Life behind the scars of Fietas
MOST Joburgers have never heard of a suburb called Fietas. But to a close-knit community not far from the city centre, Fietas - a name whose origins no one can recall - was a thriving community and home to several thousands of coloureds, Malays, Indians and whites in the decades before the 1970s.
Fietas is made up of two small suburbs - Pageview and Vrededorp - and used to be a multiracial area until the late 1970s, when most of the residents were relocated to far away suburbs in the apartheid scheme of separating the races under the Group Areas Act.
Today the horrible scars of demolition can still be seen in Fietas. There are several partly-demolished buildings, one a chopped-in-half first-storey bathroom, in 20th Street. The original green tiles have faded in the sun, and weeds grow out of the floor. It epitomises what the suburb looks like now - discordant and sad.
It's not a large area, sandwiched between the Braamfontein and Brixton Cemeteries - 1st Street starts north in Vrededorp and runs into Pageview, which ends in 25th Street, edged by Krause Street in the west and Solomon Street in the east.
Nowadays the area is an odd mix of small, new houses some of which house pensioners, together with old semi-detached houses, some bright purple and turquoise, interspersed with open grassy plots, several of which have been converted into open-air shebeens, littered with garbage, and adding to the dishevelled look of the area. There's an odd corner café or scrap dealer, and several of the streets have been closed off, giving the area a disjointed, cut-up feel with roads that stop midway and go nowhere.
In fact "multiracial" is a misnomer. The area north of 11th Street was occupied by white residents, and across the road and southwards, residents consisted of a mix of coloureds, Malays, and Indians.
Old Joburgers remember with fondness the buzzing atmosphere of 14th Street in Pageview, a street of traders and shops with bargain tables that tumbled out onto the pavement, with the catch phrase of "buy one, get one free". It was a lively community, with shopkeepers living above their stores.
Arnold Benjamin devotes a chapter to Fietas in his Lost Johannesburg. He says about 14th Street: "The small dark shops, most of them selling clothing and soft goods in cut-throat competition, spilled out their wares into display stands and racks on both sides of the colonnaded pavements. Whatever pedestrian space was left would be jammed with a motley, jostling throng of buyers. The clientele covered the entire South African racial spectrum, from mineworkers' black to northern suburbs lily-white. Indeed a good half of the buyers were affluent bargain-hunting whites, their Jaguars and Mercedes prominent among the parked cars jamming both sides of the narrow street."
The Star cinema in 20th Street used to attract hundreds of people; fresh bread was bought at the Atlas Bakery in De la Rey Street; the dry cleaners were on 17th Street and Barclays Bank was on 8th Street.
A sad-looking, shuttered Jajbhay Hall used to be an active meeting place for the sports community of Fietas. Pass resistance meetings and religious afternoon classes were also held in the hall.
Relocations and demolitions
But all this changed in the decade between 1969 and 1979. Residents were notified of relocation plans - Indians were relocated to Lenasia, 25 kilometres south west of the city, Malays and Coloureds were to go to Eldorado Park, around 30 kilometres in the same direction.
Fietas is unique when compared to areas like Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town, both cosmopolitan areas that were also subject to removals and then flattened. In Sophiatown's case, the suburb was renamed Triomf (Afrikaans for "triumph"), and houses for whites were built; in the case of District Six, the area, three decades after its demolition, still remains an empty, windy grassland in the heart of the city.
But Fietas was never completely demolished, and its scars of buildings give the impression that the bulldozers ran out of petrol. The community was able to insist that some buildings remain.
There are two mosques in the two suburbs - on 15th and 25th Streets - which are still standing and are used by local Muslims. The Anglican Church in Krause Road, St Anthony's, still operates. It was used as a refuge in the uprisings of 1976, and, during the evictions, tents were erected in its yard to house the homeless. It is used now as a relief centre, giving HIV counselling to the community.
Sixty-year-old Jasmat Makan is a tailor and has had a shop at the Oriental Plaza for the past 28 years. He moved from Pageview in 1975 where he had learnt the trade from his father in the 1950s. He traces his family back to 1902, when his great grandfather came from India and set up a tailor shop in Pageview.
He had a more fatalistic attitude to the relocations. "The shop was cleared out and demolished afterwards. There was no resistance. What could you do?"
