Exploring their routes, barefoot

BARING THEIR ROOTS: Saul Nossel and Noah Bamberger are two of the band’s original members. The band’s new EP, Routes, was just released and is available for free online.  Photo: Roxanne Joseph

BARING THEIR ROOTS: Saul Nossel and Noah Bamberger are two of the band’s original members. The band’s new EP, Routes, was just released and is available for free online. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Johannesburg band Go Barefoot creates music that makes you want to dance. Described as a mixture of urban-African, jazz, rock and folk, they “really love” their city, a lot.

John Smith, a graphic design student at Vega, is one of the band’s guitarists, vocalists and a “Kenny G” lookalike. The other is Michael Dawson, an architecture student at the University of Cape Town. When he is not coaching soccer, Clive Vicker is Go Barefoot’s bassist. Saul Nossel, a third year music student at Wits, plays the drums and finally, Noah Bamberger, a second year applied computing student, plays the keys.

 

New kids on the block

The band are relatively new to the South African music scene and take example from other local groups, such as Desmond and the Tutus and Shortstraw, who organise and book their own gigs, manage their own tours and work together in everything they do.

“We take conventional and obvious sound, and don’t do that.”

Each of them brings a different set of influences and styles to the group, according to Nossel. Jazz, rock, blues folk, indie and electro are all thrown into the mix when writing a song and practicing for a show. They even have elements of maskandi genre, which Michael learnt from a busker on the street.

“But we’re very experimental,” Bamberger said. “We take conventional and obvious sound, and don’t do that.”

Their audience, they said, has changed from just their friends, to a variety of people. They cater to the up and coming generation, but want to reach out to places like Hillbrow, Soweto and Yeoville.

“Joburg is a progressive, but segregated place,” said Bamberger. “And we want to get out of that by partying together.”

Doing something different

Their music speaks to people of different races, classes and backgrounds. One of their favourite places to play is Braamfontein’s Kitchener’s because it is one of the “coolest and most integrated clubs” in the city.

“We love an audience that loves to lose itself, and who loves dancing. It hurts us if they don’t dance, we struggle to play if people just stand there,” Bamberger explained.

Both Nossel and Bamberger agree that they do not fit into the South African music scene, because they are “trying to do something different”.

“There’s no such thing as original music, only original combinations of it.”

They want to encourage fans to explore the inner city a bit more, and believe their music can help that happen.

Go Barefoot recently played a string of gigs across the city, from Melville to Greenside to Braamfontein, and are about to start a small national tour, starting with an “epic” show at Kitchener’s next weekend. They also just released an EP, called Routes, which, according to Nossel, is about “the routes we take and the roots we come from”.

Their EP, Routes, is available for download online.

Cramming people into places

Little pieces of paper fight for space on a community wall symbolising the struggle to find accommodation in contemporary Yeoville. All spaces are offered, the rooftops of buildings, balconies and even basement storage space.

The high number of people seeking to live in Yeoville and no new residential buildings has triggered overcrowding causing people to divide and sub-divide spaces, forcing people to learn to share small spaces with strangers.

If you enter Yeoville and pass the large market building, you will notice a community wall on your right, opposite the biggest supermarket in the suburb. Scraps of paper flutter in the breeze like the hopes of people desperate to rent the smallest of spaces.The scraps of paper contain messages such as: “a balcony for rent”, “a cupboard for rent” or “a space to let for R1000”. They offer some hope of a place to stay, rather than the alternative of living on the street.Finding a place to live in overcrowded Yeoville is not an easy task. At the end of the month the wall is crowded with people running their fingers across the notice board. There are just not enough buildings to accommodate all the people looking for living space. For some, renting a balcony is the first step to possibly renting an entire unit.

CURTAIN PARTITION: Angeline Majola rushes to feed her crying baby as her neighbours behind the curtain complain about the noise. Photo: Anazi Zote

Further up the hill, on Page Street, is a block of flats called Pageleigh. The big, blue metal gate at the entrance, intended to protect residents from intruders, offers scant security as it is often left open. At the top of two dark flights of stairs is flat number 204. A white security gate is fitted to the doorframe, but the wooden door doesn’t close properly. Curtained cubicles stretch across what is supposed to be a living room. Sheets dissect the large room into smaller spaces. A cubicle goes for R1000 to R1800 a month, depending on the number of people staying in it. Each of the four cubicles is occupied by a couple and each bedroom has a family living in it. It is a spacious three-bedroom flat, ideal for a family of six, but 17 people are living there.Population demographics have changed dramatically since pre-1994. According to a Wits case study, Yeoville and the new South Africa, the total population of Yeoville in 1991 was 8209, of which 6517 people were white and 1237 black. Only 177 Asian and 278 coloured people lived there at the time. By 2011, the population had grown to approximately 19000 people, of which 96.5% were black and only 1.6% white.

Transition to democracy caused overcrowding in Yeoville

CONFINED SPACE: A Zimbabwean couple who recently moved to Pageleigh pay R1800 for their small cubicle.  They make R3000 a month between them. Photo: Anazi Zote

The large growth in population and lack of new residential buildings means the suburb is incapable of accommodating the number of people increasingly coming to live there. Architect Heather Dodds says 20 years ago, only one family would live in a flat, but now a number of people who don’t even know each other are sharing a unit. She says a contributing factor to overcrowding is the mismatch between the person renting the flat and the people sub-letting it.

“This puts a lot of pressure on the physical nature of the building and also increases social pressure. It is not socially conducive to share a place with people you don’t know.”

Although it is not ideal, some people have no choice. One of the Pageleigh flat residents is Junior Nkomo, a chef in Sandton. Originally from Zimbabwe, Nkomo lives in a lounge cubicle slightly larger than a double bed with his girlfriend. He rents the space for R1800. Nkomo came to South Africa a number of years ago in the hope of finding a better life. Both his parents died while he was still at school. While working as a chef, he met his girlfriend, who is now nine months’ pregnant with a baby girl.Pageleigh is the only place he has stayed in Johannesburg. He does not wish to move because it is located in a quiet part of Yeoville. He has lived in different units in the block, but feels settled in flat 204 because he likes his landlord, Fredrick Tshamala. However, now that the couple is about to have a baby, he hopes to move to a bigger space.

“If everything goes well then I will move upstairs in the attic and rent a room for R1000 … because it is bedrooms that are on a roof. As soon as someone shifts from up there then we will move when the baby arrives.”

But he is running out of time because the baby is due in a few days and the occupants of the upstairs room are not planning on moving yet. It is not an ideal place to raise children but many like him are bound to these circumstances because of financial constraints. Tshamala, the landlord, also comes from Zimbabwe and has been living in Pageleigh on and off since 2002. He has moved back and forth between Yeoville and Soweto since he split with his wife in 2010. The couple has a nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Tshamala says he had to return to Yeoville because of financial constraints as living there is more affordable than elsewhere.

“I came back here temporarily. I was just here for a few months then I was back on my feet again, I went to stay somewhere else, in Weltevreden Park. And then I was forced to come back because of the circumstances.”

Tshamala works as a property salesman on the East Rand and plans to move out next month as things are starting to look up for him again. He hopes never to return to live in Yeoville, unless he is visiting friends or family, because it is not a safe place to raise kids.

“If I have to tell you the honest truth I don’t particularly like this place because I don’t see it as an ideal place for bringing up kids.”

He explains that he has to sub-let the flat because the rental is about R12 000 per month and he cannot afford that by himself. He has other responsibilities, such as looking after his children, paying rent, transport, buying food and school necessities.

“So the whole idea about advertising to bring in people is to help make ends meet. Like I said, I’ve got kids, you understand, and the rentals in this place in a month can go up to twelve grand or so … in this place it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Tshamala thinks the high rent is a result of owners taking advantage of foreigners. He says he has noticed that in places such as Hillbrow and Berea, which are also mostly occupied by foreigners, there is a similar problem with rent.

The upkeep of residential buildings in Yeoville

Raising families in such confined spaces also poses health and psychological risks for children. A study conducted by Wits University psychology student Calvin Gwandure reveals that the influence of limited living space and privacy has an effect on a child’s wellbeing. The study had 240 participants, of which 120 were an experimental group from communities facing living space challenges and 120 a comparison group. Children in the experimental group were found to have higher levels of psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, sexual risk behaviours and perceptions of social support.Staying in confined spaces also creates a higher risk of infections and diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, staying in a densely populated place can create serious risks for diseases such as tuberculosis, meningitis, typhus, cholera and scabies. Outbreaks are more frequent and more severe when population density is high. Some owners are aware of the health risks in overcrowding and poor building maintenance. Thabo Kwakwa, who has recently bought flats in Melody Court, hopes to limit overcrowding by stipulating new clauses in lease agreements to combat the problem. He says renovations will start once he gets complete ownership of the block of flats. Part of the renovation will be to create strict security measures to monitor the people who live in the building and those who come to visit.

“The thing is I haven’t been that strict about this … until I renovate the place that is where we will speak strictly about space. ‘Now you have signed a new contract this is what is now happening’.”

Dodd says owners can have more control over their flats by making them smaller. Another system of monitoring people is putting in “biometric access control” using fingerprints to ensure that people who live in the complex are the only ones who have access to it, thus preventing the possibility of overcrowding. When residences are not well-maintained, safety is an issue and so is overcrowding, according to Trust for Urban Housing Finance (TUHF) which provides funding for low-income housing. TUHF is a financial institution which funds property entrepreneurs to develop well-maintained, low-cost housing. Liaison officer Pressage Nyoni says the organisation is aided by the government but is not dependent on it as there are other financial investors.

NOTICE BOARD: Since living space is limited in Yeoville, people line up at the community notice wall looking for a place to stay. Photo: Anazi Zote

“We are just like the lady who sells apples on the side of the street. We go to the market, we buy money and sell it. We get money from the wholesale financers and we sell it, whether it is from the government or you.”

Nyoni says the ideal world would be a mixed residential area of housing that people on different income levels can afford. A situation like this, he says, would create employment and vibrancy, not decline.

“You would actually have crèches run by people who reside in this particular [middle-class] level. You would have people who work as domestics [low income] who reside in this particular area. You’d have people who have got a high-income level, employing and creating a vibrancy. It’s the best thing that could happen.”

Nyoni says high-income homeowners would still get value for their property, as long as the low-income houses were well maintained.

“If the City of Johannesburg enforces the bylaws properly there is no harm in having low-income houses next to high-income houses. For people to think that the presence of a poor person reduces the value of the property is a myth. What is important is the upkeep of the area. If people behave in ways that are respectful to each other, there will be no animosity between them.”

Maintenance of buildings affected by red-lining in apartheid

Enforcing laws on property ownership, eviction and rental is difficult, particularly in Yeoville, because of its past of red-lining. The definition of red-lining, according to Princeton University, is the practice of denying, or increasing the costs of, services. These services may include banking, insurance, mortgages or access to healthcare. Red-lining occurred in racially discriminated areas and was at its peak in the transition towards democracy. This may have caused buildings in the inner city to deteriorate quickly, especially as they were mostly occupied by black people. The Constitution states that everyone has the right to access adequate housing.

An owner has to follow legal procedures to evict or remove people from their homes. No one can be evicted without a court order or without considering all relevant circumstances in terms of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act (PIE). This was enacted to balance the owner’s property rights and the occupant’s right to access housing. A court may refuse an eviction application based on the tenant’s rights to housing. If the eviction is not considered just or equitable then it will not proceed. Nyoni says TUHF is responsible when it comes to lending money to property entrepreneurs. It attracts people who are positive and responsible and is convinced that property owners will maintain their buildings, even once TUHF is no longer a joint owner.

“In fact we are the only financial institution that is loaning money and conditioning the loan agreement to upkeep … you know just being responsible. If you don’t do that you are in contravention of the loan agreement, we can attach and foreclose on you,” Nyoni says.

SHOWCASE ROOM: A 5x4m room consisting of a fridge, ironing board, television, bed and the stock for a mini tuckshop is used creatively to create consultation space for clients who want dresses designed. Photo: Anazi Zote

He says inspections are done to ensure that owners maintain their end of the deal to keep up the building. He is also aware of potential hijackers who want to make sure the building is derelict and ill-managed so they can stay there for free. He also assures owners of the safety of their building once rejuvenation takes place.

“We inspect properties from time to time. We do work it out. It could be rental boycotts, it could be hand-holding required, you know, we are quite a responsible institution.”

It is difficult to control and manage the issue of overcrowding in small spaces. Although, Kwakwa, plans to renovate Melody Court and enforce new lease agreements, there is no guarantee he will succeed, but he is willing to take that risk.

“To start a business is risky, that will be my risk path. I just say: ‘Lemme just try to play the lotto here’ and I’ll see what will come up.”

Kwakwa thinks he will be able to micromanage his building once renovations are done. He says there needs to be a limit on the number of people who occupy each space. It must be an agreement between the lessee and lessor.

