*This is the second essay in a series of four “We the Audience” posts designed to introduce my readers to the citizen artists working in some of South Africa’s most challenged areas. Today’s essay focuses on Mbovu Malinga, an arts-and-development consultant and free-lance artist, and his work with a variety of Cape Town NGO’s. Mbovu is one of the participating artists in ArtUp’s “Sites of Passage: South Africa” project.
I’m standing with Mbovu Malinga on the side of a highway looking out over an area of Cape Town known as District Six. This is the start of a day of visiting several townships in the Cape Town area where Mbovu leads community-based arts-for-development initiatives. But before we head to Langa (our first stop on the tour), Mbovu is giving me the lay of the land, so to speak, by telling me about the forced removal of the “coloured” residents of this inner-city tract beginning in the late 1960s. It’s Mbovu’s way of introducing me to the history of apartheid in Cape Town, a history that until now I’ve only experienced from the distance of newspaper stories and through the lens of political histories, novels, movies and plays. District Six, Mbovu tells me, was once a busy neighborhood with a mixed population of former slaves and a variety of immigrants, including the Cape Malays (who were originally brought to Cape Town in the 18th century as workers for the Dutch East India Company). In 1966 the apartheid government declared this land a “whites-only” area (as part of the Group Areas Act), resulting in the forced relocation of over 60,000 people.
Mbovu points to a section of new housing that the post-apartheid government has built in order to compensate at least some of those dispossessed people. The housing is modest, but, Mbovu tells me, a significant improvement over the living conditions in the Flats—the areas around Cape Town that feature both the formal and informal townships where most of the “relocated” non-whites were moved during apartheid. Still, Mbovu points out, there is a feeling of “too little, too late” here. For one thing, there is significant contention over the present-day value of the appropriated land versus the cash value of the new housing being offered.
We get back in the car and head to Langa, a suburb near the international airport. The drive takes perhaps 20 minutes, but for me it’s an astonishing journey into another world—a dense network of purpose-built housing connected to “informal” settlements (made up of lean-to huts constructed from sheets of corrugated metal and salvaged lumber), narrow streets and open air markets. Originally designated as a “black” area (reaching back before the implementation of apartheid), Langa is a fascinating blend of tribal cultures and contemporary urban life. Cell phone repair shops stand next to roaring braais (South African barbecue pits), which feature fresh-slaughtered (meaning literally beheaded right in front of you) chickens. Young men sporting a variety of fashionable hip-hop gear walk past women in colorful dashikis balancing baskets on their heads. Everybody seems to have a cell phone. But it’s clear that not everyone has a bed to sleep on, or running water, or reliable electricity. The overall economic conditions are sobering, to say the least.
We enter the St. Francis Centre/Project Playground, a community space where Mbovu has worked on a number of projects. He greets people in several different languages (he speaks nine of the eleven official languages of South Africa). When I compliment his language skills, he tells me that he was motivated to learn when he realized that his work with children was hampered by a lack of ability to communicate effectively. “The most important way for me to have an impact,” he tells me, “is to be able to talk to the community I’m working with. The kids won’t open up in a language that isn’t theirs.”
As we walk around the building we talk about the various community-based arts projects currently underway in Langa. Mbovu is involved in one new initiative, for example, that uses dance as a tool for “talking” openly about physical disabilities—something of a taboo topic in many of the tribal traditions. His goal, he tells me, is to use his artistic voice to challenge many things, from out-moded and hurtful social attitudes to the ever-present injustices of governmental and economic systems.
Our next stop is Philippi, a newer (1980s-era) township about 20 km from Cape Town center. The area has an official population of over 200,000, though it is widely understood that thousands more, many of the undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa, live there. Like Langa, the carved-out streets wander through ad-hoc market areas filled with barber and hair salons, tuck shops, fruit sellers, braais and a variety of what one South African colleague refers to as “informal traders.” Also like Langa, Philippi has been and continues to be active politically as a site of protest against a variety of apartheid-related injustices, from chronic unemployment and overcrowding to food insecurity and high numbers of HIV infection.
It’s obvious from the many enthusiastic welcomes (in a variety of languages) that greet us upon our arrival at the IThemda Labantu Lutheran community center that Mbovu is well known and well liked in Philippi. He once served as the director of the Youth Arts program at Themda Labantu and retains strong ties to the community. Several NGO’s operate in Philippi, including Beautiful Gate, an interdenominational Christian organization “providing care and support to vulnerable children and families.” These kinds of organizations are responsible for most of the available social services in the townships and settlements and are critical participants in the social welfare system of contemporary South Africa. I stop to take a photo of the lovely mural that decorates one of the outside walls of the community center where Beautiful Gate is housed.
While we walk around Philippi I ask Mbovu to tell me how he got into what the South Africans refer to as “arts-for-development” work. He talks enthusiastically about his training as an actor, director, technician and designer with the highly regarded Market Theatre Laboratory in Johannesburg, and later his studies in dance with Jazzart Dance Theatre in Cape Town. More recently he earned a Higher Education and Training Certificate in Development Practice (Level 5), a two-year degree program that essentially licenses an individual to plan and conduct research, workshops and programming in “transformative development practices.” Like other community-based artists, Mbovu combines his training as an artist with his social work because he is committed to forging a tangible function for art in the wider socio-political sphere. In addition to his free-lance consulting work in the townships and settlements, Mbovu was previously the Assistant Arts Coordinator of the South African Environment & Education Project and is currently a South African program director for the International Theatre & Literacy Project.
We end the day in Delft, another 1980s-era mixed race settlement in the area surrounding the airport with a fluid population estimated anywhere between 25,000 and 100,000 people (depending on who is doing the counting). We pull into a parking spot near the Rent Office, one of the community buildings in central Delft, and step out into the 90-degree summer day. Once again Mbovu is greeted enthusiastically, and in a variety of languages, as we enter a small black box theater where a dance company rehearsal is underway. I’m thrilled to be watching this group of well-trained young dancers as they prepare for an upcoming performance. After a few minutes Mbovu pulls me aside to introduce me to Sisa Makaula, the director of the Rainbow Arts Organization and one of the hosts of the day’s rehearsal. Rainbow Arts is the resident company in Delft’s Black Box Theatre and offers training in dance, theatre, music, scriptwriting, puppetry, visual art, film and photography. Sisa tells me that the company’s workshops, classes, and professional shows are all organized around the “desire to uplift the lives of the community.” I’m particularly interested in “Our Culture Our Nation in Performing Arts,” a training seminar for artists wishing to work in the development field. According to the Facebook page, the focus of this project is on the “teaching, training of various skills, organized performances, exhibiting of trainee art works and job creation” in order to promote self-reliance programs as “an answer to crime, poverty and HIV/AIDS.”
My day with Mbovu ends with the drive from Delft to my hotel in the Sea Point section of Cape Town. It is an easy 35-minute drive and a mind-boggling economic journey. We go from a level of poverty I’ve never before witnessed to an embarrassing display of American traveller luxury (the dollar was so strong while I was there that my normally quite modest research travel budget bought me a luxurious hotel room). Sitting in his car in front of the hotel, I struggle with how to express my gratitude to Mbovu for sharing his time and expertise. I tell him that I will use my platform as an ArtsJournal.com blogger to try and convey the importance of his work. Then I head into the air-conditioned comfort and securely guarded safety of the hotel.