If you go there on a Sunday, you’ll feel the energy in your cells prickle and vibrate. That’s before you get out of the car and hear the chanting; before you see the pockets of white-robed worshippers sitting under trees; before you wonder a little further up the hill, to be greeted by a Jozi vista of skyscraper tower mountains. I’m not a religious person, but I know that The Sublime dwells here. Which, by its very nature, makes it difficult – let’s say, impossible – to put into words.
The first time I visited this outdoor place of worship I was astounded by its beauty – both natural and ethereal. It’s high on a hill, with easily one of the best views of the Johannesburg skyline. It goes by a number of names: Yeoville Ridge, Highland’s Ridge, Highland’s Hill, the lesser-known God’s Land, and simply The Mountain.
Its setting not only attracts vagrants, would-be muggers and holy men, but thanks to the dystopian/utopian views of Ponte and the Hillbrow Tower, it’s also become sacred ground for photographers, filmmakers, and advertising agencies. According to a resident, who lives in the neighbouring art deco Westminster Mansions (which is an entire blog post on its own), everyone from SAA to The Avengers has filmed scenes on the ridge. Notable photographers who have captured this very backdrop include Sydelle Willow Smith [some of her images that form part of a Red Bull advertising campaign were shot from a vantage point on a half-built structure that is now home to vagrants], as well as Mikhael Subotzky’s body of work entitled Ponte City, which also features images from this hilltop.
But its beauty lies in more than just the kickass view. There’s a mystical undercurrent that you can feel if you stand still for a while: it’s seeing a plastic grocery bag transforming into a dervish in a sudden gust of wind; it’s feeling the reverb of the strange-yet-familiar chanting enter your being, through your ears, and into your soul; it’s watching a robed man being cleansed, the priest pouring water from a Sprite bottle over his head in what seems like slow motion, yet not.
After my first visit to this urban holy land, I become somewhat obsessed with the place. I want to know everything about it, and I attempt to track down a number of people who might be able to tell me more. But this proves tricky: emails bounce back, phone calls go unanswered, and many people simply answer my questions with, “God’s Land? Never heard of it” or “Oh, yes, Yeoville Ridge. That’s where the ZCC go to worship. That’s all I know.”
I do discover, however, that an artist and urban geographer by the name of Ismail Farouk made a video piece about the hilltop in 2009, entitled God’s Land. Around that time, it appears that signs had been erected stating that it was a ‘no prayer zone’. According to Farouk’s website, much of the religious activity at the time occurred in contravention of the regulations set out by the City Parks, who managed the space. Farouk states that City Parks often enforced these regulations by “threatening to arrest worshippers for loitering”. This is interesting, because there are no signs up now.
After much pestering, I finally manage to track down Maurice Smithers, an ex-struggle activist and long-time Yeoville resident. Various people have told me that he’s the guy to speak to. I meet him in a tiny, stuffy fifth-floor office in the middle of Braamfontein. A whiteboard has PEOPLE’S MANIFESTO scrawled on it in scratchy purple marker ink. I want to ask him a million things, but I start with the signs.
“They were probably taken for recycling, or pulled down as an act of defiance. But anything in Yeoville that’s metal goes for recycling. Around the World Cup police chased worshippers away and accused them of loitering – probably because that ridge was pegged to be used as a vantage point for the games because it’s above Ellis Park. There were TV crews up there at one point,” he tells me.
He adds that he doesn’t find God’s Land mysterious at all – that I’m reading too much into things.
“You need to see it in a broader context – people pray outdoors all over Joburg. It may also be something very practical that developed during apartheid. Most ZCC [Zion Christian Church] members are working class and poorer, so they wouldn’t be able to contribute large amounts of money to build a [church] building … I don’t think it’s necessarily a spiritually significant space … but it’s hard to tell, there could be groupings who choose to worship outdoors for spiritual reasons.”
The ZCC church is one of the largest African initiated churches in southern Africa. According to Wikipedia, these are Christian churches independently started in Africa by Africans, and not by missionaries from another continent. The oldest of these is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which dates from the 4th century. ZCC members can often be seen performing rituals and listening to sermons outdoors, especially on Sundays. They also wear different coloured robes and uniforms and place emphasis on prophecy, purification, and faith healing.
I remember that the Westminster Mansions resident told me that it’s not just ZCC worshippers who go there, but many non-South Africans can be found there, too.
“The Yeoville/Bellevue area, according to the last census, is 52% foreign nationals – so it’s not surprising that people from all over Africa go to worship there,” he says.
I ask him to tell me about some of his experiences on the hilltop.
“That ridge for me is very important because I start my Yeoville tours from there. I always stand on the south-western tip; you have this fantastic view of the city. As I explain the history of Yeoville/Bellevue, I can do so in the context of the city of Johannesburg ‘down there’.”
“A friend of mine, who is a photographer [Gideon Mendel] did a photographic study of Yeoville in 1985; in 2010 he returned to re-shoot the area. Together we saw a long line of people, queuing up for a priest with bottles of water. At the feet of the priest was this pile of broken glass. I wanted to understand what was going on. One day I was up there, I saw a woman who was filling lots of bottles with water. I asked her what she was doing; she told me that worshippers come to see the priest and they would buy a bottle from her that she had filled with water. They would take a note they had written on paper; they would put the note in the water and shake the bottle until the paper started to disintegrate. Then they would go to the priest, and I guess he would then bless whatever they had written. The bottle was then smashed.”
