“This precinct is closed by the community,” reads the notice stuck to the inside of a shattered window with a few blobs of Prestik. “No one is allowed on the premises without the presence of the red location steering committee. We are not liable for whatever happens to a person that enters by order of the chairperson,” it continues.
Next to the window of the Red Location Art Gallery is a corrugated iron shack painted in ANC colours. Behind the shack is an installation of printed photos and texts that are tattered and torn, a sign of years of neglect and vandalism. The walls have declarations of love scribbled all over them.
Every now and then, a security guard can be spotted. They are here to protect the Red Location precinct from further vandalism, and to keep any visitors safe, even though the precinct has been shut since October 2013. It had been open for just more than seven years, opening its doors on Valentine’s Day in 2006.
The award-winning R22 million precinct – which now houses an abandoned museum, art gallery and digital library – was shut down by the Red Location community after a decade-long struggle with the local municipality over inadequate housing.
“We came here at 6am, and we called the security guards and told them not to open for anyone because we have come to close the museum,” says Solomon Nduvana, chairperson of the committee. “From there, I called and told the councilor that we’ve decided to close the museum. ‘It’s already closed and we are here,’ I told him,” says Nduvana.
The Con is sitting with Nduvana on a bench outside the precinct’s library as he details the community’s struggle with the municipality to sort out its housing concerns. As a car drives past us, it hits a large rock in the middle of the road and makes an almighty racket.
Around the precinct, signs of abject poverty abound. Red Location is in New Brighton, founded in 1903 after a number of forced removals as a black residential location 8km north of Port Elizabeth. The forced removals were conducted under health legislation aimed at combatting the bubonic plague that was brought to South Africa through imported horse fodder during the second Anglo-Boer War.
Red Location got its name from the red corrugated iron that was used to make shacks for the relocated black South Africans to live in. The corrugated iron was originally used in the concentration camp in Uitenhage, which used to house more than 1 000 Boer prisoners in the war. The area also has a rich struggle history; it was the site of the first branch of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the site of the first defiance campaign arrests.
Meanwhile in Walmer
About 11km southwest of Red Location, an art class is in session. Originally a 36km² farm called Welbedacht, the land that was rechristened Walmer was transferred to the Port Elizabeth municipality in 1855 after originally being classified a separate town.
The Con is sitting in the Masifunde Learner Development Centre in Walmer township, where artist Banele Njadayi is giving an art class to local teenagers. The room Njadayi is using has high ceilings; a workbench runs right down the middle, and two kilns are in the far left corner. A table tennis table has doubled as a chalkboard and some maths equations are scribbled on it. The teenagers are working on pencil drawings. The shelves running along the walls are packed with sculptures, paints and paintbrushes. The class is working on a project that speaks directly to the closing of the Red Location precinct.
Njadayi and his fellow artist Bamanye Ngxale are running a public art research project that focuses on the Red Location precinct, and falls under the Visual Arts Network of South Africa’s (Vansa) 2014 Ways of Being Here initiative. The two artists are working with eight teenagers from the local Walmer township to build a miniature informal settlement out of found objects. This model location will be installed at the Red Location precinct when it reopens, and there will be a bench in the centre that allows people to sit in the middle of the informal settlement.
“We want to make it look like an actual informal settlement, where as you walk around it, you feel like you have an aerial view of the actual township,” says Njadayi. For the second part of the project, Ngxale and Njadayi are going to be working with the teenagers to document, with audio and video, the stories and perspectives of residents of both Walmer and Red Location. These recordings will be projected out of the model location.
“We we will be interviewing people from the community as well as Red Location, trying to find out what their views are around the Red Location Museum, the protests, and the closing down of the museum,” says Njadayi. “What do they actually think about 20 years of democracy? What does it mean to them?”
Njadayi says it is important for the art class to learn how to do interviews, how to document stories and how to relate art to life. “They have to feel like part of this project, because I always tell them that this project is big,” says Njadayi. “They must not look at it like they’re building shacks and that’s it. They must look at it with a deeper eye so that they can be able to use it in future.”
Lunika Lwando is 18, and is wearing a red-and-white baseball jacket. He is the eldest in the class. “I think doing the shack is a great experience for me because it inspires me to show what is happening around me,” he says. “I mean, we live in the township, so it’s not difficult to build a shack.”
Behind Lwando are the shacks, works in progress, all stacked up on top of each other. Reds, greens and yellows; wood and steel; a blue door here, a makeshift satellite dish there.
Lwando is talking about the different types of shacks you find in the township.
“Some shacks here in Walmer don’t have windows, they don’t have doors,” he says. “You can tell what kind of people live there by just looking at a shack,” says Njadayi.
Ngxale says the Red Location Museum was meant to tell the story of the place.
“But the people did not see the connection between how they were living now and then,” says Ngxale. “It kind of just spoke of what happened then, but didn’t really tie into how their lives are better today.”
Ngxale says their research project is interested in the everyday narratives of Red Location. “We want to create a dialogue between the museum and the people,” says Ngxale. “We want them to talk to each other, not just have one side talking and the other one mumbling in the corner.”
