by Reuven Blignault
Just a stone’s throw away from affluent suburbs such as Parktown and Auckland Park in Johannesburg is a “poor white” suburb called Fietas. Over 40 years ago, the government forcibly removed many families to make way for a low-cost residential white suburb. These days Fietas is associated with poverty, drugs, prostitution and crime. At the same time, it is home to many families trying to happily survive in often desperate surroundings.
An old church stands on 8th Street in Vrededorp, an area informally known as Fietas. Inside is the smell of pap and vegetables steaming at high heat and the sound of knives and forks on old porcelain plates. It is lunchtime at the Jan Hofmeyr community centre. The centre provides social support for members of the Fietas community, which is home to working-class and poor white families.
Until its destruction under the Group Areas Act in the mid-1970s, Fietas was a colourful, vibrant working-class society, with many wealthy and up-and-coming Indian business owners making a profit there. Fietas was also home to African, coloured, Malay and Chinese people, of all faiths, workers and professionals, shopkeepers and artisans.
Fietas boasted mosques, churches, bioscopes, shebeens, schools, sports grounds, corner cafés, dance halls and bazaars. Fietas was an integrated community, not unlike District Six and Sophiatown, and before similar political changes, it became home to both rich and poor.
The area was cleared of “non-whites” by the apartheid government in the 1970s. Many homes were bulldozed and housing for white people was built on some of the land, with large parts remaining undeveloped. The majority of those forcefully removed were moved to Lenasia and Soweto between 1956 and 1977. This led to fierce resistance that continued into the 1980s.
“Fietas has always been a poor area,” said Alan Jeeves, “but, more particularly, a poor white area that still sees segregations that were designed under the apartheid government today.
“If you look at Vrededorp, the area just above 8th Street, you will see that most of the population is white. But the more you head south, towards 14th Street, you will see a change in demographics.” Jeeves is retired as a history lecturer at Wits University and has published several books, including one about Fietas.
The Jan Hofmeyr community centre (JHCC) diner is housed in the 1895 church on 8th Street. The centre helps the poor and homeless in the Fietas community by providing everything from food to drug counselling.
As one of the only permanent support centres in the area, the JHCC is a hub for people with social and family issues all seeking to better their situations.
Linda Pretorius, 48, used to come to this church as a child. She is now a manager at the Jan Hofmeyr community centre.
“There used to be weddings, christenings and a strong community atmosphere,” said Pretorius. “In the ’70s, we used to play in the streets and we never felt threatened from crime. The streets were beautiful and the buildings were new, yes we were poor, but that did not seem to matter because we lived a happy life.”
Pretorius suggested that political shifts and tensions led to a downfall in her community. “When the late ’80s came around, there was a housing crisis. Many poor people were moved nearby, and many were criminals. People could get drugs more easily and we saw a lot of children in broken homes because of this.”
Originally from the Cape, Pretorius’s family came up to the City of Gold to seek a better life. They managed to find stable employment and a liveable wage.
“This neighbourhood has always had its problems. Drugs, prostitution, crime, these are all reasons why you would not want to live here,” said Pretorius.
Pretorius wanted to get out. She got married and found a stable job. She had a son, who now lives in Fietas and works at a nearby petrol station.
When her son was a teenager, Pretorius moved back to the Cape, leaving him behind. She acknowledges that this was a mistake. A year later her son was hooked on heroin. Ten years ago, in a message she said came directly from the Lord, Pretorius moved back to Johannesburg to help her son. She found solitude in the JHCC and entered her son into a support group.
When her son “became clean”, she decided to stay at the centre and volunteer any way that she could.
She gave up her well-paying job and volunteered at the JHCC, where she has been working ever since.
“It was God who spoke to me one night after praying intensely. He told me to go back to my roots and give back to my old community as they were in need,” said Pretorius.
“I feel as if I can change just one person’s life in my time here, then I have done my job and I have pleased the Lord.”
Other families in Fietas are not as fortunate to share the relief that Pretorius had.
Jakes Jacobs, a manager at the JHCC, explained the kinds of support that the centre gives to families in the area.
“There are many young girls who are sex workers. This is either because they need the money to support their family or, most likely, because they need the money for drugs.
“We try our best to support them by providing counselling but, more importantly, to provide them with a way that they can develop skills to find proper work,” said Jacobs.
Joblessness is a visible problem in the area. At the local corner store, there are groups of young, unemployed white men sitting outside, begging for money from those who have bought bread, cigarettes or cellphone air time.
“There is no work for me,” said 22-year-old Chris Swart. “I am very desperate, and the only way I can get money or food is to ask people for it.”
Swart went to the local primary school, Laerskool Piet Van Vuuren, but that was as far as he went.
“My parents couldn’t afford for me to go to high school. My father is a motor mechanic, so I helped him when I finished grade seven.”
