Walls part 1: They must fall & we must rise

Besieged behind walls.

It is an old human instinct to build fences, walls, moats,..to protect ourselves, locking ourselves in to keep our families and valuables safe from rampaging hordes, real or imagined. We are territorial creatures, we need our nest. The crime, break-in and murder rates in Johannesburg are some of the highest in the world. I tell myself walls are in our heads, it is fear in our hearts. I refuse to stay hiding behind walls while I am in South Africa, you can’t live your life in fear, right?

Then the unhinged, inherited anxiety kicks in. I need to plan. Where I am going? What do I need to take with me? How will I get from A to B? Is my under-boob moneybelt visible through my t-shirt and would someone actually grab me and try to rip it off from under my boob? I do not carry a rucksack or a camera or wave my mobile phone around. I pretend I know where I am going, even if I don’t. I pop into a shop, a hotel lobby or a library to look at my google maps. I am on heightened alert most of my time in Johannesburg. It’s not just me, everyone keeps their car doors locked while driving and no Uber driver completely stops at a red light after dark, they just kind of slow down, look around and quickly drive on.

Safe in my guarded, gated, apartment with barred windows, I can breathe a sigh of relief, have a cup of tea and sit in the garden undisturbed. Is locking and bolting all the doors and setting the alarm in desperation and fear, a special kind of self delusion reserved for (white?) people who feel they have everything to lose? Cape Town (the Mother City) is not really an African city. Its zero tolerance shiny tourist centre is strangely European. I can walk around on my own in Cape Town. But even there my host says: if some one knocks on the gate, don’t answer. Go inside, slide the metal burglar grill locked, close the windows and turn the lights off. Its safer that way!

Throw open the windows and the doors.

It is, also a human instinct to open the doors and windows, to let the breeze in and the fresh spring air blow into every nook and cranny. It is our instinct to hold goods and resources in common, to share what we have with those around us and open up our homes in hospitality. People everywhere I have been in South Africa have invited me into their homes. I am made to feel welcome, people share stories, laughter and great food. The more you visit people in different communities, in their houses and eat at local restaurants, the more you see life. A delicious South Indian restaurant in Fordsburg, popping in to visit someone in a residential street in Crosby, small shops in Mellville, the creative hub of Maboneng, the OK bazaar out in Alberton,… The inbetween zones, where things are changing, where middle class people of all cultures are mixing, are small, but show the potential for economic and social change in South Africa.

People can live where ever they want to now, in theory, but the inequality in access to formal housing and employment is still staggering after 25 years. In the settlements and ex-townships complex socio-economic factors work together to create cycles of poverty. The people most effected by these factors are still mainly black people or people of colour. There is high unemployment, some good schools, but a lack of good teachers. The legacy of apartheid has left scars, generational trauma’s. There are gangs, drugs and violence and people not directly involved in gang culture are still (in)directly effected. The failure of the present government to tackle social justice head on, is rousing people’s anger. I am here in the run up to the 2019 general elections and people are striking for basic services, shutting down roads, blocking inroads to the city, or access to local council offices.

Despite all of this, many many people are just trying to get on with their lives, commuting into the cities to work, making sure their kids are fed and educated, going to church, trying as best they can to build a life for themselves and their extended community. There are unfunded arts centres and music projects, there are murals and sports clubs, there is singing, there is joy, community organising and solidarity. People have their own businesses, from hairdressers, fruit stalls and small shops to restaurants, hostels and tour guides.

I am not trying to romanticise poverty or avoid the reality of living in these areas at all. There is crime. There are indeed gang and drug related murders with people enmeshed in a complex network of poverty and survival. But people on the ground have a strong sense of struggle and community solidarity and it is visually clear that no one is hiding behind huge walls in Soweto, Alexandra, Kathlehong, Khayelitsha, Langa, or Bonteheuwel.

I give the last word to respected and loved South African Poet:  Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali:


Man is
a great builder –
The Berlin Wall!
The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem –
The Great Wall of China
but the wall
most impregnable
has a moat
flowing with fright
around his heart.

A wall
without windows
for the spirit
to breeze through.

A wall
without a door
for love to walk in.

By Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali from the collection “Sounds of a Cowhide Drum”,  1971.

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