Lerato: A teenage girl in the room she shares with other orphaned girls at SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth)in Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. Pic: Julia Seister
Lerato: A teenage girl in the room she shares with other orphaned girls at SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth), a youth center looking after disadvantaged children and orphans in Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. pic/copy right: Julia Sestier

So It is True…

I thought it was  my little bit of a sick joke, journalists are famous for those. And for that reason I sometimes think I could be a comedian, people always laugh when I tell the truth.  I must have verbalized my thoughts out loud in an unguarded moment.  Because I lie awake at night sometimes, trying to make sense of it, to find out what is really going on in Kliptown, because something did not sit well with me Though truth be told, lately I must admit that I find it is the mosquitoes and various other as yet indefinable bugs and rattling rats that keep me up and night waiting for the soothing rays for the morning sun.  Until this one day, while on volunteer duty cleaning-out the learning center at the Kliptown Soweto Youth Center (SKY) that I found my first piece of evidence to add to a very large jigsaw puzzle.  A copy of a newspaper article, written to my calculated estimation in 2001/2, as there was no date on the page.  In its “development” Kliptown was always meant to be a tourist attraction. It’s a place “designed” for the tourist market.  In other words, the current seemingly dysfunctional state of Kliptown was “planned” to be that way.   When developers, Blue IQ and JDA (Johannesburg Development Agency) were planning the development of Kliptown, their aim was to show case the past, present and future of the historic town, and keeping old Kliptown as it was when the freedom charter was signed in 1955, was part of the plan. Why? Tourists would not really have an interest in Kliptown because had old Kliptown been developed  in the style of the RDP’s  houses we see today  there would be nothing extraordinary to see other than the Walter siSulu Square of Dedication, with a flame long-gone out, which was meant to burn 24-7 – 365 days a year.  Other than that Kliptown would look much like the rest of communities in the greater South West Township (SOWETO) region, more especially the famed A – list tourist attraction Vilakazi Street in Phefeni, Orlando West.    That is where  the first black  democratic  president, Nelson Mandela  bought his first property which he shared with his first wife Evelyn and later after a divorce, with his second wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela and their children, before being shipped to  Robben Island for nearly three decades.  Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world in which two noble peace prize laureates, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived.  No one is as famous worldwide as these two men in South Africa. So Kliptown had to offer something different – but within a controlled environment to attract tourist/ visitors called “The Open Air Museum/Ecomuseums” .  Ergo. I have retyped the article below, verbatim.

The children: who entertain tourists on the other side of the tracks
The children: who entertain tourists on the other side of the tracks. pic copyright: Julia Sestier

“Kliptown Ready to become a Tourist Attraction

“Kliptown has made a start in becoming a major tourist destination in the city. Already in time for the World Summit (World Summit on Sustainable development 2002), a visitor’s center has been established to showcase the past, present and future of this historical Soweto area.  There is a hive of activity with artists and crafters on the premises showcasing their talents. A video and CD are available showing the future developments of the area. A model of the new Freedom Square of Dedication which will be erected in Kliptown to commemorate the launch adoption of the freedom charter is also on show. The formerly neglected area of Kliptown and its surrounds will soon become a mixed-use area of residential, commercial and retail with a new freedom square as the centerpiece. The area is expected to be revitalized with 6 900 new housing units, shopping, tourism and markets. The redevelopment of Kliptown and the development of Freedom – the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Soweto were recently added as a Blue IQ project.  The area is of historical importance because it was where the freedom Charter was signed.  Thousands of people have been living in squatter camps in surrounding areas, says Kliptown project manager, Aubrey Manganye. “ We have planned a holistic approach which entails several different aspects.” He says. One is the environmental development of the area. A major part of this is the clean-up of the Klipspruit River which is severely polluted. An environmental consultant was brought in to investigate the problems of river, and its environment. “The river will form an important part of the development and we plan campaigns to educate the public on keeping the river in a pristine condition. “ He says. The Economic aspect of the project is also vitally important. “We have to find ways to create employment for residents and we are looking at the establishment of markets for this. The Metropolitan Trading Company is assisting us in this regard.” He says. A consultant is currently doing an economic impact assessment in the area to establish the economic needs status quo and growth potential. Infrastructural services designed for the housing component and the upgrading of existing services have started. The first phase will see the construction of 1200 units. A community Development Forum has been established to represent community needs on the entire project. “Ultimately the project belongs to the people of Kliptown and we will aspire to improve the lives of the people of Kliptown and therefore it is essential that their needs are taken into account guided by their wishes” he says.”

