A story of hope & social change with Woodstock Street Art Tours

swimming elephant mural in Woodstock, Cape Town

Zacharia from shows me the swimming elephant mural – it was the first mural the painter, John – a local artist – had ever created.

‘Whether we are black or white, we have the same roots.

We are the same thing, we are human.’

I’m gazing at a mural on a crumbling building in the heart of Woodstock in Cape Town. On one end, it depicts a group of people with their fists in the air. On the other, there’s a similar monochrome image of a group, in the same pose, yet their faces tell a story of triumph rather than tragedy.

One, I believe, is there to remind us of the Sharpeville Massacre which saw 69 people lose their lives as they fought for their rights during South Africa’s racial segregation movement. The other represents a happier picture, of Freedom Day in post-Apartheid South Africa, when it finally became a fair and democratic country for every person living here, regardless of the colour of their skin.

Mural in Woodstock, Cape Town by Freddy Sam of Freedom Day

Left: The mural by Ricky Lee Gordon (aka ‘Freddy Sam’) which represents Freedom Day in post-Apartheid South Africa

‘…It reminds us that we must not forget about the people who went through so much hardship to give us our freedom,’ explains Zacharia, my guide on The Woodstock Street Art Tour.

He adds: ‘Growing up here, everyone has learnt to live with each other’s differences. ‘People here differ across colour, religion, accent and culture. Some are not that well-off while others are. Some have an education, other’s don’t.

‘But overall, we are a very happy community.’

Street art in Woodstock with a view of Devil's Peak

Woodstock sits at the bottom of the famed Devil’s Peak in Cape Town

A brief history of Woodstock

Woodstock has a layered past. Once a seaside destination known as Papendorp, the neighbourhood became industrialised in the late 19th century. Glass and textile factories opened up and its reputation as a beach resort quickly dissolved.

When the Apartheid rules were imposed, some 3.5 million black Africans were forcibly removed from their homes in South Africa. But despite the violence which took place in neighbourhoods such as District Six, many people claim that the people of Woodstock, amazingly, managed to stand strong against these unjust laws and remain in their houses.

Today, the melting pot of cultures here remains. And while Woodstock still battles with issue such as crime, drugs and poverty, there seems to be an immense pride among many of those who live here.

And that’s partly due to the exciting street art scene that began here in 2010 when Ricky Lee Gordon (aka Freddy Sam) and Juma Mkwela, the founder of Juma’s Street Art Tours, joined forces.

A local artist on William Street in Woodstock

Woodstock street art & gentrification

Seventeen years on from the birth of post-apartheid South Africa, many neighbourhoods still bear the scars of South Africa’s racial segregation laws. When I took a walking tour of District Six, there was a real sense of sadness over a neighbourhood that had never recovered. The feelings towards the oppressive white rulers are undoubtedly, still very raw for many people. And the gap between the rich and the poor in this country is still blatant. But in Woodstock, it felt like there was a sense of hope.

Thanks to the influx of creatives, Woodstock is quickly undergoing rapid gentrification with a bevy of artist studios, coffee shops and upmarket restaurants opening up. You’ll have heard about the hipster-centric Old Biscuit Mill and Woodstock Exchange which are very cool places to go if you ever visit Cape Town.

And this excitement around the city’s arts scene has only got bigger since the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art on the V&A Waterfront.

As we all know, with gentrification comes the risk of an increased divide. The mural ‘A Minor Refusal’ is said to portray the challenge that people face in neighbourhoods like Woodstock where rising rent prices are forcing residents out of their homes.

But you can’t deny the immense efforts that are going on here to save their community.

At Neighbourgoods Market in the Biscuit Mill, many entrepreneurs, artists and designers have ethical or charitable sides to their businesses.

And people like Freddy Sam and Juma of Woodstock Street Art Tours are continuing to push street art projects that involve – and benefit – the local community.

