Rastafari are a significant part of the Yeoville community and have made substantial strides to establish and integrate themselves. But this has created a problem in how they remain true to their cultural practices while conforming to Yeoville society.
Ras Zwesh was just about to light up his zol when the police raided Rasta House and arrested him for possession of drugs. He was there as the master of ceremonies for a live reggae performance. Instead, he spent the night on a wooden bench in the reception area of the Yeoville police station. He was not charged.
“It [Rasta House] was never like this, it was a safe place.” Nowadays, Ras Zwesh says, the sale of alcohol and “the loud provocative music” have attracted the “wrong kind of attention” and have caused Rastafari like himself to live isolated.
A different place
Towards the back of Rasta House an incomplete building structure is hidden behind an entertainment area with a bar, pool tables and an upstairs lounge area. Ras Zwesh, whose real name is Zwelithemba Twalo, explains that, initially, this building was to serve as a venue for religious and social interaction between the Rastafari.
“And now the priorities of the owners, who are also Rastafari, have changed.” They now sell alcohol, although the consumption of alcohol is against Rastafari culture. When Ras Zwesh reaches out to touch the structure, cement crumbles from between the bricks.
Why Rastafari came to Yeoville
Ras Zwesh is a poet who has lived in Yeoville since the ’90s when he moved back to South Africa from the United States. “Yeoville is different from any other community in the world … It is a space where you can live the way you want. It’s a community that is mature and tolerant.” He adds, however: “Rastas are not conventional. In Yeoville we’ve had to compromise to live together.”
It is unclear when the Rastafari movement first moved into Yeoville. However, according to Ras Zwesh, Rastas were among the first black, “non-servant” people to settle in Yeoville. He says Rastafari first came to Yeoville to deal “the herb” in the 1980s and ’90s, decades which offered business opportunities for drug dealing.
Yeoville was a popular social scene then. There were political poetry sessions in the day and, at night, night clubs, bars and restaurants buzzed with music. It was a place unique in South Africa as people were not restricted by their race, culture and beliefs.
Elder Blue, co-owner of Rasta House, says he moved to Yeoville in 1997 from Jamaica, mainly because there was already a community of Rastafari in the area. Another reason was that he had a “spiritual connection” with the area. “There is the spirit of true freedom and art expression here.”
The orders that categorise most Rastafari
There are three distinct orders, also known as houses, of the Rastafari that form a part of the greater community in Yeoville. The orders are the Nyahbhingi, the Bobo Ashanti and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They were established in the 1930s in Jamaica.
“The houses are a security thing. They are a place of fellowship and companionship,” according to El Supreme, a Rastafari musician living in Yeoville. Ras Zwesh says the houses were formed as a platform on which “black people who were oppressed at the hands of colonialists could express their unhappiness”.
“We live together in the same community, we meet as neighbours. There are many other aspects in Yeoville that unite the different orders.” However, he adds that “there are instances of discrimination and divisions where people discriminate simply because you are not in their houses”.
“It happens to me every day. I’m always enthusiastic to meet other Rastas in the street but when I stretch out my fist to greet, they pull back and I get the response: ‘Me don’t touch blood’. Some Bobos and some Nyahbhingi have that holier-than-thou mindset.”
“The Twelve Tribes of Israel are the most accommodating,” explains Ras Zwesh. “The order accepts homosexuals as well as white people even though, traditionally, the movement rejected whites and white supremacy.”
The Twelve Tribes of Israel have the greatest following in South Africa. Ras Zwesh says this is due to the popularity of the movement during the apartheid regime. The main doctrine of the movement was based on the conditions of the time, and “religion and culture were important for many people, not politics”.
This was not the case with the Nyahbhingi, who saw themselves as warriors. “They thought they had to be involved in everything,” says Ras Zwesh. The Nyahbhingi have evolved since then and believe that politics and political parties divide people. However, this has not made them any more tolerant, he says, describing people in the order as racist and as persecutors of homosexuals.
“They have forgotten the teachings of His Imperial Majesty [Haile Selassie],” says Ras Zwesh. “He preached that we respect the laws of all countries and in South Africa it is legal to choose sexual orientation.”
Gabra Hillary, a Rastafari living in Yeoville, says that he made the decision to leave the order. “I couldn’t live like that, it just makes you different from the rest of society.”
The Bobo Ashanti are described as the most Pan-Africanist group in the Rastafari movement. Members had close ties with political parties and were originally driven by the notion that, “Africans cannot sit by while Africa is being destroyed”. Nowadays many people in the group have chosen to separate themselves from these principles, says Ras Zwesh. They can be seen in Yeoville drinking in taverns and establishing businesses. “They are business-minded Rastas. It is not a bad thing but I think they will do anything for money.”
One of the only ways to survive in Yeoville is to make money, according to some Rastafari living there. A Rastafari who calls himself Bon African is from Kenya and sells “clothes unique to the movement”. Most of the t-shirts, skirts, pants and hats contain red, yellow and green – the colours of the Ethiopian national flag.
Today, many Rastafari, despite their different cultural orders, share a similar sense of fashion, which creates a sense of shared African identity. They wear dashikis (Nigerian and other West African prints), turbans and other loosely fitting, bright clothes that cover the whole body.
Bon African’s shop assistant, who asked not to be named, says Rastafari from the different orders buy clothes based on the order of the colours on the clothing item. “For example, a Nyahbhingi will only buy a turban if green is at the top, yellow in the middle and red at the bottom. Bobos want the red to be at the top.”
