/ 6 November 2021

‘He is taking photographs of your house!’

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Rightful owners: Photographer Thato Monare says this type of graffiti in Soweto is an outward manifestation of private conflicts about property or inheritance.

Ku Kithi La: This House is Not for Sale is a long-term in-progress series; a project that came to me when I wasn’t looking. The houses I’d later set out to document had been there all along, I just hadn’t been paying attention.

One day as I was riding my bicycle, I started noticing houses with defaced walls. Some were in my neighbourhood, Orlando East and other townships. There were three of them in a single street in Diepkloof, Zone 2. The walls angrily announced to the world at large: “This House Is Not For Sale!” Once my eyes had been opened, I saw the defaced houses all around Soweto.

Later, when I dug deeper, I found out that the trouble usually began with the death of an elder who is the titledeed holder and the legal owner of the property. The absence of a will (or even, in some cases, the presence of a disputed one), precipitates a bitter family feud that can sometimes go on for years, with some family members trying to sell the houses before the disputes have been resolved. The graffiti scrawled on these properties is an outward manifestation of this conflict.

To my surprise, when I started documenting these houses, seeking them out, I was sometimes confronted with threats of physical violence. “I wish the owner of this house would come out and kick your ass and throw that camera far away,” one guy said to me in Senaoane, deep Soweto. 

In Dube, two teenaged boys who saw me shooting a neighbour’s house called out to him, saying: “Come, let’s fight this intruder. He is taking photographs of your house!” I quickly got back on my bicycle and left. 

But that moment is also when I knew that I was onto something. As a photographer, I value the pursuit of work that makes people uncomfortable. Given the volatility of the status of these houses, I realise why the inhabitants would have felt unsettled.

Sesthedi Kgarume from Orlando East’s 3593 Masutsanyane Street, grew up staying with both grandparents and two sisters in the house. After his grandparents died, his uncle came to stay with them, bringing with him his mistress. The uncle suddenly claimed the house as his, evicting the sisters while Kgarume was away. The uncle apparently wanted the house for his mistress, as he is married and has another marital home. When he went back to his home, leaving the mistress, the community intervened and sent her packing.

In Diepkloof’s Zone Two, 3116 Kagiso Street, I met Gloria Mosehla who lives with two of her daughters and her late sister’s daughter. After Mosehla’s father separated from her mother, he brought a new woman into the house. All hell broke loose when, after the father’s death, the stepmother tried to sell the house without their knowledge. 

Soon, Mosehla says, armed men began frequenting the place telling her to move out of a house she began staying in 60 years ago. She has never been summoned to court, and, because the key harassers are not even relatives, she suspects corrupt housing officials are responsible for her troubles.

In Phile Street, Orlando East, Vusi Msweli and Danny Mlombo lived with their cousin Button in their family home. Button was married in community of property but without a property of his own. After the death of Button, Msweli and Mlombo started to get visits from people coming to view the house, only to have to be told, to their surprise, that the house was not for sale. Again, armed men visited the house, telling them that their cousin had bought the house. 

The siblings opened a case of intimidation and believe they will win further court cases because, to their knowledge, Button’s wife is in possession of fraudulent papers. Rinse, repeat. 

Thato Monare’s series Kukithi La: This House is Not For Sale was first published in Our Ghosts Were Once People: Stories on Death and Dying (Jonathan Ball), edited by Bongani Kona