• The majestic joys of old Fordsburg

    By Katleho Sekhotho

    Once it was the crown jewel of movie culture in Fordsburg. Today it has been born again as an icon of a different kind. This is the story of the Majestic, the old, former movie house that becomes a lively, rousing church on Sundays.

    The young women walk in and out of the service, to attend to needy babies who have had enough of lying in swaying arms. It’s hot and humid in the church of the Jabulani Ministeries in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, but the fans stationed in front of the stage keep the congregation cool.

    Joylyn and her baby during the church service. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Joylyn Bismark and her baby during the church service. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    A ke so mo bone o tswanang le yena, che che che!” they sing, their voices soaring in the swoop of joy that gives the church its name. “I haven’t seen anyone like Him, no, no, no!”  The men of the church band, in their Sunday suits with their neatly combed hair, drive the rhythm on drums, bass and guitar.

    The lead singer, Theo Mjeza, wears a burgundy suit with a crisp white shirt. He carries the vocals and the get-down dance moves with his backup singers. Mjeza is unashamedly “flexy” and the trio backing him up, two women and one man, jam along with the groove.

    Theo Mjeza in the groove of things as he sings lead for the opening song at the Jabulani ministries Sunday service held at the Majestic cinema. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Theo Mjeza in the groove of things as he sings lead for the opening song at the Jabulani Ministries’ Sunday service held at the Majestic cinema. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    The beat has a Nigerian flavour and the thump of the drums have the congregation worked up in a sweat. After Mjeza’s intro comes an older woman in a yellow and black two-piece suit, to sing the deep and spirit-moving worship song, I Give Myself to You.

    The congregation is moved by the Holy Spirit. The woes of the week, brought to the Sunday service, trickle from eyes shut tight in emotion and anguish. Their arms flail in the air, to the chorus of “Amen!” They cry and they sigh to the hymn that recognises all of their pain.

    Tears can’t be held back as the older lady sings the words ‘I give myself to you.’ Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Tears can’t be held back as a woman sings the words ‘I give myself to you’.  Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Every Sunday, the Jabulani Ministries church, led by Pastor Mark Bismark, breathes new life into the Majestic on Central Road, once the grandest and most popular movie house in Fordsburg.

    Now it has been born again as a place of worship, its 800 seats filled only about a quarter of the way with young and old, mostly coloured people who come to sing songs of praise and listen to the sermon.

    The atmosphere is far from orthodox as the pastor preaches of his desire to merge the old and the new, the young and the old, by getting the youth of the church more involved in its activities. The pastor’s sermon is full of hope, “Jabulani Ministries is ready to grow, amen! We gonna teach you today, moral intelligence!”

    With its famous yellow marquee, the Majestic still stands as a landmark, more of an historical monument than a movie house. The old blue seats with their yellow pillow-stuffing gaping at the rips, and the faded green and brown curtains hung above a square white screen, are all that is left of what was once a place of dreams for black, coloured and Indian movie lovers during apartheid.

    Nowadays, it is the churchgoers who redeem the cinema from complete desolation. In its decay and abandonment, it seemed the cinema would not be a home to anyone any longer, but like a phoenix from the ashes, the Majestic lived up to its name and was born again.

    The Sunday service lasts three hours, with an additional 30 minutes of “African time” to accommodate the moving of the spirit. Pastor Mark, with his medium-long, grey-black hair combed to the back, says his church has been running its services at the Majestic for the past four years. He too is a musician, a drummer and bass guitarist, but his voice, loud and booming, is his golden instrument.

    Katleho (12 of 14)

    Playing the guitar. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    The pastor, who grew up in Zimbabwe, the son of a railway worker, says he played in the “kingdom of darkness for about 15 years” and then decided to start the ministry before coming to the Majestic, his current kingdom of light.

    It changes lives too, as I learn when I meet Godfrey, a former street kid, who was taken in by the church, fed and clothed, and now works as a car guard outside the cinema.

    Close to 60 years old, the Majestic has weathered the waves of change which are frequent to many suburbs in Johannesburg, especially in the transition from apartheid to democracy.

    But the Majestic refuses to die, like an old king who still wears his robes. And it still has many years of majesty left, thanks to a 99-year lease from the government to a local family who are not allowed to change the structure but may lend it out to those who need it. As the pastor says, “It’s a heritage site. We haven’t changed anything.”

    Pastor Mark Bismark calls all the young people to the front to say a blessing for them for their upcoming end of year exams. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Pastor Mark Bismark calls all the young people to the front to say a blessing for them for their upcoming end-of-year exams. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Fordsburg, like nearby Sophiatown, was a magically alive “grey area” in the early days of apartheid.  Not because the government of the day turned a blind eye to its social mix, but because much of the nitty-gritty on ownership of property had reached  a standstill in court.

    At the back of the Majestic, after the service, the cries of children running and playing echo up and down the aisles. A Muslim crèche is run at the back of the Majestic and children from the church occasionally come in to practise plays, poetry and song. Pastor Mark calls the Majestic a “white elephant”, but despite its neglected state, it stands as the only cinema in Fordsburg that has not been transformed into a business.

    Just a short walk away from the Majestic, a giant sign, bright red and cursive, proclaims the site of the Avalon, another cinema from the glory days of Fordsburg’s movie culture. But the Avalon chose not the sanctified road like its sister, and fell instead into the abyss of guns and samurai swords.

    The Avalon cinema. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Outside the Avalon cinema in Fordsburg today. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Mohamed Dokrat, owner of the Avalon, saw fit to replace the space with hunting uniforms, lethal pocket knives, arms and ammunition. “I am in full support of the right of people to arm themselves,” he says. “We’re talking about a self-defence point of view, people want to arm themselves and rightfully so. It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people. If the person behind the weapon is an evil person or is mentally unstable, we’ve got a problem.”

