Raid and the Writingby Samora Chapman / 02.10.2013
My next move was to get a statement from the Metro Police. I got hold of a harried Eugene Msomi, Metro Police spokesperson, on the phone one afternoon… but was shunned to email communication. After weeks of haggling with him I eventually get a response:
This is a social issue and we are only dealing with the policing aspect of the problem. We have nowhere to take these people, most are South Africans, most are drug addicts. The police cars and fencing is to make the area safer for the passing public.
These people are living on Metro Rail property currently, and we do not have any authority to move them from there.
The City is in the process of establishing a vulnerable persons reception centre where people can be taken to and then be passed on to the appropriate social service, albeit government or NGO.”
Senior Superintendent: Eugene Msomi (Divisional Commander: Media liaison & Inspectorate)
The very next day I received a call from a friend, alerting me that there was some serious activity down at Whoonga Park. Could it be that I’d blown a whistle on the whole scene?
So I shoot down there and find police cars and SANDF trucks circling, police dogs roaming and the smell of fear in the air.
The entire whoonga nation, about 200-300 strong, has been chased from their precious little piece of land. But where have they gone?
I take a trot over the bridge and find that most of the refugees are perched on a steep bank on the opposite side of the tracks. I snap a few pics but in seconds the shouting starts and a young, wild-eyed cat in a red beanie comes for me, bellowing: “Voetsek!”
He’s between me and my escape route… but I sidestep him and kick down. He gives chase and grabs me by the jacket but when I turn around he realizes that I’m twice his height and I shake him off while shouting: “I’m going, I’m going.”
Back to Whoonga Park and it’s my first opportunity in weeks to actually get inside. So I slip through the fence and run across no-man’s land. Several cops are now occupying the park… with three vehicles, police dogs and back-up cars circling. It’s a warzone.
A policeman comes to check me out – a serious cop with a shaved head, dog tags and two pistols.
“We moved the whole lot this morning,” says Sgt Pieterse with a yawn. But they’ll be back.
“They’ve all gone to the other side of the tracks though. How does that help?”
“I’ll tell you what the council is thinking. We deal with the issue here in the park, cos this is council area. Once they’re on the tracks it’s up to Metro Rail security to deal with. Which means it goes from a local issue, to a national issue. We just doing our job.”
“Did you seize any drugs?”
“No. We just chased them away.”
Now’s my chance to get down on the tracks, so I climb through the hole in the fence and crouch down on the trackside. The patch of contested land is still fresh with signs of life – footprints in the dust, playing cards, Rizla and burnt out whoonga spliffs.
Everywhere along the train line, there’s people scattered and huddled. Displaced and marginalized with nowhere to go. Over the last week I have been invited in time and again to smoke. To join the hopelessness. But as soon as I’m here with my camera I become one with the enemy.
These people need help. Not more persecution. SOS.
Read the signs
Crouching in the dust I notice weird graffiti all over the place… could this be a clue? A pure, unfiltered form of expression from the people of Whoonga Park?
Throughout the ages, civilizations have marked the stories of their lives on the walls – a written and pictorial history that has often outlived any other records. Just consider the Ancient Egyptians, the San Bushmen, the Azteks.
As I looked back at the photographs I took, I recognized one of the paintings. It’s a weird elongated boat, like something out of the 18th century… the time of colonization. I’d seen it somewhere before.
The words “Chenso Tanaly Hope to sea Soweto” are inscribed on a pole nearby.
If there’s one person who might recognize the whoonga graf… it’s my blood brother, renowned street artist Mook Lion.
And he didn’t let me down. Mook recognized the boat painting immediately… he’d seen it before, in the form of a huge 15-foot mural under a bridge near Congela Train Station, about 200m from Whoonga Park. So we planned a mission to go see the great “Chenso’s” artwork.
One bridge south of Whoonga Park is a series of bridges and tunnels where the M4 hi-way, the metro train lines and the freight lines intersect. The area is isolated, protected from weather on all sides and hidden from view, providing the perfect place of refuge for the desperate.
With my 6’4 little brother leading the way I feel a new sense of determination.
We hop a fence and enter the labyrinth – a vast skeleton of bridges, tunnels and storm water drains littered with signs of life. Mattresses shimmer like wet fish, washing hangs on fences like shed skin and the walls are alive with etchings and weird paintings that reflect the minds that created them.
We tip toe around like trespassers, interlopers from the mainland exploring a lost world. The outrageous devil graf shines like diamonds in a cesspit.
The graf is layered and hard to decipher but there are common threads, and weird themes involving sailing and Europeans.
And then finally we find the big mural of the ship. These words are inscribed on the ship: “ADEBAYOR FOR THE SEA MAN / ALUTA CONTINUA,” and further along the wall: “CHAKANA NO CALL AFRIKA UNTIL EUROPE.”
It’s evident that Chenso and Chakana are responsible for the majority of the graf. And if I know anything about graffiti… its about fame. About getting your name known, breaking the silence and making your mark. About having a voice in the sea of anonymity.
But what does it all mean?
Tune in next week for the final piece of our whoonga investigation: The Stowaways. Read the previous instalment here.
*All images © Samora Chapman.