WATCH | Spear of ganja nation: Klaas Mhlongo is down but far from out of it
Legendary Rasta Klaas Mhlongo has fallen on hard times. But as long as he has his faith, his dagga and his spear he is happy, writes Sean Christie
Klaas Mhlongo had a life, back when he lived in Alexandra, in the stone house he built with his own hands. He was Ganjaman. He was Lebake. He was Rasta Gabra Mikael. Wherever he walked between London Road and Marlboro, shouts would follow: “Hey Rasta!” “Hey fire!” He was known further afield, too. US rapper Talib Kweli gave Mhlongo his number, told him to call if ever he needed anything. In the music video for Les Nubians’ Temperature Rising, around the three-minute mark, there he is, with his spear and his kutchie pipe.
“I am nobody, but I am known, big brother.” Mhlongo talks easily about the past, but yesterday, today and tomorrow are tougher subjects. “I am down, big brother, truly.” Now staying in the centre of Johannesburg, he sleeps with his back to the Albertina Sisulu overpass most nights, in the Jeppestown railway reserve. When the temperature plunges he climbs into one of the wrecked cars outside Thiba Turbo Services in New Doornfontein.
Mhlongo is way down, but seemingly immunised against dejection. “Jah God has blessed me with visions of this life, high and low. I have seen things most would not believe.” He prays often and so rapidly it is difficult to pick where conversation pauses, and devotions begin. “… Thy anoint my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever more. Jah, Ras-ta-far-i. Give thanks brother. Good to see you.”
Mhlongo is of average height, and slender. His carotids stand out on his neck and disappear into a patchy beard. He has the faintest marionette lines, a neat microcrease around his seldom-still mouth. His hair is pulled into clumps — the beginnings of new dreadlocks. “I cut them to observe a brother’s death.”
He is in a good mood. “Can we just take a moment, big brother. What we are doing today is a great thing. For me to touch my spear again, it’s beautiful.”
We are going to Alexandra to find the spear he carried every sabbath for many years, after experiencing visions in which he saw himself outfitted in this way. Material reclamation is perhaps the smaller part of it, as what Mhlongo really wants is recognition.
“Do you know that I inspired the EFF? It is my spear you see on their berets and T-shirts.” He tells incredible stories and makes grand claims: he believes he provided Julius Malema with the material inspiration — “the style” — of his political party.
Mhlongo describes a May 2011 community meeting in Stjwetla, an informal settlement on the Jukskei, at which Malema was present, campaigning ahead of municipal elections. At this time Malema was the leader of the ANC Youth League, a radical and divisive figure in the ruling party whose loud calls for the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of white-owned land had won him international prominence and a significant following in SA.
Jah God has blessed me with visions of this life, high and low. I have seen things most would not believe
“They put a big tent on the site of the Zimbabwean Vapositori [apostolic] church. When I came there, I was wearing a red Selassie T-shirt. I had my spear, and some branches of fresh ganja in my head-wrap.”
In news footage from the meeting you can hear the cries go up — “Yes Rasta!”, “Yes fire!” — and Malema calling for order, asking Mhlongo to please sit down.
“I said, ‘I just want to speak,’ and Malema said, ‘Speak, chief’, and at that point I spoke to the people. I said, ‘These politicians are hypocrites, they won’t give you the houses they are promising. You must do as I did — take land, and build yourself a house.’ ”
Malema was expelled from the ANC a year later, and in 2013 founded the EFF. In policy and utterance, the party was soon supporting the occupation of land by those wanting their own homes.
“Just as I recommended,” says Mhlongo. Red — “the colour of my T-shirt” — was the colour Malema chose for his party, and a poised spear clutched in a fist, “with a great blade, just like mine”, became the centrepiece of the party’s logo.
Beyond these parallels Mhlongo can offer no proof for his claims, but he believes that if his story were known — “if people could see me as I appeared that day” — their truth would be self-evident, and Malema would duly acknowledge his contribution.
“I do not believe he meant to bypass me, it is just unfortunate I was out when he came to my home that day.” Former neighbours attest to the fact that Malema and his security detail had indeed come looking for Mhlongo, after the Stjwetla meeting. A compelling, if circumstantial, detail.
