End of the line for the Yeoville train

The end of an era in Yeoville! An icon of Yeoville has gone! These are made-up, stock-in-trade, over-dramatic, attention-grabbing headlines boringly over-used by newspapers and TV news channels. I’m not going to use them to tell this story.

Instead I am going to use the (real) words of a woman who called me two days ago, Thursday 4 April. There was a touch of desperation in her voice (Here I’m not being dramatic).

‘What’s happening to the train? There are people breaking it down. Who are they? Are they supposed to be doing that? They are taking away our old Yeoville.’

I had no idea what she was talking about. At least this latest development. Of course I knew about the train. I probably know more about it than most people. But I had no idea that it was being taken apart – though I wasn’t surprised.

I hesitate to use race in my blogs – in any writing – but sometimes it is important to make a point. So I’m going to mention that the woman who phoned is black, as is her friend who phoned later. They had been on the bus on their way to work when they saw what was happening to their beloved train. Their beloved, broken-down, dirty, squatted, rusting train. I am told that one of them was weeping.

The mention of race is important because, so often when we talk about preserving the past, it is assumed that it is only whites who have this concern, especially in areas which were formerly white. But here we have two black women who probably arrived in the area many years after the train – and they were mourning its loss to the community of Yeoville Bellevue. I have to say I was moved – and grateful to them for calling me, because it gave me a chance to go there and get some photographs of the slow destruction of the sad old carriage.


The shell of what once was a cosy railway coach


Where once we had breakfast


People were living here

The train in question is (or was) a passenger coach which had, with some extreme effort, been off-loaded in Raleigh St, probably sometime in the early 1980s and installed on a sliver of property belonging to the then-Department of Post and Telecommunications or some such name. Called the Slow Coach, it soon became very popular as a breakfast and lunch venue where patrons could sit and watch the world of Yeoville go by.

Come on in, the coffee's hot ....

Come on in, the coffee’s hot …. (screen grab from Yeoville in 2 genres, by Gillian Schutte of Handheld Films)

That was then ....

That was then ….(screen grab from Yeoville in 2 genres, by Gillian Schutte of Handheld Films)

On the left of the coach was a toilet block for customers to use and on the right, after a time, Gary Prentice set up Rambling Rose, a ramshackle little flower outlet from which residents of Yeoville Bellevue and elsewhere bought fistfuls of flowers at very reasonable prices.

Gary preparing flowers for a customer

Gary preparing flowers for a customer (screen grab from Yeoville in 2 genres, by Gillian Schutte of Handheld Films)

Rambling Rose as it was

Rambling Rose as it was (screen grab from Yeoville in 2 genres, by Gillian Schutte of Handheld Films)

By the late 1990s, business had gone down for both enterprises. Gary moved his flower shop to Rosebank, a bad move as he didn’t get enough passing trade, and so he closed down and operated from his house in Saunders St, Yeoville instead. He had established a number of regular clients – restaurants, offices, shops – who wanted daily or weekly replacement bouquets, he did weddings and other functions, and so he was able to make a reasonable living.

In the meantime, the owner of the Slow Coach decided to sell the business. It wasn’t easy, but eventually she got a buyer. Unfortunately, the new owner – who changed the name to the Still Coach – didn’t make a go of it. It became more of a drinking hole than a restaurant, got more and more shabby, and eventually closed down.

And there it stood for years. On either side, little cell phone outlets opened, whether with the approval of the landowner or not, I don’t know.

The landowner by this time was Telkom. After 1994 and the re-positioning of the once-dominant government telecommunications body as a public enterprise listed on the stock exchange, the 2 000m2 piece of land was transferred to them. Occupying the bulk of the property was the Yeoville telephone exchange, servicing Yeoville, Bellevue, Bellevue East, Observatory and other surrounding suburbs.

This particular piece of land was in the hands of the state for a very long time. From early in the 20th century until the 1960s, there was a grand red-brick post office on the Raleigh St side of the property. I recall standing as a child in front of its entrances (there were two, of course – one for whites and one for blacks) in the 1960s, asking passing mothers to help me with the ‘3c busfare’ I claimed I needed to get home.

Despite increasing resistance to the unnecessary destruction of Johannesburg’s heritage, the post office was demolished, probably so that the new telephone exchange could be built on the site. The entrance to the new exchange was in Hunter St, the road just north of Raleigh St. On Raleigh St, there was a plain wall.

In the late 1970s, when I lived in Hunter St, one block from the exchange, the entire telephone system in Yeoville and surrounding areas went down. A fire had broken out in the building. As an interim solution, the department placed a temporary exchange in the street, blocking it off to traffic for the many months it took them to restore the service in the building itself.

I am not sure if the authorities decided to try and raise funds through renting out part of the land or if an enterprising businessmen saw the potential of using a portion of the exchange parking lot which was immediately behind the wall on Raleigh St. Whichever it was, a deal was struck, a short piece of railway was laid down and covered over with gravel, and the old South Africa Railways carriage hoisted into place.

Over the years, many people wondered what could be done to bring the train back into service. The owner seemed to have no new ideas, but there was also no-one else stepping forward to buy it and give it a new lease of life.

