As hardy as the aloe – The Griquas of Kliptown

In the vibrant neighbourhood of Soweto that gave birth to the Freedom Charter, a small Afrikaans-speaking community prays, sings and struggles for survival.

As she sang with the choir, tears began rolling down her cheeks. With eyes closed and hands gripping the bench in front of her, Sophie Weimers, head of the Griqua Independent Church in Kliptown sang, “And through his blood, his precious blood, I shall from sin be free!” The congregation of less than 30 people sounded graceful as they sang along with her on that windy Sunday morning.

The church is situated between what is known as ‘Old Kliptown’ and ‘New Kliptown’, according to Weimers. Just down the road, is a street of shacks that shares its premises with the old houses. Up the road, are the new houses built in the 1980s. Upon walking into the church, greeted by big old wooden doors, the sound of the congregation is nothing less than heart-warming. The smell is old, like the dusty carpets beneath the worn-out wooden benches. However, the sound is spiritual.

SANCTUARY: Pastor Victor Appels walks down the aisle inside Kliptown’s Griqua Independent Church.

Coloured people make up 59% of Kliptown. I met Aunt Jeanette as I explored the township.

Down the main road, just a kilometre away from the popular Walter Sisulu Square where the Freedom Charter was adopted by the Congress of the People in 1955, I came across an old-looking church building that was surrounded by a rusted short fence.

I was curious as to why there was no name for the church on display. On the right of the building was an old house with a red polished veranda that shared its premises with the church.

I knocked on the old wooden red door, and waited a while before hearing someone shouting from inside: “Ek kom, wag ’n bietjie!”, meaning she would be at the door in a minute.

She emerged from the front door just a few minutes later, a small-built woman, with hair as red as the sand that surrounded the premises, and an orange polo neck sweater that almost consumed her face.

“The church has been around for almost 100 years now. We will be celebrating its heritage in 2020 where we will be flying the flag with the ‘kanniedood’ plant on it,” said one of the elders of the church, Jeanette Smit or ‘Aunt Jeanette’, as she is commonly known.

Aunt Jeanette explained that the kanniedood is the Griqua community’s national plant. This is an aloe plant whose Afrikaans name, kanniedood means “cannot die”, which is symbolic of the Griqua people’s historical past.

The plant itself is able to survive in harsh conditions due to its succulent properties. It is its ability to survive that became symbolic for the Griqua people, who are a sub community within the greater coloured community of Kliptown, and who refuse to be seen as marginalised.

The Griqua People

She greeted me with the warmest of smiles as if she had been expecting me. “This is the Griqua church, the only one here in Kliptown,” she said. Aunt Jeanette lives on the property of the church as a caretaker and devout congregant. The 72-year-old woman explained that the church served the Griqua community of Kliptown.

“The Griqua people are a mix of the Dutch that came to South Africa and the Khoisan who occupied the land in the Cape at that time,” she said. The Dutch first settled in Southern Africa in 1652.

To me, Aunt Jeanette looked and sounded no different from any other coloured person. “I am not coloured. I am Griqua, because of my ancestors,” she said. “You find the coloured people here have very mixed backgrounds, and different Christian churches. We only have the Griqua church. Yes I speak Afrikaans like everyone else that lives here, but it is our history that separates us from everyone else, that’s all,” she said.

She invited me into her home, whose floors creaked as I followed her inside. The smell was similar to that of a plastic container that had been sitting in a cupboard for too long. She showed me her living room which was small in size but warm and cosy.

Right above her over-sized television which took up most of the space in the room, was a framed portrait of an older man with grey hair and wearing a simple brown hat.

“That is AAS Le Fleur, the first. He is what we call ‘Die Kneg‘, or the leader of the Griquas. He is the man that brought us [Griqua] all together,” Aunt Jeanette said as she stared at the portrait.

Just below it was a calendar, unlike any I had seen before. Written right on the top was “Griqua National Conference Calendar”, which displayed dates of religious holidays and heritage days. “Moederdag – 14 Oktober” it read, meaning they celebrated Mother’s Day just a week before I met her.

CARETAKER: Jeanette Smit sits outside her home, which is connected to the Griqua church in Kliptown. Photo: Chante Schatz

“We don’t celebrate like everyone else, we have our own special days. On these days, we all dress up in our national colours,” she said excitedly as she sprung up and quickly rushed to her room before finishing her sentence. She brought out a sash that had four coloured stripes – green, white, blue and red. “These are the colours of the Griqua people. Usually the women wear them with a rosette of the kanniedood plant and the men wear ties with these colours,” she said.

Andrew Abraham Stockenstrom Le Fleur, the first (AAS Le Fleur I) mobilised the Griqua movement in the Cape in the early 1900s, and was the successor to Adam Kok III, the captain of the Griquas in the Cape in the late 19th century.

Pastor David Jansen, senior head of the church, explained that all of the church’s traditions are symbolic of the Griqua people who fought for their identity since the 1800s. “When the church was formed, it was not just a matter of simply going to a church. You look back on the history of what called us.

We are a historical church. There will be days where we host functions. From 11 o’ clock to 12 o’ clock I could preach about the gospel, and from 12 o’ clock, someone could come up and just talk and reflect on the history,” said Jansen.

Traditions of the Griqua church are different from those of other Christian churches. “We never used to have marriage officers when we married people in the church,” said Jansen.

“However, I took it upon myself to get my marriage licence, and now I am the only one in the Griqua church that can marry people. Before it just used to be the reverends that would do it,” he said.

Jansen explained that funerals are also different as the church takes much of the responsibility. “When that body moves through those doors right up to the front of the church, then the family has no say over that body, the church then becomes in charge of everything, like when to view for example,” he said.

Jansen explained that a reverend or someone with a higher ranking in the church gets a more traditional send off. “The flag would be placed on the coffin and the members would dress in their colours in respect of that member,” he said.

Many members of the church grew up in the Griqua community. “I have always belonged to the Griqua community when I grew up,” said Titus De Bruin, a 75-year-old elder of the church who was smartly dressed in a two-piece navy blue suit.

“I came to this Griqua church in Kliptown in 1958 when the apartheid government was relocating coloured people that time,” he said.

SOVEREIGNTY: The rosette which is worn by women elders of the Griqua church.

De Bruin grew up in the suburb of Ophirton in the south of Johannesburg, before his family were relocated to Kliptown. Even there, his family attended the Griqua church.

“I used to get very emotional when singing our hymns those days,” De Bruin said. “I used to cry when singing, the way [the hymns] were so powerful for me. Don’t look at us now, the way we sing, it was different then”, he said.

He explained that their hymns are referred to as ‘die lof’ meaning “praise”. “Die lof is like our people’s cries in history. We even have our own anthem,” he said, adding that it was composed by ‘Die Kneg’ (Le Fleur) as a means of uniting the Griqua people.

RESILIENT: The Griqua national flag with the kanniedood emblem, flown during ‘Oumensfees’, a day celebrating the elderly.

 Bruin explained that it was the songs of the Griqua choir back then that created this movement. “AAS Le Fleur formed the first choir in the early 1900s and sent out a clarion call with song to unite the people,” De Bruin said. “’Come, oh come, while Christ is calling’, that was the song the choir sang,” he said.

Even outsiders admire the hymns of the Griqua people. “Those ladies can sing! They sing so beautifully,” said Gwen Wangra, a local resident and teacher at Kliptown Primary School.

“I have only been to that church once, for a funeral, but I know many of the people who attend there. That is just the way Kliptown is, everyone knows everyone. It’s like this big family,” Wangra said.

“Kliptown isn’t the same now, but back then, we all looked out for one another no matter where you came from,” she added.

The Generations

The church is relatively small in membership as there are about 60 members, according to Jansen. However, on average, only 25 to 30 people attend services on a Sunday, most of whom are 50 and older. “We have a lot of old people because the youngsters have become so modernised now,” said Aunt Jeanette.

It is the church’s tradition that women should only enter the church if they are wearing a dress and a hat or scarf to cover their heads. “The young girls today want to wear pants and tops that don’t cover their shoulder. They have their own way of life”, Aunt Jeanette said.

WORSHIP: Peter Smit (left) and Sophie Weimers (right) lead the congregation in song
HONOUR: The women of the Griqua church sing as their national flag is raised during the ‘Oumensfees’ service.
GENERATIONS: Pastor Victor Appels of the Griqua church in Kliptown, sits outside his home in Eldorado Park with his two grandchildren.

Aunt Jeanette’s eldest granddaughter, Shameel Usain, also attends the Griqua church, but tends to miss most Sunday services. “Sometimes I go to my husband’s church, which is the ZCC (Zion Christian Church). Other times I am here. I actually prefer this church because it is where I come from,” the 26-year-old said.

According to Pastor Jansen, there is a trend where younger people of the church marry out and attend their spouses’ church or just move to another one. “Even my daughter has decided to attend a different church now because of personal preference. It is hard when you cannot keep the legacy on because when the old people are no longer here, who will carry on this history?” Jansen asked.

Despite the younger generation of the Griqua community slowly drifting away, they still contribute to moments that are cherished by the congregants.

The second service I attended allowed me to witness one of these special moments. As church elder Sophie Weimers stood in the front of the church, she spoke about the strength in song of their people. “Our songs are so rich and so powerful that it even gets the youngest of children singing along,” she said. She proceeded to call on a young boy, around three years old to sing his favourite song for her.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Amen, Amen, Amen!” he sang with his innocent voice. Right on cue, the whole congregation carried the song on and sang. It was this moment that made it clear how important singing is for the Griqua community, not just to carry on the tradition, but also to follow the powerful calling of song almost 100 years later.

FEATURED IMAGE: Pastor Victor Appels walks down the aisle inside Kliptown’s Griqua Independent Church. Photo: Chante Schatz

Under the skin of tattooing in Orlando

This piece explores all aspects of the tattoo culture in one of the most iconic parts of Soweto – from the tattoo artists themselves to those who just enjoy the feeling of a tattoo needle piercing their skin, permanently marking their bodies with impressions of their experiences.

In the sweltering heat of the Soweto summer, a small group of people gather outside a home in Orlando West. The house is a two-bedroom, brick face building with a green corrugated roof. Apart from a small sign on the gate with a cellphone number underneath some text, one would probably drive past, oblivious to what was going on inside.

The artist is 30-year-old Andile Mazibuko, who has been tattooing since the age of 18. The self-taught artist used his own body as his canvas when he first began to learn how to tattoo.

He started out with a home-made machine, which he still has, tattooing “laugh now, cry later, masks” on his thighs.

SELF INKED: Orlando West tattoo artist, Andile Mazibuko, tattooed himself with a home-made tattoo gun.

The machine itself has the same shape as a professional machine, which resembles a mini drill or electric screwdriver, but the components used to make it could rival something that MacGyver would be able to come up with.

The machine still runs and consists of a motor, adapter, an on-off switch and a sewing needle. Since then he has moved on to a more professional machine and has been using it for the last five years.

Again, he tattooed himself in learning how to operate the new machine, tattooing his left forearm with a tribal pattern.

Amazingly, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two in terms of quality and finish.

Mazibuko found his way to tattooing through his love and passion for art, and found tattooing more “common nature” when it came to expressing himself.

He says he found it tough in the beginning because people didn’t really know what he was doing or what tattoos were about. However, in recent years, “Tattoos themselves have become more common and the artists themselves are getting better at what they do,” said Mazibuko.

“As an artist now, it’s all about getting your work out there, so you find that guys might operate in a similar set up to mine but then also do a lot of house calls where the clients might feel more comfortable and open up more. Even though people might not have the money to spend on tattoos, we still do what we can for them and it also helps us to build our portfolios. The culture of tattooing is definitely there and there are a lot of artists around as well,” said Mazibuko.

BIG MIKE: Michael Ngceshe stands outside his tattoo studio on the outskirts of Orlando West.

“As an artist now, it’s all about getting your work out there, so you find that guys might operate in a similar set up to mine but then also do a lot of house calls where the clients might feel more comfortable and open up more. Even though people might not have the money to spend on tattoos, we still do what we can for them and it also helps us to build our portfolios. The culture of tattooing is definitely there and there are a lot of artists around as well,” said Mazibuko.

On the outskirts of Orlando West is an off white-coloured shipping container with the word “Tattoos” in bold, red letters on the front of the container. This studio shares a lot with a car wash and a small food stall that serves pap, meat and vegetables. The studio belongs to a 34-year-old man who is covered in various tattoos, from a fish on his back to a cross on the inside of his right calf.

Michael Ngceshe, more commonly known as “Big Mike”, not because of his stature, but rather due to his status as the self-proclaimed, “most famous artist in Soweto”, is also part of the “informal” tattoo community and has been a tattoo artist since 2011. “The reason we do tattoos is because we love to do it. We are artists, but we are different to other artists because they hang their art and we wear our art. Wear your art, don’t hang it,” he says while lighting a cigarette.

While you would think that a place as vibrant and young as Orlando West might have a tattoo style of its own, that is not the case.

“Tattoos are universal and so the ideas that people have can relate to a lot of other people from all over the world,” says Ngceshe. “I would say that the one thing that makes Soweto artists unique is that we cater mostly black people, so there are different techniques and other things to consider when tattooing.

“The lines have to be thicker and bolder so that they can show up nicely on the skin and that takes a different set of skills as opposed to working with lighter skin. Not everyone can work with different skin types, but I think I have mastered them all,” Ngceshe says.

He also believes that the tattoo industry is growing and the reason is that people are beginning to understand that they get tattoos for themselves and not for other people to just look at. “You know what your tattoos represent and it’s a way of expressing yourself or keeping those that you might have lost close to you, and that’s all that matters. You live your art in that way, because every life on earth is art,” says Ngceshe.

Culture and stigma of tattoos in Orlando West

HEAVY EQUIPMENT: A home-made tattoo gun (left) alongside a professional machine (right).

While the culture of tattooing may be growing and becoming more commonplace in Orlando West, there is still a stigma that is attached to having tattoos.

“This stigma mainly comes from the older generation where they think it’s satanic and going against religion,” said Mazibuko. It also depends on the tattoo itself and what it is.

“The nicer it looks, the less of a stigma people will attach to you. People would be more accepting if you had a rose or a bird, rather than a skull.”

That stigma is something that Orlando West resident Tebogo Shumayeli, who at 16, got his first tattoo from Mazibuko, has experienced.

“My first tattoo was all about being cool and really didn’t have any meaning, but as time went on I started getting more meaningful tattoos and ones that had more significance in my life,” said the 26-year-old.

“I think about 80 percent of the people in this area have tattoos and they feel the same way. That’s why you won’t really find people branding themselves with logos or big names, of soccer teams, for example. It’s more like you are promoting that kind of logo and you would probably have to get paid for something like that. You find that most people think it’s quite ridiculous to get tattoos like that,” said Shumayeli.

