CHURCH: Home for the broken, the bruised and displaced

“So then, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.”     – Ephesians 2:19

“Fire! Fire! Fire!” screams the congregation after the man of God tells them to curse the demons out to get them.

“No altar having my name, having my picture, created to ruin me shall prosper!”

The exterior of Christ the Solution Ministries International with flags of various African states flying high. Photo: Anathi Madubela 

The three-story structure trembles with the shrill sounds of praise, and the creaking of wooden floors is audible as the pastor urges the congregation to stamp on the devil on a serene Sunday morning.

Nestled in industrial Wynberg, just a stone’s throw from the township of Alexandra, the words “Christ the Solution Ministries International”, written in bold blue letters against a white background, can be seen from miles away.

“The way to the church is through that door and up the stairs. It’s a bit dark, but do not be scared: this is the house of the Lord,” said the man in a navy blue uniform with his ‘SECURITY’ cap cocked to one side.

As I entered through the narrow door I saw my reflection to my right, a shock at first, but the mirror commands you to look at yourself, to practise introspection. A gentle pat on my shoulder urged me to continue into the blood-walled foyer and up the stairs. The steep climb to the church on the third floor evoked the imagery of climbing up to Heaven, and a mix of Igbo hymnals and the singing of “Jesus loves me, this I know” filled the narrow stairway.

The second floor houses the Sunday school, which doubles up as a crèche on week days. The third floor, a brightly coloured room with high windows almost the antithesis of the route to the church, is where the service is held.

Migrant Hub

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” – Matthew 25:35

 “Let us pray together-oo [Asithandaze ndawonye], everyone say your own prayer [wonke umuntu asho umthandazo wakhe]. The battles you are fighting-oo [lezimpi uzilwayo], you will overcome [uzozinqoba].

“Think of today’s scripture [cabanga isifundo sanamuhla]. You are Lazarus [nguwena uLazaru] and you shall rise again [uzovuka futhi],” preached the pastor, who was dressed in a navy three-piece suit with a red tie and brown shoes. The mixture of Nigerian pidgin and Igbo seemed so befitting that the isiZulu translation stood out.

Churches or places of worship have been known to create a home and a sense of community, belonging and family for migrant communities. The mushrooming of migrant churches on Louis Botha Avenue is testament to the cosmopolitan nature of the areas surrounding the road. This video tells a story of a Congolese community who have created a sense of family for themselves through the church. Video by Anathi Madubela

Since the late 1980s there has been a global wave of Nigerian migration, with an estimated 100 000 currently living in South Africa. It is therefore not uncommon to find a Nigerian church at the migrant hub of Johannesburg’s Louis Botha Avenue. The uniqueness of this particular church, however, is that in this migrant hub there exists a church that shows the cosmopolitan nature of the road. The church not only resembles a cauldron of melting, interconnecting and morphing culture, it is also a microcosm of the greater Johannesburg area.

A slight metallic swoosh could be heard in the tightly packed, 100-person place of worship. Now and again I could feel a cool breeze fan my face as the congregant next to me was kneeling and praying intently.

“My father! My God! I exalt you! Please deliver me from my situation,” she murmured, seemingly aware that I was listening.

To my left, a man dressed in a matching green isiagu top and trousers, with the vigour of a lion, had his eyes tightly shut, his hands balled into fists while he walked up and down muttering unintelligible sounds.

At the back were three women whose knees seemed to graciously kiss the carpeted floor, who were praying silently as if to keep the prayer in their circle.

This free display of religion, faith and praise created an air of oneness and understanding and this was of course aided by the occasional “Tell your neighbour that God is good” and “He will work out everything in your favour.”

  • A programme launched by the National Council of Provinces and Gauteng Provincial Legislature in 2018 looking at the effects of migration on service delivery in Gauteng found that 47% of international migrants settle in the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipal area.
  • According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Nigerians are a population with a high record of migration.
  • Most migrations in Africa are intra-continental; that is why countries that have stronger economies, such as South Africa and Egypt, have a high number of immigrants.
Church as family

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” – Psalm 133:1

The cry of a hungry child signalled the length of the four-hour long service. The pastor prayed quickly over the offering basket before closing the service.

After the service the pastor led me to a door on which was written “Pastor’s Office”. I sank into the couch that took up most of the space in the bijou office. Behind the couch was a mountain of bags of rice.

“We donate these to church members who are less fortunate. Congregants contribute what they can and we divide it among those in need,” said Pastor Pascal Nwachukwu.

“As much as this church has heavy Nigerian influence, we do not see ourselves as a Nigerian church; instead we put emphasis on community, especially when someone comes into a new environment without having next of kin. They often find themselves in the church and that becomes their new family. We have some church members who are from and live in Alex but choose to worship with us.

“It was also these members who defended us during the [xenophobic] attacks, in as much as this church was not heavily affected,” said the 45-year-old preacher.

Nthabiseng Mooko a 27-year-old choir member who lives in Alex, said although her father is a pastor of a Catholic church, she still prefers to worship at Christ the Solution Ministries International.

“The vibe here is different,” she said. “We call it club church because it gives us the space to praise the way in which we want to, as the youth. My father’s church is very traditional and I had to be put together, but here I feel more at home than I have ever felt anywhere else.

“The fact that this church is a walk away from my house is a bonus. I really feel at home here. I feel included. I am even learning a bit of Igbo because of the songs,” Nthabiseng said.

Wednesdays are jam-packed, the pews filled with churchgoers waiting to consult the pastor on a first come, first served basis.