“Sharing space is not a problem. The problem is overcrowding. Say for instance I agree to you having not more than six people, you must not exceed that amount. If you can’t afford to pay that money alone then you can share.”

Hijacking of buildings causes overcrowding

The maintenance of accommodation in Yeoville seems to be deteriorating as a result of overcrowding and, according to Kwakwa, previous owners have ignored security stipulations which has led to overcrowding in buildings and deterioration.This discourages owners from keeping their buildings and they sell them because they see no value in their property. Another issue which discourages owners is hijacking. Kwakwa says he receives countless threats from hijackers, who sub-let their units in Melody Court, but that is not going to stop him from pursuing his plans for renovating the block of flats.

“People have been calling me, saying they want to kill me left, right and centre. The hijackers, they want the building. As long as they get to stay there for free, for them it’s fine. I hope by the grace of God I will win [over] those people. I’m not going to fight them. I’m a human being. For me turning back is a casket. There’s no turning back. I’m a father with children … I’m doing it for my children.”

Residents of a Yeoville apartment speak about their experiences of overcrowding. By: Anazi Zote

FEATURED IMAGE: Angeline Majola rushes to feed her crying baby as her neighbours behind the curtain complain about the noise. Photo: Anazi Zote

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Between Rockey and a hard place

There is one resident in Rockey Corner who does not want to stay in Yeoville any more. She opens her door to the smell of decaying rubbish and fears her children will be victims of crime on their walk to school. She is happy with her building’s redevelopment but thinks her neighbours don’t belong.

Melba Khumalo lives in flat 102 of Rockey Corner on Rockey Street, Yeoville. A qualified financial accountant, currently unemployed, she has been living here for the past eight years. The building consists of 10 apartments and most of the tenants are Zimbabwean migrants.

During the 1970s and ’80s the building had mainly white middle-class tenants but Yeoville experienced a dramatic demographic shift, with its population changing from 85% white in 1990 to 2% white in 2011. The demographic shift came about as urban management went into decline in the Johannesburg CBD. The urban decay infiltrated into neighbouring areas, as major businesses moved north to Sandton.

COMPARISON: Property developers Vuka Jozi spent approximately R4-million on Liandra Centre in 2008, after the decaying building was hijacked by tenants. Investor Michael Dick considers the money spent to be a poor investment. Photos: provided

Vuka Jozi Properties bought Rockey Corner in 2008 and, by the end of 2009, had spent close to R4-million on its redevelopment. Vuka Jozi has attempted to bring the building back to its original economic status: providing middle-class accommodation. Rockey Corner is a newly painted building with upgrades such as refurbished bathrooms, security features, newly employed cleaning staff and a designated caretaker.

Hijacked buildings

Khumalo, a South African born in Limpopo, says she feels content with her living conditions but every time she opens her door, she is greeted by the smell of decomposing rubbish. As she looks across the corridor, she points to a building a few metres away. This is Melody Court. It has been hijacked by what Khumalo calls “thugs”, people who are not tenants and who pose a threat far more dangerous than a tenant hijacking, according to her.

When tenants hijack a building it is because there is a dispute with management. They will refuse to pay rent and continue to live on the property without engaging in any dangerous behaviour.

When “thugs” hijack the building, they are usually armed and can take over a building, overnight. According to the City of Johannesburg, the hijackings occur mostly in “bad buildings” – buildings that have been abandoned and neglected by their owners – leading to illegal occupation. In most cases, these “bad buildings” do not have electricity or running water, are overcrowded and are a fire and safety hazard. Often, the residents are illegal immigrants without proper documentation.

Khumalo believes the “thugs” next door are foreigners looking to make some quick money. These usurpers rent out rooms to tenants. The rooms get divided into sections using curtains rails. Then a bed is placed in each section on the floor. The residents pay R1200 or more for a single bed, while all the residents that can be fitted into the flat have to use the same bathroom.

Rockey Corner’s caretaker, Daniel Rasebotsa, says that “thugs” from Melody Court have attempted to steal electricity from Rockey Corner, using illegal cables connected to the building’s basement. They were soon apprehended and police confiscated the cables.

THE BASEMENT: The basement of Rockey Corner has been occupied by a panel beating company. This is also where “thugs” from the neighbouring hijacked building broke through the wall in an attempt to steal electricity. Photo: Luca Kotton

Rasebotsa says the tenants of Melody Court also routinely throw refuse and other waste onto the grounds of Rockey Corner, causing the stench Khumalo describes.

Rattling the window that has been welded to its bracket because of the theft of all the brass handles, Khumalo says: “Our building looks so nice. Our neighbours don’t qualify to be our neighbours. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay rent is a dodgy person in my eyes. The crime in our building has increased and it’s all because of the people next door, who don’t want to look for a job.”

Yeoville’s big backers

Vuka Jozi Properties has eight residential buildings and 10 commercial buildings in Yeoville and its surrounding neighbourhoods. The company is pessimistic about the chances of an immediate regeneration of the area.“In theory, Yeoville can be redeveloped but there is no chance of this happening any time in the near future. Yeoville needs a champion to go in and do all the legwork,” says Vuka Jozi owner and managing director, Michael Dick.

Rockey Corner was Vuka Jozi’s first Yeoville residential purchase back in 2008, when the building was still called Liandra. In the 1990s, it housed a well-known bakery and a Jamaican eatery that Rita Marley, the widow of Bob Marley, frequently visited when she was in South Africa. The building also housed the first mosque in Yeoville, situated on the second floor, which later relocated to Dunbar Street. ANC activist Janet Love, part of Operation Vula, is said to have kept arms and ammunition hidden in the building’s ceiling during the peace negotiations in the 1990s.

Things deteriorated in 2007 when tenants who were dissatisfied with their living conditions hijacked the building. After the purchase, Vuka Jozi laid out a plan of action which included keeping the entire group of original “hijackers”, some of whom even worked on the redevelopment by cleaning and painting.

Dick says if he could go back in time he would never have bought the building, because of the high risk of crime and fairly low profit margins. He describes Rockey Corner as a poor investment in terms of redevelopment. He has spent large amounts of money on the building and it has ultimately been wasted by the behaviour of residents in neighbouring buildings.

Dick says crime is a major problem when it comes to maintenance. His company constantly replaces and repairs damaged or stolen parts, eating into his profits. For security reasons, a building employee stays permanently in most of Vuka Jozi’s properties in Yeoville. The employee is expected to check up on the building two to three times a day, monitoring tenants, maintaining the building and managing cleaning and security staff. The employee is also a communicator between the tenants and owner.

PRIVACY ISSUES: Melba Khumalo sub-lets to four tenants to make extra income because of the couples’ financial situation. Seen here are curtains dividing the TV room to create extra space for a woman and her daughter. Photo: Luca Kotton

New building owners come into the area and find a huge hole in the roof with all the new belongings gone. This, Dick says, is known among owners in the area as the “Yeoville initiation”. And the first thing he does when buying a new building is equip it with an electric fence.

Failed bids

The Johannesburg City Council (JCC) has invested in Yeoville. The library and public swimming pool have been refurbished, a recreation centre has been built and a new police station is currently being erected. Angeline Ramahlo, town planner of the JCC, says that for an area like Yeoville to properly redevelop, it would need to apply to the JCC with a proposal to become a city improvement district (CID).

A CID is a private initiative by building owners in the area. In order for Yeoville to become one, 33% of the building owners in the area would need to approach the JCC. If their proposal is approved, more than half of the building owners would need to pay a levy every month to sustain the extra maintenance, cleaning and security services the city would supply.

Ramahlo says that CIDs are high priority areas for the JCC in greater Johannesburg. For example, if there is a pothole in Yeoville and one in Braamfontein, the pothole in Braamfontein would get attended to first, because of the latter’s CID status.

Ramahlo says attempts have been made in Yeoville to develop a proposal to get CID status. But it has not worked out. The biggest problem was that a large percentage of property owners could not be found, so they never reached the 33% needed for a successful application.

The JCC classifies areas into certain categories in order to allocate resources. For the JCC to focus more on an area, it would need to be classified as “marginalised”. This means that the area would need to be previously disadvantaged and have little or no access to basic city services such as running water, proper sanitation and electricity. Examples of this are parts of Diepsloot and Soweto.

Yeoville has a large number of hijacked buildings where residents burn candles at night, use buckets filled with water and share a bathroom among six or more residents. But that’s not enough for it to be classified “marginalised”, according to the JCC criteria.

“Yeoville is not yet considered a marginalised area. The area’s history means it was not considered in this category. However it is slowly becoming more of a marginalised area,” Ramahlo says. She adds that areas are constantly being monitored and, in the near future, Yeoville could be considered a marginalised area according to the JCC.

Neighbouring CID zones

There have been successful transformations in neighbouring areas of Yeoville. Braamfontein and the downtown Maboneng Precinct are now considered CID zones.

In 2002, local government realised how important the location and function of Braamfontein was to the local economy, and embarked on a multimillion-rand regeneration programme for the area. This was supplemented by significant private-sector investment.

Property developer Adam Levy, who has been largely responsible for the regeneration of Braamfontein, says: “Redevelopment in Yeoville absolutely could work. But you need heavy investment, the property owner community buy-in and someone with backbone to drive it all.”

Levy adds that Braamfontein and Maboneng were different to Yeoville as the majority of properties in the area were owned by only a few investors. Yeoville, however, has separate owners for separate buildings, which makes it more difficult to get CID status, because of the need to contact all property owners and get them to work together.

Levy worked on renovating buildings in Braamfontein for 11 years and helped the area achieve CID status in 2004. He says the process of creating a CID takes time. According to him, Yeoville is a good opportunity for someone from the next generation of property developers because it is well positioned and could be developed into something similar to Braamfontein.

Let’s move

A LONG WALK: Rosy Khumalo’s mother fears for the safety of her 15-year-old daughter because she has to walk through Yeoville to get to school – about 5km away. Photo: Luca Kotton

Khumalo, in her eight years of living in Rockey Corner, has made flat 102 her home. She lives there with her husband and three children, aged 11, 13 and 15. Their children go to school in Braamfontein and she has plans of moving.

“I hope in time that the building next door will be bought and redeveloped by an owner. When people have to pay a bigger rent, they will start treating their living spaces like a home and all the rubbish and crime will hopefully slowly go away. I believe it is a chain reaction and when people take initiative and start redeveloping, others will also take more pride in the area and eventually Yeoville will actually start looking and feeling much more like a home.

“But for me, as soon as my husband and I can get stable jobs, we will be moving to a better area because Yeoville is not a safe environment for my children who have to walk from my house to school every day. I don’t want them growing up in this neighbourhood.”

Meet 92-year-old piano teacher Ros Liebman, who has lived in Yeoville-Bellevue for over 53 years. She has seen the once famous Rockey Street deteriorate as she started to experience more crime and lose some of her students By: Luca Kotton

FEATURED IMAGE: Melba Khumalo sub-lets to four tenants to make extra income because of the couples’ financial situation. Seen here are curtains dividing the TV room to create extra space for a woman and her daughter. Photo: Luca Kotton

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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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The Evolution of the Spoken Word

Even during the apartheid years Yeoville was a place of freedom when it came to music and poetry. Today, it continues to be a free space for the power and importance of expressing anger, pain, loss and love.

Young artists dedicate their time to reflecting their feelings about everyday social issues. They make their music real and hope to take the young generation of Yeoville out of the streets that are growing with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

BROMANCE: Rhythmic poets of Yeoville (l to r), Bukhosi Mncube and Mkhululi Thabetha have been friends for six years and they’ve grown closer through a passion for music and poetry. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

Twenty-year-old Mkhululi Michael Thabetha started writing poetry and rap in 2009 when his older brother was shot dead on the streets of Yeoville. His brother was 26 and worked as a security guard in a local shop. He was shot in the leg and heart by a robber who subsequently shot himself through the head.
Writing poetry and music was Thabetha’s way of expressing himself and the anger he felt after his brother’s death. The anger was fuelled by the fact that the killing of his brother was never properly resolved. Thabetha said he did not believe it was an ordinary robbery because a robber would surely have tried to escape.
Known by his artist name MK-47, Thabetha is tall and thin. He wears oversized pants and jerseys which slouch on him when he walks. He fidgets constantly and, every five minutes, lights another cigarette. He struggles to make eye contact and when he does, it is to say, “Can we not talk about that please?” particularly when asked about his mother.

Originally, Thabetha wanted to be a DJ but his brother wanted him to finish school first. After his brother’s death, Thabetha abused cocaine and alcohol, dropped out of school and rebelled against his mother. In 2012 he spent time in a rehabilitation centre, but has picked up poetry and rap again this year, inspired still by the memory of his brother’s death.

Thabetha is not the only teenager who has lost a relative because of crime on Yeoville streets. And many express their loss by turning it into music or poetry. They want to express how they feel about their community and the problems they and their contemporaries face. Some see the spoken word as a tool to address the personal and the social issues in their community, while for others it is a way of releasing the pain and distress. Often it’s a combination of the two.

