Jozi City Feature

Bricks, mortar and hope

It is 2pm. School is finished. The kids who live in the building walk through the double doors at the entrance of the shelter, hugging an old man around the knees. “Sawubona mkhulu,” they greet in unison.

The man is wearing blue overalls with “City Power” embroidered on the back and chest, white boots and a beanie. His name is Velile Fani and he is 71 years old.

Fani is the virtual piece of elastic band that connects the old Non-European Affairs Department (NEAD) building on 80 Albert Street with its current use as a shelter for abused women and their children. The four-storey brown-brick structure, with its history of repression, is now a place of safety, support and healing to women from outside and within South Africa. Once it was a place of rigid and unbending control, now it is a haven of safety for the vulnerable. It has many layers of documented and undocumented history.

The NEAD building is situated behind high-rise flats and office buildings, surrounded by run-down structures and warehouses, in an area that is characterised by crime and poverty.

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Construction on site: An old map of Soweto during the 1950s while the township was still under development.

 

While living in Diepkloof Zone 5, Soweto, during the 1950s, Fani had to come here regularly to get his dompas and permit stamped by the authorities. The permits were pink, blue or white, and gave authority to black people to remain in the municipal area for work.

“You would pay 20c every month. You’d have to come to the pass office until you got a job. If you couldn’t find a job, they would find you one,” he says. After finding a job at Yum Pipes, Fani’s visits to the central pass office became less frequent.

The building then

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Cast in Stone: A plaque laid at an entrance to Usindiso Ministries during the 1950s when it was still the Non-European Affairs Department.

 

The building opened its doors in 1954. Initially it housed the central pass office and a number of other administration offices. James Ball, who is completing a   master’s degree in the history department of the University of the Witwatersrand, mentions Beer Brewing Control, the Labour Bureau, the Administration central office, the Inspectorate’s office, the Departments for Welfare and Housing. The building was also home to an information centre and provided offices for the managers of the building.

During the development of Soweto in the 1940s, construction of the township, its sports facilities and music concerts, among others, were also administered through the NEAD.

After the abolition of the pass system in the mid-1980s, the building stood vacant for a number of years. In the early 1990s it was occupied by the Transvaal Provincial Administration, and in 1994 it was converted into a refuge for women in distress. And Fani found himself here again, this time in the more fortunate position of a paid caretaker.

“I often arrive here around six o ‘clock in the morning to clean the play area outside the crèche before the children arrive. I then do all my other work in the building. I enjoy working here at Usindiso. The little children at the nursery school remind me of Dina, my daughter   who stays   in Cape Town with her husband,” says Fani as he scratches his head trying to remember her married surname.

The building now

Since 2001 the building has been administered by Usindiso Ministries (the Saving Place), which now runs the shelter for destitute women and their children.

The organisation uses four floors, on which it runs a sick bay and a receiving room for women who have just been brought in and need a social worker. There is also a clinic, a dining room and kitchen, a lounge and a TV room, communal bathrooms, a chapel (previously the pass court), a large hall (the former pass issuing and renewal office) and several rooms for women and their children.

Ascending the stairs to the fourth floor, you’ll see a mural of hands lifted up to a cross. The highest floor of the building accommodates teenage girls, who have their own TV room with purple couches and a kitchen.

According to Usindiso director Jay Bradley the shelter can accommodate up to 150 women and 50 children. “We currently have six girls who go to school. There are 12 babies, but we are able to accommodate up to 20 babies in the baby day-care centre.”

Usindiso is not just a place of safety and support for the women, it also aims to empower them to become financially independent and feel emotionally supported. A chef’s course, a sewing course and training in nursery school teaching are some of the shelter’s skills-based projects.

Some of the small children stare blankly at visitors, while others are more friendly and confident. They greet visitors upon their arrival or when they pass them in the corridors.

The oldest group, eagerly waiting for their lunch, is instructed by their teacher to sing for the visitors. The tune starts off as a poetry recital, which is sung sweetly and harmoniously. The real surprise comes when each child individually delivers a vocal version of the rights of children and women enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

The Little Fish Nursery School, which forms part of the building, accommodates 50 children from the shelter and others from the surrounding communities. The toddlers have a small concrete yard with a jungle gym and swings under a tree.

The police and nearby hospitals often refer women to the shelter. Or, they hear about Usindiso by word of mouth.

Bradley says the shelter aims to house the women for three to six months, but generally they stay for about a year. “Each individual is assessed on her needs,” she says.

While at the shelter, the women also receive counselling. This includes workshops on HIV and Aids awareness, parenting and computer training. A doctor visits the home once a week. The women don’t have to pay. As a non-profit organisation Usindiso gets its funding from the government, the National Lottery and some big corporations.