    While the Majestic calls to the Lord, the Avalon puts its faith in arms and ammunition

    Today the Avalon is like a shell without a yolk, although Dokrat did decide to keep the famous Avalon sign. He was once offered R60 000 for the sign, but he refused. “I told him no,” Dokrat laughs. “We wanted to preserve and keep the sign.”

    While the Majestic calls to the Lord, the Avalon puts its faith in arms and ammunition. And though Jabulani Ministries remains an island of Christianity in a sea of Islamic faith, everyone lives together in the same community, guns blazing or not.

    Next door to the Avalon is the Kentucky Milk Bar, a takeaway store which has been in existence for 50 years and has been witness to the glory and death days of cinema in Fordsburg. Adam Mohamed, owner of the store, remembers his happy childhood in Fordsburg.

    “It was a vibe,” he says, his eyes dancing in their sockets at the memory, “and it was the most safest place in the world to be. The beauty part is that people had no money, but the love they had for each other was amazing.”

    As we chat, Adam says that I shouldn’t forget him when I’m a “big shot journalist”. He says his neighbour Dokrat could tell me lots of amazing things, and at this Dokrat waves his hand in embarrassment, brushing the comment away.

    The good old days at the Majestic

    Farhaad Hafajee, who now lives in Cape Town, grew up in the suburb of Lenasia, established as an Indian group area during apartheid. He remembers “a young life without responsibilities”, and says travelling to Fordsburg was filled with variety. They either travelled with his dad’s friend, who worked at the Oriental Plaza, or with the bus, or by hitchhiking.

    “It was not only about the movies but it was the whole experience,” says Hafajee. “Walking around the Plaza in the mornings, walking around Fordsburg, peeking into the shop windows looking at the latest fashions, meeting friends for lunch at Akhals.” Everyone in Fordsburg knows Akhals, the legendary takeaway known more formally as Akhalwayas.

    Masala chip rolls dripping with sauce, salt and vinegar crisps, Coca-Cola, cartoons and Western movies. Those were the days at the good old Majestic.

    An attempt to bring back those days and revive cinema in Fordsburg proved partially successful in 2011. The Fordsburg Film Festival was to be the stepping stone to greater things, a renaissance, a history repeated, but unfortunately that particular film reel had run its credits a long time ago.

    The festival came and went in one year only. Zwelethu Radebe, a director at Velocity Films who studied at AFDA, the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, made his debut as a director at the festival, when he presented his documentary Memoirs of Injustice.

    “The main focus was that I wanted to know what the involvement of Indian people was during apartheid,” he says. Radebe remembers how nervous he was that evening, worried about how the people of Fordsburg would react to the film. Memoirs of Injustice tackled old Fordsburg with its entertainment, gangsters and political activism. It held up a mirror to local personalities, from Fordsburg’s oldest barber to surviving family owner of the landmark fish and chips shop, Solly’s Corner.

    Despite Radebe’s fears, the screening went well. Radebe recalls a man approaching him in the bathroom and saying, “What a great film!” Radebe says he was touched that this man went out of his way to deliver a compliment, even if it was in the bathroom.

    Now our old king, the Majestic, no longer houses movies, but has been a star in a movie of its own. In 2013, it was used as a set for Material, starring comedian Riaad Moosa as a young man who defies his conservative father’s wishes and takes to the stage as a stand-up comic.

    The congregation sing along. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    The congregation sing along. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    “Fordsburg was always the only choice,” says Ronnie Apteker, entrepreneur and producer of Material. “There were of course many challenges. Making an indie film on a tight budget means we did not have a lot to spend on locations, so we had to make sure that we really stretched our resources.”

    Apteker, who grew up in Johannesburg, remembers the heyday of Fordsburg well, and feels the movie captures its unique spirit. “Material indirectly paid a big tribute to Fordsburg and its soul,” he says. “I know that the Majestic is another source of great pride to the people of Fordsburg. Movies are not screened there anymore, but I think it is due for a revival. We shot the closing scenes of Material in the Majestic and it was a very beautiful affair.” One can almost see the Majestic take a bow at the compliment.

    Cinema spaces in Johannesburg were places of societal delight, but their death would be quick and painless. Mohamed, owner of the Kentucky Milk Bar, agrees that it was shopping malls that killed the cinemas in Fordsburg. “When you go to a Ster Kinekor or Nu metro you’re spoilt for choice. In Fordsburg, there’s no variety for people, there’s no security. You walk into a mall you’re secure, you leave your car, you’re not worried about your vehicle, you can walk in and there’s ice-cream, there’s restaurants, you can do shopping.”

    With a slow regression into poverty and crime, Fordsburg would lose its glitter, and the glamour represented by the Majestic, the Avalon, and the Lyric, the icons of its culture as a haven for cinema. “Fordsburg was at the cutting edge of black urban culture,” reads the programme for the Fordburg Film Festival in 2011.

    Pastor Mark Bismark lays his hand on a young ladies head as a blessing for her exams. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    Pastor Mark Bismark lays his hand on a young woman’s head as a blessing for her exams. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

    But the crowning jewel, the Majestic, lives on, with song and in spirit, every Sunday, as Jabulani Ministeries fills it with worship, praise, and the cries of amen.

    At the end of the service Pastor Mark calls the young people to the stage and places his hand on each head, wishing them God’s blessings for the end of year exams.

    “We don’t want to lose this place,” the pastor slowly reflects. “If we were not using it, who would be?”

    For every Sunday at least, the Majestic remains an old king with a kind heart and open arms.