The culture of tattooing is growing in Orlando West and in Soweto as a whole. While it is mostly young people who have opened up to the idea of tattoos and what they represent, the older generation is gradually beginning to open up to the industry as well.

Promoting tattoos and tattoo artists

Ndumiso Ramathe is a man who knows all about tattoos and is not afraid of getting inked. Having covered both of his arms and part of his chest, he even has a tattoo of his birth year, ’86, on his chin. Ramathe, who is the owner of Soweto Ink and organiser of the Soweto Ink Festival in Kliptown, said that he had noticed more parents coming in to get tattoos done and that some of them were even bringing their children with them. “A very small percentage of people do this, but it shows that the industry is opening up, which is really exciting to see,” said Ramathe.

The Soweto Ink Festival, scheduled to take place in December at Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, is in its second year and was expected to host both local and international artists who would be able to showcase their work.

“The development of the tattoo culture is slow, but it is getting there. This is why I am getting involved in conventions and festivals, to educate people that a tattoo is not something that you just get from the guy around the corner,” said Ramathe.

“These conventions and festivals aren’t only aimed at prospective clients, we also use them to try to educate artists themselves about the proper hygiene and safety certificates that they have to have in order to operate and be able to get products from suppliers,” he said.

According to the Body Artists Code, found in the South African Council for Piercing and Tattoo Professionals, these regulations include a variety of criteria, such as: “The premises shall not be used as or in connection with a living, food preparation or sleeping space unless a permanently constructed partition completely separates the working area”; “Tattoo and piercing needles, razor blades, scalpel blades, biopsy punches and shaving razors are single use only”; and “Owners must ensure that the transportation and disposal of medical waste is handled by government registered transporters and in accordance with governing municipal by-laws and national acts.”

Festivals also present artists with a chance to interact with other artists from different areas, not just in Gauteng, but from all over the country and to learn from each other. However, this is not always the case, with artists from particular areas, such as Orlando West, tending to stick together and those from other parts of the country doing the same.

“A lot of people from here will go to other parts of the province, like Pretoria to get their work done, especially those that work in corporate, so festivals like this also help us local guys to gain exposure among our own people. Most of the guys that I work with, work as a unit, but you do get those ‘ego tattoo artists’ who make more money than others, so they have cooler studios and those guys are more business driven than us smaller guys,” said Mazibuko.

ARTISTIC FLAIR: Graffiti on the wall of one of the many home-based tattoo studios in Orlando West.

“The older folks who are into religion don’t really support the idea of tattoos and see it as satanism. Personally, I see the tattoos as body art and a way of enhancing how you express yourself,” said Shumayeli.

While the tattoo community is a niche group of people, especially when it comes to the artists themselves, there is also a sense of competition between artists, in particular between those who operate in different parts of the province.

“Those bigger tattoo artists, it’s like they don’t trust us to do a good piece, because their shops will often get full, but then instead of maybe referring the client to us, they just tell them to come back another time, just because they don’t want to lose out on the money”, said Mazibuko.

Image is key

DEEPER MEANING: Butterfly and floral tattoos on Vanessa Myathaza.

Like many other professions, image is an important part of marketing yourself and what you are doing. Being a tattoo artist is no different. “You have to be wild and pretty out there for people to take you seriously as a tattoo artist,” said Mazibuko.

“People would rather get a tattoo done from someone who has tattoos himself, especially if they want to get a bigger piece done. If they want something smaller, then its okay if the artist only has one or two, but they generally get put off if the artist doesn’t have and they want something big or elaborate,” said Mazibuko.

With tattoos becoming an increasingly more common trend among a lot of people, there is a sense that our generation, might be the last to not have any tattoos.

That’s the feeling of Orlando West residen,t Thandi Mazibuko. “It starts with us, going down, and people younger than us will see our tattoos and also want one of their own.

I feel like our generation will also be more accepting if our kids get tattoos, because we have a better understanding of what it’s about and we have been through the phase of having a stigma attached to tattoos, so now our kids won’t have to go through that,” said Thandi.

“The older generation still understands tattoos as being something that maybe started in prison and so it is associated with that kind of thing.

When I got my first one, my mom was not happy with me, but eventually she came around. Nowadays it’s more of a lifestyle kind of thing and a lot of the tattoos that people get aren’t too hectic, so it will be a mother getting their child’s name, for example,” said the 32-year-old.

“I have 11 tattoos and to me, they represent identity. Nobody can have the same tattoo as me. Yes, the design can be the same, but the meaning behind it will be different.

That’s why I put a lot of thought into what I get and other people should too, because it’s very difficult to get it removed or covered up if you don’t like what you have,” said Mazibuko.

Tattoos still have a long way to go to become the norm within society, but it’s places like Orlando West, with its young and edgy vibe, open-minded people and talented tattoo artists that are beginning to change the perception of tattoos and tattooing in Soweto.

Having been permanently inked, the individual walking out into the sweltering heat once again, undoubtedly feels a sense of being part of a community and has a badge of belonging to show that they are part of that community.

FEATURED IMAGEOrlando West tattoo artist, Andile Mazibuko, tattooed himself with a home-made tattoo gun. Photo: Michael Pedro.


A woman’s place is in the house

At the heart and soul of the house music scene in Soweto, a small group of female DJs are making a name and claiming the beat all for themselves.

It’s just after sunset on a lazy Sunday evening, when Palesa Sebolao walks into a vast venue. She has a black backpack on her back, wearing a pink hoodie, pig tails, and pink Converse All Stars. She approaches the table where her friends are and takes a seat. In two hours from now she will transform into the star of the show. She will become DJ Palee.

In the same way, the venue itself undergoes a transformation. On Rathebe Street in Orlando East, Shop to Shop, is a hair salon for six days of the week. But every Sunday the shop takes on a different character and is known by a different name – Sweet Sunday.

At around noon, Shop to Shop slowly gets changed into an outdoor lounge area enclosed by tents – there are soft benches and long tables, to the front there is a disk jockey (DJ) booth and two speakers on each side.

She attentively makes her way to the DJ booth, making various stops at tables to greet some of the regulars. People at the venue can still make their way around easily as it is not packed.  She takes off her backpack and reaches inside for her CDs. On the other side of the booth, the audience is indulging in conversations and drinks. Five minutes later everyone is on their feet grooving to the tunes, courtesy of DJ Palee. Her mix starts off at a very quick tempo, which encourages everyone to get onto their feet.

After attending a three-month course at Fuse Academy DJ Palee went straight to the DJ booth and elevated her craft to a point where she could play in front of a crowd. Fuse Academy is an only female dj-ing school based in Melville, and is partly owned by DJ Zinhle. Some of South Africa’s best known female DJs like Miss Pru and Ms Cosmo have studied there.

O, kganti wa dlala?” meaning, “Oh, so you play?” remarks an audience member in amazement after realising Sebolao was indeed DJ Palee. She has always loved music, regardless of the genre, and this is one of the reasons she is now a DJ. She plays some of Soweto’s most sought-after genres, like house and kwaito.

ON THE DECKS: Palesa Sebolao playing at her first gig of the night at Sweet Sunday in Orlando East.

Soulful vocals – rise of the female

On a Sunday the streets of Orlando East are buzzing with the echo of the sultry and alluring sounds of somewhat of a rhythmic piano recital. A song you do not know is playing and you can’t help but move fiercely with the bass of the drum that hits your heartstrings. The majestic melodies sound mysterious and all so familiar.

The amapiano mix by DJ Palee has the crowd swaying and twisting to the dial of the piano. Someone in the crowd does the vosho which is a dipping motion with a slight flick of the leg. Someone else is doing the gwara-gwara which is usually done when a faster song is played. However, this gwara-gwara accompanies every beat of the song, attentively flicking the right elbow and left leg alongside the beat.

Being an advocate for female DJs, she says, “I think female DJs rock for the mere fact that the very same things we are underestimated in, we master so well.” She continues to prove the audience wrong at every gig or event she plays at.

There are many female DJs in Soweto but not enough of them are getting booked as resident DJs at clubs. One out of three female DJs are resident DJs in Soweto, says Nobuhle Nhlapo (DJ Buhle) who has been a resident deejay at Sefateng. Nhlapo has been in the industry for over 10 years. “The same week I started DJ-ing I got a job,” Nhlapo says. It was only in 2014 that DJ-ing became lucrative enough for her to leave her job.

Music and dance is an integral part of the community in Soweto, in particular house music. You can hear this type of music at spaza shops, school transports and homes. The house music phenomenon extends to the greater part of the country. According to Thump online, “South Africa is the biggest purchaser of deep house music per capita in the world.” Which is the case in the vibrant township of Soweto, where house music is played in clubs, bashes, chesa nyamas and parties.

Even though house music has its roots in the streets of Chicago, the sound changed as it emerged in the dusty roads of Soweto and it incorporated sub-genres that are solely South African.

House music has sub-genres that are loved across bashes and parties in the township. The DJs are booked according to the sub-genre they play. There is a certain mood that is maintained throughout the whole event, starting off with a soulful pace which creates a rather relaxing environment and is also reminiscent of the jazz Sundays that used to be held in Soweto.

Music in Soweto has history that can be traced to the marabi jazz nights during the early half of the 20th century, and further traced to kwaito which was big in the 1990s among the youth.

Among the youth

Lesedi Tsilekae strongly maintains the opinion that male DJs are better than female DJs. She has only seen two female DJs play and it was not in Orlando East. Tsilekae is a house music fan who says that the house music scene is growing in her township.

Later into the night the pace of the music goes through a transition which sees the tempo quicken. Lebogang Seoka, a DJ based in Orlando East, said the later it is in the night, the faster the music becomes. This is done to accommodate the heightened mood of the audience. Seoka referred to the sub-genres as deep tech, soulful house, soulful vocals, amapiano and commercial house music.

Seoka also mentioned that he is a lover of music before he is a DJ, and that he has been in the industry since he was 13, but only knows one female DJ from Orlando East.

“You literally have 15 minutes to show everyone what you got.”  The crowd seems like it is hard to please, however, DJ Palee makes no hesitation and fires up her set, with her left hand on the CDJ and her right hand on the mixer – the party begins. Taking the crowd by surprise, she consistently heightens the mood of the party with the audience’s favourite type of tunes.

The crowd did not necessarily gravitate to her when she arrived but as soon as she starts playing her set she reigns as the Amapiano Queen of Orlando East.

Research is one of the most important aspects when it comes to playing at a gig or event. DJ Palee said the DJ needs to first check the venue and establish what the vibe is before preparing a set.

She always tries to get to an event an hour or two earlier so she does not make the mistake of repeating a song that was played in a previous set.

Just like many other DJs, DJ Palee sees it as a “hustle” and is also studying and working at the same time. She said she would take up DJ-ing as a full time gig if the opportunity presented itself.

House music fan Sihle Hlatshwayo attests to the fact that the genre is big in Soweto. Hlatshwayo has been to a number of bashes and clubs in the township and the majority of the music played is house.

From the audience perspective there seems to be a reasonable amount of female DJs on the decks. “The response is based on the selection and mixing. People enjoy good music played at the right time,” says Hlatshwayo, who explains how massive the house music scene is in Soweto.

He compares it to that of Pretoria which is known to only have one type of house music.

HAPPY HOUR: Rathebe Street in Orlando East on a Sunday night.

Amapiano – Keys to the future

One of the emerging sub-genres in house music is amapiano. Music producer Lehlohonolo Mathibe describes it as a “dialled down tempo and use of minimal vocals, but rather rhythmically rich wood lock percussion”.

Sebolao’s set at Sweet Sunday consisted of a lot of music from this sub-genre which was loved by the audience. She prides herself on her versatility, as she plays a variety of house music.

The mood at the gig is the determining factor on which type of house music will be played.

Being in a male-dominated industry has never killed DJ Palee’s spirit as she identifies as a DJ and not a female DJ. However, that does not change the fact that more male DJs are booked at events.

DJ Palee was the only female DJ to play at Sweet Sunday between 6pm and 11pm. She mentioned how difficult negotiating with promoters can be as a woman. “O tla thola ba ho patala ka le botlolo” (Promoters may offer to pay you with a bottle of alcohol”), if you are not assertive.

There are many claims that have been made to explain why not as many women are as successful as the men in this particular industry. Nhlapo explained that safety is imperative as a female DJ – in particular when it comes to returning home after a gig.

She also mentioned how that could be a factor when being considered as a resident DJ.

One of the founders of Sweet Sunday, Thabang “Maestro” Mphahlele, is surrounded by his jubilant friends throughout the night, with music accompanying the sultry conversations about business and success.

Maestro is in charge of the line-up and makes sure he checks up on the DJs now and again. Meticulously making his way through the crowd and nodding in affirmation at everyone that notices him, he walks to and from the DJ booth, approving at every mix produced by the DJ.

He said Sweet Sunday is a platform for up-and-coming artists and DJs. He gives the artists of Soweto an opportunity to show their talents and still remunerates them.

Female DJs in Soweto are continuously growing across genres, in particular house music.

It’s 10pm and DJ Palee has just played the last song from her one-hour long set. Some are still on their feet while others are walking back to their designated tables.

The last song in her mix still has the piano dial, however, it is slower than the dial at the beginning of her set. Affectionately making way for the next DJ, she packs her CDs back into her backpack, exchanges a handshake and walks back to the table where DJ Palee becomes Palesa Sebolao again.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Palesa Sebolao playing at her first gig of the night at Sweet Sunday in Orlando East. Photo: Ntaoleng Lechela.


Laying claim to Soweto as virgin territory

Virginity testing is a sensitive and controversial topic for those who practise it. 

It is a Saturday morning as I walk down Sofasonke Street in the township of Orlando West, Soweto. The streets are full of people speaking in different languages in private conversations, moving in opposite directions. There is a cacophony of house, gospel and maskandi music playing simultaneously from houses, shops and taxis.

Just up the road from the buzzing intersection, in a quieter street, is a yellow house protected by a short fence. We are seated in an outside backroom, small and crowded. A long white curtain divides the small room into the bedroom and a dining area. Renting out a single room and dividing it, is a common living arrangement in the community of Soweto.

On a long brown velvet couch, I am seated with five teenage girls stylishly dressed, who engage in virginity testing and cultural dancing activities. The girls are singing, talking loudly, while clapping their hands, awaiting the arrival of 10 other group members for their scheduled dance practice.

VIBRANCY: Members of Ubuhle Bentsha dance group practising their steps. 

The backroom is a meeting point for the girls who practise twice a month, outside a nearby church across the road.