RIGHT:  Nthabiseng Mooko and Siziphiwe Mbokazi wait to see Prophet Ekene for counselling. Photo: Anathi Madubela
 “A family that prays together, stays together”

Wednesdays are jam-packed, the pews filled with churchgoers waiting to consult the pastor on a first come, first served basis.

“I need to hurry back to work, please put me in na,” said a panting churchgoer to the caretaker, Sunday Solomon, who was monitoring who went next in seeing the revered prophet.

“These people annoy me. They take leave for everything else but cannot prioritise seeing a man who will help them with their life. Now they come in here and want to jump in,” said the caretaker.

He is a tall man of a towering structure. He looks almost like a bouncer of the church.

“I joined this church back in 2009 and I have been an active member ever since,” says Sunday.

“See, I had come to one of these counselling sessions and the prophet shared something with me. I had just moved to South Africa and my brother passed away back home, leaving children that I financially had to take care of, and for reasons I wish not to disclose I could not go back home. I was drinking and very depressed. This church saved me. At a time I was feeling at my lowest, Christ the Solution became my support system,” said the 36-year-old.

As we were conversing, sitting on plastic chairs in the crèche and with children singing their ABCs in the background, facing the door so that Sunday could regulate who went next for counselling, a woman with a baby on her back walked in and handed him a R100 note. He excused himself and went into the pastor’s office, then walked out again holding a small 100ml spray bottle with golden liquid inside.

“Do you not have a bigger bottle? This small one runs out quickly,” the woman asked.

In an earlier conversation, Sunday told me that besides being a caretaker he sold perfume imported from Dubai for a living, so I assumed the exchange was for that scented product.

“You can buy your own and bring it here and we bless it for you,” Sunday replied to the woman.

Then I realised it was not perfume they were talking about.

“It is anointing oil. R50 a bottle,” he announced proudly after seeing the puzzled look on my face.

He went on to explain the uses of the oil, while quoting an unfamiliar Bible verse. He said it could be added to bath water for a proper cleansing, sprayed over pillows to ward off bad dreams and sprayed on door and window frames to repel evil spirits.

ABOVE: Sunday Solomon, caretaker of Christ the Solution Ministries, sits in the creche so he can have full view and moniter people going in for counselling with the prophet.                            Photo: Anathi Madubela
ABOVE: Anointing oil bought at the church and blessed by the prophet.                                      Photo: Anathi Madubela
The unwilling prophet

It was finally my turn to meet the much talked-about prophet, Amope Ekene. I was met with an unwelcoming reception. Perhaps the soothsayer sensed something I was not aware of. The muscular man, of short stature, seemed weary and unrelenting, but eased up once the conversation became more about him.

“As a young boy growing up in Nigeria, Lagos, I always knew I had the calling but I did not know what to do with it,” he said. “My father was a builder and my earliest memory was of when I was playing with cement and I built a cross and hung it on a tree. I was about six years old then.

“I moved to South Africa in 2002 and I used to gather the men at the commune I lived in to pray every night. Those are my brothers, and from there my congregation grew and now we are here,” said the 45-year-old, apparently chuffed with himself.

He proceeded to tell me more about the church and its different outreach programmes.

“People are important to us in this church,” he said. “We try to help out in any way we can. The point of moving to this space in 2009 from Berea was to realise all of the goals we have reached.

“Take the crèche as an example: Many of our congregants are unemployed or have informal employment, so need a safe place to ensure the safety of their children. We offer not only a safe but a godly environment that parents can trust. Most of the children you see in that room do not pay fees,” said the prophet.

Religious text stacked on an ottoman at the church. Photo: Anathi Madubela

I could hear the growing agitation outside, as I was taking longer than the average person would during counselling.

“We try to help out people as much as we can in this church. We are a family in Christ. For example, with family counselling: The family I just saw before you walked in are in trouble. The husband was on the streets and the wife is upset and cannot forgive him. She is now even withholding things a wife should give to a husband. I had to advise her not to do this because that will further drive him away, because what a man cannot get at home he finds on the streets,” he said.

“The anointing oil is honestly to build confidence and faith in our congregants. When people have a ritual they tend to be unwavering in their faith. Manifestation works and that is what we believe in,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, the children at the crèche continued to sing their lungs out, with their parents coming in to consult the prophet.

“A for apple, B for banana, C for cat,” could be heard from across the street.

FEATURED IMAGE: The exterior of a church. Photo: Supplied

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Christ my culture, Christ my home

In a land foreign to your own, where do you turn? Who do you call? Where do you belong?

HURRYING across the streets to assemble inside various buildings and shop-like structures on Louis Botha Avenue on a Sunday morning are families of African migrants. They are making their way to their respective houses of worship. There is something distinctive about the way they navigate their way on the street; a magnetic pulling that makes the movement routine, effortless, easy and natural. Almost as if they are instinctively being called… home.

Belonging: A woman and her two children linger outside, waiting for their church service to begin. Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

The men are in crisply ironed buttoned up shirts and the women are adorned in long, layered dresses that just about sweep the pavement as they sashay by. Behind them are children frantically trying to keep up with the pace of the adults, as fast as their little legs can carry them. With a quick glance to left and right they hurry past speeding Toyota minibuses and overloaded taxis in the road, and with a brisk walk they step onto the pavement. 

