“There is a snake that lives in Phakamisa,” says Awonke Yali (27) who goes by the nickname MacGyver. His friends, a group of mostly teenagers with a handful of twentysomethings, laugh at his quip. “A three-headed snake,” adds one with a grin. “You laugh, but at night when you are sleeping in your bed, you are crying,” he elaborates. “The snake is here in Phakamisa.”
MacGyver pauses and continues, “We must stay in Phakamisa for what? This thing of unemployment, of not getting a job, it is killing young men here in Phakamisa and they won’t talk about it. They are crying and one day they will kill themselves.”
Some of the younger members of the group are still laughing, but the older ones are not. It is a Saturday morning in June, and this group of young men is gathered on the steps outside what used to be a funeral home, but is now an abandoned space where a lot of youths come to take drugs and hang out. The building is on the northwest side of the Eastern Cape township, but the streets in Phakamisa do not have names. The buildings all have numbers, but they don’t follow any sequence.
Sitting in front of an abandoned building next door is another group of youths; they look younger than the others as they swing back their bottles of alcohol.
Apparently a neighbour was broken into the previous night. A laptop and printer were stolen, and the youngsters who have been up all night boozing are the prime suspects.
According to Buntu Fihla (33), a graffiti artist from Phakamisa, “This space has had a lot of issues … substance abuse, some rapes, a few deaths.” It is a peripheral space that exists on the outskirts of the Phakamisa community. With a shebeen and a spaza shop nearby, there is always foot traffic.
Fihla’s fellow artists, Vuyo Somyali (28) and Ovayo Maqabasa (26), stand nearby. “This place has a negative thing hanging over it,” says Maqabasa. “This was a shop back in the day,” he says, pointing to the building where the younger boys are drinking. “This one was a butchery,” he says pointing, at the one they are standing in front of. “After the butchery it became a fruit and veg shop, and then a funeral parlour, and then after the funeral parlour it was just abandoned,” says Maqabasa. “Kids come here to smoke weed and drink alcohol,” says Somyali. “They come to hide from home.”
The artists say drugs abuse in Phakamisa is out of control, especially in the past two years, with many kids choosing to use cocaine and tik. “You find that the young ones are the ones who are really into it. Some of them, you find them even quitting school because they are entertained by smoking,” says Fihla.
The artists say crime has increased with the drug wave. “They steal car lights to smoke with,” says Maqabasa.
But how has the whole community responded to this increase in drug use? “They haven’t,” replies Fihla. “It’s been met with silence.”
The artists say many young guys who were part of their art collective have been lost to drugs. “We have lost control of the kids with drugs,” says Fihla. “They become despondent and they give up hope.”
Phakamisa, Eastern Cape
Phakamisa is a small township 9km southeast of King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. It is only 2.2km², less than half the size of Zwelitsha, the neighbouring township. The navigable Buffalo River around which the nearby city of East London was built runs right past Phakamisa. As you approach the township along the R346, the scars of previous service delivery protests are evident.
Phakamisa is divided into three sections: the section with houses built by government employees dubbed New Town; the RDP houses dubbed Four Rooms; and the informal settlement known as Kuwait. In the sections containing RDP and subsidised houses, the homes are all painted with varying shades of pink, orange, brown and beige; all different, but none different enough stand out. According to the 2011 census, Phakamisa has 1 886 households and a population of 6 602. By comparison, Zwelitsha has 5 413 households and a population of 18 189.
Fihla heads up one of five projects being explored through the Visual Arts Network of South Africa’s (Vansa) 2014 Ways of Being Here initiative. Fihla is not new to working with Vansa; he also took part in the organisation’s 2010 Reasons to Live in a Small Town, which saw 17 artists developing public art projects in small towns around the country.
In that project, Fihla took over the abandoned buildings where the youths did drugs and started an art collective called Dlala Indima (Play a Part). “One day, Buntu came with the idea of Dlala Indima, of changing this place into something that will benefit the community, the working class and the unemployed,” says Somyali. “We really appreciate what he did for us, because if it weren’t for him, it would’ve been just an idea.”
The artists went to great lengths to convince the community they were changing the space for the benefit of the whole. “I would say to them we are trying to get all the kids who are smoking here out of this place and create something new,” says Maqabasa.
“I think it was important when the mamas came to do that opening prayer, because that’s a big thing with our community,” says Fihla. Somyali says when the community saw they were painting words such as “hlonipha indalo” (respect to nature), “ucoceko” (cleanliness) and, “imbheko” (respect), it won them over.
“We had young kids playing in the back there. We had some of the older dudes just camping out, having some drinks,” says Fihla. “Inside, we’d always have some activities going on. We had some amazing local artists who had residencies in the building.”
