The resurrection of the street committee

Mxolisi Ndaba (45) was a member of the Soweto street committee. Twenty-six years ago, his township was a beehive of political activism as apartheid entered the twilight of its life.

The United Democratic Front (UDF) was at its prime, calling for widespread consumer boycott particularly for political charged townships like Soweto.

Soweto has 26 sub-areas and Ndaba, then a militant for the UDF, was a member of a street committee in Meadowlands.

"The street committee was a new way in which we were trying to provide grass root mobilisation of the people and also to begin the process of organising society in new ways not in the apartheid order. One of the successes of the street committees was the rent boycott," Ndaba explained.

Ndaba says the street committees also provided alternative dispute resolving mechanism to the apartheid justice system and therefore helped in the boycott of some of the apartheid "puppet institutions". 

Street committees had their own contradictions, Ndaba said.

"At times vigilantes descended to burning perceived spies and collaborators. At times those individuals were not enemies per se," explained Ndaba.

Committees died a natural death
As democracy surged and most of political activists took roles in rebuilding the country, street committees seemed to die a natural death. The only hint of their resurrection came in 2008 by President Jacob Zuma.

Emboldened by a remarkable political comeback following a resounding victory against then president Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane, Zuma called for the establishment of street committees as a weapon to counter South Africa's high crime rate.

In contemporary politics, street committees are regarded as community watchdogs working on the ground to alert police to "crime hot spots" mostly in areas such as Khayelitsha and Gugulethu. Some members risk their lives every weekend to patrol the streets. They also make sure shebeens close on time as well as play a mediation role in ensuring, for instance, that council houses are given to people who have been staying in the area for a long time

Most street committees fall under the banner of the South African National Civics Organisation, or Sanco.

In Yeoville however, a different form of community organising is taking place. Once the heart of Johannesburg's nightlife, Yeoville is today a little frayed around the edges and its cosmopolitan mix of cultures has brought a fair share of excitement and problems too.

White and black people mixed
Previously Yeoville was predominantly Jewish suburb but got a new reputation in the 1970s as the hippy, happy and thriving centre of music, bars, restaurants and clubs. By the 1980s it started its downward economic slide. However, politically it had become a known for liberalism where white and black people mixed defiantly in the face of draconian apartheid laws. 

Rockey Street, for example, was famous for its late nights out and had an eclectic mix of exotic shops, clubs and restaurants but today it's a pale shadow of its former self. However, for residents in the area the fight to restore the area back to its glory days is on – one street at a time. 

Reverend Tsepo Matubatuba, chairperson of the Yeoville Ratepayers' Association, said they aim to "bring back the lost glory of Yeoville". He preferred not to use the word "street committees" because of its association with party politics.

Maurice Smithers, secretary for association, said the committee first decided to commission a team to collect data from the suburb.

"We went out and looked at every single property in the area to see what is happening on it and what condition it is in. We drove around the area over a few weeks and noted down everything that we could see happening on properties in Yeoville [and the neighbouring suburb of] Bellevue.

"Through that we got an idea of how many spaza shops, liquor outlets, churches, guest houses, empty plots, burnt houses, car washes, hair salons .. [there are]. Most of these do not have approval to operate. We want the authorities to find a way to manage the situation to make sure that people do not start businesses, especially in residential areas, without first getting approval," Smithers said.

'Lack of management'
Their data collection recorded that Yeoville has 210 spaza shops, 34 hair and beauty salons, 40 vehicle related enterprises, 20 outlets and 35 guests houses

"The lack of management and by-law enforcement means that people engage in antisocial and sometimes illegal activities, knowing that it is unlikely that action will be taken against them or, if action is taken, it will be ineffectual and so they can simply carry on doing what they are doing. This is having a negative impact on our quality of life and on the socioeconomic conditions of the area," Smithers said.

"There is overcrowding, urban decay, an over-abundance of alcohol, unauthorised land use and building operations, hijacking and unauthorised occupation of properties, littering and urinating in the street, excessive noise and other anti-social practises, unacceptable levels of violence, especially against women and children, a lack of investment, resulting in unemployment and poverty," he added.

Smithers also revealed that they were also challenging the final shebeen regulations and have already written to the Gauteng department of economic development to make their objections.

He says they were concerned about the procedure for granting of the shebeen licences as it did not provide for public challenge like liquor licencing from among other things.

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