Just a metre or two from where the pavement meets the two-door entrance are four elderly men in suits. They stand arranged, pamphlets in hand, interacting with the passers-by on Louis Botha. Almost in sync, they monotonously mutter the words “come in my sister”, “join us my brother” to the pedestrians walking past, and their wrinkled faces light up with a “God bless you” as soon as their invitations to join the service are accepted.

Pastor Blessing Oggini of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries ushers congregants inside the makeshift room he has converted into a church, into what he calls a session of blessing and salvation. Bible in hand, he hands out purple flyers detailing information about the church and its daily services, while casually having conversations with members of the church and hugging them as they enter.

As the congregants make their way to the neatly placed rows of plastic chairs, from two of the four corners of the room come the sounds of a euphoric melody carried by a commanding voice booming from the speakers. As the singer jolts from side to side in sync with the rhythm, microphone in hand, he continues to lead the worship and praise from behind the glass podium stationed in front of the room.

Pastor Oggini (second from left) stands with church elders outside the Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries branch in Louis Botha Avenue.     
Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa
An elderly woman stands outside the New Eternal Covenant Church after the Sunday service has ended.Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

Brother Jonathan, as he is fondly referred to, belts out the phrase, “This is the day of joy, the day of joy, that the Lord has made”, and the congregation responds in harmony. As the pastor ascends onto the stage from the front row, Jonathan Jise hands over the microphone to symbolise that the time for song has come to an end and he has prepared the congregation for the sermon. 

“My role in the church is an important one, and everyone has a space in the house of the Lord,” says Jise. With a look around the room, he adds that everyone is here because of some reason or other.

“We did not come because we simply love the church. When you face difficulty in a foreign country you have no option but to turn to what feels normal: what you grew up with and were raised on from a young age, and that is the church and faith in God,” he says with glistening eyes and a piercing stare, so as to relay his heartfelt relationship with the institution enclosed by the four walls that make up the room we sit in.

Stretched across approximately 9km of tar, is Louis Botha Avenue – one of the city of Johannesburg’s major streets. Known as an area where immigrants and migrants have settled in, historically the neighbourhood had been populated by people of Italian descent, and as a result had been dubbed “Little Italy”. Now that is but a distant past commemorated only by the remnants of an Italian deli called Super Sconto and an abandoned building that used to be an Italian machinery shop. Looking at the pedestrians on the street and the bodies that have made Orange Grove their home, it is evident that the area continues to be an immigrant hub, however, but now of African descent. 

The simplified narration of African migration is ordinarily one that sees desperate and vulnerable refugees fleeing from conflict, war and collapsing economies to try to make a living in a country foreign to their own. This industrial narrative exists and is vividly visual on the street, with the avenue being overpopulated by not so adequately spaced out corner shops, congested fruit and vegetable stores, tailoring services, upholstery businesses and – surprisingly – a high number of Christian religious places of worship. In this street alone, one will come across more than 15 boards of bright and colourful signage advertising church branches and services behind doors that seem abandoned on any odd day during the week, but that definitely comes alive on a Sunday morning. 

The decision to open a branch of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries in Louis Botha was one that was necessary, as Pastor Oginni describes it: “The people of Orange Grove are suffering, living under undesirable circumstances, and are in need of healing. Our ministry is here by virtue of calling, to help the despondent people of God in this area and restore their faith in times of adversity,” says the pastor.

“We opened this specific branch this year, but our church has existed on the African continent and in South Africa for years,” he says.

With the first branch having been opened in Nigeria in 1975 by Dr Daniel Olukoya, their mission statement of “propagating the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ all over the world” is one that is evident through their expansion to regions such as Europe, the United States, Canada, Africa and Asia – boasting visibility on every continent.

Adewumni Eze, a young man in a black leather jacket who walked in through the gates of the church, says he did so seeking deliverance and a spiritual breakthrough. Initially hesitant to open up to a relative stranger like myself, he reveals that he owes his life to the church.

“When I first came to South Africa, things were very hard for me. I was hopeless and helpless. I did not know how to survive all by myself and I was becoming more desperate by the day.”

This feeling was brought about by the fact that even as a master of science graduate he struggled to find employment in this country, subjecting him to survival in poverty stricken circumstances, sleeping on the streets and not knowing where his next meal was going to come from as every door he knocked on asking for employment was shut in his face.

“When I was homeless in Orange Grove, I was at my lowest. The church opened its doors for me, gave me a mattress to sleep on and food to eat. I was scared that I would always be treated like a stranger, because I am a foreigner. I lived in fear. I was then prayed for by the pastor, who gave me hope that by placing my trust in God, He would help me overcome my challenges.”

Through his journey with the church, he developed a relationship and fellowship and now not only lives at the church, but is an active participant and assistant in the mission.

“Nothing can harm me now in the house of the Lord,” Adewumni says as he looks around the room, smiling as he reflects on the impact the church has had on his life.

Pastor Blessing Oginni stands next to his podium, where he delivers a sermon every Sunday at Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries.                                                Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

Adewumni’s testimony provides a glimpse into the level of hostility directed at foreign nationals. A competitive city such as Johannesburg exposes migrants to vulnerability, as would any unfamiliar surroundings. Among migrants there is an air of desperation, eagerly seeking opportunities to make the means of survival for one more day. And there is wariness of the potential threat of intolerance and violence that their presence may bring about. It is as almost as though one can capture the change in dynamic simply from watching the transition from the brisk and hurried walk on the pavement to the gentle settling into seats once they are inside the church. There is a sense of feeling comfortable when they collectively come into the presence of fellow believers in the house of God, where there is “space” for them. 

