interior township designs –romanticizing the ghetto, poverty. On the other side of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication are  new housing units, flying the new  flags of present day South Africa; White DStv Satellite Dishes, whose window frames are painted with soft pastel colours speaks  of the future, which  those who were signing the Freedom Charter could have never imagined possible at the time.

The Real Truman Show.

But Old Kliptown, remains unchanged. No new roads, no electricity, communal portable toilets, on the other side of the future of Kliptown, meaning the past. I’ve gone to tourist attraction spots, all around the country, of course I have not visited all of them but it’s always been clear that what was happening in the tourism compounds was part of a show. Not how South Africans live today. But in Kliptown it’s another story. It is real. This thought I’ dismissed at first and quickly chided myself for getting lost in the  images of  The Truman Show: a movie which when I first saw it was close to a psychological thriller though it was sold as a comedy, staring Hollywood’s funny man, Jim Carey. I’m grateful that there is a movie I can use as a form of reference – because it will help you see what I see and help me feel less crazy because – someone has already thought about this and done it.

The Truman Show is a 1998 American satirical social science fiction film directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol. The cast includes Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, as well as Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Ed Harris and Natascha McElhone. The film chronicles the life of a man who is initially unaware that he is living in a constructed reality television show, broadcast around the clock to billions of people across the globe. Truman becomes suspicious of his perceived reality and embarks on a quest to discover the truth about his life.

In the movie – Truman – the main character is living in a live 24 hour 365 days reality show or commercial. Everybody but Truman is “playing a role” or acting. They go “Home” outside the walls of the studio which Truman is oblivious of.  Everyone including his parents, his best friend, his wife , work colleagues are all following the script, Truman is the only one being real, as in being himself, everyone else clocks in and out of duty and goes back home afterwards. His home, his house is all a commercial, with advertisers placing their brands for breakfast in the kitchen, everything he uses touches is part of a prop in the “show” of his life. Think Big Brother. Watching that film made me feel  a little claustrophobic,  and looking back to this article I feel even more claustrophobic because I’m in some kind of a show – a tourist attraction, while I was blissfully unaware, thinking I was doing my “bit” for the community, making a ‘difference”.  This article confirms my suspicions – at least in some small way – along with other documents which I found – it’s all very  “legitimate’ everyone knows what to say, there are tour guides for Kliptown, well-spoken young men  who can recite the history of Kliptown in their sleep. They are always here, ready to receive tourists. Which was another thing I couldn’t understand why Kliptown?  Foreign visitors would arrive, and there would always be someone to escort them along the Kliptown trail. The speech goes on about the communal taps, communal toilets, lack of water, electricity, the polluted Klipspruit River (which for WSSD see above) was meant to be kept in pristine conditions. About the history and famous politicians who lived here including Ellen Khuzwayo – whose book – Call me a woman is still on my list of to finish reading books. They come back to the center, which feeds little children, who live in these substandard conditions, who despite their poverty, rise above it and put on a splendid performance.   How does one pose the question, how does one frame it, in the face of real struggle, unpretentious a struggle.  Who does one ask, the question – if the poverty in Kliptown, the lack of development, is orchestrated, an organic design which runs itself without much interference from anyone.  In one of the documents I found addressed to the Kliptown Market Community on the 7th of May 2003 the Johannesburg Development Agency states three agreements:

  1.  A list of potential beneficiaries obtained from the housing project manager (Aubrey Manganye) within the Kliptown Market Community will be screened.
  2. And those who qualify for the housing subsidy as per the Gauteng Department of Housing Criteria will be allocated with housing within phase one of housing development per the housing program of action.
  3. Those who do not qualify will be allocated with alternative accommodation if they occupy a land for more than six months as per the policy on illegal occupation of land.

The letter concludes with a promise by the JDA to fulfill its legal obligations by ensuring that the Kliptown Market community has access to basic services.  Of which Kliptown has, only the basics: water and portable toilets.  In a twisted way, Kliptown has upheld at least one principle of the Freedom Charter – All the land shall belong to those who work in it.

