/ 24 December 2023

The Rockey road to freedom: An oasis in the madness

Now and then: Rockey Street today (top) pumps as much as it did in the 1990s. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Moses Taiwa Molelekwa recorded a tune in 2000 called Down Rockey Street, on his Genes and Spirits album. It’s part Kingston, part kasi, pure sweet: a spangly cake slice of lovesick instrumental reggae. But Molelekwa’s truer musical analogy for the place that hosted his brilliance can be found in the opening piano riff of the title track: it pours you three shots of propulsive joy, then spills off into ragged discordance. The shot glass shatters.

But don’t take my word for it. During the 1990s, I was in Cape Town, 1  300km from Yeoville when it was the laboratory of South Africa’s radical imagination. After moving to Johannesburg in 2002, I kept hearing echoes of 1990s Yeoville. But I never quite knew what those echoes were echoing.

So this month, I asked around. I couldn’t speak to some legendary Yeovillites. Molelekwa committed suicide in 2001. Brenda Fassie, James Phillips, Sinclair Beiles, Sandile Dikeni, John Matshikiza and Gloria Bosman have also departed.

Nostalgia manipulates history: every-body who lived the Rockey Street dream remembers a different dream. Everybody dates the end of the dream differently: usually to around the time they left Yeoville.

One exception is Sifiso Ntuli, the cultural activist and writer who later started the House Of NsAkO and the Roving Bantu Kitchen projects in Brixton. He stayed in Yeoville long after he sensed the passing of its (relative) innocence in 1996, and he still goes back there to touch base on weekends.

Like many veteran Yeovillites, Ntuli can talk the hind leg off a giraffe. In 1993, on his return from 15 years of exile in the United States and Canada, Ntuli needed to chat — so he made a beeline for Rockey Street, which was rife with hope and hedonism.

Returning exiles needed a little steer to feel their way back home. “A guy called Bra Willy introduced us back to South Africa through Rockey Street,” Ntuli recalls. “He used to be a chef at the Parktonian. We called him the Yeoville Cowboy: he had a hat bigger than Bheki Cele’s and cowboy boots. You’d be sitting at Times Square and Bra Willy would say, ‘Hey, my brother, I know where the party is today.’”

Cue a years-long block party. Initially the party was cathartic: from the East Rand and KwaZulu-Natal flowed reports of massacres, assassinations, and third forces. After 1994, it became a celebration. “We started an event called Dark City Jive at Tandoor,” says Ntuli. “We weren’t even contemplating load-shedding then. We pumped culture.”

The Rockey spirit reached far beyond Tandoor, Ba-Pita, Rumours and Mama’s Pizza. It reached deep into flats and communes, into back-yard jams, Sunday sessions, predawn cool-offs. Year by year, the ambient soundtrack of jazz, world music and reggae became slowly infused with kwaito and house. “Brenda was a Yeovillite,” recalls Ntuli. “She would hang at Times Square. So did Bongo Maffin’s Appleseed and Thandiswa Mazwai, Oskido — most of those hip kwaito acts. There was a lot of hype.”

 The sheer conviviality is what the Guatemalan-born photographer Oscar Gutierrez misses most. He showed up in the early 1990s, unaccountably Central American and somehow totally at home. “I fell in love,” he says. “Such incredible jazz. So many house parties, dinner parties. I met musicians, artists, correspondents. In people’s homes you heard such amazing music from across Africa. Papa Wemba, Salif Keita. We were spoiled.”

Lukanyo Mnyanda, former editor of Business Day, arrived as a greenhorn reporter, straight out of Rhodes in 1996. He rented a room in Dunbar Road and stumbled into a beguiling new world. “So much energy and diversity, and not just racial — there were so many styles and subcultures, from Goths to rastas and everything in between.” At Times Square, he fell in with an ink-stained crowd of off-duty raconteurs – Mondli Makhanya, Thabo Leshilo, Fred Khumalo. “I was younger than them, they were top journalists, so I was a bit starstruck.”

Physical presence and motion was still the medium of social life. “Most people didn’t have cell phones, but you always just bumped into people,” says Mnyanda. “Everybody spoke to everybody. You always knew who would be there. You didn’t have to make plans. You just go to Times Square. You show up and there’ll be a table you can join.”