There are three observed trends of behaviour in relation to migrants and religion, according to a scholar by the name of Orobator, in a journal titled ‘Refugees and Poverty’ (2005). Firstly there are migrants who have persevered in their faith in the midst of trials and tribulation; secondly there are those who have abandoned their faith; and thirdly there are those who have newly identified God as their only comfort and solace in exile. The latter is the interweaving theme along Louis Botha Avenue and its many churches, clustered not so far from each other.

The flaking paint on the walls that enclose the buildings where the religious gatherings are held sheds a little light on the deterioration of the avenue. Despite the many hubs of worship and upliftment in the churches located on the pavements of Louis Botha, the tale of the once highly revered avenue is now a sad one. What was once conceptualised in 2014 to serve as a game changer in the transport sector as a prominent transit corridor is seen as many to have been affected by urban decay that characterises many other neighbourhoods in the city. 

There have been issues that have been sites of contention over the intended nature and current state of the avenue. There are the alleged driving of unroadworthy taxis overflowing with unsuspecting commuters, coupled with the non-completion of the Rea Vaya project, to mention just two. Following recent protest action in April 2019 when the residents of suburbs surrounding Louis Botha ordered the mayor of the city to conduct a clean-up of all the alleged illegal businesses and hijacked buildings, it seems there is yet to appear a consolidated view of migrants, their livelihoods and incorporation into the area. 

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34).

The Bible says that one day the divisions between citizen and stranger will be erased, when the Promised Land will be assigned for ourselves and the strangers who dwell among us. Some deem the efforts at supposed restoration to be xenophobic-related, as a result of placing the blame for decay on foreign nationals. Some view it as law enforcement. What it fundamentally means is that Louis Botha is yet to get rid of the underlying tension among locals and migrants.

Despite the intricate dynamic between the migrants and the locals, the church remains a place to turn to. Not only for those who have found solace within its doors, but in the community as well. Stacked in the corner of Pastor Oginni’s office is a heap of groceries and non-perishable food items and snacks. He explains that the tinned cans, boxes of milk and rice, among other items, are the church’s monthly collection of donations in the form of food and clothing towards its outreach program – for an orphanage in Orange Grove supported by the church.

“Our mission is to not only help those who come through our doors looking for a breakthrough, but also to share our blessings with the community and people of Orange Grove,” the pastor says. The congregants visibly do not have much, but are committed to sharing the little that they do have. “Both in the spiritual and physical realm, this call to unity in the face of division is what brings the community together,” The pastor says. 

Pastor Oggini ascends the podium yet again to convene everyone to kneel for the closing prayer. The booming voice emerges yet again from the speakers to reassure the congregants that “all will be well”. The men pick up their Bibles and stand up tall, while the women hoist their children onto their backs and secure them with a towel.

He raises his arms and the congregants close their eyes to signal the end of the prayer. Everyone in the room shakes hands and exchanges goodbyes as they leave the house of the Lord.  As the doors open for their exit, the sound of the hooting taxis rushing by remind them of their return to reality. 

The atmosphere is one of hope: hope for survival, hope for restoration. Hope that their lives will take a turn for the better. Hope that their prayers will be heard. Bible in hand, like soldiers, they are armed. Ready to face the hustle and bustle of Louis Botha Avenue.

FEATURED IMAGE: Men of God: Pastor Oggini (second from left) stands with church elders outside the Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries branch in Louis Botha Avenue.     

Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

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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

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.

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Entertaining the angels

Faith and the law live side by side in the fast-beating heart of Johannesburg. On the one side is the South Gauteng High Court, with its olive-green dome and pillars made of stone. Just across from it, separated by a busy pedestrian arcade, is a church of brick and glass, with a slender metal cross on its façade.

This is the Central Methodist Church in Pritchard Street, and over the years it has stood tall as a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, and a place of sanctuary for the poor and dispossessed from across the African continent.

It was just after the 08:00 AM French service. The city is still sleepy eyed, when the 10; 00 AM English service commences. The only noise you can hear is that of the holy rhythm from the church. This is a place where many assimilate physically and spiritually.

HIGH COURT PRECINCT: Law situated side by side with the church. Photo: Wendy Mothata

It’s Sunday morning at the Central Methodist church. The congregation is singing, for a moment you would swear that they are auditioning for competitions. The church has three choirs, one sitting in front referred to as Music Ministry wearing a black and white uniform. What was fascinating is that there was a white man among the choir who was singing Xhosa hymns without referring to the hymn book like how many were doing.

The other two choirs were seated on the right and left side of the church, ground floor, sparkling the church with the red and white uniforms they were wearing. During the service they used piano and drums to supplement the rhythm of the praise band. They were singing traditional hymns more than contemporary songs.

One of the Xhosa hymns they sang was “Xa ndi wela uMfula iJordane, “Ndazi lahla izono zam ndodana yam edukileyo, buyela kimi ekhaya.” (Every time I cross the river of Jordan, I am cleansed of my sins, my long lost son, Come back home to me.)

The most interesting thing is that you won’t feel left out if you don’t know the song. There are lyrics on the projector, translated in English, because the church is multicultural.

The interior of the Methodist worship space is an auditorium shaped, which is in the front centre and gives the congregation full view of the actions happening in the pulpit.  The roof is wider with lights. A red and white candle was lit and put on top of a square table. It was stuffy and hot.

