Welcome to Fietas
The mixed-race community in Johannesburg feels forgotten by politicians and many residents are adamant that they will not vote this year
Drive too fast and you’ll miss it. The small Johannesburg community tucked between Brixton and Fordsburg is an unusual realisation of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation, living in – relative – harmony. Black, white and coloured people live side by side in poverty, aggravated by rampant drug abuse and a lack of recreation facilities. The community that has had endless run-ins with local government – both DA and ANC – say they have had enough and many are adamant that they will not vote this year. Welcome to Fietas. It’s a hot Thursday afternoon and a garage door is open. Young and old stream in and out, arms loaded with donated clothes. The garage belongs to Tannie Leonie Cupido, whose husband, the local pastor, died the month before. The only sign of her loss is the black outfit she wears. She is a community worker who offers up her home to everyone, and gathers clothing and food for her neighbours.
She hasn’t decided whether or not she’ll vote. “I think politics has failed the people,” she says.
Although everyone calls their neighbourhood Fietas, it is a collective name for the suburbs of Vrededorp, Pageview and Jan Hofmeyr. Fietas, one of Joburg’s oldest townships, was established as the “Malay location” in the 1880s. It was renamed and became exclusively occupied by poor whites after forced removals by the apartheid regime between 1956 and 1977. The neighbourhood is still poor, but its complexion has changed.
Tannie Leonie takes us on a tour of her neighbourhood, of its dilapidated old-age home, cracked council houses, and back yards piled high with scrapped cars and beer crates. The number of adult residents on the streets during working hours bears testimony to Fietas’ 50% unemployment rate. On the streets, about 20 people stop to give their condolences to Tannie Leonie and tell her the latest drama in their lives. They say they won’t be voting because they have been let down too many times. Besides, many aren’t registered to vote anyway and can’t be bothered to get registered.
Tannie Leonie introduces City Press to a group of five young people who call themselves the community youth league forum. They meet every Tuesday evening and discuss ways to make life in their neighbourhood better. They say they have repeatedly asked their local councillor, the ANC’s Jerry Musesi, to help them, but he’s not interested.
“When I was growing up here, there was more to do, especially for kids during school holidays. All of that stuff is gone now and the kids must sit out on the streets and get involved with the wrong crowds,” says the league’s leader, Clinton Hendricks (32).
Running with the wrong crowd is something Hendricks knows a lot about. When he was just 16, he started using drugs so that he could be accepted by the incrowd. He spent some time in Johannesburg Prison a few years thereafter, and has since cleaned up his life.
“It was tough in there, I never want to go back again. Your family can’t even come visit there because my family didn’t have money, so I saw them maybe once a month, so you suffer,” he says, his voice trailing off.
He speaks of a year and a half of hell, during which he dodged gang affiliations while maintaining good relations with some dangerous people.
In the street, he comes across two young white boys who greet him and ask when they’ll meet next for chess club.
“Jy moet ouens kry wat kan kom [You should get other guys that can come],” Hendricks tells them.
The chess club is one of the small ways the unemployed man tries to keep young Fietas residents out of trouble. As for keeping himself out of trouble, Hendricks has found another method.
“I met this cherry and she has helped me keep my life on track. It is always a girl, you know. I met her even before I was on drugs, so she has stuck around. We’re
getting married next week, but it is hard you know. She still lives with her parents and I live with mine because we cannot afford our own place.”
According to census data, the average Fietas resident is 27 years old. Only 52% of the population get around to completing matric, and even fewer go to university, despite the close proximity of Wits and the University of Johannesburg.
By high school, many of Fietas’ young people are hooked on everything from heroin to cocaine, which are freely available on the suburb’s streets.
“Last weekend we were at a funeral of a young girl who died from a drug overdose. She was just 18,” says resident Miempie Havenga, handing over a funeral programme bearing a grainy image of a young girl.
“The councillor needs to stop the drugs. That girl that died took only a little bit extra and she collapsed.”
Havenga’s sister Tina interjects by saying that the last hit taken by the young woman was laced with rat poison.
The shy, Afrikaans-speaking Havengas live with their mother and four children in a cramped, tumbledown home. The yard is strewn with junk, and thin but aggressive dogs keep watch.
“I have been waiting for the government to give me a home for more than 25 years. They say I am still on the waiting list. I am not working, my mother gets an oldage pension and my son gets a disability grant,” says Miempie while sitting on her bed – its white sheet is covered in old, stubborn stains.
“I like Fietas, but it is not safe to walk around at night. Too many drugs and people that will kidnap you for money or hurt you. I called the police and I showed them which house sells the drugs, and still they did nothing. They don’t do anything and the councillors don’t do anything either. Where must the children play?”
The community youth league forum – which held a picket against Musesi in November and demanded a meeting with him, help to fight the drug problem and for proper recreation facilities to be built – says it is now up to them to mobilise the community to make a difference.
“It will be difficult because a lot of people have just given up. Others are on drugs or are afraid of the drug lords, but we don’t want to fight with them, we are just fighting for a better space – especially for the young kids here,” says Hendricks.
“The Economic Freedom Fighters is new, maybe we can go for them because the ANC and DA have both been here and there is no change,” says a heavily pregnant young woman who is a member of the youth league forum.
But she is alone in her optimism that there is still a political party that can save Fietas.
TRAPPED IN POVERTY
Thoko Dlamini, Nicole Els and Zizakele Dlamini while away the afternoon in Fietas
Samukele, Thini, Mongi and Gezimuzi Mthungwa. The Mthungwas do their best to get by and keep their children away from crime and drugs in the area
Fietas is home to a melting pot of coloureds, Malays, Indians and whites