the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC), a local political alternative to the ANC, established to fight the evictions. The TCC -- and later Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM) -- were quickly recognised as the political vanguards of the community -- and Miya became one of their most devoted members.

 

Over the next fifteen years, sustained service delivery protests and skirmishes with the police came to tarnish Thembelihle in public discourse: the poster child of a doomed democratic project, presided over by a failing liberation movement. As the violence increased, so the media coverage became almost mundane: another day, another protest in Thembelihle; another clash with police; another troubled, troubling, troublesome South African community. An increasingly political Miya was arrested a total of nine times, often without knowing what the charges were, often without bail. Vessels of the state, which refused to acknowledge the existence of his community, denied him bail for a month without charging him because officials said he didn’t have a formal address they could find him at if he absconded. Many of his comrades faced the same difficulties.

 

In the struggle for social recognition & legitimacy, the personal story is powerful

 

The community of Thembelihle in Johannesburg, South Africa has withstood decades of violent upheaval, neglect, deprivation and public stigma. In 2012, the Unisa Institute for Social and Health Sciences (ISHS) and its Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit (VIPRU), co-directed by the South African Medical Research Council, initiated a story project in Thembelihle, one of a basket of interventions implemented by the research unit in this community. They wanted help reframing the way Thembelihle is portrayed and perceived by both the community and the South African public, by telling their own stories about their home. What started out as a research project turned into a unique collaborative feature incorporating academia, journalism and community storytelling. Scroll down to read the full story and meet some of the people of Thembelihle, Place of Hope.

 “There are a lot

of struggle narratives

in how difficult life is in Thembelihle.

But there are also stories of how people create opportunities for themselves.”

 

-- Nick Malherbe, Researcher, ISHS and VIPRU

Bhayiza Miya was not the first man to move to Thembelihle Informal

Settlement. By the time he arrived in 1996 after moving out of the four

-room house in Soweto he shared with nine siblings, dozens had

already claimed parcels of the vacant plot of land tucked inside the

minaret-cornered folds of Lenasia, a mainly middle-class Muslim

suburb 30km outside Johannesburg. With the country’s black

majority forced to live in designated homelands and townships,

overcrowding in the 1980s and ‘90s was rife. Miya’s brother

was one of the frontiersmen building Thembelihle up from an

abandoned brickworks allocation with no amenities to speak

of, and the two men set about putting down roots for families of

their own. They had only the two dusty square kilometres of

dolomitic land on which to cultivate their own version of freedom --

and the promise of a new reality, ushered in by a fledgling democratic

dispensation in 1994.

 

The township grew like any other in the country post-nationalism --

quickly, informally, haphazardly, hopefully. Riding a global wave of

popular support into power the African National Congress pledged

houses, water, sanitation,healthcare and electricity for its supporters. But for almost twenty years, none of it was forthcoming for those living in Thembelihle. That anticipation of change, of being seen, heard and heeded, slowly corroded away over years of deprivation into a wiry hardness; an innate suspicion of men and women in political party t-shirts and an intolerance of neglect.

 

Although the population grew to more than 25 000 within three decades, in 2015 the community of Thembelihle was frequently reminded through being perpetually ignored that, in the eyes of the state, their elected home did not exist. After conducting geological research, the municipality informed residents the dolomite said to be beneath their feet would make it difficult to secure parts of the land from possible sinkholes that could swallow shacks whole. Even though only one sinkhole has ever appeared (on the outskirts of the settlement), the government, geological report in hand, began to relocate families to nearby Lehae and Vlakfontein with a force akin to the darkest days of the 1950s Group Areas Act. These areas were even further away from city infrastructure and even more under-resourced than Thembelihle.

 

                                “That’s where the real fighting started -- in 2001,” said Miya.

 

                                  “My whole family were African National Congress members… But when

                                   the ANC government in 2001 wanted to evict us forcefully using the very

                                  same apartheid laws of evicting [black] people far away from the cities,

                                 from the workplace, from the schools -- that's [not] what they promised.

                               What they were doing was against their own policies,” he said.

 

 

 

Had the ANC government offered houses and services in Lehae and

 Vlakfontein, the community may have been more amenable to the

  idea of moving there. Instead they were offered a new plot of dusty

   land and no choices.

 

“  They were now evicting us from a shack to a shack. So one has to

     take the very same shack that you were living in to Vlakfontein,

     where you would [re]erect your own shack,” he said.

 

     “It was [a] government who didn't care about its own people.”

 

       In 2001, the community dug its heels into the red earth, refusing

             to break down and rebuild elsewhere. Instead, it “went to war”

                     with the police.

 

                                    So began a decade-long struggle for legitimacy

                                      and recognition that saw resilience take hold

                                       and activism bloom even as it was showered by

                                       increasingly hardcore waves of violence.

