Building a New South Africa: One Conversation at a Time

Building a New South Africa: One Conversation at a Time

by David Thelen, Karie L. Morgan


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Once a thriving, multiracial community, the Sophiatown suburb of Johannesburg was home to many famous artists, musicians, and poets. It was also a place where residential apartheid was first put into practice with forced removals, buildings bulldozed, and the construction of new, cheap housing for white public employees. David Thelen and Karie L. Morgan facilitate conversations among today’s Sophiatown residents about how they share spaces, experiences, and values to raise and educate their children, earn a living, overcome crime, and shape their community for the good of all. As residents reflect on the past and the challenges they face in the future, they begin to work together to create a rich, diverse, safe, and welcoming post-Mandela South Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253017840
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Pages: 202
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Thelen is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University.

Karie L. Morgan is a postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of Johannesburg.

Read an Excerpt

Building a New South Africa

One Conversation at a Time

By David Thelen, Karie L. Morgan

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 David Thelen and Karie L. Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01790-1


Getting Acquainted with Neighbours on the Block

On a Sunday afternoon, 7 June 2009, 13 residents of the southern end of Good and Gold streets came together in a park that joined their two streets to discuss how they could get to know each other better and how together they might build a community on their streets that could better meet their needs. Seventeen days later, on the evening of 24 June 2009, 13 residents of Bertha Street convened at the nearby NG Kerk to discuss the same concerns.

The two meetings were the first fruits of a collaboration between University of Johannesburg organisers and Sophiatown residents. The initial meeting was organised by Judi Bennett and Clement Baai, residents of Good Street, and Dave Thelen and Tom Chapman, then coordinators of field work for the UJ Sophiatown Project. Judi and Clement distributed fliers inviting their neighbours to the Good and Gold streets meeting. Tom and Dave approached residents of Bertha Street as they arrived home from work in the evenings and invited them to the Bertha Street meeting. The organisers told residents that the conversations would centre on what people liked and disliked about life in Sophiatown, how they wanted to reshape that life and how they could get to know their neighbours better.

When the conversations began, few of the participants knew each other. Some had lived for decades in Sophiatown. Others had moved there quite recently. With Dave facilitating, the conversations revolved around concerns about getting to know neighbours better and making a difference in shaping the community's future. Residents took the conversations in several different directions. Some spoke of their intimate hopes and fears about staying here. Others referred to how personal experiences in the nation and Sophiatown had shaped their perspectives on life here. They brought up experiences and perspectives they shared as well as those they disagreed about. But by the end of both two-hour meetings, most participants said that they felt that the conversations had brought them closer together and they looked forward to carrying this further at future meetings.

Block Group Meeting

Good and Gold Streets

7 June 2009

Dave Thelen: You've been talking with each other in small groups. Can you report now what you discussed in your group about what struck you as important when you were thinking about moving or leaving here, what you like about life here, what is less attractive?

Judi Bennett: Sarel, you and I have just about had the entire discussion without the microphone so we will have to start over again.

Sarel van der Berg: We moved in here about 1973. It's a beautiful place to stay in. You could go to the shops and leave your door open. We did leave it open and nothing happened. Triomf was Telkom's area. Most of the blokes in Telkom stayed in Triomf. Other owners were the police and bus drivers.

Elise: Clement and I spoke about how long we both have lived here and what we would like to see in the area, like a community centre – a recreation place for kids, adults, a library, that type of thing – where you don't have to go out of the area to other areas to enjoy those facilities, but you can actually have it in the area.

Dave: And were there things you specifically liked here?

Clement Baai: We came from different areas. I said to Elise that my reasons for moving here were number one, affordability, number two, the place is very central.

It's quite safe. Look, there are some incidents, we heard about a few incidents, but it's quite safe. And then also the history of this place.

Dave: What do you mean by that?

