Medium 9780253017840

Building a New South Africa: One Conversation at a Time

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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.

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Chapter 1: Getting Acquainted with Neighbours on the Block

ePub

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.

 

Chapter 2: Visualising a Shared Place and Making a Shared Past

ePub

At the initial block meetings several participants expressed a desire to get to know each other better and to explore together how they made sense of Sophiatown, including what they saw as challenges and mysteries about the place. While the participants thought that sharing experiences and memories was a good way to deepen relationships, they seemed hesitant to reveal too much of themselves to strangers of different cultural backgrounds and others who might hold different political opinions. Dave Thelen and Tom Chapman asked whether they would like to try a technique known as “photovoice” as a way to identify and spur conversation about things that mattered to them in Sophiatown life. Equipped with disposable cameras, residents were asked to take pictures of things and people important to them in their lives in Sophiatown and then discuss those pictures in their block groups.

On Sunday afternoon, 28 June 2009, residents of Good and Gold streets met in Judi Bennett’s lounge to discuss the photos they had taken. After a couple of hours, the discussion was so lively that they had only discussed three people’s photographs. They decided to adjourn until the evening of 15 July, to meet again in Judi’s lounge and discuss the photos of the remaining three neighbours. Residents of Bertha Street conducted a photovoice discussion at the hall of the nearby NG Kerk on the afternoon of 19 July.

 

Chapter 3: Making Family around Mealtimes

ePub

Since 2010 a group of women has come together monthly to form a cooking club where they exchange experiences about preparing food. At their meetings one person demonstrates a meal, describing the recipe and how she learned to make it. Often, the dozen or so regular members broaden discussions of food into discussions about the larger challenges of daily life in Sophiatown and how it compares with their experiences growing up elsewhere.

After a recipe demonstration at their 15 October 2011 meeting, some members of the Sophiatown Cooking Club considered together how to frame the recipes and stories of the cookbook they were creating that was intended to illustrate the mixture of cultural backgrounds among Sophiatown residents. As UJ facilitators Karie Morgan, Dave Thelen and Christian Hines asked about their earlier experiences with food preparation, discussion veered towards sharing ways in which preparing and eating meals were central to each family’s values. About a year later we asked two Sophiatown residents from different backgrounds to read the club’s transcript. They compared their experiences and perspectives on mealtimes with those of the club members. René Lombardi grew up in Triomf and, with her husband and two sons, still stays in Sophiatown. Tshepo Letsoalo is a community youth organiser who stays with his wife in Sophiatown.

 

Chapter 4: Becoming Neighbours and Creating Community

ePub

In this chapter residents reflected on how they reached beyond their immediate family and friends to build relationships with neighbours and take part in the larger community. From residents’ conversations, we heard that many felt the need to turn strangers beyond their gates into neighbours they could depend upon as well as to care about people in distress they encountered in daily life. Through it all they wondered how they could make a difference in the lives of others.

In the first section residents talked about their experiences with and expectations of their neighbours as well as their uncertainties about which people to interact with. Neighbours, they argued, could make one’s daily life better or more challenging, just as they could make the neighbourhood a nicer or less comfortable place to stay. Neighbours could play an important role as one tried to raise children and keep one’s family safe. Some neighbours greeted, helped with a DIY project or could be counted on for help when danger arose. Indeed, residents suggested that the best relationships involved reciprocity, both helping neighbours and receiving help from them. Some hesitated to approach or even tried to avoid a particular neighbour because that individual didn’t appear “open” or was feared as posing some challenge to daily life. Sometimes, it seemed, forging relationships required exploring which social barriers could be broken. Learning how to trust each other was a long-term challenge through which a deeper relationship could emerge. People usually related to their neighbours as individuals rather than merely as representatives of particular cultures.

 

Chapter 5: Experiencing Change

ePub

Hovering over many of these conversations, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, were attempts to identify and explore hopes, fears and realities unleashed by the political transformation of 1994. Everyone had heard politicians and journalists speak of an “old” and “new” South Africa, but many Sophiatown residents hadn’t experienced life as a stark difference between two countries.

Instead, they reflected on whether and how much their lives had actually changed and wondered what kind of changes might lie ahead, what would get better and what would get worse. They conveyed a sense of living in a time when many things they had never imagined – choices, limits – were suddenly possible. Hopes and fears for the future coexisted with legacies from the past and uneasiness about how to deal with them. Residents struggled to figure out what was and was not newly expected of them and how they should engage others. They considered what lines still separated people and what lines had blurred or disappeared.

 

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