The Symphony Way

By on 03/30/2011 in featured

Before the Soccer World Cup last year, I was asked to write a foreword to an anthology of life stories told by South African pavement dwellers, living on Symphony Way, near Cape Town. The stories blew me away. It was very easy to write the short introduction below, just as it’s easy to encourage you to take a look at it now. The book is called No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way, and it’s available here.

On Symphony Way

For those outside South Africa, particularly for the generation of activists who fought apartheid, it’s tempting to imagine that after Mandela was freed from Robben Island, and lines snaked outside polling booths in the first free elections, and after the ANC won, and the national anthem became Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, and after Nelson Mandela held high the Rugby World Cup trophy, that even while the Soviet Union collapsed and capitalism crowed triumphantly from the United States, all was well in the Rainbow Nation.

But despite the close-harmony singing and the holding aloft of leaders, South Africa isn’t The Lion King. It’s more like Animal Farm. Orwell ends ‘Animal Farm’ with a scene in which we see the pigs and the humans whom they displaced, sharing a meal together, and it being hard to tell pig from human. Over the past two decades, a few black South Africans have become very wealthy, as Steve Biko predicted in 1972:

“This is one country where it would be possible to create a capitalist black society, if whites were intelligent, if the nationalists were intelligent. And that capitalist black society, black middle class, would be very effective … South Africa could succeed in putting across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs.”

For many, the struggle against apartheid never ended, because apartheid continues to live. The introduction of neoliberal economic policies have led to falling levels of social welfare for the poorest. In South Africa, human development levels are now lower than in Palestine.[1] The ascent of a new black capitalist class isn’t, however, the end of the narrative. The state itself, in trying to stamp out the uncomfortable appearance of poverty, and in behaving in ways similar to the Apartheid regime, has done much to fan the flames of dissent, and to continue the story of the fight against apartheid.

Think, for instance, of over one hundred families living in backyards across Delft, who thought that Christmas had come early in 2007. They received letters from their local councilor inviting them to move into the houses they had been waiting for since the end of Apartheid. They left their backyard shacks, to occupy their new homes along the N2 highway. For a brief moment, all was as well as can be expected. The quality of housing on the N2 project is an ongoing scandal, but at least the homes were theirs. Then the families received another notice. They were to be evicted. The original letters authorizing them to move into their new homes had been sent illegally. The local councilor who sent them suffers the modest indignity of being suspended for a month. The N2 residents are treated altogether more harshly. They are kicked out of their homes with nowhere to go – their former backyard shacks having been rented to new families the moment the old ones left. The city tried to move them to the temporary relocation areas, many kilometers away from the communities they have grown up with. The units that pass for housing here are tin shacks, ‘blikkies’, ramshackle blocks of metal in the sand, wind and baking sun, sealed in by armed police yet beset with crime. The evicted families refused to move to ‘Blikkiesdorp’. They organized, setting up a temporary camp on the pavement of Symphony Way. The government threw its might into the legal system, extracting an eviction order that, by October 2009, soon after the letters in this book were written, moved all 136 families to the sandy wastes of Blikkiesdorp, in time for the tin shacks to bake in the summer heat.

Apartheid ends and apartheid remains.[2]

The squires of the new order bicker among themselves for the spoils.

The poor, who fought and died for justice, wait for it long after its arrival has been announced. Movements arise to hasten the day when apartheid’s remains can be swept away. The movements are crushed. At the beginning of 2010, when this preface is being written, the South African government has gone on the offensive against organizations of poor people across the country, from refugee camps to mob attacks against the leadership of the Kennedy Road Development Committee in Durban, to the residents of Symphony Way in Cape Town.

So why should you care about the pavements of Symphony Way when there’s no one there anymore, just in time for the 2010 World Cup tourists? The readiest answer is that while the government can take the people out of Symphony Way but they can’t take Symphony Way out of the people. As the residents themselves announced, “Symphony Way is not dead. We are still Symphony Way. We will always be Symphony Way. We may not be living on the road, but our fight for houses has only just begun. We warn government that we have not forgotten that they have promised us houses and we, the Symphony Way Anti-Eviction Campaign, will make sure we get what is rightfully ours.”

This book is testament to what it is to be Symphony Way. Written toward the end of the struggle on the pavements, this anthology of letters is both testimony and poetry. The power of the words comes not simply from confession, but through the art with which these stories are told. Every struggle has its narrators, but some on Symphony Way are wordsmiths of the highest order. When Conway Payn invites you to “put your shoes into my shoes and wear me like a human being would wear another human being,” he opens the door to a world of compassion, of fellow-suffering, that holds you firm.

The letters do not make for easy reading. Lola Wentzel’s story of the Bush of Evil, of the permanent geography of sexual violence, will haunt you long after you close the pages of this book. In here you will find testimony of justice miscarried, of violence domestic and public, of bigotry and tolerance, of xenophobia and xenophilia. There’s too much at stake shy from truth, and the writers here have the courage to face it directly, even if the results are brutal. Amid this horror, there is beauty, and the bundle of relationships between aunties, husbands, wives and children, of daughters named Hope and Symphony. All human life is here.

A few visitors have seen this already. Indeed, Kashiefa, Sedick, Zakeer and Sedeeqa Jacobs remark on the cottage industry of visitors, students and fellow travelers who visit —  “Everyday there is people that come from everywhere and ask many questions, then we tell them its not lekker to stay on the road and in the blikkies.” But this book isn’t an exercise in prurience. It’s a means to dignity, a way for the poors to reflect, be reflected and share with you. This book is testimony to the fact that there’s thinking in the shacks, that there are complex human lives, and complex humans who reflect, theorise and fight to bring change. This book is a sign of that fight, and in reading it, you have been conscripted. Mon semblable, mon frère[3] – you are addressed, reader, not as a voyeur, but as a brother or sister, as someone whose eyes dignify the struggle.

If your tears fall from your eyes as did from mine, you have will have been touched by the idea, the incredible realization!, that the poor can think for themselves, write for themselves, and will continue to fight for their humanity to be recognized. Whether or not you’re going to the 2010 World Cup, come to this book with open eyes, and you’ll leave with an open heart.


[1] http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/

[2] This ambiguity is one soon to be explored by Sharad Chari in his ‘Apartheid Remains’ project.

[3] T his is a line from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, whose finger-pointing to the reader was a little more accusatory. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/039250.html