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The walls tell their stories — street art brings Noordgesig’s history to colourful, vibrant life

The walls tell their stories — street art brings Noordgesig’s history to colourful, vibrant life
Noordgesig tour guide Fabian Otto. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

In this corner of Soweto, to which people were forcibly moved from places like Sophiatown and Vrededorp, street art tells the story of a rich history and a strong community culture.

Noordgesig, at the northernmost boundary of Soweto, Johannesburg, is also known as Bulte, meaning hills. That’s because it’s surrounded by surreal old mine dumps, which are visible from just about everywhere here.

But the place pops with colour as you enter off New Canada Road, the historical gateway to Soweto. From street art, murals and shop signs to entire buildings colourfully painted, one of the most inspiring things about a three-hour tour around Noordgesig is learning how public art has united a community.

We are a small group of tourists, mostly foreigners and expats, and are welcomed into the home of Fabian and Lavinia Otto. We are given traditional ginger beer, Cape Malay-style koesisters and freshly baked bread – and are introduced to the puppies.

Fabian and Lavinia are seasoned community activists, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs and tour guides. They began these tours about five years ago, after their interest had been piqued by a Johannesburg Heritage Foundation workshop.

“We were inspired to use art and tourism to develop Noordgesig,” says Fabian. “It’s a tight-knit community with a rich history, and we have been using street art to tell stories, to spark people’s imaginations and to creatively involve the community, especially our children.”

selfie with a tourist

A resident takes a selfie with an Italian tourist. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

jakes tuli

The home of the legendary boxer Jake Tuli. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Noordgesig jake tuli

The blue plaque on Jake Tuli’s home. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Lavinia is an accomplished street artist and sign painter and has been extensively involved in the creation of Bulte’s public art pieces. Many of the murals in and around Noordgesig were done in collaboration with the #ArtMyJozi campaign, which produces public art projects in spaces around Jozi and is curated by the Trinity Session, a contemporary art production team. 

The tour begins with a punch. Literally. We cross the street from the Ottos’ house to see the blue heritage plaque outside the home of the legendary boxer Jake Tuli (born Jacob Ntuli, 1929-1998), who was a South African professional fly-, bantam- and featherweight boxer and one of Nelson Mandela’s heroes.

We walk along Smith Street past the historical Ebenezer Congregational Church, which dates to 1942, and are then shown two sites celebrating two Noordgesig icons: Ma Vee and Ma Glover.

The blue plaque programme of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation identifies sites of historical importance in Jozi, explains Fabian. It is a badge of pride.

Tuli was the first black South African to hold a British Empire championship title, as well as many others. “Jake Tuli was quite simply the toughest guy I ever met in a boxing ring,” Peter Keenan, a Scottish boxer who fought against Tuli in the 1950s, told a reporter in 1991.

We then hop into a series of brightly painted tuk-tuks – a recent business innovation in Noordgesig – and set off on a short drive around the area. Noordgesig was first settled in the 1930s and many people were moved here in the 1950s after forced removals from places like Sophiatown and Vrededorp.

ma vee Noordgesig

The mural of celebrates Noordgesig icon Ma Vee. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

runaways detail

Chicken feet, also known as runaways, on the grill. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

koeksusters

Koesisters. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

In Noordgesig on a hot Saturday morning, people shop, stroll, buy food, hang out, hang up their washing and, of course, do the typical Saturday-morning car-washing ritual with blaring music.

Our driver plays upbeat music; people are friendly and curious. Especially about the bouncy Greek-British photographer who has an enormous lens, a huge light, takes hundreds of pictures and chats to everyone.   

We hop off at Tiny Tots Crèche to see the charming murals Lavinia painted to brighten it up. Then we hop on again and head for Smith Street, one of the main drags, where we gather for the walking tour.

We meet Naz, who runs a street stall cooking and selling runaways (chicken heads and feet) and shoelaces (chicken intestines) as well as crisps and snacks. Behind her food stall, Fabian points out the murals on the wall depicting local heroes such as businesspeople, a Muslim prophet and a Catholic priest.

ma glover

The building dedicated to celebrating Ma Glover. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

lavinia otto

Lavinia Otto. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

We walk along Smith Street past the historical Ebenezer Congregational Church, which dates to 1942, and are then shown two sites celebrating two Noordgesig icons: Ma Vee and Ma Glover. Both women are the subject of a variety of murals and remembered for their commitment to uplift people.

A blue plaque decorates the home of the late Ma Vee, Vesta Smith. Her family was forcibly moved here when she was 18 years old and she became a powerful part of the anti-apartheid struggle. Despite spells of jail in the Women’s Fort, bannings, detentions and harassment by the system, her spirit was never broken.

There are seven pillars in their community work – street art, art classes, performance art, dance, poetry and singing – and guerrilla gardening.

Further down the road is a building painted colourfully in its entirety to depict the life of Ma Betty Glover, another Noordgesig dynamo. She opened her home in 1962 to start one of the first feeding schemes in Soweto, and today it continues to feed about 300 people a day from the area. A skilled gardener, Ma Glover used vegetables from local gardens and she’s painted here in her gardening hat with a spade.

A friendly local guy with an umbrella stops for a selfie with the Italian in our group; a curious child cycles up and down past us, mine dumps in the background. We stop in at the kitchen door of the lovely Veronica, who makes and sells a real Noord­gesig special called a choepas, which is basically a frozen sweet drink – heaven on a hot day. Veronica says she has a special recipe that is known far and wide, and she and her family have been able to make a simple living from selling them.

Noordgesig tjoepas

Veronica and members of her family. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

corridor link mural

A mural along the Corridor Link. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

noordgesig Bulte

Noordgesig is also known as Bulte because of the mine dumps. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Then we stroll down the Corridor Link, also known as the Pathway of Success, which connects Colin Drive and North Street. A series of beautifully painted scenes here recount some of Noordgesig’s history: the days when it was semirural with a clean river; the days of beauty pageants, cricket and hockey teams; the great floods of 1978 in the area that was known as Rock n Roll Valley because there was a train track that made everyone’s houses rumble as the train passed by. A local singer called Jody meets us as we walk down the corridor and breaks into ­joyous song.

noordgesig

Saturday morning in Noordgesig. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Noordgesig tuk-tuks

Tuk-tuks are a recent business innovation in Noordgesig. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

mural church Noordgesig

A mural on a Noordgesig church. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

“Not forgotten” says the mural on the community centre wall. The centre has a new library and across the road we can hear children splashing and shrieking in the public swimming pool. The murals and artworks here have given people a sense of pride, says Fabian, and a sense of their own history. Fabian and Lavinia are hoping to develop a history room at the library. 

There are seven pillars in their community work, says Fabian as we walk and chat. These are street art, art classes, performance art, dance, poetry and singing – and guerrilla gardening. They planted sunflowers next to the local dumping site, which is right at the entrance to the township. They managed to employ part-time workers to clean up around it.

“We would rather people see beautiful sunflowers than a terrible dumping site as they enter Soweto,” says Lavinia. DM

For more information about the Noordgesig Art, Culture and Heritage Tour, call Fabian on 076 838 3296 or email [email protected]. They will tailor-make packages to suit guests.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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