The history of protest poetry

Words boomed through Yeoville as far back as the ’80s and ’90s but, in those days, the verses were less about alcohol and self-identification, and more about anger over oppression. Poetry and music were the platform to express their discontent with the system:
“No state power shall legislate me not to love man, do something to facilitate change in Africa, do something to flee the doors of Pollsmoor, Robben Island prison open. Do something favourable for the exiles to return home. Oh Africa let all this be done before dawn. Oh peace loving South Africans let it be done before dawn.”

The Day Shall Dawn by Mzwakhe Mbuli was first published in 1986. Mbuli used to spend time in Yeoville, though he did not live there. Yeoville was one of the few areas where artists of all colours could express themselves without much fear of apartheid laws. His poem is an example of protest poetry, produced when Nelson Mandela and many activists fighting apartheid were imprisoned.

Mashudu Churchill Mashige, professor in the school of applied languages at Tshwane University of Technology, has written essays on African Renaissance and on culture, identity and politics. In Politics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Black South African Poetry, published in 1996, he said: “Protest and resistance poetry was amongst other things poetry which is against repressive police activity, the squalor of urban slums, the indignities of migrant labour systems and of passes and the more absurd feature of racial classification.”

Junior Sokhela’s rise to fame

Musician, music, TV and film producer Junior Sokhela produced resistance poetry and music during and post-apartheid. A short, Zulu-speaking man, he has a deep voice and thick dreadlocks beneath a black beanie. Sokhela stops and greets people on the Yeoville streets with a smile. His mini catch-ups always last a minute or two.
“My granny used to tell me to humble myself. What you are and what you do is not mine. It’s a gift from God not to use it against people but to use it to help and advance other people as well.” He now helps other artists in Yeoville and Johannesburg to get their music careers going. Sokhela believes one of the major challenges new artists face is remaining the same grounded people they were before they got into the industry. That is one of the reasons he works with Yeoville artists: to help their transition to fame without losing their sense of self. “Artists struggle a lot with that – not being able to handle the fame and the attention. [People] use the attention to gain things [they] did not gain when [they] were young.”

Sokhela started writing protest poetry and songs as a teenager, drawing his inspiration from the protest poets and artists of his time. When he was 16, Cape Town hip-hoppers Prophets of Da City (POC) recruited him and his close friend Ishmael Morabe into the group after seeing the number of people they attracted on the streets and in the clubs of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville.
From the age of 14, Sokhela and Morabe had captured the crowds with their unique way of dancing and singing, and through the words and lyrics. They spoke about the political situation, mentioning activists such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.
In his essay, Mashige says artists aim to mirror the circumstances they have been going through in their neighbourhoods. “These circumstances are largely shaped and instructed by the political decisions enforced in the communities which these poets are part of.” Sokhela and Morabe were no different.

Yeoville in the ’80s

At the time of their street performances in the ’80s, Yeoville was a different place. It had a bohemian culture and was the only Johannesburg community where black and white South Africans mixed and lived together openly – despite apartheid laws. Yeoville was originally a white area but, because of the culture of music and poetry, black artists flooded Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville, where there was the possibility of late-night poetry sessions and music concerts.
William Dewar, co-author of the book Yeoville, a Walk through Time, says: “Many musicians of the time identified themselves as being above the racial segregation of apartheid. It may have been that they were united by a common language of music.” Famous Yeoville artists were Oswald Mtshali, Sinclair Beiles, Lesego Ramopolokeng and Mbuli and all these artists were united by their music and poetry and their resistance to a racist South Africa.

Sokhela and Morabe started performing in concerts and local clubs and restaurants with the POC. One of the main hubs was Yeoville’s still-buzzing Rockey Street. With its street lights, music, poetry, restaurants, nightclubs and residential flats, this was (and still is) the beating heart of Yeoville.
Dewar writes: “People feel safe at night in a place that is small, active and well lit and has an array of activities such as bars, clubs, restaurants etc.” The House of Tandoor was one of the places to be. It was and still is a place for Rastafarians, a place where people can sit on the open rooftop and enjoy a legal or semi-legal smoke in the open air.
Sokhela and Morabe started travelling with POC to Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival and to concerts in London. “My grandmother was used to me being away from home for months. We were gone for six months for my first tour, but she was never worried, as long as I was still alive,” he said. “No one at home knew that I had gone out of the country. All the paperwork was taken care of by my boss, [Lance Stehr].”
Late 1993, Sokhelo recorded the song It’s About Time under the name Boom Shaka and gave the demo to Oskido and DJ Christos to work on and release it. “I had recorded Boom Shaka on the side with Lebo Mathosa and I never told my boss about it. Only Ismael knew.”
On tour with POC, Sokhela had no clue that Boom Shaka was gaining recognition in South Africa. “There were rumours that Boom Shaka was a band from London or somewhere foreign,” he said. No one knew who they were when Boom Shaka was asked to perform for the first time at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Producers Oskido and DJ Christos asked the entertainment manager to put Boom Shaka on the line-up after the song became a hit.
While Prophets of the City went to Cape Town for a concert, Sokhela and Morabe remained in Pretoria for the inauguration. They received an overwhelming response. “It was my first time [that] my family, who have never thought being an artist was a job, saw me on TV and started believing in me,” Sokhele said. “My boss was so angry but I did not care, I had already decided to leave POC and start concentrating on Boom Shaka.”
Boom Shaka’s popularity grew rapidly.

No one could define their music, it was something new. “There were elements of reggae, kwaito, hip-hop and maskhandi in our music,” Sokhela said. It was truly Yeoville and multicultural. Some of their songs and music videos were banned because they were political. In one dance video, the group took a picture of PW Botha and placed it inside a refrigerator, to show that he should “chill”.
They named other apartheid figures such as Eugene de Kock, who was an apartheid assassin. The video was never released. It was 1994 and South Africa was just beginning to come out as a newly democratic and united country. The video was seen as going against the ideal notion of a united nation.

WATSUP: Mkhululi Thabetha aka MK-47 greets the Club 28 DJ on arrival to perform at the popular nightclub’s opening act. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

The rise of rhythmic poetry 

Since the end of apartheid, Yeoville has changed. There has been an influx of other nationals and most whites branched out of Yeoville when the space became crowded and crime increased. Despite the fact that different races no longer enjoy poetry and music there together, it still remains a place with “vibrant street life, cosmopolitan community, metropolitan centre, cultural activity and intimate community”, says Dewar.
The African community is now the largest and the area remains multicultural, multinational and filled with both the rich and the less fortunate. Very different from other parts of Johannesburg, Yeoville is a small version of Africa: “I could reach a Namibian guy, from just being in Yeoville … We have fans from every single country represented in Yeoville. So it’s easier for me to reach out to their countries,” Sokhela said.
Protest poetry became less popular after South Africa became a democracy. Around 1998 rhythmic poetry gained popularity. Artists such as Brenda Fassie started producing lyrics that reflected back on the apartheid era. Sokhela worked closely with Fassie, who stayed in nearby Hillbrow for a number of years and spent much of her time in Yeoville.
“Bangitholile (memeza ma, memeza ma) They found me (calling out with an outcry)
Abanganaxolo (memeza ma, memeza ma) Those who do not have forgiveness
Bangikhomba (memeza ma, memeza ma) They pointed at me
Ngezibhamu nemikhontho (memeza ma, memeza ma) With guns and spears”

This is from Fassie’s Memeza, released in 1998. It shows how artists switched from addressing the oppressive apartheid regime to expressing their sad memories of those days.

KEEP THE MEMORY: Thabetha shares a story about his older brother getting shot and killed while he was working as a security guard. The tombstone tattoo on his left arm is to keep his memory alive. He has six tattoos in total but this one is the meaningful one. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

“We are targeting the grassroots, the people themselves, because those are the people that are [still] affected by the same system [apartheid],” said Sokhela. Rhythmic poetry was like musical poetry, he said. Artists were expressing themselves more creatively to make a louder noise and a bigger impact.
Artists who started out as poets incorporated other forms of art to their work: drums, beats, melody, rhythm, dance and music. Poetry became too narrow and the poets branched out. They became rappers, writers, dancers, singers, musicians. Yeoville artists such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Oscar Appleseed from the kwaito group Bongo Maffin and Simphiwe Dana are some of the artists who grew to incorporate melody and drums in their work.
When Boom Shaka stopped recording after four albums because of financial problems with their record label, Sokhela decided to help upcoming artists struggling in the industry. As a music producer with 20 years of experience in the industry, he assisted many successful artists such as Lebo Mathose, Thembi Seete and Molemo Maarohanye, otherwise known as Jub Jub.
“I have been in the industry for a long time and what I have noticed is that many of these kids struggle with adjusting to the fame and they don’t know how to handle the social issues at home and those experienced by their peers,” Sokhelo said. “Some lack empowerment.”

HIP HOPPERS: The boys share their personal experiences of life in Yeoville. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

He has worked in Yeoville for the past 10 years and still occasionally goes to Tandoor to look for new talent and to help the upcoming artists in Yeoville make a better future for themselves.
Thabetha has not yet worked with Sokhela. He said he felt uncomfortable sharing his personal work with anyone but his small circle of rapping and poetic friends, since he was just starting out again after a long break. However, he shared a small verse unrelated to his brother’s death. It speaks of his beliefs and his protection by God. He said the song was about evil trying to follow him, but being unable to get him. He was still standing today, he said, because he escaped it through God’s protection.
“I’m talking about the son of men,
Son of trinity, bathi, [they say] egameni likayise nelonyana nelo moya oyingcwele, [In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit] ndaguqa ngamadolo ndabheka eMpumalanga, bathi [I went down on my knees and prayed before I went to Mpumalanga] abathakathi befikile izolo ebusuku. But I escaped that shit, [the witches came last night] they couldn’t touch me, I’m still standing.”

Thabetha has a tattoo on his left arm of a tombstone, in memory of his brother. The tombstone reads RIP John 13, Rest in Peace John, which was his brother’s name. The 13th is the day he died. His family could not afford a tombstone so he tattooed one on his arm in respect and in memory of him. Thabetha continues to write poetry.

He said he hoped to be the modern Shakespeare, writing meaningful verses which would inspire the younger generation to think, to question and to be conscious of everyday politics.

Young men in Yeoville find support through rap and each other.

Young men in Yeoville find support through rap and each other. By: Lutho Mtongana

FEATURED IMAGE: Rhythmic poets of Yeoville (l to r), Bukhosi Mncube and Mkhululi Thabetha have been friends for six years and they’ve grown closer through a passion for music and poetry. Photo: Lutho Mtongana

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A nod, a wink and some dollars

Changing money on the streets of Yeoville leaves no paper trail. It’s easy if you know who and how to ask. The amounts are small and it is difficult to catch the traders. And the people doing it have some stories to tell about laws and legality.

The popular one-way Rockey Street in Yeoville is always busy during the day, with people hustling to make a living. At night the main road is bright with the yellow hue of street lamps and the colourful blinking of traffic lights. Once the Yeoville Market closes, its image is darker.

Away goes the innocence of a traders’ paradise with fresh vegetables and traditional ingredients. What emerges is a more sinister scene with dark alleys that act as a shield for illicit dealings on the street.

The exchange is flash fast and inconspicuous. You give him the dollars and he in turn gives you the equivalent in rands. And, in no time at all, both parties are parting ways.

Yeoville is more than a century old. It was one of the first suburbs to be built in Johannesburg. Over the years, the area has always been a hub for immigrants from around the world. But more recently it has become a home for people from countries all over Africa – a gateway where more immigrants than South Africans live.

FOREIGN NATIONAL: Many Yeovillites come from all parts of the African continent. After a few months in South Africa, their legal stay in the country expires and they can no longer access formal institutions. Photo: Tendai Dube

Arriving with just enough money to start a new life, they bring in foreign currency and need to find ways to exchange it for rands. Once settled, they need to start sending money to their families at home.

A convenient method of exchange is the trading of currencies on the street, also known as the black market, and money is sent home through the hawala remittance system, which is an informal way to transfer money.

It’s called the black market because the transaction itself is illegal. It is done out of sight and often in the dark. Because the transaction is illegal, the market operates by default outside of the formal economy.

Informal currency trading is a crime in South Africa. According to the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) website: “It is illegal to buy or sell foreign currency to anyone except an authorised dealer.”

Foreign exchange in South Africa is controlled by the SARB and the local market is governed by exchange control regulations that control the flow of money into and out of South Africa.

The South African foreign exchange market is structured in such a way that all money leaving South Africa is controlled by the Reserve Bank, which nominates and licenses a number of authorised dealers or banks.

To send money out of South Africa, all funds have to be directly or indirectly approved by the SARB via exchange control regulations.

Not all of these black market dealings are that mysterious. When you find yourself in urgent need of some US dollars with no questions asked and no paper trail, you can try your luck and take a trip to Yeoville. However be advised – what you are doing is illegal.

