Disclaimer: Any views expressed by individuals and organisations are their own and do not in any way represent the views of The Heritage Portal. If you find any mistakes or historical inaccuracies, please contact the editor.
In the article below, journalist Lucille Davie tells the story of the creation of the Fietas Subway mural. The article was first published on the City of Joburg's website on 10 November 2010. The mural is impressive but it has not been given the respect it deserves. In 2018 it is a shadow of its former self covered in graffiti and advertising.
Harry the fat man, a dancing couple, St Anthony’s Catholic Church, the Avalon Cinema, 14th Street, a mosque minaret, the Oriental Plaza peacock, a donkey cart: these diverse images and others capture tender memories for the residents of the former Fietas.
Mosque Minaret (Lucille Davie)
The Oriental Plaza Peacock (Lucille Davie)
Dancing Couple (Lucille Davie)
14th Street (Lucille Davie)
They line the subway walls under the railway lines in De la Rey Street, linking Fordsburg and Vrededorp. The mural is huge, covering an area of 1 538 square metres, running along the walls on either side of the subway for 26 metres.
Old photo of the Subway (source unknown)
A recent view of the Fietas Subway (The Heritage Portal)
Fietas, the name used by residents of Pageview and Vrededorp to designate their area before they were uprooted in the name of apartheid, will always be remembered with great affection.
The artwork is a mix of media, with silhouetted images overlaying one another, some whimsical and playful, others calling up painful memories. Elegant lampposts and most of the figures and birds are made of steel, bolted to the wall; bicycle reflectors are positioned in patterned wallpaper, while the other images are painted on to the walls. The reflectors and sections painted in road-marking paint mean that the mural lives at night too.
Birds bolted to the wall (The Heritage Portal)
Problems experienced during the installation were dealing with damp, which has been treated, and taking off up to 10 layers of graffiti. The walls have been sandblasted and waterproofed.
The mural was a collaborative effort, commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and overseen by commissioning agent The Trinity Session, 26’10 South Architects and Feizel Mamdoo, a former resident of Fietas. Bie Venter was the project co-ordinator. The Fordsburg, Pageview and Vrededorp communities were extensively consulted.
Philippa Frowein, an architectural assistant at 26’10 South Architects, says working in the subway was difficult. Cars and trucks raced past, and the pavement was narrow, having to accommodate pedestrians and trolley pushers. Materials were stolen, and when work halted temporarily during the World Cup, graffiti artists stepped in to leave their irritating trademarks. These were generally incorporated, in an effort to complete the project on time.
Graffiti remains a problem (The Heritage Portal)
Other images include a child on a swing, a boy kicking a soccer ball, a gabled Fietas house, a tram running through the subway, a policeman checking someone’s pass, and an image of Mamdoo, his brother and mother walking to school in Fietas. The mural is pulled together with fluttering red pigeons scattered throughout.
A policeman checks a man's pass (Lucille Davie)
All the scenes were taken from original photographs of the area and its people. Shopkeeper Yusuf Garda supplied many photographs from his precious collection, taken when Fietas was being demolished.
But other images were included along the way. The trolley pushers created several ruts along one of the walls, when edging past a lamp post. At first it was decided to fill the ruts, says Frowein, but the ruts remained and it was decided to capture a trolley pusher into the design. The men were reluctant to be photographed, so a female trolley pusher was eventually captured on film; and she has taken her place in the tapestry of Fietas life.
Female trolley pusher (Lucille Davie)
Harry the fat man
Mamdoo was born in Fietas and relocated to Lenasia when he was nine years old. He has organised the Fietas Festival for several years. He explains that Harry the fat man treated 14th Street as his home – he was always there and no-one ever questioned where he slept at night. He disappeared when the suburb was flattened, and eventually died.
The cheerful wallpaper pattern, which lines the walls at the beginning and end of the mural, was taken from the wallpaper in the Docrat house lounge. All that remains of the house in 20th Street are two chopped-in-half rooms, consisting of a piece of ground floor and first floor bathroom, symbolic of how demolition was halted, leaving Fietas suspended in its abuse.