Ngxale says they want to lift the community to the same level as the museum, to give it the same respect as the museum. “With the interviews we would like to do with the community, we are looking at senior citizens who have been there for most of Red Location’s existence,” says Ngxale. “Most of them have lived there for 60 years, so they have seen so much that has happened since then. But that knowledge is not transferred to the kids, which is why we chose to use some of Banele’s students to have that conversation between the young and the old, because that’s something else that’s been missing in our daily lives. There used to be a thing that your grandfather could tell you so much about what’s happening in the world, and you get to understand it from their perspective, their lived experience,” he says.
Njadayi and Ngxale’s inspiration came from a 2011 exhibition Njadayi had taken part in. He had built a model market. “The market was there and there were schoolkids who came in to look at the whole exhibition, and most of them were drawn to that market because it kind of spoke of where they lived,” says Ngxale.
“They were doing their own thing and we were sitting close by, and then one of them took a selfie, and then one of them took a cell phone and started running it down between the shacks. They showed us the videos they were making,” he says. “That was something that changed the whole project, like a light-bulb moment. It just changed the whole thing. This project came from that.”
Buildings before people
The Con is sitting in the office of Uthando Baduza, the chief curator of the Red Location Art Gallery, at the provincial department of sport, recreation, arts and culture, which is housed at the Port Elizabeth Bowling Club next to the famous St George’s Park cricket ground.
Baduza was appointed as chief curator in late 2014, and is sympathetic with the community’s complaints. “While these buildings were being built in the community, there was no real engagement,” he says. “It’s right slap bang in the middle of abject poverty.”
Baduza says the precinct had a “noble purpose” to bring to light the plight of the community over more than 100 years. “Those corrugated shacks have stood there since the early 1900s, throughout apartheid,” says Baduza. “So it’s a long history of adequate housing in the area being denied – not just linked to this current government,” he says, “but to colonial and apartheid times. Each government has failed that community.”
“I sympathise with their demands,” says Baduza. “If you see the state of some of those houses, they are falling apart, and in some of them there are elderly people living there. It’s just heartbreaking … For me it raises very pertinent questions for cultural institutions and art institutions,” says Baduza, “about the need for human shelter versus heritage, history and art. It’s bread-and-butter issues versus what is perceived as a nice to have … One of the things I want to get out there is that Red Location belongs to the country; it doesn’t belong to one community,” he says.
Baduza says part of the reason the precinct closed is that the community had no sense of ownership. “But yet, it’s not just the ward’s resource. It’s the whole metro’s,” he says. “So if I am sitting in Walmer, why should Red Location matter to me? I think it hasn’t mattered in a very long time. So how do we make it matter?” asks Baduza rhetorically. “We have to ensure that these types of projects in these types of contexts work, because then we will start dismantling this perception of ownership. Because it’s not just the story of Red Location; it’s the story of the township. How do these previously disadvantaged, currently disadvantaged, always disadvantaged communities feel about innovative, creative development projects that speak to the needs of the community and really develop people?” he asks. “Not just creating these buildings.
“We are trying to think of a precinct without walls. How do we create ownership across the metro and create a sense of ownership about history? Everyone can trace their family to Red Location. A lot of families settled there.
“We need to have more robust debates and engagements,” Baduza asserts. “What does the community want to see here at the precinct?”
The housing dispute
Nduvana says that in 1998, the municipality built more than 500 RDP homes for residents of Red Location who had to be moved to make way for the precinct.
But the RDP homes that were built left a lot to be desired.
“They only built walls, the shell,” says Nduvana. “The shell was made of pillars with bricks built in between.” Nduvana says the RDP homes had no foundations, floors or ceilings, and that the community had to finish off the houses themselves. “They were given 100 bricks and five bags of cement, and told to divide the house themselves,” he says.
In 2001, the community began to complain to the municipality that the houses were falling apart because there were no foundations. “At the time we thought it would be a short-term thing, that they would come quickly to resolve our problems,” said Nduvana. More than a decade passed and the municipality did not address the community’s concerns.
Then, on 12 June 2013, a community meeting was called with ward councilors present. “People were so angry, because they had been fighting for years,” says Nduvana. “They were swearing at the ward councilors, using vulgar language. Then they decided they should burn down the entire precinct; they were determined to burn it to the ground,” says Nduvana.
The councilors suggested approaching the mayor at the time, Ben Fihla, 83. Two days later, Fihla, a former resident of Red Location, visited the community to look at the degrading RDP homes. “He promised on that day he would fix the problem, and people had hope,” says Nduvana. “Then it was quiet. It became quieter and quieter, until we saw in The Herald that the problem in Red Location had been resolved.”
The community responded by shutting down the Red Location precinct. “I personally told the mayor that he was responsible for the closure of the museum because he came here and gave these people hope’,” says Nduvana.
Fihla was recalled by the ANC in May and was replaced with South African Football Association boss Danny Jordaan, who a few weeks later was implicated in an alleged bribe paid to secure the 2010 Fifa World Cup for South Africa. The move was seen as part of an attempt to make sure the ANC does not lose the metro in the local government elections in 2016.