And people in Kliptown, especially the women labour much, doing domestic work which involves an endless cycle of back-breaking hard labour: cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, cleaning and more cooking and washing clothes.  Labour which is made even harder by the lack of electricity (a day of cooking may resemble a scene in traditional rural homes of old were fetching wood and water to do at these domestic chores was part of the daily routine of life) It is almost astounding that in 2013  authorities could not find a way to provide  electricity to Kliptown “ They say they  can’t put electricity  because  of the wetland area” Aletta my tour guide at the Soweto Hotel told me when I asked why she thought there was still no electricity to this day in Kliptown.  These are the conditions under which many people   have to live.   But without access to enough money to buy water, electricity and proper homes, this is the only way that people can live. Nobody knows why there has not been any improvement in the living conditions for the people of Kliptown. Maybe some original members know…. But the TRUTH is it was DESIGNED to be this way.

A former resident of Sky, when first interviewed she told me she was orphaned. Which was later found to be untrue. She now lives with her Parents.
A former resident of Sky, when first interviewed she told me she was orphaned. Which was later found to be untrue. She now lives with her Parents. picture copy right: by Julia Sestier

The French Connection: ” Open Air Museum”

Eventually I found more concrete evidence – A business plan which explains the idea of an open museum /ecomuseum for Kliptown:

“An Open Air Museum is a particular kind of community museum, which sees itself as a tool for community development as well as a means of promoting cultural conservation.  Initially developed in France in the 1970s under the name ‘Eco-Musee’, Open Air Museums traditionally originate from the need of a community to search for its ‘roots’, and establish or re-assess its own identity, making the Open Air Museum first and foremost a bond between a community and place and the development thereof. One definition of an Open Air Museum is “an expression of a community which is rooted in a sense of place that is ‘unique’; the link between the land, livelihoods, industry, customs and identity’ is inseparable.”3. This type of museum’s primary concern is ‘preserving’ people and ‘culture’ rather than artefacts. Open Air Museums differ from living-history museums in that they do not attempt a ‘re-creation’ of the past for visitors, but rather use cultural preservation as a tool for the further development of the community and community structures. Open Air Museums offer an ‘in situ’ experience that tends to spread over more than one space. Thus, the museum is not necessarily confined to 4 walls and a door. Rather, an entire area its environment, people, culture, customs all comprise the Open Air Museum.”

 

WHY KLIPTOWN?

“In terms of cultural tourism, Kliptown is seen as having a heritage resource that is of significance nationally and internationally i.e. the spaces and buildings that commemorate the Congress of the People and the historic signing of the Freedom Charter in June 1955. Arguably, Kliptown can also be seen as having particularly unique ‘cultural resources’ that lie in a combination of tangible and intangible cultural heritage assets that mark Kliptown as an important site of public memory. These resources, which characterize Kliptown as having “a character and ambiance that distinguishes it from other places and makes it special and unique”6, are also a potentially strong tourist and visitor attraction, in the ways in which they present Kliptown as a microcosm of a township as it develops throughout the 20th century. Unlike in many other locations, whose similar resources have been eradicated through a process of apartheid urban planning, and the forces of contemporary development, Kliptown retains much of its historical character from the 50s.”

 “IPI-INTOMBI EFFECT “– EXHIBIT ONE – 12

The reader will note that none of these “nodes” withing the KLIPTOWN OPEN AIR MUSEUM, are in existence today  with the exception of the Squarer ( Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication). So the plan can be deemed a failure, but which on the other has deepened poverty and the decline of the Kliptown Community for which this project was meant to empower uplift.  These sights one is onlytold” about during the “tours” but they don’t exists as envisaged in this plan:

Exhibitions will play a central role in the interpretation and development of the stories of Kliptown, marking those spaces within Kliptown that ‘belong’ to the Open Air Museum. As a dominant visual experience, exhibitions will provide an important opportunity to interpret both the core values of the Open Air Museum and the heritage values of Kliptown. Exhibitions, as a mode of interpretation, will help create a clear and defined visitor experience, without eliminating the choices and chance encounters that are part of everyday urban experience.