Arriving in Alexandra we park in the yard of an unemployed painter and enter the labyrinth that the river bank part of extension 7 has become. The passages are so narrow that pedestrians must turn to pass. Grey and black water flows down to the river in open channels. Overlaid snatches of Tsonga, Chichewa, Ndebele, Shona, Swahili and Nyanja are this community’s sonic signature.
When I visited in 2010, Mhlongo’s home stood on its own in a stand of thorn trees, solidly built from Jukskei rocks, with hardened river mud extruding like biscuit filler. The nearest structure, 100m away, was the Rasta tabernacle, topped with a cone of corrugated iron and a long, uneven flagpole.
“Rastas settled this area in 1985, but further up the river, near Roosevelt bridge. We used to play hide and seek there as children. It was still nature. The water was clean, we used to swim, and the Rastas would cook for us. Also the trees, there were a lot of trees. When Mandela became president, new people arrived and cut them down.”
The scrapping of racist apartheid settlement laws in 1994 caused township populations to explode. In a four-page testimony handed to me in 2010, Santo Mbongiseni, one of the original Rasta settlers, laments the invasion of “our RASTA VILLAGE … by squatters from de nearby township”.
These politicians are hypocrites, they won’t give you the houses they are promising. You must do as I did
In 1996, the Sandton sheriff ordered both “de squatters and de Rastas to move, but whereas de squatters were relocated to Diepsloot, we explained to de authorities about our culture for which we had been practising in de area, and we were promised houses in de same place provided dat we make way for development”.
The community’s homes and gardens were razed in 1998, 2000 and 2002, and each time the Rastas moved closer “to de river Jukskei”, where they found that “de living was extremely unbearable: children suffered colds in winter and dangerous mosquitoes in summer”. The long-promised houses never materialised. Mhlongo had built his own home in 2000, urging his fellow Rastas to do the same.
“I said, ‘This government has no love for Rasta, let us rather build a village of stone houses.’ Big brother, they thought I was crazy. I alone built a house.” By 2014 extension 7 was rapidly densifying, and not without Mhlongo’s agency.
“In the 2000s, the City of Joburg started the Alexander renewal project, for which R1.6bn was given. It was administered by ANC people, who were supposed to build houses and bring services, but instead they dumped people here and allowed the subdivision of properties. Undocumented people came to me desperate for a place to stay. What could I do? I gave away parts of my land.”
With increasing anonymity came crime. A well-known Rasta was stabbed to death in a fight over electricity. The community — “about 30 of us” — largely dispersed. In 2018, Mhlongo, by then married to “sister” Meskerem and father to a six-year-old, sold his house to a Zion Christian Church minister, and borrowed some money, handing over his famous spear as collateral.
“That moruti has been holding my spear for three years now,” he says, his former home now in view. The moruti is out but soon returns with a half-eaten pear in one hand, white core glistening in the sunless lane. “You are lucky. When I stepped out I took the first bite of this fruit that I am now finishing.”
Mhlongo hands over R300. “This isn’t everything you owe, but I will give it to you.” The head of the spear the moruti brings out is rusty, the tip doubled over.
“I thought I must have this thing for myself. When there is trouble at night I come out with this and the tsotsis run. But it is your spear, I am pleased.” There is also a plastic packet containing Mhlongo’s Bible and his mother’s book of Sotho psalms. “She would sing to comfort herself,” he says, walking ahead in the lanes.
His mother was from Trompsburg in the eastern Free State. “Actually she grew up in the black location, call Madikgetla”. His father was a Zulu. The two met in Alexandra in 1974, and Mhlongo was born in ’76, the year of the student riots.
“I know everything about this place. It is a boring place for me now,” he says, putting the spear in my hand after overhearing some youths say they wish to rob me and slit my throat. Pedestrians push their backs against the lane walls as we pass.
The spear’s shaft is a length of rebar about 1.5m long, wrapped with old woollen yarn that is now hanging off in places. The blade, cartoonish in size, screws into a large cylindrical nut welded to the top end. It still gives, with a squeak.
