Click to buy Print Edition Home Page African Writing Online Home Page  
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsMemoirsFictionPoetryThe Call to ActionArtReviews

  Adaobi Nwaubani
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Ando Yeva
  Ayesha H. Attah
  Bobby Gawthrop
  Brian Chikwava
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Crispin Oduobuk
  Fela Kuti
  Fiona Jamieson

  Florence Nenakwe
  Funsho Ogundipe
  Genna Gardini
  George E. Clarke
  Grace Kim
  Isabella Morris
  Isobel Dixon
  Ivor W. Hartmann
  Jane Bryce
  Kobus Moolman
  Meshack Owino
  Mwila A. Zaza
  Patrice Nganang
  Petina Gappah
  Rudolf Okonkwo
  Samed Aydin
  Tanure Ojaide
  Tola Ositelu
  Uche Peter Umez
  Unoma Azuah
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Wole Soyinka

Submission Guidelines

African Writing Archives


Germiston City Hall

 Rethinking City Hall
Isabella Morris

Isabella Morris
Morris has a MA in Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has written a novel on Moroccan migrants. She is a finalist in the 2009 PEN/Studzinsi Awards (for Bluette) and is the 2007 POWA Women’s Writing, short story winner. Her winning entry appears in Breaking the Silence. Her publishing credits include wordsetc, The Times, and Baobab. She blogs at www.

Personal Ghosts
The Germiston City Hall (GCH) is an unremarkable building. Its nondescript yellow brick façade set in a city surrounded by a crescent of Highveld-blonde mine-dumps doesn’t project the gothic grandeur of the Cape Town City Hall, or the majesty of the Durban City Hall; it isn’t quite as modest as the original Swakopmund Town Hall nor is it as imposing as the resilient City Hall in Maputo.  Instead, she squats like an old woman amid other old-maid city buildings, degenerate and dusty, and staring out at a city that no longer considers her its soul. Yet the voluminous skirt of her wide steps and front door fan out to accept the children who return to her folds – I am one of those children, and so were thousands of people who fled from their homes during the xenophobic attacks in May 2008.

Places in our past are landmarks of our history, and GCH is one of my personal landmarks: my consciousness is imprinted with my experiences there. When I first stepped into the gloomy supper hall annexed to the main hall in May last year, nostalgia was provoked by an assault of sensory memories. The smell of the boiled cabbage that accompanied the lunches served when I received mayoral awards during my teens in the mid-70s still clings to the heavy curtains. The bell that chimed in the now-defunct clock tower used to remind me to high-tail it to the bus stop so that I didn’t miss the last bus home. The grey, inky smell on my parents’ fingers, worn-out from counting votes there during elections in the 70s and the 80s, reminded me of long, lonely nights spent reading as I waited for them to come home.

But, most importantly of all, when I observed the bare feet of the refugees I recalled the scrape of the gritty parquet floor under my feet as I dashed around the City Hall in April 1992, flitting between wide-eyed people as I tried to locate my mother and sister to tell them that my father had died suddenly. It is unsurprising then that my involvement in the relief work for the displaced people occurred in the familiar chambers of the city hall that had featured so prominently during various stages of my life.

On the cold winter morning my family and an employee, Ali Phiri, set up two rickety tables and a gas stove on the west side of GCH to feed the foreigners who had been stoned, stabbed, kicked, bludgeoned and abused as they fled from Marathon, Dikathole and Roseacres informal settlements in Germiston. The displaced people stood in an orderly line in front of us, even though they hadn’t had a meal or a warm drink for three days. One man’s head was a scab-cake of dried blood, his blue jersey a stiff, bruised purple from the blood, but he had no other clothes to change into. A man who has lived in South Africa for 21 years, waved his son’s death certificate at us in anger.