Then disaster struck the exchange for a second (and final) time. In January 2010, an underground gas line explosion once again knocked out the telephone system and rendered the building unsafe for use. Telkom immediately began negotiations with the Department of Public Works to use a corner of a nearby sportsground to put up a temporary exchange. (Strangely, neither of them thought to ask the two nearby government schools – one responsible for the land, the other using it – whether it was okay for them to take over a section of it.

We were building up to the Soccer World Cup at that time and I drafted a proposal which would see the train being brought back into service, this time as a community facility.

New Telkom Site market

I approached the owner of the train and asked if we could use it in return for getting it completely refurbished. If he decided to sell it after a specified period, he could do so and he would get a better price for it because of the refurbishment.

I asked Telkom if we could use the land for free.

If the two of them agreed, then I was going to approach Transnet or the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (PRASA) to refurbish the carriage at their cost as a social investment exercise.

Sadly, neither the owner of the train nor Telkom agreed and so we didn’t even get to approach Transnet or Prasa.

Then, Telkom decided to sell the land. At the same time (again without consulting the schools) they decided to buy the corner of the field where their temporary facility (now to be permanent) was situated.

This seemed a great opportunity. We needed land for the establishment of a new market in the area. The existing market was too small and the streets were filled with street traders who were being harassed by Metro Police all the time. If we had a new market, this would provide street traders with a permanent selling spot, we could establish small production facilities, and we could maybe even attract visitors to the area to the two markets. The train we would refurbish and use as a market office or a restaurant. It would make a great iconic entrance to the new market. Here’s my crude attempt to show how it could have looked, with gates on either side that would open against the wall during the day. (The exchange building has been demolished.)

Market 1

Telkom flatly refused to come to the party. We asked them to consider donating the land to the community or to the City of Johannesburg or to sell it at a nominal price. They said no, that if we wanted the land, we should make them an offer, but they were treating it as a purely commercial exercise. We tried all sorts of channels – appealing to the people at the top, asking political and business connections to intervene and persuade them – but we failed to move them.

We spoke to the City of Johannesburg, asking them to approach Telkom urgently. They too did not seem to take the idea very seriously.

We approached individuals and companies in the private sector, but could attract no interest except from one property owner who saw the tourist potential of having a new market and so was willing to buy it for us, but he could not consider going above a certain price – and we knew Telkom wanted much more.

And so the property was eventually sold, to whom we do not yet know. Telkom must have been happy because they got more than double the amount they were willing to accept. The new owners are happy because they now have a prime piece of property in the heart of the commercial district of Yeoville Bellevue.

And the train is gone. It obviously does not fit into the vision the new owners have for the place and so it had to go. It was so dilapidated that it was not worth moving it – and so breaking it up was the only solution.

The people who had been squatting in the carriage sat around glumly as I took photographs of the workers tearing their home apart. They wanted to know where they should now go.  I had no answer.

I also had no answer for Busie and Nomhle, the two women who called me about the destruction of their beloved train – I couldn’t even explain to myself how it was that we had missed such an opportunity to renew that section of Raleigh St, to give a new lease of life to the train, to create more permanent income-generating opportunities for street traders, to build space for workshops where entrepreneurs could produce goods for sale, and to attract visitors (and their money) into the area, all of which would have contributed to the socio-economic revival of the area.

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Travel writing: a pinch of salt is definitely needed

Late last year, a colleague in the tourism industry told me that there was this great article on Yeoville Bellevue in a well-known airline magazine. In fact, he kindly gave me his copy. The article focused primarily on a Congolese restaurant called Kin Malebo, but also made reference to Yeoville Bellevue as a whole and to other restaurants and establishments in the area.

We welcome newspaper and magazine articles about our neighbourhood, especially if they are successful in attracting people to the area. We do believe that the economic future of Yeoville Bellevue lies in promoting the area as a pan-African destination in which people can experience a variety of African cuisine, African music, arts and craft, ethnic clothing and African literature. However, we are very concerned when articles paint a false picture of what is actually happening. It seems that, in this case, the writer did his research on Kin Malebo reasonably well, but used very old information when he spoke about other places, giving incorrect and misleading information to the readers. We can only assume he did a desktop search for additional material to back up his main story and he didn’t check to see if it was still current. He also didn’t refer at all to some of the socio-economic challenges in the area which means that visitors who might have come to Yeoville Bellevue on the strength of his article could actually have put their lives and possessions at risk. These are some of the things he said that are wrong or misleading:

‘Yeoville’s main feeder route (is) Rockey St’ – this is a common misconception, but one which should be picked up by a serious writer. Rockey St is not in Yeoville. There is a long street which starts in Berea and ends in Bruma. It goes through a number of name changes along the way. In Yeoville, it is called Raleigh St. In Bellevue, it is called Rockey St.

In talking about the culturally eclectic nature of Yeoville Bellevue, the writer mentions Burundi, Angola, Egypt and Tunisia. But these are probably among the least represented in our area. Nigeria, Congo and Zimbabwe are by far the most present. Others that would be relevant well before the four he cited would be Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Cameroon etc.