 

 

For Miya, 2001 was the year of his political awakening, entrenched deep within him in an instant

    through an act of violence. While observing a protest by residents quelled by police armed

       with guns and rubber bullets, he was shot in the mouth. He lost six teeth and spent weeks in

           hospital. When he was discharged from Chris Hani Baragwanath, he immediately joined

Then in 2008 and 2015 a wave of xenophobic violence swept the country and African nationals were targeted in numerous acts of inexcusable brutality. They underscored the frustration felt by South Africans at the slow rate of socio-economic development. Foreign nationals, many of whom endeavoured to be entrepreneurial by setting up spaza shops and small businesses upon arrival in the country, were often viewed with suspicion. Thembelihle was not exempt from this national shame: several foreign-owned shops were looted and belongings stolen from Ethiopian asylum seekers living in the township.

 

It was in these moments the TCC and OKM stepped up where government stayed largely reticent. “When the community attacked our foreign national brothers and sisters we stood up, we stood up as TCC and we said no to that,” Miya said.

 

“We went house by house to where we were told the stuff of those foreigners were -- 14 fridges and their [stock]. We took them back to our brothers and sisters from Africa.”

 

The community could not claim to be wholly innocent and magnanimous, however. Between 2011 and 2015 protesting residents killed two men in an act of vigilantism and firebombed a satellite police station, shot at the police with live ammunition, trampled a 15-year-old girl during a protest and caused millions of Rands worth of damage to city infrastructure.

 

 

 

Their actions brought about a final onslaught by government in the battle for order -- or at least the appearance of it. In 2015, ostensibly to combat xenophobia, it declared a state of emergency and sent the army into Thembelihle, an unprecedented, apartheid-style move in South Africa’s young democracy. Residents known to support TCC and OKM were beaten in their homes and hundreds were arrested by police in armoured Nyalas arrested hundreds. But no incidents of xenophobia were reported during this time -- in fact, some residents targeted by the armed forces said they had been protecting foreign nationals in case of service delivery-related attacks. The incident was darkly viewed as a political shakedown, but it wasn’t responsible for ultimately quelling the violence.

 

Peace came with the acknowledgement the community had been calling for for so long.

 

It came with the announcement in April 2015 by provincial government that Thembelihle had finally been approved and registered as a human settlement. Plans to roll out electricity infrastructure were announced soon after, and even signage went up around the township. After 14 years of waiting, NGOs and local organisations finally possessed a registered address with which to apply for grant funding. The area was formally demarcated and budget allocated for the installation of street lights. In 2016 the newly elected Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba announced 200 families would be relocated from shacks to RDP houses with electricity. People began to consider investing in brick homes instead of zinc. By that point, protests had stopped completely. Living conditions were far from transformed, but for the first time since 2001, calm was restored.

 

 

 

 

In late 2016 the electricity switch was flipped and thousands of residents had power where before there had only been darkness and flame. Then in December, an announcement was made by the TCC: the community had been honoured with a prestigious national award by the Department of Home Affairs. They were given the Mkhaya Migrant Award for being the Most Integrated Community in South Africa, ensuring the safety of foreign nationals living and trading in the community and demonstrating the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

Over much of the last two decades, the ISHS and VIPRU has been working with the community of Thembelihle. Its researchers began to understand that much of the frustration felt by residents was as a result of how they saw themselves represented in the news and heard themselves spoken about by outsiders. It did not reflect their lived experience. They felt voiceless and resented being repeatedly branded violent and indigent. This collaboration between the ISHS and VIPRU, Chronicle and members of the community was launched in 2016. It seeks to redefine Thembelihle in the wake of turbulence and uncertainty, according to its own people; to tell a more nuanced, more representative, more personal story.

 

 

 

 “That’s where the

real fighting

started --

in 2001.”

 

 The community was given the Mkhaya Migrant Award for being the Most Integrated Community in South Africa

| CLICK HERE to watch  the full film |

Mohamed Seedat

 

Head: Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa

&

Director: South African Medical Research Council-University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit

 

 

Ursula Lau

 

Researcher: Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa & South African Medical Research Council-University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit

 

Shahnaaz Suffla

 

Researcher: South African Medical Research Council-University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit & Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa

 

Nick Malherbe

 

Researcher: Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa & South African Medical Research Council-University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit

 

 

Royal Lekoba

 

Community Interventions and Outreach Coordinator: Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa & South African Medical Research Council-University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit

 

 

Images

Shaun Swingler, Phillip de Wet, Diana Neille

 

 

Videos

Leila Dougan

 

 

Design

Bernard Kotze

 

 

Text

Diana Neille

 

  Click

      on the

  map pins

      to meet

residents of