In order to account for the inherent tension between community and visitor needs in the Open Air Museum, the role and function of specific exhibitions in Kliptown needs to be clearly orientated in terms of these two target groups. Thus the first distinction in the exhibition strategy is between community exhibitions and visitor exhibitions. Different combinations of exhibitions will occur at the various nodes in the Kliptown Open Air Museum. And while an exhibition might be produced with the ‘community’ in mind, it does not preclude a tourist visiting this exhibition, and vice versa.

The success of exhibitions in environments such Kliptown depend on active community consultation and participation in the exhibition making process. Creating a culture of inclusiveness will ensure a community-driven exhibition programme that not only expresses the different voices of the people of Kliptown but also captures the critical and contested debates around history, contemporary life and its representation. It is critically important to establish an Exhibitions Advisory Group as part of the Programming Advisory Group. This Group should not only reflect the different nuances of the Kliptown ‘community’, but also include a fair and adequate representation of people involved in heritage, education and tourism in Kliptown. The Group will become the link between Open Air Museum and the ‘community’.

The exhibition programme is presented in terms of the five different nodes in the Kliptown Open Air Museum (see Fig. 2- Spatial Map). Each node includes at least one exhibition that ‘anchors’ the Open Air Museum experience.

The Exhibitions are as follows:

KLIPTOWN OPEN AIR MUSEUM BUSINESS PLAN 22

• Behind-the-Scenes Exhibition (Dairy Farm): The Kliptown ‘Open Air Museum’ is a revolutionary approach to memory and heritage that facilitates community control of its own cultural resources. This exhibit invites both community and visitors ‘behind-the-scenes’ to see how it all works, as well as participate in exhibition making. The Behind-the-scenes exhibition is at the old Dairy Farm- one of the oldest buildings in Kliptown, and one that conjures images of a communal working space

• Freedom Exhibition (The Square): A dynamic multimedia exhibition that explores the history of the Freedom Charter as a nationwide call for Freedom and Democracy in the footprints of the historic Congress of the People on the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. This exhibit also explores contemporary experiences of ‘freedom’, explores icons of freedom- such as Walter Sisulu, and makes links to today’s Constitution. Jada’s- a historical building whose owners were actively involved in the organisation of the Congress of the People, and which played a significant role in the history of Kliptown, is used as the main indoor space for this exhibition.

• The People’s Monument (The Square): This monument marks the gathering of people at the Congress of the People in 1955. It is envisaged that visitors can participate in the building of the monument, through placing engraved Xs (as a symbol of ‘voting’) onto its structure, allowing it to evolve incrementally over time. The monument of the Freedom Charter echoes the ‘We The People’ wall at Constitution Hill, extending the idea that ordinary people, through their participation began by ‘building‘ the Freedom Charter, which, in turn, led to the building of the Constitution of South Africa. The monument allows for visitors to re-dedicate themselves to the building of democracy and freedom. Spin-offs of this process include the development of an icon for Kliptown in the shape of a X that can then be developed into unique merchandise (jewellery, bags etc.) and art works projects.

• Visitor Centre Exhibition (The Square): This is a basic ‘teaser’ exhibition that gives visitors an orientation to the Kliptown ‘product offerings’. It aims to entice visitors to experience all the Kliptown has to offer.

• Railway Exhibition (Hoarding Exhibit along the railway): This exhibition celebrates the excitement of arrival, the defiance, the danger, and the journeys of all the people who came together for the Congress of the People. Looks at the critical role that train transport has played in the history of SA: migration, mobility, displacement and exile. The Exhibition is built as hoarding alongside the railroad, so that it is visible both by train passengers, and those walking along the railway track.