He goes on to talk about a number of establishments in the Times Square building very near to Kin Malebo. However, sadly for those ‘whose taste buds yearn for something French’, Cafe Joie Patisserie and Coffee Shoppe long ago stopped selling anything vaguely linked to France. I think if you go in now, you will find only beer and pool tables. Times Square Cafe and it’s ‘Yank’s generous portions’ still has a food menu, but I doubt it has anything to do with the United States. The focus here is also much more on alcohol. The Londoner Pub long gave up its pretentions to anything vaguely ‘English’.

The material on Kin Malebo seems to be pretty accurate. However, it is on Raleigh St, not Rockey. The comment about ‘high levels of cultural tolerance and a better quality of life’ as a reason for people coming to Yeoville Bellevue is at least debatable. There are elements of both, depending on where a person was before he or she came to the area. It could also be argued that people come to Yeoville Bellevue because there are so many of their compatriots there and so it is familiar, and because the levels of urban management and law enforcement are so low that it is possible to do just about anything here without consequences.

Later on in the article, the writer once again promotes attractions that don’t exist. Charro’s, with their ‘authentic Durban curries and bunny chows’ closed down seven or eight years ago. Tandoor started in the 1980s as a reasonably authentic Tandoori chicken outlet. It has long given up that persona. It is now a rasta joint, more famous for dope-smoking, alcohol and loud music than ‘spicy food’. La Conglaise hasn’t been operating for around 10 years, while The Zone is no longer a single place, but a building housing a number of different businesses. Rockafella’s – like Tandoor, La Conglaise and The Zone, not actually in Yeoville, but Bellevue – is more known for being a night club than for its food.

So, in summary, the article gives a very skewed and uninformed picture of Yeoville Bellevue. If the writer really wanted to write about food in Yeoville Bellevue, he could have written a much more interesting piece, but it would have required him actually walking the streets of the area and not relying on someone else’s information. There are a number of interesting ethnic restaurants – Ethiopian, Nigerian, Cameroonian etc – which he could have discovered and used to give more meat to his article.

But I am learning that travel writing is not necessarily the reflections of a writer’s own experiences. I was recently approached by a well-known travel writer who had been asked to write about the Yeoville Market (which, by the way, does not have an ‘international section’ as the writer of the Kin Malebo article suggests – it is merely a market which has, scattered across it, traders from a number of different countries in the world).

This travel writer wanted to visit the area and asked for my assistance. However, she ran out of time and so sent the following message to me: “Have been down in the Cape so only now getting to my emails. My time is so-o short and my deadline is soon. I think I can write the article (only 300 words) from other articles and a flying visit I paid to the market years ago, but do you have any pics of the market in particular? If so, could you email them to me?” And for this she was getting paid!!

The problem with all of this is that, in the publication which has the Yeoville/Kin Malebo article, there is also a piece on Mumbai and another on Abidjan. I have been to neither place, although I recently read a compelling book about a slum in Mumbai and discovered a  polar-opposite picture of Mumbai in the magazine article. My experience of the Kin Malebo/Yeoville article (and my interaction with the travel writer who was asked to write about the Yeoville Market) means that I now don’t trust the authenticity of the articles on Mumbai and Abidjan. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Finally, while I would love to see an increase in visitors to Yeoville Bellevue because it would help to boost our floundering economy, I will not pretend that it is a safe and easy place to come to. The problem with the magazine article is that is gives no inkling of the fact that Yeoville Bellevue has a number of socio-economic challenges, some of which include abuse of alcohol (and other substances) and unacceptable levels of crime (partly related to the afore-mentioned substance abuse). The area is quite dirty and finding parking around Kin Malebo and other places can be a challenge. I certainly wouldn’t discourage people from coming, but I would prepare them for what they will find when they get here. The article in question does not do this at all and so, in short, I consider it to be a bad article which does not reflect accurately the reality of Yeoville Bellevue, nor does it reflect well on the authenticity and integrity of articles of the publication. Given that it is a flagship publication for many visitors to Johannesburg and to the country, I would think that this should be a cause for concern.

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It’s not just up to Christians to lead the way to a just, ethical society

Cyril Ramaphosa is right when he says that Christians in South Africa must stand up against rape and corruption. In fact, Christians should be doing a lot more standing up – against rape, corruption, crime, violence of all kinds, atrocities carried out by the SAPS, exploitation of workers, substance abuse and rampant selfish consumerism. My perception, as a non-religious person, is that many churches stay far too silent on the real challenges that face our people, preferring instead to focus on narrow scriptural issues or encouraging a culture of self-enrichment rather than service to others.

However, I am puzzling over his claim that “there is no better agent than Christians and the church to raise the morals, the moral consciousness of our nation,” and that “it falls on us as Christians. We must say this is a sin. This is a crime. Rape is a sin and it is a crime. We are the ones as ­Christians who must stand up and say, corruption, we will never ­accept it, because it is a sin. It is a crime.”