“Yeoville culture seemed to point to something bigger,” says Mnyanda. “But it was not a bed of roses. There was always an edge.”

Like another country

The photojournalist Guy Oliver knew all about that edge. “There was a time in 1994 when Eugene de Kock’s people followed us from a Rockey Street bar to a safe house,” he recalls. “I was living with a Goldstone Commission witness and his handler. Four cars with about 12 apartheid operatives tailed us from a bar to our first-floor flat. We noticed the tail on the way back and three of us rushed into the building, knowing it was no good. They staked us out for about five or six hours before leaving an hour before dawn. 

“My two housemates stood guard near windows and doors with their 9mm gats, and I spent the night crawling across the floor to fill up empty whiskey tumblers during the standoff. It was just one of those Yeoville nights that at the time did not feel in any way extraordinary.”

The witness had been a Special Forces assassin in the war in Angola. “Those skills were required back in SA, and he served the apartheid government well. Before he turned, of course. They didn’t like that,” Oliver said.

“When I came to Joburg, the witness’ handler, who I knew, contacted me to say he had a place in Yeoville, did I want to stay? I said ja. I had to keep everything under the hood, which was fine.”

After the siege, they didn’t sleep soundly. “We knew that they knew where we stayed. I don’t know if the commission was short of funds. But we just kept on living there, and just stayed on our guard.”

Then came the night photographer Ken Oosterbroek died in Katlehong, felled by a stray bullet. “We had hit every bar between Katlehong and the Radium. I went into the office and typed a eulogy. When I got back it was early bells — about 3am. I didn’t want to wake up my flatmates and came in really quietly. Then felt this gun on my head, and this voice saying “Guy … next time … make more noise.”

Like several other suburbs that had quietly become multiracial in the mid-to-late 1980s, Yeoville offered a chance to project a life beyond racism. “If you were white and sane, you lived in a grey area,” says Oliver. “It was more comfortable to be in a place resembling normality.”

For Oliver, the moment the Yeoville spirit ended was the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. “The thing about history is that people look back and think it’s ordained. That ’94 was always going to happen. That wasn’t the lived experience for me. One day was like, “Fuck! This is not going to work.” And the next day, there was a chance. There were no guarantees. And Yeoville was the oasis within the madness.”

“You got back to the street, and there was a sense of being home,” he says. “Almost crossing into another country. But pressure is pressure. Something was going to crack. And Yeoville’s rhythm relied on the optimism or pessimism on any given day. It created that current. And it died on inauguration day. Which was not a bad thing.

“After voting day, power had not yet been transferred, so there was that lingering thought: what have they got up their sleeves now? There were rumours of mortar fire attacks on the Union Buildings on inauguration day. Once the inauguration had happened, the tension was gone. The tension was everything. There was a lot of sex going on as a product of it. Like bonobos, we tend to engage in copious sex during or after times of stress. So that contributed to all the fucking,” Oliver adds.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers honoured Yeoville’s seemingly ambient sexual charge in this poem: How to stay warm in the city

The Yeoville winter evening

loves its people

skin to skin;

this seducing season that

stripped the trees now

tongues nipples into hardness.

Charcoal breath caresses

naked necks and runs

its freezing fingers over faces;


the limbs with





As the molten heart of day submits,

the city inherits

its transient gold,

but we resist the insistent evening’s kiss

with its

traces of death’s embraces;

we quit the cloying cold


our private and modular

singular accommodations;

one by one

we blow to flame our comfort

and surrender

to domestic rituals:

Yeoville, imboula mountain:

the lights of the flats like embers.

And in the dying years of the regime, a lot of Yeoville sex was interracial — and thus a deliciously political exercise. Yunus Valley explored this horny hotbed in his 2007 autobiographical documentary, The Glow of White Women. One of his interviewees, Glenda Gray, recalled that contravening the Immorality Act in the 1980s “was like snorting cocaine for the first time”. Another, Charlene Smith, remembered how a black lover’s bodyguards — he was a senior ANC politician — were horrified by his preference for “dismayingly flat-chested, flat-bummed” white women.