HOLY PLACEThe Central Methodist Church as a home for many refugees. Photo: Wendy Mothata
HOLY BOOK: The Holy Bible is used at the church by young and old people. Photo: Wendy Mothata

The congregation stood up, as they welcome Reverend Ndumiso Ngombo to the pulpit, dressed in a white Cassack. He was using English and a bit of Xhosa when he was preaching.

He read the scripture of Luke 15:20 “So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

“The bible is clear that we should welcome strangers in our home, eat and drink with them. We should love our neighbours as we love ourselves, says Ngombo. Furthermore he quoted Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Third row from the right side there was a chubby man with black shinny shoes, blue denim jeans and blue shirt. Singing with a smile on his face, seating right next to his two little daughters who were playing with blonde dolls.  He pulls out a chair outside church to take Wits Vuvuzela through his hardships.

WATCH: The Central Methodist Church caters for homeless people from across the continent.

The journey of William Kandowe

This is William Kandowe (right), (44), a refugee from Zimbabwe who came to Jo’burg in 2007 in a quest for a better life. He is one of the foreigners who found themselves sleeping jobless on the streets of Jo’burg.  “I have never dreamt of coming to South Africa,” said Kandowe, a member of the Methodist church.

Kandowe was trained as a teacher in Zimbabwe and he left his country because of the political situation. “It was difficult at home during that time, we would work for months without being paid,” Kandowe said.

One night when Kandowe was sleeping three men chased him away from where he was sleeping. They were claiming ownership of the spot. “They were talking to me in Zulu and I couldn’t understand what they were saying, that’s where I got into a fight with them. They wanted to take away everything that I was having with me including my certificates.  I had to fight with them and I managed to escape,” he says with a low tone.

Kandowe said that what shocked him the most was that someone who was driving a truck parked for few minutes watching them fighting, “I was thinking he will get out of the car and help out because that’s how we do things at home. You can’t just leave two people fighting, you have to intervene to end the fight.” However that was not the only time Kandowe gets into a fight, he was involved in another one where people wanted to attack him.

“They were talking to me in Zulu and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. That’s where I got into a fight with them. They wanted to take away everything that I was having with me, including my certificates. I had to fight with them and I managed to escape,” he says.

After all the struggles of sleeping on the streets,  a 130-year-old church that is as old as Johannesburg, became a place of safety and haven for many foreigners like Kandowe and Sam Mogambe in the city of Joburg.

The Central Methodist Church is affectionately known to welcome strangers and creating a home for immigrants during and after the terrible xenophobic attacks that took place in 2008. Many people from African countries became victims of violence, this includes children  Mogambe, 46, from Uganda, came to South Africa in 2002. He left his country because of political issues.

EDUCATING THE COMMUNITY: Illustrations of some of the project within the Methodist Church

Not only was the church a place of safety it became a place of learning where many people took classes of local languages and computer. This programme did not only accommodate homeless people but also the Joburg community, which paints a picture of how the church was assimilating in the people.

Mogambe was one of the people who used to attend Zulu classes. He said that he was mugged more than four times by the people who speaks Zulu. Mogambe explained that what happened to him made him more eager to know the language. “This experience’s forced me to attend Zulu classes which were offered at Methodist church and I thought knowing the language will make me have a sense of belonging towards the community,” says Mogambe.

Imagine a country where you are having both men and women living in the street. The Methodist came in a way of trying to bridge the gap between languages, bringing mission together learn and do skills together. Although there will be challenges for those who are affected by this huge

My point is clearly not that learning isiZulu is wrong, but so far it reflects assimilation into minority. One of the major challenges that Kandowe struggled with, was learning local languages like Xhosa and Zulu.” At times people may even gossip about you” he laughs loudly.

“Few days after my stay at church, there then Bishop Paul Verryn asked to see all trained teachers. In a conversation with Verryn, I was asked what skills can I bring to the church and I said I can teach computer, form that day Verryn took me to his home in Soweto, in one of the back rooms, I ate and slept nicely there,” says Kandowe.

Today the school has more than 400 leaners mostly are foreigners only a few are South Africans. Furthermore some of this kids do not have families and they are staying in one of the Methodist church in Soweto where they travel daily using train.

What will leave your eyebrows raised is that the very same foreigner is the teacher of isiZulu at school. “I teach Zulu here at school and all the kids have been doing well including foreign kids,” Kandowe says.  The evidence is stuck on the wall and indeed the school has 100% pass rate from 2014 in isiZulu.

Kandowe said that Joburg is a city where you meet all types of people, a place where dreams come true for many. “But home is where my heart is, no matter how rich or poor one can be, home is the best. It is where you are connected to your grassroots and all memories of childhood. Obvious you will always be homesick but you are in a struggle, you have to fight and win the war,” says Kandowe.

SERVING POINTHomeless people gather at some spots where the volunteers will come and provide food. Photo: Wendy Mothata

Mogambe acknowledged that the church helped him with the basics of language and opportunity to get a job. He is now the co-ordinator of Paballo ya Batho which means caring for people. An organisation that was established in the Methodist Church to help homeless people with food, clothes and blankets from the donors.

Right in the kitchen where she was preparing food, there was one toothless woman with a knee injury. From the Free State province, she does not remember when she came to Joburg. She was homeless and helped by one of the members of the Methodist church.

Leah van Vore (54) said that it was difficult to stay on the streets especially if you don’t have food and clothes. “Today I’m thankful to Methodist for not shutting doors for us, but rather accommodated us even though we had our own beliefs,” said Van Vore.

