ON PATROL IN THE CITY
Ntombi Theys
Name: Nthombi Theys
Age when interviewed: 48
Born: Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa
Interviewed in: Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa
Interviewed by: Ryan Lenora Brown
Photographed by: Madelene Cronje
Ntombi Theys is a lifelong resident of Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s oldest black townships. Her childhood sprawled across one of the most violent times in the neighbourhood’s history, as it became an epicentre of protest and resistance against the apartheid regime. For much of her adult life, Theys has been deeply involved in city politics as a ward committee member and community organiser, working to reduce the neighbourhood’s high rates of poverty and unemployment, and to fight crime in the area. She told her story at the offices of the Alexandra Stadium, where she works as an administrator, and at her home in Alexandra.

My family is old Alex. We have been here from the start, from the time when it was just farms and there was no city up here at all. That was back in the 1920s and my grandfather was working as a farmhand in this area when he caught word that someone was selling plots of land nearby. He was just an ordinary gardener in those days, looking after the crops and the cows and what have you.

But land wasn’t so expensive then as it is now, and he was able to save enough to buy himself a little plot. And once you have land, so many things become easier. My grandparents built a house on that land, and then some rooms outside it that they rented out. In actual fact, this land thing made them businesspeople. So that’s how it started for my family. We’ve been here ever since.

In all the time I’ve known it, Alex has been a mixed-up kind of place. For a long time, before the apartheid government got to us, we had all kinds of people living here – there were Chinese married to coloureds, coloureds married to blacks, blacks married to Indians. My own mother is a Khoisan lady from the Northern Cape. She’d come to Johannesburg after she finished school to look for work, and she was staying with her sister on 14th Avenue.

She met my father at a garage in Orange Grove and they married young, young, young – maybe 18. That’s just how it was in those days. His mother didn’t approve, really. She probably wanted an African lady, a Xhosa like them, not some coloured girl from Northern Cape. But what could she do? That was Alex. You met everyone here. That was just how life was. I was the first child, born in 1968, and then after me came four boys. Four! My mother hoped and hoped for another girl, but I was it. We stayed in the yard outside my grandparents’ house – all seven of us in one little room that was our bedroom, kitchen, sitting room, dining room, everything all at once. To get to the toilet, you had to walk outside. At night, especially in winter, you just prayed you wouldn’t need to go.

Still, I was a child then, hey, so most of the memories I have are good. They called Alex ‘the dark city’ in those days because we didn’t have electricity, but there was something homey even about that. Your mother would keep the house warm in winter by cooking something on the stove, so that the whole place stayed cozy and nice all night. And we used to say back then that we all knew each other even in the dark. We could identify our neighbours by walk or shape or voice. You used to know, even before you got close, that this was Ma Moloi, Ma Dlamini, Ma Ntuli. There were trees all around – fruit trees – and as kids we used to go up and down picking figs and apricots. Sometimes when we were good, our mother gave us money to go to the shop down the road and buy the thing we called atchar bread – atchar and polony on a thick piece of white bread – or else peanut-butter sandwiches. That was our menu, and we loved it. You know, Alexandra was so nice then.

So we kids, we were happy, but for my parents, things were getting tough. In 1974, the city council came to us and said, we are buying your house. They didn’t ask us, they told. Your choices were either you forfeited the land and took nothing, or you kept the small money they felt like paying you and then became a tenant in your own home. So that’s what we did. My grandmother started paying rent on a house she’d owned for 50 years. Like it or not. That was life in Alex too.

WE AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE

Over the course of its history, the city tried repeatedly to uproot and relocate Alexandra residents from their plots on prime land – usually with little success. In the 1960s, they announced a different tack: to turn Alex into a ‘hostel city’ where workers could be housed in boxy, single-sex dormitories. All family houses would be eliminated. In the late 1970s, a local Dutch Reformed Church reverend, Sam Buti, started the ‘Save Alex’ campaign to fight forced removals to Soweto and Thembisa.

That was my first time becoming an activist. My mother was very involved in the campaign and she brought me along as well. We wore these white T-shirts that said SAVE ALEXANDRA across the front, and we would go with the reverend to different houses where people were being removed, where their stuff had been put out on the streets. Sometimes they even took their doors and windows off, just to make sure they’d really go. So we went to those houses and we brought it all back in. When they put us out, we put ourselves back in. That was how we did it.

I look back on those days as the beginning of my time organising for the community. I still remember the day we found out we’d won, that the city wouldn’t be moving anyone anymore. It was the most exciting day of my life. Just imagine – we were all in the street, screaming, crying, singing, singing, singing until midnight and beyond. ‘Our Alex has been saved by God,’ people were saying. ‘We aren’t going anywhere. We’re going to stay.’

A few years later, in 1987, I finished school and went to work. By that time, my brother, who had been a student activist, had been arrested and tortured. It turned him somehow. He’s never recovered.

Anyway, that same year, I fell pregnant. I was so embarrassed – I was so young! It was supposed to be different for me. But luckily for me the baby’s father was 100 per cent involved. We named our daughter Dimakatso – Maki for short – it means ‘surprise’. He was a taxi driver; he ran the first taxi business in Alex. And he loved us and cared for us every second of his life, until 28 July 2001, when he was shot seven times in a taxi shootout.

I can remember a few years after Maki was born, how Alex was starting to change. Now, Alex has always been a very diverse place. Those Chinese I mentioned, they were always living with us, talking in Zulu and Sotho and Afrikaans, and we loved them so much. And there were Indians and coloureds like my mother and all of that. We valued that diversity. There were even a few from foreign countries – these Zimbabweans and Malawians who got work in white people’s gardens in Joburg and then came to stay with their girlfriends in Alex. But the number wasn’t too much, neh? Only a few.

It’s after Mandela came out that that started to change. I still remember him coming on TV and telling us that we’re not going to have electric fences on our borders anymore. People aren’t animals. They shouldn’t die like animals trying to make a better life. But yoh, once that fence was gone, things got too easy for those people coming over.

And bit by bit after that, they began coming here, to Alex. That’s when the influx began, and then it became uncontrollable. Why I say uncontrollable is: Alex, all through my life, has been full of people without jobs, without good shelter, without enough food to eat. And all my life, we’ve been waiting for a government that understands. When the ANC came in, we believed we had one, neh? But then all these foreigners started coming here and offering to work for less than Alex people would. A construction company would say, ‘We can pay you this much to work,’ and South Africans would say, ‘No, no, it’s not a living wage, I can’t accept it.’ But the foreigners accepted that yes, this is not good, but it’s better than the situation in my country so I’ll take it. That made us feel like our human rights were meaningless, you know? If the Constitution says a man must be given a dignified wage and then a foreigner comes and says he will do it for less, then what does that right mean at all?