• Temporary Exhibitions (The Square) : Temporary Exhibitions are accommodated in the Multi-Purpose Centre. These Exhibitions could include community initiated exhibitions, travelling exhibitions (e.g. Jurgen Schadeburg and students’ photographic exhibition of Kliptown; exhibitions from other museums etc.). These exhibitions are not funded as part of the Museum.

KLIPTOWN OPEN AIR MUSEUM BUSINESS PLAN 23

• Greater Kliptown Orientation Exhibition (Community Node): This exhibition builds on the existing Kliptown Our Town exhibition and provides community with an opportunity to tell the ordinary and extraordinary stories of Kliptown. Includes a ‘for children, by children’ exhibit.

• Women’s Exhibition (Charlotte Maxeke House): In keeping with the spirit of Charlotte Maxeke, a teacher, social worker, politician and the first African woman from South Africa to receive a baccalaureate degree, this venue will be used for a community exhibition and resource focusing on the needs of women and youth. The Women’s Exhibition will complement programming in this space.

• Environmental Exhibition (Environmental centre): Kliptown is an ideal space in which to look at diverse environmental features of Kliptown- from flora and fauna (including those in the Klipspruit river), to the wetlands, to the open public green spaces etc. The Environmental Exhibition will seek to promote taking care of the environment in an interactive and interesting way.

• Gerard Sekoto Museum and Art School: Gerard Sekoto is recognised internationally as the father of modern South African art. He is known through painting showing everyday life in townships in the 1940s. This gallery showcases 5-10 of his important work, providing context with relevant archival material and a short documentary about his life and work. The gallery in Kliptown enriches an appreciation of Sekoto’s work by placing his paintings within an environment that still retains its appearance of the past (i.e. Kliptown). Similar to the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town. Linked to an art school that is operated by qualified external body. Located at his old house.

• Park Art: In the tradition of the “People’s Parks” of the 80s, Park Art involves the community in developing art for display that communicates their thoughts and experiences. Examples of such art could include murals, sculpture, etc. Park Art would happen at 2 parks in Kliptown (see map)

• Signs and Billboards : A form of “writing the city”, of visually integrating the different Open Air Museum spaces within Kliptown. It is also an opportunity to integrate the voices and experiences of local residents. They might inhabit the walls of Union Street, resident-orientated exhibition billboards, heritage landmarks such as Charlotte Maxeke’s house, the AME churches, etc., and that are clearly distinct from other forms of more formal signage such as street signs and SAHRA plaque.

THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE

I went to Sky and Kliptown with rose-tinted eyes, completely sympathising with with community and the conditions underwich they were forced to live. I was also grateful that they were able to afford my younger brother shelter at a time when I felt I had failed him. So I believed them when they told me their story, and acknowledge that there may be some members of the community who are honest about what is going in Kliptwon and More specifically at Sky.

These are the corrections:

1. The Soweto Kliptown Youth Center – though it may “look” after “vulnerabe children” almost all of them are not orphaned, they have home and living parents, contrary to what I have been told or inversely “chose to believe”.

2. SKY functions as a “Youth Club” for children and young people interested in the “ARTS” – what they do is rehearse, gumboot dance, and zulu-dances which they perform for tourists who visit the center.  Some have traveled to France, America and many other spaces through the youth club.

3. The children who are fed at SKY, are not orphans either. Though a number of Europeans looking for children to adopt have visited the center, I  cannot confirm if they have adopted  any children from SKY/Kliptown.

4. SKY used to function as a community clinic under the late Eva Makoka whom I met at interviews in 2004.   It has since changed though under the leadership of Bra Bob Nameng – into a Youth Center. Eva Makoka’s House – where SKY is located is identified as one of the Key nodes in the “Kliptown Open Air Museum Business Plan.

5. I am in no way asserting that people are not suffering in Kliptown or that poverty is not real, after having spent two weeks living at SKY, I know that it is not as simple as that.  The community (SKY/KYP) especially do depend on “Foreign” Donations to survive, however what I am saying is it was all part of a the plan, which went horribly wrong. Which has mean that Kliptown remains a relic of the past, which explains why there has been no improvement inthe lives of the people, why there will never be change. The incredible poverty today is  a construct of the new democracy, in ways which surpass some of the apartheid  segregation laws.  YOU ARE FREE!