Ubuhle Bentsha, which means “beauty of the youth” is the name of the girl’s dance group which was established in 2009. Val’upie, maan which means “close your thighs” is an informal slogan the girls constantly use when cracking jokes among each other.

“We are almost starting, where are you? Ai, hurry up, shesha maan, val’upie maan,” says one of the girls speaking to another girl over the phone.

The girls are engaged in robust conversations around sexual abstinence and how boys are only after the girls’ ‘pie’, ‘cake’, or ‘cookie’,  reference being made to a vagina.

The concept of virginity testing is deeply entrenched among the Zulu in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where young girls are regularly tested whether they are still pure, or that their virginity is intact. Girls who participate in the practice are referred to as amatshitshi which means “virgins”.

Traditional beads known as amakhehleza, meaning “rattles”, worn during dancing add to the ambiance

Because I’m familiar with the Zulu language, it’s no difficult task to jump in and join the conversations.

“We can’t have boys play us, he must decide if he wants you or your cookie,” says one of the girls.

Another girl quickly jumps in. “But it’s a common thing that people our age have sex, you must just explain that you still itshitshi and want to keep it that way for a long time.” The girls nod their heads seeming to concur with the expressed sentiment.

For some of these vocal dance enthusiasts, there is a need to stand up and make use of their hands, head or facial expression when uttering their opinion in the conversations.

“That’s the thing, you guys. Once you date you’re expected to have sex, we might as well not date till we older,” says another girl expressing her concern with her hands in the air.

Upon the arrival of four other group members, the girls collectively decide to change into their traditional attire known as imvunulo. Their colourful attire consists of a short beaded skirt, isgege, as well as traditional accessories that are put on the arms and neck, leaving their breasts uncovered.

Normally, when people undress they require privacy, especially in the presence of a stranger. However, this is certainly not the case with me as some of them even ask for assistance from me. “Please help me tie my beads,” and I do.

COURTESY: The virgins bow down, an important gesture in Zulu practices that signifies respect.

Shortly after dressing up, the girls leave the room in song: “Angeke sale usiko lwebhiso, angeke sale usiko lobab’mkhulu”, which translates to “We will never refuse our tradition, we will never reject our forefathers’ tradition“.

When these young bare-chested girls dance, one hears people uttering a quavering shrill known as ukukikiza, to ululate, which is meant to compliment either the singing or the dance moves that are frantic and inclusive of high kicking motions, which instantly flattens the grass beneath their bare feet.

For these girls, practising their culture and keeping their bodies pure takes priority, no matter their location.

“It’s my culture, it’s who I am,” says 20-year-old Sikhulile Ndawonde, a second-year Bachelor of Education student at Wits University. “There is absolutely no way you can neglect your identity because of a location and other people’s cultures,” she argues.

Ndawonde joined amatshistshi at the tender age of 10, in a small village of Umsinga in KwaZulu-Natal where she was born. She was inspired by two of her older siblings who also engaged in the practice.

She says she got jealous when the virgins used to attend events, ceremonies, camps and weddings. “I got tired of being left out and forced to join,” she laughs.

“At first my parents weren’t pleased because at the time, the acceptable age of joining amatshitshi was at least 13.” However, because of her “feisty” spirit she managed to convince the folks otherwise.

The Ubuhle Bentsha group was established in 2009 by Thenjiwe Mhlongo, called ‘Mam’Mathenji’ by the girls, a dance instructor who grew up in KZN, who also used to engage in the virginity testing practice until she got married. She looks reserved on the first encounter but reveals a warm smile as she welcomes me into her backroom where the girls usually meet.

FAMILY: The girls now identify as sisters because of their mutual love of their Zulu culture.

Although the group is fairly small, Mam Mathenji experiences a handful of challenges as far as virginity testing is concerned. “It is not easy managing the group especially because it’s in an urban environment, where there is a lack of knowledge about the culture itself.”

As both dance instructor and virginity inspector, Mam Mathenji says she’s expected to deal with “insults” from some members of the community and accusations that some of the girls are not virgins.

“People who don’t like what we do or who want to tarnish our reputation say we get R200 bribes inside the girls’ panties so we can lie and say they are virgins. This is bizarre because virgins don’t wear panties when they come for a test,” she says.

Some parents get outraged when informed that their children are no longer virgins, “and start to question my [virginity testing] skills”, she says with concern.

“That’s insulting, because I was taught how to test the girls,” she says.

Virginity inspectors are taught how to conduct the test practically by older women and the knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next.

Mam Mathenji says she would encourage parents to allow their children to participate in virginity testing because they are not only taught to preserve their bodies but also about womanhood.

The girls participate in the annual Reed Dance ceremony which takes place at King Zwelithini’s eNyokeni palace situated in the Nongoma town in KZN. The ceremony is attended by thousands of young girls from across the country and neighboring countries like Swaziland.

According to Mam’Mathenjione of the main advantages of engaging in virginity testing is that, virginity inspectors are able to detect and heal diseases that cannot be easily detected by modern doctors such as umhlume which kills the ovaries’ eggs in the womb.

“There is also a disease called impene which makes young girls crave or throw themselves at boys even though boys didn’t say anything. We are able to see that and take the girl to the river to get rid of that blood that causes the girls to throw themselves at males,” adds Mam’Mathenji.

The Ubuhle Bentsha group also gets invited to perform at traditional weddings, and coming of age ceremonies around Soweto, but mostly in KZN.

The issue of virginity testing and young women preserving their bodies is controversial because it implies that only women need to be involved in such practices, but not all men think that way.

GOD FIRST: Although Ubuhle Bentsha is a cultural group, Mam’Mathenji says God takes the lead in their lives.

Muzi Chonco, a soft-spoken community leader and cultural activist from Pimville, strongly feels that society needs to equally preach the gospel of young men preserving their bodies and respecting women. He says this is important because, often, the blame for the increasing rate of pregnancies is put on females and “that’s uncalled for”.

“A girl cannot make a baby alone, a woman cannot commit adultery alone,” says Chonco, stressing the importance of encouraging men to also behave and preserve their bodies.

“In the olden days, there used to be similar groups and ceremonies which were specifically meant for boys, however, the groups died over the years. Fathers, pastors, and community leaders must revive these groups to create an equal society,” adds Chonco.

Virginity testing in South Africa is an indigenous and religious practice which died over time but was revived in the late 1980s, according to traditional healer, Gogo Makhosi Mbali, who also conducts virginity testing in Orlando and Zola in Soweto.

“It is important for young women to preserve and continue with this tradition. It saves and protects them from a lot of things like HIV/Aids, teenage or unwanted pregnancy,” says Makhosi.

When I ask Makhosi how the test is performed, she frowns and maintains a straight posture. “Is it necessary for me to explain all the details?” she asks. Yes, is my response, and she reluctantly explains.

A day for testing is usually chosen by an inspector and accommodates the girls’ schedules. “In the early hours of the day, the girls form a queue outside the room where the inspection takes place and enter individually. Upon entering the room, a girl lies down with her back on a handmade mat called ucantsi,” says Makhosi. She also explains that the inspector then examines the vagina, specifically checking for the presence of ihlo, the hymen, the membrane that covers the external opening of a vagina.

According to an Africa Check report, it is difficult to measure virginity testing using a hymen. This is because the arrangement and size of hymens differs for each female.

“When the hymen is found, a girl is declared a virgin,” says Makhosi. Thereafter, the virgins get a temporary mark on their foreheads. However, when the girls participate in the annual reed dance in KZN, they are granted a certificate confirming they are still pure, according to Makhosi.

The issue of testing women’s “purity” sparked a lot of controversy in 2016 when the uThukela District Municipality in KZN introduced a bursary scheme for girls provided they remained virgins. The bursary could only be awarded to virgin girls who wanted to further their studies.

Some of the main criticisms which came out of the introduction of the bursary fund, were that the scheme was infringing on constitutional rights with respect to cultural rights

The group of girls say they feel as if their Zulu culture is not respected by some people, as compared to other people’s cultures because it’s unpopular in the townships.

“We get called by all sorts of nasty names,” says 19-year-old Baphe Mkhonza. Soweto is highly modernised  and some people feel it’s indecent to have the practice in the township. Some would even say, “This is kasi [township] not mafama [farmsteads],” Mkhonza adds.

Mbali Lubelo (20), “President” as she is referred to by the other girls, shares similar sentiments, saying that, “I get insulted and get told that I think I’m better than everyone else, but it’s not difficult dealing with such because I know who I am.”

Lubelo says virginity testing has kept her away from a lot of things. “When I look at my friends, I am the only one without a baby, and it consoles me that when I reach my dreams I won’t be having a child or burden of fetching ARVs [antiretroviral treatment],” she adds.

Peer pressure from sexually-active friends, being looked at as “sex objects” and some males claiming that they have been sexually involved with the girls, are some of the common challenges that the girls have to deal with in practicing their culture in urban communities.

Singing and dancing is a historic and generational “Zulu people’s” way of expressing joy or gratitude, says Ndawonde, the Wits student.

With the melting pot of cultures that is Soweto, the Ubuhle Bentsha members are adamant that they will not only preserve their bodies but also their culture for generations to come, much like it was passed down to them.   

As soon as the dance practice is over, the girls walk back in song to the backroom to change into their everyday clothing. The moment they remove their traditional attire, they transform once again to ordinary teenage girls from Soweto.

It would be normal for young girls to be tired after a four-hour dance practice, but this is not the case with the Ubuhle Bentsha girls. The singing and clapping of hands slowly ends off with the same energy it had started off with.

Looking at the smiles on their faces as they enter the shaded room after spending their time dancing under the hot blazing sun, there is no doubt that the girls find fulfilment in what they do.

Angeke sale usiko lwebhiso, angeke sale usiko lobab’mkhulu,” they sing. This song which vows that the group “will never refuse our tradition, we will never reject our forefathers tradition”, seems to be their outright favourite.

FEATURED IMAGE: Traditional beads known as amakhehleza, meaning “rattles”, worn during dancing add to the ambiance. Photo: Nonkululeko Njilo.


For the love of the beautiful game

Bringing people together on dusty grounds and cement pavilions to hosting over 40 000 people at Orlando Stadium, the timeless tradition of soccer becomes more than a game but a way of life not only for players but for supporters too.

Alone black and yellow soccer jersey hangs on the laundry line, giving an indication this is the correct address. A man walks out of the house with a smile on his face and reaches out with a firm handshake. Sipho Nkosi, ‘Mr S’, is preparing to watch a soccer match with his brother and friends the following day.

“Tomorrow is a long day,” he says as he walked back into his house to collect a copy of the soccer newspaper, Soccer Laduma. “Look! There are five matches tomorrow. From half past three, I will be watching soccer. I am just getting my kit ready,” says the 31-year-old.

This Friday afternoon, October 27, in Orlando East is filled with people scurrying around Rathebe Street. The sense of community is amplified by greetings from both sides of the road as the ‘gents’ salute each other with handshakes and slang greetings. “Verder?” (How are you?) is constantly repeated as you walk down from JB’s liquor store.

Vegetable stalls, spaza shops and yard sales are not the only hype of the street on a Friday afternoon in the streets of Orlando. Worn with pride, soccer jerseys in all forms and colours are paraded on either side of the road. Black and white for Orlando Pirates here, Kaizer Chiefs supporters in yellow and black there, some faded and others crisply new.

Further down the road, where Herby Mdingi and Rathebe streets intersect, on the sidewalk of house number 826 sit two men on black and white wooden benches, which have been embellished with a neatly-erected wooden structure. A few steps away from the sitting area is a table with assorted sweets and cigarettes for sale. Next to the stall is a tall white board with black writing: “Orlando Park… The Happy-Peoples, 826”, flanked on either side, by an Orlando Pirates football club skull emblem.

Orlando Pirates supporter, Ace Mokoena, whiles away a Sunday afternoon in the park dedicated to his favourite football club.

Orlando Park was curated by 59-year-old Lazarus Mthe in 2016, in honour of Orlando Pirates Football Club, established in Orlando in 1937.

Offered a yellow vuvuzela by his brother, Ace Mokoena, who lives in the same yard, Mthe refuses to blow it saying he cannot be seen holding a Kaizer Chiefs vuvuzela.

Speaking in Zulu, Mthe describes his passion for Orlando Pirates as a young boy with a smile on his face. “Ngiyithanda ngenhliziyo yami yonke, (I love it [the team] with my whole heart),” he says bringing his hands closer to his heart. Mthe describes how he fell in love with soccer in the 1960s as a hobby that he was introduced to at Orlando High School when playing with friends during break times and after school matches in the streets of his hometown.

The park’s wooden structure which still needs restructuring, and another coat of paint to make it look “more attractive”, according to Mthe, is accessible not only to the community but anyone who wants to take a seat in the Orlando Pirates haven. “I made this for the people, especially for gogos who walk to and from the clinic. They can sit here and rest. People love sitting here. Pirates played at the stadium a few weeks ago and people from Vereeniging parked here and took photos and I told them it was sharp,” he says.

Mthe and Mokoena not only share a passion for soccer, but support Orlando Pirates religiously as a family. House 826 in Herbi Mringa Street is a compound filled with friendly and welcoming faces. In the yard stands a pink house, next to which are neatly corrugated shacks. Mokoena’s and Mthe’s shacks can be identified by the colours and “Up the Bucs” painted on the sides of their respective structures.

Mokoena recalls the last Orlando Pirates versus Kaizer Chiefs game he watched at Orlando Stadium a year ago, from the atmosphere before the game to how he felt afterwards. “Eish, that game! I have never experienced anything like that before in my life. It was packed outside. There was black and white everywhere,” he says, with an overjoyed smile on his face.

Before going to watch a game, Mokoena prepares by gathering his regalia. Shaking his body, he describes how he wakes up with the “spirit” for the game. “By the time I leave for the stadium, I am telling you, you will cry. I look good,” he adds.

Building the Pirates Park was an idea supported by Mokoena from the moment he knew that the park was dedicated to Orlando Pirates.

“My brother put everything together bit by bit. He got some stuff from people in the community and made it happen. When I saw them working with the paint and I saw that it was black and white, I was very happy. But what makes me unhappy is that people come at night and damage what he has made, as you can see it is open to the public and that is not nice. Yes it is attractive, but not like before because people damaged it,” says Mokoena.

A family tradition preserved for future generations

Julius Sono keeps the Sono home well maintained with hopes that it will be declared as a heritage site in memory of his father, Eric “Scarra” Sono.

Just two blocks away from the Pirates Park is a house with “SONO” written boldly on golden plates on the face brick wall. On the window facing the street is the reflection of a faded Orlando Pirates flag.

“Ekse bra KK” shouts a man walking past, avoiding stepping on the lawn as the son of soccer legend Eric ‘Scara’ Sono drills more golden plated letters onto the brick wall.

