History has a way of repeating itself in suprising ways. Take for example the story of Sifiso Ntuli a veteran ANC political activist who was once chased out of South Africa in the early 80’s by the infamous Apartheid Brixton Murder Squad. Today you can find bra S’fi leading residents and tourists alike on a walk about or “trek” around the Brixton Fiesta Heritage area in Johannesburg. Yes it was named after Brixton, of South London.
The “trek” is a nod to the mass migration of Dutch-Afrikaans speaking Boers who left the British-run Cape Colony and travelled eastward by wagon train in 1836, into the interior of the continent, in order to live beyond the reach of the British colonial administration. The journey is famously known as the Great Trek. It is also a nod to the long arduous journey Bantu people are still on to achieve full liberation.
So, Let’s Trek ….
The tour starts outside his Brixton home where bra S’fi has lived with his wife, Ashley, and their children for 25 years since his return from exile in Toronto, Canada.
As he leads the tour bra S’fi makes cynical jokes about South African politics, pointing to the lamp posts outside a wall fencing his house, “all these lamps have been stolen before, ” he says “I have had to replace them, except for this one, because it has a South African flag around it” he chuckles, mostly to himself.
In very broad strokes S’fiso is alluding to the high rate of petty and serious crimes coupled with a disturbing rise in anti-black working class immigrant sentiments also known as Afrophobia in Johannesburg and other major cities around the country.
Then, he suddenly stops mid-stride and points the group back to the blue-grey wall fencing his house. He asks the tour group which includes French expatriates and some Brixton residents a rhetorical question.
“What’s the difference between now and Apartheid? Then and now?…Back then the walls were this high,” he says pointing beneath his knees. “We could see over each other’s houses. With Democracy the walls kept going higher and higher, we cannot bring down our walls because blacks are in town” he concludes.
A few minutes later he turns around again with a wide smile drawing his peppered beard against his face and tells the tour group that, “One of the reasons I do this tour is because I just want to show you how beautiful my neighbourhood is.” the palms of his hands rest on his chest for emphasis.
He leads the group down a secluded lusciously green Kingston Frost Park, originally called Brixton Park when it was laid out in 1925 and renamed Kingston Frost in honour of the Johannesburg city councillor AC, Kingston Frost in 1936. It feels like a garden of Eden with nice vast views of Johannesburg, said to be the largest man-made forest in the world.
Bra S’fi’ points the group to an indigenous garden planted and maintained by a local resident who is also a Professor at Wits University. This he says, is a manifestation of a deep sense of patriotism which binds the Brixton community together. Residents were also having a community yard sale on the day of the tour.
Over the years the Professor has invested thousands planting and taking care of the various Aloes and succulent plants growing in the park which are very popular with locals.
“ I hope they don’t pluck them out again” he says’s inspecting a few.
“Brixton is a place for intellectuals” he continues as if selling property to future investors. “ We are surrounded by universities and academics who often want to apply their knowledge in programs which benefit the community. Look how beautiful it is.” He says with pride. “I wish her students could come here and see what their professor is doing.”
At another end of the park is a tall beacon commemorating soldiers killed in the first world war. A boy passing by wearing a California surf t-shirt reminds bra S’fi’ of Hugh Masekela’s son, also a passionate surfer, sending bra S’fi on a brief reverie to life back in exile.
Bra S’fiso is a cultural activists at heart; since returning from exile he has supported, promoted and mentored musicians and artists at different stages of their careers and in various capacities. Along with his long time friend S’bu Nxumalo, Bra S’fi hosted a number of politburos at Constitution Hill which eventually culminated in the launch of the House Of Nsako, on Brixton High Street. Many of South Africa’s “conscious” artists regularly performed or visited the club as patrons. The Roving Bantu Kitchen was founded in 2015, three years after Nsako closed down.
“That’s de Kock’s house” bra S’fi’s voice grabs our attention back to a humble looking white house at the edge of the street. A silent contemplation of the name de Kock lingers in the air.
“Is it still his house even today?” A man asks in a whisper behind me .
I want to know if de Kock still lives in this very house in front of me. But I don’t ask.
Eugene de Kock was released on parole in 2015 after spending more than 20 years in prison for crimes committed for the Apartheid Government. He was a highly decorated police colonel, torturer, and hired assassin of many struggle activists. The South African courts ruled that de Kock had expressed sufficient remorse for his crimes and had co-operated with authorities to recover the remains of a number of his victims.