Clement: Look, we know how Sophiatown happened. We know it was Sophiatown first, Triomf, then again Sophiatown. We know about the Miriam Makebas, the Desmond Tutus. We know that this was the area where all the races lived together. And I just found out a few years ago that my house was a photo studio. We never knew, you understand. I was saying that you guys are walking on holy ground here. We know that Meadowlands people are coming from here. A certain part of Westbury and Newclare was born out of Triomf/Sophiatown. So I was saying to Bashni that a gathering like this is good in a sense that one of my daughters is in her son's class. We've never formally introduced each other. Today we've met, you understand. And then through this gathering, our children are going to benefit. When I'm not here, if Auntie Bettie sees someone standing here in front of my gate, she should say, "Heya, what are you doing here? Clement is not here. Who are you?" I just found out the lady at the corner house passed away a month ago. I only found out a week after. When I went to go sympathise, the man said, "I didn't know who to tell in the street." Which is so sad.

Dave: Does that sound familiar to others?

Mervyn Naidoo: As Clement said we feel the same way. We've got kids in the same class and the same school, but we don't know each other. There is no communication. Nobody wants to take the time to get to know your neighbour. We are four years in this area. What we found is that a lot of the white folks in the area are unfriendly. When we greet them they don't greet back. It's sad.

Judi: Well, Sarel and Bettie were talking about the old days when this park was a place their children played, with the little cars and etc. and what I noticed here is you don't see that any longer. Inherently we are very similar and we would like to live our lives as they lived in Triomf and the areas I lived in. We have similar things in common. It seems that because we lived in different areas we have not found the common ground we have. I would also like to see the children play safely. I would like to see the children play in the street; and in the same way, I would like to see what Sarel saw in the past happen all over again, irrespective of the colour of the child. It just has to be the community that you want to see, the way you remember it.

Dave: How do you remember it? The same way?

Bettie Pretorius: The same way as it was. We lived here now 28 years in this house. To me it's still the same except the children can't play outside. And now they can't play rugby in the field.

Mervyn: The kids are scared of the hooligans. I wouldn't allow our kids out of the gates if I'm not here. They play with the bikes on the road and it's safe, but if we see the hooligans on the road we take them back in.

Clement: I was just saying to Elise about three weeks ago I came past here and there was a group of 15 school children sitting here. Boys and girls and they were drinking. I chased them away. The thing is they are not even from this area. So our children can't come and play here. And then they have the audacity to say to me, "It's my money. I bought the liquor with my money." But the thing is, they won't be allowed to go and buy. They get someone else to buy it for them. I believe that it is the car guards. These are the type of things that we must come up against. We can't allow people to come and sit here. Look at this thing. Someone was sitting there and drinking.

Mervyn: We see it all the time. My neighbour, the pastor, gets his boy and comes and cleans up and it's not right.

Judi: Whose responsibility is that in a sense? Firstly it's against the law to drink in public, so we could have called the police. We could have had people make sure this is a no-go area. This is a park and this is what is allowed in a park. I think sometimes we tend to see things but don't take responsibility. I want to stress the aspect, until we got to know each other, we didn't know who was going to do it. Now that we do know each other we need to take responsibility for our own area, be a bit more proactive. These things don't need to happen. I believe if those children know there is an area that those aunties and uncles are going to give you a hard time, they are going to avoid it. We take ownership of it. As adults we shouldn't neglect our responsibility to teach children that what you are doing is wrong. Whether they accept it or not we still have to try.

Mervyn: I have actually tried to do that once when they abused the swings and they told me, "It's not yours, go away." You don't want a confrontation because the parents can shoot you.

Judi: Now you mention something about someone going to take out a gun and shoot you; and we carry on living in this particular mindset. We also pass that on to our children. We become more and more drawn in, blocked in, and we are always afraid. Besides, if the guy came with a gun, ons moer and bliksem and donner. Take the gun away.

Mervyn: At the same time the neighbour doesn't want to take a chance either.

Judi: That's why we need to get to know each other. It's not a matter of you just getting to know your neighbour. It's sometimes a matter of seeing another person in the same way that you would see yourself and treat each other in the same way that you would want to be treated. And you find the old fashioned cliché, respect breeds respect. By knowing each other, we get to understand each other. Let's go a little further.

Elise: It's safer not to get involved but then you are going to let things happen.