Fourteenth Street nowadays is largely a collection of new houses and empty plots, with one remaining double-storey shop, now shuttered, with its tall pillars over the pavement, with empty plots on either side.
People were forced to sell their land to the government principally because they thought they had no option. Prices paid ranged from R100 to R22 000. In November 2000, claimants were offered R40 000 per plot.
Some 20 homeowners resisted the pressure and stayed, and today still occupy their homes. Sixty-four year-old Rokaya Saloojee, wife of Babla Saloojee, the first "suicide" victim of John Vorster Square - he was thrown from the 7th floor of the building in 1964 - lives in 11th Street, and has no plans to move from her 98-year-old house. "I would live here forever".
She describes the relocations: "We were told to vacate our house in seven days. They would come late at night like the special branch. The door was opened, I didn't hear them but I looked up and they were in the lounge. I said to them: 'I don't care how many days I have, just get out!'
"In 1976 I was in 13th Street when the removals began. My sister was at work and they were throwing her things into the street. I took her stuff and moved to a place in 14th. My furniture was moved onto the streets, and I eventually gave it away to African women with whom I worked. I didn't move to Lenasia like others. I squatted at friends until I moved in here. I lost everything, not even a teaspoon was left."
Her scars still linger. "It was not easy to just close the book. The relocations disrupted my whole life. The Americans couldn't help us, only when apartheid ended did they rubber stamp the changes."
Perceptions differ. Tony van Lelyveld, who was born in 6th Street in Vrededorp, says it "was never an apartheid area. My best friend was an Indian who moved to Lenasia. I knew who lived in the houses from 1st and 17th Streets. Everybody was sad at the removals".
Van Lelyveld now lives in 11th Street in a charming large five-bedroomed house. He says: "I live like a king inside my house but I am not happy now." His house is paid for but he can't sell it. He wants R200 000 for the house but says he will only get half of that.
He cites his reasons for wanting to move: squatters, overcrowding, dangerous streets where drugs and liquor are in abundance, and soup kitchens which "encourage people not to find jobs".
In the first week of September this year the previous Fietas community held a three-day festival in commemoration of their happy days in the suburb, and their removal from their homes. The festival was opened with the unveiling of a plaque on Krause Street and ended with a symbolic crossing of 11th Street, the dividing line between white and black.
Feizel Mamdoo, who was born in Fietas and lived the early part of his life in the suburb, says of the street crossing: "We made contact for the first time with whites - many from the old days - and found out how diminished they were by the removals."
Mamdoo, who was festival director and lives in Emmarentia, says it is hoped that a new community will be created, to "take ownership again" of the suburbs.
Some 313 land claims were submitted to the national Land Claims Commission prior to 1998, by previous residents. The process is held up the slow process of verification of claims, where officials, besides checking the records to verify the validity of claims, have to trace descendants of the original owner and divide the plot equitably between the heirs. Further delays are caused by difficulties in communicating with the claimants.
The land is owned by the national Department of Public Works and the land claims are handled on their behalf by the Gauteng Department of Housing.
A development plan has been approved and in it Pageview and Vrededorp will remain as a residential area, but with the restoration of 14th Street as family-run shops, with owners living above their shops, as in previous decades.
Mamdoo says people who were moved to Lenasia moved to bigger houses on bigger plots, and are now content in their new communities. Some would prefer to be closer to the city centre and to facilities like Wits or Rau universities. A second wave of movement from Lenasia to Mayfair, south-west of Pageview, has occurred, bringing those people closer to the city centre.
Mamdoo says the Fietas Heritage Trust has been established, with several aims. "We want to engage the government and Telkom on Queen's Park (corner of Krause and 17th Streets) which they sold and which is not used now. It is the only available ground for the local community to use as a sports ground." The Trust also wants to preserve the old buildings, even the ruins in the suburbs. And thirdly, says Mamdoo, they want to find out what developments are being planned for the two suburbs.
In time a museum will be established in the area. "There is a certain dynamic about the area, we would like to establish it as a cultural village with a link to Newtown," says Mamdoo.
Mamdoo says there is no support for naming the two suburbs Fietas, as has been done in the case of Triomf which is once again Sophiatown.
Source: City of Joburg website