Swart says his father was killed in 2010 during a robbery at their home. “My mother didn’t have enough money to keep his business going,” said Swart. “My mother is a nurse at Helen Joseph Hospital and doesn’t earn much.”
“After my father died I got very depressed, so I turned to drugs to help. I have no money, so I have to beg for it. So, yes, I do take drugs, but I am trying to get help … it is hard.
“I go to a drug support group at the JISS centre in Mayfair a few times a week, the people at the Jan Hofmeyr centre said I must go there,” said Swart. “They said I needed a doctor who could help me and there are free psychologists there.”
There are people in the community who share Swart’s story and that is where the JHCC seeks to help.
But there are also families who are just looking to live in a happy home.
Willem Smit, 43, lives with his family near 8th Street in Fietas.
Smit used to work in an electronics factory as an armature winder. He was laid off after the company collapsed in 2007. He and his family used to live in Newlands but, due to a lack of income, had to move somewhere more affordable.
Smit and his family live in a building called Wilgehof. The building is one of the many low-cost housing projects started in the 1970s, during the rezoning of the area to accommodate working-class white families. As the breadwinner of the family, his wife works as an administrative assistant in town. They have two children, aged five and six.
“I have never lived in the best of areas, but I’m very worried about my kids growing up here,” said Smit. “I’ve seen young school kids sitting on the corner taking drugs in broad daylight. They think it is cool … And if my sons grow up here in that environment then that is not good. We do make use of the Jan Hofmeyr community centre, my children go to the crèche there and, when times are tough, like when we need food, they provide it for us.”
Support groups nearby, such as Islamic Relief in Mayfair, share the same ideas as to why the community of Fietas and neighbouring areas have an ongoing poverty crisis.
“There is definitely a need for aid for those that live in Mayfair and Fietas,” said Abdullah Vawda, coordination manager of Islamic Relief. “But what we are finding in the area is a culture that wishes to remain poor, as aid is merely provided to them. They do not feel the need to find proper work as they make more money begging than they would at work.”
“Even though we want to do God’s will by feeding the community, we can only do so much,” said Jacobs.
“If we provide absolutely everything for them, then there would literally be no hope of the young population in Fietas finding work.”
Community centres in Fietas and Mayfair provide much-needed support for the community as a whole but do not merely feed the community; they encourage members of the community to find proper employment.
The JHCC survives on food donations from many food markets around Johannesburg. The food arrives early in the morning and is prepared for the lunch hour by a group of volunteers.
Jane Reid, 73, a cook at the JHCC, makes pap and vegetables for those in the centre. She explained that she loves doing her job. “I grew up in Fietas, so I feel that it is my responsibility to give back to my community like this.
“My mother was a domestic worker for a family in Parktown, but we lived here in Fietas,” said Reid. “I didn’t have a job for many years, and my children were starving. We used to come to the JHCC to get food every day and after a while I stayed working here at Jan Hofmeyr.”
The centre prepares food that is delivered every day at 8am by benefactors such as Food Lovers’ Market. After taking the delivery, a team of eight people work rigorously to prepare food for lunch time. After the doors close at 1pm, the team immediately starts to prepare food for the dinner time rush.
The Jan Hofmeyr community centre estimates it has helped over 200 families in Fietas and neighbouring areas by providing support for them since the year 2000.
Counsellor for Ward 58, Barry Jordaan Musesi, is optimistic that progress will be made to better the lives of those who live there.
“The community was highly upset with my predecessor. They accused him of leading Fietas to a slum status similar to Hillbrow or Malvern,” said Musesi. “I hope that I will make a difference in these people’s lives by addressing their concerns.”
“The residents have raised concerns about illegal businesses, panel beaters, slums and the need for mass housing. After many complaints came up of residents saying that the place is dirty and unsafe, we reported this to the City of Jo’burg. Things have since progressed with additional Pikitup cleaners and more police patrolling,” Musesi told Islamic radio station Cii Broadcasting in a separate interview.
Musesi agreed that police presence had not lived up to the community’s expectations in relation to crime prevention. “Crime in Fietas is everywhere and the police are struggling to cope. In the coming few months I will further my discussions with the mayor to discuss better policing, especially during the festive season.”
Even though Musesi says the conditions of Fietas will improve, the opinions of locals such as Linda Pretorius suggest Fietas will not change any time soon. “We can only do so much for this community, and I wish we had a magic wand that could make life better for everybody, but we try to make a difference one person at a time.
“By helping just one person, and making a difference in their life, even just by giving them a loaf of bread, is enough to inspire them to say that there is more to this life, and especially for the children, it gives them hope.”
Pretorius hopes that all South Africans can be inspired by the work of centres like Jan Hofmeyr Community Services, that communities like Fietas can shrug off their negative stereotypes and that the families of Fietas can take the right path, changing for the better.