‘You can be stabbed for being different’ – Living in a township in South Africa

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Collens Mohlaba and Thapelo Tebele live in a township in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the townships, life stays the same throughout time. There’s no change so there is no hope. At the ‘I was shot in Joburg’ art gallery in the city, Collens and Thapelo have turned to making jewellery to escape the lack of hope in their township. 

Collens Mohlaba was born in 1990. He says his community lives comfortably with old practices, and with no sight of a better future ahead of themselves.

‘Growing up in the township you are surrounded by problems, people from the townships don’t adapt easily and they don’t welcome change easily. Most of us the way we raised, I was born in 1990. 

The way I was raised I can still see people who were born last year or this year being raised the same way. Even though it doesn’t suit them anymore. They think of protecting a culture. 

I love that culture because I came from it but it doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t help me become a better person but what it mostly does is push me down and tell me I will amount to nothing. I know that being a young black man I don’t want to end up being the guy that sits at the corner smoking, doing nothing with his life so I have to pay a bit more attention to me.’

Unfortunately, the scenario he gave is a reality for many poor black men in South Africa. They don’t amount to much except to earn the title of being a ‘curtain’ man. A curtain man is someone who stands on the corner of a block or road, all day doing mostly nothing like a curtain drapes a window everyday.

Thapelo says he believes it’s the mindset of the people in the townships holding them back from doing something new.

‘The bigger problem in the townships is the mindset, where people don’t want to go out and look for something. People just want to chill and praise people on screens. They don’t see themselves creating or doing something for their lives.

Many kids and old people think they should live and die in the townships. People there never dream big. My friends don’t believe in creating or bringing something that is new to the eye. So they told me that I won’t create stuff that does not exist or ready. People think small.’

‘Sometimes it’s even risky to be different in the township. You can even get stabbed for that. Maybe people are changing slowly but as far as 10 years prior to now, you would’ve gotten stabbed for walking around with what looks like a chain but it’s not a chain you can buy, it’s not a chain everyone knows.

It’s almost like you need permission to be yourself in the township and that’s what I mostly find challenging.

The earrings we make are from parts thrown away. Seeing them as products that have come from what is deemed dead, helps us to grab the opportunity to create something from the things labelled dead. It keeps us out of trouble for one and it’s a nice habit. One that we have grown to be attached to,’ says Collens. 

We are using what we have to move forward. The earrings for us are about creating. Taking nothing into something.’

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