Through the eyes of others

I spent yesterday in the company of two French people, one Belgian, a Congolese and a South African, our Community Police Forum chair. We were working on a short documentary that is an outcome of the work done by Wit’s University’s Yeoville Studio over the last two years. The film-makers had done some shooting in September 2011, following myself and Jean Pierre Lukamba (the Congolese) as we conducted a tour of the area for people attending a Yeoville Studio exhibition.

One of the useful things for me as a Yeoville Bellevue ‘patriot’ in hosting outsiders to the area is that I get to see our home through different eyes. I also get to see people, places and things I don’t see otherwise.

We started off in Rockey St and immediately I had to leave the crew temporarily because there was bright yellow stream of water running down the street and I needed to find out where it came from. I found a locked gate in Yeo St under which the stream was flowing. I couldn’t get in and I heard later that someone was washing out paint buckets. This is not the only problem in the building from which this illicit stream was flowing. Looking through the gate, I could see the entire alley behind it was full of garbage. The building is one of the many unmanaged, possibly hijacked premises in the area in which there is little or no control over what people do in it.

Back at the Recreation Centre, I caught up with the crew and immediately got involved in a different kind of issue. There were cars in the park – one on the outdoor chess board – in contravention of an agreement that the park would be for people, not vehicles. Ironically, the cars belonged to city officials who were in the area to carry out raids on people involved in illegal activities! They were concerned for the safety of their vehicles and didn’t want to leave them in the street. The other hassle was that the outdoor chess pieces were not out, which is why it was easy for the official to park on the board. The Recreation Centre doesn’t put them out because they believe they should wait for someone to ask to play before doing so. But that’s now how such boards work – the pieces should be put out every morning and taken in every evening. Then people passing will see them and will be encouraged to play. A culture of playing will develop and people will arrive at the park everyday, expecting to see the pieces out and ready.

After filming in the park, we moved to Time Square, an apparently attractive cosmopolitan meeting point. But the building suffers from a lack of management, leading to a number of problems such as violence, under-age drinking, filthy toilets, and a general air of illegality.

This was followed by a somewhat tense visit to a Nigerian bar and restaurant – tense because people were uncomfortable with the filming and would have preferred it (correctly so) if we had given them advanced warning. We completed the shooting in the building and then spoke for a few minutes with a Nigerian man who gave us his take on Yeoville Bellevue. As was to be expected, he was ambiguous about the place, extolling its virtues as a meeting place of many, but clearly uncomfortable with the problems of the area. Interestingly, he told us that he had only been in South Africa and Yeoville Bellevue for ‘a short while’ and therefore thought he couldn’t speak authoritatively on the matter. When pressed, he said he had been here for five years (we had supposed from his words that he had been here for nearer to five months). Much more research needs to be done on who is here, how long they have been here, how they view their status in the area and what they think their plans for the future might be, especially their future in Yeoville Bellevue – this work needs to be done across the board, not just with migrants from the rest of Africa, but also those who are internal migrants from all over South Africa.

After visits to a couple of other places, we ended up in the Blue Nile. a small Ethiopian restaurant in a house in Yeo St. We had the usual njera (Ethiopian bread) with vegetables and then waited for another 45 minutes while coffee was prepared. We watched the raw beans being roasted in a pot over open coals. The coffee was then brewed in a pot over the same heat and poured into small cups which we dosed with a little sugar to challenge the bitterness. I found it hard to sleep that night.

The coffee ceremony could be a real attraction to those visiting the area for an ‘African experience’. But first the restaurant owner (and not just the owner of this but other restaurants too) has to be persuaded that there are people other than Ethiopians (in his case) who want to eat their national cuisine.

We walked back to the office buzzing after the coffee and then migrated to the top of a building at the crest of Yeoville ridge to get some panoramic shots of the area.There are some absolutely phenomenal views to be had from some of the apartment blocks along the ridge, views for which some people would pay a great deal if Yeoville Bellevue was a clean, safe, well-managed environment. The same applies to the south-facing ridge that overlooks Doornfontein and the city centre. Here the challenge is the hundreds of outdoor worshippers who have more or less occupied the area, creating noise and litter pollution problems for those who live nearby and for visitors.

As the crew left in the late afternoon, we noticed that the flow of yellow water had stopped, leaving the tar brightly stained. The next rains should wash it away – into the river system along with the other pollutants and litter that flow into our storm water drains every time we have a storm. Perhaps it is problems like this that have persuaded our Nigerian friend that, even after five years, Yeoville Bellevue is not home and that he will probably move on and out of the area as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Back in the office, we sit and wonder if we will still be in operation after the end of April. Funding is hard to come by, despite the fact that most people praise the work we do, especially ex-Yeoville-Bellevue residents and visitors with fond memories of their time here.

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