SLICE: Observing Ramadan as a troubled non-Muslim

A religious reawakening was needed after I distanced myself from Catholicism, but I received so much more from Ramadan.

This year I decided to observe Ramadan to seek spiritual clarity to help me cope with the trauma of sexual assault, but after the second week I was struggling as habits of an eating disorder I thought was in remission started to reappear. 

I had a Christian upbringing and always relied on a higher power to rescue me when at my lowest. I attended a Catholic school from grade six, but by my matric year, learning about existentialism in drama class, I became disillusioned.  

I pondered the purpose of all my actions and reflected on life events and experiences that had caused me much pain. Bullying, homophobia and racism at school caused a rift between me and Catholicism. Added to this was the Roman Catholic Church’s disapproval of me and those I love: Myself as a queer woman, and family members and friends who identify as LGBTQIA+. It contradicted a belief my Catholic father had taught me, namely kindness and love for everyone, no matter who they are.  

Lent was something I had partaken of since the age of 11, so Ramadan was easy enough to wrap my head around. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the holiest of months and a compulsory act of the Muslim faith. It is a month of prayer, reflection and fasting to create a stronger relationship with Allah.  

Muslims must fast between sunrise and sunset. They have a meal before dawn (Suhoor or Sehri) and break their fast after sunset (Iftar or Fitoor). I began Ramadan with complete willingness to see the month-long fasting through. I explored the ins and outs, such as the times for Sehri and Iftar, as they change daily according to the sun. I needed to plan meals for both. I was eager to cultivate a relationship with a higher power. Christianity did not work for me; maybe Islam was my calling. At the beginning, the hardest part was waking early enough to pray and eat. Thereafter it was coping with the return of bulimia nervosa.  

If you ask anyone in my life to describe me, an opinion that would come up is ‘‘control freak’’. I was used to having control. It made me feel safe and secure. The feeling of having no control during the sexual assault reintroduced the need for it into every aspect of my life. This retriggered a toxic relationship with food and hunger.  Being able to control when I was hungry and when I was full felt like reclaiming the power I had lost. I did not realise right away that the feeling of satisfaction with hunger was not the spiritual awakening I desperately needed, but rather the reappearance of a demon.  

Bulimia had made me obsessed with ensuring nobody knew what was happening, and when I started to show side effects such as yellowing finger nails and teeth, dry skin or red eyes, I knew I had to take a break. By the second week of Ramadan, my skin was dry and I was more exhausted than the usual university student, yet I still did not realise bulimia had reared its ugly head again.  

Menstruation releases a woman temporarily from religious duties such as prayers and fasting, and requires them to make up the missed days of fasting before the next Ramadan. The beginning of my menstrual cycle could not have come at a better time; I thought I would have some days to rest from fasting and not have to wake up early. After this period of pause I found it difficult to get back on the wagon. I began lying to my family about fasting, hoarding food in my bedroom and never really knowing if I was hungry or not.  

Frustrated and disappointed that I was unable to stay committed during Ramadan, I punished myself by binging and purging, followed by lying and secrecy. Despite the resurfacing of negative feelings towards food, I am grateful for my two weeks of Ramadan. I began the month of fasting hoping to cope with trauma and depression, and while I believe myself far from “recovery”, I feel it has set me on the right path. I have learned the value of discipline, kindness and being grateful for what I have.  

I think I needed to fail at observing Ramadan to see how much I need to put into healing; that religion and faith are not a quick fix. I am now committed to really healing and forgiving myself. I am uncertain of the steps to take to get where I want to be, but I know it is up to me.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Kemiso Wessie. Photo: File

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Evolution of the long-standing heart of worship

The pink church with the blue door is one of Melville’s iconic historical sites. The landmark follows the journey of prayers, businesses and an overarching spirit of a building with tales stretching over 115 years.

Placed on a steeply sloping site, in a quiet part of the usually vibrant Melville suburb, the former Church could slightly confuse one about what it currently is. Since its inception over a century ago, the marvel that is the pink building, still stands. 

At first glance it is a church, the closer one examines the pink-painted building with a high-pitched roof, it becomes evident that although initially built for the purposes of worship, it is no longer being used for what it was originally intended.