He tells me that he’s concerned about the ridge because it’s very dirty. “People dump rubble – it’s why I’m a little bit cynical about the place. But I said to the woman, ‘What about all the broken glass?’ She told me she takes it for recycling. So she provides this business, which is amazing, a cycle of use and re-use and re-use.”
“What disturbs me about it, is that I’m absolutely sure that when people dump rubble there along the edge or down the ridge, the worshippers just carry on praying. They have no immediate and direct concern about the environment they’re in. Yeoville/Bellevue is a badly managed area, so people do the things they do because they can. The police may well have tried to chase people away during the World Cup, but there’s no consistent process to deal with the issues: we need to sit down with the worshippers and talk to them and engage with them. I believe it should be public land, then it would be better maintained.”
I tell him that I’m aware that the land is actually private property, and no longer owned by City Parks. I’ve been told that it’s owned by a Mr Moodley, as part of a family trust.
“We’ve been trying to track down who has bought the land because we want to know what they’re going to do with it. My understanding is that the owner has bought all of it, including that half-built structure. Apparently he wants to build flats and a Woolworths.”
A Woolworths? God, no.
But why has this land been sitting idle and vacant all this time? Is it holy ground? Again, Smithers offers a more pragmatic answer.
“There may have been restrictions on the land. I remember back in the ‘70s or ‘80s, there was talk about establishing a greenbelt in the city that was going to start in Hillbrow and move long the ridge to Bezuidenhout Park. There’s a bridge that goes over Nugget Street, which was intended to facilitate this walking trail.”
“In 2006 the inner-city charter forum process began – again this area was designated as a greenbelt. It would’ve been completely logical in the ‘80s when Yeoville was the place to be, to build something alongside the Westminster Mansions. The half-built structure has now become partly incorporated by worshippers as you can see them walking along the ‘roof’ of it.”
He tells me that a lot of people gather in groups on the hill, but many also go alone and “just sit and pray for hours”, enjoying spiritual communion under the trees and with the skyscrapers. “It’s a very personal engagement. I often see people on that half-built structure, in a walking meditation.”
“But why don’t you just go there and talk to the worshippers?” he adds.
I felt a little intrusive when I was there, as people were talking to God and I didn’t really want to interrupt them. But he had a point, so the following week I return to the ridge. I see a group of three women, all covered in white headscarves and robes, sitting on the ground. They’re not mid-prayer or song, so I muster up the courage to talk to them.
“Hello. I’m Ang.”
I get that familiar look from the oldest-looking woman: the universal ‘you’re so adorable and must be an innocent young girl’ look that Turkish grandmas and Japanese octogenarians have given me in the past. Her cataract crone eyes smile at me. They all greet me in return and I kneel down next to them. I ask them where they’re from and one of them says, “Zimbabwe.” I ask them if they’re ZCC and I get a fairly emphatic shaking of all three heads. “No, not ZCC,” says one of them, who has now become the main speaker. “We’re Apostolic*. That group there is 12 Apostolic.” She points to a nearby gathering of 20 people or so, none wearing robes, except for the priest, who happens to be laying his hands on a woman’s head, who’s convulsing on the grass and making weird noises.
They tell me that they live in Orange Farm, and they travel each Sunday to Yeoville to “relax” and pray. I ask the main speaker why they don’t go to a church to pray, why it has to be outside. “Oh! A church is too expensive!” They all laugh and smile and tsk-tsk at my question.
“And what do you call this place?”
All three suddenly start to kneel and I take that as my cue to bugger off. I thank them and make it look like I have somewhere to go. I wander off to the side, only to be approached by a non-robed man. We shake hands.
“What is your origin?” he asks with a thick, Francophone tongue. It takes a while for me to figure this one out, but I reply with, “Johannesburg.”
Feeling impressed with myself I ask, “And what is your origin?”
“The Gambia,” he replies. “I’m Johnny.”
I’ve never met anyone from The Gambia before. I make a mental note to google it when I get home.
“But I live in Switzerland,” he adds.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“Oh, I just come here to chill. Do you smoke ganja? You look like lady who smokes ganja.”
I tell him I don’t have any marijuana.
I ask him if he came to pray here.
“I don’t go to a church, it’s too expensive. In Switzerland it’s so cold, so I like to come here for a holiday, to just chill in the sunshine. Sometimes I pray, too.”
When I get home, the first thing I do is google ‘The Gambia’. Because that’s how I roll. Turns out, a couple of weeks’ ago, The Gambia’s president banned flights from Guinea and nearby West African countries from landing at his country’s airport, thanks to an outbreak of ebola. But he’s apparently an impulsive kind of guy: he also said in 2008 that all homosexuals should leave his country; if they don’t their heads should be cut off.
Some of my questions about God’s Land have been resolved, but many remain unanswered. What if Mr Moodley decides to build on it to attract the ‘right kind of people’? Where will the worshippers go? Will this lead to Yeoville’s spaza shop owners being replaced with ironically-bearded coffee barristas? What was that ’12 Apostles’ priest doing to that woman? What were her demons? Why does Johnny live in Switzerland? What’s the story behind the Westminster Mansions? Why do I look like a lady who smokes ganja? Why all the white robes? What happened to Maurice during the struggle?
Perhaps, sometimes the best answer to a question is another question?
*Some African initiated church denominations call themselves “apostolic churches”; they are similar to Zionist congregations but often place more emphasis on formal theological training (Wikipedia).