A public art mural in Yeoville is a wall of both pain and hope

Conceptualised by hip hop artist Sleezy to raise drug and alcohol abuse in this community, Kick the Habit! Stop Drug and Alcohol Abuse, is funded by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture through its Mzansi Golden Economy Programme.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

As music publicist-turned festival producer Tembi Mahambehlala, hip hop artist Sleeze and I make our way through the crowded streets of Yeoville, east of Johannesburg, on our way to a public mural highlighting the danger of drug and addiction in the community, I am intrigued to realize that this suburb has life and energy of its own. . This is irrespective of its reputation of crime, and grime, said to be slowly tearing apart this community.  People are walking about in its streets and they are wearing happy faces even as they face an uncertain future. 

There is a lot idling in the streets. Unemployment and their impoverished status are obvious to notice, but the people seem to be happy at least in the streets. If this is a mask for suffering, they are doing so good to hide it from a casual observer. 

They seem to be oblivious of their suffering and their precarious existence in this once thriving neighbourhood, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many in this community, until two months ago, were eked out a living through hawking in the streets, in an disorganised fashion.  Walking in the pavement of Yeoville until now meant that one had to negotiate their way carefully to avoid walking on top of various wares, ranging from tomatoes , apples, vegetables and even fish, being casually displayed for sale on the choking pavements.  

But two months ago, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police together with a group of volunteers from the community moved in, clamping down on the hawkers, basically implementing City-by laws that have always been in the books but had long been neglected by various city administrations over the years.  Howev er with this recent clamp down, Yeoville’s streets now look cleaner, unrecognisable from the chaos they once were before this operation. To make it worse, criminals and all sorts of miscreants easily melded with hawkers in the streets, for of course sinister reasons.

 It however does not mean that everyone is happy, particularly those earning a living through hawking in the face of unemployment in the community.

“I just do not like it when they take the food stuff away. The question is where do they take these things to? Asked one concerned visitor as she watched the Metro Police confiscate some stuff from a tiny group defiant hawkers playing a mouse and cat game with the police as they try to hawk their stuuf in the prohibited streets.

However the public mural I am being taken to by Tembi and her grandson, Sleeze, is about raising an issue of a different kind, and that is drugs that are said to be destroying this community slowly as drug and alcohol addiction is said to be prevalent in Yeoville.

But if the whole truth be told, the issue of drugs in Yeoville is not a new thing as even in the past, there were whispers that drugs were being taken. But the difference between then and now is that, then it was a habit of the high class who  lived there and who when the situation became bad for them had the support system to afford rehabilitation. But now, the drugs of various kinds said to be peddled in these streets are consumed by the very poor who neither have the support system of the affluent, nor can afford the cost of being booked into a rehabilitation centre.

It is in this context that Sleeze’s intervention has been designed and hopefully, it will play its part in creating awareness about the  effects of drug and alcohol addiction in this community.

The project called Kick the Habit! Stop Drug and Alcohol Abuse,, is the brainchild of Sleeze, a hip hop artist, who was born and bred in the area, and who is expanding his musical expression that deal with socio-cultural issues in society into the realm of visual art.

This self expression journey took several detours, including as a promising soccer player when he was still a student at Highlands North High School, before settling down as a hip hop artist who has collaborated previously  with the likes of Gigi Lamayne and Emtee, among others . Sleeze is currently working on his debut album  titled 2198 in reference to the postal code of the area.  He intends to release the album in June this year. That is what he is busy with right n=now, that is if he is not working as an activist creating awareness about drug abuse in communities in general and Yeoville in particular.

“When I realised that this child has talent is when I saw a picture of him in a local newspaper, photographed while he was on the sports field playing soccer. That expression on his face, well captured by the photographer, opened my eyes about his talent. To be honest I was shocked as he kept us in the dark about his talent. He hid it from us as family until that picture was published. But now he is following my footsteps in the music business. It is OK. We will support him. But next year he is going to university as he will need that in his career,” Tembi said proudly about her grandson. She regards him as her own son, although in fact, Sleeze is Tembi’s daughter’s child. Tembi brought him up from birth as his own mother struggled with drug addiction, a situation Tembi today still fights tears when she talks about it. Sleeze, now aged 22, who is the cousin of the late hip hop artist Mpura, is still to meet his  own father.

