Africa Day in new Yeoville

THERE is a new sense of renewal in Yeoville. Millions of rand are being spent on public spaces, there is a vibrant night life and a resurgence of civic society.

People are tackling issues affecting them head-on in the legendary Johannesburg suburb.

I am at the Yeoville Recreation Centre on a Sunday afternoon. People are streaming into a renovated hall. They are South Africans, Congolese, Somalis, Zimbabweans, Zambians, Malawians and others from other parts of the continent.

The occasion is a symposium on identity and freedom. It is part of the Yeoville Africa Week Festival, which started on May 22 and will culminate in a major festival tomorrow. It will showcase African food, literature, craft, music, clothing, poetry and films.

The festivities have been put together by the African Diaspora Forum, which represents the interests of African immigrants, the Yeoville and Bellevue Stakeholders' Forum and the City of Johannesburg.

For the next two hours or so, the discussion focuses on issues affecting African immigrants throughout the world and in South Africa in particular.

Inevitably, issues of xenophobia and racism are the focal point of the discussion. A number of speakers present papers. There i s a South African, a Zimbabwean, a Congolese and an Englishwoman with a Caribbean background .

Lebogang Pheko, a development economist, political analyst and business consultant, presents the South African perspective on freedom, identity and xenophobia.

"It is important that people understand that nothing has changed in politics and capitalism since the pre-freedom era," Pheko says. "The enemy has not changed. It's a question of knowing where the enemy is coming from.

"Today they talk about the free market, but the only problem is that this market is not as free as people think. Decisions as to how much we must charge for our products are not decided by us, but by the World Trade Organisation."

"What happened in the country two years ago made me apologise to all Africans. It was not xenophobia, but Afro-phobia. It should never happen again in a civilised society."

Sabelo Sibanda from Zimbabwe says civic society has abdicated its role in society, letting regional governance structures such the African Union and Southern African Development Community make decisions affecting ordinary people while the ordinary people have no say.

"I ask, where is civil society in all this? NGOs have become moribund. They do not want things to change for the better for the ordinary man because if that happens, the executives will have no jobs," he says.

This discussion takes place against the background of a fast-rejuvenating Yeoville that has in the past few years seen R40million pumped into it by the Johannesburg Developments Agency. There is a new and bigger library and a new interactive website called Hotel Yeoville started. Raleigh and Rocky streets have also been rehabilitated, creating freshness and exuberance.

Night life is once again vibrant and enticing. Restaurants such as Ekaya, Kin Malebo and Kulwano Dinners in Raleigh Street are favourites. A marimba studio, co-owned by Eric Mpobole at Tandoor, is producing marimbas to sell to World Cup tourists.

Visit the Yeoville Festival tomorrow and sample traditional food, literature and hear bands perform all kinds of music from the African continent. Most activities will take place at the Yeoville Recreation Centre.