She now has her own place, staying with her daughter and grand-daughter, and working for Paballo ya Batho organisation, cooking for homeless people. One would say what Van Vore and two foreigners are practising is ubuntu (I am what I am because of who we all are).  They are trying to give back, as they were once given.

IN THE KITCHEN: One of the volunteers preparing food for homeless people. Photo: Wendy Mothata
LUNCHEON: Homeless people go to the Methodist Church every Wednesday to eat lunch. Photo: Wendy Mothata

Reverend Mawuzole Mlombi (33), is in charge of the Methodist Church in Braamfontein. He walked in his office together with his wife, both wearing black shoes and red shirts. “The mandate of the church is to go to the community and teach the gospel,” says Mlombi.

Mlombi said that having a church in the inner city is very challenging, “It’s a tough one, and the competition is too much.”

“Johannesburg needs many churches and churches needs to find a way to keep the youth in the house of the Lord so that they can enjoy and don’t feel the pressure of going back to the world,” Mlombi says.

However Mlombi made it clear that he does not have a problem with the foreigners, “I have a very good friendship with some of the foreigners, outside and inside church.”

Towards the end of the service, the Church young women ushers bring small glasses with red wine and pieces of bread put in a tray to the pulpit. The pastor kneels and prays before taking part. It’s a Holy Communion. The pastor opens and stretch his arms as he calls for sharing of bread and drinking of wine. “Bread represent Christ’s body and wine represents the blood of Christ. Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you. Come,” says Ngombo.

FEATURED IMAGE: Johannesburg CBD buildings. Photo: Wendy Mothata

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Fietas: A community starving for survival

Just a stone’s throw away from affluent suburbs such as Parktown and Auckland Park in Johannesburg is a “poor white” suburb called Fietas. Over 40 years ago, the government forcibly removed many families to make way for a low-cost residential white suburb. These days Fietas is associated with poverty, drugs, prostitution and crime. At the same time, it is home to many families trying to happily survive in often desperate surroundings.

A REMNANT OF THE PAST: The Jan Hofmeyr Community Services on 8th Street, Vrededorp, provides social support for members of the Fietas community, which is home to working-class and poor white families. Photo: Reuven Blignault


An old church stands on 8th Street in Vrededorp, an area informally known as Fietas. Inside is the smell of pap and vegetables steaming at high heat and the sound of knives and forks on old porcelain plates. It is lunchtime at the Jan Hofmeyr community centre. The centre provides social support for members of the Fietas community, which is home to working-class and poor white families.

Until its destruction under the Group Areas Act in the mid-1970s, Fietas was a colourful, vibrant working-class society, with many wealthy and up-and-coming Indian business owners making a profit there. Fietas was also home to African, coloured, Malay and Chinese people, of all faiths, workers and professionals, shopkeepers and artisans.

Fietas boasted mosques, churches, bioscopes, shebeens, schools, sports grounds, corner cafés, dance halls and bazaars. Fietas was an integrated community, not unlike District Six and Sophiatown, and before similar political changes, it became home to both rich and poor.

The area was cleared of “non-whites” by the apartheid government in the 1970s. Many homes were bulldozed and housing for white people was built on some of the land, with large parts remaining undeveloped. The majority of those forcefully removed were moved to Lenasia and Soweto between 1956 and 1977. This led to fierce resistance that continued into the 1980s.

“Fietas has always been a poor area,” said Alan Jeeves, “but, more particularly, a poor white area that still sees segregations that were designed under the apartheid government today.

“If you look at Vrededorp, the area just above 8th Street, you will see that most of the population is white. But the more you head south, towards 14th Street, you will see a change in demographics.” Jeeves is retired as a history lecturer at Wits University and has published several books, including one about Fietas.

INSIDE: The Jan Hofmeyr community centre helps the poor and homeless in the Fietas community by providing everything from food to drug counselling. Photo: Reuven Blignault

‘The old church’

The Jan Hofmeyr community centre (JHCC) diner is housed in the 1895 church on 8th Street. The centre helps the poor and homeless in the Fietas community by providing everything from food to drug counselling.

As one of the only permanent support centres in the area, the JHCC is a hub for people with social and family issues all seeking to better their situations.

Linda Pretorius, 48, used to come to this church as a child. She is now a manager at the Jan Hofmeyr community centre.

“There used to be weddings, christenings and a strong community atmosphere,” said Pretorius. “In the ’70s, we used to play in the streets and we never felt threatened from crime. The streets were beautiful and the buildings were new, yes we were poor, but that did not seem to matter because we lived a happy life.”

Pretorius suggested that political shifts and tensions led to a downfall in her community. “When the late ’80s came around, there was a housing crisis. Many poor people were moved nearby, and many were criminals. People could get drugs more easily and we saw a lot of children in broken homes because of this.”

Originally from the Cape, Pretorius’s family came up to the City of Gold to seek a better life. They managed to find stable employment and a liveable wage.

“This neighbourhood has always had its problems. Drugs, prostitution, crime, these are all reasons why you would not want to live here,” said Pretorius.

Pretorius wanted to get out. She got married and found a stable job. She had a son, who now lives in Fietas and works at a nearby petrol station.

When her son was a teenager, Pretorius moved back to the Cape, leaving him behind. She acknowledges that this was a mistake. A year later her son was hooked on heroin. Ten years ago, in a message she said came directly from the Lord, Pretorius moved back to Johannesburg to help her son. She found solitude in the JHCC and entered her son into a support group.

When her son “became clean”, she decided to stay at the centre and volunteer any way that she could.