The walk from Auckland Park to the one-story building, situated at the corner of Chatou Road and Landau Terrace is an intriguing and dynamic one as the pace and activity of the area changes.

Initially one is hit with the loud commotion of traffic, businesses and early morning folk making their way to work on Empire Road in Auckland Park. The change in scenery and ambience is evident as one moves further away from Auckland Park and closer to the Pink Church. The calmness and quiet cannot be evaded: fewer cars and people. On this warm summer morning only the green vision of leafy elongated trees and private houses consume people.

Arriving at the Pink Church with its brick-layered paving and white, steel-barred gate, its longevity is displayed by the worn-out white trimmings on its apex rooftop, which are etched with marks that represent wrinkles of this long-standing landmark. Its exterior clearly reveals that, like fine wine the building has matured with age. Fenced by a pink wall, the former church now serves as a print studio to Collin Cole who warmly welcomes me at the entrance.

FROM THE BACK:  The north entrance of the Pink Church, on Second Avenue, previously a parking area, the space is now used as an acid room.  Photo: Palesa Dlamini

Arriving at the Pink Church with its brick-layered paving and white, steel-barred gate, its longevity is displayed by the worn-out white trimmings on its apex rooftop, which are etched with marks that represent wrinkles of this long-standing landmark. Its exterior clearly reveals that, like fine wine the building has matured with age. Fenced by a pink wall, the former church now serves as a print studio to Collin Cole who warmly welcomes me at the entrance.

Initially, comprising two stands which were later consolidated to stand number 239, the eye–catching structure came into existence in 1903 as the Auckland Park Wesleyan Church. Plans of the space before it came into actuality show that there was never a doubt about what colour to make the place of God as these too show a pink structure to be constructed and it has remained as such.

The pungent smell spawned by conifers which encircle the building infuses the air and is reminiscent of Christmas trees. These saplings, which are a type of pine tree are of great Christian significance as they form part of the religion’s ethos.

 The book of Kings in the Old Testament of the holy book, the bible, conveys how Solomon constructed the Lord’s temple using wood from these kinds of conifers. The man of God paved the walls and ceilings of the temple with cedar and used planks of cypress for the floors. The temple had two folding doors made of cypress wood.

FROM THE SIDE: The Pink Church surrounded by leafy trees that extend over the building.

Having housed various types of works during its existence, 25 years later, the place of worship remained as such after it became home to the Melville Auckland Park Hebrew Congregation, as it served as a synagogue.  The building’s tradition as a church remained when The Old Apostolic Church of Africa took over it in 1956. Offices have been housed by this establishment. It has been a dwelling to its current owner and has served as an office space for a variety of other businesses.

In glancing at the magnificent creation, one cannot ignore the preservation of the character and church–like atmosphere of the historic stand.

AT WORK: Owner of the Blue Door Print Studio, Collin Cole cleaning one of his prized printers at his studio.

Cole, who is the current occupier of this inviting space, a print maker by profession, distinguished this as the best and most attractive place to utilise for his studio, print-making classes and business.

The 58-year-old blonde-haired man smiles as he welcomes me warmly at the gate of his recently acquired studio.

As he leads me inside the structure, I am greeted by two folding wooden ingresses at the south side of the building. This is now a sunlit interior space where the light is inviting as it fills the high structure from its seven high built arched windows with three on either side of the Pink Church and one just above the main south side entrance. The most noticeable feature is the apex shaped skyline surrounded by a high pitched wooden roof which according to Cole is approximately 12 metres from the floor.

“That skyline is one of my favourite things about this beautiful place. I mean the light from all sides and especially from the skyline is just breath-taking. It is especially good for the kind of work [printing] that we do here,” Cole said. 

The room Cole and I stand in previously consisted of what he calls “boring white walls” which the print maker decidedly painted an exuberant red after occupying the space on his 58th birthday on May 25 last year. 

Two full-size West African figures guard the short staircase down to his corridor gallery. Further down, to the right of the gallery, is a strong room which the first occupants of the Pink Church, Christian congregants in 1903 used as the church safe.