Valley recalled: “The great thing about sleeping with white women was that you could be sure it would be a fantastic fuck. They might be repressed with their white boyfriends, but when they come to you: whooo!”

As an added bonus, sex with a white woman momentarily jammed the signal of white supremacism. 

“If you had a woman like that, it kind of confirmed your manhood,” he said. “You were equal on many levels. You were completely accepted as a human being.” 

And of course many white lovers were craving a rehumanisation of another kind through the sacrament of sex: an exorcism of racism and/or guilt. If it didn’t quite work, at least the attempt was fun.

That struggle-era impulse toward interracial immersion, whether in the sack or in the street, can look a bit futile and performative nowadays, given our jaded awareness that South African racism is still so deeply present. But at the time, the thrill of “nation-building” was real and moving and delightful. 

On the day Bafana Bafana won the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, Guy Lieberman, a Buddhist, happened to be hosting a visiting Bhutanese rinpoche — a high-ranking lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Lieberman took him to the balcony of Tandoor to watch the celebrations down below.

“There were several of these large group dances, everyone knew the moves, spinning and stepping back, stepping forward, round and round, possibly up to 100 people in unison. It was a beautiful sight,” recalls Lieberman. “Asked what he thought, the rinpoche said: ‘Oh, it’s wonderful! When the Africans dance, it’s like they’re speaking a language. And when the white people dance with them, it’s like the same language, but with a very strong accent.’”

In plain sight

Yeoville had always contained seeds of wildness. Herman Charles Bosman killed his stepbrother on Bezuidenhout Street in 1926. The original community were mostly immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, many of whom came with radical convictions preloaded. Joe Slovo grew up here in the 1930s. Johnny Clegg grew up here in the 1960s, his teenage ear and heart full of illicit maskandi.

 In the early 1980s, during Rockey Street’s emergence as a student playground, it also became a cultural battleground — and Guillaume Rossouw was on the frontline. The renegade son of a Broederbond family, he clocked that something was badly amiss with Afrikanerdom as a kid on his grandfather’s farm when he saw farmworkers’ kids being whipped for not wearing pants on a Sunday. Then a combination of dagga and Frank Zappa combined to deepen Rossouw’s defiance. He fled military service, adopted a pseudonym (Gil Gap, inspired by his brawl-induced lack of front teeth) and became the godfather of Cape Town punk, fronting both the Safari Suits and Housewives’ Choice. Being on the run and also in the limelight was weird. “I was always hiding in plain sight,” he says.

Rossouw has since mellowed, but he had a temper back then, and soon became gatvol of tolerating unruly bandmates. He moved up to Joburg and zigzagged his way into a less  democratic line of paid work: boss of a live music venue. It proved no less treacherous.

His Yeoville venue, the Harbour Café, sold booze without a licence for years because the area’s then-councillor, Tony Leon, had imposed a moratorium on new bars in Yeoville. Rossouw kept a locked door, a sign saying “Private Function” and an arcane password policy to ensure no cops or informers were admitted. 

“I gave people membership numbers, but no card. So your number was your initials moved one digit, then the month you first came there, then your serial number.” When the cops raided, a bright light would switch on, and everyone would sing Happy Birthday. “Then it’s free drinks, but you pay for mix. And in the backyard, people had to throw their dope in the drums (braziers).”

Max Katz often manned the door, armed with a hula hoop, a harmonica and a glass of water balanced on his head. (Katz was also the manager of the Benny B Funk and the Sons of Gaddafi Barmitzvah Band.) “But if there was shit, they called me — I was the actual bouncer, which I suppose I enjoyed.”

The Café hosted some legendary acts, from Tananas to Koos to the Dyslexix. But the Rockey buzz had attracted an inner-city protection racket enforced by notorious boxer Mike Schutte. If it wasn’t the mob tormenting Rossouw, it was dirty cops: one night, a police informer tried to plant bags of dagga in the Café. Rossouw threw him out, but later that night he reappeared and tried to stab him in the neck. “As he attacked I sat down, so the knife scraped off the top of my head, and Herbie Opland helped take it out of his hand.”

