Saturday afternoon featured a very special series of performances; and the most moving interpretation of a classic piece of dramatic song writing, bordering the shores of cheesiness yet never quite anchoring there: The Greatest Love Of All. Choose your songbird wisely: I would opt for George Benson. More than that, though, for the young man from the neighbourhood, who directed his ambitious voice to all heavens. It was community day in the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Westbury, a suburb famous for its continuity of being represented as the Gauteng equivalent to a Cape Flats imaginary: Gangland, drugs, stabbings, crumbling family structures and the like. Much more space than here is needed to deconstruct these appallingly wrong sentiments driven by popular media and people who feed on the misfortune of others. Let me use the atmosphere of one afternoon to set the pace for a re-visit of the suburb. Lead by residents from there, who in fact can be, in their spirit of pragmatic resilience to structurally entrenched limitations, should feature on the cover pages of glossy pamphlets about how to do citizenship.
Saturday afternoon in Westbury, now, presented a set of performances on an improvised stage in public space. Dust, heat, ballroom dancing, a mixed audience of kids from around, some adults, people with offices such as the Community Policing Forum, activists from TAG (the seminal Together Action Group), a bunch of incredibly active students of the University of Johannesburg – which is just around the corner – as well as architects Tom Chapman and Alex Opper who have been engaging in projects with community members in the suburb, and the usual one or two foreigners who somehow got stuck in the city’s fascinating texts. Like me. Little mental notebook in hand.
Right there, in the dusty patch of land opposite the Recreation Centre in the, mildly put, continuously disadvantaged yet suburb of Westbury, powerfully re-inventing itself, young people and residents from the surrounding streets had organised an intervention that should visualize the activism that recently had been going on – the launch of the ‘Local Studio’ initiative, eg – driven especially by Shawn Constant, an engaged resident of Westbury and impressive personality, who is a member of TAG (Together Action Group, Westbury), the organization mentioned before; fighting substance abuse, crime, the looming representation of gang violence and of the hood as a no-go area; this all with a cheerfulness that does not cease to amaze. I recently had a discussion with wonderful people performing an exceptional kind of welcoming and readiness to open doors, dinner invitations and conversations that I associate with this city and which is yet surprising, about morals and the implementation of this pattern in media discourse (which is something I am personally quite hooked on). Westbury is conventionally described as the last place to go, stay and learn from. What an incredible loss skills and a spirit of responsibility for the concept we, despite the routes and the love for suitcases, at times long for, when things turn unpleasant or extremly pleasant: Ile, khaya, Zuhause, home.
Silly vocabulary like ’empowerment’ and ‘development’ fails when encountering a human capacity that is so much more than paternalistic and maternalistic terminology from rather westwards (this echoes ironically as we are in the West of the city) allows to express. Name it engagement, name it devotion. Name it a choice for a better life; and the willingness to share the route and the outcome with others. There is the need for new words for new networks and engagements; beyond the old terms for activism. Here and elsewhere. I found myself thinking about the lines by Lewis R Gordon, writing in last week’s Mail & Guardian in his piece “Affirmative action meets white mediocrity” that:
“This is not to say that there is no excellence among rewarded whites. It is to say that, as with every group, high performance is by definitiion a virtue of those who are devoted and talented. But as Anna Julia Cooper had shown, far too much is invested in those who fail to meet such traits in white supremacist society. Very little is put towards those who, with few incentives, produce more.” (M&G supplement, August 26th 2011)
“No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity“, lingers in the air, in the scratchy voice of the sportingly dressed young man singing his heart out in front of an audience that would be more impressive if each of us brought some friends the next time. But numbers did not matter – this was a wonderful afternoon that should serve theorists about the city (at the same time the Mail & Guardians outstanding Literature Festival featured excellent reflections on ‘the city’) as an atmospheric reminder of what real activism and spatial re-working can be. In contrast to a number of engagements facilitated ‘from above’, eg the seminal failure of the NYDA’s planned Youth Festival in 2010, the activism in and for Westbury does not stop with the crisp sound of plastic-wrapped presents changing owners. Out of the encounters from 2010 onwards, initiatives and businesses run by residents of Westbury are and will be growing, using the stigmatised surroundings as a platform for their activities.
“We are Local Studio”, Tom Chapman says, mic in hand, as an outro of the event, just before pictures featuring big smiles are being taken; and on this glaring hot afternoon in the middle of cheerful people it seems that the plural is justified.