She gave up her well-paying job and volunteered at the JHCC, where she has been working ever since.

“It was God who spoke to me one night after praying intensely. He told me to go back to my roots and give back to my old community as they were in need,” said Pretorius.

“I feel as if I can change just one person’s life in my time here, then I have done my job and I have pleased the Lord.”

Other families in Fietas are not as fortunate to share the relief that Pretorius had.

A HELPING HAND: Elizabeth Kuhn, 76, is a cook at the JHCC. A pensioner in a nearby old age home, Kuhn helps to give back to her community by volunteering to cook for free every day. Photo: Reuven Blignault

Social issues and support

Jakes Jacobs, a manager at the JHCC, explained the kinds of support that the centre gives to families in the area.

“There are many young girls who are sex workers. This is either because they need the money to support their family or, most likely, because they need the money for drugs.

“We try our best to support them by providing counselling but, more importantly, to provide them with a way that they can develop skills to find proper work,” said Jacobs.

Joblessness is a visible problem in the area. At the local corner store, there are groups of young, unemployed white men sitting outside, begging for money from those who have bought bread, cigarettes or cellphone air time.

“There is no work for me,” said 22-year-old Chris Swart. “I am very desperate, and the only way I can get money or food is to ask people for it.”

Swart went to the local primary school, Laerskool Piet Van Vuuren, but that was as far as he went.

“My parents couldn’t afford for me to go to high school. My father is a motor mechanic, so I helped him when I finished grade seven.”

Swart says his father was killed in 2010 during a robbery at their home. “My mother didn’t have enough money to keep his business going,” said Swart. “My mother is a nurse at Helen Joseph Hospital and doesn’t earn much.”

“After my father died I got very depressed, so I turned to drugs to help. I have no money, so I have to beg for it. So, yes, I do take drugs, but I am trying to get help … it is hard.

“I go to a drug support group at the JISS centre in Mayfair a few times a week, the people at the Jan Hofmeyr centre said I must go there,” said Swart. “They said I needed a doctor who could help me and there are free psychologists there.”

There are people in the community who share Swart’s story and that is where the JHCC seeks to help.

But there are also families who are just looking to live in a happy home.

The Fietas home

PORRIDGE: Jan Blom, 68, has lived in Fietas for over 40 years. As a young person, he served a five-year sentence for drug possession. Photo: Reuven Blignault

Willem Smit, 43, lives with his family near 8th Street in Fietas.

Smit used to work in an electronics factory as an armature winder. He was laid off after the company collapsed in 2007. He and his family used to live in Newlands but, due to a lack of income, had to move somewhere more affordable.

Smit and his family live in a building called Wilgehof. The building is one of the many low-cost housing projects started in the 1970s, during the rezoning of the area to accommodate working-class white families. As the breadwinner of the family, his wife works as an administrative assistant in town. They have two children, aged five and six.

“I have never lived in the best of areas, but I’m very worried about my kids growing up here,” said Smit. “I’ve seen young school kids sitting on the corner taking drugs in broad daylight. They think it is cool … And if my sons grow up here in that environment then that is not good. We do make use of the Jan Hofmeyr community centre, my children go to the crèche there and, when times are tough, like when we need food, they provide it for us.”

Support groups nearby, such as Islamic Relief in Mayfair, share the same ideas as to why the community of Fietas and neighbouring areas have an ongoing poverty crisis.

“There is definitely a need for aid for those that live in Mayfair and Fietas,” said Abdullah Vawda, coordination manager of Islamic Relief. “But what we are finding in the area is a culture that wishes to remain poor, as aid is merely provided to them. They do not feel the need to find proper work as they make more money begging than they would at work.”

“Even though we want to do God’s will by feeding the community, we can only do so much,” said Jacobs.

“If we provide absolutely everything for them, then there would literally be no hope of the young population in Fietas finding work.”

Community centres in Fietas and Mayfair provide much-needed support for the community as a whole but do not merely feed the community; they encourage members of the community to find proper employment.

The JHCC survives on food donations from many food markets around Johannesburg. The food arrives early in the morning and is prepared for the lunch hour by a group of volunteers.

HELPING OTHERS: Jane Reid, 73, a cook at the JHCC, makes pap and vegetables for those in the centre. Photo: Reuven Blignault

Making a difference

Jane Reid, 73, a cook at the JHCC, makes pap and vegetables for those in the centre. She explained that she loves doing her job. “I grew up in Fietas, so I feel that it is my responsibility to give back to my community like this.

“My mother was a domestic worker for a family in Parktown, but we lived here in Fietas,” said Reid. “I didn’t have a job for many years, and my children were starving. We used to come to the JHCC to get food every day and after a while I stayed working here at Jan Hofmeyr.”

The centre prepares food that is delivered every day at 8am by benefactors such as Food Lovers’ Market. After taking the delivery, a team of eight people work rigorously to prepare food for lunch time. After the doors close at 1pm, the team immediately starts to prepare food for the dinner time rush.

The Jan Hofmeyr community centre estimates it has helped over 200 families in Fietas and neighbouring areas by providing support for them since the year 2000.

THE STRUGGLE: Miriam Sambukwe, 42, comes to the JHCS every day at lunch with her four-year-old daughter. With very little income at home, she finds the support from the centre a godsend. Photo: Reuven Blignault

Counsellor for Ward 58, Barry Jordaan Musesi, is optimistic that progress will be made to better the lives of those who live there.