Judi: But if you teach that to your child we're going to eventually live in communities where everything is bricked in. We are going to have to press our fingers to open the gate. We will be bricked in. You might as well close down the park area and we're not going to do anything about it because we're not getting involved.

Mervyn: But the thing is we can't do it alone.

Judi: No, I agree, and that is why we have to do it as a forum. He spoke about so many things that we're not aware of. We didn't know there was a committee in this area. So basically what those people are doing is absolutely nothing. We live in this particular area. We can try to do something because they can't. We can try.

Judi: Yes, we can. If that's what it takes we can.

Bettie: They closed that one alleyway there and it's safer when it's closed.

Bashni Naidoo: So we can stop at least half of the traffic from Westbury.

Judi: Okay, we will probably choose to do that as a community at another meeting and see what we can do with that.

Dave: So, what other things did you talk about in your groups?

Sarel: Sophiatown has the Helen Joseph Hospital. That was a number one hospital. The first angiogram I had was there, R45 and they kept me there for a week.

Bettie: Die was a skoon hospitaal gewees. (It was a clean hospital.)

Sarel: It was the heart transplant place, the best. Judi: Incidentally, has the clinic finally opened? Sarel: There seems to be a new building.

Judi: So it has.

Bashni: We also talked about the schools in the area. There is an Afrikaans school here and I think that's it.

Judi: That school has only recently introduced English instruction. They started at Grade 0. They've now reached I think Grade 4 with English but the rest is Afrikaans.

Sarel: One of the best things they ever had in those years was a dual medium. I never knew Afrikaans.

Judi: The West Rand Primary, the English medium school, is a Seventh Day Adventist private school. Now you see a lot of people may not want their children to go to West Rand because it's a Seventh Day Adventist school and they have chapel. It's a different thing depending on your religion. We did let my nephew and niece go there because we had no affiliation with any church and we thought this would serve both purposes. They could go to chapel and school. But once that was finished then we had to take them to other high schools.

Bashni: As you said, it wouldn't work for our family because of cultural differences.

Mervyn: Another annoying thing is the quad bikes in that park. They abuse the place, make a loud noise and damage the grass. You can't believe it: you look at the TV but you don't hear what is on the TV because of the guy on the stop street and his music. That's terrible really.

Judi: And you're right on the corner and you get it on both sides. My mother told me wherever you go you don't want a house on the corner. She told me straight.

Dave: So did other things come up when you thought about coming here, or when you think about leaving here? What do you find attractive or what did you find unattractive about this earlier place?

Bettie: It's central. Plenty of schools.

Sarel: It's peaceful.

Mervyn: It's home, in the sense of family, the community and I think security as well.

Mervyn: What I would like to see is for a lot of the neighbours to come together. Have a picnic in the park. Get together and get to know each other. We don't know each other. We've got a lot of older folk. Anything can go wrong with them or me for that matter. And no one wants to take the time to help. Which is sad. We are building a community.

Judi: I was speaking to your mother-in-law because I know the kind of community you come from. I was talking to her and asking her just how lonely you must be, because in your community you tend to live a lot as a family unit. You are gregarious, you talk constantly to each other and live together as a family and eat together so she must be feeling exceptionally lonely.

Mervyn: Not only for her but us as well in the sense we don't know our neighbours. Some of the neighbours don't take the time to greet, yet we greet them. We don't even know if we see someone loitering who we should communicate with.

Judi: Even if we did think there was something odd about what we see someone doing, we don't want to get involved. That's our problem. We don't get involved.

Mervyn: You are creating your own home and you are comfortable living there. There is too much invested now. Even if we win the lotto, we will still stay there.

Clement: When we told our friends that we are going to move here, some said, "Ja, you are moving into an old, poor-white area." Some of them were saying that and I told them, "Look, number one, it's my money that I'm going to pay. I don't care what you guys think," but I tell you three months after moving in some of my friends came and visited and the very same ones that had these comments asked us to look for houses for them. They wanted to move into this area. But if you look at it, it's central. You may hear about odd incidents, but it's not like in the North Rand, Randburg, where you hear about hijackings, break-ins every day. It's really a place where your children can grow up and you can get old.

