A Walk with Bongi through Alex. began nearly 800 kilometers south of the township with Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa’s installation in progress at the Grahamstown Festival 2000. The idea emerged of not only showing the visual riches of the township but also documenting a day in its aural life.
From recordings made over a 24 hour period two and a half minutes were selected from each consecutive hour of the day beginning at 9:30 on Sunday morning the 30th of July 2000.
Accompanying the recordings of ambient sound are some of the stories and commentaries that Bongi provided as we walked through the township.
The result is a complete day compressed into 60 minutes - A collection of everyday sounds, stories, information and conversations that can be experienced as an hour long loop in an installation setting, on CD or the internet.
The Jukskei river is a … , I should say, maybe one of the most famous and notorious rivers that go past, go through Alexandra. And maybe Alexandra is the only township that has a proper river that goes through it. But it is so polluted, and so filthy that it stops being, having the kind of aspects a river should have. It is not …, I do not see it personally as a recreation facility, more as a menace to society. Because in summer it gets so flooded that a lot of people die or a lot of houses are taken off by the full, the stream and … it just creates a lot of tragedy. And in winter as you can see now it is full of plastic and all sorts of rubbish. And the hope to clean it up is that its, the people, the shacks will be removed and a proper banking would be created and the river will become again a resource, a source for entertainment and for pleasure for the people of Alexandra.
OK, Alexandra as a township around Johannesburg is very unique in that it is maybe one of the oldest and it accumulated people from all over the country so you find that all languages are spoken in Alexandra. All eleven languages are easily spoken in Alexandra because people come from many different places to here. So the churches as such do not have one single language that they use, the preachers will use in one sermon, they would use four languages, they would use six languages, it would depend on which congregation they are in or which section of the… because the churches are also divided, you find that the Lutheran church is divi… our church for example, the church that we are in now, 12th Avenue has got Tswana, Setswana speaking people and Zulu speaking people, the other one has got mostly Pedi speaking, Venda, Afrikaans and English, but English gets used interchangeably very easily which is I would say the kind of language that we speak in our homes as well, we speak, we interchange our African languages with English very easily without thinking about it.
R.M. One thing that intrigued me with the hymns, was that the hymns were announced … the different numbers for the hymns … for the different languages. How does that work then with the hymn?
B.D. Its more the harmony because people will sing what, … it’s like the, God’s prayer, it, we say it in three different languages but because it’s paced in the same way we actually end up saying the same thing but with three different languages which is actually, I found it very amazing when I first came to Johannesburg because, I had never experienced that in Natal.
R.M. So people were actually singing the same hymn in three languages…
B.D. In three different languages, yes.
R.M. … at the same time.
B.D. And sometimes it’s five languages. I think it’s actually the harmony of the song that makes it sound uniform, more than the language. The languages could be completely different, in so much that sometimes the hymn would be talking about, the hymn in Zulu would be talking about something completely different from what the words or the lyrics of the Setswana one is saying.
Ja, when Alex started it was very similar to Sophiatown in that everyone, I mean everyone except white people lived here, and I understand that in Sophiatown there were some few white people who stayed there but here the place was developed really as a, at that time non-white development. Then there were Indians who started trade in the area but have had also houses here and the coloured people who only moved I think in the late eighties, they moved into a new development that was developed mainly for coloured people in Rabi Ridge which is just east of Alexandra. North-East of Alexandra. And this area, the First Avenue, is be, has become, has always been, the hub of activity, of business activities and it is so because it has the main taxi rank, the taxi rank is feeding into all the, mainly to the city, into Johannesburg, but also to the other townships like Tembisa, to Pretoria, the furthest being Pretoria. And the business activities are mainly owned by Indians. And now, I mean of late, it’s a number of black people who have got informal stalls around here. And I guess, I haven’t, I don’t have full proof of that but I guess that people from the other parts of Africa would be found here selling stuff from Taiwan, takkies from Taiwan, … one would, you would need to be talking to them first to know where they come from, where they originally come from. So the taxis go to all the major trade centers of Johannesburg, the City, Rosebank, Sandton, Randburg, and they all start from here, so obviously it becomes very busy and it becomes a very attractive area for trade, transport and trade.
Do you want to stand here?
R.M. What is this?
B.D. It’s a tavern. Do you want to go …?
R.M. Another tavern?
B.D. Ja, it’s the same same place but here they sell cheaper beer, home brewed and everything. I mean, no not … Its a cheaper, a cheaper version of what is … Ja, …
Like uh, … the sounds, the kind of act… weekend activities start to take a down around seven in the evening on (a) Sunday. Then people are starting to get ready for the working week. But it’s not like everything subsides, like there is no noise or no sounds in the …. they are there but they take a down…
Let me check if there is a car here, it’s … because if there is a other car we can go, not the Izuzu but the other …
… and primary schools that are here. We’ve got only high schools, standard six to standard ten and primary from grade, what standard, sub standard eight to, if you are going grades it’s grade one to grade seven and then grade eight to (that’s standard six) grade eight to grade twelve would be high school. But I think, no I’m maybe wrong, maybe there are now eighteen because I think that on the last count the school that is up there was, was not operating yet. So there would be eighteen, there would be eighteen schools. Six high schools and uh, … actually it sounds wrong because there are just so many kids here. The population of Alexandra is said to be, well they say it’s about 175 000 people but it’s not true, because now with the increase, with the additional part of the township, the new township, they say its more than 600 000 people living here. The area according to the numbers of people that are here, the area should have 400 000 homes, not people, homes. But at the moment it has 250 000 homes and those homes are housing more than 600 000 people. So, so even those are not substantiated by anything, they are just figures that have been done, not in any professional census but they are done by… , people are doing different things, maybe the health department would be doing that for completely different reasons and the housing department checking how many houses are needed would do it for that reason so … We, living here, we know that its overcrowded and there are not enough homes.