In sneakers, jeans and t-shirt, Cole takes me on a tour of this exquisite heritage site. The once irreparable wooden floors have been transformed into concrete cement screed and decorated with multiple rainbow colours to add a little bit of class.

With his two year–long lease agreement with his landlord Lebrun Rossouw, Cole has no immediate plans of relocating.

“When I first saw the place it was actually being used as an office by architects Britz and Scholes and I knew I wanted to own it at some point. I was immediately drawn to it because of its classical look, architecture and structure,” Rossouw says.

Rossouw, owner of The Jolly Roger Pub located in Parkhurst, north of Johannesburg saw the former church as the best place for a bachelor such as himself at the time. He lets out a laugh as he explains why a church was the best fit for him.

INSIDE: The former place of worship now carries print works and machinery used to produce them.

 “I can’t think of anything more romantic than living in a church. It contrasted the atmosphere I experienced in my pub because when I would come home all I felt was calmness. The romance of a church as a home cannot be put into words,” he said.

Rossouw took ownership of the Pink Church after it had been empty and abandoned for three years.

“It was derelict, had no windows, doors, toilets and was occupied by vagrants,” he explained.

The businessman renovated the distinctive piece of property as he turned what used to be the pulpit area into his private sleeping quarters by erecting a white two-metre-high wall which now boasts the initials B.D in the colour blue, which are a representation of what the building currently is, The Pink Church with a Blue Door.  Rossouw proudly speaks of one of his most prized possessions, The Pink Church

“When I first moved in there, there was a mezzanine floor and stairs as well as a conference room which had been and added by Britz and Scholes. I added and changed a lot. I added a kitchen, I extended the entrance so I could use it as a parking space. It now extends closer to the road. I added a garage at the back and I created a bathroom too,” Rossouw said.

Seventeen years subsequent to acquiring the gemstone, Rossouw, following careful consideration and thought explains that he is always open to change.

Having been used as an office from 1978 the Pink Church was occupied by 15 staff members who worked for the architectural firm, Britz and Scholes.

One of the former staff members was 56-year-old, Fiona Garson whose first job was as a junior architect at the firm. Speaking of the building during her time there, in 1988, Garson fondly recalled the interior at the time and the great way owners of the building at the time transformed the building.

A VISION: The brightly painted walls of the building carry the print works of current and former students.

“Britz and Scholes were the owners of the building. It was a nice building. There was an entire mezzanine level and a double volume in the middle. The staff would sit upstairs and everyone had their own alcove to work in,” she says.

After a moment in silence as if travelling back in time to when she was 23 years old [1988], Garson takes a deep breath and continues, “I remember how beautiful it was especially because of the way it was oriented. It had a high volume inside and it was an interesting space to work in because I don’t think a lot of people envisioned the place as an office and not a church.”

According to Garson, her then R2 367 pay check was enough for her to get by as she could pay the rent at her small flat in Yeoville as well as pay for her car.

Garson is currently one of the directors of Cohen and Garson Architects and was part of the team responsible for designing the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein.

Britz and Scholes sold the building for R400 000 in 1990 to Dug toy (Pty).

When the Melville Auckland Park Hebrew Congregation was formed in the western suburbs of Johannesburg, the Pink Church was purchased by the Jewish community in 1929, more than 20 years after its inception.

During her visit to New York in the Eighties, Rose Norwich, a member of the Jewish community became interested in synagogues in South Africa that had been closed down. The now 97-year old qualified architect, who was a Wits student, wrote part of her thesis on the Pink Church. Although her memory is slightly slipping, she tries hard to think back to when she visited the building, as she scratches her fluffy grey hair.

“It was a pretty little building. It was attractive and it captured the essence of the 1900s. It wasn’t big and great, but it was attractive,” says the 97-year-old.

Looking at her old plans of the building and comparing them to the ones I have obtained, Norwich thoughtfully says, “It’s amazing that everyone who has owned it has changed it in some way, maybe that’s what makes this building so interesting. I am almost as old as it actually.”

The National Heritage Resources Act, 25 of 1999 states that structures such as the Pink Church, which are older than 60 years may not have any of its part exterior demolished by any person without a permit issued by the Provincial Heritage Resources Authority Gauteng.