Surely in a multi-faith society, which also has a number of non-believers, that duty must lie with all institutions and individuals concerned with spirituality and/or morality, ethics and values. By singling out Christians, he appears to be saying that it is their exclusive duty to take on this responsibility on behalf of the rest of us and to provide guidance to the rest of us.

Now I am aware that he was addressing a Christian congregation, so it is logical for him to have focused on the duties of that particular faith. But he could have made his point in a more inclusive way. He could, for example, have said that all faith-based institutions in the country have a duty to show leadership in the fight against rape and other anti-social and immoral behaviour in South Africa. He could have added that, because Christians are in the majority, they carry a particular burden of responsibility for taking on this task.

But he didn’t. He made it a Christian issue, or at least that is what the media would have us believe.

And what about those of us who do not believe in a supreme being or whose spirituality is not practised through any of the established religious institutions, Christian or otherwise? Do we not also have the right and responsibility to determine honest, ethical, caring, charitable, loving principles of human cohabitation and to promote them? If so, would it not have been better for Ramaphosa to have said that?

The problem with not saying it is that it will reinforce the notion that some Christians have about the superiority of their religion. They genuinely believe that the only way to ‘salvation’ is through Jesus Christ. This means, therefore, that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, humanists and other non-Christians are doomed to eternal non-salvation because a lack of belief in Jesus is seen as an irredeemable obstacle. (I am not even going to begin to address the problem of the difference on issues of morality within the Christian faith!)

Apart from the theological problems posed by such a view (and I am not saying Ramaphosa shares this view – I am saying that what he is reported to have said feeds into this view), it doesn’t make sense politically. Ramaphosa has a primarily political persona – personally I was not even aware that he was a Christian, though the media seems to suggest that he is – and so his aim in such instances should surely be informed by political imperatives. And the political imperative in this instance is to ensure that everyone, Christian or not, religious or not, spiritual or not, takes responsibility for addressing the crisis of morality facing our country. While I would appreciate churches playing a much greater pastoral role in influencing morality in the country (more for the purpose of caring for people than for converting them to their church), I would not necessarily be seeking my moral direction from them, nor will people of the Islamic, Hindu, Judaistic, Buddhist and other faiths.

What I believe we should be focusing on is not the exclusive right to moral superiority of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, communism or any other religion or belief system. I would prefer for us to be identifying those values which are common to us all – and for everyone, regardless of creed, to encourage everyone to live according to those values.

In the late 1990s, a very useful document was drawn up by an interfaith grouping which attempted to do just that. The document, which was supported by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, people of the B’ahai Faith etc, encouraged all people to sign the following pledge:

I shall strive to:

  • Be good and do good
  • Live honestly and positively
  • Be considerate and kind
  • Care for my sisters and brothers within the human family
  • Respect all people’s rights to their beliefs and cultures
  • Care for and improve our common environment
  • Promote peace, harmony and non-violence
  • Promote the welfare of my country as a patriotic citizen

The values set out above are fully in line with our Constitution and especially of our Bill of Rights. They are values that can be supported by all, regardless of creed. They are values which recognise the right of people to have different creeds and their responsibility to work for the common human good, regardless of those creeds.

I would much rather hear Ramaphosa and others encouraging this sort of approach, rather than seeming to give the responsibility for moral leadership exclusively to one religious grouping.

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I spoke in my last post about a boy from DRC who’s facing challenges. I thought, in this post, I would talk about DRC itself, at least one small part of that sprawling country.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga Province in the DRC. It is the southern-most province, with Lubumbashi a stone’s-throw from the Zambian border. It is also one of the ‘secessionist’ provinces of the 1960s – then-governor Moise Tshombe tried, but failed, to lead Katanga out of the DRC. It is where deposed prime minister Patrice Lumumba was taken by his captors and assassinated in 1961.

Provinces are led by governors (similar to our Premiers in South Africa) who, in the past, were appointed to their positions. However, the incumbent, Moise Katumbi, became the first elected governor of Katanga in 2007. Of mixed race (he is half Congolese, half Greek Jew), he is a very successful businessman who spent some time living in South Africa in the early 2000s. By all accounts, he seems to be doing a reasonable job as governor and is being punted by some as a possible future president of the country.

I was in DRC at an NGO workshop which was discussing human rights and development. The governor was invited to attend and not only came to the opening, but also the closing – and then invited delegates to visit him at his offices on the day following the workshop. The visit to his offices took place on a Saturday, an ordinary working day for him, it seemed.

He appears to be a warm, relaxed, accessible man and not overly concerned with pomp and ceremony. In the evening of the second day, I watched him arrive at the hotel where the workshop was being held. He leapt out of the car as it rolled to a halt, not waiting, as many politicians do, for someone else to open the door for him.

When we met with him on the Saturday morning, we discussed, amongst other things, crime. He proudly stated that, in Lubumbashi, it was possible to leave your house open and no-one would break in. I don’t know whether this is universally true in Lubumbashi or in DRC as a whole (and he was making comparisons with his experiences in Bryanston in South Africa where many houses are like fortresses), but we did notice a couple of other interesting indications that crime levels in Lubumbashi are indeed very low.