Dlala Indima occupied the building until February this year, when a businessman is said to have bought it to open a shisa nyama. It was a big blow to Fihla and his collective. “It wasn’t good for us, because at first we thought we needed to live in a place where we could portray and push this Dlala Indima project,” says Somyali.
But Fihla says that because the 2014 Ways project gave the collective the second half of 2014 to research, consult and plan, the loss of the building did not derail the project. “Having all that time was amazing,” says Fihla. “Losing the building would have been way more of a big deal if we didn’t have that time.”
Fihla’s work centres on an interest in community participation and art for social commentary, whether he is expressing himself through photography or graffiti. He says his involvement with Vansa has been validating and challenging, especially during the workshop process for the 2014 Ways project.
“I felt like all these academics were picking apart my process,” he says. “I didn’t know there were people researching and writing about my process – this is just always the way I have worked.” Fihla is referring to the transparent way of working with the communities within which his art exists, but he says he hates it when his work is branded “community art”.
“You should introduce yourself to the community and be consulting before you even write a proposal for funding,” he says. He decries artists who helicopter in with prepackaged solutions for a project. “When Vansa is finished, this is my community,” he says. “I have to go back into the community.”
Fihla says Dlala Indima’s many challenges presented a real learning curve, with members needing to work as a collective with a horizontal structure. Fihla spends large parts of the year working as an artist in Cape Town and is often away on residencies, so there was a need for an organisation to be built so that projects did stall while he was out of town.
“We created a group on WhatsApp for us to communicate when Buntu is not around,” says Somyali. “As we all know, Buntu is kind of busy sometimes, so we have to run things. The three of us started to pinpoint people and created a board of trustees for Dlala Indima.”
Fihla says a major focus has been on turning the collective into a non-profit organisation, collating all the members’ information and completing all the admin “so that the collective can concentrate on applying for funding”.
“This is the new future, because now that we’ve lost the building, it’s made us think on our feet about the activities we want to do,” he says.
“We were looking for something to do around the community that shows Dlala Indima is still functional, even after we lost the building,” says Somyali.
The collective hit up Zukisani Liwani, a middle-aged member of the community who lives in a RDP house left to him by his mother. Liwani’s nickname Shakes’ derives from the left-footed midfielder Isaac Kungwane who died in May last year at the age of 43.
His brother, who lives two streets down, is known as Kaizer, after the founder of the PSL champions.
Somyali says he remembers, when they were growing up, Shakes used to live in an outhouse behind his mom’s house. They used to gather there to smoke weed and get away from their parents. Shakes used to be addicted to mandrax and alcohol, but now he makes ends meet doing odd jobs. These days his home is open to the kids in the community as a space where they can hang out.
“All the young kids hang out at Shakes’ place and have a smoke or a beer,” says Fihla. “Because of the life that Shakes has had, he has opened his house.” Fihla explains that Shakes’ house is also geographically significant as it is the midway point between the RDP section of the township and the section comprising subsidised houses.
Fihla explains that when the project was based at the abandoned buildings in New Town, many in the community were critical, saying things along the lines of, “Look at all the New Town kids, they are only helping themselves”. But soon one thing led to another, and Dlala Indima began talking to Shakes about revamping his house.
“So we started talking to Shakes. ‘Shakes, how would you feel if we repainted your house? Fixed a few things here and there?’” says Somyali. “He said, ‘You guys can do what you want as long as you are not going to paint graffiti.”
“He loves graffiti; he just doesn’t want it on the outside of his house,” explains Somyali.
It’s a Thursday afternoon when we arrive at Shakes’ RDP home. A cold front has come in from Cape Town and Phakamisa is facing gale force winds and torrential downpours. The dirt road outside Shakes’ house is flooded, and water is pouring down through a neighbour’s yard before making its way through Shakes’ yard and onward down the hill, turning the place into a swamp.
A lonely tree springs up from the swamp in the centre of the yard. Chickens run amok in the yard next door, and a dog stretches out under the shelter of a stoep, seeking refuge from the storm.
Shakes’ house was recently plastered by Fihla and a local builder. They are waiting to get two weeks of solid sun so that the walls can dry and they can paint them.
Fihla says Shakes does not want graffiti, so they are working on a pattern design.
“The reaction has been tremendous, because everybody who passes Shakes’ house now is like, ‘What are you guys doing there?’,” says Somyali. “And we tell them we are just repainting the house.”
“Everybody had this negative attitude that Shakes’ place is used by people who smoke,” says Somyali. “But we are trying to change that idea.” Somyali says community members who saw the youths working on the house pitched in to help.
So how many want their houses done the same way? “They are actually waiting for the final thing, but there are some who are like, ‘I want you to go and do my house’,” says Maqabasa. “Some of them are even requesting graffiti.”