6. Many of the plans for  “Open Air Museum”did not happen, because of corruption or lack of management  – whatever the reason, the truth is Kliptown today is a cheaper ( and in some ways – better perverted) version of the original plan.

Khumo and Joy, members of the SKY youth club - who perform for tourist on weekends. Two of them have since been "kicked out" of the program.
Khumo and Joy, members of the SKY youth club – who perform for tourist on weekends. Two of girls have since been “kicked out” of the program. pic by Julia Sestier.

The Story Behind the story….

Home sweet  Home: A girl child arriving home (sky) from school
Home sweet Home: A girl child arriving home (sky) from school

2013-08-24. Ten years ago, South Africa marked ten years since non-racial democratic elections and rule in the country. In a continental context South Africa was the last country to be liberated in all of Africa, and in 2004 we celebrated 10 years of independence.  In light of this we were assigned to do feature radio news and current affairs stories for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to mark the auspicious event.  After doing some research on Kliptown and the freedom charter, I found the name of Ma Eva Mokoka, a community worker living in old Kliptown and had a long interview with her.  A nurse and midwife, she spent her entire life in the service of the Kliptown community and surrounding townships. Women traveled far to come to her clinic. I remember that scene, driving into Kliptown, a place so markedly different from the rest of the South Western Townships (SOWETO).There were no roads, not toilets, no electricity (and then in 2004, they still used the bucket system for ablution) You had to reduce  your driving speed to about 10km  per hour by car to make way. But I hoped things would change – especially as the government was building a multimillion rand Walter siSulu Square of Remembrance. A large grey monument in honour and recognition of what Kliptown represents in the country’s political history, just two railway tracks away. South Africa’s Freedom Charter was signed there, by close to 3000, black, white, coloured and Indian activists in 1955,  it cemented a  vision and goal for a brighter future.   There was no reason to doubt governments’ intentions.   2004 was also a National Election year, and political campaigning had already begun for the third democratic elections in the country. The spirit of hope was still high.

“They promised us that things would change” She said sitting heavily in her dark dining room.  The light barely catching the darkness inside, I suddenly felt cold.  “We’re still waiting, hoping” she said.  I didn’t know then that I would return to Kliptown and to that very house, years later and long after I had forgotten about the story.

This time, though, on a very different capacity, in search of my younger brother Peace. The last time I saw him was  after I had dropped him off to live with my late great –aunt, Nomvula . Before that he had been working  with  a local and internationally acclaimed artist Tracy Rose, on a project called XHomes in March 2010, the  year of  the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. The Project was funded by the Goethe Institute. Ma Eva also passed on the next Month in April, 2010.  XHOMEs was a very interesting artistic intervention and collaboration between South African and German artists.  The idea was simple – stage artistic performances using people’s homes as venues – while they continue with their normal lives in the background regardless of who comes in when and how.  There was a trail and all visitors had their own guide walking them to the different “performance” spaces marked by the Black, Red and Orange German flag.

I later found my brother there, later in the year, at the Soweto Kliptown Youth center (SKY), living and working as a handy man, sweeping the grounds, ensuring that the yard was kept clean. He had also formed a friendship with the man who still runs the center Bob Nameng. It was to be my own Khumbul’ekhaya episode. I didn’t understand his departure and later insistence on living there even after I had located him. The truth though was that my personal living circumstances had changed and I couldn’t live with him from the time of his disappearance. A few months later, in the new year, I found a place for both of us to live. But my journey to Kliptown Youth Centre would not end there.