(Opland remembers that night clearly. A gregarious son of Hillbrow who lost his virginity in the Cloud 9 revolving disco atop the Hillbrow Tower, he haunted Yeoville’s haunts for nearly two decades. His tales of the Rockey Street antics of his fellow jollers in the 1980s — people like Caspar Greeff, Wayne Barker, James Phillips, Michelle Dean and David Bruce — could fill a book.)

Rossouw felt increasingly trapped. “People didn’t know I didn’t have a licence. They didn’t know there was a warrant for my arrest. You can’t tell people, because if somebody doesn’t like you, they’ll inform on you.” 

The final straw came when he heard that rivals were spreading rumours he was a Civil Cooperation Bureau spy — while the police were trying to bust him. “One Sunday I packed up everything. Pulled out the light fittings and trashed the place. Monday morning early, I loaded everything on a truck and fucked off.” 

He went to Mozambique, and years later reappeared in Joburg and ran the Bohemian.

Rossouw now lives quietly in Midrand. He is recording all the songs that he wrote but couldn’t put on wax during the late 1970s and 1980s, being a fugitive from the South African National Defence Force. He’s finally going on the record.

Last round

Harbour Café became Tandoor, which was the musical epicentre of post-1994 Yeoville. Acts ranged from Bayete to Molelekwa, from Herbie Tsoaeli to the Zap Dragons, from Malopoets to the Springbok Nude Girls. When the stage fell silent, Dj Sbu aka the General manned the decks, provided the resident soundtrack. A resident ganja dealer kept the other dealers at bay.

Many of the emerging Joburg elite — from ANC ministers’ kids to off-duty Nigerian drug kingpins — poured into Tandoor. Wild, ribald dancehall nights were hosted by Andy “The Admiral” Kasrils. 

But the party carried an undertow of pain. As the 1990s hurtled toward the millennium, the HIV/Aids wave crested in Yeoville. Many died of the disease; others killed themselves after testing positive. Hard drug abuse began to scar the community.

For Ntuli, the beginning of the end of the Rockey Street dream for his circle came in 1996, with the death in a car crash of the gifted young journalist Mduduzi “M’du” Ka Harvey. “We had an after-tears for him at Rumours. And that night Bra Willy fell down the stairs, and Eric Miyeni rushed him to hospital, but Willy died soon after. It felt almost like the end of Yeoville. When things like that started happening.”

Like others, he also marks as pivotal the murder that same year of the Jamaican immigrant Ridley Wright, the owner of Crackers restaurant. Wright was stabbed by a drug pusher — and his killing sparked a furious community protest against the failure of the police and Yeoville’s nominal MP, the late Jessie Duarte, to tackle drug violence. 

“And the landlords had started thinking they could charge what they like. And many of the outsiders, for example those from Nigeria, could afford R5  000 monthly rent, without saying how big the family was.”

Immigrants are now probably the majority, but many South Africans still live in Yeoville. Infrastructure is buckling — and so is city accountability and community cohesion. Precarity defines Yeoville life. I spoke to two residents who have lived there since 1989 and 1990: the reggae musician Zakes Wulana and the author and poet Fanie de Villiers, who publishes as “Kleinboer”.

Wulana, frontman of Tidal Waves, is fast losing faith. “The last time we did a gig in Yeoville I think it was 15 years ago. We had dropped our cover to R10. And at that time, they were selling a joint for R15. So the band was even cheaper than a joint. But still people were demanding to come in free. So I just banned Tidal Waves from playing in Yeoville.

“Presently Yeoville has a crowd, not a community,” he says. “The person you see today, tomorrow you don’t see. I don’t have people I hang out with and talk to. I just greet. Even the police in Yeoville are like a Chappie that’s been chewed and the taste is gone. I don’t walk in the streets.”

De Villiers has a bit more tolerance for Yeoville’s chaos. When he bought his house in 1990, the Group Areas Act was soon to be repealed, but he still had to obtain written consent from all the white neighbours so that a black resident — his wife, Nelly — could move in. These days, he has a different brand of madness to contend with: noise pollution, rats and the occasional murder on his street.