Eric ‘Scara’ Sono captained Orlando Pirates in 1957 and used football as a way of disrupting the apartheid system by bringing multiracial players to join Orlando Pirates despite segregation laws.

According to the official Orlando Pirates history, players Bernard ‘Dancing Shoes’ Hartze and Mannie ‘Al die Hoekies’ Davids were some of the players that Sono was instrumental in bringing to Orlando Pirates.

The left-footed soccer player died in a car accident in 1964 leaving a legacy of soccer through his family.

His sons, Jomo “Black Prince” Sono and Julius “KK” Sono, continued the family tradition of soccer.

The Sono home has been transformed and is managed by Julius as a business park that seeks to uplift and enable soccer talent within the Orlando community.

“I am following the tradition of my family of dealing and growing the community through the religion of soccer,” he says.

Affectionately known in the community as “KK”, Julius joined Orlando Pirates in the 1980s where he continued to play for five years.

He wears the Orlando Pirates jersey with pride as he walks around the home mowing the lawn and making sure that the Sono name stands firmly on the wall.

IN ACTION: Julius “KK” Sono playing for Orlando Pirates in 1980.

From his room, Sono brings out a collection of black and white photocopies of his family’s history in soccer. “Soccer was very political at the time my father was playing. I don’t remember much, but he had many friends of different races and the authorities did not like it,” he says.

The official Orlando Pirates history says that, “During apartheid, the black majority were withheld from public gatherings in fear of political discussions. Church and soccer were the only way to get together.”

Articles dated between 1963 and 1980 tell a story on their own, mixed with black and white photographs, spread on the glass table in the Sono living room as “KK” describes how fans adored his skills on the field.

“The supporters loved me,” says the 53-year-old. “They used to shout at the coach to put me on the field. I was dangerous because I played with feeling,” he adds, as he points at a picture of himself scoring a goal when he played for his brother’s soccer club, Jomo Cosmos in 1986.

Born and bred in Orlando East, self-employed soccer enthusiast Sizwe Nkosi sells clothes to support his wife and three-year-old son. Nkosi grew up playing township soccer before playing for the under-19 Orlando Pirates team. He recalls how on his wedding day one of his guests made a joke about how he joined the team. “The speaker told the people at my wedding that he met me at Pirates. He told everyone about how they bought me for R250 and they laughed,” he says, laughing.

Nkosi says that he played with Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune when he was younger, but people always question the truth of this because of his age. He stopped playing soccer professionally when his parents refused for him to lie about his age. “My wife did not believe me when I told her. I showed her some pictures but she still doubted. We bumped into Khune at the mall and we spoke, I could see she believed me then,” he says.

Turning his passion for soccer into fandom has given Nkosi the freedom to mentor, coach and host celebratory gatherings at his home. “You know, when you run away from a thing and it follows you, I don’t know if it is passion or what. I still play indoors and train some guys from here,” Nkosi says, as he explains how soccer remains close to his heart.

Nkosi’s contact list has a couple of popular soccer players. During the interview he received several phone calls from local football stars. Apologetically he says, “Everything is soccer. Sometimes I go to the grounds to watch soccer, but I always find myself analysing the game. If I feel that the coach must put a player in, I go behind the bench and I call the coach.”

Nkosi believes that “spirit” from both the players and supporters makes an enjoyable match. He keeps this spirit alive by hosting people at his home for post-match braais. “When I coached a team, and we were leading two nil, I called my wife and told her to take R2000 from my money for meat at the butchery. She told my brother to make the fire. We came back to my house to chill and celebrate after we won the game,” he says.

STAY GROUNDED: Soccer helps to keep children in the Orlando East community off the streets and out of trouble.

The soccer player at heart remains nostalgic for the days when Jomo Somo entertained supporters with “tricks” on the field. “If you watch the old DVDs of Jomo Sono, you’ll see a big difference. There was no money then, but people enjoyed football and the rules. Jomo used to stand on the ball but if a player was to do it now it is a yellow card,” he says.

For Nkosi, local soccer traditions have changed drastically because of the continuous upgrades of soccer rules set by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the international governing body of football.

He adds that he does not have anything against international football, but wants the township culture of soccer, particularly in Orlando to be upheld because it is what the fans want and enjoy. “Skill. Our strength is in the skill. Our players are creative. When a team is good with skills, you can tell by the supporters. Orlando stadium used to be full because Jomo Sono was doing his thing. People came because they wanted to see the skill,” Nkosi says.

Despite the ever-changing rules of football locally and internationally, die-hard fans like Nkosi still flock in numbers to watch their favourite players battle to win the hearts of the supporters. “All people want to do is enjoy the game. If you tell someone Soweto All Stars is playing at four o’clock, the grounds will be full because people know which players are going to play flair and freestyle,” he says.

With hopes to carry the tradition over to his four-year-old son, Nkosi is already grooming him. “I want my boy to play soccer. I guide him. I want him to start at an early age, even now I started telling him not to hold the ball in his hands. I won’t force him to play if he does not want to, but it would make me happy,” he says.

WATER IS LIFE: Orlando Sweepers Football Club players quench their thirst after an intense training session.

From giving up your yard in the name of fandom, to opening your home to celebrate with the community and preserve family tradition, soccer in Orlando East goes beyond the 90 minutes on the soccer field for enthusiasts.

As it remains a religion in Orlando, the loyal supporters make sacrifices by coming together to share the joy whether it is through providing space for rest after a long walk from the clinic, or an internet café to apply for a job, or just a braai after a soccer match.

Giving up something for the love of the game does not take away from supporters, but makes them feel like they belong to a team long after the 90-minute whistle at the end of the match.

FEATURED IMAGE: A football match between two clubs. Photo: Files.


Being Muslim in Soweto

For the Islamic community of Orlando East, living in a community that has misconceptions and suspicions about their choice of religion is an everyday reality.

It is 12:30 midday on the corner of the Mosaka and Mofutsunyana streets in Orlando East, Soweto. Taxis are passing and dropping off commuters on the main road, Mosaka Street.

At the corner of these streets is a three-storey mosque, a modern structure which is noticeable by the minaret with a crescent moon towering over Mosaka Street, which is visible from a distance.

A devout Muslim, Ibrahim, also known as Mpho, who converted to Islam 14 years ago, walks into a small room where a microphone is positioned against a wall. Ibrahim’s voice echoes through the speakers above the mosque as he recites a call for prayer in Arabic.

Minutes after the call, men dressed in ankle-length robes and women dressed in hijabs emerge from the corner of the street. The quietness and the peaceful nature inside the mosque contrasts with the busy main road, the constant traffic of passing cars and pedestrians.

WOMEN OF THE MASJID:The men and women at the Masjid (mosque), have separate prayer rooms known as a musalla. The women are seated on the floor while listening to Imam Zayd giving a teaching through a speaker in the room.

What stands out about this community of Muslims is that they are mostly black township converts who were not born into the religion of Islam. As much as Muslims are recognised members of the community their religion and way of life also makes them stand out in a community of people that share similar identities.

MUSALLA:Prayer at the mosque take place several times a day. The men pray and hold teachings in a wide room on the ground floor and the musalla for women is on the floor above.

The Imam, who is the leader of the mosque, a young black man, draped in a white robe, walks into the room. Imam Zayd, born as Tsholofelo Raymond Mashele.

He positions himself on a stair case that is leaning against the wall, known to the Muslim community as the minbar. In his teaching, he keeps re-iterating “Islam is not a religion. It’s a way of life”. A way of life that is not fully understood by the community on Mosaka and Mofutsunyana Streets.

As Imam Zayd gives his teaching, the congregation is seated on the carpet and listening attentively. In the background, the faded sounds of Kwaito and House music from the neighbouring houses are audible, the congregation oblivious to what could also be a distraction.

Before entering the musalla, members enter a bathroom-like room to perform ablutions, an act of cleansing the body, so that one can present themselves to God, clean and pure. After ablutions the members take off their shoes and place them on a shelf before entering the area.

A GUIDE TO LIFE:  The Orlando East mosque has copies of the Quran in Arabic, English and Indigenous South Africa languages.

A silence fills the room as a young woman wearing an all back niqab, walks into the musulla/praying area. This is Somaya, the wife of the Imam. She greets the other women in the room by saying As-Salamu-Alaykum which means “Peace be upon you”.

In a perfectly carpeted and unadorned room, the women sit in a straight line, leaning against the window as they listen to Imam Zayd give a teaching through the loud speakers in the room.

With a toddler on her lap, Somaya, explains that women are not allowed to be in the main musalla hence they listen to the teachings in a separate room.

She explains that it is a religious requirement for women to pray at the same time as the men but in a different room. “Men and women are not supposed to intermingle. To avoid things like dating because that is not permitted in Islam. Even when we host events, men and women do not sit together.”

As the women kneel on the red carpet facing a large glass window covered in a black-grey curtain, in a large hall below, the men are seen through the glass window, kneeling down with their heads facing the minbar.

The Misconceptions

ISLAMIC UPBRINGING: From left, Zaynab Mashele and Njabulo Sithole playfully paging through the copies of the Quran during the Friday afternoon service.

After the service Imam Zaydsits down on the carpet to talk about his journey as a black Islam convert, “I was born in a Christian home, and I accepted Islam at the age of 16, in grade 11. After matric I went to study at an Islamic institute in Zachariah Park. My responsibility here is to guide Muslims. In Islam as Imams we are more like scholars. If a person needs something they come to me, if they want to get married, they come to me,” Imam Zayd says.

As a Tswana man from Pretoria, Zayd says the challenges that come with being a Muslim convert make the journey “sweeter and nicer”, as one is able to appreciate the journey. “If you look at African culture and Islam, most of the things are the same. In the olden days ladies were not allowed to go to the funeral, in Islam we still do that because they’re not going to help.”

“Islam is easier for black converters than one anyone else,” alluding to the similarities in historical African traditions. “In African culture a women could not leave the house without wearing a head wrap, it’s the same in Islam,” says Imam Zayd.

There are contradictions that come with being a converted Muslim who comes from a different religious and cultural background. Imam Zayd says that he has communicated the contradictions with his Christian family. “When you’re born in a Christian home they bury you in a certain way. In Islam when you pass away, we bury you on that day.

My family knows that if I die today, they must bury me today and they must respect that. You can’t go against the words of the deceased.” Zayd says that although his family initially was not in support of his conversion, they also respect his wishes as a devout Muslim.

Spreading the good word

“The big misconception is that people, black people in the township become Muslims because they will benefit financially and not just to worship God.”

Somaya says, “When people see black Muslims, especially female black Muslims, they always assume that you converted because you’re married to an Indian. When I’m walking at the mall or in town people always stare and ask questions, they’re always shocked then they hear me speak Setswana fluently.” She also says she was born into a Muslim family in Soshanguve however her family did not actively practise the religion, she says she decided to fully practise Islam in 2006.

“In Soshanguve they always knew that I was Muslim but it’s only when I started covering my face with a niqab that people started staring and making remarks,” she says.

“Muslims are not seen as part of the community, in the township. That’s why we’re trying to show people that we are a part of you, we’re South African but we chose a different religion that you don’t understand,” Imam Zayd says.

The Orlando East mosque was completed and opened in 2011 after much contestation from surrounding neighbours who say they were not informed about the establishment of the mosque. Today, the residents are still not aware of what happens inside of the mosque. Some of the residents had interesting observations about what Muslims do in the mosque.

On Mosaka Street, one man standing outside of the ship container tuck shop opposite the mosque, casually says, “Why are you asking about the mosque? Do you want to join them also? None of us know what goes on in there, we just see them coming in and out and we hear the noise from the speakers several times a day.”

The call for prayer happens several times a day, however, the sound of the call is gentle. Imam Zayd says they had to lower the sound of the call to accommodate residents after they had complained several times.

“When we do it loudly, we want to make sure that the Muslims who do not live within the vicinity of the masjid can hear that it is now time for prayer.” Zayd points out that “A person can say I’m not afraid to practise my religion, so I can make it as loud as I want. Why does no one complain when the Christians are ringing the bell?

When abazalwane sing from the tents you can hear them all the way but no one says anything about that. If it’s too loud we’ll turn it down, Islam is a just religion. We don’t do it at night because people are sleeping.”

One of the residents, Tebogo Maloka, says they in the area did not want the mosque to be built however, they lost that battle. “The shop owner was a Muslim and so was his family. So hence it was built there. They initially wanted to buy the three neighbouring houses but the community refused.”

The plot where the mosque is built was originally a gaming store, the owner of the store was Muslim. According to the residents, the game store was a cornerstone of the community because the youth used it as a recreational space where children go to the store to play video games to avoid playing in the busy Mosaka Street.

In 2011, The Star reported that some of the residents within the vicinity of the mosque had signed a petition and wrote letters to the City of Joburg, objecting to the construction of the mosque.

Duma Orphan Kgodisang, a leader in the mosque, said, “It’s not the community that had a problem. It was just a few people. Other residents were influenced by a select few. Why don’t they stop churches – they were just being mischievous. We don’t have a problem with the neighbours. We even park our cars opposite their houses.”

The Muslim community’s efforts to integrate themselves within the Orlando East community are visible through the Mtholampilo Clinic which has become an important player in the community of Orlando East.

The clinic was opened in the mosque to provide affordable healthcare for residents. Sitting outside in his front yard, one of the neighbours, Sibusiso Mafunya, who lives a few houses away from the mosque said, “iClinic iyas’nceda (the clinic helps us), I brought my child there when they had tonsils. We don’t like the mosque because they make noise through the speakers. They have prayer sessions since 4:00 in the morning, it’s like an alarm.”

This is one of the several community outreach efforts that the Orlando East Muslim community is involved in. Kgodisang says the mosque is also involved in a feeding scheme at a primary school in the area as well as doing blanket drives in the winter to assist members of the community who are in need.

After his teaching, Zayd is seated on the carpet of the musalla with his legs crossed, talking about the modest nature of Islam. Two women walk in bringing plates of dry yellow rice mixed with boiled potatoes and mixed vegetables.

Zayd mentions there are no Halaal butcheries in Orlando East and that Muslims in the area travel to places such as Mayfair near the CBD to get Halaal meat.

One of the plans of the Muslim community of Orlando East is to hold a door-to-door open day to spread the teachings of Islam in the area. Imam Zayd says they aim to introduce Islam to the community because people do not know Islam.

“They assume that Islam is an Indian religion. We already had Islam before Indians, specifically in Northern Africa. Christianity came to South Africa because of the Dutch and English,” he says.

After the service the women, make small talk in Setswana and isiXhosa with one another as they move out of the musalla to put on their shoes which are carefully placed on a wooden shoe shelf. Exiting the tranquil environment of the mosque, the Muslims of Orlando East return to the sound of taxis and children laughing on their way back from school.

