No prisoner is an island

City Press November 2013 –

In the B-Section yard of the ­Robben Island prison, South ­African struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada points to the famous black-and-white photograph of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu deep in conversation in that very yard.

As photographers kick up dust ­behind him, Kathrada explains that the prisoners were unaware that this photograph was circulated to the world as part of the apartheid government’s propaganda campaign.

Majed Bamya, a senior official in the Palestinian foreign ministry’s prisoners portfolio, translates Kathrada’s story of the photographs into Arabic for the group gathered beside him.

Kathrada pauses, allowing his words to settle on the Arabic speakers before continuing.

Still pointing to the photo of Mandela and Sisulu, he says Mandela, as a black man, was allowed only short pants and no socks in the prison. Kathrada, meanwhile, as an Indian and was allowed long pants and socks.

His small audience is captivated.

Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti shakes her head in disbelief.

It is a privilege visiting Robben Island with the 84-year-old Kathrada. The man who spent 18 years in the ­island prison alongside the likes of Mandela, Sisulu and Govan Mbeki is the most qualified of guides – a role he was asked to take by Mandela himself in 1994. Since then, he has shown heads of state and celebrities around the notorious apartheid prison, from US President Barack Obama to singer Beyoncé.

Today is different. Kathrada is both tour guide and comrade to a delegation of senior officials from the Palestinian Authority who are here to campaign for the freedom of the man they call “the Palestinian Mandela”. Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in Israel in 2003 for his part in the Intifada uprisings against Israeli occupation that started in September 2000.

Kathrada was inspired to take up the cause of political prisoners on his return from a recent visit to Palestine, which he says made him realise that Palestine is a colony of Israel.

Inside the prison cell that was once Mandela’s, Kathrada signed the
Robben Island Declaration, calling for the immediate release of Barghouti and other Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli custody.

Barghouti, now aged 54, and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was once an ardent supporter of negotiations with Israel, but as talks floundered on the creation of an independent Palestinian state, he rose through
resistance politics to lead the second Intifada. He was convicted of three terror attacks in which four Israelis and a Greek monk were killed, as well as in another charge of attempted murder and membership of a terror organisation.

He was also accused of having founded the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a charge he denies. His lawyers insist he is a political leader who is unfairly being held responsible for actions beyond his realm of influence.

Throughout his trial, he maintained that his capture by Israeli forces and subsequent trial were illegal. He refused to recognise the court, and his lawyers instead sought to put Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory on trial.

It was Barghouti’s rousing speech at the end of his trial that drew comparisons to Mandela. He said in Hebrew: “The occupation cannot continue over the Palestinian people who want freedom and independence like every other people in the world.”

The similarities between the struggle against apartheid and the fight for
Palestine were not lost on the men and women gathered under Kathrada’s wing on Robben Island last week. It was here that political opposition in South Africa was sentenced to a slow death.

“There are so many similarities,” one Palestinian politician remarked.

According to Addameer, a Jerusalem-based nongovernmental organisation offering support to Palestinian prisoners and torture victims: “As of September 2013, there were 5?007 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centres, including 137 ­administrative detainees [prisoners held without trial], 12 women and 180 childr en.”

The organisation estimates that about 40% of Palestinian men have been arrested at least once in their lives.

“This affects virtually every Palestinian family,” says Bamya. “It means you have plenty of families who are missing a father, a brother, a son. It means a strain on mothers?…”

While Kathrada admits it may be some time before the campaign sees results, he believes it will succeed in increasing international support for Barghouti and other political prisoners.

The Robben Island Declaration will be circulated to civil organisations around the world before it is submitted to the Israeli government.

The latter, however, denies that it has any political prisoners in its custody.

It argues that prisoners like Barghouti are convicted terrorists. Similarly, the SA Zionist Federation has condemned the campaign, saying it is “insulting and demeaning” to South Africans to draw comparisons between Barghouti and Mandela.

“Palestinian Mandela” or not, Barghouti – also known as the Prince of the Resistance – is respected, even ­revered, by all Palestinians.

His support base goes beyond the banners of Fatah, Hamas and the
Islamic Jihad. Barghouti himself is a member of Fatah.

