Whatever would possess several hundred people from all over Johannesburg to drive their very luxurious looking cars into the depths of Jeppestown – a notoriously poor area south of the CBD – during the peak of the first major summer storm of the year? Between the flashes of lightning and blue strobes of police brought in specially for the evening’s event, their destination is marked in illuminated two metre high letters running down the side of a tall ex-factory building that overlooks the park.

This is Bjala Square, one of the most fascinating urban development projects in the Joburg metro, and the event is Ke Nna Mang – Zulu for Who Am I? – hosted by the Umuzi Photo Club.

Ke Nna Mang is the culmination of Umuzi’s annual Power of 50 internship program through which it places 50 young South Africans from eKasi backgrounds into learning positions at creative agencies like Jo Public, Ogilvy, BBDO and so on. It’s backed by Investec’s money and has been running for six years.

“Our brief for this campaign was ‘Be Weird’,” explains 24-year-old Tshwanelo Modise, pointing to posters and a video produced for one of FCB’s clients, “Our inspiration was a guy we found who was an accountant by day and in a rock band at night. We turned that into a concept about people with different lives.”

Tshwanelo Modise, one of the Power of 50 interns.
Tshwanelo Modise, one of the Power of 50 interns.

Modise originally trained in film making, but found herself making graphics for a popular sports TV channel for a living – and soon bored.

“We would work on a single graphic for eight months at a time,” she says, “I wanted to work on lots of things.”

Fortunately for Modise, she found Umuzi before the routine blandness of her job killed any passion for it. Through Umuzi she attended training courses from the likes of Vega and Da Vinci, and intern at FCB – picking up a wide variety of skills along the way.

“The beginning of the year was skills training,” she says, “Copywriting, photography and so on. Now I know that I want to be an art director and apply for a masters.

“We desperately need transformation in the creative sector,” says Umuzi board member Gilbert Pooley, “There simply isn’t enough young, black talent coming through.”

To rectify this, Umuzi offers both professional services such as corporate and event photography and works with agencies to place interns to work directly on commissioned projects for clients. And a place for its interns to access the gear and facilities they need to learn.

“There’s a strong emphasis on real world work experience,” Pooley explains.

Pooley moved Umuzi to its permanent home, and the space for tonight’s exhibition, earlier this year. It now occupies a large studio space in the ground floor of Bjala Square.

Rebranding the neighbourhood - signs around Bjala Square.
Rebranding the neighbourhood – signs around Bjala Square.

But what, you might ask, is Bjala Square? It’s an old, unused factory and office block on Madison Street in the middle of Jeppestown which is currently being redeveloped by a firm called Bjala Property – but it might be easier to answer that by explaining what it’s not. Situated not too far from the successful Maboneng Precinct – a middle class favourite for Sunday lunch thanks to its food market and artists’ studios upstairs. While Maboneng has been central to revitalising the area – many restaurants and the Museum of African Design have opened in the same block – it’s also been accused of gentrification at the expense of the people who live there.

Bjala’s Chantal Mann describes the philosophical differences.

“Maboneng is about creating a precinct and bringing people from outside the area in,” Mann says, “We’re about working with the existing community.”

As a result, she describes the firm as an “urban solutionist”, not a property developer. It sounds a big grandiose until you hear the explanation behind the phrase.

“Property developers are about the bottom line and profit, they have to be,” Mann says, “We’re about putting the community first.”

The building itself is currently being renovated into apartments with modern fittings and open plan spaces which wouldn’t look out of place in the centre of Sandton – except for the fact that they’re offered for affordable rents of between R2 100 a month for a studio to R4 300 for a three bedroom apartment, and a mix of studios for local artists and other retail downstairs. Unlike Maboneng’s fancy restaurants, the corner unit is currently occupied by a genial lady who sells hearty pap and vleis for R10-15 a plate.

Oddly, it’s not the first time I’ve been here – although it is the first time I’ve been aware of Bjala’s overall vision. At the start of the year one of the factory spaces was used as the base for a project involving local street artists in collaboration with peers from the UK, which culminated in an evening celebrating local talent in July which I’ll write about another time. Suffice to say it was so successful that the group of artists involved are now working full time from another studio here – donated by Bjala – and producing music and documentary features in a distinctive and quirky style defined by the area.

Bjala has also brought fibre internet to the area and is planning to start a free WiFi project from the block.

Back to the Ke Nna Mang exhibition and the audience is large and varied. Some are the families of the student’s whose work is on display, others are wine quaffing agency execs celebrating the success of their interns and scouting for new talent. It’s certainly an unusual crowd for one of Johannesburg’s often forgotten and deeply troubled suburbs. But if the likes of Bjala and Umuzi are successful, it may not be rare in the future.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.