ANC insiders have been quoted as saying that Fihla was too old to adequately engage with communities, a fact seemingly born out of his interactions with Red Location residents.
One local government source told The Con that there had been no political appetite to deal with the Red Location community’s concerns. “It’s a huge embarrassment to the metro that we haven’t managed to solve this issue,” the official said.
He added that there are murmurs that the new administration under Jordaan will make fixing the Red Location stand-off a key priority. “Up until now, there has been a certain apathy,” said the official, “because there is the potential for further fallout when trying to deal with the community’s complaints.”
Nduvana says a contractor has been appointed that has taken over the site and is erecting temporary shelters for families to live in while the RDP homes are being fixed. But Nduvana is not impressed with the temporary shelters. “If you ask someone from the township to build you a shack, they will do a better job than that,” he says. “They wobble when it’s windy.”
“As soon as we see the material to fix the houses, the museum can open,” says Nduvana. “As a community, we are finished. We have done our part.”
National government intervenes
“Housing crisis in metro exposed,” reads the headline of the lead story in The Herald on Monday 8 June 2015. The article alleges there is widespread corruption and collusion regarding millions of rands worth of tenders to build RDP homes.
It states that the situation is so bad, Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu has decided to take over the running of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality’s human settlements department. The department is described in the article as “an untouchable, money-guzzling part of the metro often mired in endless allegations, fear, secrecy and power struggles”.
The situation is so bad, security has been hired for senior officials trying to clean up the rot, and metal detectors have been installed at the department’s offices. Municipal officials told The Herald that they believed former human settlements portfolio chairperson Buyisile Mkavu was murdered in 2014 because he was about to expose the corruption in the department.
In its lead editorial in the same edition, The Herald calls on Sisulu to not provide a smokescreen to appease voters ahead of the local government elections next year. “It must be an effective exercise to remove all those hell-bent on looting public money,” reads The Herald’s editorial. “No one should be allowed to hold this municipality to ransom.”
The future of the Red Location precinct
Baduza says the museum at Red Location was the first phase. The art gallery and the digital library and archive were the second. The third phase involves building a performance art centre and theatre, and phase four is an art school. Baduza says he is working towards having the precinct opened again in September, but it depends on the local government’s ability to resolve the housing crisis.
“I think one of the first exhibitions I want to do is to look at the closure of the precinct,” he says, “To really look at that issue and not shy away from the fact that the institution was closed. I think it raises important questions for our communities, because often these things seem to be in competition with more bread-and-butter issues.
“As art practitioners, how do we relocate or change or challenge ongoing perceptions of art as a nice-to-have as opposed to being integral not only to the development of our communities, but also to developing our children?” he asks.
Baduza laments that work in the arts is often underappreciated, but when it noticed, everybody claps and cheers. “They clap and say social cohesion, social cohesion, social cohesion,” he says.
Baduza is clearly irritated by this reductive view of the role of art in society that is trumpeted by so many in the South African government. “Obviously, the museum itself was always around the struggle history, trying to tell the story of liberation and the role of many big players in the struggle,” says Baduza. “We have to work on how to create projects that speak to that.”
Njadayi says the history being told at the museum centres on the ANC. “There is not much mention of the black consciousness movement. I think there is a part dedicated to black consciousness and Steve Biko, but there is not much on the people who lived in the area who were also dedicated representatives of the black consciousness movement and other parties that formed part of the struggle for liberation.”
This is often criticism of ANC-led heritage projects such as Freedom Park, where an ANC-centric narrative excludes most other organisations that played a role in the liberation struggle. A veteran heritage professional who has been working in the sector for decades recently told The Con of numerous examples of department of arts and culture officials meddling politically in heritage projects.
Now the heritage project that was shut down has a public art project responding to and interrogating it.
Baduza says he laughs when artists say their work is not political. “ In South Africa? Please!,” he says. “I think it’s bullshit., landscapes, are my pet hate, because they are silent on the violence that creates the picture. They are silent on the removal of people who paid with blood,” says Baduza. “You show me a landscape; I’m going to burn it.”
Just around the corner from Baduza’s office, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum is showing an exhibition titled Celebrating the Baakens Valley. On show are works by 19th-century artist and explorer Thomas Baines, as well as contemporary works by Robert Brooks, Betsy Fordyce, Trevor Melville, Alexander and Marianne Podlashuc, Tim Hopwood, and Fred Page. The paintings are all landscapes of the bay and were produced between 1807 and 1988. Almost all shows settlers and ships on the landscape with no recognition of the black South Africans who were living on the land when they arrived.
Baduza says South Africa’s art galleries cannot keep hauling work out from their collections without interrogating the unspoken violence so implicit in the works. “Why were these landscapes seen as art?” asks Baduza. “Because it is an erasure of a whole people, whole communities, and a whole history of a people.”
In the same way Ndajayi and Ngxale are attempting to write the community of Red Location back on to the landscape of the museum, galleries such as the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum have a responsibility to reach beyond lazy collections of colonial landscapes.
Main Pic by Banele Njadayi
All Gallery Pics by Lloyd Gedye & Banele Njadayi
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