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The Utopia That Apartheid Destroyed

Avalon Cinema, 17th Street, Fietas, before its destruction under the Group Areas Proclamation.
SourceDavid Goldblatt

The Utopia That Apartheid Destroyed

By Vishakha Darbha


Because they were torn apart.

By Vishakha Darbha

The road was brimming with its usual display stalls, merchandise and cars as the Indian Bazaar of 14th Street got underway. The hustle and bustle, with traders and customers converging on this bargain hunter’s paradise, made it seem like an ordinary day in Fietas. 

But something was amiss: Large banners peppered the Johannesburg neighborhood’s skyline, one offering a defiant take on Confucius: “Don’t you do to others what you don’t want others to do unto you.” It was May 1976, and the residents of Joburg’s once-famous Petticoat Lane were waging war against an uncertain future. As part of a diverse neighborhood, the residents of Fietas — the unofficial name of Pageview — were being pressured by the white government to make the area more homogeneous. This led to protests and refusals to comply … at least for a while. But the area — once teeming with traders and families chatting on verandas — is now defined by brick skeletons of abandoned homes on overgrown land.

Such multiculturalism ‘was the culture of Fietas, and the government took it all away with the stroke of a pen.’

But this image, taken by South African photographer David Goldblatt, is one of many decorating the interior walls of No. 25 14th Street today. Black frames hang next to each other on the creamy walls of this well-maintained building — a neighborhood anomaly — offering glimpses of an almost forgotten time. “The Indian Bazaar on 14th Street was central to the economic and social life of this neighborhood,” says Salma Patel, curator of Fietas Museum. One image reflects “the concept of oopar makaan neeche dukaan” — upstairs living and downstairs trading arrangement — the norm in this part of town. Patel created the museum as an ode to this area’s history of ethnic diversity.

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Banners on 14th Street, before destruction of Fietas under the Group Areas Act, circa May 1977.

Source David Goldblatt

The building has also been her home since 1987 and is the only building standing amid a backdrop of urban decay. “My mother and father got married in this house,” she says, explaining how her surrogate grandmother’s son was one of the first Indians to resist forced removals in the area. 

Created in 1893, Fietas shifted from being a predominantly Black neighborhood to a multiracial one. Its streets are numbered, running parallel from 11th to 26th Streets, and each is connected to De La Rey Street on one end and Krause Street on the other. Beyond was the all-white community, which wanted to expand and change the vibrant, multicultural dynamic of Fietas. Under Apartheid, South Africa used the Group Areas Act of the 1950s to reassign racial groups to different residential and business sections, leading to the breakdown of neighborhoods like Fietas.

By the 1960s, there was a steady stream of families leaving the community as they gradually made their way to other parts of Johannesburg. But Selma’s family refused to budge, despite government warnings and eviction notices. She points to the bright blue exteriors of her home, compared to the despair along the rest of the street. “We fought to keep this house,” she says.

Today, her museum traces the history of the area, offering images of everyday life. One shows Avalon Cinema on 17th Street, a theater that regularly featured Indian films for the area’s South Asian crowd, just before its destruction. The book Gandhi’s Johannesburg: Birthplace of Satyagraha, by Eric Itzkin, mentions the use of Avalon Cinema before the 1960s, when it was known as Hamidia Hall. A hall, Patel notes, used by “both the British Indian Association — founded by Gandhi in 1903 — and the Hamidia Islamic Society at the forefront of the Indian resistance in South Africa,” highlighting its diversity.

Such multiculturalism “was the culture of Fietas, and the government took it all away with the stroke of a pen,” Patel says. Her childhood was shaped by the constant threat of dislocation and by protest. By the 1980s, Fietas was already a defeated community, with most voluntarily leaving or forcibly being uprooted. Very few stood their ground, but No. 25 did, and it became a hub of activism. “I grew up in a culture of social-justice movements, peoples’ tenacity and absolute acts of defiance,” Patel says. But still the once-diverse neighborhood slowly morphed into one that lost its roots. By the mid-1970s, most were forced into townships designed for particular racial groups, like the predominately Indian community of Lenasia. 

So Patel recently converted her home into a monument to celebrate the social and political hub of her younger years, complete with an interactive wall inviting visitors to leave their own family images and postcards — their remembrances of a neighborhood and its forgotten way of life. Indian–South African filmmaker and writer Feizel Mamdoo, whose family was one of the first to leave Fietas, says there was always a longing to return to the area’s strong community bonds. But he admits that “my emotional and spiritual realization of Fietas only came after 1976,” when he began to see the value of reintegrating the country. 

Patel concludes the museum tour by pointing to her home’s red pillars. “This building is where generations of families lived and traded,” she says, noting how destroying it would’ve been a disservice to their memory. Which is why “we fought for this house,” she says. “And, 22 years later, why I cannot leave.”

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