“How can you serve food when my son is dead, lying in the mortuary waiting to be buried?” He cried as he walked around in circles, then his shoulders slumped and he apologised for his anger, but he simply had nobody else to tell of his loss. A teenager carrying an empty white backpack with broken zips sobbed without shame as he accepted whatever food and drink was thrust into his hands, but he walked away without gobbling it down; nobody knew who he was, where his family was or if he spoke Shangaan or Portuguese. Another man’s face was right-side heavy from the swelling of the beating he had received; he wore a pair of khaki trousers and his brown chest was naked against the brisk winter wind. He sat on the sidewalk and stared at the yoghurt we’d given him, but he did not have the co-ordination to removed the foil covering; he did not have the energy to release a full sob, pain and anger were strangled in the dry moans that creaked in his throat as he sat trembling on the inhospitable pavement.

A Refuge in Crisis
The GCH had relinquished most of its civic duties to the newly-built Germiston Civic Centre in the 1980s. However, a community’s perception of a place is shaped by their imagined function of the structure and it is evident that the displaced Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Malawians and Congolese in Germiston attached the tag of civic protector to the GCH. Even after independence from colonial rule most citizens of African states have continued to attach political specificity to city halls, regarding them as civic structures. So it was appropriate therefore that Zimbabwean refugee, Joseph Ndlovu (who appointed himself the crisis leader of the locally displaced people) chose to settle the foreign nationals assembling in the streets of Germiston within the structure of the City Hall. He sought out the caretaker and requested the keys.

GCH contained the tensions of the xenophobic event and united diverse groups. It was no longer an inactive structure but had become an active communal container reacting to the needs of the community. As the numbers swelled into the thousands, Joseph called for representatives from the Malawians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans. The Congolese community would not join the displaced population at GCH, preferring to hide their community in an un-named church, coming only for food to take back to where they were hiding. The GCH committee members drew up a list of spaces within the city hall and decided what they should be used for: The Lambert Street entrance was where donations were collected by porters; these volunteers were dressed in bright blue golf-shirts with distinctive orange collars. All donations were carried to the stage where they were entered into a register and from there they were channelled to their respective destinations: Food to the kitchen in the basement, nappies and formula to the nursery behind the supper room, disinfectant and toiletries to the bathroom adjacent to Lambert Street, creams, ointments and bandages to the medical station off the reception hall and blankets, fresh fruit and clothing to the displaced who sat on the chairs or the floor.

Within the physical and the non-physical dimensions of the city hall the foreigners were given an opportunity to claim their lost space. In the main hall, volunteer psychologists counselled people who were traumatised by their experiences. As I watched one of the volunteers touched the hand of someone who had introduced herself to me as Helen, I felt my own mother’s cool fingers removing a thorn from my finger and I smelled the cucumber scent of the freshly cut stems of the roses I was using in a floral arrangement entitled: “Floral Basket Bouquet” for which I was awarded a silver certificate. That Saturday afternoon, the hall was filled with about a hundred young girls and their attentive mothers trying to help them win the floral eisteddfod.

When I visited the kitchen to deliver vegetable graters and bottle brushes and serving spoons, I recalled the Brownie badge for food preparation that eluded me for the best part of my eleventh year because I couldn’t fry bread properly; but etiquette and perfect breakfasts had no place in the steamy kitchen that sweated around the clock to ensure that every one of the thousands of empty bellies was filled.

 In the supper room, entrepreneurs set up shop. One man commandeered some of the plastic chairs and plugged in his television set and charged people to watch the soccer. A man sold bananas for R2 from a big box, upon which he rested his broken leg encased in a plaster cast. One of the porters sold food and clothing from a suitcase piled on top of other luggage.

It is common practice for foreigners to seek out a place in their new environment where they can alleviate their displacement anxiety, and City Hall eased my own civic anxiety. Although I’d spent almost two decades raising a family, I felt ashamed that sometime in the early 90s I’d stopped adding my voice to the injustices that had persisted in spite of democracy. So, having to clear my throat and start campaigning for supplies and corporate assistance quickly knocked me out of my comfortable perch and delivered me into the role of aid worker.

Since the watershed 1994 election, I didn’t think my voice needed to be heard over the cheerful din of people exercising their croaky, untested voices. I was wrong, and speaking to donors and sponsors, I found that I had missed the sound of my voice: I’d missed doing what Sister Finbarr, a beloved teacher had encouraged all of us to do – to help the community. Many of the displaced children who were from Dikatole would have played in the community centre that Sister Finbarr’s pupils had helped to build; for three years we’d held cake sales and jumble sales to raise the money to build the church - that was its original function; but, like City Hall, it had transformed into a community centre.