From a dealer’s perspective

Vince* is a foreign national who claims to have traded illegally on the other side of the exchange. He would not confirm his identity as a dealer nor his real name, but encouraged Wits Journalism to speak to him about the practice.

“Mostly it’s about a better rate. You get more clients when you have a better rate. People go to these people because there’s not too many questions, no one asks for your ID or your papers, it’s just an agreement.”

According to Vince, illegal traders don’t cheat their clients with counterfeit bills. He says that these traders are “businessmen” who are “established” and won’t sell you fake bills because they want you to return. By the same token, they very rarely receive fake notes.

“For you to be in this business, you need to know paper quality. It’s easy to tell a dollar.”

Traders on the street usually keep amounts low, never more than $1000. If you want to exchange larger amounts, Vince says, they will refer you to other traders in wider Johannesburg.

The US dollar is the most widely used currency in the world, according to popular currency site XE Currency, which explains why it is the most prevalent currency in Yeoville. Vince says that, in his interactions, he has not seen any other currencies traded except for, on rare occasions, British pounds.

DODGY DEALINGS: Residents have access to four authorised forex exchange bureaus along the busy thoroughfare of Rockey and Raleigh streets. After hours, the street is well known as a place where currency is traded. Photo: Tendai Dube

Vince explains that there is a science to getting better rates on the street. An individual with a $100 bill is more appealing than one with loose notes of less value and will therefore be given a better rate.

“It’s a black market thing, it never gets back to the banks. It’s an under-the-carpet thing … and it’s much easier to take your money back [home] if it’s in US [dollars].”

It also eliminates a paper trail. Forex traders in Yeoville don’t worry about being caught by the police because, according to Vince, their business is based on trust.

“When you are stopped by the police you just say: ‘I’m a Zimbabwean and this is my currency in my country’, and they don’t ask you where you got it from.”

Vince says that usually works because they never keep large amounts. “Nobody moves around with thousands, it’s only small denominations.” Besides, most people who buy and sell are “regulars” and that’s why there’s no “snitching”.

The hawala remittance system

Another popular aspect of currency trading is the hawala remittance system, which allows people to transfer money between countries in Africa. According to 2010 research by Frederick Ahwireng-Obeng and David T Mutombo in Real Money, New Frontiers: Case Studies of Financial Innovation in Africa, edited by Mark Napier, the money does not actually physically move between the two parties in the different countries, in this case, between Yeoville in South Africa and other African countries.

It is estimated that more than 25 hawala agents were operating in Johannesburg a few years ago, but with the ever-rising rate of immigration, the number of agents is increasing too.

According to the research, an example is that of a Ghanaian tailor in Johannesburg with a younger cousin in Ghana. He wants to send money to his cousin but, because he lives in South Africa illegally, going to a bank is not an option for him. He also knows how bureaucratic banks are, they charge high commissions, offer poor rates of exchange and can be rather slow.

The tailor decides to approach a hawala agent, who offers him a negotiable commission of less than 5%, and a promise that the delivery will be made within 24 hours. The hawala agent offers an exchange rate of nearly R1 less than what the banks were charging to the dollar at the time, increasing its appeal.

The agent then liaises with his partner in Ghana to arrange for him to give the tailor’s cousin the equivalent of the money in either dollars or Ghanaian cedi. The partner is then reimbursed by the agent in Johannesburg, either financially or in goods and services. Sometimes there is reverse hawala, where the agent in Johannesburg gives money to an individual on behalf of someone outside the country.

In Yeoville, Malawian transporter Ndale* is also a hawala agent. Many people with family in Malawi use him and the hawala remittance system to send money home. Ndale spends his days delivering goods with his bakkie to traders in the market for a fee while his side business is dealing between Malawians in South Africa and their families back home. He only deals in interactions between South Africa and Malawi as that is his established network and he has people he can trust back home.

MONEY CHANGES: People find it more convenient to exchange money informally on the street as the trade is speedy and leaves no paper trail. Photo: Tendai Dube

These are the methods used by many African refugees and immigrants who have been granted asylum in South Africa, with the expectation of living a better life away from their politically unstable countries.

Limited options for some

Adroa*, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of deportation or arrest, is an immigrant who has exchanged dollars before.  The Ugandan national struggled on his journey to South Africa. He chose South Africa because, according to him, it is considered a land of opportunity and democracy. “Where all dreams come true.” He travelled from Uganda through Kenya with $300 and then to Tanzania where he lost his money.

“When I reached Tanzania they robbed me of all my money, they conned me. They said I must pay for a bus straight from Tanzania to South Africa. I didn’t know that there is no bus.”

Adroa found himself in Mozambique without any money and holding on to the hope that his uncle living in South Africa would come and fetch him. He stayed with a “kind” woman for two weeks before his uncle managed to come to his aid.

On his journey from the Equator to South Africa, Adroa says he noticed that most of the countries he travelled through operated currency exchanges outside the formal economy.

“In Mozambique there are always people on the street and their job is to buy and sell.”

When Adroa arrived in Johannesburg, there were people waiting for the buses who offered to change his money on the very street where his bus stopped.

Adroa has been in the country for a little over six months, trying to become a businessman as he works for his uncle selling shoes. His uncle travels to Mozambique every few months to buy shoes and they both sell them here in Johannesburg.

When Adroa was new to the country, he remembers being naïve and lacking an understanding of rands. He recalls that he would sell shoes for his uncle by placing the box of money on the counter so people could take change for themselves. One day he received a counterfeit R200 note. He still has the bill so that he will never forget what a fake note looks like and will never make that mistake again.

Adroa’s legal stay in the country ended three months ago when his asylum period expired, halting his dreams to study in South Africa.

“When I finished school, I thought I would become an engineer, but I found I can’t be because it was too hard for me, so I became a business person. Being an engineer will take me more years.”

But formal education is impossible for refugees like Adroa who now live in South Africa illegally. He has been trying to renew his asylum status since June this year with the Home Affairs head office in Pretoria.

“Uganda is part of East Africa, East Africa goes there [to Home Affairs] on Thursday. I go there on Wednesday to be in the queue for the next day. But I won’t get asylum, as I enter the gate they say: ‘No, today is busy we are ending here [stopping the queue at this point] until next week.’ The last time I went there it was the same thing.”

Because of his illegal status in the country, he has been arrested about five times but never charged. He stays in the police cells overnight and then his uncle gets him out the next morning.

Adroa has no valid documentation and cannot use formal institutions. One of the authorised dealers based in Yeoville says that, in order to buy or sell other currencies, an individual needs to provide a valid passport with a valid permit, recent proof of residential address, proof of income and an airline ticket.

“You can even end up sleeping hungry when you’ve got money because you can’t change it.”

WESTERN WASTE: According to the people in Yeoville, the rates and the conditions at authorised bureaus are too high and inconvenient for people in the market. Trading illegally also eliminates any paper trail for people who may be involved in illicit dealings. Photo: Tendai Dube

Farai* is a Zimbabwean national staying in South Africa legally who sells vegetables inside the Yeoville Market.

Farai says she usually goes to Rockey Street to get her dollars exchanged and refers her friends there too. “It’s simple, they don’t need papers to change the dollars, you just give them the dollars and they give you the rands back.”

She knows of a few traders on that street but won’t use just anyone. “Sometimes you have to be careful, you can get fake money, so you have to know where you’re going in Rockey Street. You have to know the signs of money.”

When Faria exchanges money, she goes with small amounts to avoid being robbed or giving illegal traders any reason to follow her home. “If I change [money] today, I wait another week and then go back.”

Black market dealers aren’t known to just anyone, according to both Adroa and Farai. If you want to exchange any money illegally you need to know someone who can introduce you to a trader.

It’s a street rule known to all that if you want to exchange, you need to go through someone you know so that the trader knows you’re “safe”. This is mainly how they avoid arrest.

I nzara [it’s hunger],” says Vince in Shona, explaining what motivates some to go into illegal dealings. And then sometimes it’s just business and looking to earn a profit.

*Not their real names

The market in Yeoville is a prime trading location but many traders have remained on a waiting list for the past nine years. By: Tendai Dube

FEATURED IMAGE:  People find it more convenient to exchange money informally on the street as the trade is speedy and leaves no paper trail. Photo: Tendai Dube

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French style flourishes on the high street

Passing sewage pipes and vendors selling chicken feet on the busy sidewalks of Rockey Street, ‘Ace’ Nsiala walks by in his Versace suit and Givenchy shoes into the local Congolese pub at Kin-Malebo pub. The Congolese father and husband is a member of the La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen living in Yeoville who don’t allow circumstance to determine their fate.

Ace wears a silver watch and a look of nonchalance as he walks into Rue Du Faubourg, a boutique in Yeoville. He nearly bumps his head on an aerial that hangs loosely from the television set and throws it a look of disapproval.The store has a Parisian theme, with ornate gold mirrors and two armchairs fit for a king, but the bunny chow that sits on the counter reminds you that you’re in Yeoville.

Ace (pronounced A-say) plays with his silver-and-black ring embossed with the Dolce & Gabbana logo. Beneath the ring is a small tattoo that looks like it was done in someone’s backroom. His eyes wander the fashionable boutique and glance out at the busy street where grilled mealies and chicken feet are being sold.

“I’m wearing Zara pants and Versace jacket,” says Ace in English with undertones of a French accent. Ace is part of the Congolese fashion movement called La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) but more well known as La SapeThey are also known as dandies – men obsessed with personal appearance and flamboyant dress style, who wear exaggerated looks of careful indifference.

The movement was born from the two Congos, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the smaller Congo Republic. The two are also known as Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville respectively. Sapologie is the official title given to its members, who are called Sapeur.

The true religion of fashion

GIVENCHY FOR THE MEN: Member of La Sape, Basunga “Ace” Nsiala (30) wears a Givenchy cap and chains while waiting to meet other members at the local Congolese pub Kin-Malebo. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

To some people, the culture of La Sape is like a religion. It is like a prophet, a Sapeur a disciple. So a Sapeur is an apostle … A Sapeur is a student – a person who is entering into the kingdom,” says Robert Kalombo, a Congolese casting agent, who is familiar with the culture. He sees their relationship with clothing as a kind of marriage.“La Sape is a movement, but is a religion for young people. Young people base it on their out-set [appearance].”

Indeed they seem ever-present in the neighbourhood. Usually they wear normal street clothes: t-shirts and jeans, indistinguishable from the masses buying tomatoes and dried fish on the cracked pavements of Yeoville. Only a hint of flair emerges when these men pair their “layman” clothing with branded shoes or belts.

La Sape showcase their clothes in local pubs and restaurants. The Yeoville variety come from poor, working-class backgrounds but save their small salaries to buy expensive clothes and take part in fashion competitions.“It’s our culture,” says Lucien Baheta, sitting in the Congolese barbershop on Yeoville’s main thoroughfare, Rockey Street. While not one of La Sape himself, Baheta understands the culture and says he takes his influence from them. “When God made the world he gave the intelligence to the mlungu [white person] to sew the clothes, and he gave us the gift, us Congolese of Kinshasa, to wear those clothes.”

Ace is one of these working men, always looking to hustle a little more money to buy clothing. Both he and his cousin, also part of La Sape, frequent Rue Du Faubourg in their search for elegant clothing. Standing at the counter of the boutique, his cousin nudges him and asks about the interview: “Will they give you money?”

“Are you going to be paying me for doing this?” Ace asks and wears a look of disappointment when he hears the answer. Ace doesn’t go into much detail about how he earns his living, saying only that he works in Randburg “fixing white people’s aerials”. He is also coy about how he pays for his expensive clothes, simply saying that he gets them from his brother in Europe.

The “Ace” of all spades 

He moved from Kinshasa in 2008 and is one of many Congolese to come to South Africa, fleeing war or poverty, in search of a better life. Yeoville’s large Congolese community makes it easier to adopt cultural practices like La Sape, according to Kalombo.

Jean-Pierre Lukamba, vice-chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), says the Congolese are one of the largest foreign communities in Yeoville and La Sape are a big part of that community. “In South Africa, the capital of the Congo is Yeoville, the capital of the Sapeur is also in Yeoville.”

Lukamba also compares La Sape to a religion – but one that costs a lot of money. “The problem is that sapologie is like a religion. They got also the followers, and they got the newcomers you are growing like that – you can become like a bishop [but] you can’t not have a car, nice house or nice wife.”

“When God made the world he gave the intelligence to the mlungu [white person] to sew the clothes, and he gave us the gift, us Congolese of Kinshasa, to wear those clothes.”

Though he has the clothes, Ace is still a long way from having a nice car or nice house. He lives in a block of flats a short walk from Rockey Street. Climbing the short flight of steps, he reaches deep into his pocket for a security card to swipe at the revolving gate and enters the building with cracked walls and a rusted stairwell.