“The community was highly upset with my predecessor. They accused him of leading Fietas to a slum status similar to Hillbrow or Malvern,” said Musesi. “I hope that I will make a difference in these people’s lives by addressing their concerns.”

“The residents have raised concerns about illegal businesses, panel beaters, slums and the need for mass housing. After many complaints came up of residents saying that the place is dirty and unsafe, we reported this to the City of Jo’burg. Things have since progressed with additional Pikitup cleaners and more police patrolling,” Musesi told Islamic radio station Cii Broadcasting in a separate interview.

Musesi agreed that police presence had not lived up to the community’s expectations in relation to crime prevention. “Crime in Fietas is everywhere and the police are struggling to cope. In the coming few months I will further my discussions with the mayor to discuss better policing, especially during the festive season.”

Even though Musesi says the conditions of Fietas will improve, the opinions of locals such as Linda Pretorius suggest Fietas will not change any time soon. “We can only do so much for this community, and I wish we had a magic wand that could make life better for everybody, but we try to make a difference one person at a time.

“By helping just one person, and making a difference in their life, even just by giving them a loaf of bread, is enough to inspire them to say that there is more to this life, and especially for the children, it gives them hope.”

Pretorius hopes that all South Africans can be inspired by the work of centres like Jan Hofmeyr Community Services, that communities like Fietas can shrug off their negative stereotypes and that the families of Fietas can take the right path, changing for the better.

FEATURED IMAGE: A REMNANT OF THE PAST: The Jan Hofmeyr Community Services on 8th Street, Vrededorp, provides social support for members of the Fietas community, which is home to working-class and poor white families. Photo: Reuven Blignault

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Meeting Mandela: memories of joy and despair

 Doris Malinga, a 70 year-old resident of Kliptown, Johannesburg recounts her memories of Nelson Mandela.

Seventy year-old Doris Malinga remembers more than one version of her first meeting with Nelson Mandela. She describes each with such faithfulness to the joy and the despair of the experiences that you can hardly dispute that both ‘first times’ really did occur. A case of Madiba magic? Perhaps.

“uMandela ngamthintha kwathi ngakusasa kwakhona ngawina… angazi besi dlalani ngaleso skhathi… (short pause) Oh ya! Amahashi! (joyous guffaw) Lapha eTurfontein. Ngawina”. (I touched Mandela’s hand, and the next day I won … I don’t remember what we were playing in those days. Oh yes! Horses! In Turfontein. I won.)

Standing between the side buildings and the main hall of a now mostly empty Regina Mundi Catholic Church, in a sliver of brave sunshine, Doris Malinga recounts her experiences of Nelson Mandela as if watching them flicker across the screen of memory for the first time. Mandela banner2

“Bagcwele amambhunu la ngaphandle, sabalekela la eRegina Mundi. Silele ngezisu abokhile amabhunu nezinja ngaphandle… 1976!”. (A lot of Boers where outside, we ran and hid here in the Regina Mundi church. we lay flat on our stomachs while the Boers waited for us outside with their dogs … 1976!)

This past Sunday, three days after Mandela’s passing, Doris attended a service at the church dedicated to the late, great statesman.

In a corner to the right of the pulpit, a large wood-framed portrait of grey-haired “Tata” leaned against the wall, watching as joy and despair rippled through the congregation dressed in powder-blue and others in deep-purple uniforms.

Doris said pride rose up inside of her as she sat in the pews and listened to the pastor speak of Mandela’s life and work.

Her own path to this famous church, she said, was paved in the black, gold and green colours of Mandela’s ANC.

[pullquote align=”right”]”I’m going to wear ANC because Mandela saved us when the Boers were after us.”[/pullquote]

She explained that years after the days of seeking refuge away from apartheid police in the church, she eventually “gave herself to Roma”, at around the same time as Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

A thumb-and-pinky telephone helps her explain why she came to the service dressed head to toe in ANC regalia rather than the required uniform of a long-time member of the congregation.

“Namhla angeke ngigqoke ijoin mina (Today I’m not going to wear uniform),” she said re-enacting her conversation with a fellow member. “Ngizogqoka iANC ngoba uMandela wasi kipha amabhunu asigijimisa. uMandela ngiyamgqokela (I’m going to wear ANC because Mandela saved us when the Boers were after us. I’m wearing this for Mandela).”

So proud of her outfit, Doris insists on the “best” picture being taken of it adjusting it with bright-coloured cloths and scarves from a seemingly bottomless black plastic bag at her side, to obtain a verisimilitude with the reverence she expresses.

Doris Malinga remembers the times she met Nelson Mandela. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Doris Malinga remembers the times she met Nelson Mandela. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

A little later, with a gift of two queen cakes and a styrofoam cup of sherbet-orange juice, Doris recalls the other version of her first encounter with Nelson Mandela.

“I had two sons. One was an ANC member. Both died during apartheid. One was shot near Orlando Station by police on his way back from school … The other was killed near Kliptown. His body was thrown into that river (the Kliprivier).”

One of her late sons left behind a young boy-child, whom Doris raised. He is now 20 years-old.The previous proud overflow of joy slows as despair tinges Doris’s voice.

She remembers a day when she knocked off work in town and went to collect her grandson from a near-by daycare center. She took him to Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters on Sauer street, where Mandela was addressing a large crowd.

“Bengimuphethe emahlombe. Kugcwele kuthe! uMandela wambona. Wamuthata wambekha emahlombeni akhe. (I had him on my shoulders. It was jam packed. Mandela saw him. He took him and hoisted him onto his shoulders).”

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