As you can see, Woodstock street art is transforming the neighbourhood into a kind of open-air art gallery, that both visitors and the community can enjoy.

A lady in front of street art in Woodstock, Cape Town

boy on scooter in front of bird mural in Woodstock

Hope & Optimism in South Africa

You can also see the optimism in people like Zacharia. As he leads Ben and I through streets of murals and street art, we invites us into his own family home in Woodstock. We admire the mural of a bird on his street, which a neighbour painted in honour of Zach’s own love of birds. He begins to explain how he resisted the temptation to take the ‘easy route’ into gangs and crime.

‘It was very hard,’ he says, ‘but everyone has a choice. If you make the right choices in life, you will succeed.

‘Some people I grew up with would be on the streets and get into gangs to be popular and that choice went against them. Some of them are in prison today and it’s really sad.’

Zacharia of Woodstock Street Art Tours, Cape Town

One of six siblings, Zacharia came from a loving Muslim family who nurtured his interest in education and supported his decision to go to college. He was given the opportunity to take a bursary to study for an electrical engineering degree but sadly could see it through until the end.

‘If my mum had the money, I would have finished my fourth year,’ he explained, ‘but she had to see to my siblings’ needs as well.

‘I explained my situation to Juma (the founder of Juma’s Tours / Woodstock Street Art Tours) and I began working for him, showing tourists around my neighbourhood. I am so thankful for his support. I thank Juma for lifting me up.’

Zacharia of Woodstock Street Art Tours, Cape Town

The Woodstock Community

As we walk down William Street, Zacharia explains that artists such as Faith 47 live or work in the studios here. One of the local artists we bump into on William Street, invites us into his studio and explains that he is organising a local braai (BBQ) in the community.

As well as social messages, there are stories of animal welfare and conservation being told through the artwork.

An image of the Rothschild giraffe and a girl carrying a message about the African rhino, remind us of the fragility of some of Africa’s endangered species.

Giraffe mural in Woodstock, Cape Town

mural in Woodstock about the African rhino

And Zacharia tells us that the image of a man in a zebra’s body, reminds us that animals and humans should be treated the same.

Zebra mural in Woodstock, Cape Town

The Living Apart / Entwined mural by Faith 47 is particularly poignant.

‘Faith 47 created this artwork to show that we should know where we come from. Whether we are black or white, we have the same roots. We are the same thing, we are human,’ says Zacharia.

Living Apart / Entwined mural in Woodstock by Faith 47

Living Apart / Entwined mural by Faith 47

It’s not just adults who benefit from the artistry. The children who are whizzing around us on scooters and playing on the streets get involved too.

But sadly, not all children here have had such a solid upbringing.

children in Woodstock, Cape Town

‘Some kids unfortunately do not have a very good background, but I do try to help,’ says Zacharia. ‘I take them to the local mosque – whether they are Christian, Jewish, Hindu – whatever – I will take them to the mosque and give them something to eat.

‘…it reminds them of being playful, being joyful, being happy.’

‘We will look after them, give them clothes, socks and blankets. And we try to include them in our projects. If there is an artist painting, we will give them a few brushes and give them a piece of wall to paint.

‘They are my little rugrats,’ he laughs, looking at the children around us. ‘They can be a handful sometimes when they follow me on the tour. But whenever they walk through the streets [and see the cartoon characters that artists have painted for them] it makes them happy because it reminds them of being playful, being joyful, being happy.’

boy on scooter in front of bird mural in Woodstock

Children's mural in Woodstock, Cape Town

Cat mural in Woodstock, Cape Town | Lucy McGuire

I first read about Juma’s Woodstock Street Art tours on the wonderful Girl Tweets World blog and I’m so glad I did. Without her recommendation, I don’t think I would have known to book this tour and never would have met Zacharia. So thanks Jayne!

If you are interested in Woodstock street art tours with Juma or Zacharia, head over to the Juma’s Tours website, email him on juma.mkwela@gmail.com or call him on +27 7340 04064

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