“As far as I know this refers to the exterior of the building. That is why a lot of the demolishing that I did was done to the interior,” Rossouw explains.

Across the road from the Lucky Bean Guesthouse on First Avenue, the Pink Church is also surrounded by private residences, one of which is to its right, formerly known as stand 51 and was utilised as a dwelling place for the synagogue’s rabbi in 1934, after the Jewish congregation built a small house comprising of two bedrooms and a kitchen.

Owner of the guesthouse on First Avenue Conway Falconer has been a neighbour of the church for about eight years. The 56-year-old bearded entrepreneur speaks fondly of the heritage site.

“It’s always been a building I have been proud to speak of when talking about my area. It’s not just your typical building. It’s a church that has experienced a lot. I think at some stage someone tried to sell antiques from there and I think Lebrun once lived there. It’s like it’s always changing inside but always stays the same,” he says.

It can always be argued that it is fairly easy to recycle an existing building, particularly a building such as this former Methodist Church. However, the innovation and care with which the interior has been converted shows the importance and grace of the Pink Church. One cannot help but be mesmerised and captured by the finishes, use of colour and visual excitement it currently carries.

FEATURED IMAGE: The north entrance of the Pink Church, on Second Avenue, previously a parking area, the space is now used as an acid room.  Photo: Palesa Dlamini

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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

Being Muslim in Soweto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Misconceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spreading the good word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their shoes tell a story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formal shoes and sandals: A wealth of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dusty shoes as embodying migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New church puts down roots in Yeoville

Despite the large presence of both formal and informal churches in Yeoville, Joe Muthee has endeavoured to start a new church in the suburb introducing what could be called “the gospel according to Joe”.

Ushers greet visitors with hugs as they walk through the doors of St Mark’s Presbyterian Church hall in Yeoville. Buzzing conversations echo against bare walls. The plastic chairs stacked in rows across the 180m² wooden floors can seat about 80 congregants. The Pentecostal church, Cornerstone Yeoville, which was launched here on Sunday October 5 2014, is the realisation of the seven-year-old dream of Kenyan-born pastor Joe Muthee.

This new church, launched in the St Mark’s hall on the corner of Kenmere and Frances streets, is a recent addition to the plethora of churches in Yeoville. On Kenmere Street alone there are seven, four of which share the hall. Cornerstone Yeoville is the fifth branch of the Cornerstone church in Johannesburg. The others are in Bedfordview, Rosebank, Braamfontein and the South.

Yeoville was established in 1890 and has always been home to migrant communities. Having evolved from a Jewish neighbourhood to a bohemian and political hub in the 1980s and ‘90s, it is now mainly home to African migrants.

Muthee moved to South Africa with his parents in 1996. He previously attended Cornerstone Bedfordview and now voluntarily heads Cornerstone Yeoville. He works as a full-time salesman in the mechanical engineering field. Seven years ago, while walking and praying on the streets of Yeoville, he saw a need for a religious revival.

“We realised the place was in need of the truth … This place needs to be impacted by the gospel.”

SPIRITED SERVANT: After evangelising in the Yeoville community for seven years, Joe Muthee (centre) will be voluntary pastor of Cornerstone church. Congregants from different Cornerstone branches in Johannesburg came to the opening of the new church on October 5 2014. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Cornerstone is affiliated with New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI), a ministry team that originated in Johannesburg in the 1980s under the leadership of Australian pastor Dudley Daniel. Its presence has since extended to more than 80 countries across the world, under the leadership of Tyrone Daniel, who is based in Denver, Colorado.

NCMI helps pastors “plant” local churches. Church leaders can voluntarily partner with NCMI, which is non-denominational. The partnerships are not legally binding. Cornerstone shares the NCMI’s vision of spreading the gospel beyond borders by having church elders like Muthee “plant” churches.

“We believe we have been called to impact nations in local community and into the world. We believe that’s a command Jesus has given to us,” says Muthee. The tithes (10% of earnings) and offerings from congregants and businesses at Cornerstone Bedfordview were used to establish Cornerstone Yeoville. Muthee hopes Cornerstone Yeoville will become self-sustaining.