Inside, Shakes’ place is full of young men sitting around smoking cigarettes, all dressed in their warmest jackets. The wind rattles the iron roof, and water drips in here and there. On the mottled yellow walls is a sole poster of Kaizer Chiefs’ Siphiwe Tshabalala.
Shakes is hunched on a chair in the corner, staring off into the distance. Every now and then chuckles at something that one of the young men says. He is dressed in a grey jacket and old blue jeans; a red beanie adorns his head. His shoes are brown and have holes worn through them. He is a man of few words.
The conversation revolves around sneaker brands and AB de Villiers cleaning up at the Cricket South Africa Awards, where he scooped five trophies. Then the conversation switches to the upcoming Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus. The general consensus is that Messi is God and Barcelona will win. (They do, 3-1, with Messi scoring one of them.)
One of the young men recounts a story of a guy from Phakamisa known as Dave who walked to the township from Port Elizabeth. It had taken him five days. Another tells a story of the “ghetto superman” – a man who broke into the local loan shark’s house and tore up all the identity books he was holding as collateral against loans. This modern-day Robin Hood then proceeded to cook himself a meal in the loan shark’s house before he left.
Over the course of three days, Fihla showed The Con another side of the project called #Spazasprays, where Fihla negotiates to paint the caravans or carts from which entrepreneurs sell their wares.
“At first I tell them about the organisation, what we’ve done in Phakamisa, and then I tell them that all I really want to do is to paint something casual – some graffiti, nice and colourful,” says Fihla. “It’s going to most probably be a name – my name or a continuation of the Dlala Indima message in there.”
“Then the negotiations start, because obviously the first thing they ask is for me to paint a picture of the food they are selling, so immediately you are bartering and it’s a back-and-forth,” says Fihla. “‘Do you actually really need that?’ ‘Of course I do. What is it going to look like? Will you paint my posters for me if I let you paint the caravan?’ It’s a to and fro.”
Has Fihla encountered someone who wanted him to pay to paint their caravan? “A few times,” he says. “It’s usually not a lot, so if it seals the deal, I do.”
“In some in places you paint, there are some people who are like, ‘All I want is for you to take a picture of me’,” says Somyali. “And they always tell Buntu, ‘Make sure if you publicise this, you use my picture’.”
Of course, spaza shop owners such as sisters Busisiwe and Noluthando Wana are also looking to benefit. From the early hours of the morning, six days a week, they pair sell food from a caravan Fihla has graffitied.
Their menu on the door, painted by Fihla, advertises pap en vleis, isibindi (liver), umngqusho (samp and beans), umphokoqo (putu) and ulusu (tripe). They reckon they serve more than 100 meals a day, and that they have more customers since Fihla painted their caravan.
Busisiwe Wana says she had no idea Fihla was going to paint her caravan this beautifully. “My customers love it,” she says. “They take photos of themselves next to it and put them up on Facebook.”
On Friday lunchtime, The Con sits eating boerewors with Fihla, Somyali, Maqabasa and some of their friends in a bachelor flat in East London’s Southernwood suburb.
Joey Bada$$’s album B4.DA.$$ (pronounced “Before the Money”) is blaring from a sound system. Fihla is talking about the importance of the work Dlala Indima does. “The outlet that Dlala Indima creates is so important. That’s one of the reasons we are very angry about losing the building … We just want to offer that outlet.” He says that now they have to come up with other plans and initiatives.
Somyali says the board meets every three months to draw up their programme. “I think we have about four or five ideas of what we want to do for this next year,” he says. “We’ve created programmes that are not going to just fade out. They are going to be ongoing so that people may realise that Dlala Indima is still around.”
“Now it’s Shakes’ place, next I’m predicting some sports thing, a connection with the Steve Biko Centre … things like that – just thinking on our feet,” says Fihla.
The conversation moves to the news that the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality’s mayor, Zukiswa Ncitha, and deputy mayor, Temba Tinta, have been recalled. Ncitha and Tinta are currently facing fraud charges related to the alleged misappropriation of R5.9 million meant for memorial services linked to Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
Municipal manager Andile Fani is a key witness against Ncitha and other officials, and had been suspended over separate allegations of tender irregularities. Fani is backed by the SACP, although he faced scandals over allegedly faked qualifications in 2012, and a large pay increase in 2014. It seems a turf war is being fought in the metro between the SACP and the ANC in the scrap for power in the build-up to the 2017 ANC national elective conference.
But while East London’s municipal politics play out, the youths of Phakamisa are trying to dream a new future for themselves. As Fihla says, “I am a black artist working in black community. I am all about dignifying spaces.”
Main Pic by Lloyd Gedye
All Gallery Pics by Lloyd Gedye & Buntu Fihla
This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project