 

A school boy living at Sky, back from school
A school boy living at Sky, back from school

On an assignment working for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation this year, I chose it as a place to tell South Africa’s complex story. In 2013, people in old Kliptown still don’t have roads, there’s still no electricity, there are new additions though, portable communal toilets and regular rubbish pick-ups.  There’s development all around but the Old Kliptown section. But the Norwegian broadcaster was not really interested in the story behind Kliptown and I thought that maybe I can do something. What? I didn’t know since many a publication had covered the Kliptown story and my own story which was broadcast on SABC’s flagship English news and current affairs radio station SAfm, did little to influence change.  The answer came with my brother telling me that he was organizing a fund-raising event at the center, which houses at least 45 vulnerable and orphaned girls and boys, provides food to at least 200 children in and around the community every day, and also provides after school classes for small children and the youth, who are involved in extracurricular activities such as drama, dancing etc.  I decided I would stage my play LINIDIWE! There, a play  I wrote and performed last year – as a hobby, something to use up my free time and ideas. I never thought about writing a play -the story just came to me one night.   LINDIWE a name which means “The one we are waiting for” in isiZulu, is set in a newsroom studio, and follows the breaking news  story of a Kings’ search for his missing cousin who is said to hold the answer to the Kingdom’s growing problems. I see it as a universal story about politics in my own personal family life my country and continent of Africa. It’s a call for me, for us to arrive and be the change we want to see in the world. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

I spoke to Bob Nameng and he agreed for me to perform there with the help of the SKY youth.  Pictured below.

 

Bob Nameng - former street kid, now he runs SKY.

Next Saturday (the 31st of August) I’ll be there to perform for the community and I am amazed at how ironic life can be and how life becomes interesting when the personal mixes with the professional. Sometimes I look at Sky in Old Kliptown and think maybe it’s planned to be that way, a kind of XHOME project. I sometimes think sometimes that maybe there is a sinister element in this place, maybe instead of building monuments, the government has decided to leave Kliptown as is; a real-life monument to “ see how they live” type of scenario, an example of how the majority of black South Africans used live under the Apartheid regime.  Why? Because everybody, including the local government knows about Kliptown, reams of newspaper copy have been written about it, but there’s still no change. The paved strip of road for pedestrians to walk and a bridge over the railway tracks are the only changes visible since the advent of democracy. But Kliptown – despite its history – is not unique, there are many such townships, another prominent one being Alex (Alexandra Township) bordering Johannesburg’s business district Sandton, whose living conditions are worse if not identical to Kliptown.  If it is a conspiracy it is an elaborate one and an over simplification of a very complex problem of how to achieve sustainable social development. I’ve lived long enough in this country to know that Bree taxi rank, used to be a muddy strip of land with nothing, where commuters had to wait in line come rain or shine for a taxi to take them where they wanted to go. Now there’s shelter, there are toilets; traders can trade in safety from environmental elements. I am not naïve. There’s improvement in the social conditions of black people, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.   So elaborate conspiracies aside, I decided use this opportunity to be part of a solution, to live up to my name LINDIWE and do something towards inspiring positive change in the community, however small.

I also realized how important it is for me to “succeed” in my chosen profession, to move on, and not regress. How much we all need to break the cycle of poverty in whatever ways we can. A debilitating cycle of lack which my parents and Ma Eva Mokoka amongst many mothers and fathers fought (still fighting) so hard to prevent and avoid. I also need to be the change I seek in my own little world.

The Soweto Kliptown Youth foundation Ekasi Street Theater Exhibition fund-raising event is part of that initiative. It’s not often that a journalist gets an opportunity to ‘tangibly” change the problems we so often report on in our stories and though this is a long way to that change I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute – something. To raise awareness using everything I have in honour of Mam Eva’s exemplary life as a community builder, nurse and midwife.

Sky has now evolved, grown, from a once humble home and community clinic into a place where children can play, learn and get a warm meal a day.  A place, ironically, which did  what I couldn’t do, provide shelter for my brother and many others like him who found themselves, suddenly,  for whatever reason, with no place to call home.

This is my own small way of giving thanks.  Of saying Ngiyabonga!