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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Mountain of Hope
Amid the desolation of Soweto, a local son makes good
by Megan Lindow

Sculpture as multifaceted as the new South Africa, crafted by Somoho artists using recycled paper and trash.
Mandla Mentoor was such a troublemaker as a child that his parents once begged the local reformatory to take him in. "I would pick fights with the neighborhood kids, throw rocks through their windows," he says. "They couldn't believe that this young child was causing all this damage. They just couldn't understand what was the matter."

Around the time his family was forcibly moved to a matchbox house in a black township, his mother took a job as a domestic worker in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg, which kept her away from home most of the time. At the age of seven, Mentoor saw his parents every other Thursday, on their days off. Normally quick to laugh, the South African's voice turns soft and reflective as he recalls the anger he felt at being left to fend for himself.

Such painful memories are common among black people who grew up under apartheid in South Africa. All the wrongs — the removals that separated families, the racist laws that forced blacks to work menial jobs and herded them into marginalized areas — have left their mark on the landscape and in the people, says Mentoor, now 46.

Short and impish, with a thin beard and a thick wool hat, Mentoor's smile lends him a surprisingly youthful appearance, despite the lines in his face. As a young man, he staged protest theater and engaged in the underground politics of the then-banned African National Congress. But today this environmentalist, organizer, and artist is taking on a different kind of fight. He is working to heal his nation — one trash heap, one unemployed youth, one neighborhood at a time.

We're standing on top of an old three-story water tower painted with colorful murals and decorated with recycled metal fashioned into peace symbols, AIDS ribbons, geometric swirls, and words like "harmony" and "ubuntu" ("togetherness"). It offers an expansive view of Mentoor's hometown of Soweto, the massive agglomeration of urban black townships that sprawls across the arid hills southwest of Johannesburg. Gesturing toward the tangle of streets below us, he ticks off the area's problems: hunger, overcrowding, unemployment, poor education, low self-esteem, and illegal dumping.

To Mentoor, that last item is tied to all the rest. As thousands of blacks were uprooted from their homes, they were stripped of their sense of belonging to a place. Residents defied the apartheid government by refusing to pay their taxes, and uncollected garbage piled up in the streets or in undeveloped open spaces — abundant in Soweto thanks to apartheid-era urban planning. Soweto's districts, largely divided by language and ethnic group, were separated from one another by these large vacant tracts. Even the trees are gone. The police cut them down in the 1970s, saying that criminals could hide behind them.

The day is cold, and wind rattles the tower. The smell of coal smoke hangs in the air. In every direction we see the drab hues of wide, treeless streets and squat houses with cinder-block walls and asbestos roofs. The horizon is chalky with pollution and airborne dust from the abandoned gold-mine slag heaps scattered around the outskirts of town. They are so large they dwarf natural hills. On Saturday mornings, the traffic of buses conveying mourners to the cemetery nearby chokes the streets — grim testimony to the devastation of AIDS.

If the vista is distressing, the 45-acre hill on which the water tower stands is an oasis. A few years ago, the area was plagued by crime and piled high with garbage. Women were raped and criminals stashed their contraband in the rubble, according to local police director Simon Maswanganyi. Now, thanks to Mentoor and an army of volunteers, it flourishes with trees and terraced gardens of spinach, cabbage, and beets.

Mentoor calls the place Somoho, short for the Soweto Mountain of Hope. Among its supporters is Maswanganyi, who says that cleaning up the land has kept crime in check. "The mountain is no longer a crime hot spot," he says. Neighbors agree. Anyone can walk around Somoho safely at night now, Daphne Ramashia tells me from behind a cage of metal bars designed to prevent theft from the shop she tends nearby. And it's one of the few places where people can gather for afternoon chats underneath the welcoming shade of young trees.

Mentoor's efforts have also led to changes in people's attitudes toward the land, says Ramashia. Children used to get sick playing in the garbage, and people used to dump all kinds of refuse — even dead dogs — on the strip in front of her shop. "Now everybody likes what he has done," Ramashia says. "He brought a new way of thinking."

Mentoor eagerly points out that Somoho is not merely a distraction from the gritty realities of modern-day South Africa, but a starting point for addressing them. The volunteers who tend Somoho's gardens give vegetables to the sick and hungry, and teach others how to grow their own. Children participate in sports tournaments and visit AIDS hospices. People get involved.

A hundred yards or so down the dusty street from Somoho, Mentoor's house has morphed into a sort of headquarters. With its outer walls painted turquoise and fuchsia, the building looks more festive than its gray neighbors. Inside, the place buzzes with high school students, local activists, and foreign visitors — most of them vying for a slice of Mentoor's time. There is a water-conservation lesson to be developed for schoolchildren, a city council meeting to prepare for, and a couple of visiting tour groups the next day.

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Photo courtesy Thomas Thale.

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