The Future is now

We know what the future is – we can see it over the railway tracks.  The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication (WSSD) with its Monument greets you in the morning with its grey walls. A tourist trip to the  Soweto Hotel , revealed how architects designed  building , – and the hotels  boardroom so that – the small Kliptown valley servers as a beautiful (living painting it has nice panoramic views of Kliptown. The hotel offers three to four star living for travellers, with interior township designs –romanticizing the ghetto, poverty. On the other side of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication are  new housing units, flying the new  flags of present day South Africa; White DStv Satellite Dishes, whose window frames are painted with soft pastel colours speaks  of the future, which  those who were signing the Freedom Charter could have never imagined possible at the time.

The Real Truman Show.

But Old Kliptown, remains unchanged. No new roads, no electricity, communal portable toilets, on the other side of the future of Kliptown, meaning the past. I’ve gone to tourist attraction spots, all around the country, of course I have not visited all of them but it’s always been clear that what was happening in the tourism compounds was part of a show. Not how South Africans live today. But in Kliptown it’s another story. It is real. This thought I’ dismissed at first and quickly chided myself for getting lost in the  images of  The Truman Show: a movie which when I first saw it was close to a psychological thriller though it was sold as a comedy, staring Hollywood’s funny man, Jim Carey. I’m grateful that there is a movie I can use as a form of reference – because it will help you see what I see and help me feel less crazy because – someone has already thought about this and done it.

The Truman Show is a 1998 American satirical social science fiction film directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol. The cast includes Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, as well as Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Ed Harris and Natascha McElhone. The film chronicles the life of a man who is initially unaware that he is living in a constructed reality television show, broadcast around the clock to billions of people across the globe. Truman becomes suspicious of his perceived reality and embarks on a quest to discover the truth about his life.

In the movie – Truman – the main character is living in a live 24 hour 365 days reality show or commercial. Everybody but Truman is “playing a role” or acting. They go “Home” outside the walls of the studio which Truman is oblivious of.  Everyone including his parents, his best friend, his wife , work colleagues are all following the script, Truman is the only one being real, as in being himself, everyone else clocks in and out of duty and goes back home afterwards. His home, his house is all a commercial, with advertisers placing their brands for breakfast in the kitchen, everything he uses touches is part of a prop in the “show” of his life. Think Big Brother. Watching that film made me feel  a little claustrophobic,  and looking back to this article I feel even more claustrophobic because I’m in some kind of a show – a tourist attraction, while I was blissfully unaware, thinking I was doing my “bit” for the community, making a ‘difference”.  This article confirms my suspicions – at least in some small way – along with other documents which I found – it’s all very  “legitimate’ everyone knows what to say, there are tour guides for Kliptown, well-spoken young men  who can recite the history of Kliptown in their sleep. They are always here, ready to receive tourists. Which was another thing I couldn’t understand why Kliptown?  Foreign visitors would arrive, and there would always be someone to escort them along the Kliptown trail. The speech goes on about the communal taps, communal toilets, lack of water, electricity, the polluted Klipspruit River (which for WSSD see above) was meant to be kept in pristine conditions. About the history and famous politicians who lived here including Ellen Khuzwayo – whose book – Call me a woman is still on my list of to finish reading books. They come back to the center, which feeds little children, who live in these substandard conditions, who despite their poverty, rise above it and put on a splendid performance.   How does one pose the question, how does one frame it, in the face of real struggle, unpretentious a struggle.  Who does one ask, the question – if the poverty in Kliptown, the lack of development, is orchestrated, an organic design which runs itself without much interference from anyone.  In one of the documents I found addressed to the Kliptown Market Community on the 7th of May 2003 the Johannesburg Development Agency states three agreements:

  1.  A list of potential beneficiaries obtained from the housing project manager (Aubrey Manganye) within the Kliptown Market Community will be screened.
  2. And those who qualify for the housing subsidy as per the Gauteng Department of Housing Criteria will be allocated with housing within phase one of housing development per the housing program of action.
  3. Those who do not qualify will be allocated with alternative accommodation if they occupy a land for more than six months as per the policy on illegal occupation of land.

