Site of activists past and present

This piece was originally published on The Guardian website for Guardian Witness #GuardianJoburg

Walking through Newtown and the adjacent historic core of the Johannesburg city centre, you’re reminded of the activists of South Africa’s turbulent past. This is where Mahatma Gandhi, in the early 1900s, and Nelson Mandela, in the 1950s, left their activist footprints. Both heroes are honoured here with statues, as are Albertina and Walter Sisulu. A tribute to activism and democracy was recently revealed on Beyers Naude Square with the slogan ‘Democracy is dialogue’.

Soon after I moved into this part of the city centre I realised that activism, like social and economic turbulence, is not at all a thing of South Africa’s past. Regularly I’m distracted from my work by the unmistakable sounds of an approaching demonstration, the rhythmic toyi-toying reverberating through the streets. Luthuli House (the ANC headquarters), Beyers Naude Square, the Chamber of Mines or any of the provincial government buildings in the area are popular destinations for demonstrations of all sizes: I’ve seen groups of 25 people as well as a march by 50,000 Economic Freedom Fighters.

With its vibrant variety of street vendors and little shops trading shoes and spices mixed with bank employees and lawyers on their way to the Magistrate Court, the area already lends itself to engagement with people from all walks of South African life. Talking to demonstrators has brought me an even better understanding of the issues in the country and a renewed awe for the passion and humanity with which people stand up and fight for their rights, in the spirit of the great leaders who came before them.

Josine Overdevest – 19 February 2016

Image: EFF Activists demonstrating in Diagonal Street across from the Reserve Bank, 27 October 2015 (by Josine Overdevest)

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