/ 17 September 2023

The Brixton light festival is at a juncture

The lantern procession moving through the Brixton area at The Brixton Light Festival. (Photo by Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius)

Brixton in Johannesburg themed its September 2023 Light Festival around the continental watershed that traverses the Brixton ridge. The festival celebrated public infrastructure that Brixton hosts because of its elevated location. Those involved in the preparations defied the city’s general mood of worry, pessimism and the state of the infrastructure. For a full year to the month, South Africans have been subjected to near-continuous daily scheduled blackouts, with only a distant horizon of hope for a return to stable power supply. 

Water outages also increased. The Brixton reservoir caters for Auckland Park to the north, Braamfontein to the east and several suburbs to the south. The 1930s water tower, replicated on several other ridges in Johannesburg, feeds taps in Brixton and itself is filled by an electric pump. As a result, power outages have occasioned water outages in this neighbourhood. On the evening of the Light Festival, residents returned home to empty taps. 

Brixton nevertheless dared to commemorate both the marvels of electric light and the theme of water. A resident architect studied topographical maps and chalked the continental watershed on the rough tar of Brixton’s streets and alleyways. Artists responded with murals in warm colours for the Indian Ocean and cold colours for the Atlantic Ocean. Aligning to this, residents swopped their street-facing light bulbs for red and blue.

An otherwise nondescript service lane or alley transformed into a gallery of ocean-themed sketches, paintings and installations, shrines to imaginary water gods and watershed maps and information, all against the backdrop of warm and cold waves. Following calls on the community’s WhatsApp groups, weeks before the Light Festival residents of all generations and backgrounds busied themselves in the alleyway, chalk or paint brush in hand. 

Residential streets flank the Brixton reservoir on three sides. These have long served as canvases for graffiti. An artist directed a group of residents in weaving the enduring graffiti images together with colourful waves. Another local artist oversaw residents stitching tiny red and blue mosaic stones into the tar to mark the watershed line. Ephemeral like the chalk drawings that extend this theme and hardly visible in daylight, after dark they sparkle like broken glass when graced by the headlights of a passing car. 

Kingston Frost Park cascades from the watershed down the northern slope of Brixton ridge to Auckland Park. Its decades-old concrete stormwater channels steer rainwater towards the Limpopo River and Indian Ocean. Park enthusiasts from the community painted murals in wavy lines to tie the park into the watershed theme. 

In all these activities, residents lived the Light Festival. They touched, felt and reimaged the materiality of Brixton’s infrastructure — the textures or, when seen up close, minute landscapes of tar, concrete, plaster, peeling paint and face brick walls. This experience transported them into a creative world in which worries about the country’s infrastructure receded.  

Just two days before the planned market and light procession, news of the horrific inner-city fire punctured this world. The staggering number of lives lost, people injured or missing, and homes and belongings destroyed at 80 Albert Street, followed by reports of xenophobic political rhetoric brought a strong message home that all is not well in Johannesburg. 

Could the festival go ahead, celebrating artists’ skilful beaming and filtering of light onto the city’s iconic infrastructure as planned for 2 September, when neglect of infrastructure and seemingly wilful disrespect of the potential danger of fire or light had caused such tragedy? 

The inner-city fire dominated the media and continues to do so. Critical analysts compare it to the Marikana massacre, a tragic moment that would change the public discourse and political landscape of South Africa. As hard evidence emerges, links are made to the dysfunctionality and irresponsibility of state institutions, the tentacles of criminal syndicates, the breakdown of structures of accountability and collapse of infrastructure. These realities resonate with Brixton. They have seemingly shaped many of its streets and have long dominated the community chats. 

Brixton has its share of “hijacked” buildings. Rent-paying occupants are seen evicted onto pavements with accounts that armed hijackers install new and more lucrative numbers of tenants. Some of Brixton’s densification occurs in this unplanned “hijacked” fashion. With notable exceptions, actual as well as fraudulent landlords subdivide buildings with impunity with no regard for safety or for the capacity of the neighbourhood’s infrastructure. It is generally assumed that when reported to the police or building inspector, complaints are not investigated. 

Several waves of xenophobia have swept through Brixton since the frightful attacks of 2008. The Brixton Community Forum has tried to push back against xenophobic mobilisation but could not prevent the anti-foreigner Operation Dudula from opening a Brixton branch in 2022. 

The market and procession, highlight of the Brixton Light Festival, went ahead as planned, bringing the community and crowds of visitors into a warm embrace. Though not noticed by everyone gathered in Kingston Frost Park, the festivities opened with a quiet tribute to those affected by the inner-city fire before an awe-filled mass began its procession through the ordinary streets of Brixton. Raised cell phones reached for vantage points to capture 25 well-rehearsed performances involving a wide diversity of adults, youths and children. 

Music, vocals, dance and pantomime transformed and activated intersections, entrances and façades of shops as well as residential doorways, garages, windows and roofs. Locally crafted sailing boats fastened to hardhats worn by children bobbed up and down across the watershed-themed tar. The bright yellow front of a pawnshop formed the stage for two local singers, and an ordinary barbershop lit from inside made for a stunning display. 

As during the Light Festival of 2022, Sentech Tower came to life in elegant patterns, red and blue light amplified the classical shapes of the water tower, and the once-conservative NG Kerk formed a stage of multicoloured light for a pounding metal band. These features of the Brixton Light Festival hold two messages for the juncture South Africa finds itself at. One is care and love for the infrastructure residents collectively depend on, the other is a seemingly unlikely embrace across barriers. 

If the open procession in this bottom-up and equalising festival could sweep office bearers and decision-makers into its human mass of awe-filled sensory stimulation and celebration, there is hope for a better South Africa. 

Marie Huchzermeyer teaches in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand and lives in Brixton.