The letter concludes with a promise by the JDA to fulfill its legal obligations by ensuring that the Kliptown Market community has access to basic services.  Of which Kliptown has, only the basics: water and portable toilets.  In a twisted way, Kliptown has upheld at least one principle of the Freedom Charter – All the land shall belong to those who work in it.

And people in Kliptown, especially the women labour much, doing domestic work which involves an endless cycle of back-breaking hard labour: cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, cleaning and more cooking and washing clothes.  Labour which is made even harder by the lack of electricity (a day of cooking may resemble a scene in traditional rural homes of old were fetching wood and water to do at these domestic chores was part of the daily routine of life) It is almost astounding that in 2013  authorities could not find a way to provide  electricity to Kliptown “ They say they  can’t put electricity  because  of the wetland area” Aletta my tour guide at the Soweto Hotel told me when I asked why she thought there was still no electricity to this day in Kliptown.  These are the conditions under which many people   have to live.   But without access to enough money to buy water, electricity and proper homes, this is the only way that people can live. Nobody knows why there has not been any improvement in the living conditions for the people of Kliptown. Maybe some original members know…. But the TRUTH is it was DESIGNED to be this way.

A former resident of Sky, when first interviewed she told me she was orphaned. Which was later found to be untrue. She now lives with her Parents.
A former resident of Sky, when first interviewed she told me she was orphaned. Which was later found to be untrue. She now lives with her Parents. picture copy right: by Julia Sestier

The French Connection: ” Open Air Museum”

Eventually I found more concrete evidence – A business plan which explains the idea of an open museum /ecomuseum for Kliptown:

“An Open Air Museum is a particular kind of community museum, which sees itself as a tool for community development as well as a means of promoting cultural conservation.  Initially developed in France in the 1970s under the name ‘Eco-Musee’, Open Air Museums traditionally originate from the need of a community to search for its ‘roots’, and establish or re-assess its own identity, making the Open Air Museum first and foremost a bond between a community and place and the development thereof. One definition of an Open Air Museum is “an expression of a community which is rooted in a sense of place that is ‘unique’; the link between the land, livelihoods, industry, customs and identity’ is inseparable.”3. This type of museum’s primary concern is ‘preserving’ people and ‘culture’ rather than artefacts. Open Air Museums differ from living-history museums in that they do not attempt a ‘re-creation’ of the past for visitors, but rather use cultural preservation as a tool for the further development of the community and community structures. Open Air Museums offer an ‘in situ’ experience that tends to spread over more than one space. Thus, the museum is not necessarily confined to 4 walls and a door. Rather, an entire area its environment, people, culture, customs all comprise the Open Air Museum.”



“In terms of cultural tourism, Kliptown is seen as having a heritage resource that is of significance nationally and internationally i.e. the spaces and buildings that commemorate the Congress of the People and the historic signing of the Freedom Charter in June 1955. Arguably, Kliptown can also be seen as having particularly unique ‘cultural resources’ that lie in a combination of tangible and intangible cultural heritage assets that mark Kliptown as an important site of public memory. These resources, which characterize Kliptown as having “a character and ambiance that distinguishes it from other places and makes it special and unique”6, are also a potentially strong tourist and visitor attraction, in the ways in which they present Kliptown as a microcosm of a township as it develops throughout the 20th century. Unlike in many other locations, whose similar resources have been eradicated through a process of apartheid urban planning, and the forces of contemporary development, Kliptown retains much of its historical character from the 50s.”


The reader will note that none of these “nodes” withing the KLIPTOWN OPEN AIR MUSEUM, are in existence today  with the exception of the Squarer ( Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication). So the plan can be deemed a failure, but which on the other has deepened poverty and the decline of the Kliptown Community for which this project was meant to empower uplift.  These sights one is onlytold” about during the “tours” but they don’t exists as envisaged in this plan:

Exhibitions will play a central role in the interpretation and development of the stories of Kliptown, marking those spaces within Kliptown that ‘belong’ to the Open Air Museum. As a dominant visual experience, exhibitions will provide an important opportunity to interpret both the core values of the Open Air Museum and the heritage values of Kliptown. Exhibitions, as a mode of interpretation, will help create a clear and defined visitor experience, without eliminating the choices and chance encounters that are part of everyday urban experience.