Across the road from our hotel in the centre of town was a small run-down park. Actually most of Lubumbashi is run-down. It has a very provincial air and most buildings in town are in need of repair and maintenance. The country is still in the throes of war (the M23 situation in the north-east was not yet properly resolved when we were there), and Lubumbashi is not receiving the same development attention as perhaps is the case with Kinshasa.

In front of the park, on the pavement is a curved line of steel tables. From these tables, traders sell cultural artifacts made of bright green malachite, copper and brass. Bangles, necklaces, carvings, little boxes – there is a wide variety of items, none of which sells for less than $1 US.

Traders at work during the day

Traders at work during the day

The remarkable thing about all this is that the tables are not fixed into the ground, nor are they chained to each other or the fence of the park. They stand free. And they stand there day and night, with no security, and no one attempts to steal them.

Tables remain in place throughout the night

Tables remain in place throughout the night

If this is surprising to someone living in Johannesburg where metal of all types is constantly being stolen for recycling, consider what these traders do with their goods at night. They don’t take them away to a secure place elsewhere. No.

Behind the fence of the park (and it is not a high fence – it would very easy to get over it, using the tables as a stepping stone), is an array of trunks, mostly metal. In these trunks, the traders store their wares until they return to lay them out for sale the next morning. Each trunk probably holds around $1 000 worth of goods. Those trunks that are locked are secured with cheap padlocks.

We were there for five days and watched the daily routine of unpacking, laying out, selling, removing and packing away the craftwork. We had no reason to think that the routine was any different before we came or after we left. It is inconceivable to think that traders in Johannesburg or other places in South Africa would be able to leave a trunk full of goods in an open place overnight and expect to find it intact in the morning.

Trunk standing open in the morning as a trader unpacks for business

Trunks standing open in the morning as a trader unpacks for business

The other manifestation of this low level of lawlessness was the money-changers. It may not be entirely legal, but much of the currency exchange in Lubumbashi happens on the streets. ‘Bankers’ sit behind narrow boxes marked on the side with a $ sign. On top of the box is a large wad of Congolese francs, held together with paper clips and rubber bands. Each chunk of money must be the equivalent of R1 000 or more.

Such trade would not last a day in Johannesburg.

We were told that there is a very low tolerance amongst the Congolese people for crime, that if someone were to try and steal money from one of the ‘street banks’, other people in the street would all assist in trying to catch the thief and probably dispense justice there and then.

Street banker: changing money in Lubumbashi

Street banker: changing money in Lubumbashi

The DRC is not a paradise. It remains a country at war with itself, with terrible atrocities that have been committed in pursuance of that war. It is also not entirely free of crime and this is perhaps increasing somewhat as a result of job lay-offs and the increasing number of people coming to Lubumbashi in search of opportunity. But it was very refreshing to be in a place where we felt safe walking in the streets, even late at night, and crime did not dominate the national psyche as it does in South Africa.

It also raises questions about whether it is fair for us as South Africans to blame foreign nationals for the high levels of crime in our own country. I would suggest it has a lot more to do with ineffective law enforcement and poor urban management.

Oh yes. The streets of Lubumbashi are also much cleaner than the streets of our Joburg inner city. Just saying.

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A light at the end of a lost little boy’s tunnel

Yesterday I watched a woman stand under a tree in Yeoville and cry. She was crying for a child not her own. She, a South African, was distraught over the plight of a 14 year old boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The boy came to South Africa with his parents. They left him here in the care of an ‘uncle’. According to the boy, the ‘uncle’ treated him badly, misused money sent by his mother for his schooling and had sex with his girlfriends in front of the boy. The woman crying under the tree worked at the school he attended in Yeoville. The school tried for over a year to get the ‘uncle’ to provide the boy’s documents and to pay the school fees. He did neither. The school, a small independent institution, could not keep him on indefinitely without the necessary documents and the fees.

The boy, in desperation, went for help to the police station and was referred to the Victim Empowerment Centre (VEC). Between the SAPS and the VEC workers, a place was found for him in a shelter in Alexandra. For some reason, between then (2011) and today, the boy was never referred to a social worker, something that should have happened before – or at least as soon as – he was received by the shelter.

It seems he had a fairly good year. He was placed in a school and did very well. His English and isiZulu improved dramatically, his knowledge of French and Lingala diminishing with disuse. However, things started to unravel towards the end of the year. It’s not clear why – as is usual, there are at least two conflicting stories, one of which involves xenophobic comments made to the boy. Suffice to say that he ended up knocking on the door of a woman in Alexandra who had worked at the shelter, but then left to start her own facility, though catering only for very small children.

She took him in. But, unlike the other shelter, she did have a social worker visiting her establishment. The social worker expressed concern about the presence of the boy in the shelter because of his age – he was too old to share with the very young children normally housed there. She referred the case to someone from Home Affairs who contacted the VEC worker who had originally received the child in 2011 when he presented himself at the police station, seeking shelter from his abusive ‘uncle’. Suddenly, it was her problem again.

