At 43, Xolani Hlongwa has the oratorical gifts of a street preacher. Words emerge from his mouth as free associative concepts but empathically declaimed, giving the impression that they have been mulled over for a lifetime.
Before planting roots at the Green Camp, an abandoned corner building at the industrial end of Glenwood, Durban, Hlongwa lived something of an itinerant life.
“I’m a professional ballet dancer,” he says. “That was my first exposure to the international world. But I’ve been a social activist, DJed and worked at a backpackers. With GPM [Ghetto Prophecy Movement, a hip-hop crew/social activist group], we were the first people in Durban to take hip-hop from a clubbing space and made it a cultural thing. That opened up opportunities for me to meet people of different cultures. From there, I met Swedish people who convinced me to come to their country. Now I’m a fluent Swedish speaker.”
Work and meaning
In Sweden, Hlongwa continued to work in various service fields, such as at a holiday camping site and running an organic kitchen.
“The idea for the Green Camp came about from the difficulties I witnessed in my travels of about 16 years in Europe,” he says. “Being there, you look at home through a different lens. There I saw that everything we were taught at school was a lie.
“All the wealth is over here,” says Hlongwa. “I felt homeless in Europe, but when I came back I felt homeless at home through a set of circumstances that were designed to bring a negative impact in my life.”
Hlongwa calls the Green Camp an “urban farming, urban renewal project applying indigenous knowledge systems and based mostly on renewing the inner environment”.
“As a result of being homeless and all the stuff gleaned from my travels I came up with a design of: How do I build my home. That’s why I had to start everything from scratch, hence Green Camp.”
Green Camp, with its absence of a roofing, its situational graffiti and a horticultural maze might be a shock to South Africans who haven’t been abroad, says Hlongwa, “but travellers from overseas are like, ‘Wow we’re seeing this with an African eye now’.”
Hlongwa’s model in interacting with his local environment, a hotbed of drug and drug-related activity, is what one can call reverse gentrification.
Asked about a group of men who squatted in the building, leading to a confrontation once they were discovered, Hlongwa says: “[Unlike gentrification], we have the pulse of the people because we are in the broken environment. I tell them that I am homeless just like they are but for a home to be sustainable, it needs an income and I can’t do it alone
“So what is the next stage? It’s that we clean up the property so it is fit for us to stay. So I’m giving them the power to decide what they are going to do with their lives. I tell them that I bought the property. However, I recognise that this is their home and they have been living here for years.”
As Durban follows in the footsteps of other South African cities, where gentrified spaces have come to be synonymous with a lifestyle of progressive entertainment, by forging links with the cultural side of the city, Hlongwa and his fellow campers are intent on bucking that trend.