In order to account for the inherent tension between community and visitor needs in the Open Air Museum, the role and function of specific exhibitions in Kliptown needs to be clearly orientated in terms of these two target groups. Thus the first distinction in the exhibition strategy is between community exhibitions and visitor exhibitions. Different combinations of exhibitions will occur at the various nodes in the Kliptown Open Air Museum. And while an exhibition might be produced with the ‘community’ in mind, it does not preclude a tourist visiting this exhibition, and vice versa.

The success of exhibitions in environments such Kliptown depend on active community consultation and participation in the exhibition making process. Creating a culture of inclusiveness will ensure a community-driven exhibition programme that not only expresses the different voices of the people of Kliptown but also captures the critical and contested debates around history, contemporary life and its representation. It is critically important to establish an Exhibitions Advisory Group as part of the Programming Advisory Group. This Group should not only reflect the different nuances of the Kliptown ‘community’, but also include a fair and adequate representation of people involved in heritage, education and tourism in Kliptown. The Group will become the link between Open Air Museum and the ‘community’.

The exhibition programme is presented in terms of the five different nodes in the Kliptown Open Air Museum (see Fig. 2- Spatial Map). Each node includes at least one exhibition that ‘anchors’ the Open Air Museum experience.

The Exhibitions are as follows:


• Behind-the-Scenes Exhibition (Dairy Farm): The Kliptown ‘Open Air Museum’ is a revolutionary approach to memory and heritage that facilitates community control of its own cultural resources. This exhibit invites both community and visitors ‘behind-the-scenes’ to see how it all works, as well as participate in exhibition making. The Behind-the-scenes exhibition is at the old Dairy Farm- one of the oldest buildings in Kliptown, and one that conjures images of a communal working space

• Freedom Exhibition (The Square): A dynamic multimedia exhibition that explores the history of the Freedom Charter as a nationwide call for Freedom and Democracy in the footprints of the historic Congress of the People on the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. This exhibit also explores contemporary experiences of ‘freedom’, explores icons of freedom- such as Walter Sisulu, and makes links to today’s Constitution. Jada’s- a historical building whose owners were actively involved in the organisation of the Congress of the People, and which played a significant role in the history of Kliptown, is used as the main indoor space for this exhibition.

• The People’s Monument (The Square): This monument marks the gathering of people at the Congress of the People in 1955. It is envisaged that visitors can participate in the building of the monument, through placing engraved Xs (as a symbol of ‘voting’) onto its structure, allowing it to evolve incrementally over time. The monument of the Freedom Charter echoes the ‘We The People’ wall at Constitution Hill, extending the idea that ordinary people, through their participation began by ‘building‘ the Freedom Charter, which, in turn, led to the building of the Constitution of South Africa. The monument allows for visitors to re-dedicate themselves to the building of democracy and freedom. Spin-offs of this process include the development of an icon for Kliptown in the shape of a X that can then be developed into unique merchandise (jewellery, bags etc.) and art works projects.

• Visitor Centre Exhibition (The Square): This is a basic ‘teaser’ exhibition that gives visitors an orientation to the Kliptown ‘product offerings’. It aims to entice visitors to experience all the Kliptown has to offer.

• Railway Exhibition (Hoarding Exhibit along the railway): This exhibition celebrates the excitement of arrival, the defiance, the danger, and the journeys of all the people who came together for the Congress of the People. Looks at the critical role that train transport has played in the history of SA: migration, mobility, displacement and exile. The Exhibition is built as hoarding alongside the railroad, so that it is visible both by train passengers, and those walking along the railway track.

• Temporary Exhibitions (The Square) : Temporary Exhibitions are accommodated in the Multi-Purpose Centre. These Exhibitions could include community initiated exhibitions, travelling exhibitions (e.g. Jurgen Schadeburg and students’ photographic exhibition of Kliptown; exhibitions from other museums etc.). These exhibitions are not funded as part of the Museum.