To join Cornerstone, potential members are invited to complete a four-week course in which they learn about the church’s values. People are welcome to stay if they agree with the beliefs and principles of the church: Jesus Christ, the Bible, the trinity, humanity’s fall, the Holy Spirit, baptism, communion, apostolic Christianity and one universal church. If they do not, they may choose to leave, says Muthee.

Compared to the established Pentecostal churches in the area, with their flamboyantly coloured curtains, bouquets on the altars, red-carpeted stages, full-worship bands and pastors in tailored suits, Cornerstone’s gatherings are minimalist.

Sundays at Cornerstone

It’s Sunday morning. The service starts promptly at 9am. The skeletal band leading the worship includes two guitarists, a keyboard player and a percussionist beating a box drum. Muthee, dressed casually in a blue shirt with white pinstripes, jeans and sneakers, can easily be mistaken for a congregant. A woman pointed him out: “He’s the black guy over there.”

A countdown is projected against the wall as congregants eagerly count: “Five, four, three, two, one!” A praise song, Mighty to Save, begins and the congregation claps to its rhythm and sings along. Some dance and wave their arms, raised to the ceiling.

People of different nationalities, races and ages are singing together. A sign-language interpreter leads some of the deaf congregants in worship. As the tone of the session changes from celebration to a time of spiritual connection, the congregation is led with the hymn How Great Thou Art. People start to weep. The worship leader prays for Yeoville and the work that Cornerstone will do there.

A prophetic word of encouragement is given by one of the worship leaders. She reads from John Chapter 14, verse six: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The congregants are led in prayer before settling down to hear the message.

SWEET ANOINTING: Congregants ‘anoint’ Joe Muthee and his wife Cathy with clothing to represent spiritual gifts of healing, teaching and preaching, at the opening of Cornerstone church on October 5 2014. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Muthee preaches about his upbringing, his parents’ divorce and how he ended up attending church. He graduated from high school and, with no means to go to university, he took the chance of meeting potential employers at church. To impress them, he joined the church soccer team and in 2004 he became a born-again Christian.

Muthee says the conversion came firstly by the “love of Christ” and secondly, the people (Christians). He says their generosity and kindness spoke to his heart. Since becoming a Christian he has been concerned for people, especially in Yeoville. “There are lots of different people here. Most of them are hopeless, destitute and lost.”

Starting the church wasn’t easy. Muthee and his team of 12 battled to get their ministry off the ground, because “there are plenty churches here”. There are in fact 25 churches formally registered as non-profit organisations in Yeoville. On top of that there are many informal churches.

“We can’t control those,” says Nandipa Masilela, who works on the ward committee of health and social development. There are penalties for churches which aren’t registered, but they have mushroomed due to a lack of monitoring.

Johannesburg City Council town planner Angeline Ramahlo says the municipality is currently developing a church policy with which all churches will have to comply. One requirement is that the church design should be aesthetically pleasing and not intrusive to the public.

All these churches in Yeoville accommodate the different migrant communities in the suburb. Most of the pastors of Pentecostal churches are West African, mainly Nigerian and Ghanaian. Foreigners gravitate to these churches through a need for belonging. Pentecostal churches are particularly popular because they are more “global” and the teachings are in English, explains Simbarashe Nyuke, a researcher from the Wits University anthropology department. “For them it brings a sense of community, of brotherhood.”

After they have being baptised, these foreigners feel they belong to a family of believers. Tatenda Kufandada (22), whose family lives in Zimbabwe, found a home when he attended Cornerstone church meetings at the invitation of Muthee. He says people were nice to him and made him feel welcome.

BELONGING: Living a life away from home isn’t easy, says Zimbabwean Tatenda Kafundada (22) who moved to South Africa 18 months ago. He says he found a new home and sense of belonging at Cornerstone church. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

The popularity of Pentecostal churches among foreigners also has to do with churches promising “prosperity and protection” when they move to South Africa, says Nyuke. Johannesburg is seen as a “city of gold”, where foreigners can have a better life and prosper. Most foreigners, however, struggle to make progress here. Churches step in to provide the hope that Johannesburg fails to give them by offering prayer and spiritual deliverance that manifest physically as blessings of wealth and professional progress.