“There are three times more people living here than in 1990,” he says ruefully. “The soundtrack of Yeoville is a hammering on corrugated iron: another backyard shack being built.”

We leave his peaceful garden and take a stroll together around the hood. A drug-ravaged man with haunted eyes stumbles past us. A toddler howls, berated by an exasperated teenage caregiver. Kleinboer is hailed by a couple of tavern drinkers as we pass, but like many Yeovillites he doesn’t know many of his neighbours. He is content, though. “If I moved to a neater suburb, maybe I wouldn’t write as much. Maybe it provides a creative impulse.”

For Ntuli, Yeoville’s predicament was not ordained by fate, or by the mere fact of mass immigration into a dysfunctional megacity. He sees it as just one outcome of an old and deep failure of pan-Africanist imagination in the liberation movement.

“In 1994 I flew back from SA just to vote at Yeoville Rec,” says Ntuli. “We sat the whole day at Rockafellas drinking and dreaming about the future — and we would send somebody down every couple of hours to check how long the line was. At 6pm it was my turn and I’m running back to Rockerfellas, and these white kids are walking slowly on the pavement, a boy and two girls, so I was trying to overtake them. And they kept on blocking me. And as I eventually pass them, I hear the boy saying: ‘Oh don’t worry about them — they are always following us.’ I thought: should I turn around and kick his ass? Or should I go have a beer at Rockerfellas? And I chose the latter.

“But 30 years on, that moment still makes me wonder: who is it that we follow? Who are we? What are our aspirations? Physically today, Yeoville is very African. But what is African? Many people fear it because it’s black. If we had visionary leadership, it would be a thriving little African village, with tourists flocking, and the street would be bumping. Life would be great. But no. The comrades are running to New York and sipping cappuccinos in Greenwich Village, and saying: ‘If only Yeoville could be like this!’

“In a way, we are yearning for the Yeoville of apartheid,” says Ntuli. “Let’s just make this shit African — whatever that means. But there’s no creative vision about what South Africa should be. Yeoville was and remains a place of possibility.”

Love and fear

The crux is that Johannesburg doesn’t service undocumented and unpropertied people. Rights create trust, and trust creates investment, both economic and psychological. Too many Yeovillites are not living in the fullest sense. They are surviving.

Author and public arts curator Bongani Madondo, a Yeovillite through the 1990s, says there was an inflection point soon after the millennium. If street crime and slumlords had been stopped in their tracks with some “committed urban governance” — bold planning and progressive policing — another Yeoville future would have appeared. He also calls for some honesty about what xenophobia is and isn’t: to acknowledge the fact of overcrowding is not to dehumanise the crowd.

“Something was bound to give,” he says. “Liberal nonsense tells us it is xenophobic to talk about a flood of new arrivals fleeing political and economic failures, mostly of colonial and post-colonial making, in a country which hasn’t figured out what to do with its own historical inequalities. But there is nothing xenophobic about saying, ‘Wait, guys: how do you intend to accommodate our cousins without proper planning or innovative spatial improvisation?’” 

For example, Yeoville needs a community safety forum, he says, composed of leaders from each immigrant community, working closely with a functioning police station. Which is surely not an impossible dream. “With the place gifted with such tireless social activists such as the irrepressible Maurice Smithers, local government could have also attended to the creation of innovative public spaces and promotion of public culture in a broader way than simply building a structure at the local park. But I don’t think Yeoville can be rescued or vastly improved without some much-dreaded gentrification and a bit of unorthodox hardcore policing. It can’t.”

One day, Madondo would love to move back to Yeoville with his family. “I go back every month to shop for fresh veggies, take my children to its market barber shops, get my shoes repaired, hunt for rare herbs and other esoteric pursuits. There are hard-working, loving and law-abiding folks in that suburb. They love the place as much as the early-1990s radicals did.”

A lack of love has never been the problem. Because fear easily pollutes love, and fear pollutes the lived reality of Yeoville as well as its image. 

“A friend of mine put it this way,” says Ntuli. “In 1994, all the animals were out, playing in the street. Now we’ve all gone back to our cages.”