One man’s quest for freedom after freedom
Sifiso Ntuli brings to Brixton an ambience that encapsulates the concept of aluta continua and authentic culture
The Roving Bantu Kitchen is a multi-cultural and colourful venue, combining jazz, freedom and food. It was founded by Sifiso Ntuli, a longtime resident of Brixton, Johannesburg.
"It is part of a wider vision of building a new society by recreating and retelling the South African story through music, food, art and contributing towards the national vision of creating a nonracial, nonsexist society of equality," he explains.
Roving Bantu Kitchen is a haven for the soulful experience of ubuntu. The intimate venue exudes the warmth of culture, cuisine, music, fine art and conversation. People of all classes and races congregate inside and outside the venue, transforming a lonely street corner into a beautiful image and experience of culture and community.
The journey for Ntuli began more than 35 years ago when he joined the ANC. It was 1981 and apartheid was celebrating 20 years of a white republic. During the celebrations on Wits campus, Ntuli set a flag alight, which earned him the attention of the notorious security police.
"I was nine years old when [Ahmed] Timol was thrown out of room 1026 at John Vorster Square, and that story always traumatised me," he recalls.
"So, 10 years later, when I was told to report to room 1026, I knew it was time to go."
Ntuli spent his early exile days in Swaziland and then Tanzania, where members of the Pan Africanist Congress, who often made fun of people in the ANC, called him, "a roving Bantu who will be jumping from one cloud to another and never on the ground".
His exile journey next took him to Canada, where he studied electrical engineering and got involved with the Native American struggle. Culture was always a primary outlet for creating change.
"My people’s culture, such as poetry, music and gumboot dance, was the easiest way to tell the world what was going on here, without saying a word. Culture was a big thing in the struggle for freedom because it is who we are; who I am."
During the years of struggle and exile, South African culture expressed itself in profound ways. To illustrate the power of music, Ntuli made the radio documentary Umzabalazo, The Songs of Struggle. It was later transferred to Amandla: A revolution in four-part harmony, a successful documentary film in which he acted as narrator.
In 1994, as a returning exile, Ntuli began to work closely with culture networks to create the conditions to sustain freedom and build on the concept of African Renaissance.
"We saw Freedom Day in 1994 as an event. Nobody asked ‘what is freedom?’. We thought that was it, and now we were free," he recalls.
But 1994 brought with it a growing cultural mediocrity and Ntuli’s cultural activism metamorphosed into pan-African and reggae music promotion.
How do we build on what we are calling the African Renaissance? Individuals, private citizens create communities. I am a mere private citizen trying to create and reignite that passion for life out of a rotten space that apartheid created as its home
Dark City Jive at Tandoor in Yeoville started a reggae tradition that continues to this day. And as co-founder of the Politburo digital and live music sessions and the House of Nsako music venue in Brixton, Ntuli helped create space for many artists, including Blk Jks, The Soil, Tidal Waves and Bongeziwe Mabandla aka Bongisoul.
Ntuli’s mission to "free this country even after freedom", as he puts it, is well articulated by his desire to share the uniqueness of South African culture and use it to break down the metaphorical and physical walls that divide people.
The message "aluta continua" is still relevant, he explains. "The struggle continues. It is not about me; it is about what kind of society, what kind of heritage am I leaving behind for future South African generations.
"How do we build on what we are calling the African Renaissance? Individuals, private citizens create communities. I am a mere private citizen trying to create and reignite that passion for life out of a rotten space that apartheid created as its home," he says.
Ntuli believes Brixton is a microcosm of Johannesburg and SA. "All the contradictions of rich and poor, of black and white and corruption express themselves quite viciously in this little community. If we can solve these challenges, then we can provide an example to the rest of the country."
As a strategic high point of Johannesburg, the area was the centre for the resident BaTswana ba-Mokhatla people before 1902.
During apartheid, African residents of Brixton were forcibly removed to Kliptown.
Today, Brixton is a neighbourhood in transition. High Street is part of the City of Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom development. Breezeblock is a new, safe and comfortable coffee shop in the neighbourhood.
Ntuli provides a guided tour of the area known as The Roving Bantu Trek, which meanders from the high point, through the adjoining suburbs of Cottesloe, Jan Hofmeyer and Fietas and ends at the Braamfontein cemetery at the monument to Enoch Sontonga.
His anecdotes, stories and observations preserve a fascinating history of Johannesburg and the contribution of African, English, Afrikaner, Chinese, Malay and Indian people in shaping the city.
The guided trek and the kitchen are part of a long-term commitment to create Temples of African Freedoms and Friendships, as African American philosopher WE du Bois once suggested. Ntuli believes this initiative can be replicated throughout the country.
"As they say in the new country, ‘the forces of the market will determine’. However, can I leave something so precious as who I am to the forces of the market? If we can stick around long enough, it will shine," Ntuli says.
The Roving Bantu Kitchen is open five nights a week, with live music, film (DarkieMentary) and speaker evenings (Spykos Speakers Corner) and special events to reconnect with the African diaspora.
• The Roving Bantu Trek takes place on the first Sunday of every month.