The ghosts of Fietas's vibrant past still linger on the streets of this Jozi 'slum'

Once renowned for its shops and bustling street life, this neighbourhood is now regarded as urban slum. But is poverty and neglect all there is to it? Mila de Villiers finds out

03 November 2019 - 00:00 By Mila de villiers
Johan van der Merwe poses for a portrait with his Yorkie, Amy, outside his home in Fietas, Johannesburg.
Johan van der Merwe poses for a portrait with his Yorkie, Amy, outside his home in Fietas, Johannesburg.
Image: Alaister Russell

White, grimy, hollow-eyed inhabitants of all ages, leaning heavily against wire-mesh gates, abandoned dreams, sagging, unwashed curtains, drugs and brannas for the pain, paint peeling off red-brick walls, tattered furniture on concrete stoeps, car wrecks on blocks, rusted metal window frames, pit bulls chained to makeshift beams ...

Mention "Fietas" and the above imagery most likely comes to mind. But is this tight-knit community situated on the north-western side of Johannesburg purely home to the armblanke?

Flanked by Joburg's iconic Sentech Tower, Fietas has increasingly captured the attention and imagination of South Africans - from zef-rap-rave band Die Antwoord's music video of Baby's on Fire to local filmmaker Ben-Jay Crossman's short-film serial Streets of Fietas.

Yo-Landi Vi$$er and Ninja's video represents distorted, exaggerated preconceived notions attached to SA's poor whites: kitsch Christian curios, suggestions of incest, neck tattoos, peroxided hair, ill-fitting clothes, revving motorbikes.

WATCH | The music video for Die Antwoord's track 'Baby's On Fire'

Crossman depicted the community and its various inhabitants in its full gritty authenticity. A vibrant, multicultural society in its time, Fietas has come to be regarded as an urban slum.

Its well-known 14th Street, once renowned for its outfitters and bustling street life, now features derelict houses, rubble, peeling walls, barbed wire. One building in particular stands out: not owing to its air of neglect, but rather the opposite.

The Memory in Action Museum, situated in the bottom storey of curator Salma Patel's house, serves as a tangible reminder of what Fietas once was. A former journalist and lifelong resident of Fietas, Salma currently offers guided tours of her neighbourhood.

Late photographer David Goldblatt's series on the community, taken in 1976 and 1977 (described by Goldblatt as "the last days of Fietas") is on permanent display. Handwritten letters, newspaper clippings, books, clothes, and maps further add to the conservation of the memory of this "mad, mad place".

Salma Patel, curator of the Fietas Museum.
Salma Patel, curator of the Fietas Museum.
Image: Alaister Russell

Yes, those are Salma's words. And no, she wouldn't want to live anywhere else. "Do you know how bored I'd be in the suburbs?"

Though regarded as a multicultural society, the area was both divided according to spatial planning and severely affected by the Group Areas Act. From the mid-'70s, its "non-white" inhabitants were forcibly removed. Homes were demolished. Buildings were destroyed. The society dispersed.

Forty-odd years later this once-dynamic community has stagnated. To date, no land claims have been settled, which explains the numerous neglected and empty plots found around the area.

Still home to a mix of South Africans, a handful pride themselves on the heyday of their neighbourhood's history. For others, the opposite is true.

The house across the road from Salma's belongs to her buddy Sewes. She's concerned that he's unemployed and drinks too much. A prominent "FOR SALE" sign is displayed on the simple dwelling with a corrugated-iron roof, faded, peeling walls and stoep secured with burglar bars.

Still home to a mix of South Africans, a handful pride themselves on the heyday of their neighbourhood's history. For others, the opposite is true

A frail elderly woman approaches the house. She amiably introduces herself as Sewes's mum. Her first husband - Sewes's dad - passed away when she was in her early 20s. She's lived in Fietas for over 40 years.

She fears for her granddaughters' safety at night. She declines to share her surname. Her second husband abuses her. Her hands tremble as she grasps her neck, emulating strangulation.

"Ek kry te skaam." ("I'm too ashamed.")

Sewes doesn't appear to be home. She wishes us Godspeed and slowly makes her way down the road.

Though no longer racially divided, the formerly designated "white" district's infrastructure is noticeably smarter than its surrounding neighbourhoods.

This is made obvious through a colourful, well-kept house in a side-street leading off the forbiddingly named De La Rey Street. Makeshift hair salons, spaza stores, shebeens and street-vendor stalls can now be found along this broad, pot-holed street once reserved for white inhabitants.

The bright blue facade of curator Salma Patel's house on 14th Street serves as a tangible reminder of what Fietas once was.
The bright blue facade of curator Salma Patel's house on 14th Street serves as a tangible reminder of what Fietas once was.
Image: Alaister Russell

The eye-catching house - one of three duplexes - belongs to Johan van der Merwe. Sixty-five years old. Unemployed. Recently widowed. Seated on a stool in the garden which he and his late wife tended.

The rich hues of his flowerbeds and vivid blue of his house in stark contrast to the dilapidated buildings across the cobblestone street. His property secured by green palisades. The front door is open, offering a glimpse of a dresser adorned with gilded frames and a tidy kitchen.

He takes slow, purposeful drags of his cigarette. Introduces the silky-haired Yorkie at his feet as Amy. She's two. She shares his bed with him. She lives off steak. He smiles.

Entering 14th Street from Krause Street - the road next to the Brixton cemetery - the stench of ammonia permeates the air.

A dead dog, its decomposing body teeming with maggots, forms part of the detritus of a desolate patch of grass and dirt beside a squalid house with low, crumbling, konka-scorched walls

Displaced people from neighbouring countries, forced to call the hovels lining the sidewalks of the street "home", nod silently in passing. An imposing mosque overlooks this grim site.

A dead dog, its decomposing body teeming with maggots, forms part of the detritus of a desolate patch of grass and dirt beside a squalid house with low, crumbling, konka-scorched walls.

The skyline of Johannesburg's CBD looms in the background.

Salma notices Sewes walking down the road, alongside a middle-aged black man. They appear to be in deep conversation.

Sewes, dressed in blue workers' trousers, a white T-shirt and a worn pair of plakkies, doesn't seem to register Salma's "hello". Upon realising who's greeting him, his face - its redness symptomatic of his years of alcohol abuse - lights up. He waves and the two men carry on their way.

Poor? Yes. White? Yes.

And yet decidedly not "zef so fresh".

Take that, all who believe that Fietas and its inhabitants are nothing more than a parody of a bygone time. For its past is still deeply embedded in its present.


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