She explored various options and then called me for help when she couldn’t reach a mutual Congolese contact of ours. I phoned a few people from DRC to see if we could get any help. Surprisingly not. We were told that they themselves have no shelter facilities or even networks of Congolese families who might take such a child in for a short while. However, a Congolese priest offered to call the mother and ‘uncle’ in DRC (we have their numbers) and to assist with approaching the DRC Embassy to see if they would help to repatriate the boy (after sorting out his papers).

I then contacted a social worker friend who arranged for us to talk to someone in her organisation to get advice on how to proceed. The person we consulted was concerned that the boy had no documents and also that, after all this time, his plight was not being addressed by a social worker because he had never been registered with the Department of Social Development. He said that, as a child, the boy could not simply be deported or repatriated. His rights needed to be properly and legally agreed-upon before any action could be taken.

He suggested that we get him into the Social Development system as soon as possible – once that happened, it would become the responsibility of the state to ensure that the boy was accommodated and that his rights and needs were addressed.

We went through to the Department of Social Development in the Joburg CBD. The service we had was, I am happy to say, very good. The place was not busy and the man doing the initial registration of the case was friendly, helpful and efficient. Within minutes, he completed the registration and sent us to a different floor for further assistance. There, the intake social worker was as friendly and helpful. He had a slightly different view on the challenges facing us. He said that, if a solution was not found, the boy could indeed be sent to Lindela Repatriation Centre where he could be kept for years while his repatriation was sorted out.

He organised a place for the boy, but made it clear that we would have to (collectively) find a lasting solution, otherwise he would only be able to stay in the designated shelter for a short while and then would be transferred to Lindela, something we all agreed should not happen. He was also concerned (presumably based on previous experience) that we would leave the boy there and disappear. However, we assured him that we would keep contact and that we would assist (with the help of people in the Congolese community) to try and track down his family in the DRC.

We dropped the boy at the facility and returned home, somewhat exhausted. Our day had started at around 9.30am, which is when we went to Alex to fetch him, and finished after 4pm when we dropped him at the shelter.

The experience was ultimately a positive one. From the woman in Alex who took the boy in when he had to leave the original shelter to his emotional ex-teacher in Yeoville, from the officials at Social Development to the social workers at the new shelter to which he was sent, we experienced nothing but concern for the boy’s welfare. People were courteous, helpful and efficient.

Most praise must go to my community colleague. She dealt with the boy’s case back in 2011 and considered her work done once he had been placed in a shelter. She was most surprised when, more than a year later, she received news that he was once again in a vulnerable situation and that she was expected to deal with the crisis. Nevertheless, she rose to the occasion and did what needed to be done, calling on people like myself for assistance in ensuring that the boy’s situation was resolved. This despite the fact that she no longer works in the VEC and, as an under-employed mother, has her own life challenges.

The issue is not yet fully resolved, but at least we know that the boy is safe and that his situation is being addressed.

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A tale of three passes

The ridges cutting through Yeoville and Observatory/Linksfield are a natural barrier between the north and south areas of Johannesburg. These ridges were first populated in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Johannesburg grew in response to the ongoing gold rush and people began to look for alternative places to live, especially as the CBD of early Johannesburg was not a particularly salubrious place. While the first wave of migrants into the city comprised mainly single men of all colours (and a handful of women to provide for the various needs of those men), there was an increasing number of families settling in the area and accommodation in a more appropriate environment was needed.

Three winding passes were cut into the ridge to allow access for travellers. Stewart’s Drive links Bellevue and Yeoville to Bertrams and Judith’s Paarl. Munro Drive allows people to travel from what is known as Upper Houghton to Houghton proper to the north of the ridge. Sylvia’s Pass allows people to travel from Observatory and Linksfield down into Orange Grove.

Both Munro Drive and Stewart’s Drive are lined with dressed stone walls, some say built by Italian prisoners of war. Sylvia Pass does not have dressed stone walls, but can boast a link to architect Hermann Kallenbach, long-time friend of Mahatma Gandhi.

Sylvia’s Pass and most of Munro Drive have houses lining the road, while Stewart’s Drive has none.

But the biggest difference between Stewart’s Drive to the south and Sylvia’s Pass and Munro Drive to the north is an economic one. Stewart’s Drive links two largely black middle class/working class suburbs, whereas Munro Drive and Sylvia’s Pass carry two-way traffic between upper class suburbs mainly occupied by whites.

According to the SAPS in Norwood, there are very few problems of criminality along Munro Drive and Sylvia’s Pass. A drive along the two roads will show that they are reasonably well-kept and that there are few pedestrians using them. Most users travel by car.

Stewart’s Drive is very different. There is (or would be) a predominance of foot traffic up and down the pass. Most of these walkers are black. There are vehicle drivers using the pass too, of course, and would include residents in the two areas as well as people passing through.

I say there ‘would be’ a predominance of foot traffic. However, what should be a pleasant walk along a stone-walled lined street next to a wooded hillside has become a nightmare for residents and an indictment of the SAPS and the City of Johannesburg.