Bettie: Dis 'n lekker area. (This is a nice area.)

Judi: One thing that we talked about when we moved here is that this area is close to the hospital. We needed to be in a central area. We also didn't want to be too far away from where we came from. So we didn't mind that we were a street away from Westbury. We lived in the Western area for ages, so we were just a street away. When you talk of crime we've got a lot of petty crime here that might escalate. But I think the first thing that I noticed when I moved here was that there was only one bottle store at the centre. In areas where I lived before there were shebeens on every street and a bottle store next to every church. There were usually more bottle stores than churches. Sophiatown I noticed had a lot of churches and one bottle store. The crime here is all petty crime. It's got a lot to do with school children. This is not a major crime area. As you say there are areas where they break into the cars and some people have been shot, but in the areas where I come from, gangsterism was common but there was a rule: you didn't go out of your territory. You didn't even mess in your territory and based on the way people always live, other people stay out. It depends on how you handle your territory and if our young children grew up in this area and became proud and took ownership of this area, and we allowed them out in the street, to sit in their own park and become comfortable, it would become theirs as well. We are never going to get rid of my territory, your territory but at least we would have a couple of youngsters to defend us. You need all aspects of a community.


Excerpted from Building a New South Africa by David Thelen, Karie L. Morgan. Copyright © 2015 David Thelen and Karie L. Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Map of Sophiatown
Preface to U.S. Edition
Introduction to U.S. Edition
David Thelen and Karie L. Morgan
Chapter 1: Getting Acquainted with
Neighbours on the Block
Block Group Meeting–Good and Gold Streets–7 June 2009
Block Group Meeting–Bertha Street–24 June 2009
Chapter 2: Visualising a Shared Place and Making a Shared Past.
Good and Gold Streets–Photovoice Discussion
-28 June and 15 July 2009
Bertha Street–Photovoice Discussion–19 July 2009
Chapter 3: Making Family around Mealtimes
Remembering Family Mealtimes:
A Conversation among Sophiatown
Cooking Club Members–15 October 2011
Glimpses of Cooking in Sophiatown
Comment–Challenges of Modern
Mealtimes: Reflections by René Lombardi–11 October 2012
Comment–Making Food and Heritage: Reflections by Tshepo Letsoalo–
13 September 2012
Chapter 4: Becoming Neighbours and Creating Community Community
Raising a Family with Neighbours: A Workshop–23 May 2012
Comment–Getting to Know Neighbours and Choosing a Neighbourhood:
Reflections by Sebastian van Rayne–25 November 2012
Comment–Overcoming Barriers to Become Better Neighbours: Reflections
by Noeriena Hendricks–24 November 2012
Keeping your Family Safe: A Workshop–19 May 2012
Encountering and Helping People in Distress: A Conversation among Young
People–9 October 2010
Comment – Growing Up and Helping Others: A Conversation between Two
Sisters–8 November 2012
Comment–Making a Difference in your Community: Reflections by Noeriena
Hendricks–18 November 2012
Comment–Helping South Africans in Need: Reflections by Charles Kwasi Asare–
9 November 2012
Chapter 5: Experiencing Change
Living over Half a Century in a Changing Sophiatown: A Conversation with Long-time
Residents–8 November 2011
Struggling with Memories of Triomf and Sophiatown: A Conversation between a
Mother and Daughter–3 August 2009
Comparing Sophiatown and Westbury: A Conversation across G

What People are Saying About This

Board of Governors Professor of History, Rutgers University - Jackson Lears

Building a New South Africa is quite wonderful. It's one of the few books I know that can breathe life into that worn word 'community' and do it with eloquent specificity.

University of the Witwatersrand - Philip Bonner

A distinctive and original contribution, this book engages with a community which has changed so much over the past 30 years. It underscores how people, isolated in their homes aspire to turn strangers into neighbors and asks about how to raise and educate children, how to sustain a family life, and how to overcome crime. It records conversations among groups, not individual interviews, and it illustrates how conversation itself can actually bring a community into being.

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