The building complex is maze-like and, leading the way to his second-floor flat, Ace jokes: “I got lost a lot of times when I moved here”. He knocks at the door and waits a few minutes before a tall man wearing reading glasses and a wide smile opens the door and gestures for him to come in.

From the outside, the flat looks like a normal home, but the bedroom set up in the living room tells the story of a makeshift housing solution typical for those living in Yeoville. Ace shares the three-bedroom flat with three other families – all couples with children. He points out his room before leaving a bag of groceries in the shared kitchen.The flat has two windows and light streams in through baby-blue curtains held up with a clothes peg. Neatly arranged in the room are a bed, a fridge and a flat-screen television playing soap operas.Tidily spread out across the hardwood floors are a row of his shoes, about a dozen of them. These are just his best ones. Ace says he has more in the wardrobe. “Pull the white ones out, they’re pretty.”

The wardrobe is already open, though even if it were closed, his expensive clothing would be visible through the large cracks in the wood around the edges.Carefully laying out the clothes on his bed, Ace gives a detailed account of every item, saying the names of the designers, his eyes alight with excitement.“See, the design, it’s Gianni Vegagi,” he says, trying on the Versace blazer. Hanging on the walls are small pictures of Ace’s wife and daughter, with whom he shares the small room.

The most money Ace has won at a La Sape competition was R15,000 at a competition in Melrose Arch in 2010. “At first my woman was getting irritated by my obsession with clothing, saying, ‘You are a father now, how could you be doing these things?’ But I’m bringing the money home.” Ace points to his fridge which he bought with the money he won.“[La Sape ] started with musicians, but we realised that everyone can become part of it,” says Kalombo.

A poor man’s culture 

The first La Sape were relatively wealthy but the movement soon filtered down to working men, with the Congolese civil war tearing down class barriers. As a former colony of France, they were heavily influenced by French fashion. But ironically, Kalombo says, La Sape became a way for people to “reclaim their identities from their colonisers” by adapting the clothes to Congolese culture.

ROYAL GUARD OF SUITS: Basunga “Ace” Nsiala changes suits in the rented room that he shares with his wife and daughter. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

However, Kalombo says La Sape is not a natural fit for South Africa or for Yeoville. He says the lifestyle in Congo is more relaxed, whereas in South Africa, people must hustle to make a living. “The life standard in South Africa and the Congo is different. The cost of life is not the same, making their living is not the same.”

Run-down buildings, overcrowded flats and crime are facts of life in Yeoville. The neighbourhood has become the site of struggle for the thousands who call it home. Many are foreign nationals who entered the country illegally or just with refugee permits. As a result, Yeoville is considered a poor, migrant community.

The reality of Yeoville life, where the streets are pungent with the smell of smoked fish and sewage, is in sharp contrast to the aesthetic culture of the La Sape, who meet every Sunday at the Kin-Malebo, the local Congolese pub.

“We host [this] kind of event because, mainly us Congolese we like clothes, we like to look good, to look smart,” says Kin-Malebo manager Francis Lokake. “So back home there are such competitions and because our community is here, we just build up that idea of competing. The most smart person or the guy who gonna dress [in] expensive clothes wins.”

Meet Ace – a member of La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

Meet Ace – a member of La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen in Yeoville, Johannesburg. By: Palesa Tshandu

A bright-green sign of an eagle marks this spot as a bit of Congo in the middle of Johannesburg. In the parking lot of the pub, an assembly of luxury cars faces the lapas, and braai smoke fills the air. The La Sape are here in force in their tailored suits, many of the men smoking cigars and raising beers with wrists decorated with expensive watches.

Those who know each other greet one another with loud roars, knocking heads from side-to-side – a traditional Congolese greeting. There is a clear divide between the La Sape “haves” and “have nots”. An elevated concrete deck overlooking the parking lot is occupied by the men with nicer suits who drove to the pub from other areas in luxury cars.

Across the parking lot, Congolese men dressed in t-shirts and jeans occupy the pool tables, placing bets as they play. They are easily distracted by the cars driving in, shooting them looks of admiration or envy. With an expression of deep respect, Ace arrives to first greet his fellow Sapeur sitting in the lapas smoking cigars. But he soon finds there’s no space for him and retreats across the parking lot to the pool table where he finds many friends.

On competition days, the parking lot becomes a stage where Sapeur showcase their clothing. Lokake says the competition days are important because that is when the large Congolese community migrates to the pub to see the Sapeur in their best clothes.“We know that we dress nicer than all other countries,” says Lokake, going on to demonstrate what a self-respecting Sapeur should wear.

“You have to marry the colours first,” he says. Winning contestants should “kill” their contenders’ outfits by wearing better colours. “You can have even very expensive clothes but I can also wear the clothes for R10 in town but if I wear them … everyone must ask: ‘Where did you get these clothes?’”

Poverty and war have defined the Congo over the past 20 years and these have often created the image people have of the region. But the culture of La Sape is a way for some Congolese men to defy their harsh circumstances with clothes and fashion. But even fashion has its limits. Sitting by the pool tables, Ace signals for Lokake to come to him but is ignored. Finally, Ace walks across the dirty parking lot in his Versace suit and Givenchy sneakers and pleads for a free drink.

“One beer please man, just one beer.”

FEATURED IMAGE: ROYAL GUARD OF SUITS: Basunga “Ace” Nsiala changes suits in the rented room that he shares with his wife and daughter. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

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The heart of African fashion in Jozi

Yeoville is keeping the spirit of Afrocentric fashion alive. Residents from across Africa believe that fashion shows more than style but it reiterates their presence and their identity. The people of Yeoville wear their Afrocentric fashion or “African wear” daily and fail to understand why other Africans wear Eurocentric every day.

Sunday afternoons in Yeoville can look like an Afrocentric fashion convention, with many residents sporting African printed designs on their way to church. But this celebration of African print is not restricted to Sundays. African regalia has become part and parcel of Yeoville’s day-to-day life.

FOOT WEAR: Victor Stamp displays his handmade African sandals every day on Rockey Street. Photo: Percy Matshoba

After South Africa became a democracy in 1994, anti-apartheid boycotts were lifted, imported goods started flowing in and so did people from the rest of Africa. Yeoville, which is close to the Joburg CBD, was one of the suburbs that attracted many immigrants. Although many of these people may have had to leave their loved ones behind, they refused to leave their identity.

The people of Yeoville are bold dressers. They wear loud prints in what are seen as African colours: green, red, yellow and orange. But it’s more than just style. Through their fashion they express the identity of various cultures in Yeoville.

Fashion is a reflection of a community, wrote The Guardian UK fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley in her article, John Galliano’s return is more than a matter of style. Fashion world, wake up, published in October 2014. She wrote that fashion was important because it said “so much about who we are”. When a community changes its fashion trends it’s a result of a dynamic cultural shift, according to Cartner-Morley.

Editor of Marie Claire South Africa, Aspasia Karras, says the focus on Afrocentric fashion is a recurrence of what happened in the 1920s when African print made fashion headlines.

The history of Yeoville has always dictated its fashion trends. In the 1980s and ’90s this neighbourhood was a place for the lefties, the hippies, the rebels and non-conformists, whose clothes were just as left wing as they were.

While the rest of the country was following trends from the UK and US catalogues, Yeovillites were making and defining their own style. Their clothes were just diverse as they were. They mixed orthodox Jewish yarmulkes with African-print shirts and paired Western trousers with Zulu leather sandals, says former resident and writer Nechama Brodie. They embraced every aesthetic, every pattern, every print and every unorthodox style the suburb had to offer. And the new, Pan-African inhabitants are keeping this spirit alive. They too are setting their own trends.

Cartner-Morley wrote that fashion is a necessary means of expression. “… fashion is more democratic: a conversation in which anyone can have a voice.”

This is very true of Yeoville. The community is not as politically involved as it was pre-1994, but it is representative of people from all over the continent in South Africa.  The community members may not express themselves in a language we can all understand, but Yeoville’s cultural shift speaks loudly through their choice of clothes.

The people of Yeoville need not go far to find their fashion fixes.  The market on Rockey Street is a multicultural hub of “African wear”, more widely known in the fashion industry as Afrocentric. Several highly visible designers occupy stalls.

The Yeoville Market’s floors are dotted with offcuts of tiny colourful pieces of African printed fabric. These lead out of the market in all directions, from Joe Slovo Drive to Bezuidenhout Street, emphasising the presence of Africa in a previously Eurocentric neighbourhood.

Bashiru Gbolahan from Nigeria has been an Afrocentric designer for the past 13 years. The 30-year-old, who was born in Lagos, says he was taught to sew and design by his “master” whom he worked for after he graduated from high school.  Since he moved to Yeoville in 2012 he has passed his skills of designing, cutting and sewing on to four others, one Malawian, two Nigerians and one South African.

“Three [Nigerian, Malawian and South African] of them have now started designing on their own,” says Gbolahan, “Bashy” to his customers. And it’s Yeoville that inspires him to keep designing.

On the cutting table, a Nigerian fabric is laid out as a tablecloth. His mother gave it to him before she died in 2012. After taking care of her for three years, he decided to start over in South Africa.

BUYING AND SELLING: Surrounded by her popular designs of Afrocentric or “African wear”, Ruth Otoo Baiden (left) has a thriving business. Ghanaian Akua Florence (right) is a regular customer. Photo: Percy Matshoba

Bashy says his main challenge is importing fabric from his home country. It is expensive, which is why he is open to customers bringing their own fabric. Consequently, he has worked with various local materials, including the Sesotho seshoeshoe and the isiXhosa black-and-white umbhaco prints.

Bashy’s clients come from all over the continent. “Malawians, Ghanaians, Congolese, Zimbabweans and South African women also love my designs,” he says. And his customers flock to him from various parts of Johannesburg: “Sandton, Cresta, Yeoville and other places.”

This designer describes his style as “African wear” or “traditional wear”, depending on who is buying it and for which occasion. He says he started designing “African wear” because he is proud of his culture, Yoruba. He has also learnt to understand and appreciate other African cultures through their fabrics and clothes.

Bashy creates clothes for people of all ages. His two-year-old daughter wears his designs and so does his wife. He works for men as well, specialising in Afrocentric shawls and short-sleeved shirts that are called dupa in Yoruba.

Another designer at the Yeoville Market is Ruth Otoo Baiden. She hails from Ghana and says South Africans have become more receptive to the Afrocentric style. Otoo Baiden, who has been designing since 1980, says she has seen a substantial increase in orders from South Africans.

“I used to call it traditional wear but now I call it African wear because all Africans now wear my designs.”

Otoo Baiden’s signature design is a Ghanaian dress which she makes in any colour. It is a drapey, maxi-dress that she has on display.  Brown, with the collar and sleeves embroidered in cream and gold. This dress is called a boubou in her language, which is Twi. Unlike other African designs it is made from a synthetic fabric sold in Ghana. This dress has a similar cut to the common dashiki – which means shirt in Yoruba – but its fabric is sleeker and it has handmade patterns on the collar and sleeve.

Otoo Baiden’s design is accompanied by a head-wrap scarf in the same colour. She says it is mostly worn by married women in Ghana and some of the South African married or pregnant women have embraced the style.

Otoo Baiden imports her fabrics from Ghana. But she also gets material from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, and also uses South African seshoeshoe fabric. The designers in Yeoville sell their fabric to their clients and among themselves because of the high cost of importing the materials.

The Yeoville Market consists of 212 stalls, which differ in size.  According to market manager Sabatha Mekuto, the cheapest costs R60 per month while the most expensive, “with a higher roof”, goes for R360.  In some places lessees rent out their stalls and charge much higher rents.

Bashy’s “landlord”, for example, rents his space out for R1200 per month. The space is the size of a jail cell and can fit two tables and a chest of drawers. Bashy finds it hard to pay this amount for such a small space. “One day I want to open my own shop,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Afrocentric fashion has evolved over the years.  “It started off as quiet, iterative, reflecting back things that were quite obvious,” says Marie Claire editor Karras. The Stoned Cherry label that was launched in 2000 was one of the first that combined African prints with a Eurocentric aesthetic in the South African fashion industry.

Since then Afrocentric style has been getting more interesting and trendier, says Karras. People are using their cultural fabric in a more creative way. “It is no longer pastiche, or as though one is playing dress-up when one is wearing an Afrocentric [ensemble].”

A local South African designer meets a Nigerian designer living and working in Yeoville. By: Percy Matshoba

Internationally renowned labels such as Louis Vuitton, Noir Jewellery, Marni and Derek Lam are increasingly using African prints and designs. This is not a new thing, as Karras says, adding that it can only grow if the African industry embraces it.

The women and men of Yeoville are a few steps ahead in celebrating home-grown Afrocentric fashion. Mbali Langa, a 28-year-old South African who sells sculptures, says she started wearing Afrocentric clothing in 2010 during the World Cup. She was supporting the African countries, in particular Ghana. “That is how I got to meet Ruth [Otoo Baiden].”

