Phoenix in My Backyard

Robyn Sassen

Ziabuya shows the community that there is something special and incredible growing in the city's belly.

It's odd to be sitting here at the bottom of Africa, listening to the doublespeak, political innuendo, and cross-polemic about the war on Iraq. What makes it so odd is not my geographic proximity to Iraq, nor my understanding of the dialogues across the spectrum as they clash and contradict, but rather, it's the fact that Johannesburg is undergoing a remarkable rejuvenation, which, in its sheer optimism seems to belie the horror of everything else — near and not so far.

Johannesburg's city centre, historically speaking, grew around the discovery of gold. And for decades, the inner city was the place to be if you were white and filled with the spirit of possibility and the potential to achieve your dreams. The buildings were beautiful, the community was thriving, and the country's culture was burgeoning. Apartheid was an as yet an unnamed infant, but the discrimination in the area was rife; enabling whites to become extremely wealthy on the backs of black labour. Sociologically, that's an interesting set of economic values, but of course, it is one that classically foretells doom.

Fortunately for us, black South Africans have dignity as an element of their social make-up and with the knowledge that what goes around, comes around, they waited. And I say this sweepingly, yet knowing that but for this dignity and the grace of the black people here, ours would not have be a living culture at all, given the turning of tides around apartheid and the iniquitous harm done to the spirit and bodies of African black culture.

And yes, things happened. Over time, Johannesburg's city centre became the place from which white people moved. The suburbs became more plentiful and luxurious and safer and relevant — for whites. Economics put the screws to people and demographics shifted them. Poor black people moved to the city centre, away from their segregated townships, those barren pieces of state-suggested land, abysmally overpopulated and set far away from general amenities.

Many of these migrants were law-abiding people. They struggled to pay their rent and raise their children in safety. But others were squatters and still others, criminals. Also in central Johannesburg there was a detritus of elderly whites who, with family having emigrated overseas, couldn't afford to move elsewhere. They became prisoners in their high rise buildings in the area. The synagogue in Wolmarans Street, which represented a key social nexus for members of the once plentiful Jewish community, was sold The new mix of residents was dynamic and complicated. And things did seem to degenerate.

But these days, looking at Johannesburg's centre, there is a phoenix emerging from the ashes of cultural degeneration left in the wake of apartheid, and it is something that the original citizens of Johannesburg could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. Spearheaded by a core group of enterprising people with ideas, values, and skills, an organization called the CICI (Creative Inner City Initiative) was born in 2002.

CICI is a ground breaking poverty alleviation programme of exciting calibre, presenting an avenue for a productive life for many local people who have struggled with their scant "recognised" skills, huge talents, and very few opportunities. CICI was born as a city beautification assignment, but it grew into a program more sensibly focused on training and development.

I met with some of the enthusiastic participants of the school. Bright Komoto is one of them. A Malawian emigrant, Bright brings spontaneity and excitement to the skills he is learning. He proudly took me on a tour of the CICI school. He explained that the tuition is free, and that the school's existence rests on public funding and donations, but that the people are empowering themselves to give their skills dignity by using them as tools to earn a living.

But the CICI is not about tut-tutting for those who are overlooked and undervalued; rather it's an amalgamation of different projects focusing in specific directions. The Community Support Unit, comprising of field workers, found out what kind of artists live in the inner city of Johannesburg, what training they had, and what they wanted to do. Then, consortia were developed to deal with the disciplines of training — from the visual arts to crafts to performance arts. The consortia fed into pre-established formal and informal arts programmes, which now seem to be snowballing in all directions.

CICI centres on a school building, once the Jewish High School of Johannesburg (part of the architectural package deal that included the big synagogue). It is in this building, with its pressed steel ceilings and elegant mezuzahs on the door posts, that young black people are being educated not only to create art that makes their spirits soar, but to equip them with hard-nosed skills that will enable them to contribute to the buzzing economy.

So, as Bie Venter, logistics cocoordinatorordinator for CICI explains, the school is divided into different disciplines, thereby giving people an art education with a business twist. For example, people learn to make enormous puppets to enrich their busking; they learn cartooning and graphic design, or mural painting and sign writing; they learn pottery or embroidery. And they learn entrepreneurial skills that empower them to skip the cap-in-hand-menial-job-hunt, and instead "trip the light fantastic" — and start their own enterprises.

Given the pluralized, rather bland pronouns I've heard used to describe CICI, it all sounded so hypothetical and anonymous. So I took myself to the area (not without a faint degree of fear, in my car with my white skin and female gender on display in an area notorious for rape and muggings) to watch a show-case festival of the products of the school, which only began during February of this year. Ziabuya is a festival that is about autumn, but further is about the focus on children.

One of the first casualties in a war of ignorance against AIDs — child rape — is a trend horribly prevalent in this country. Children are brutally caught in the crossfire of social ignorance — they are even targeted in gang violence. It is not unusual, in Johannesburg, to find newborn babies in municipal rubbish bins.

With this in mind, the Ziabuya festival is heavily punctuated with a presence of both outside security and inner welcome. Its purpose is to serve and celebrate the city's children in dance, puppetry, in displays of art making, and in participatory games. Ziabuya shows the community that there is something special and incredible growing in the city's belly. Yes, it is still about being poorly done by, but it is also about finding the skills to replenish those things such culturally and economically impoverished people lack, and it celebrates the joy of making art by improvising with what one has.

Skeptics wonder whether CICI and related programs be seen as little more than a "do-good" gesture which will suffer from lack of follow-through — just like many other initiatives created throughout Africa in the name of colonial and other ostensibly humanitarian values. But Venter and her colleagues are professionals who, as arts graduates and marginals in their own capacities, have an idea of what challenges lie ahead for their students. CICI is for people who are keen on making something of their own life, based not upon how society expects one to be, but on one's own skills and the joy that one gets out of using them.

At the Ziabuya festival the war on Iraq feels very far away from a troupe of little girls, four or five years old, who rhythmically dance to a kwaito beat. They are dressed identically in shocking pink net bandannas and white gloves, like "big ladies". The war on Iraq must feel far away for a boy of about sixteen who is flying a large cardboard butterfly with the kind of reverence, pride and love that tells me he made it himself.

The war is far from an audience of children and adults that shriek with joy and unexpected delight as a life-sized puppet car, beautifully made and "driven" by a man wearing a mask of a pig, perambulates across the improvised stage. The quality of the craftsmanship at this play is peerless and the atmosphere is ebullient. I don't understand the dialogue but the play is about good versus evil values in a world tainted by violence, and the audience responds to it with recognition that it's meaning is poignant — but the laughter is contagious.

These intimations of the social damage of war can never feel very far away for these people who, throughout their lives, have been so deeply affected by discrimination and violence. But here, at least, they feel the possibilities of a promise that is very, very close.

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