The music is a big thing and I mean the fact that, people have formed small groups of their individual ethnic, … rural background, from ethnic rural backgrounds where they say, I mean I wanted, a Northern Sotho group, they said no, no it’s not the same, we don’t dance exactly the same, we may be, we may all be Pedi speaking but we do not play the same, we don’t sing the same songs, we don’t dance the same way, and so I said well it’s important for somebody to actually start de, deci… doing research and defining the different styles, and the Venda too they don’t all don’t do the same thing, but the handpipes are the same because the Pedi dancers as well do pipes … and the drums … It’s very similar because they’re all from the north.
R.M. And is there much mixing of styles?
B.D. No they don’t,
R.M. They don’t.
B.D. They actually don’t which is why…
R.M. They want to keep it separate.
B.D. They keep it separate because there is no one who has really taken … an interest or taken charge to say, “Do you know that it can be combined and it could actually be more interesting”. I cannot do that. I would love to be able to do that. I’ve done that with just the brass bands. They all do not read music. They all play by ear, so we put together a group, three groups of bands and they made a thirty piece band, … for the Freedom Day, that was a French, another French connection because we actually worked with a trio called, a jazz trio from France called the Laurent Dehors Trio. And they came here and they workshopped with the thirty guys for ten days… , ja, about ten days rehearsals… and then they performed in Alexandra, and they, on the 26th. April they performed in a… , on the Freedom Day in Pretoria. And that was the first time they performed for such a large audience. So I did that but it was easy because I didn’t need to talk about music, I just needed to talk about relations, about them working together, which was difficult but it was not like me trying to teach them how to combine their styles. They all play by ear and they play traditional and church …
They asked me if there was a party, I said well I don’t know, Alex is very big, and the only way we can find out what is happening is if we go there, do you want to go down, to get down and go there, they said yes so we went inside and there was a lot of music and it was full, all over, outside and everywhere, so the people of the house saw us, the two Swiss and myself, and so they asked us to come inside, and all we wanted to know was what was happening, no but they were gatecrashing, so they invited us indoors and we became the V.I.P.s instantly … and they, we told them, I told them that we were just checking what was happening and they said that it was the twenty first birthday party of the daughter and so we went in, we met the daughter and she was very excited to have white people at her birthday party even though she had not invited them - the fact that they arrived on the scene was important … so we stayed and they wanted to give us food and we were full and so we said no, we won’t eat anything so they gave us beers, … to take away, six beers to take… a six-pack, so we took the six-pack and left… and on our way out other people who were not invi…, were invited but had had their share of the party were asking us now to share the drinks… so we went, left immediately and got into the car and left them.
And they [the Swiss couple] were, they were so shocked. “But that’s a private party!” I said, In Alex there is nothing that you do and you call it private. If you want to do it private take people to a restaurant in town, then it’s private, but if it’s here, and people hear the music and see… they do exactly what we did, they go in … and nobody asks you who invited you, you don’t bring an invitation card to a twenty first birthday party, if you hear the music and the sou… the noise and you can see it’s not a funeral, you go. Well funerals people still respect very much, … which is great …
In the fifties and sixties there was a major move under the group areas act to move Alexandra out of this area and people filtered out to Soweto, to Temibisa, to … , to Diepkloof and Soweto … and a lot of families were moved but …. but there was a lot of resistance from… the… people who knew that their parents had owned the land, had bought it, and… so they, they resisted. Government was pushing people out and people were fighting to stay. Other people relented and they left and other people stayed, this was now the sixties, into the seventies. So when they, the student upheavals in seventy six started Alex was even more affected. It started on the 16th of June in Soweto but in Alex they say the 17th of June was a nightmare, in Alexandra, I wasn’t here at that time, but what I hear and what the photographs I see of the Alexandra uprising were even worse than what Soweto had looked like. But because it started in Soweto and the fact that it became really commonly known as the Soweto uprising Alex was sidelined in terms of the reports, but from then on there was a lot of a, like a build up of resistance against moving out of Alexandra which the Alexandra committee finally won in 1979 when the, when Alex was given the reprieve to stay. That’s when the new buildings were built, the apartment buildings and the new houses and where we stay now. It all came as a result of that reprieve of 1979.
I feel sad because I know what the potential in Alex is. On all levels. For all the aspects of the creative side of the Alexandra people. But it’s not being done. I mean, … in a small place like this where there are so many people who can sing, who have got voices, who are good vocally, we don’t have a combined choir of the community. And it could be done. Even if it’s not huge. It’s not like two…, a thousand voices but even four hundred voices would be great in Alex. But somebody has got to, some people that are involved in music should be looking at that but we have a problem that the, the, the owners, they, they make I mean, they make themselves owners of the different groups, do not, they are too territorial, they don’t want to work with other people.
R.M. Why is it that there is such a wonderful mix of people in Alex, but the styles, the musical styles don’t mix … as easy as the people ‘cause the people seem to be getting on very well with each other? But there isn’t that same crossover with…
B.D. I think the territorialism of music and other aspects of the lifestyles of people is to try and keep their identity. It’s a, … it’s a very… stereotypical way of keeping their identity. It’s almost like, if you did something, … you were Zulu and you did something Venda you would be tainting your image or your identity. So it’s, while people talk to each other but when it comes to the cultural practice nothing has been done to say that we can all do the same thing or we can fuse them together or we can learn from one another…