Ever since she has been wearing “African wear” on a daily basis. “I want to represent Africa every day.” She wears these clothes to the mall, to functions, when she’s meeting people, and sometimes when she goes to clubs.

“Some people who are not from Yeoville even hleba [gossip] about me in Zulu, thinking I am a foreigner because of my clothes.” She has also switched from “bling” jewellery to beaded ear-rings and necklaces to complement her dress.

Ephraim Molingoana, a designer at South Africa Fashion Week and a Yeovillite, says although his neighbourhood has inspired the scope of his designs, the mainstream fashion industry has not yet embraced the African fabric. “South Africa is still widely Eurocentric,” he says.  The Ephymol label designer says Afrocentric fashion is not as popular among South African men as it is among their West African counterparts.

Maria McCloy, a well-known designer in the fashion industry, believes the contrary. “Yeoville is definitely a place where the Afrocentric style lives. Because of the Pan-African audience there are Pan-African clothes.”

McCloy was born in England and moved to Yeoville in 1997. She was attracted to it because of its energy and its rich history of music and arts. “It was very Pan-African when I moved there and even more so now.

“The fashion that mostly interests me is of people from the rest of the continent. That is what you see in the streets of Yeoville, mixed with South African street style and the usual Eurocentric.”

She says some South Africans in Yeoville may be wearing their regular “Mr Price” clothing, but many are now showing off their “African stuff”, made in the Yeoville Market.

She has always preferred a market setting to buy her clothing and this attracted her to Yeoville. Her inspiration from the market and the people of Yeoville manifested in her designs of Afrocentric shoes, bags, briefcases and suitcases.

AFROCENTRIC ENSEMBLES: Bashiru “Bashy” Gbolahan was taught how to design by his “master” after he graduated from high school in Nigeria. He immigrated to South Africa in 2012 and settled in Yeoville.
Photo: Percy Matshoba

“I use seshoeshoe, Swati cloth, Tsonga cloth, Venda cloth, and wax print associated with the rest of the continent.” She buys her Congolese, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Zimbabwean cloth in downtown Johannesburg.

Just as people from Nigeria, Congo and Lesotho in Yeoville wear their traditional clothes every day, McCloy believes South Africans should move away from the culture of embracing their traditional wear only on Heritage Day or at traditional weddings.

Many of the designers at the market wear these prints as an appreciation of their culture, says Otoo Baiden. They do not understand why other cultures fail to do the same. Wearing African clothing occasionally, while embracing Eurocentric clothes every day, is bizarre.

Masechaba Elizabeth Kolota, a 59-year-old Yeovillite from Bloemfontein, says the suburb has encouraged her to wear her seshoeshoe clothes every day. “I feel like Yeoville encourages me to wear my cultural clothes because everyone wears theirs.”

Karras stresses that it is important for African designers to take advantage of the currently Afrocentric receptive industry, by sticking to their own “narrative framework”. South Africa need not only be influenced by trends from Europe or the United States: “We don’t have to be just copycats, we really need to embrace our own.”

Therefore, a Zulu-speaking man walking on Rockey Street, in Yeoville, to the Green House local pub to watch a soccer match with his friends, wearing imbatata (Zulu for traditional shoes) a Congolese boubou (meaning shirt) and Yoruba ankara pants should not be a strange sight in a fashion-forward South Africa.

FEATURED IMAGE: Surrounded by her popular designs of Afrocentric or “African wear”, Ruth Otoo Baiden (left) has a thriving business. Ghanaian Akua Florence (right) is a regular customer. Photo: Percy Matshoba

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Love and loathing in Yeoville

Once home to a thriving lesbian and gay community, Yeoville is now filled with homophobic attitudes and hatred, effectively cutting out a significant part of the community- its LGBTIs.  With little to no structural support in the area, people are forced to either rely on one another and face possible condemnation, or struggle in silence.

They cannot rely on the police for assistance, as many of them are illegal immigrants and believe that regardless of their nationality, they would not be helped. Roxanne Joseph looks at how Yeoville’s lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has been scared in silence, experiencing regular harassment and frequent vicious attacks, including being beaten in the streets and raped.

It was just after midnight when David* left a bar on Yeoville’s busy Rockey Street to make a phone call. He left his friends inside and walked out onto the street alone.

A 28-year-old Congolese man, David has been living openly as a gay man in Yeoville for nearly a decade.  So when a group of men silently walked towards him, he knew what was about to happen.

“I knew what was coming,” he says, speaking months later from the safety of a coffee shop in what he sees as a gay-friendly Melville.

The men quickly had him on the ground, kicking him in the ribs, face, groin and back. The blows stung. Helpless, he curled up into a ball, waiting for it to be over.

RISK ON ROCKEY: While Yeoville used to have a thriving lesbian and gay community, it is now considered dangerous to be an openly gay member of the community. LGBTIs are regularly attacked all over the area, and many of these vicious attacks have taken place outside Rockey Street’s nightclubs and bars. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Around him, the air was thick with each blow, his lungs felt heavier and his breathing slowed. Hopeless, he gave up almost immediately on trying to shield his body as their black boots struck him, crunching and cracking.

“I decided not to fight back, that just isn’t me. I hate violence. I just prayed for them to stop and, eventually, I guess they’d had enough and they just walked away, laughing and talking loudly.”

He heard voices in the distance and the steady beat of loud music from the club above him. He started to cry, suddenly afraid that his tears would spur his attackers on, causing them to inflict even more pain on his already broken body.

“Every day I live in fear that I will be attacked again,” says David.  His decision to live openly as a gay man was not an easy one. And it has come at a high cost.

It was the physical attack, and its brutality, that changed him the most, forcing him for the first time to try and hide his sexuality from the homophobic gaze of his neighbours and to spend more time away from Yeoville.

“I’m scared, nervous. I worry about what will happen if I’m too open.”

‘Attacked because he was gay’

David is not the only member of Yeoville’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community to have been attacked in the area. Although no official figures exist, members of the gay community recall a number of homophobic attacks over the past few years.

Afterwards, his friends found him lying on the street, bleeding and crying. David did not ask them if they had seen what had happened. He knew they would probably be too afraid to admit it if they had.

David’s friends wanted to take him to the hospital, but he refused and asked to be taken home instead.

David is tall, gangly and soft-spoken, going about things in a very gentle manner. The way he greets, stirs sugar into his coffee and describes his story is slow and placid, as if trying not to draw attention to himself.

Every time he talks about what happened, his voice cracks and he anxiously taps his fingers against the table, forcing himself to carry on. He says he wants people to know what happened, so that “things can get better”.

The men who attacked him did not try to steal his money. They did not take his phone from where he had dropped it when the attack began. They simply beat him viciously before running away, laughing and shouting. David can only think he was attacked because he was gay.

“They didn’t say anything the entire time, but I recognised some of them, had seen them watching me before, staring at me like I’m not normal, like being gay makes me look different.”

David never reported the crime, believing the police would not take the attack seriously because he is gay. He is also an illegal immigrant, without documentation to stay in South Africa, and he feared he would be arrested if he tried to lay a complaint.

David is one of many members of the Yeoville gay community who have endured attacks because of their sexuality.

Scared into silence

Few are willing to share the details of their experiences or reveal their identities because they are fearful of what the consequences of speaking out might be.

FREE TO BE ME: Dorcas Ncube, originally from Zimbabwe, is one of the few members of the LGBTI community who is willing to speak about his experiences as a transgendered gay man, living and working in Yeoville. He is regularly harassed, but is determined to be open about his sexuality, despite homophobic attitudes throughout the community. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Sarah*, a lesbian woman and a black South African, has lived in Yeoville for five years and said the fear of being “found to be gay or lesbian” is very real, especially for women. Last year she was raped by three men who told her they were trying to “fix” her.

“Men I believed were harmless, but actually, they’re monsters,” she says, trying to hold back the tears as she recalls her experience.

She was walking home one night carrying a plastic shopping bag in her hand when a group of men grabbed her. They took her to an empty park where they shoved her to the ground. One of them held her hands above her head, the other pinned her feet to the ground, the third raped her. Then they swapped places and swapped again before they were done.

Much like David, Sarah’s experience has made her afraid to speak out, but she chooses to continue to live openly as a lesbian woman in Yeoville. She too hopes that talking about what happened to her will help to make the situation better for Yeoville’s LGBTI community.

She says many people in Yeoville are afraid to admit they are lesbian, gay or transgendered because of the likelihood of vicious attacks. They hear stories about gay men being attacked in the light of day and women who are dragged behind buildings and raped. They fear what might happen to them.

This fear keeps them from organising. They do not meet regularly, nor do they have a support group of any kind. They occasionally hang out at nightclubs in the area and, once a year, brave the possibility of being harassed and attacked by holding a small pride party.

“It’s a chance to spend time together and celebrate who we are,” says Dorcas Ncube, a transgendered gay man from Zimbabwe.

“Sis’ Dorcas”, as he is called by people who know him, works at his brother’s hair salon and is openly gay with his customers, friends and family. However, this does not mean he is any less afraid of being victimised.

But there are not many like Ncube, who is one of the few gay people in Yeoville willing to be identified by name in this article. Their fear is constant because the LGBTIs are regularly told they are unwelcome. A casual conversation with many people living in Yeoville reveals deep-seated homophobia.

“I hate them,” Frank, a hairdresser on Rockey Street, says cheerfully. He would not give his surname.

“They’re all devil worshippers,” he adds. He stops braiding a woman’s hair to curl his fingers above his head in the shape of horns for emphasis.

Frank, a religious man, says he would never be violent towards a gay person but attends church every Sunday and prays that God will “take care of these people”.

“They should all go to prison,” he says, before quickly changing his mind. “No, wait, that’s where this stuff happens. They should all just be killed.”

This attitude is familiar to David. When asked to walk around Yeoville, he reluctantly agrees, pointing out where fellow members of the gay community have been attacked (“that corner, behind that building”, “in the back room of that club” and “in that park, where the kids play”).

His entire demeanour is different in Yeoville. He moves between moments of being comfortable and others where he is nervous and his body begins to physically shake.

Dorcas Ncube, a transgender gay man living in Yeoville faces harassment on a daily basis. By: Roxanne Joseph

Homophobia vs xenophobia

It was not always like this. Yeoville was once the home of a thriving gay and lesbian community in the 1970s and ’80s.  The neighbourhood at the time was one of apartheid’s “gray areas” where black and white residents mixed.

Gabriel Kahn, the youth director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), says this changed when the city “began to fragment” in the 1990s. The white population moved out and African immigrants moved in. The city neglected the CBD and surrounding areas, leading to damage and decay in some parts.

Today, Yeoville is filled with migrants and refugees, mostly from Africa, who have come to South Africa for a number of different reasons, including fleeing homophobic laws and attitudes in their home countries.

“A small minority come because of their sexual orientation and the belief that our progressive laws can protect them,” says Kahn. “But when they arrive here, they often have to stay with people from their home countries and then they don’t really get to escape the homophobia … they might have been experiencing back home.”

Even though South Africa has laws which are meant to protect people based on their sexual orientation, Kahn says this is not always put into practice by authorities who may also be xenophobic in addition to being homophobic.

“When people arrive here they have a double whammy of prejudice,” Kahn says.

This makes it difficult for people like David to navigate his day-to-day life, always afraid to step out of line but struggling to make an honest living, because of how he is treated.

“I work a bit, but I can’t get a proper job, no one will have me,” he says. He is not clear if this is because he is an immigrant or gay but hints at both having caused problems for him in the past.

On the surface, South Africa has been a leading nation in advancing LGBTI rights. It was the first country in the world to recognise LGBTI rights as human rights in its Constitution and one of the first to recognise gay marriage.

JOHANNESBURG PRIDE: Although Johannesburg Pride was held far away from Yeoville (in Sandton) this year, many of the area’s residents attended, as they felt it was one of the few opportunities they have to be open members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

However, despite this, the attitudes of many South Africans are deeply homophobic. Gay people, in poorer areas in particular, suffer from a lack of support from the authorities and their families.

“They’re afraid of corrective rape and of being killed.”

Nthanthla* has not yet come out to her family because she is scared of what they will think of her. She says the only support the Yeoville gay community has is each other but “even that is limited”. Many people are not willing to be openly gay and even fewer are prepared to come out as lesbian.

“They’re afraid of corrective rape and of being killed,” she says.

Many are also afraid of going to the authorities. Khan says it might be more dangerous for them to go to the police when they are attacked. “A big problem in South Africa is the implementation of law and policy. Many believe gays are asking for ‘special rights’.

“We are just being asked to be treated equally to other people.”

David agrees, explaining this was the reason he did not want to go to the police when he was attacked and beaten.

Standing on a street in Yeoville, he points a finger towards the police station and angrily jerks his head in the opposite direction saying: “I would actually run the other way if they came near me. They know who of us are gay and they would rather put us in jail than those who hurt us.”