A Crisis School
Helen, a Zimbabwean mother, approached me in tears, afraid that her son would fail the Matric. if he didn’t return to school. The headmaster at Germiston High School would not take my call; speaking through his secretary he explained that the school could not accept a matric student at such a critical point in the final year and that the school wasn’t responsible for taking in the displaced school children even though they fell within the school’s physical jurisdiction. In the hall itself cabin fever had taken hold and the traumatised parents weren’t able to keep their lively children occupied. In desperation I asked one of Joseph’s officials to go on the stage and announce that I needed the help of any qualified teachers. Eight men and women came forward; Frans didn’t have his papers with him but promised to return to Marathon to retrieve them so that he could be included in my plan to start a school. I could only imagine how desperate he must have been, to want to return to the hotbed of xenophobia, and I told him I didn’t need a piece of paper to prove his professional credentials.

Joseph promised us the use of an unused space in the supper room and in an undemocratic moment I appointed Partson Madzimure as headmaster and while he convened with the teachers to delegate duties I undertook to supply the provisions. I’d built a school once; I could do it again. Jill, a donor from Bryanston, delivered three blackboards, the children’s play-type blackboards, but they would do. Books arrived by the truck-load and crayons, paper and shelving were all in place on the day the school opened. Staff from The Blue Door Hairdresser & Beauty Salon arrived in convoy with the specialist supplies we’d requested.

Humble  Beginnings
Modest Beginnings: the GCH School

I had just dropped my daughter at school the following morning, when I received this sms from Partson:

“Ok set up is in place in the hall wl start registration of pupils. Orientation in hall at 8am.”

Another sms followed:

“Hav opened the schl in style teaching now on.” 

When I retrieved email, there was Partson’s shopping list for the school: “Germiston Refugee School. Books for teachers – teaching guides for pre-grade to Grade 12. Toys, colourful blocks, portable boards, chalk, dusters, charts, magic markers, manila sheets, picture charts, clay for moulding, erasable boards, old tyres, balls, musical instruments (for children), computers.” The occupation of City Hall, and all of its social connotations, provided the different foreign groups at City with a deceptive bond to their assumed country. The school, which was renamed The Good Hope School was a school in the traditional sense of the word, but it could not offer its pupils any of the benefits that came with being a legally recognised school.

Foreigners usually have limited access to South African public buildings, and certainly any city officials who made informal visits to the GCH neither officially welcomed nor rejected the thousands who called GCH home, neither legitimising nor contesting the foreigner’s use of the space as refuge. Because the Germiston Civic Centre had neutralised the traditional function of the GCH, making it a place of unspecified status, it could adopt a political distance from what happened there, but at the same time it meant that this undefined official status made its function flexible and open to new use. GCH became a place in which the displaced, under their own command, could re-order their chaotic world and re-establish their identity. Instead of the static place it had been since the erection of the Civic Centre, the GCH evolved into a dynamic structure and its political impotence was healed by its foreign residents’ need for safety and sustenance, and by their quest to claim their identity. Ironically, the GCH reverted to its traditional function as civic protector.

Throughout the occupation of the City Hall, the sporadic and limited support from local government came in the form of the assistance of the city’s health clinic sisters in the nursery. Food arrived courtesy of a woman who came in her broken car to deliver a loaf of bread every single day; more food came courtesy of Gift of the Givers, the Jewish Board of Deputies, Woolworths, Pick ‘n Pay and hundreds of ordinary local citizens. Red Cross only arrived in the second week, set up tables and wrote down names, but a local construction company, and the staff of a bank, supplied bandages and medical supplies to the two volunteer paramedics - brothers who had taken leave from their ordinary jobs to help until the government stepped in. Medecin Sans Frontiers did not answer their phone, but they arrived shortly after the Red Cross, and the foreign press flocked to interview their representatives.