Miguel Matu, who has been attending a Pentecostal church in Yeoville for seven years, says that his life has been “blessed” since joining his church and following the word of God. Matu, who hails from Angola, says he didn’t have money but put the little he had into God’s work. “I saw the blessing of God come in my life.” He believes that, since he followed the Bible, God has blessed him with a house and a business.

Muthee and his team started working in the Yeoville community three years ago. They evangelised on Rockey Street on Wednesday nights, inviting people to church services in Bedfordview. “We found that it is quite far. Many people don’t have cars.”

Group meetings were then initiated on Thursday nights, in the St Mark’s Presbyterian Church hall. However it was difficult to get it off the ground as “the culture is that church happens on a Sunday morning”, says Muthee.

Over the years the number of people attending meetings has fluctuated sharply. Immigrants often relocate, says Muthee. For one season they might have many people coming through for meetings and then the next season these numbers would drop again because people had left Yeoville. “It’s not very constant.”

“It’s God’s work, everybody is supposed to be God-like”

But now that they have finally found a building for their Sunday services, work will be easier, he says. It was very hard to find a suitable property in Yeoville. They were “opposed by [local] government” because churches have a bad reputation in the community. Churches often operate beyond acceptable hours and make excessive noise. “We tried getting the recreational hall and the government said no,” says Muthee.

The council does not let churches use the recreation centre or the park. “If we give to one church then we must give to all,” says ward councillor Sihlwele Myeki. Designating a public space as a place of worship is not fair on the rest of the community, he says.

The development planning department at the Johannesburg City Council deals with applications for church properties. The department also handles complaints, and town planners conduct assessments. Myeki says complaints from residents are always related to noise, or blocked roads due to inadequate parking in the areas where church services are held, often houses or compact venues.

Neliswa Ndlovu, who has been living in Yeoville since 1998, says there are churches in Yeoville “on each and every street”. She complains about the new churches opening in private houses and the excessive noise.

Myeki says residents like Ndlovu often point out that churches take up accommodation space, while there is a housing shortage. “Unfortunately there is no land available for churches.” Yeoville is an old suburb and has largely been built up. New churches therefore often have to resort to occupying houses.

After negotiating for three years, Cornerstone reached an agreement to sublet the St Mark’s hall from the Presbyterian Church. Muthee says they did not have to follow formal application procedures with the municipality because the Presbyterian Church owns the hall.

CORNERSTONE: After spending three years finding a venue, Cornerstone Yeoville has found a home at St Mark’s Presbyterian Church hall. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

The Presbyterian Church allows up to four churches to use the hall. They are not seen as competition. “It’s God’s work, everybody is supposed to be God-like,” says session clerk Giyani Matampi. More churches mean more people will convert to Christianity. The churches pay according to the frequency of their use of the building. The money goes to the maintenance of the premises and water and electricity bills, says Matampi. Cornerstone uses the hall up to three times a week which means they pay more than R3000 a month.

Muthee hopes that one day they will get their own building. “Yeoville is exceptionally expensive and it’s very difficult to find a suitable property.”

Another problem, he says, is that, in Yeoville, many churches have “hurt” people. “Many people have said that churches are meant to give, but here churches come and take.” He says the Cornerstone team is “adamant” about changing these negative attitudes.

A pastor from another Pentecostal church on Kenmere Street, Sebastian Muanza, agrees with Muthee. “Churches have abused people by telling lies and extorting money from them.” Muanza says their job is difficult because they have to correct the mistakes other pastors made in the past.

A common perception among community members is that churches are businesses or scams. Aletta Kock, who has lived in Yeoville since 2006 and attends the Old Apostolic Church, says churches preach about helping people struggling on the street but no one does anything. “People’s lives are not different. It’s still the same.” She compares the churches to spaza shops: “People only want to make money.”

Linda Nxumalo, who sells craft jewellery at the Yeoville Market on Rockey Street, has been going to a church in Forest Town for the past 40 years. She does not like the places of worship in Yeoville. “There are no churches in Yeoville, they are businesses.”