For the Muslim community of Orlando East, outside of the spiritual calmness of the mosque, this is where they, too, are at home and where they belong. They are much as part of this community of Orlando East as everyone else.

FEATURED IMAGE: The men and women at the Masjid (mosque), have separate prayer rooms known as a musalla. The women are seated on the floor while listening to Imam Zayd giving a teaching through a speaker in the room.


Soweto’s oldest mosque: A place of solace and suspicion

The mosque on 58 Beacon Road in Kliptown claims to be Soweto’s oldest mosque. 

It is midday on a Friday and the maulana (Muslim religious scholar) issues a wailing call to prayer from Kliptown Masjid. Devoted Muslim brothers come from all around Soweto – Kliptown, Eldorado Park, Dlamini, Pimville, Phiri – to give praise to Allah in this house of worship that lays claim to being the oldest mosque in Soweto.

A WEALTH OF WISDOM: Rashid James the longest serving congregant at the mosque.

Located on number 58 Beacon Road Kliptown, the mosque has been in this very spot since 1940.

“However, even with such a long history in the area, the Muslim religion still faces serious hostility from community members,” says Rashad James a frail looking 60-year-old man who has been attending mosque in this building since 1963.

This may not come as much of a surprise since Soweto, like most of South Africa, is predominantly Christian. However, Kliptown in particular is inhabited by mostly migrants who themselves have relocated from other provinces.

Yet “they still see Islamic people who have been worshiping at this mosque longer than some of them have been in the area as foreigners, taking no regarding of how the mosque has been and continues to be a place of solace for many migrants in the community” this according to some congregants at the mosque.

Allah-hu-Akbar (Allah is great)”, repeats the maulana five times. At the sound of the first call James stops mid-sentence and rushes back into the mosque from a bench he had been sitting on that leans against the front of the mosque.

There are two entrances to this weathered house of worship, both positioned symmetrically in front of the building.

The 1.90 meter tall, lean built James with a bushy grey beard dashes for the entrance closest to where he had been sitting – his shoes are already off and left side by side at the entrance of the mosque.

Here, dozens more shoes are lined up awaiting their owners who have gone into the mosque to worship. His right foot goes in first, then his left. He had earlier explained that this is a sign of respect for “Allah’s house” in reference to the mosque.

Aesthetically the mosque epitomises the old-fashioned architecture of early Kliptown. One could mistake it for any one of the original houses built in the Kliptown area in 1903 subsequent to the township having been laid out in 1891.

The area is located on a portion of the Klipspruit farm, named after the klipspruit (rocky stream) that runs through it. Actually, “The mosque operates from the same building structure which was a house owned by a Jewish family built in 1903. It was given to Muslim worshippers in 1940 by the owner when he left the Kliptown area,” James had earlier explained.

There are two features that set it apart from the other original houses that haven’t been refurbished since their construction.

These features are the mosque’s green minaret (dome) which has a crescent moon and star on top as well as a distinctive three meter tall pole with two microphones attached to it situated in front of this house of worship.

Passers-by cast curious glances at the mosque as those coming to perform sallah (offer prayers to Allah) continue to pour in. They are either fascinated by the maulana’s loud call to worship resonating from the loudspeakers or the distinctive regalia donned by these faithful.

Taqiyah (rounded skullcap) and thobe (an ankle-length garment, usually with long sleeves, similar to a robe) are what most of these Muslim men are dressed in.

Another possibility is that the passers-by are captivated by the unfamiliar greetings of “As-salamu alaikum wa-rahmatullahi wa-barakatuh” (May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you)”, met by the response “wa-alaikum-salaam wa-rahmatullahi wa-barakatuh” (and upon you be peace, mercy and blessings of Allah).

Their shoes tell a story

As the mosque fills up with devotees coming to worship, what they leave behind gives an account of who attends Friday prayers.

They all follow the Muslim practise of leaving their shoes outside the mosque as a sign of respect for the “…holy house.

Even in the Christian bible, when Moses came across the burning bush, the command he got was for him to remove his sandals as a sign of respect,” explained James.

The majority of footwear left behind is made up of formal shoes and sandals – clearly belonging to the older men who are no longer chasing after trends.

In the midst of this not so stylish apparel, there are jaw dropping kicks that range from labels such as Puma, Nike, Adidas, and Jordans clearly belonging to the more youthful Muslim boys.

Some of the shoes are dusty, the owners have most probably walked from far to come and give prayers.

There are no feminine shoes left outside so one can tell that Friday prayers are mostly attended by men.

“A typical mosque has a section for males and one for females but because we are still using the same building structure build so many years ago, our particular mosque does not have these separate sections hence women worship from home,” said James.

Formal shoes and sandals: A wealth of history

The shoes confirm what James had told me earlier, “The majority of worshipers are older Muslim men some of whom bring their sons along.”

“The Muslim religion in Kliptown is almost as old as the township itself since people from Cape Malayan decent most of whom are Muslim settled in the area as far back as the township itself was started,” said a reminiscent James.

Explaining how he had come to be a regular at this mosque James said, “I am of Cape Malayan decent. My great grandfather was from Indonesia and later brought to Cape Town as a slave to come and work in the vineyards. He maintained his Muslim religion regardless of his Dutch master’s attempts at converting him to Christianity.”

“My father then later moved to Johannesburg in search for work and still maintained the Muslim religion taught to him by his father,” added James.

James’ account challenges most historic accounts on Soweto. Scholars such as Ebrahim Fakude in his academic paper Muslims in the Townships of South Africa claims that “Islam in the townships emerged in the late 1970s and Muslim pioneers in the townships came from Malawi and Mozambique.”

These misconceptions that Islam in the townships emerged in the 1970s may be drawn from the fact that the Soweto Muslim Association was only established in 1978. This association was founded by Sayed Ali Zhange, Adam Ali Koko, Walid Ndebele, Muhammed Ali Mvelani, Faizel Morris, Babu Magudielo, Babu Chauke and Haroon Mbombi.

Another reason why people believe that the Muslim religion emerged in the 1970s as Fakude explains is the idea that since the riots in 1976 many Sowetans started moving from South Africa to the neighbouring African countries, where most of them converted to Islam and brought this religion back with them to the townships.”

The caretaker of the mosque, an enthusiastic Issa Hashim, however, agrees with Fakude. “From the fifties to the seventies there was an influx of foreign nationals especially from Malawi, Angola and Mozambique coming to worship with us at the mosque,” he said.

As the processions in the mosque comes to an end, the congregants start pouring out and each stops at the spot where they left their shoes and puts them on. The old James is one of the first to appear, he standout in his all white taqiyah and thobe and distinctive white woollen glove on his left hand. He joins me back on the bench leaning against the front of the mosque.

Directly in front of the bench are a pair of dusty formal shoes, the owner has a wide smile ready as he approaches, “As-salamu alaikum,” he says to James. “Wa-alaikum-salaam,” James responds. He casts a glance at me and I utter the foreign greeting at him “As-salamu alaikum”, and he responds with an unfamiliar “Wa-alaik.” James is quick to explain, “wa-alaik is the fitting response to a non-Muslim, don’t be surprised.”

Dusty shoes as embodying migration

As he turns his attention towards putting his dusty shoes on, he introduces himself in a very strong foreign accent, “My name is Ibrahim.”

He then goes on to explain how he is an asylum seeker from Uganda who was forced to leave his country of birth due to political persecution in 2002. “I started coming to this mosque in 2005. I was accepted with open arms by fellow Muslims who worship at the mosque but it’s not always the case with the larger Kliptown community,” says Ibrahim who avoids eye contact like it’s a plague.

Like most townships, Kliptown has had its fair share of xenophobic violence. Ibrahim attests to this, although no physical harm has befallen him, the emotional strain of seeing other brothers being victimised and their shops physically broken into or even torched takes its toll on him. “The mosque has been a place of solace, were I can come to offer prayers and have peace even while I go through life’s numerous storms,” says Ibrahim.

A somber James adds, “Our religion is still seen as an Asian religion, particularly an Indian religion by most community members hence the reason why we are seen as foreigners in our own land. This is baffling especially within a place like Kliptown. Kliptown is made up of people that are all not from here, most residents migrate from other provinces in search of opportunities in Johannesburg, one would expect such a diverse collection of people to then be more understanding of other people’s plight.”

Earlier, a talkative Elsie Peters, who is a resident living two houses from the mosque on 60 Beacon Road expressed her views on the religion when she said, “This religion is really not a South African thing, our people [South Africans] only join Muslim churches for money. They see these Indian people who are the original Muslims give back so much to the community then they join the church so that they are in close proximity to being aided by them.”

IN COMMEMORATION: A plaque in recognition of the mosque’s long existence.

Last year, at a function hosted by the Soweto Muslim Shura Council (SMSC) at the Protea South Hall to honour luminaries that have contributed to the growth of Islam in the Soweto Community, founding members of the Soweto Muslim Association Sayed Ali Zhange and Walid Ndebele both black Muslims who converted in the 1970s to Islam confessed to also being of the notion that Islam was an “India religion” before they saw “the light”. Fakude explains how a majority of black South African from the fifties to the seventies converted to Islam as a way of going against the “Christian rooted apartheid government.”

Ibrahim explained that, “Stereotypes that Islam is an Indian religion or that it is only foreign nationals that practice it is due to lack of knowledge.” In order to educate the community, the mosque holds madrassa [the teaching of Muslim tradition] usually targeted at young children in the community who wish to learn more about the religion said Hashim.

“As congregants, there has been a plan to demolish this old building in order to rebuild a mosque that will be able to accommodate the growing numbers of people that attend.

However, since this building is the oldest mosque in Soweto, it has been designated as a historic site making the rebuilding almost impossible,” explained Hashim who has now managed to wiggle some space on the bench next to James.

From his sit next to James, the caretaker explains that the real problem is the fact that some residents have occupied land that belongs to the church, “The shacks that you see at the back of the mosque are on land that belongs to the mosque hence they are hindering the demolition and expanding plan that we have.”

According to the city council the expansion may only take place when the shack dwellers have been relocated to RDPs.

A shack dweller directly behind the mosque David Mathebula who moved to Kliptown in 2013 said, “Black people are the rightful owners of this land and yet we have to stay in such horrible conditions while these foreigners [referring to Muslims from the Kliptown mosque] possess all this space as well as own all the shops in the Kliptown area.”

“Besides, if they [Muslim worshippers] are allowed to build a bigger mosque, it will attract more foreigners to our community as most Muslims are not form South Africa,” added Mathebula.

However, all three Muslim men agree that the problem is not their religion, “The issue is the scapegoating of the mosque and those that worship in it as an attempt at finding solutions for this community that has been so neglected by government.

If the government fulfils its duty of providing housing and sanitation to the community, then the mosque would have its land back and would be able to rebuild and continue teaching Muslim tradition to young community members and assisting foreign nationals affected by xenophobia,” said James.

The maulana is the last to exit the house of worship, as he walks but the three men also stand and finish putting on their shoes, “Wadaeaan (goodbye),” they say and head their separate ways.

FEATURED IMAGE: Soweto’s oldest mosque. Photo: Junior Khumalo.


Restoring the spirit of a village

The Credo Mutwa Cultural Village is a site of importance for African beliefs, spiritualities and traditions. Rich in African aesthetics, it is tucked away in the middle of Soweto, in Jabavu, in stark contrast with the eventful, urban and modernised township lifestyle.

The sound of crickets and chirping birds, and the swaying of tree branches in the gentle breeze is magnified in the tranquil and serene setting of the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village. Secluded in the woods of the Oppenheimer Gardens historic park, the village seems to be a world away from Soweto, which is only steps away.

The sculptures, so robustly representative of the heritage of the Zulu, Sotho, Ndebele and Arab people among others, are all supersized. The village is also a holy grail for traditional healers because of its greenery consisting of indigenous plants which are used for healing and other traditional purposes.

“ALL LIARS, FOOLS, SKEPTICS AND ATHEISTS MUST PLEASE KEEP OUT!” These are the words on the village entrance’s welcome board, undoubtedly capturing the attention of many visitors. The signage, in black and red bold hand lettering, further cautions that a curse lasting seven years may be cast upon any visitors who destroy any part of the place.

KWA-KHAYALENDABA: Sculptures in the storytelling arena of the village. Photo: Ntando Thukwana.

“There are a lot of people who are skeptical of the village,” says the well-spoken man who spends most of his days at the village. The 35-year-old says he was only six when he paid his first visit to the village, and, since then, it has been a place of solace where he also undertakes some of his spiritual and traditional rituals.

“My name is Mojalefa Njase”, he says, and, adding in emphasis, “wa ha Mofokeng (a child to the Mofokengs).” Njase is his mother’s surname, while Mofokeng is his father’s. He says that according to the BaSotho people, if your parents were never married, you use both your parents’ surnames to symbolise that, ultimately, you are an heir to your father’s family.

Njase wa ha Mofokeng says the sculptures’ eerie and strange qualities create unease in some visitors. Not surprisingly, since some are triple headed and others have skulls on strange parts of the body.

Ntate Mutwa (Mr Mutwa) did not create the sculptures to be worshiped, but some people twist it and think that the people who are living here are worshiping the sculptures, because we refer to them as Modimo mme, Modimo ntate, Modimo morwa and Modimo moya o halalelang (God the mother, God the father, God the son and God the holy spirit). The truth about them is that he wanted us to keep our heritage so that we could pass it on and remind ourselves constantly that this is where we come from,” Njase wa ha Mofokeng says.

Siza Mpye (48) a Christian woman and first time visitor, was not moved by the caution at the entrance warning about the curse. “I am not superstitious,” she shrugged.

However, she was not convinced by another quotation at the village: “A woman is equivalent to God whereby she’s given the honour as God the mother.” Her response was that, “As a Christian, I’m hearing this for the first time and it doesn’t make sense. I don’t dispute that women are powerful leaders and deserve all the respect.”

NDUMBA: A traditional medical clinic in the cultural village. Photo: Ntando Thukwana

In 1974, traditional healer, author and artist, Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa, was given a piece of land with which he created the cultural village, erecting sculptures and homesteads of different African tribes to demonstrate and teach people how different tribes in Africa lived.

The Village was built for the purposes of preserving traditional beliefs of African people in a society that was fast developing towards western beliefs.

During a time of political unrest in the apartheid era, Mutwa is said to have been misquoted by an Afrikaans publication, and this led to student protesters burning the village down. According to the current village dwellers, he was misquoted as having said that the apartheid government should send armies to attack students rioting at the time.