And as he languishes in an Israeli prison cell, Barghouti is still considered a favourite to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian Authority president.

In a message read out by Fadwa on Robben Island last week, Barghouti spoke directly to South Africans.

“There is clearly no [Charles] De Gaulle and no [FW] De Klerck [sic] yet in Israel,” he wrote. “The struggle of the anti-apartheid movement has transformed Robben Island from a symbol of oppression to a living testimony of the triumph of freedom over chains, of light over darkness, of hope over despair.

“I will come and visit this place one day, a free man, citizen of a free country, and with freedom as my horizon. I am reminded of a great man, who did not only see that horizon, but shaped it with his companions, including from within prison, the great Nelson Mandela, the heart of your inspirational power.”

His message is signed: “Marwan Barghouti Cell no 28, Hadarim prison.”

Poetic Leanings



Breaking promises
Unread Merriments
Filling Spaces
Remove me from this thread.

Attempted Flirtations
Aborted Applications
Lost Supplications
We’re meeting this weekend.

Electronic Ticket Receipt
Five Star Fanagolo
Oh look, pretty shoes
Book me on this flight please.


Mayfair: How dodgy is my ’hood?

City Press 15 October 2013 – 

Mayfair in Joburg is where the Sun, Moon and Star, each the name of a corner barbershop, take each other on in the fiercely contested male-hairdressing trade.

It’s here in Mayfair – between a traffic light that hasn’t worked for longer than two weeks since it was installed two years ago, and a BMW showroom that is now a shopping centre – that Mogadishu is not just a city in Somalia and Hanover is not just a town in Germany.

As the sun dips low in the sky over Arthur Bloch Park, the call to sunset prayer sounds over Mayfair, a chorus of voices calling the Muslim faithful to pause and reflect. Traffic on Hanover Street has ebbed.

A trickle of cars flows into the mosque’s parking lot. Men and children walk to the building in groups, chatting in the glow of the sunset.

Hanover Bakery prepares to close and a guard watches over its entrance with a wary eye. Down the road, the Bangladeshi-owned corner shop has shut, but still serves customers through a small opening in its gate.

When darkness descends, there’s little glamour about Mayfair.

Residents scurry indoors behind high walls and electric fences – if they are lucky. The less fortunate retire to flattened-out cardboard boxes beneath the stars on Railway Street.

This is Mayfair, where people seek refuge from bloody conflicts and hopelessness and where people come to survive, whatever it takes.

Mayfair, home to the middle class, working class and homeless. A home to Somali refugees, Ethiopian asylum seekers, Tanzanian shopkeepers, Malawian cooks, Turkish butchers and Pakistani barbers.

It’s a chaotic union of colour, language and culture that seems to find harmony in only one common complaint: that the Somalis really must learn how to park better.

This is Mayfair, where, between the cheese deli and the fruit juice shop on Queens Road, is “Dr” Moosa. He plies his trade in bringing back lost lovers, rescuing businesses, predicting futures and righting past wrongs.

He and his colleagues are keen marketers. There’s hardly a street in Mayfair that hasn’t been littered with pamphlets advertising the services of prophets, doctors and holy men.

Those in Mayfair are not unique in the attention showered on them by these peddlers of the dark arts. But in Mayfair there are other dark arts that others rarely see advertised.

Pamphlets advertising everything from prostitution, “hit man services”, your choice of narcotics and “terrorism training”, all conveniently located at a hair salon on Church Street, were distributed in sealed envelopes earlier this year.

One pamphlet announced: “We are freedom fighters. What we don’t get, we will grab. As you know that Home Affairs and South African Police Services is in my pocket. I will be more than happy to provide you my services to sort out all your illegal matters, the only condition is that you have to put your hands in the pocket and spend money that’s all (sic).”

By the end, the pamphlet seemed to be lampooning itself. It just couldn’t be real. Still, some in Mayfair were shocked, while others were less surprised.

As one businessman puts it: “It’s probably a hoax, but that salon has a dodgy reputation.”

Months later, the salon’s owner dismisses questions about the pamphlet, saying he identified the employee who did it “and we gave him a warning”.