Women’s clothes sell fast, he says, especially the skirts. Women, particularly in the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Nyahbhingi, still dress culturally and conservatively. “You will know them by their skirts that sweep up the dirt in the street,” Ras Zwesh jokes. “They also cover their heads with turbans and arms with long sleeves.”
“You don’t have to look like a man to be a feminist,” says Sister Lulu, a member of the Nyahbhingi order. She says their dress sense “keeps us in touch with our femininity”.
Meanwhile, some young people and feminists in the Rastafari movement believe the orders should reflect the workplace and prevalent social behaviours. Ras Zwesh says: “Many young Rastafari don’t identify with the houses in Yeoville. They are independent, not only because the houses are not originally from South Africa but also because of the dictatorship-ness.”
“The orders must be more dynamic and reflect the consciousness of people in an ever-changing society,” says Ras Zwesh, drawing on the mindset of Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow. She believes the orders should not dictate the way people live. He recalls attending her concert in Newtown, where she was criticised for wearing jeans, and spoke about her beliefs.
The orders are not African enough
The practices and the challenges of the orders have, in recent years, caused divisions between the Rastarafi in Yeoville and in South Africa. There have been African adaptations of the three original houses. These are argued to reflect more “Africanised” interpretations of the religion.
Thau-Thau Haramanuba, leader of the Bakehase (a breakaway order) and executive member of the Rastafari United Front, says the current practices of the Rastafari in the Bobo Ashanti, Nyahbhingi or the Twelve Tribes of Israel have deviated from some of the first principles on which Rastafari is based. Although he lives in Limpopo, many of his followers are to be found in Yeoville.
“It is important to take back Africa to its roots and free the imprisoned minds of black people.” He adds that these offshoot orders are important because they base their principles on the African identity, something he says many Rastafari have lost.
Bakehase is a combination of two words: Ba (Bantu people) and Kehase (Kedamawi Haile Selassie). “It’s not a bible order of Rastafari, it’s a Bantu order of Rastafari,” says Haramanuba who has been the leader of the order since he formed it 14 years ago. He says Bakehase is not copying or mimicking the Jamaican Rastafari. The practices of the order are founded upon the South African experience of oppression which is then adapted into the principles of Rastafari.
“These houses do the very thing that Rastafari stands against.” He explains that there are two schools of thought in Rastafari, a Judeo-Christian and an African-centred school of thought. The Judeo-Christians base everything they say on the Bible and Africans base theirs on African spirituality, African philosophy, ubuntu and Africa frames of references which “use the black man’s understanding of God before the white man came here with his Bible, enslaving us and exploiting us for free labour”.
There is a leadership crisis within the structure of the other houses, he says, because “they use a framework [Christianity] that was imposed on them”. He says the three houses argue that they do not have a high priest or leader. Their high priest is Haile Selassie or Jesus Christ. “… It sounds like Christianity but they say they are Rastafari. That is just not the essence of Rastafari.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Empress, who uses no other name, moved to Yeoville from Harlem, New York, three years ago. She is not part of a particular house. “I don’t believe in the separation that the houses have caused because as Rastafari we are supposed to be one.”
Empress immersed herself in the Rastafari way of life when she was a teenager. She says she does not live by the laws of the different orders but rather by the laws and principles that were left by His Majesty Halie Selassie for all Rastafari to live by.
Empress believes that all African people are born Rastafari. “They just don’t know it, nor do they embrace it.” She says the lack of acceptance and understanding between people poses a challenge to living as a Rastafari, but it is the way Africans are meant to be living.
“I used to go to family gatherings and I’d feel left out by my own family. They wouldn’t prepare vegetables for me and the ones that they did were mixed with meat and I don’t eat meat, as a vegetarian.”
She says, though, that her living as a Rastafari has changed their views somewhat. “They’re coming around, they would laugh at the way I look because I am living the life they are afraid to live but they are starting to resonate with my lifestyle. I don’t have to teach them, they just see how I live.
The evolving Rastafari
On the other hand, Ras Zwesh disagrees that all African people are Rastafari. “There has been an African romanticism [among Rastafari] without looking at the reality of Africa. Metaphorically speaking, yes, but literally speaking they are not Rastas. Rastas aren’t even Rastas. It goes beyond being black, having dreads and smoking ganja. You must love and overstand [understand] yourself and the world.”
He says people, especially in Africa, are not like that. “The priorities of my people are based on a certain degree of selfishness and acquiring only for themselves,” he says in a low voice.
The pressure and the intrusions of the outside world have caused growing tensions within the Rastafari community in Yeoville. “There was a time when Yeoville only had a community of white middle-class people. We were fine with that because they would pay us for the art we did.”
Since the end of apartheid, the white middle class moved out of the area and was replaced by a black middle class, says Ras Zwesh. “They don’t support local art or music, even the Rasta business owners; they have joined the black middle class.”
“Instead of a growing movement, the Rastafari community in Yeoville is now lull. It has gone to sleep. We no longer have a movement in Yeoville like before where Rastafari were driven by socialist ideals to help the community. Just more black middle-class people like in the rest of Johannesburg.”
He fears for the future of the Rastafari community. “My son will have no one to learn from when I am no longer around. Things have changed from bad to worse for us.”
FEATURED IMAGE: A man, Gabra, lights up a joint during the church service. The Rastafari are strong believers in vegetarianism. They also believe that marijuana is a vegetable given to them by God to use to fulfil themselves spiritually. Photo: Rofhiwa Madzena