Sunnyside, Hatfield, Pretoria, South Africa — 10 June 2017
Early Saturday morning around 8am a group of roughly 40-50 people, claiming to be a medley of community associations, stormed the property of Mthubi the Hub, a nonprofit arts organization based near Hatfield at 1005 Arcadia Street. The mob ransacked the arts house throwing all the artists’ furniture, property, and artwork out on the street. Damaging and destroying paintings, furniture, and art installations, the mob verbally harassed and intimidated the young artists while four SAPS officers stood guard to prevent violence between the two groups.
The illegal eviction, executed with no court order or legal mandate, turned violent in several brief moments. Members of the “eviction team” began punching, pushing, pulling hair, and wrestling with the small group of 8 or so artists. The artists pleaded with the police and the leaders of the mob, and arguments grew more and more intense. The members of the mob said the house is used for prostitution and drugs, but evidence was not found and no charges were filed. Nobody in the eviction team mob would agree to speak on the record or give their name publicly.
“They crushed my dreams, they stripped our artwork down, literally that’s what they did,” says an exasperated Sallie Maloka, Co-founder and resident artist at Mthubi.
She continues, explaining the violent nature of the illegal mob eviction, “They manhandled us. Especially the men were very physical and threatening toward the ladies. They also accused us of being prostitutes and running a drug house.”
“Some of the associates of the mob claimed that they were sent by the University of Pretoria to ransack the house and cause chaos here,” says Izah Kutsh, deputy chairperson of Mthubi the Hub, “which we find very disappointing because we invited the university to partner with us on some of our projects.” He says previously lecturers from UP have utilized the arts house for meetings.
The Hub, established in 2016 and registered as an NPO, hosts poetry sessions, yoga classes, reading clubs, and music shows, all with a focus on African arts and cultural practices. “In that sense, it is very cultural. We are open to all and just about anything can happen here,” says Mthubi the Hub chairperson Amanda Mjindi.
“No drugs or anything, arts and culture only” she adds, referencing the allegations of the eviction mob.
“Mthubi the hub is a collective of artists who have identified the space as an abandoned building and occupied it to establish an arts and cultural hub,” explains Kutsh. “We have taken many strides to insure that artists have a sustainable environment to produce and exhibit their works. We’ve made communication to the community as well as our local municipality and Gauteng Infrastructure, informing them of our presence in the space,” he explains.
Despite this communication and the space operating as an arts NPO, the police did nothing to stop the informal eviction team mob from removing and destroying the organization’s property and artwork.
Hub chairperson Mjindi says that not all of the eviction team mob were strangers to the space. “Three of the men were here a few days before the incident” she explains. “I spoke to them personally, I showed them around our space, told them about our challenges, so they knew that inside, here in the front yard, there are great things happening. There are young people doing amazing things, so they were quite aware of this.”
The backyard is a different story.
Mjindi concedes “our space has inherited the problem we have in the back of our yard” referring to the eviction team’s drug use allegation. “You have the house as it is and it works as an arts hub. If you walk around back you would realize it’s quite a large yard. Recently [the backyard] operated as a recycling site,” she explains, “so a lot of men come around to weigh what they’ve done for the day as far as bottles and cans. That followed with drinking and drugs because these people don’t go home, you know, they’re right there on the low end of our beautiful economy. These people smoke and drink and retire there.”
The residents of Mthubi the Hub have tried calling the police to get the men in the back removed, to no avail. Desperately screaming this to the eviction team mob, the artists tried unsuccessfully to disassociate the arts house from the large back yard and it’s indigent inhabitants.
When Mthubi house resident Phanwell Mphahlele returned Saturday from a morning meeting, he found strangers in his room throwing his belongings in trash bags:
“I got into the room where I sleep and I found this guy busy with a trash bag. I asked him ‘where is my stuff’ then he just told me he doesn’t know. When I went outside there was one wearing my jacket. When I ask him ‘where did you get this jacket,’ he said ‘this jacket is mine.’ Then I’m like ‘how can it be yours, this is mine, there is a marking on the back of it.’ After he saw the mark he was embarrassed and took it off. After that I started yelling at him ‘you know where the rest of my stuff is’ then these people that were with him started chasing me away.”
After removing every item of personal property from the bright, yellow, two-story house and leaving it haphazardly on the street side, the mob chained and locked the doors and walked away en mass, verbally harassing the protesting artists on the way. A couple artists, including Mphahlele, chased after the group saying they had stolen their belongings. More violence erupted as the artists demanded their property back. After a chase down to the next block, they did indeed get their stolen shoes back from the thief when police intervened, but SAPS refused to arrest the individual who took them.
“When we got to him we asked him why he was running and why stealing sneakers. Before he could answer the people with him came to protect him and we started fighting with them. Then it was resolved by the police and we told them to arrest the guy but they never did.” recounts Mphalele.
A couple hours later the artists returned to the house, broke the chains, and reclaimed their space. All of their belongings strewn along the dirt by the street, they began to clean and re-organize their upturned lives. As the struggling artists worked to clean up the mess left by the mob and sort through their belongings, two Tshwane Municipality police officers driving by stopped to inquire about the situation. The officers affirmed the artists’ claims that the eviction was illegal without court mandate, and gave them instructions on how to file a complaint at the Sunnyside headquarters.
“We weren’t approached properly by the people who came because it wasn’t their fight,” says Mjindi, “they were just hired help. I feel that the people really behind us being approached like that are not the ones we met that day. Which is what made it so painful and difficult, because we weren’t dealing with who has a problem with us.
“I feel sad and disappointed,” says Mphahlele “. . . how can our black brothers and sisters do this to their own black brothers and sisters?!”
Mthubi the Hub was established with the South African Department of Social Development on 11 October 2016 with registration number: 179-054 NPO
Written by Jonathan B. Tucker