Firstly, there is effluent of some sort which is almost always flowing down from the blocks of flats high above the pass, through the grass and foliage until it reaches the rock face on the south side of the road. Once it has run down the rock face to the pavement, it continues down the pass into the valley. The effluent starts in Ward 67 and ends up in Ward 66. However, neither Ward Councillor has succeeded in ensuring that this problem is permanently resolved. Relevant CoJ departments are seemingly ignoring the problem.

The metal fence on top of the historic stone wall has long been stolen for scrap and some sections of the wall are not looking good – there is a desperate need for maintenance before it is begins to crumble. It certainly needs to be restored to its former glory.

The wooded section enclosed by the winding pass should be a beautiful natural spot, to be enjoyed by those who see it as they drive up and down the pass and also by residents who could use it as a natural spot to which to escape for a walk. In fact, this area forms part of the ‘green belt’ that they City of Johannesburg said they wanted to develop from Hillbrow to Observatory. However, this has never happened.

The area is very poorly maintained. Dumping over the wall takes place regularly. Homeless people have been known to take up residence there, presumably also using it as an open-air toilet.

But worse than all this is that most people now fear walking up and down the pass. The road is now known as Snake Way because of the risks to men, women and children posed by criminals who wait for those brave (or foolish) enough to use it. There have been countless muggings, with people losing everything, including their shoes. Women have been raped. Bodies have been found.

As a result, many people congregate at the top of the pass and at the bottom, both daytime and night-time, hoping that someone will be kind enough to stop and give them a lift along this short but treacherous stretch of road.

The SAPS seem unable to do anything effective to stamp out the problem. There has been one attempt by the SAPS to make a difference – however, this seems geared more to addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. They asked a taxi company to allocate a vehicle to travel up and down the pass, ensuring that everyone gets through safely. However, the taxi understandably wants to be paid by each passenger, however short the distance. But the stranded people, equally understandably, don’t want to pay the taxi. Why should they? The very reason why they are walking is because they do not have money to pay for transport. They are being asked to pay for the failure of the state to ensure that the road is safe to use.

Neither the SAPS nor the City of Johannesburg believes that it is important enough to allocate officials to patrol the area on a permanent basis (or to explore other creative solutions such as employing local people as security or, even better, employing local people to clear the area of alien trees, plant indigenous vegetation, and maintain and manage the area on an ongoing basis, making it a safe pleasant place to walk, both on and off the road). Suggestions have even been made in the Yeoville Community Police Forum for the SAPS to establish a base in Bertrams for mounted police who could patrol the area on horseback or on off-road motorcycles. However, there is no sign that this proposal has been seriously considered.

At the start of this piece, I pointed out the differences between the three passes. Sylvia’s Pass and Munro Drive link well-off suburbs, they have few pedestrians and there are markedly lower crime levels. Stewart’s Drive moves between less-advantaged suburbs, there is (or would be if the risks were less) a lot of foot traffic, and crime levels are sufficiently high to make most people frightened to walk up and down.

Is it a coincidence that an area that is largely poor and black has these problems? Would this situation be allowed to continue indefinitely in a more affluent area? I think not. At the very least, the people of the more affluent area would, in the face of inaction by the state, come together to do something to address the problems. The people in Yeoville Bellevue of course don’t have the resources to do that. This is all the more reason for the state to intervene, to act on behalf of the community so that they don’t have to be further disadvantaged by the fear of walking along a public road.

Of course, one could argue that even a disadvantaged community could find a solution. Perhaps a band of volunteers could patrol the area in shifts to provide ongoing security and to monitor anti-social behaviour. There is merit to such an argument. But experience has shown that pure voluntarism has limited appeal in a community that is struggling to survive. Often, people wearily accept a problem like this as just another inevitable burden to bear, as just another reminder of their underprivileged condition. What’s more, expecting community members to take on this task would be relieving the state of what is clearly their responsibility to deal with the situation.

Paulo Freire says that ‘the oppressed (and in this context we meant those ‘oppressed’ by poverty and deprivation) ….. have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed and have become resigned to it’. A state which says it is pro-poor should therefore ensure that it pro-actively addresses situations such as these as part of its duty towards the disadvantaged while, at the same time, creating enabling conditions in which people can play a meaningful role in managing their own environment.

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In support of an ‘active citizenry’

Active citizenry is definitely trending as an idea. Everyone, from Kgalema Motlanthe to Mamphele Ramphela is talking about it. So what is it and why is it so important?

Speaking at a leadSA breakfast on 3 August, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is reported to have said: “We have to break our silence by doing what is morally right and ethically right. In this regard, the failure to deliver workbooks and textbooks is indicative of a passive citizenry whose silence is complicit in the commission of such a tragic folly. Ordinarily, the commission of such a failure would have prompted an active citizenry to call for action as far back as January.” (City Press, 3 August)

At a conference in Cape Town on 3 September, Trevor Manuel stated, correctly, that ‘transformation cannot be outsourced to government’ (The Times, 5 September). He goes on to spell out three ‘agencies’ necessary for transformation: an active citizenry, leadership, and effective government – the first, and perhaps the most important of these is an active citizenry, he said. The National Planning Commission under his guidance included the concept in the National Development Plan (which has been adopted by Cabinet).

