Arts project re-imagines the realities of Riverlea

A photography and theatre project gives residents from the ruptured and under-resourced community an opportunity to articulate the realities of life in the township west of Johannesburg.

The railway track that runs east-west through Riverlea in the west of Johannesburg divides the township into the larger “Riverlea proper” and Riverlea Extension. The railway also stitches Riverlea into a single entity. But along the line of sleepers and steel, apartheid-era social engineering festers through more than nomenclature in a neighbourhood that used to be exclusively for those categorised as coloured, where “proper” continues to imply social acceptability and Extension infers the underclass of a once-discarded people.

The visible deprivation of many in Riverlea Extension swells from the two- and three-roomed houses, filtering into the small allotments that separate them and spilling out into the potholed and pockmarked tar roads. This contrasts starkly with the larger, walled and gated lots behind which mostly extended and renovated houses line the broad, well-tended streets that deem the larger section of Riverlea “proper”. 

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A five-week pilot arts initiative, Re-Imagining Riverlea: A Participatory Arts Project, challenged 25 Riverlea residents to imagine alternate realities for their ruptured and under-resourced community, and to depict these through photographs and performance. With the lens and stage, however, project participants used the tools to heal from the wounds their home has caused, to baulk at their seemingly inexorable, ephemeral destinies in it and to break its norms.

Old money, new sponsor

The Re-Imagining Riverlea project forms part of a larger programme across the provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. New sponsor Barloworld Empowerment Foundation (BWEF) has partnered with 18 organisations to administer arts projects in earmarked communities. The outcomes of these artistic processes become the raw materials with which the foundation will fashion its five-year vision. This approach places the development imperative and agency squarely with community members. 

“There is a particular philosophical position we took that says that people are capable of changing what they need to change in their own communities. There is a lot of power that rests in a community. And where we wanted to hang this was on people’s own organised power as evidenced by their own initiatives,” said BWEF chief executive Sibongile Mkhabela. 

Undated: Children play in the streets of Riverlea. (Photograph by Mercy Daniels)

In Riverlea, the BWEF partnered with the Market Theatre Laboratory and Market Photo Workshop, which administered applied theatre and photography programmes respectively. The photography segment comprised lessons on basic techniques, as well as more advanced composition and visual storytelling. Each of the 25 participants focused their photographic efforts on a single theme that they explored in their community. 

The Market Theatre Laboratory used applied theatre methods to facilitate the creation of participants’ individual and group performances about the lived and possible realities for themselves and their community. Although the initiative centred process over product, the showcase of works created impressed upon the viewers of photography and audience of performance how political the personal is.

Towards healing

A doek in ruling-party colours and featuring its emblem wraps 35 year-old Mercy Daniels’ waist-length locks. Ill-fitting T-shirts distort President Cyril Ramaphosa’s smiling face as she collects voters’ names and details, pauses to allay the fears of some and tries to convince others to vote in the municipal by-election taking place in ward 68. 

Daniels has lived in Riverlea all her life and the polling station has been set up at Wilhelmina Hoskins Primary School in Riverlea Extension, where she spent her first seven years of school. Riverlea is – among many things – home, a place of deep-seated grief and a site for social change for Daniels. 

“At first, when I started taking pictures, it was wanting to know more about Riverlea because the community is home for me. As a social activist in the community, that’s where my heart is,” said Daniels of her participation in the photography project. “I started taking pics of the daycare I went to, the primary school, to crossing the bridge where I lost my brother. He was shot. He was a third-year law student at Wits. 

Undated: The railway runs east-west through Riverlea in west Johannesburg, dividing the township into ‘Riverlea proper’ and Riverlea Extension. (Photograph by Roxanne Loux)

“It’s the same bridge I travelled, as a kid, going to and when they would pick me up from daycare. That’s where it hit hard that this is where one of my siblings passed away, this is where my mom had to pick him up. 

“I’ve been staying in Riverlea for a very long time. My brother’s been gone for decades, but I was not aware how sentimental that was to me, and not knowing that having to cross that bridge while I’m taking pictures was actually something of a healing process to me. Two of my siblings studied law, but when the one died, the other one dropped out.”

Undated: A monument to the discovery of gold in the area. (Photograph by Mercy Daniels)

Rising above reality

Violence is simultaneously language, currency and impediment for Riverlea residents. The gangs – whose members are fluent in it, and who exact it for dominance and often lose their lives to it – have been a long-standing feature of Riverlea’s society. 

In Chris van Wyk’s 1960s upbringing in Riverlea, the Spaldings, Vikings and Fast Guns dominated his and what is today the neighbouring township of Westbury. Today’s gangs, whose primary trades are in drugs and guns, have either stood the test of time or evolved from the extinction of others.

Montelee Joan Meyers, at 20 years old, is intimately familiar with the violent and fleeting nature of gang life. She says that Riverlea is dominated by the long-standing Fast Guns and the Veradores. 

“There are more gangs in Riverlea Extension because the suburb [Riverlea proper] has more rich kids. Certain sections are Veradore corners and other sections are Fast Gun corners. My brother is a Fast Gun so I’ll greet Varadores, but I won’t link with them because they might be sent to get to my brother through me, that’s always a thing.”