Njase wa ha Mofokeng, who describes himself as a “cosmopolitan man”, says he received his calling three years ago and has still not accepted it, citing the difficulties that come with practising as a young traditional healer.

“As an individual that grew in this cosmopolitan life, it’s not something that one would like to follow and just leave your life behind,” he says.

Mutwa’s renouncement of Christianity in favour of African beliefs was met with a lot of controversy and many believed that he dabbled in witchcraft because of his boldness and unapologetic stance on African beliefs and traditions.

He is said to have predicted the September 11, 2001 Twin Towers catastrophe by way of a painting that hangs in the village’s Green Room that is signed “1979”, long before the crash.

Another claim that has been met with a lot of controversy is that he predicted the HIV/Aids pandemic, and that this is represented in his village in sculpture form.

A phase of neglect

ructures, such as the KwaDukuza Village which is representative of Zulu people’s huts, have been newly thatched.

Before 2008, the entire village had been under maintained resulting in it being crime infested and a danger to surrounding locals.

Lebo Sello (42), a prophet and the site manager of the cultural village, who speaks of Credo Mutwa and the village with the greatest admiration, has been using the village as his sacred sanctuary for almost 10 years.

Sello started making the village his home in 2008 when it was being misused and abused by locals. In him was a desperate need to restore the legacy of Madala (sir) Credo, as he fondly calls him, and much like Mutwa, to continue spreading teachings about African ways of living, especially for the people of Soweto.

SAVING GRACE: Site manager Lebo Sello
keeps bad elements out of the village.

Noma yini bhoza yami, woza (Anything my boss, come),” he says in mimicry of the troublesome young men addicted to nyaope that he constantly has to keep out the site.

“The village was not being used the way it was supposed to be used,” Sello says. “It was destroyed, e nne eli pleke ya di tsotsi. Batho ba tsuba di drugs, ba e fetotse brothel (It was a place for criminals. People used drugs here and turned it into a brothel).”

Sello seemingly possesses a sixth sense that is able to notice even the slightest of movements in the village. He looks over my shoulder and with a squint of the eye, looking into the distance, he spots a pedestrian coming from the end of the village attempting to use it as a shortcut to his journey. “Hey, kgotlela moo otswang teng! (Hey, go back where you came from!) That is not the entrance,” he shouts.

Sello says they have to deal with such challenges daily. “I had to fight first by cleaning out the drug users and the gents who chilled here. I started fighting those that turned this place into a brothel. Even though it’s still happening, it’s happening on a very small scale,” he says, gesticulating with index finger and thumb in front of his face. “So, public indecency, those are the challenges we still have,” a weary Sello says.

Makhosi Jabulani Sibanyoni (52), a traditional healer who has been practicing for 34 years, uses the village not only for his personal spiritual betterment but as a graduation space for his trainees and as a place of teaching for his sangoma initiates as well.

He is the founder of the South African Traditional Medicines Training programme and a member of the Gauteng Traditional and Faith Medical Practitioners.

Sibanyoni attributes the neglect and damage of the village to the student riots that took place in 1976. “After the ’76 riots a lot of negative things happened which we are still trying to get rid of, hence there’s renovations,” he says. “We’re trying to revive the spirit of this place. A lot of wrong has been happening because of the neglect.”

Although the process of cleaning out the wrongdoing started in 2008, renovations to the village started early in 2017 and were expected to finish in December.

The village’s restoration is administered using funds from donations made mostly by visiting tourists.

The heritage site, as declared by Joburg City, is more than just an attraction for the amusement of tourists. The village has a constant bustle of traditional healers looking to pick traditional plants for their medicinal practices as well as Soweto residents needing to find a noiseless space to connect with their ancestors.

The village has been used by the locals to perform cleansing rituals away from their busy lives at home.

Sibanyoni describes his divine discovery of the village saying a dream led him to it in 1989. “I dreamt of this place and then I came just for a visit and I saw the village and started frequenting it. Ngize ngizo phahla (I’d come to appease my ancestors) and connect with the spirits.

Plants used for traditional healing: Intelezi or skanama is used for cleansing three months after the death of a family member.

Then I stopped coming here for quite a long time until 2014. What brought me back here was wanting something that could connect amathwasa (sangoma initiates). We needed a place that would take us back to tradition,” adds Sibanyoni.

Contrasting the current state of the village to how it was before it became rundown, Sibanyoni says, “It was still very tidy, very neat, very very sacred. When you came here as a lady you wouldn’t come here dressed in trousers and without a head wrap.

A guy wouldn’t come here in shorts. Your appearance would be respectful. That was a basic law of this place and you would connect with your ancestors, from the village’s entry point, you’d feel a sense of connection,” he says proudly.

Njase wa ha Mofokeng says his mother was a traditional healer who used to frequent the village for her own spiritual practices. The village to him, extends to more than just a sacred space for centering his spirit and mind, it is an important part of his relationship with his mother. Here, as a young man, he watched very closely her practices.

“My mum was a traditional healer. The mother to my mum was a traditional healer. I knew that they came here and did some rituals,” he says as he reminisces about her.

“When I had my down times and my high times, I spent time here. To revive my soul and spirit. One of the reasons that made me love and be interested in this place was my mum. Mme waka natla mo a dula a tlo pahla a tlo batla moreana (My mum used to come here to appease her ancestors and to look for medicine).

The whole Credo Mutwa Village has indigenous plants,” Njase wa ha Mofokeng says.

This aloe variant is used to flush out toxins in the blood.

Despite the lengthy process of the renovations, this village continues to be a significant part of the lives of the likes of Sello, Njase wa ha Mofokeng and Makhosi Sibanyoni who come from different walks of life in the excessively busy Soweto township.

Since Sello’s attempts at the village’s restoration, the village welcomes members from the Soweto community to join in on the Shamanic drumming sessions held each Friday as well as the celebration of annual rituals welcoming the four different African seasons.

“This place helps me to connect with my inner being, that’s why it’s so very important to me. My favourite teaching is when they speak about the importance of a woman in this world. It brings me back to who I am and where I come from,” Sello says.

Sello truly is the hope of the village. If he had the chance to have the world in one place at the same time, he’d tell them, “Idlozi likhona, liyaphila (Ancestors are real), they are not demons,” he says.

FEATURED IMAGE: Huts at the Credo Mutwa Village. Photo: Ntando Thukwana.


Lifting the lid on silence

Local organization hopes to deal with the criminal activities faced by Soweto’s Orlando East. Young men such as Sibusiso Sithole intend to bring the change needed by the township through activism.

There is no crime in Orlando East. Tina Bhengu is emphatic.  No serious crime, she says. An hour-and-a-half later, it will become evident that she had been referring to visible crime, the kind that is easily identifiable through visible scars and broken property, unlike the crime behind closed doors which she goes on to describe.

The only people giving the community a hard time are the young men, many in their late teens and early 20s. “I don’t know what substances they are smoking, marijuana or whatever. Last week or two weeks ago, I had to start locking my gate because I found them inside my yard. Many of them are already in jail but many of them still come back and do the same things,” Bhengu says.

It is young men such as these that Sibusiso Sithole, the community programme manager at Isizinda Sempilosays the organisation is hoping to target through its workshops to deal with the gender-based violence (GBV) in Soweto.

It is a cold, grey Saturday in Orlando East, in a small, cramped living room of a house along Adams Street. Bhengu recounts an experience with an uncle who made sexual advances towards her and nearly molested her on multiple occasions during her teenage years in Spruitview.

Bhengu is a short lady with a firm voice and set facial expression that gives away very little, but is occasionally broken by a smile. She is a mother of one, and a grandmother of four, living in a small, dark house, in contrast to the many brightly coloured ones along Adams Street. Inside, the bright orange sofas and Bhengu’s four-year-old granddaughter liven the room as she plays loudly with everything in her sight and throws occasional tantrums that earn her a scolding from her grandmother.

“He would always ask the children – me and my cousins – to come and sit on his lap,” she says of her uncle. “He would even invite us alone to his house and I would never go because I did not trust him and I told my cousins not to go either.” She pauses briefly, sighs and expresses, regretfully, that she cannot reveal her uncle’s identity since he holds a prominent position in the society.

This uncle, she says, had raped his own children too. He continues to walk free because the family, including his wife, who are aware of this, do not want the negative attention that reporting his crimes would bring to them. Besides, his power and influence that extend to the police and courts in Orlando have made him untouchable.

END OF THE ROAD: Brothers for Life mobilises men nationally to contribute towards the eradication of gender-based violence.

The precinct of the square is buzzing with market vendors and hawkers braving the blistering heat, the consistent noise of taxis and pedestrians all bringing it to life. A railway separates this colossal site and the squatter camp on the other side, both appealing for distinct reasons to the tourists.

At the centre of the square is its most important feature, an enclosure with an opening at the top giving room for the sun to peak through and onto the engraved display of the Freedom Charter.

The organisation runs two major programmes dealing with GBV – Priority and Prevention as well as the Gender Norms programme. Sithole explains that, “The teams go out into communities and run these two-hour sessions and talk about the impact of gender-based violence.

They refer those who have been abused and need help. The second one, the gender norms programme, but the difference is that they come for two-hour sessions for ten consecutive days. They will sit down and face their own fears and then talk about them and then be referred to other psycho-social and other programmes.”

The target of these workshops are young men such as those that can be found playing soccer outside Bhengu’s house in Orlando East at 12pm on a week day.

They are held daily in Ward 31 Orlando East, are often found through word of mouth and the ground efforts of employees at the organisations. “The teams target organised groups. For instance, they will go to your churches and malls. Other times they would walk up to groups of young men sitting around playing dice and convince them to stop and attend a two-hour session.

Soweto, along with other socially and demographically similar areas of Johannesburg including Alexandra have been specially selected by the organisation for the roll out of its programmes.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary funder of the organisation, chose these areas based on research they conducted around the country which identified them as areas in the most need of assistance.

The South African government provides some structural support. While GBV and violence against children are endemic in South Africa and not unique to Soweto and similar areas, they have additional socio-economic challenges including youth unemployment.

The most recent national annual report 2015/16 released by the South African Police Services (SAPS) recorded 33 613 arrests for sexual offences, an increase of 1 649 from 2014/15. The arrests for gender-based harm were 159 390, a decline of 1 268 from the previous year.

The police report goes on to outline four strategies to deal with the underreporting of crimes against women.

Among them are “Involvement of the community via community structures such as the CPFs and law enforcement agencies/force multipliers such as reservists, traffic police, etc. to join SAPS on patrols and to engage with communities to address contact crimes in households (domestic violence, rape etc.); conducting awareness programmes, encourage reporting by community.”

Nthati Phalatsi, a counsellor at a trauma centre, says that most of the victims that they encounter are children. In October 2017, an Orlando East school, a few minutes away from the Orlando East police station, was at the centre of national concern after allegations of sexual assault were made by over 80 pupils against a patroller at the school.

The man was arrested and charged with multiple counts of rape and sexual abuse. The trial which was due to start on November 1 was postponed till the end of November for further investigations.

Most of these are brought by concerned community members. In some cases, the children come on their own. Phalatsi was a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 15 at the hands of a stranger at a cousin’s house.

Years later as an adult, she would be subjected to physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend and father of her eight-year-old son.

“I was beaten when I was pregnant. I was one month pregnant then and I thought that after that he would stop. I never laid charges against him.”

She goes on to provide a harrowing account of her ordeal with the calm and resignation of someone who has made some kind of peace with her past. She never thought to lay any charges against him.

She did not consider that a viable option despite being encouraged to do so at the hospital. “Now I’m able to tell people, ‘Why don’t you?’ because I’ve been there.”

The underreporting of crimes, Makhaya says, has also been one of the biggest hurdles to their work. “There is a feeling that nothing gets done and therefore people do not report and get the help they need,” he says.

He reveals that many victims of abuse that attend their programmes do not receive the necessary help they need after the workshops because they do not feel comfortable talking to professionals.

The organisation does not provide professional help for GBV. They recommend suitable candidates to the relevant professionals that some will forfeit.

The courts are where the final barriers to prosecution of these crimes lie, with many of the cases withdrawn before and during trial. In 2012/13, only 19 549 of the 92 161 reported domestic violence and GBV cases that were opened went to trial.

In 2013, parliament released its report on the ‘Statistics and figures relating to Violence Against Women in South Africa’ and identified the challenges to accessing statistics on violence against women.

“Statistics are almost impossible to access because domestic violence itself is not in itself a crime category.”

While the law requires station commanders, under the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 to keep a special record of incidents in the Domestic Violence Register, this is not consistent across police stations. The register reports of each station are not accessible and not referenced in the national police statistics.

Bhengu reflects on the most personal witness of the human effects of a failure to report cases of abuse. Late last year, a friend confided in her about years of rape that she had been subjected to since childhood and throughout her teenage years that she had never reported and never confronted.

“One day she told me ‘I was molested me and raped at a time when I was still a baby.’ She said that this had been haunting her for years and she finally had to tell someone. I cried when she told me. She was my friend and an old woman like me, can you imagine?” Bhengu says as she tearfully reflects.

At the heart of Bhengu’s descriptions of the perpetrators is the common thread by which they are tied – “ordinary”. Ordinary or as Bhengu refers to them, “mediocre men from middle class families”.

“When this rape started, all the people who were doing it were mediocre men, people who were educated!” she says, almost in disbelief. Common, unexceptional, regular men. Fathers, uncles, teachers.

Men with no known criminal past for which they would stand out. Men who are aware of the advantage they had, that they were trusted. “This thing is so difficult because even real fathers do it. We have to be careful.”

However, she says, working mothers, by no fault of their own, cannot always keep track of and notice unusual behaviour in their spouses and children. She remembers a case that she dealt with during her time as a trauma counsellor when a child had been referred by a teacher on suspicion of some form of abuse.

This was not unusual. She had to explain to the child’s mother, an alcoholic reeking of brandy that morning that her husband had been responsible for abusing her child. The woman was initially in denial but gradually put the pieces together, breaking down in tears.

For Sithole, it was concerning that there were “not enough men’s programmes and information targeted towards men” in these communities. While that has improved in the years since he joined the organisation, he does not believe that nearly enough has been done to address the issue.

Like the people at Isizinda Sempilo and Phalatsi, Bhengu believes that it is crucial to have people in the community talking openly.

She believes that family and societal secrecy as well as the failure to effectively address the behaviour of young boys, are what have allowed this violence against women and children to continue in Soweto. She believes that many families are complicit. Often, she says, families prefer to keep these cases behind closed doors.

“In most cases here, if a child gets raped, they call it a family affair. The elders will get together and demand money from the man to keep quiet about the cases,” Bhengu says.

“They never used to talk about it but we have to. It has to get better”.

FEATURED IMAGE: Community members fight against high crime rates in the city. Photo: Files.