His music career is on the ascent however. His latest project that consumes him right now is raising the issue of alcohol and drug abuse, which he maintains is a huge problem in the area.

However in his case, the campaign has a personal twist to it.

“Drug and alcohol abuse is a huge problem in this area. But in my case, it is personal as my mother is struggling with drug addiction and I therefore I have a personal encounter with the damaging effect of drug abuse as it affects my own family too. And so I decided to do something about it by registering a company called Africhill Entertainment in 2019, which was meant to manage my music business. However I also realised that I could do much more than managing my music career with the company, such as conceptualizing and designing Kick the Habit! Stop Drug and Alcohol Abuse,, using the medium of public art.

The artist, told CITYLIFE/ARTS that he feels that he has a responsibility using his privileged position as an artist to assist a neighbourhood that groomed him (he has since moved to  upmarket northern Johannesburg suburb of Fourways with his grandmother Tembi) to deal with its demons.

“It is so painful to see the people I grew up with are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, living a wasted life in the streets. However when they see me driving around, they feel motivated and encouraged. I also encourage them to kick out the habit by telling them that the future will look bright for them too without drugs. One way of doing this is to have this mural in which friends of mine I grew up with from the community are assisting me. So far the people that are affected by drug addiction are responding positively to the messaging in the mural. They greet it whenever they pass here as they can see their lives being portrayed on the wall, and hopefully it will assist them to reflect on their own lives and work towards kicking out the habit,” Sleeze, whose real name is  Simamkele Mahambehlala, told CITYLIFE/ARTS in an interview on Friday, March 18, 2022 held at Ekhaya Restaurant in Yeoville.

One of the people who are assisting Sleeze in this mural project is visual artist Mpho Vuzane, who we found busy putting finishing touches to the mural that we were told will be launched soon.

“II think this way of highlighting drug and alcohol abuse in this community that I once called home before moving out to Kensington, is working because when those struggling with drugs pass here, they stop, and are mesmerized by the mural. The point is so many people in this community are addicted to drugs and they are too proud to talk to others about it. But this mural I think will initiate that conversation about drug addiction in the community,” reflected Vuane.

The messaging in this mural, which is strategically positioned on one of the busiest street corners in the suburb, Hunter and Cavendish, is loud and clear. Besides making this one time  dirty wall splashed with papers advertising from penis enhancement remedies  to those advertising accommodation, the wall now does not only look pleasing aesthetically, but the messages carry a life changing  possibility for Yeoville’s drug addicts.

As a whole the overall message on this wall does not shy away from highlighting the extent of the problem, but it also sends out a message to victims of the scourge, and that is that there is hope in a life after drug addiction after all.

For example there is a painting of a desperate looking figure emerging from a dust bin, on the left contrasting sharply with an image of a well dressed young man wearing an suit expensive suit, complete with an equally expensive chain on his neck. This image could carry a double meaning. In the first instance, it could read as cutting the image of a drug dealer enjoying the proceeds of crime and addiction at the expense of those addicted. In that sense it is an image which is in sharp contrast to the images of those desperate to get out of addiction, as represented by a painting of the young wasted young man emerging from a dustbin, next to the image of a painful face of someone drugging themselves to waste.

In the second instance, this image can also be read as that of a one-time drug addict who has overcome his addiction and is now enjoying success as a respectable human being after cleaning up. Either way, this is a powerful depiction of the problem facing this community.

In all these images the evil twins of homelessness and drug addiction are the visual motifs that carry the narrative of the danger of drug and alcohol abuse in this community. This is however not to suggest that every homeless person is a drug addict in the streets of Yeoville, and other places. It is however to paint a connection between homelessness and drug addiction in most of contemporary South Africa’s streets.

Kick the Habit! Stop Drug and Alcohol Abuse is therefore a powerful visual representation of the danger of drug and alcohol abuse in the country in general, and Yeoville in particular. This is a wall of both pain and hope.

.Kick the Habit! Stop Drug and Alcohol Abuse mural is at Corner Hunter and Cavendish, behind the Yeoville Fresh produce Market.


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