• Greater Kliptown Orientation Exhibition (Community Node): This exhibition builds on the existing Kliptown Our Town exhibition and provides community with an opportunity to tell the ordinary and extraordinary stories of Kliptown. Includes a ‘for children, by children’ exhibit.

• Women’s Exhibition (Charlotte Maxeke House): In keeping with the spirit of Charlotte Maxeke, a teacher, social worker, politician and the first African woman from South Africa to receive a baccalaureate degree, this venue will be used for a community exhibition and resource focusing on the needs of women and youth. The Women’s Exhibition will complement programming in this space.

• Environmental Exhibition (Environmental centre): Kliptown is an ideal space in which to look at diverse environmental features of Kliptown- from flora and fauna (including those in the Klipspruit river), to the wetlands, to the open public green spaces etc. The Environmental Exhibition will seek to promote taking care of the environment in an interactive and interesting way.

• Gerard Sekoto Museum and Art School: Gerard Sekoto is recognised internationally as the father of modern South African art. He is known through painting showing everyday life in townships in the 1940s. This gallery showcases 5-10 of his important work, providing context with relevant archival material and a short documentary about his life and work. The gallery in Kliptown enriches an appreciation of Sekoto’s work by placing his paintings within an environment that still retains its appearance of the past (i.e. Kliptown). Similar to the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town. Linked to an art school that is operated by qualified external body. Located at his old house.

• Park Art: In the tradition of the “People’s Parks” of the 80s, Park Art involves the community in developing art for display that communicates their thoughts and experiences. Examples of such art could include murals, sculpture, etc. Park Art would happen at 2 parks in Kliptown (see map)

• Signs and Billboards : A form of “writing the city”, of visually integrating the different Open Air Museum spaces within Kliptown. It is also an opportunity to integrate the voices and experiences of local residents. They might inhabit the walls of Union Street, resident-orientated exhibition billboards, heritage landmarks such as Charlotte Maxeke’s house, the AME churches, etc., and that are clearly distinct from other forms of more formal signage such as street signs and SAHRA plaque.


I went to Sky and Kliptown with rose-tinted eyes, completely sympathising with with community and the conditions underwich they were forced to live. I was also grateful that they were able to afford my younger brother shelter at a time when I felt I had failed him. So I believed them when they told me their story, and acknowledge that there may be some members of the community who are honest about what is going in Kliptwon and More specifically at Sky.

These are the corrections:

1. The Soweto Kliptown Youth Center – though it may “look” after “vulnerabe children” almost all of them are not orphaned, they have home and living parents, contrary to what I have been told or inversely “chose to believe”.

2. SKY functions as a “Youth Club” for children and young people interested in the “ARTS” – what they do is rehearse, gumboot dance, and zulu-dances which they perform for tourists who visit the center.  Some have traveled to France, America and many other spaces through the youth club.

3. The children who are fed at SKY, are not orphans either. Though a number of Europeans looking for children to adopt have visited the center, I  cannot confirm if they have adopted  any children from SKY/Kliptown.

4. SKY used to function as a community clinic under the late Eva Makoka whom I met at interviews in 2004.   It has since changed though under the leadership of Bra Bob Nameng – into a Youth Center. Eva Makoka’s House – where SKY is located is identified as one of the Key nodes in the “Kliptown Open Air Museum Business Plan.

5. I am in no way asserting that people are not suffering in Kliptown or that poverty is not real, after having spent two weeks living at SKY, I know that it is not as simple as that.  The community (SKY/KYP) especially do depend on “Foreign” Donations to survive, however what I am saying is it was all part of a the plan, which went horribly wrong. Which has mean that Kliptown remains a relic of the past, which explains why there has been no improvement inthe lives of the people, why there will never be change. The incredible poverty today is  a construct of the new democracy, in ways which surpass some of the apartheid  segregation laws.  YOU ARE FREE!

6. Many of the plans for  “Open Air Museum”did not happen, because of corruption or lack of management  – whatever the reason, the truth is Kliptown today is a cheaper ( and in some ways – better perverted) version of the original plan.

Khumo and Joy, members of the SKY youth club - who perform for tourist on weekends. Two of them have since been "kicked out" of the program.
Khumo and Joy, members of the SKY youth club – who perform for tourist on weekends. Two of girls have since been “kicked out” of the program. pic by Julia Sestier.

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