In March 2012, Mamphele Ramphela said that ‘no democracy in the world would survive without active citizens’ and she has made similar observations many times since. She particularly wants people to be active citizens in order to hold government accountable.

Manuel is right that active citizenship is a very critical agency. But if there is a lack of responsive leadership and if government is not effective, citizens attempting to be active will get more and more frustrated and lapse into passivity. Either that or active citizenry will be characterised by violent, destructive protest, such as we are currently seeing across the country, as people get tired of their interactions with government bearing no fruit.

Motlanthe’s comments regarding the Limpopo textbook saga beg the question: were there really no ‘active citizens’ in Limpopo taking up the issue of the missing textbooks or did those who tried – perhaps some of the School Governing Bodies in the province – get an unsympathetic response, if they got a response at all?

I am able to speak on this issue from personal experience, having been part of an increasingly frustrating attempt to drive a development programme in Yeoville Bellevue in Johannesburg over the past 15 years. This is not to say that my ‘active citizenry’ is not acknowledged and welcomed by some of those with whom we engage. However, if the organisation I work for was to have received R1 000 for every time I have been congratulated for my ‘passion’, my ‘commitment’, my ‘dedication’, and my ‘example to others’, it would have enough money and resources to achieve wonders. If, in addition, we had received proper support and funding every time someone decided that Yeoville Bellevue could be ‘a pilot’ for development in other inner city areas, we could by now have implemented a number of innovative and progressive solutions for our area and other areas facing similar challenges.

Instead, most of the plaudits remain just that – with little or no support or capacitation. What’s more, we often find that the responses to our interventions are met with active hostility.

This hostility is often defensive in the case of government officials (including the SAPS) who feel that interventions by civil society are a direct attack on their own performance rather than a genuine attempt to work in partnership with the state. This response is often backed up by the assertion that officials are ‘experts’ and the community cannot advise them or tell them ‘how to do their jobs’.

Hostility is also often an aggressive response by gatekeepers in communities – ward councillors, political parties, statutory structures – who feel that they have a monopoly on ‘community organisation’ and ‘development’ and that any initiatives not sanctioned and driven by them must be undermined and prevented from continuing. They too seem unable to grasp that development is a participatory process which should involve all stakeholders and must be driven in partnership.

This lack of support, coupled with ineffective governance, can have unwelcome consequences. In July, I was sent an SMS threatening me, my family and my colleagues and telling me to move out of the area. A fellow active citizen, Rev Tsepo Matubatuba, had a restraining order brought against him by a person who has broken the law by establishing an unauthorised business in a residential area. It is a lack of leadership and effective governance that has created conditions where these things can be done with impunity, discouraging others from becoming active citizens for fear of having similar things happen to them.

I think it may be useful to look at the concept of ‘social capital’ when considering the issue of active citizenry.

In its most basic form, the notion of ‘social capital’, as advanced by Robert Putnam, refers to ‘the connections between individuals –social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’. He says that a ‘civic’ community will have ‘high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement and collective well-being’ and that these traits are usually self-reinforcing. In other words, a civic community is likely, unless affected by one or other adverse condition, to continue being a civic community and to manifest those traits.

An ‘uncivic community’, on the other hand, will manifest characteristics such as ‘defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder and stagnation’. These characteristics will be equally reinforcing  and ‘intensify one another in a suffocating miasma of vicious circles’. An uncivic community will not be a developing community and pro-active steps would need to be taken to correct that reality and to move towards the more ‘virtuous circles’ of a civic community with positive social capital.

I would argue, therefore, that if we want an ‘active citizenry’ (and, especially in the context of Yeoville Bellevue, I use the term ‘citizenry’ very broadly to include non-South Africans who form a large part of the community), then we have to increase the potential of ‘social capital’ in our communities to make a meaningful contribution to the development of their neighbourhoods and to the country as a whole.

I suggest then that, for an ‘active citizenry’ to flourish and to make its contribution to society, certain enabling conditions must be in place. These include a recognition that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation or their national origin, has a right to participate; that all roleplayers are accountable to each other for what they do; that financial and other mechanisms are put in place to support community initiatives, especially in less-advantaged areas; that there is an atmosphere of openness and innovation, in which people are encouraged to speak freely and propose creative solutions; that government and the state deliver on their basic mandates, ie to deliver services, to enforce the law and to govern effectively; that government and the state communicate with and listen to the citizenry; that government and the state set an example to citizenry through their own practise, ie by eradicating corruption, self-interest and laziness in its own ranks, thereby encouraging honesty, commitment and voluntarism in the citizenry; that leadership across the board guide the country by example through practising what is ‘morally right and ethically right’.

It those conditions are not in place, citizens will lose the incentive to be active, passively accepting their reality and withdrawing into a narrow, introspective life of self-interest and survival (though perhaps manifesting their dissatisfaction at the ballot box) – or they will take to the streets in order to vent their anger and frustration.

PS: as I write, we are still waiting for a response, three months later, to a memorandum that we handed to the Department of Community Safety, the Gauteng Liquor Board, and the City of Johannesburg during a community march on 18 August 2012. Is this the way to encourage active citizenry?

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