Safer in Yeoville

There are a number of NGOs in South Africa who work with the gay community. Many of them operate in the city centre and cater to surrounding areas, including Yeoville.

But Kahn says many of these organisations have had to downsize in the past few years. South Africa is often seen by the outside world as a “success story”, offering reduced motivation to invest funding.

In addition to a lack of funding, according to Kahn, there is a further challenge because gay rights NGOs are “notoriously bad” at dealing with migrant and immigration issues like those facing members of Yeoville’s gay community.

David now prefers to socialise in gay-friendly areas of Johannesburg like Melville and Braamfontein. But he says he will continue to live in Yeoville.

It has been his home for nearly a year now and he has become a part of a close-knit gay community, which is important to him.

“I know it sounds crazy, because many of these people hate who I am, but I feel like I belong. I have friends, who are like my family, here in Yeoville,” David says.

He gazes fondly at Club 28, which is where their pride party will be held in the coming weeks. He refuses to go inside now though, explaining that without his friends, he is not comfortable there.

Like many other Congolese immigrants in the area, he came to South Africa to escape violence in his home country. His dream is to become a writer, as he has a passion for poetry, but says he is forced to do “odd jobs here and there” just to survive. He rents a tiny room in a small house, where he cooks, entertains and sleeps.

He does not know if he will ever go back, explaining that he likes South Africa but is concerned by the attitude of his neighbours: “It is meant to be a liberal African country, how can they discriminate just because I am gay?”

David says that no matter where he lives, he will be discriminated against and wonders if — despite the harassment — Yeoville isn’t perhaps “one of the safer areas” in Johannesburg. With such a diverse community, he hopes things will get better one day.

“More people should come to our pride parties. They’re great, they show the people of Yeoville that we’re just like them.” He pauses, laughs and adds: “Except we’re more fun.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Dorcas Ncube, originally from Zimbabwe, is one of the few members of the LGBTI community who is willing to speak about his experiences as a transgendered gay man, living and working in Yeoville. He is regularly harassed, but is determined to be open about his sexuality, despite homophobic attitudes throughout the community. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

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African Jews of Yeoville

For decades Yeoville was seen as “a Jewish suburb” until 1994 when many Jewish residents left the area. Now a new Jewish community is emerging. Rabbi Sylvester Obiekwe and his community are Nigerian Jews from the Igbo tribe. Their customs, traditions and beliefs have been passed down for hundreds of generations. But they are not recognised by the orthodox Jewish world for lack of evidence.

For over a century the Star of David was a vibrant sign of Jewish life in Yeoville.  In the past 20 years this star has waned as many Jewish residents left the Johannesburg suburb.

Recently it has returned.

In a simple,brick-walled home on Regent Street, a blue and white Star of David is painted on the outer wall. It is a synagogue which houses a small group of Nigerian Jews who now call Yeoville home.

The Beth-El Messianic Assembly is a group of black Jews who come from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. Igbo Jews believe they are direct descendants of the biblical character Gad, a son of Jacob, and that their ancestors moved to West Africa after being exiled during the destruction of the first biblical temple. They believe the entire Igbo tribe originates from these roots, although not all Igbo are Jewish.

Rabbi Sylvester Obiekwe, spiritual leader of the congregation, says most of the diasporic Jews assimilated into Christianity over centuries. The influence of colonialism and Christianity grew stronger in Nigeria and some Igbo Jewish sects conjoined Judaic law with Christian law. These were the founding roots of messianic Judaism in southern Nigeria.

COME IN: Leader of the congregation, Rabbi Sylvester Obiekwe welcomes us to his synagogue and to meet his community. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Controversy of recognition

The Igbo Jews living in Yeoville belong to the messianic Jewish sect and abide by most orthodox Jewish laws but incorporate the belief that Jesus, or Yeshua as they call him, is the messiah. The Igbo Jews are not recognised by the orthodox Jewish community because they recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

Beth-El congregant Tony Anuluoye says he has met a number of Jews who question his Jewish heritage. “They look at me like I’m crazy,” he says, “They don’t always believe me. They say: ‘But your skin colour, you are black, how can you be Jewish?’”

Obiekwe says he believes that, when people migrate to a country, they take on the features of that country with time.

“You cannot live in a hot country like Nigeria with light skin. You will not be able to survive long. When my ancestors came here their children and children’s children had to adapt to the climate. The skin, the colour and the features all change with every generation that was born until we looked like ethnic Nigerians.”

“They look at me like I’m crazy,” he says, “They don’t always believe me. They say: ‘But your skin colour, you are black, how can you be Jewish?’”

He believes that assimilation played a role as well: “Some of my ancestors married local Nigerian men or women who converted to Judaism. When they had children together, the children carried Nigerian features handed to them by the parent.”

Orthodox Judaism has recognised black Ethiopian Jews based on written evidence.

But Israel’s orthodox rabbinical court has questioned the Igbos Jewish roots because of the lack of physical and historical evidence and has encouraged them to convert. The Igbos’ evidence lies in the traditions and beliefs which have been passed down orally for thousands of years.

Anuluoye says that being a Jew is everything to him, “I understand that I come from the land of Israel and the people of Israel. It’s an inborn thing that cannot be learned. It is my life and I would never be able to live in any other way.”

Sunday Sgbo, another Beth-El congregant, grew up as a religious Jew in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. He was part of an orthodox sect of Jews who lived in the area before he moved to Johannesburg in 2009.

LEADING LADY: One of the leading women in the community, Charity Nnonyeli, says a prayer of thanks for safe travel. Part of the prayer includes prostrating herself in front of God as a sign of her loyalty and dedication. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

“I grew up learning and practising the laws of Judaism from my parents who learned from their ancestors and I will always practise these laws. We are special people who were specially chosen by God.”

Sgbo admits that he was a bit rebellious during his teenage years and “strayed from the path” for a time.

“But I was brought back by my parents, my Judaic teachers and by God. I’m blessed to be a part of the Jews and blessed to be able to follow the laws and conditions given to my family and my people by God.”

As in orthodox Judaism, the messianic Igbos observe the laws of keeping kosher, family purity and the strict observance of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

“Our children also celebrate the coming of age just as the Jewish tradition stipulates. Boys have their Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and girls, their Bat Mitzvah at age 12,” Obiekwe says, “We keep all the laws given to the Jewish [people] by God and that is why we named the congregation Beth-El, meaning house of God.”

Circumcision is also performed on baby boys when they are eight days old in accordance with Jewish law. “Whether sick or well, a baby boy who is born is always circumcised at the age of eight days in our community.”

The ritual is performed by the rabbi or spiritual leader who is usually trained by older leaders in the community to do circumcision once ordained as a leader.

“When a child is born, we also give them a Hebrew name to go with their English name. A girl is named on the first opportunity that the Torah is read. A boy is named when he is circumcised. My Hebrew name is Natan meaning gift from God.”

Arrival in South Africa

Obiekwe moved to South Africa from Eastern Nigeria in 2006 after “having a dream” about the country. In his dream Obiekwe saw South Africa as a “hellish place that needed guidance”.

“It was God’s way of bringing me here. He knew that the Igbo Jews who had come here from Nigeria before I arrived were lacking leadership. He sent me a message.”

He was ordained as a Jewish teacher at age 21 and by the age of 25 had been named a spiritual leader in the Igbo Jewish community.

“According to my family tradition and the tradition of my forefathers, the first son of an ordained spiritual leader who is from the tribe of Levi is always trained and taught to take over from his father. This has been happening in my family since [we] migrated to Nigeria.”

When Obiekwe arrived in South Africa, he joined Temple Israel, a reform Jewish synagogue in Hillbrow, and prayed there for three years. At the beginning of 2009 he moved to Yeoville.

“It was God’s way of bringing me here. He knew that the Igbo Jews who had come here from Nigeria before I arrived were lacking leadership. He sent me a message.”

“I had heard there were Igbos in the area and I used my time in Hillbrow to come here and look for them. It took years to find them because some had lost their tradition and faith. The process to create and connect the community was slow. We are still growing.”

His community refer to him as “Prophet Sylvester” but to others Obiekwe is called “Rabbi” because of his status as a spiritual leader.

The Beth-El congregation has just over 100 members and according to Obiekwe’s assistant, Israel Akpodol, it’s growing by the day.

Parts of the original Jewish community who remain in Yeoville continue to receive kosher meals via delivery. By: Ilanit Chernick

The synagogue

Although it’s small, the synagogue is a homely but holy place for the congregants to meet and pray. It stands as a temporary structure made from wood and tin.

“The walls are painted blue and white to symbolise the community’s dedication to the land of Israel,” says Obiekwe, “It is our home and we will always support it.”

Until January this year, the congregational gatherings took place in a tent on the premises of the rabbi’s rented home. When the Jewish owner of the home passed away, the congregation was able to buy the house and build a stronger structure.

The Beth-El Assembly was established in 2009 and a permanent synagogue is in the process of being built in Regent Street.

“Prophet decided it was time to renovate his house and make it into the synagogue because the tent was becoming too small because the community is getting bigger. We keep running out of funds because the money to fix things in the house is coming slowly, so it will take time,” says Akpodol.

Before entering the synagogue, a purification ritual is practised by all members of the congregation. A tub of collected river and rain water that has been blessed sits on a chair with special wheat straws next to it. When a congregant arrives he or she is required to dip the wheat straws into the water and shake the wet straws over his or her body and hands.

“This ground in and around the synagogue is holy. You cannot come here or pray unless you have done this purification process. It cleanses the soul and body of any impurities that you may have come into contact with outside of the synagogue,” says Anuluoye.

Akpodol explains that men and women are required to take off their shoes when entering the prayer area. They pray without shoes because the area “is holy ground”. For some parts of the service congregants go onto their knees and pray as a “symbol of their humility and servitude to Hashem [God]”.

“We are tied to Hashem. We are dedicated and will always serve Him in the best way possible. Hashem is good and we need to acknowledge this and show we are committed to him fully,” says Obiekwe.

A platform with three levels stands in front. Upon the top platform is a table which holds olive oil, a menorah, a ram’s horn, prayer books and biblical texts. Obiekwe prays and gives sermons from the platform but will not go on to it during the ordinary days of the week because it is the holiest place in the synagogue.

START AT THE BEGINNING: As the morning prayers commence, Israel Akpodol, Sunday Sgbo and Tony Anuluoyne ready themselves to dedicate their morning to serving God. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

The Torah scrolls are kept in a holy place in the rabbi’s home to protect them from getting damaged. “We do not bring them out unless it is Sabbath or Jewish Holidays. They are too sacred,” says Akpodol.

Certain prayers are said in Hebrew but most are recited in English because some members of the congregation cannot read Hebrew.

Beth-El member Ovad Agu says that not all Jews in the community are able to read Hebrew but some went to Israel to learn the language so they would be able to speak and read it fluently.

“A lot of Igbo Jews go to Israel because they know it is their home. They want to learn the language properly. [In Nigeria] We were taught to read it by our parents so we could pray but we never learned it as a language.”

The men and women sit separately during prayer times and a cloth separates the two. The men sit in the front and the women in the back. Women are also expected to cover their hair, wear long dresses and have sleeves that cover their elbows.

“A lot of Igbo Jews go to Israel because they know it is their home. They want to learn the language properly. [In Nigeria] We were taught to read it by our parents so we could pray but we never learned it as a language.”

“Women mostly dress as the religious Jews would in Nigeria, in colourful but modest clothing with head coverings,” says Charity Nnonyeli. “The men wear white and also pray with their prayer shawls on. You have to be dressed properly because we are in the presence of God.”

Nnonyeli, a religious woman in the Beth-El congregation, says her role as a Jewish wife and mother is to “raise a family who understand the laws of God”. She explains that, according to Jewish tradition and the Bible, the woman was created “from her husband”, Adam.

She came to South Africa because her husband moved to Johannesburg from Nigeria in 2012 to find “greener pastures”.

“According to our laws you cannot be separated from your husband. Wherever your husband goes, you must always follow. It is always important to respect your husband in the best way possible.”

On the Sabbath and Jewish Holidays, the congregation spends the entire day together. Part of celebrating includes eating the festive meals together, praying and studying the Jewish scriptures.

Over this year’s high holy days, more than 200 people joined the prayer services and sermons. “Some were people who are interested in converting, others are Igbos who have recently moved to Yeoville from Nigeria and decided to join us this year,” says Obiekwe.

“We are a family. We celebrate everything together and spend time teaching each other and learning,” says Nnonyeli.

Community Funding and Israel’s story

CONCENTRATE: Israel Akpodol focusing on the words and their meaning as he prays. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Akpodol says the funding for their community comes from leaders and members of the Igbo Jewish community in Nigeria and individual donors in South Africa. The Igbo Jews living in Nigeria also receive donations from Jews in Israel and America who have discovered their existence and “want to help strengthen their connection to God and Judaism”.