The women and their stories

Three mothers have recently gone through therapy, including drama therapy, at the shelter. They feel safe there. For their safety and that of their children, the women will often not disclose their whereabouts even to their families – which can be hard on them.

Lindiwe* arrived at Usindiso on September 3. She used to fight with her boyfriend and, at times, the fights turned physical. After the birth of her son and the company she worked for closed down, the fighting escalated.

When the fights got “out of hand”, she decided to leave. Her boyfriend does not know where Lindiwe is staying because she fears he will take her. “I just wanted a place that is safe for me and my son, before someone got killed. I am also still looking for a job. I cannot go back to that painful life.”

Patricia* has been at the shelter for two months. “I was a sangoma. I was abused emotionally, physically, and verbally to a point where the abuse went down to my child. Things have really improved since moving to the shelter. That is when I decided to give my life to Jesus and leave my sangoma life.

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Sheltered love: Primrose singing a lullaby to her five month old daughter in the lounge room.

 

Primrose* got pregnant while working at a hair salon. “He called me names, swore at me and told me to get an abortion, but I refused.”

She ran out of money when she reached her eighth month. Her work slowed and she lost her job. She tried to move back home, but her grandmother wouldn’t take her in.  Her five-month-old daughter was born at Baragwanath hospital, without any clothes, baby cosmetics or food.

“I went to a shelter to Rissik, then they sent me to Fox and a lady from there referred me to Usindiso.”

Taking up their lives

Through therapy and counselling by in-house social workers, the women are empowered to pick up where they left off and continue with their lives. Art therapy has proven to be an effective and powerful means for traumatised people to express emotions in new and different ways. The Usindiso project, Stitching pasts, imaging futures, is one of the ways in which the women are helped to tell their stories.

It was inspired by The Suitcase Project, which was started in 2002 by Glynis Clacherty and uses the insides and outsides of suitcases for children to tell the stories of their lives and their journeys to Johannesburg. They use objects which could be embellished, decorated and designed to illustrate these tales.

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Paints and needles: Some of the clothing the women are working on in their art therapy classes with Rebecca Walker.

 

The Usindiso stitching project instead uses items of clothing as the objects through which the stories can be told. “We felt that working with clothes would provide something unique that would resonate with the women,” says anthropologist Dr Rebecca Walker, who volunteers at the shelter.

Walker says many of the women at Usindiso have been displaced, some on multiple occasions. The way clothing is packed and unpacked might lead to interesting and revealing aspects of these women’s lives and emotions.

“We all have specific items of clothing in our lives which remind us of our different experiences and which hold special significance. To be able to work creatively on these items and tell stories through stitching, painting and sticking them onto jackets, dresses and scarves will provide a new and different form of expression and hopefully an avenue of self discovery.”

The women come together every Tuesday morning to work on the art project with Walker and other volunteers. They are expected to attend for at least six months.

Walker says the project is not presented specifically as a form of art therapy and does not replace any of the counselling and other forms of therapy that are offered at the shelter.

The clothing art work that results from these sessions will be displayed in a large space that was the previous the pass office administration and which is now used as the exhibition room.

“The significance of a space that once functioned as part of the apartheid system now being used to show the stories of women who have experienced violence and loss in their lives and are now positively working for change is an important one,” Walker says.

In other words: an environment that was once used to oppress people has been turned into a place where women who went through an equally or worse traumatic experience are now receiving help and support.

Since the xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in 2008, Walker says the shelter tries to balance the number of foreign and local women staying and working at the shelter.

In terms of security, there’s a guard who protects the entrance of the shelter, while some women also take turns to assist with safeguarding the building.

What the future holds

Recently the City of Johannesburg’s department of arts and culture listed the building on the Johannesburg Heritage List.

A section of the building will be turned into a museum once their application to become a heritage site is finalised. The building will then be preserved and protected for historical purposes.

Walker says artwork by the women will be on display among old artefacts and photographs from the 1950s, which should serve as a reminder of the significance of the building and the transformation it has undergone.

As if to symbolise the changing face of the building, and its growth from a dark past to a hopeful future, Fani has grown a small flower garden near the nursery school and has planted trees. This is his contribution to the regeneration of the old NEAD building and its future.

*Not their real names.

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About Tshepo Tshabalala

Tshepo Tshabalala has recently completed a BA honours in journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. Tshepo graduated from the Tshwane University of Technology with a national diploma in journalism, specialising in broadcast journalism (TV and radio). He is also co-founder and blogger for Journ’Tau, writes for Unfree Media and is a reporter for Voice of Wits (VoW 90.5 FM). He is an EVA junior business fellow in Finland and a graduate of the School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico.

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