Have you heard of Mnyama Ndawo?

Mnyama Ndawo is an abandoned building somewhere in Berea – not that any child has ever seen it for themselves. If a thief runs past you down Commissioner Street with his arms full of stolen goods you know where he’s going! – Mnyama Ndawo.  The basement of Mnyama Ndawo breathes out unmarked cars with tinted windows. Decals in isiZulu twirl along their doors, and when you’re old enough you’ll read: ‘Say goodbye to your mother and father…’ . Any child unfortunate enough to be taken by one of these cars will surely have their arms and legs used for muti.’

But if you are taken to that place – sorry, umntwana – then your parents, if they want you back, must never, ever cry or show remorse.

Of course Mnywama Ndawo is a building that exists only through the vivid imaginations of Joburg CBD’s children: a cautionary ghost story for little people who are otherwise feel mostly safe on the streets of the city’s most notorious neighbourhoods.

I first heard about this myth from Lauren Kent, who conducted her anthropology Master’s research on children and safety in the inner city. Kent’s question arose from a simple observation: while most people regard the inner city as a place of extreme risk, children occupy the space with ease and playfulness. Their games take place on the squares, on the streets they dash in between traders with confidence, then walk nonchalantly across the roads, as if daring cars to hit them. Their childhoods are lived far more in public space than any in the suburbs. How then do they understand and ensure their own safety?

To find out Kent practiced ‘deep hanging out’, drawing on drama research methods from Augusto Boal’s ‘Games for Actors and Non-actors’ and theories of surveillance and control from Foucault.

Practically, this meant playing diketo and bringing coloured pens to public spaces to draw with the children. She walked with girls to their favourite shops, and boys and girls led her from their schools to their homes, via their chosen places.

On the whole, Kent concluded, children were not afraid of being robbed, or kidnapped, or attacked. Their biggest fear was simply getting lost. At hip height it is easy to lose perspective, hard to comprehend the bigger logic of the inner city’s map if you only go between home, school and play. So their strategies of safety were about sticking to set routes. And on busy streets the passive surveillance of walkers, sellers, and shoppers provided protection from human threat.

How to square this with the inner city’s reputation?

Kent investigated whether the children’s sense of safety was out of touch with reality. But a thorough search of media records and organisations dedicated to raising awareness about missing children turned up little for the CBD – though much for crimes against children in other parts of the city. The Youth Desk at Hillbrow confirmed that the city had become a safer place for children over the last ten years. Children do not have money or expensive possessions, as such they are little use to muggers; also, on the scales of street justice, harming a child is a lethal offence. There are dangers, explained the Youth Desk, but in lonely alleys and abandoned buildings – the Mnyama Ndawos of the world that their own stories ward them away from.

Johannesburg’s inner city is changing rapidly. Parts have and continue to gentrify, from the state led incremental development of Braamfontein, to the chic private investment led enclave of Maboneng. Though couched in softer language, part of the vision of a safe inner city is one where informality has been fussed and forced out.

That this change is being conducted in a way which may displace the inner city’s mostly working class, often immigrant, population is frequently justified by reference to crime. People live in the midst of unbearable crime, this argument goes, and gentrification will make the city safer for both new residents and those that remain.

Research like Kent’s is scarce. Mostly, little effort is put into understanding safety and public space with such texture.

In the aftermath of Operation Cleansweep, Kent made a petition to the Office of the Premier with a deputation of informal street traders. While the City argued that the traders invited crime by providing a screen for criminals, Kent argued that children, society’s most vulnerable, were not afraid of the men these traders were supposed to be hiding but rather the abandoned buildings which the state had done so little to address over the years.

It is sadly largely the case that those who seek to transform the inner city and the families who already live there are not the same people. There is no doubt that they have common cause in a strategy that recovers forsaken and derelict space. But what about strategies that seek to remove (traders) eyes from the street? Without taking the time for a game of diketo, we’re unlikely to understand how public space really works, and who it works for.


Simone Haysom is an independent researcher and writer who specialises in political economy analysis for the international development and humanitarian sectors. Follow her blog: www.citiesinflight.com.

Head image: Girls play clap-clap games in Joubert Park. Lauren Kent.

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