Akpodol, who is also from Eastern Nigeria, says he converted to messianic Judaism in 2012 after falling on hard times while living in Yeoville.

“I had a stall in the market but things became too expensive and I lost everything. I lived on the streets and became a drunk. One day I drank too much and got sick. I knew I needed God and that’s when my Jewish friends brought me to Prophet Sylvester.”

After meeting with Obiekwe, Akpodol was given a job to assist Obiekwe while converting. After his conversion was finalised last year, Obiekwe made the job permanent for Akpodol, who now helps to run synagogue services and assist the rabbi with daily tasks and errands.

Ovad Agu went to Israel in 2010 with members of the community to do an official conversion to Messianic Judaism. According to traditional Jewish law, however, his conversion is only recognised by the messianic Jews.

As the Beth-El community accept more converts into their community, more personal issues have begun to arise. Obiekwe has realised it is important to create a rabbinical body his community can approach. The need to teach the community about Jewish law and scriptures has also prompted the need for more spiritual leaders. Once the community is more established, he hopes to train more Jewish leaders and ultimately form his own rabbinical court (Beth Din).

Obiekwe says he needs a way of dealing with personal issues within his community but is not able to get advice on these matters from the local rabbinical court.

“I have a good relationship with some of the Johannesburg rabbis but the Igbos are not properly recognised as Jews here because our beliefs differ from the orthodox [Jews]. They want me to convert but how can I convert to a religion that I already belong to? It doesn’t make sense.”

Despite this, Obiekwe’s community still keep to the local Beth Din’s standard of kosher food and abide by their judicial code of law.

Obiekwe has not allowed the questions surrounding their authenticity to discourage their traditions or beliefs.

“We are all servants of God. God chose us as his people and we will continue to abide by His laws no matter if we are accepted by the orthodox community or not.”

FEATURED IMAGE: As the morning prayers commence, Israel Akpodol, Sunday Sgbo and Tony Anuluoyne ready themselves to dedicate their morning to serving God. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

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Promising miracles and money

Some 50 churches jostle for space in Yeoville – physical as well as spiritual. In one case, three churches share a single garage and divide the hours for their Sunday services.

Divisions are not just physical as pastors speak of the differences between “money-making” churches and “a true church of God”.

“Your hands shall not be empty! Your pockets shall not be empty! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” The voice roars commands in a church on Hunter Street in Yeoville.

“May you not lose your business! May you not lose your prosperity.” The pastor’s voice is amplified by large speakers in all four corners of the room. “Holy Ghost! Fire!”

With his eyes shut, the pastor shouts: “Blood of Jesus Christ!” He holds tightly onto his microphone. The congregation echoes in unison: “Blood of Jesus Christ!” An emotive melody is being played by a man on the piano, encouraging some to sing: “You are alpha and omega …”

DELIVERANCE: Five men perform a church service on the hill behind Yeoville. Initially praying alone, the seated man later joined the service. The five men pray and sing for him, and the pastor twists his head from side to side, using his hands as a passage for God’s work to free him from evil and bless him. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

The pastor commands further: “You shall not be a beggar! In the name of Jesus!”

Towards the end of the service, the pastor asks those who have tithes to stand up and hold them in the air. “Come forward and let me pray for your testaments.” Those members with tithes walk to the pastor and drop their envelopes into a big wooden box with three open slots. After they have done that, he smears an oil potion on the palms of their hands, chanting: “In the name of Jesus!” as the congregation responds “Amen!”

Yeoville has a large number of churches facing challenges within themselves and against each other. Johannesburg Metropolitan ward 67 councillor, Sihlwele Myeki, said there were more than 50 different churches in Yeoville.

The late 1990s saw the arrival of new charismatic and Pentecostal churches, mostly led and attended by foreigners, preaching and praising in a different way from traditional churches. Churches such as Jesus Christ is the Lord, Jesus Mountain of Miracles Ministries International, Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Supremacy of God Church, among many others, entered a space already occupied by traditional churches such as St Marks Presbyterian Church and the 102-year-old St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

“These new churches in Yeoville are a great challenge for us as a Catholic church,” said Ricki Mukaza, The right-hand man of the priest at St Francis questioned the motives of the new churches. “Some have made it a business where they try to make money by giving people a fixed amount of money that they have to contribute to the church.

“It’s a challenge for us because we are competing against businesses and we are just a church.”

Festus Anibuko, a congregant of St Francis Catholic Church, said: “They use certain types of strong words like ‘prosperity’ and you believe in quick miracles while they are just collecting numbers and money.”

“And that is what you call indoctrination,” said Henry Choguike, another congregant. “You apply for your job, you submit your CV, you pray with your pastor, and you get the job.”

A member of the Supremacy of God Church, Nobuhle Ncube, said she believed in the pastor, Prophet Elisha Elijah, and his works of miracles. Ncube was having problems with her husband a few months ago and went to see the pastor during his counselling sessions. “The pastor just told me to go and pray and wash my husband’s shirt, and he gave me a word and I spoke the word the whole time while I washed the shirt, and now my husband and I are fine.”

Goodnews Kazeem, also a St Francis congregant, said people went to traditional churches when they needed baptisms and weddings, even if they went to the new churches for miracles.

BLESSINGS: A man kneels beside Father Johannes of the St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Yeoville during the weekly Mass. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

The Catholic Church is on Cavendish Street, and there is a new church in the same vicinity. Mukaza said they could hear the loud praise and singing from the new church when they were saying prayers, and could not focus properly. “We can’t dictate what people do, we don’t want them to say: ‘Catholic people think they’re all that’ but it disturbs our service.”

St Francis’s Father Johannes said: “They use loudspeakers to impress people and to show that they are many.” Johannes is from Indonesia and was sent to the Catholic Church in Yeoville two years ago.

On the corner of Cavendish and Muller streets is a house in which three different churches operate, dividing times and sharing the garage space. One of the three churches sharing this space is a Pentecostal church: the Church of Lord Jesus in South Africa. Pastor William Mpolesha, from the DRC, said the church opened in February 2014 but had been running in Kensington since 2009.

He said it was a challenge to run a church in Yeoville because “Yeoville is full of churches already”.

“On Sundays we start at 8am and at 10.30am we have to be out for the next church which starts at 11am. And then the third church runs from 2pm to 4pm.”

Mpolesha denied his church made a noise, saying it must be the other two he shares the garage space with. “People like worshipping loudly, so you have to pray and worship without being loud or people will call the cops.” He said there was a law which required churches to operate in noise-contained buildings. “Sometimes we use the microphone and speakers if we are many, but we don’t make a noise.” He said it was difficult because the garage was not built to contain noise.

“It is challenging to be in a facility where you cannot operate freely,” said Mpolesha. Earlier this year they asked but were not permitted to use empty rooms at the recreation centre in Yeoville. “There is a law which does not allow churches to operate under municipal facilities.”

He said the large number of churches in Yeoville did not deter him because “our target is changing the lives of the people”.

“We open branches in different areas because we struggle to provide transport for members who live far away and cannot afford to pay transport fare. We can’t let people fail to come to church because of their location, it pushes you to open another branch as we have this year.”

Mpolesha said, aside from the donations, tithes and offerings, the church struggled with finances. It used to get funding from an apostle in Canada, but he stopped this. “He said: ‘No, you are a church, you’ve got church members, they must support the church to operate,’ so I had to find a job to support my family and my church.”

Elder Butho Moyo of Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses church, which has been open for 10 years, said: “It is difficult to maintain a church as foreign people. We are trying to do something that brings purpose into our lives and the lives of the people we serve.

“We are treated differently from the older churches here, we have been paying high rates for rent, water and electricity.”

Councillor Myeki said “the difficulty with the new churches was that they operated in schools, flats or houses, and this meant they were not designated churches”.

GLORY ROBE: Father Johannes of the St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Yeoville greets congregants after Mass. The Catholic Church has initiated a number of outreach programmes to help the disadvantaged people of Yeoville. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

He said there were only five designated churches in Yeoville on recognised premises, four of which were traditional churches and one charismatic.

“The consequences of not applying for rezoning are high municipal rates,” said Myeki. He said designated churches only paid for water and electricity while the new unrecognised churches were subject to water, electricity and residential rental rates. “If the city notices that you have turned your house into a business [church], the city has a right to penalise you. They may increase your rates because they can’t force you to rezone, but they can penalise you.”

Myeki said new churches were discouraged by the expensive process of applying for rezoning and the requirements of the application, which were: sufficient space, parking space, abiding by fire bylaws, and sweeping the building for noise control.

“So they keep up with the high rates because that is what their situation can maintain best.” He said rezoning could cost up to about R70 000, depending on the consultant used, so many new churches settled for high rates rather than the possibility of failing the expensive and extensive rezoning application.

“The majority of people living in Yeoville are very poor, and struggling to make a living,” said Father Johannes. He said the new charismatic and Pentecostal churches reached out to people with a lack of faith. “It’s a psychological thing. People like TB Joshua promise miracles, and I think it’s a sign of lack of faith to those who go there.” He said he did not judge the people and the churches, because they were satisfying their own “personal longing”.

Johannes said he believed people sought fast miracles because it was tough to survive without any source of income, especially for foreigners in a new country, so “they use church as an escape”.

“People must understand that the Pentecostal church is for African people,” said Mpolesha. “It’s the only time the Holy Spirit works through you. Churches like the Roman Catholic and the Baptists are just procedure, like going through a study programme and just getting your certificate, but Pentecostal is through the gift from God because you only become a pastor if you get a calling.”

He said he got his calling to be a pastor in 1993 when he was still at university but he ignored it while he qualified as a pharmacist and worked in an HIV/Aids antiretroviral treatment programme in his home country, the DRC. “I thought to myself that I am a successful pharmacist, what am I going to do in a church? I can make money as a pharmacist [rather] than as a pastor. But the calling kept coming to me.”

Sandra Elimiaga, wife of Prophet Elimiaga of Jesus Mount of Miracles Ministries Church, said: “The will of the Lord is a mystery. Scientists and researchers try to understand religion but they can’t. You cannot know God through your own ideas, you will know him through the word of God.”

Residents of an apartment block in Yeoville tell of their frustrations of living next door to the informal prayer group gatherings in Yeoville. By: Bongiwe Tutu

Melekias Zulu, who works at the Wits Centre for African Migration Studies, said: “From my experience in working with Zimbabwean migrants, they find a church that speaks their language, and they look for a church they will be familiar with. It is likely that you also share the same cultural beliefs systems and practices with that church.”

According to Vedaste Nzayabino, in a study on the role of a charismatic church in Yeoville, published by Wits University in 2010, there were three levels of integration when a foreigner entered into a new community. The first level was achieved when a foreigner found a church where other people sharing “common foreign status congregate”. This was defined as a system of self-integration and was fully achieved in the new charismatic churches, where mostly foreign people congregated.

The second level occured when a foreigner felt spiritually assimilated into the church community and gained spiritual growth. And the third level was cultural integration, where one became integrated into a group or community which shared similar cultural backdrops.

Peter Kankonde, who also works at the Wits Centre for African Migration Studies, said the loose use of the word “integration” was a problem. “Can you call Johannesburg a community that is integrated? Is Yeoville a community that is integrated?” Kankonde said this was a problem because South Africa itself was not a cohesive community, with people from different backgrounds and places.

“South Africa is a transforming society after apartheid. With the notion of the rainbow nation, you have government bringing people together who were being kept apart. Migrants from outside come in and find South Africans themselves trying to find a national identity which is not there yet,” He said integration had to be understood not as a result but as a process for South Africans and not African migrants alone.

Mpolesha said: “I found that South Africa has little understanding of Pentecostal or as many put it ‘charismatic’ churches, but I guess the commercialisation of church on TV has given people the wrong idea.”

“Being a foreigner in a new space is not easy, and being a pastor is even harder,” said Pastor Princewill of the Jesus Mountain of Miracles International. “We know that there are some people who view us in the bad light, but we know also that our members believe in our church and that keeps us going.

“People might say we are trying to make money but we are only following a calling and serving God and spreading the word.”

“Let me tell you how to tell the difference between a church of God and that which operates as a business using the magic,” said Mpolesha. As an example, he said a church could not call only those people with R1000 to come forward for a blessing. “That is a revelation for you that something is not right, what about the man with R2? Are you not going to pray for him? People follow those who seem wealthy, with nice cars, through an idea that it means he is blessed.”

Mpolesha said prophecies, deliverances and miracles should be kept secret. “When Jesus healed people he said: ‘Don’t tell anyone of what I have done for you’.”

He said pastors should not take any glory for the work of God, referring to those shown on TV who took all the credit for themselves.

“And the third way to see the difference is to analyse the outcome, does the person’s life actually change? And, that may take a lifetime to determine.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Five men perform a church service on the hill behind Yeoville. Initially praying alone, the seated man later joined the service. The five men pray and sing for him, and the pastor twists his head from side to side, using his hands as a passage for God’s work to free him from evil and bless him. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

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