“I don’t want to talk about it any more,” he adds.

Some in Mayfair wonder whether Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor was right when she said it is no longer easy to obtain a South African passport through illicit means.

The so-called White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite, who reportedly lived in Mayfair, was somehow able to obtain a South African passport.

If you want a SIM card that has escaped the Rica process, need to renew a driver’s licence without the queues, prescription drugs without the prescription or a firearm licence without the test, there’s always someone in Mayfair who knows someone who can help.

In the Amal shopping centre in Mayfair’s “little Mogadishu”, Somalis are annoyed at journalists who have beaten a path there, hunting for clues about Lewthwaite’s stay in Joburg.

A middle-aged Somali man sits at the reception desk of the shopping’s centre offices.

“Nobody knows this woman (Lewthwaite) here. How will a white woman be here with Somali people and nobody can remember her?” the receptionist asks.

The shopping centre has the feel of a Middle Eastern souk, though it sells chiefly cheap Chinese goods. A group of the man’s friends gather around.

“Somali people are not so advanced to know how to make fake passports,” the receptionist says. “We know that if you want fake passports, you go to Hillbrow?…”

One friend adds: “To the Nigerians.”

The receptionist continues: “But you know, even in the immigration, if you have enough money, you can get a real South African passport.”

The friend interjects again: “But us Somali people, we are not doing these things.”

Somali elder Sheikh Ahmed Abdi says his countrymen have carved a niche for themselves in Mayfair, because this is where they’ve felt most at home.

“Somalis are Muslim. They are 100% Muslim. When they settled here in this area in the 1990s, this was a Muslim area. They want to be connected with their faith – at the mosque and the madrasah (religious school) and all those things,” he says.

Mayfair was also a convenient base for Somalis working at the Oriental Plaza in neighbouring Fordsburg. Few Somalis, however, work there any more.

Abdi describes the Somali community as a “business-minded people”. And their South African neighbours take issue with that.

Bird Street has been entirely transformed in the last two years.

Homes have been turned into restaurants. The ground floors of blocks of flats are now shopping centres. All this has been done without rezoning permissions or respect for bylaws.

But as Somalis radically convert parts of Mayfair, they are also credited with driving up property values.

“The price of Mayfair has gone up,” Abdi says. “When you are talking about rent or to buy houses, it’s gone up.”

Few homes for sale in Mayfair are bought by anyone else. No one knows where the money comes from, but speculation is rife that Somali piracy has provided some of it. Abdi denies that Somalis are flaunting any ill-gotten wealth in Mayfair.

“It’s not that they have the big money, but the money that they have is from hard work. They go to the locations and work hard without electricity, water or anything,” he says.

“This is the securest place in Johannesburg, because people see this as a safe haven.”

Hairdresser Ivan Constance has spent most of his life living and working in Mayfair and Fordsburg. His salon on Church Street is always on top of the latest gossip.

Constance shakes his head at “the drugs that are going on”, but has harsh words for some of those who have moved out.

“Somebody came and said to me, ‘Oh, is it safe for me to park my car here?’ My God!” Ivan says with disgust.

“You come here to the butcher shop. Your parents live around the corner. You come to the spice shop here. You come and buy food at Akhalwayas and you used to go down to Rama’s to buy your veggies. Now everybody comes here to Sameer,” he says pointing out the window in the direction of the Egyptian grocer.

“So why do you ask me a stupid question like that? It’s because you live in the north now.”

As Constance bemoans the squalor he believes is bringing Mayfair down, others are more upbeat.

Muhammad Abdul-Azeem says, “There are no junkies. At least you don’t see many junkies hanging around here.”

He has recently opened a restaurant, Heavenly Smoothies and Sandwiches, on Church Street.

Still, Abdul-Azeem admits crime lurks in the shadows.

Mayfair is many things. It is dodgy in places and some of its people are indeed dodgy too. But it is much more than that. It is home.


Poetic Leanings


AmsterdamSummery Sunday Afternoon in Amsterdam
Boats laden with love and laughter
Quickly pass
Tourists wearing cameras like neck chains
Dragging big bags through crowded walkways
Looking for some place to call their own
In the city
In themselves.