The ABCs of building a brighter future

The youth of the small community of Kliptown, in Soweto, face many issues in their daily lives. These include substance abuse, lack of basic facilities and rampant crime. Despite this, however, there are centres all around the area that aim to assist these youths in building better lives and securing brighter futures.

Walter Sisulu Square, a monument designed to mark the creation of the Freedom Charter and South Africa’s movement to democracy, stands proudly in the centre of Soweto’s Kliptown district. Small groups of children shuffle restlessly across the monuments’ vast courtyard, on their way home from school, passing droves of tourists snapping pictures in the shade of the Soweto Hotel.

They chatter among each other as they hop between the train tracks that separate the dream-like opulence of the hotel, at the edge of the square, and the reality of their lives in the tiny zinc houses of the region of Kliptown known as Emva Kwe Sporo, meaning the place behind the railway.

Despite the shine on their school shoes and the smiles on their faces, this is a reality that is rife with substance abuse, crime, violence and significant school drop-out rates, explains Faith Dhlodhlo, a social worker at the Kliptown Academic Citizenship and Economic Development Centre.

“I don’t know whether the area doesn’t have enough recreational facilities, or something, but mostly the youth are finding themselves in these situations because they lack employment, or they leave school early and then they are unemployable,” she says.

TRYING TIMES: The people of Kliptown live in impoverished conditions, despite the promise of rights such as education and sanitation being enshrined in the Freedom Charter.

This despairing tale of a community filled with forgotten children is, however, anything but the Kliptown narrative. Centres and programmes that attempt to help youths refrain from engaging in criminal activities, by providing them with positive alternatives, are dotted throughout the area.

This is a community that embodies resilience and determination to secure a brighter future for the youth.

Regarded as the oldest township in the Johannesburg region, Kliptown was initially established in 1903. The Freedom Charter was, thereafter, signed in the area in 1955. Today, however, Kliptown is a far cry from the rights outlined in the document.

The living conditions, which lack rights ranging from housing and electricity to running water, provide for a visual which would make the signatories of the charter tremble with anger.

The heat of an African summer afternoon continues to beat down relentlessly, blurring the tiny shacks that sprawl out into the distance. Packed as tightly as cans on a shelf, these make-shift homes yield only to narrow dirt streets.

“Kliptown is largely an informal settlement and in that type of scenario, the unemployment rate is very high,” explains Dave Shuba, the overall chairperson of the Greater Kliptown Community Policing Forum.

“I don’t know how many government officials came to this area, we’ve engaged with so many people. I don’t know how many presidents came here and we spoke to them, but nothing’s changed,” he continues with a look of sadness clouding his face.

Shuba works to educate the community and aid the Kliptown police in fighting crime. He explains that his organisation deals with youths, as young as 16, who become involved in crimes such as theft and substance abuse.

“It’s purely because the community is on a poverty bend. It’s a survival type of crime,” he shrugs.

Dhlodhlo, whose work revolves mostly around youths that are in conflict with the law, is often confronted with first-time offenders being provided a second chance by the courts.

She has seen the effects of the poverty in the area first-hand in her work with young adults, who speak of their beginnings in substance abuse from “very tender ages like 12 and 13. It’s disturbing because it’s like a norm, everybody has to either drink or drug,” she explains.

According to Dhlodhlo, community and youth centres in the area play an integral role in ensuring that youths are kept occupied and away from crime, because Kliptown contains very few recreational facilities like parks and playgrounds.

“Most of the things that they do, like if they do crime, it’s when they are bored. When they do drugs, it’s also boredom at most times. When they are busy, they don’t have time for that stuff, so it does help,” she explains.

Feeding hungry mouths and nurturing hungry minds

The afternoon begins to cool in Emva Kwe Sporo, as the clock approaches 2:30pm. Small clouds of dust rise from the dirt as the school-uniform-clad children take turns to jump, dodging the small rivers of dirty water that trickle down Station Road.

Their pace quickens as they approach the white-washed walls of the Kliptown Youth Programme (KYP), the smell of fresh pap and chicken wafting out of the centres’ kitchen and drawing them in.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Kliptown Youth Programme provides members with two meals a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The promise of an afternoon meal has drawn the now 460-strong membership of the KYP to the centre, since its establishment on May 27, 2007.

For many school-going youths the centre forms the axis of their lives by providing access to homework assistance, sports and cultural activities and daily meals.

“Food should not be a privilege, it should be a right. Unfortunately, not every family in our community have food for their children every time, so we had to introduce the programme,” explains KYP executive director, Thulani Madondo, who has won many humanitarian awards for his work at KYP, including the CNN Top 10 Heroes award in 2012.

Catering to any person who is still enrolled in school, regardless of age, the centre is often flooded with people by 3pm. This is a time characterised by the faint sounds of spoons scaping against plates, trying to capture that last grain of rice.

The quadrangle of the programme, filled with colours and laughing children, lies in stark contrast to the destitute surroundings of the centre. A faded mural at the entrance to the kitchen that perfectly epitomises the aim of the programme, even ten years after its initial creation, reads: “Inspiring positive change.”

According to Madondo, who was born and raised in the Emva Kwe Sporo region, “We started the programme because we wanted to be the generation that breaks the poverty cycle in our community. The main purpose of our organisation is to see young people become the architects of their own exit strategy from this type of environment.”

Seventeen-year-old Buntu Kalipa, who aspires to be a commercial pilot, has spent more than half of his life as a member of the programme and is also currently involved in the centre’s gumboot dancing team.

“Being at KYP for nine years, it is home for me. If something happens, my mom asks if I was at KYP and then she contacts them because she knows when I am here I am safe.

“KYP is like my guardian parents. If my parents aren’t here, they are like my parents and they look out for us. I have been in the experience where my ex-friends wanted me to join drugs and drinking every week. To get out of that space was hard, but KYP was there for me,” he explains with a tiny smile brightening his eyes.

The centre is funded by multiple organisations, such as the KFC Add Hope campaign, KitKat Cash & Carry and The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. Madondo and his co-founder, Thanduxolo Bezana, plan to secure further private and corporate funding so that the centre can continue to develop and refine the available programmes.

Small bodies, big dreams

Nine hundred and fifty meters away from the KYP, in the Tamatievlei area of Kliptown, stands yet another testament to the community’s dedication to improving the prospects of the youth.

The Mighty Evolution Kids daycare centre, which was established on January 13, 2016, aims to cater to children who are not yet enrolled in school. The small corridor of three classrooms that make up the centre is characterised by the cheerful and ever-present day care principal, Candice Madondo.

Madondo, much like her namesake at KYP to whom she is not related, exhibits an unbridled passion for the children in her care.

“It’s not difficult for children to get involved in crime, because there’s so many things that they see happening around. There’s burglaries, there’s fights that they see happening outside, so we need to make sure that we block off all of that. An early childhood development centre is foundation phase. I believe if the foundation is set right here, the child goes to school and they get a positive mindset,” she says as she organises a mess of papers in preparation for the centre’s December graduation ceremony.

MOTHERLY LOVE: Candice Madondo, the principal of Mighty Evolution Kids, believes that love and positive reinforcement can change a child’s life.

The daughter of a local pastor, Madondo, describes the centre as her form of ministering to the community and plans to expand the daycare to include after-school programmes and facilities, such as a toy library.

“We do have centres such as Khayalethu, PUSH [Persevere Until Something Happens] and the Kliptown Youth Programme, but for our children in this area it’s too far for them to go to those centres. I don’t want to open a centre like those and compete with anybody, but I’d like to have people who assist children with homework. It will also create employment for young girls who are at home struggling to get work,” she says.

The daycare has no full-time sponsor and continues to struggle financially, however, donations from private companies and individuals have ensured that Madondo is able to realise her dream of growing the centre. This is evident in the creation of a small soccer and recreational field, which is underway in an area directly outside the centre.

Madondo is also using this project as a means of assisting older youths in the broader Tamatievlei community, by providing former criminals and addicts with employment.

Twenty-seven-year-old Marco Harrington, a former drug addict and gang member who is assisting Madondo, believes that this work ensures these youths do not have to become reinvolved in crime, so as to support themselves and their families.

According to Harrington, the day care also “helps keeps them [children] out of trouble. They don’t see things that they not supposed to see, because if you grow up seeing things you aren’t supposed to see, you end up doing them. I’m talking from experience.”

Evangeline Fourie, a mother whose two-year-old son Shepard attends the Mighty Evolution Kids day care, agreed with Harrington’s positive outlook on the impact of the day care on the youths.

JUMP FOR JOY: Lamiah Moodley plays outside
the Mighty Evolution Kids daycare centre where her father,
Marco Harrington, works.

“I see big aspirations in a lot of children here. Children have dreams, but their dreams get crushed by things that they see on the outside. When I look at the children in their classrooms and I look in their eyes, I see presidents and doctors. There’s one boy who always says he wants to be a soldier and when I look at him, I really see a soldier in him,” she smiles.

Left behind, but not forgotten

The impact of centres such as KYP and Mighty Evolution Kids, continues to touch the lives of countless youths in the Kliptown area. However, the flaws of these programmes are too often felt by youths who find themselves in need of medical facilities, such as drug rehabilitation centres.

Each day, as school children scamper their way across Walter Sisulu Square towards the various youth programmes, these young men and women return to places such as the Kliptown scrapyard. A place to exchange empty bottles for money that they can use to buy drugs and get their next fix.

John Williams*, a twenty-eight-year-old nyaope addict, began his descent into drug abuse in his first year of high school.

Despite attending programmes similar to the KYP, Williams was not dissuaded from using drugs as a means of escaping the hardships he faced being raise by a financially-struggling single mother.

“A programme for the youth? I’m still going to be here in the area, they just going to let me come there every day. There’s nothing there that will keep me away from drugs, so a rehab is a little bit better, because there’s no drugs and they going to give me medication that’s going to help me to detox. There’s no detoxification here in any of the youth programmes,” says Williams.

The satellite office of the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Eldorado Park, located 2km from Walter Sisiulu Square, is the closest centre that can assist these youths. However, “at the moment, I think, they are overwhelmed. It’s too much to carry and they do need help,” says Dhlodhlo.

The satellite office of the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Eldorado Park, located 2km from Walter Sisiulu Square, is the closest centre that can assist these youths. However, “at the moment, I think, they are overwhelmed. It’s too much to carry and they do need help,” says Dhlodhlo.

Despite this downfall, the youth centres are “trying their level best,” explains Dhlodhlo.

Centres, such as KYP, continue to reach out to youths involved in crime and drug abuse through their various programmes.

The hordes of children that retreat from these centres into their homes each afternoon is a clearly indication of the importance of the centres to the community.

Their foundations providing a starting point for a better, brighter future for the young people who pass through their gates each day.

FEATURED IMAGE: Educator delivers lesson to pupils in class. Photo: Files.


A rose in thorny Kliptown

Ouma Majola is bringing social change to the community of Kliptown through her community centre Little Rose. Not only does the centre care for children, but it also provides them with aftercare educational lessons.

Sibongile is dressed in her Sunday best, wearing a red and white polka dot dress to welcome the buzz in the big city.

The Shosholoza Meyl is moving fast, in a race with the ambitions of this young mother when she arrives in Johannesburg. The train journey between the two South African cities takes 14 hours before reaching its terminus at the train station.

“All passengers get ready to disembark the train …please do not forget your tickets before approaching the counter at reception for your luggage! “,…shouts the intercom 15 minutes before arrival.

A PROMISING FUTURE: Little Rose has become a community safe haven grooming the youth for a different reality.  

Sibongile’s stay in Johannesburg first began in Soweto at Zola Township with a friend. After meeting her boyfriend in 2007 she moved to Kliptown in the hope of finding her independence.

Kliptown is an iconic area in Soweto that represents the setting of democracy and the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955.

This sought to provide an alternative vision to the policies of the apartheid government but 23 years after democratic elections there is no sign of it.

Little Rose community centre is built at the centre of the “government forsaken” state of Kliptown.

Made from brightly painted plastic containers, it stands in contrast to the rusty metal shacks that overpopulate Kliptown. Little Rose functions as a shelter and day-care for the homeless.

It also offers afternoon classes focusing on computer skills and literacy along with three meals a day to those in need.

A single mum, abuse, neglect and the road to Little Rose 

Sibongile arrived in Kliptown and found a shack. “At first the shack was in bad condition where from my bed the rooftop had a hole you could see the sun from during the day and the moon in the evening.”

To make a living Sibongile started washing people’s laundry and says, “A year after dating my boyfriend we had our first child together, Thabiso (9), we no longer had to fend for ourselves but had another human to support, worse of all I still had to send money home for Lusanda (13) because his father left us back in KZN.”

Sibongile says her boyfriend started selling drugs and became involved in crime in an effort to make a living. “Money would come in; we had enough to sustain us”.

With every rand they made her boyfriend soon started abusive habits. “From Thursday to Sunday he was out drinking and those were the days he would come home drunk and start beating me up. I forgave him often and held onto the initial character I had of him but the reality of who he was and his lifestyle caught up with me”.

A SINGLE MOM’S HOPE: Sibongile Shabalala (31) regards Little Rose as a symbol of a better future for her kids.    

Sibongile recalls the first morning after a night out where her boyfriend came home. “Around 3am we were sleeping when we got woken up by a knock. I went to open the door only to welcome in police. They came to arrest him after a girl he slept with had laid a charge of rape. The girl was from the area. I knew her and had heard of their relationship”.

Sibongile’s boyfriend got arrested for three months before the case was dropped. Nine months after his release, Sibongile’s boyfriend was again arrested for another rape charge. Bekundzima (it was difficult) I also was pregnant with my third born I would go visit him and bring him food and airtime Ndimenza umntu (humanising an inhumane situation), trying to assure him that he had a family that loved him.

I had to get lawyers and at this stage we had no money so I had to make a living”. “I too started selling weed and later got access to crystal meth, mandrax and cocaine. I made enough money to get him bail. You know in Kliptown after usuyile eNyangeni (After going to see a traditional healer) and you have money.

You can get arrested for anything but you will never go to prison, his case soon fell through and he was free”. Sibongile says after her boyfriend’s release from prison, he went back to crime.

“Before giving birth to my third born I decided to leave him. I started to fend for myself and my children. Life was hard you know…but I stopped selling drugs and looked for jobs and did peoples hair.”

The better life for all Sibongile hoped for seemed far from reality. But she was determined to change this narrative from being an inheritance to her children.

Sibongile found Little Rose and started to volunteer. “I sent Thabiso (9) the middle born home to KZN and remained with Siphelele (3) who still goes to Little Rose. The centre offers him a different path of life. He gets so excited to attend and enjoys learning. A lot of the kids in the area are susceptible to crime and gambling.”