“Alex is dangerous these days, that’s why I moved, but you are walking with a general, nobody will touch us.” On Shibobo Street we enter a metalworkers’ yard, Mhlongo’s hand rushing between the palms of the young men who work there. He summons an angle grinder with a new sanding disc and gets to work on the blade, sparks showering the hard-packed ground. “Here comes the glimp,” he says, as the discoloured metal grinds off.
The finished article is frightening perfection, the edges so sharp Mhlongo prefers to unscrew the blade from the shaft and wrap it in cloth.
“We don’t want to touch someone by mistake,” he says, leading us back to the river. Beyond the Stjwetla pedestrian bridge the river bank is a delta of trash heaps through which pedestrians walk on planks. We pass the tabernacle, windows cracked, the breeze-block walls covered by moth vine, and arrive at an unlikely garden, concealed by tall jimson weeds with their coronavirus-shaped seed pods.
Beyond this windbreak are rows of marijuana plants and lettuces green and bright with droplets of water. On a plastic chair a slender man with graying dreadlocks snips with a small pair of scissors at a dry pile of marijuana.
That woman is my saviour,big brother. I feel I have failed her and my son,yet still she supports me
“My elder,” shouts Mhlongo.
“Hey Ganjaman, where are you now?” It is Mbongiseni, better known as Despar, the oldest of the Alex Rastas.
“I’m staying somewhere else,” says Mhlongo. Something stirs in the garden, a young man with an open face and bleary eyes, sitting on the ground. Speaking quietly, always a little amused at what he is about to say, Mbongiseni tells how, a week ago, he left his helper working on a plastic bag of marijuana heads, and an hour later the kid was asleep in the garden. Mbongiseni made to carry the bag indoors but bumped into two police officers, who threatened arrest. “I had to pay them.”
Mhlongo, a well-known dagga seller “back when you did not need chemicals and equipment”, recalls his old strategy of wrapping large branches of marijuana in with his turban each day. “The police thought I was mad, and left me alone. Everyone did. It was only when I was accepted by sister Meskerem that people saw something else.”
From his old Karrimor backpack Mhlongo draws out three balls of bright yarn — red, green and yellow — and shows the youngster how to rewrap the shaft of the spear. Reaching back in he retrieves a 50cm piece of bamboo, the interior nodes chipped out, the short-cropped branches sticking out like antennae.
“This is my sceptre. We must carry one, you know. Moses was given a stick by Jah.” It is also the draw stem of his new coconut chalice, which, when assembled, looks more like a thing still living than a smoking device.
Mbongiseni giggles as Mhlongo presses a bud into the chillum. “He smokes, this one.” Mhlongo prays, fires the sacrament, disappears in smoke. Late afternoon sun streams through the plants. Across the river in Stjwetla, a band plays Leonard Dembo’s Chiteke. The youngster turns the shaft, winches up the last of the red yarn, and the spear has been renewed. Mhlongo holds it aloft.
We have one stop left to make — Tembisa, where Meskerem and their son are staying with her mother. We turn in at Birch Mall, and find his son playing out on the road. The little boy smiles, he has his mother’s extraordinary eyes. Two stout dreadlocks run the length of his scalp, like bridge arches.
Meskerem comes out wearing a pink dressing gown. “It’s cold,” she says, offering tea. There is no electricity. She has sent someone to the other side of the township to retrieve Mhlongo’s sabbath robe and prayer drum from her father’s house, but there is no sign of him, so we drive.
It is dark, the traffic isn’t moving. The driver of a taxi climbs out carrying a sawn-off golf club, and stands chest-to-chest in the street with an irate man, who is subsequently tackled into oncoming traffic by others from the taxi. The fallen man’s head is savagely stomped on in front of stopped cars.
Finally, after two hours, we arrive, and Meskerem goes in. “That woman is my saviour, big brother. I feel I have failed her and my son, yet still she supports me.”
Jeppestown is bustling when we return, pulling up near the railway bridge. Mhlongo is euphoric. “We did something today. My wife was saying she can see how I am trying, she’s proud of me.”
He leaves the spear and his white robe but takes the drum to accompany his underpass prayers. Tomorrow he will walk the streets of Alex as Ganjaman. Tonight, though, he feels loved.