How the churches demand money from their congregants. By: Lameez Omarjee

Muthee and his team acknowledge they face many challenges in Yeoville. “Firstly we need to introduce Christ to them.” He stresses that the difference between Cornerstone and other churches is that they teach the truth effectively. “You don’t solve a broken glass by leaving it broken or breaking it more. We fix it.”

Muthee says that, in order to grow, they will continue their Wednesday night evangelism, inviting residents to attend Sunday services. They also plan to have an impact on the community through social upliftment efforts like feeding schemes and entrepreneurship programmes which will address employment needs in the area.

They are also considering clean-up activities so that residents “take ownership of the streets”. Muthee says no one seems to care what the streets look like. “We need to change that attitude so that people find a sense of ownership in where they belong, a sense of pride which is a difficult thing if you live in a rundown area.” He hopes the community projects will help the congregation to grow.

Asked if he would consider working with other churches in social development projects, Muthee says they hope to work with other local churches in time. “We need as many hands as possible.”  However, he is wary about following the lead of other churches in “speaking a lot” and not doing anything.

Three weeks since its inception, Cornerstone Yeoville has yet to start these programmes to improve the community.  Muthee says these plans had been stifled by the lack of a venue. “But now that we have a venue we will put programmes together.”

The gospel according to Joe

Before closing the service, Muthee gives congregants the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their saviour. True to his word and cause, throughout his message he reiterates that the church preaches Jesus and not Cornerstone. He consistently preaches about the “supernatural” birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.

DELIVERANCE: Congregants go up to receive prayer at the conclusion of the service. Joe Muthee makes an altar call: ‘Salvation is a gift, not a right. We don’t deserve it. To get a gift you need to accept it.’ Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Muthee then asks to pray for congregants who are “sick, hopeless and in need of the truth”, and calls them to the front of the church to receive prayer. He quotes John chapter 16, verse 33: “Take heart because I have overcome it all.”

This message is different from the “prosperity” gospel of the many churches in Yeoville. His introduction of Jesus Christ could be the “truth” Yeoville has been missing.

FEATURED IMAGE: After evangelising in the Yeoville community for seven years, Joe Muthee (centre) will be voluntary pastor of Cornerstone church. Congregants from different Cornerstone branches in Johannesburg came to the opening of the new church on October 5 2014. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

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Vandalism or ignorance at Wits prayer facility

Whudu Khana: Male students washing before afternoon prayers

The Wits musalla (prayer facility) has experienced some incidents of vandalism during the two months since its official opening and hand over to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in March.

The vandals are supposedly people visiting campus on school trips to the Planetarium situated directly next to the musalla.

MSA chairperson Abubakr Osman said people using the facility have reported incidents of people urinating in the washing area, walking on the carpets with dirty shoes and items such as a vacuum cleaner and glassware missing from the storeroom.

“The [storeroom] door was found open. [There are] no details of who found it though,” said Osman,

“Apart from the entrance foyer and bathrooms, the rest of the facility is a ‘no-shoes’ zone. Often the carpets to pray on have been stepped on with dirty shoes. We also face the issue of vandalism where people urinate in the ablution facility. The ablution facility is where people are expected to wash themselves before praying.”

Osman said the incidents were reported by students who live on res and people off campus who use the musalla.

Moshood Olayiwola, a geosciences PhD student, saw school students urinating in the ablution facility. He said he stopped them and explained to them what it was used for.

“I think they didn’t really know what it was used for and aren’t aware of Islamic culture, so I’m not sure if it’s really vandalism,” said Olayiwola.

To avoid such incidents happening again, the MSA has decided to lock the facility and only open it during prayer times. Osman says this is “cumbersome and disadvantageous to people who want to benefit from the facility out of these times”.

The MSA committee has also decided to install an ICAM system. “This would ensure that the safety, security and maintenance of the facility is not compromised and also ensures the easy access of students and card holders,” said Fatima Mukaddam, MSA vice chairperson.

Posters explaining registration by any Witsie wanting access to the musalla will be put up soon.