Undated: Tattoos on the body of a Riverlea resident. (Photograph by Montelee Meyers)

In an environment where life can be easily lost, a camera in the right hands can grant its subjects a sense of timelessness at best and a feeling of having existed at least. Meyers’ photographic process gave her rare access to her subjects’ desire for the camera’s gaze. “Most of them would ask me, ‘Montelee, please take me a picture. Take us a picture, we sitting here chilling.’ I didn’t even have to ask permission, the minute they saw a camera they asked for a picture.”

Meyers’ deeply personal movement performance saw her dressed in a flowing dress, blindingly white in the mid-afternoon sun in the Riverlea Recreation Centre’s front courtyard. Low movements close to the ground built up as the performance progressed until she stood with her feet planted firmly, arms stretched out at either side and head tilted as far back as possible to give her face the full warmth of the sun. Her statement: I will not be forgotten, I will rise above this all.

Breaking the closet

And then, a pandemic. 

Jason Ariefdien had been working for a solar power company for less than a month when the national Covid-19 lockdown took effect on 26 March. The 30 year-old was retrenched soon after. The same fate befell his mother, Audrey Kingma, who worked for the same company. 

“What we did,” said Ariefdien, explaining the family’s survival strategy, “we both still got paid that month so we took our salaries and we thought, ‘My sister, her boyfriend and her child need to come to us for lockdown.’ We had a decision to make, so I told my mother, ‘Let’s not pay rent, let’s just buy food.’ That’s what we did.” 

The family had been living in Bergbron, a suburb in northern Johannesburg, moved to nearby Roosevelt, then to Albertsville and then to Riverlea all within the space of eight months. For Ariefdien and his family, relocation is a constant and Riverlea represents the last in a string of places they have occupied, unsure if they will settle there. It hadn’t always been this way, though. 

Growing up in a home where his younger sister’s biological father abused him and his mother, Ariefdien remembers the day his itinerant life began. “My sister’s father was hitting my mother. I was in grade 4 the day that I stopped him. He hit me and I flew against the cupboard. So, that’s when my mother left him.”

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For his performance as part of the Re-Imagining Riverlea project, Ariefdien recited a poem in what he describes as a broken closet – an installation that critiques the disclosing of his sexual orientation to his family and to society when he was 16. “I started with being in the closet,” he explains, “then coming out, then breaking the closet. I want to focus on breaking the closet because for me, the stupidest thing ever is to sit your parents down and tell them, ‘I’m gay.’ Why must we do that? Do straight people sit their parents down and say, ‘I’m straight’? Even that in itself, that small little thing, sends a message to the gay community that there’s something wrong with who you are. So that’s what I want to break.”

These ideas of the broken existing in dichotomy with completeness run through his photography as well. Ariefdien had an interest in the practice before participating in the project. Explaining what he aims to achieve by focusing on broken objects, he said, “What I’ve always held on to with my photography is broken things, because I think that you can find so much beauty in something that is broken. People just walk past that and they never see the beauty in these broken things. 

“With the pictures that I take, through my images, people must think, ‘Wow this is beautiful. Oh, but it’s broken.’ And then subconsciously that’s going to plant a mental seed in people’s minds and when they look at themselves, because we’re all broken and we hold on to that for some reason, one day they might just look at themselves and think, ‘But I’m also beautiful, even though I’m broken.’” He invites us to think of aspects of living and being in less clear absolutes.

Undated: ‘I think that you can find so much beauty in something that is broken,’ says Jason Ariefdien. (Photograph by Jason Ariefdien)

Anxious about the future

The Patriotic Alliance is announced as the winner in the ward 68 by-elections a day after ballots were cast. On a platform of “coloured nationalism”, the party has preyed on the fears of a constituency that says the current government has maintained if not worsened their collective lot compared with conditions under the apartheid regime. 

This makes Daniels, the community activist, anxious about the future of her community, her home. Without access to the provincial purse strings that are firmly in the grip of the ANC, the area is not likely to enjoy much investment from the provincial government, she said.

The BWEF, which identified Riverlea as a potential area for future social investment, is purportedly unconcerned about what funds are currently being funnelled into development initiatives in this and other communities it has earmarked for intervention. With its banner of independence from the global Barloworld conglomerate waved highly and proudly, the BWEF’s initial pilot project turns the power dynamic between the donor and the recipient on its head. 

Undated: The famous FNB Stadium, which hosted the 2010 Fifa World Cup football final, seen from Riverlea. (Photograph by Mercy Daniels)

In the greater scheme of things, however, it is the profits of Barloworld’s dubious business practices that have funded Re-imagining Riverlea and subsequent projects as the BWEF was seed-funded through a 3% shareholding of Barloworld stocks. And so it is for Riverlea residents and others who might benefit from the foundation to determine the true cost of what and from whom they benefit. The “us” and the “them” are in what seems a zero-sum scramble for development funds. 

The greatest strength of the project is in the art and articulations of Riverlea residents, the way both interpret the reality of existing in a space separated by a railway track that simultaneously reminds us of divisions that exist in South Africa at large, and of a human quest for wholeness.

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