USING ONE’S PAST MEANINGFULLY: Ouma Majola (56) , founder of Little Rose,
used her orphaned upbringing to aid the community of Kliptown.  

Sibongile says the centre offers children in the area a different perspective and tries to meet parents half way. “You have to pay for the day care, but if you can’t afford they allow you to work there as a volunteer in exchange for them to allow your kid to come”.

Ouma Majola (56) is the founder of Little Rose which was established in 1993. Her life growing up inspired the community haven.

Ouma says, “When I was 13 years old. My parents died. I ended up living from one home to the next but fortunately my brother in law was working and got me through school.

Things were different after my parents died…you know the absence of parents even in my case where I was taken care of was still an unpleasant experience. I decided to drop out of school in grade 9 and went to work.”

Ouma describes growing up as a metaphor for the Little Rose centre. “My mother loved kids and giving back to the community so even with me it came naturally and I didn’t want to witness any other orphan or abandoned child going through what I did.

“Over weekends we had community outreaches, in 1993 at a community meeting, I made a proposal for us to start food gardening because the people of Kliptown were hungry and there was land to plant in, this marked the beginning of Little Rose,” she says.

Ouma says she soon attracted support from developed businesses. The single shack was turned into a double deck of colourful containers covered with freehand art from the kids at the centre. The centre has running water, flushing toilets and a playground, which in dry and grey Kliptown provided a literal and symbolic metaphor to the life known by the community.

“We later got computer donations, international sponsors and Sage publication donated a library to us, marking the expansion and full operation of Little Rose,” Ouma says.

A single father’s experience with Little Rose

Little Rose has become a haven to many parents and children in the area.

Julious Zungo (43) is a single father to three-year-old Asanda. “My daughter’s mother left us when she was about 3 months old. Ndim’UMama noTata wakhe (I am her mom and dad). I work here (pointing at the spaza where we met) so when I am working Asanda goes to Little Rose’s day care.

They teach her how to read and write. She comes home and we start discussing what was taught at school”.

Zungo says her daughter talks of future career prospects because of the exposure she got from Little Rose.

REBUILDING TOGETHER: The community of Kliptown relies on one another,
and have no faith in help outside of themselves.  

Ouma took her in at the age of 8 after her mother passed on. Bongiwe describes gambling alcoholism and drug abuse as being prominent in Kliptown.

“The work we do in the center takes the focus of the youth away from those activities, she says”.

A survey 2006 prepared for the JDA by Martin Wessels an Independent Consultant with the community members of Kliptown indicated that between 1995 and 2005 crime rates had increased by 75%.

With arrests of community members for possession of drugs, rape and robbery being the most prominent of incidents.

Wessels survey also reflected that 62% of community members in Kliptown felt that living conditions had become worse. Whilst 82% said there had been no recreational improvement in Kliptown.

Ouma’s legacy lives

Nhlanhla Majola (31), Ouma’s only biological son, who after a habit of using drugs in standard four, is now a tour guide and mentor for the children in Kliptown.

“If you have no vision or ideas, Kliptown can be like a bottle for you. Where you feel lifeless and with little options”. Nhlanhla says the center “saved him from himself” and gave him a sense of purpose.

“When I was in standard four in Lansfield primary, Eldarado Park, I started hanging with the wrong crowd. I ended up doing; weed cigarettes and cocaine.

To remove me from that environment, in grade eight my mom sent me to a Muslim boarding school. Jules High in Jeppe. High school was a frustrating time for me because I would stay in boarding school and often visit home during holidays and the differences in living conditions and upset me”. After finishing grade 11 in 2007 Nhlanhla quit school and went back home.

“A year later I made my then girlfriend pregnant this one event changed the course of my life. I had to get it together and make means end for my child. I started going to the Mosque in Kliptown and fell in love with the Muslim religion it really impacted me well”, Nhlanhla said.

“As a tour guide I enjoyed the process of showing local and international tourists the history and experiences in Kliptown. It also gave me an opportunity to expose my community to people we hope would come as visitors but leave as family, adding value to our lives”.

Nhlanhla says he hopes to open his own tourism company and wants to mentor the young men and women in Kliptown to use the little resources they have to ‘’preserve the history and make attainable achievements that will bring wealth and communal success to the people of Kliptown”.

The efforts that came from the experience of an orphan are generations ahead of the Government that lays claim to the Freedom Charter.

In realising a “better life” in Kliptown, Little Rose is viewed by the local community as giving a sense of hope to parents, youth and children, changing the predetermined course of life for the younger generation and serving as an act of defiance to the status quo of the area.

FEATURED IMAGE: Founder of Little Rose, Ouma Majola. Photo: Zamayirha Peter.


The two sides of the Kliptown coin

When it comes to tourist attractions in Kliptown, tourists most often visit the popular historical sites. However, there are other places of historical significance that are not on the usual tourist route and are located in the squatter camps. 

Town, town, are you going to town?” taxi drivers hoot their Siyaya horns enthusiastically, ceaselessly, loudly enough to rupture your eardrum. “One town” says a taxi driver with his scraggy arm hanging out of the window, he moves his index finger and points up trying to get a passenger to fill up his raggedy taxi. Welcome to Kliptown.

Kliptown is vibrant and enveloped by the spirit of hustling. South of the Walter Sisulu Square, people walk through the meticulously paved square of dedication, some selling, others buying, while others are standing and gazing at the surroundings looking uncertain, with facial expressions of despair.

NOT DONKEY WORK: A donkey is a cheap mode of transport for vendors.

Today, the centre of the township has been declared a heritage site and is known as the Walter Sisulu Square or Square of Dedication, a R375-million, architect-designed area that commemorates the place where on June 26, 1955 more than 3 000 people from different ethnic and religious organisations assembled to adopt the Freedom Charter.

The square attracts busloads of tourists.

There is the other side of this township, one that is out of the limelight and off the beaten track for tourists, yet carries iconic stories and a history of what the township once was.

Kliptown is one of oldest districts in Soweto and was established in 1903. It is referred to by its inhabitants as the first rainbow nation, as it was originally a home of Indians, Coloured, Blacks, and Chinese.

In spite of the rich history and heritage, and standing as the home of the Freedom Charter, Kliptown is steeped in pervasive poverty, unemployment and violence.

The San Souci Bioscope

One old building that resonates with the history of Kliptown is the San Souci Bioscope. Hollow and unsteady walls and dusty cracked floors are the only remains of what was once a centre of entertainment.

The bioscope is situated in the west of Kliptown, 15 minutes walking distance from the Walter Sisulu Square.

“During the holidays there was nothing to be done in the townships, the only place for entertainment and to watch movies was Kliptown, San Souci Bioscope,” says Carl Tarr, a 61-year-old who lives three houses away from the bioscope, and use to frequent the bioscope when it was still operating.

Established in the 1950s, the bioscope quickly became a meeting spot for people in Kliptown and surrounding areas. “At that time there was no Eldorado park, there was no Soweto.

There was only Kliptown, Chiawelo, Pimville and Dlamini. These were the people who attended the bioscope,” Tarr explains.

The interior design of the bioscope was made up of three sections, the costly section was the gallery section for the ‘big guys’, then the ground floor, consisting of wooden benches and ordinary cinema chairs.

This small bioscope became the center of trade, hustlers using the spot to sell food, and also a space for concerts and music festivals. “You will find five queues, and the fee was 25 cents.

You will find that other people are gentlemen and ladies and wait at the queue,” he laughs vigorously. “There was a lady who used to sell pies. The best way to treat a lady was to buy her cool drink and that round red cake,” he continues.

“The bioscope was a mix masala, there were old madalas from Pimville, gamblers and gangsters.”

ENTERTAIMENT ZONE: The remains of the first bioscope in Kliptown. 

Tarr describes the bioscope as a vibrant and sprightly space. “On Sundays we used to have a session, bands from Soweto use to come play here, and we jaiva. Young girls and young men will dress up. At that time it was those pants with the big bottom, they called them bell-bottom, everybody was wearing an afro, and you must have your afro in round, because you get a price. An afro that is in a perfect form wins.”

During the booming of this business, the apartheid regime was penetrating all angles of South Africa. The bioscope became vicinity for political awareness. “Before every session starts there was political speeches, that’s how people from Kliptown and Pimville integrated,” says Tarr as he makes elaborate hand gestures. “But most people were not tuned into what was going on, even people who come to sing [at the concerts and music festivals].”

Tarr takes out his patterned handkerchief and wipes off beads of sweat on his forehead. “One day the police came, the special force, the mlungus. They couldn’t find anything because the people just mingled with others and walked out in different exists.

That’s why you got searched when you go in, because there are others who worked for the police and will snitch on those who inform the people about political intolerance in the country.”

The late Ahmed Ballim who bought the bioscope from San Souci in 1960 sat down with European researcher and author, Benoit Allanic in 2000 and reflected on the period when the bioscope was running at a loss.

“People didn’t want to watch romantic movies,” says Ballim. Professor at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Yunus Ballim who is the son of the late Ahmed Ballim describes San Souci Bioscope as a central gathering point, a source of entertainment and a form of political education.

“My father and Hassan [his friend] took over [the bioscope] in 1960. I got more of my education in the cinema than I got in school,” says the professor with a broad smile on his face.

“Three or four times a week, we go to town to fetch the films, and return them on Thursday,” he continues. “The cinema was like a rite of passage, before you grow up you have to go the cinema first.”

In the same interview with Benoit Allanic, the late Ahmed Ballim reflects on a sad Monday when he found the bioscope damaged and vandalised.

“They wanted steel. There were about 300 corrugated iron sheets, they took them and build shacks. They took the asbestos. They took all the windows. They took the seats. It should be presented as a war zone.”

With tuned down voice and long face, Tarr expresses his disappointment with the lack of response from the government to bring to life this lifeless building. “We pleaded with the government to turn the building into a library or a research centre.”

Mandela’s hide out

HIDE AND SEEK: The Lollan house was a hidding spot for Madiba during apartheid.

A few houses away from the bioscope is another landmark. Constructed with face brick, patched with cement to prevent it from falling, and dead grass lining around the house.

The two bedroom house belongs to Augusta Lollan, the mother of a well-respected political activist and the Secretary of the South African Coloured People’s Organisation in 1953, Stanley Lollan.

According to Stanley Lollan’s late brother, Oom Poto, Lollan was a close friend of Nelson Mandela, and provided his friend a hideaway from the police force during Apartheid.

Lollan passed away 33 years ago, however, his brother the late Oom Poto sat down with Benoit Allanic on April 2000 to reflect on the days when Nelson Mandela used to hide in their house and hold secret meetings.

“Mandela was a great friend of my brother. He started [hiding in the house] in 1947 until they were arrested. They went to jail, they were arrested for treason. They were on trial in 1962. It must have been in the early ‘50s when they were arrested for high treason.

The great grandchild of Augusta Lollan, Beryl Bullock who is in her late 30s says she still remembers the stories she was told about how Mandela use to hide in the house that she lives in.

The great grandchild of Augusta Lollan, Beryl Bullock who is in her late 30s says she still remembers the stories she was told about how Mandela use to hide in the house that she lives in.

“When I was young, kids use to ask me to show them where Mandela used to hide,” she says. She welcomes me inside the house, as I sit on a hardwood chair that is upholstered in leather, I was immediately intrigued by the old furnisher that stores the memories of this historical house.

“He used to hide over there,” Lock says as she points underneath a single bed in the bedroom facing the kitchen.

PRAISE AND WORSHIP: The Charlotte Maxeke Memorial Church brings hope to the community since it was established.

In 1998, Nelson Mandela visited a 96-year-old Augusta Lollan at Eldorado Park where Lollan was staying before she passed away. In a scene captured by AP Archive, Mandela refers to Lollan as his comrade.

“It’s an honour for me to stand beside comrade Lollan, because she was my comrade in those worst days before prison and I’m happy to be here today with her.” says Mandela wrapping his arm around Lollan’s hunched shoulders.

The Lollan house is not a tourism attraction because it is home for Lollan’s great grandchildren.

The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church

Another historic landmark is a church situated at First Street of Kliptown’s poorest community called ‘Dark City’. Surrounded by a collection of rusty cramped corrugated iron frames, and garnished with scattered pieces of plastics, cans and used diapers, the church remains a place of hope for the poor community.

Charlotte Maxeke, one of South Africa’s first black female graduates and activist, is linked to the history of the church. She is the founder of the church and played a pivotal role in multiracial movements and protests.

Today the church is known as Maxeke Memorial Church. It was an essential space during the apartheid regime, and used by political leaders as a meeting place.

Reverend Blom who delivers Sunday sermons at the church says “Maxeke was a member of the Methodist Episcopal in America. The church honoured her by naming it after her. I also know that Political leader held their meetings here [at the church].” he says.

Some people believe that the Freedom Charter was signed at the AME Church. A Kliptown community leader and the CEO of Greater Kliptown Development Forum, Gene Duiker says “The freedom charter was not signed at the church. The delegates did not sign the Freedom Charter, they adopted it by show of hands,” he says as he slowly grabs the bottle of Castle Milk Stout and pours into a facsimile of a Gleincairn whisky glass, sitting at the local tavern.

The new museum

PRESERVING HISTORY: Kliptown residents still gather outside the closed museum.

Opened in 2003, Oom Bolo’s Museum is a significant building that preserves the historical and artistic items and household pieces that represent the old Kliptown.

The museum is situated at Beacon Road, and was founded by a cultural and art activist, the late David Meyers, who is famously known by the community as Oom Bolo. In the 90s the building was a butcher shop, and was later transformed into a museum.

“The museum was created to continue to give people a connection with the old lifestyle.

“[It was created] so that people could relate to how others lived back then,” says Duiker whose photographs and household items are in the museum. Cyil Jantjies, a friend of Meyers says “He [Meyers] was interested in Kliptown. He wanted to preserve the memory and culture of Kliptown.”

Meyers passed away last year, and the museum has been closed since then. “The museum is closed because of family feud.

The mother of Meyers’s late girlfriend wants to take charge. The previous owner of the building also wants to claim back the place,” Jantjies says.

Meyers’s son-in-law, Glen Crawford says the museum was always full of people. “The museum was always full. The stoep [at Meyers’s house] use to be full of people every day.”

Despite Kliptown’s well-known historical significance and high-cost constructed square, the community sees no beneficial effects.

“Kliptown is a historical place, yet people still live in shacks or what they call ‘informal settlement’ a new fancy name. People don’t even benefit from that square. Where is the running water? Where is electricity? Where are the sewage pipes?” Duiker asks with a forced smile.

FEATURED IMAGE: Kliptown’s closed museum. Photo: Tebadi Mmotla.