Every morning when we arrived at City Hall we were assailed with requests, from X who needed ARV medication, to Andrea who needed a multiple plug adapter to charge cellphones. And then there were the smaller groups, the Malawians and the DRC nationals who wanted access to their governments. Standing over the bonnet of our car we telephoned foreign consulates and embassies and arranged their visits to City Hall where they could establish contact with their displaced nationals. Then, when foreign governments no longer answered their phones, we canvassed businesses to sponsor buses for those people who wished to be repatriated. Those who could not imagine a future in South Africa returned home with a bucket of fresh food, personal hygiene supplies and packs of clothing.

The only people who requested money during the entire period were random ‘city’ officials who felt entitled to a stipend; the foreigners themselves asked only for soap and water. Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Council could not supply water bowsers or portable toilets so a metal smelting company delivered at least a dozen toilets and paid to have them emptied regularly.

The benefits of having a stable location were apparent, the sense of location reduced the vulnerability that some of the displaced people felt and provided them with a measure of stability; this was evident in how some of the foreigners continued to work, or look for work, and return to City Hall where they felt safe.

Trauma and its manifestations can not be ignored, and it was in the young mothers that the trauma seemed to be most evident:  their milk dried up and they were unable to feed their newborn infants. Within three days, three babies were born and the new babies and mothers were given a special place to rest in the nursery. One morning I went to congratulate one of the mothers and she burst into tears as she clung to my hand. She was suffering from post-natal depression, and obviously trauma, and as she wept I remembered a more comfortable bed, yet similar disconsolate feelings on the nights when I’d tried to hold my eyes open with my fingers so that I would still be awake when my parents returned home from canvassing or electioneering.

One distressed mother, Patricia, who was unable to cope with the trauma of her experience, tried to strangle her three month-old daughter Priscilla several times, fortunately she was stopped by other mothers in the nursery. When the nursery floors was being cleaned and disinfected one afternoon, Patricia approached me in a state of turmoil waving an empty bottle in the air. I asked someone to take her to the kitchen where she could get the water she needed. The language barrier prevented me from understanding what she was saying, and perhaps had I understood I would have been able to appreciate the depth of her frustration and muddled state of mind.

The next evening she took Priscilla to the toilets and tried to drown her, but again she was discovered. Later that evening she fled, leaving the baby behind. Sister Nomsa who was in charge of the nursery, slept at City Hall and looked after Priscilla but admitted her to the local hospital two days later when she developed a fever. Patricia returned to City Hall and was taken to hospital by a volunteer foster family who saw to it that the distressed mother got the medical and psychological attention that she needed. An email received from the foster family read, “We saw Priscilla and her mother, Patricia, at the Germiston Hospital today. The nurses say that they are both doing very well, and Patricia has managed to carry on breastfeeding.”

When government finally claimed a stake in the xenophobic disaster, the displaced people who remained at City Hall were fortunate enough to have their interests represented by a committee that they had elected, a committee that was representative of all foreign nationals at GCH. When the government announced that the GCH inhabitants would be relocated to a site opposite the Rand Airport, their relocation, while not uncontested, was more easily negotiated because the people felt as though their collective voice had been heard.

Looking back at my exposure to City Hall during the xenophobic crisis, I haven’t confirmed with any certainty who or what legitimises the use of a status-free civic structure like City Hall. What I do know is that when a community inhabits a place they have an expectation of the support that they imagine will accompany their occupation. I believe that it is up to the inhabitants of a place to configure a structure that will reflect their shifting and dynamic needs; this configuration must be inclusive of all groups, whether they are legal or not. To ignore the displaced is to disregard the social realities of those people who are contributing to the social and economic terrain of the country. We should look to creating a sympathetic landscape that includes and nurtures all citizens, legitimate and those who are merely temporarily hosted.

City Hall is a major landmark in the geographical terrain of my psyche. It is where I learned about civic duty and where I re-committed myself to civic involvement. It will always be the place where I had to go to tell my mother that my father was dead. It will always be the place where I witnessed thousands of people catch their collective breaths before they felt safe to reclaim their right to live in South Africa. In the landscape of my life, City Hall looms large and significant – it is the true north on my compass of social responsibility.

Post Script – The Good Hope School is now a legally-registered school that operates in Johannesburg city centre under the headmaster Partson Madzimure. As he so proudly states, 'It is an international school for all children.' 

Copyright © African Writing Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to