“Yes” Sifiso replies also in hushed tones whisper. “ it is still his.” As we walk past de Kock’s house it starts to feel as if a flying squad of heavily armed men could careen around the corner and have us at their mercy…. imaginary screams from torture are also not so far behind.
The tour becomes even more grim as we walk on. The neighbourhood streets seem eerily quiet but clean.
“ I shouldn’t tell you this” S’fiso lowers his voice conspiratorially “but this is the house of horrors. Two people once went into this house and never came out alive. They got burnt alive just after 94, just after democracy” He says walking away quickly. “The owner doesn’t like it when I tell this story, one day he came out and loudly chased us away with expletives” he says with boyish mischief.
Eventually we walk past a group of municipal workers digging up trenches on the pavement. He greets and thanks them, and then explains to us that that they are what keeps Brixton running.
The thrust of the trek is that Brixton, a former Neo nazi settlement was at the heart if not the main artery of Apartheids’ intelligence and security machinery back in the day. It is the most “racist” place according to bra S’fi “with a dark cruel history”.
A place where even the infamous “Prime Evil” the face of Apartheids’ killing machine and national death squad director Eugene de Kock is a neighbour. As such it has a wealth of information about South Africa’s history with a potential to unravel clues from secrets locked away in the past.
All this was made more convenient by its strategic geographic location; being the highest point in the city, surrounded by the offices of the Brixton Police Flying Squad, Brixton Police station, University of Johannesburg, Wits University, the SABC Radio and Television compound along with the Sentec tower commonly known as the “Brixton tower” which broadcasts all of the SABC’s programming through 18 radio stations and seven TV stations across most of the SADC region. There’s also a primary school enmeshed between the Brixton tower and a vacant military base.
Through these tours around Brixton and its surrounds bra S’fi wants to keep South African history alive and also preserve Brixton’s current multicultural, multiracial and mixed income character.
Brixton is also a place where the personal and political merge for bra S’fi. It embodies so much of who he is, what he fought against and what he is still fighting for today; values of ubuntu, equity and anti-racism. It is also a personal story of triumph over adversity. A testament to his own survival and resilience in the face of a menacing death squad. A real time experience of what it means to add light and a sense of humour in dark spaces.
The tour ends at the Brixton gravesite where Bra S’fi tells the group he sometimes spends time tending to the graves of his relatives with landscapers who work for City Parks.
“Does anyone have a problem with death?” He asks the group who had been following easily behind him. It soon becomes clear that the tour would end right there for many of them, who thank him politely and return to base.
The brave ones continue on behind him jumping over small heaps of medical waste from a nearby clinic thrown on the edges of the Brixton cemetery and the oldest Hindu wood- fired Crematorium in the city.
Then he points us to the grand finale
What Bra S’fi considers a symbol of the demise of the South African ruling party the ANC.
The empty tomb of Dr Alfred Batini Xuma. President of the ANC from 1940 to 1949.
Xuma was the first black person to qualify as a medical doctor. Under his leadership, the ANC Youth League was founded which pitted him against a young fire-brand Nelson Mandela – who thought Xumas’ ideas not only backward and but also too conservative. An incident Madiba recounts in his 1994 memoir, A long Walk to Freedom.
“Look at their graves today” says S’fiso lamenting at the state of the nation. “At least they are cleaning them now” he says. “The cemetery is no longer over-grown. It’s encouraging.”
Dr Xuma’s remains were exhumed from the Brixton cemetery and reburied at his place of birth in Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape province, a year ago this month.
An uneasy silence follows as we walk back to the start. Within the silence I start to think about our tour guide. I start to think about bra S’fi. About how we first met and the opinion piece I once wrote especially for him.
“I still keep that article you wrote” He laughs over beer after the tour, “I have kept it. And I think this is the right time to publish it” he says.
“Lost in Transition” we say in unison with knowing smiles.
PS: Covid-19 has been especially hard on everyone including many cultural and art workers around the country. Bra S’fiso and the Roving Bantu Kitchen & Treks business he runs with his multitalented wife, Ashely has also been affected. Whenever you are in Johannesburg please consider joining one of Bra Sfi’s lively political commentaries and historical treks around Brixton & surrounds, followed by a scrumptious array of South African soul food and refreshments. Follow the Roving Bantu Kitchen, on FB, here.