Cheerful wallpaper pattern (The Heritage Portal)
All that remains of the house (The Heritage Portal)
Artists Rookeya Gardee, who was born in Fietas, Bronwyn Lace and Reg Pakari were selected to represent the images in the mural.
“For the artists, the process of creating this design has been extremely intense … Representing this in one artwork was their major challenge,” indicates the briefing document.
Following extensive consultations, which involved 15 engagements and workshops with the local Fietas community, a series of images was selected, resulting in “the true diversity and spirit of the area fondly called Fietas”, becoming apparent.
Former and present residents revealed in the workshops that they had treasured photographs of the suburb, which contained “the stories and spirit of Fietas strongly within them. For this reason the artists have decided to use these photographs as the major inspiration for the design.”
All parties see the artwork “as a starting point for true acknowledgement of the history of Fietas, the impact of the forced removals, the unbreakable spirit of these people”.
Pakari, a graphic designer by profession, says he is very excited by the project. The translation of the flat images from the computer to the walls is something in which he has taken pride. But the process has had a more profound effect on him.
“I detach from my work [as a graphic designer], but there was so much emotion in the interviews that it awakened an emotional side in me, which was a turning point,” he explains.
This has influenced his personal life, he says; he is now more wary of the little things. “The project has awakened a part of my brain to do with awareness.”
And he now understands why people hold on to memories. “Sweet memories become sweeter over time,” he says, referring to the memories of those who lived in Fietas.
Describing the project as an “emotional rollercoaster”, Pakari has been prompted to take a studio at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg and is immersing himself in art more fully. “I have suppressed this part of my brain; I love the freedom of being an artist.”
Indian residents of the old Fietas were moved to Lenasia, coloured residents to Eldorado Park and blacks to Meadowlands in Soweto, in strict conformity with the Group Areas Act. Whites, who lived north of 11th Street, remained.
With the wealth of material that was gleaned from the interviews for the project, an exhibition was put together at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg, curated by Bronwyn Lace.
One of the stories was that of Ntate Modikoamane and Junior Jacobs, who were born in Fietas in the early 1960s and grew up in the same backyard on 18th Street.
They saw one another as brothers – Junior’s mother raised Ntate because his own mother was imprisoned for seven years.
In 1975, they were separated when Fietas was dismantled - Ntate was classified black and Junior coloured, and they went to different townships.
The interviews with both men, answering the same questions, ran simultaneously at the exhibition. It illustrated how differently they lived their lives after the different race classifications and their removal from Fietas.
The traders from the buzzing 14th Street, patronised by all races from Joburg and beyond, were moved to the newly built Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg. The street was lined with double-storey buildings, with traders living above their shops, their goods tumbling out on to tables on the pavements. Only one of these buildings remains in the street.
Old photo of 14th Street (Fietas Museum)
Oriental Plaza (The Heritage Portal)
This house survived and is now the Fietas Museum (The Heritage Portal)
It was a lively, cosmopolitan community – the boys played cricket, soccer, tennis and rugby at Queen’s Park; the children played in the streets and on the pavements; the 20-somethings met one another at the Avalon or Star cinemas; mothers bought bread at the Atlas Bakery in De la Rey Street, or took their jackets and trousers to the dry cleaners in 17th Street; and everyone shopped in 14th Street.
Jajbhay Hall in Krause Street was used for sports meetings, religious classes and pass resistance meetings. Two mosques in Fietas, still standing, served the Muslims in the community.
Nowadays, the former Fietas is an untidy mishmash of original semi-detached homes, new, squat houses that look as if they belong somewhere else, and empty plots of land windblown with garbage. It remains in its time warp, awaiting the final settlement of land claims.
Pageview looking worse for wear (The Heritage Portal)
The JDA has spent R800 000 on the project, and will in time place a heritage plaque in the subway. “It is important that both communities, from Fordsburg and Pageview, have been represented,” says Celestine Mouton, a project manager at the JDA.
Advertising covers a large part of the mural in 2018 (The Heritage Portal)
Lucille Davie has for many years written about Jozi people and places, as well as the city's history and heritage. Take a look at lucilledavie.co.za