The Space that is Us: Resisting and Recreating Selves and Spaces


By Phethile Zitha, Simangaliso Sibiya, Nom'Ay Matola, Hayley Haynes-Rolando

View Phethile Zitha's Biography

Phethile Zitha is a Clinical Psychologist and co-founder of a community-based youth initiative, Youth of the South (YOTS).

View Simangaliso Sibiya's Biography

Simangaliso Sibiya is a South African artist, curator, and facilitator whose works address current cultural, political, and social issues within his community.

View Nom’Ay Matola's Biography

Nom’Ay Matola is an activist and visual artist from Soweto in South Africa, who creates thought provoking content spanning film, photography, and graphic design.

View Hayley Haynes-Rolando's Biography

Hayley Haynes-Rolando is an educational psychologist and co-founder of the community-based youth initiative, Youth of the south (YOTS).

The Space that is Us: Resisting and Recreating Selves and Spaces

Phethile Zitha, Simangaliso Sibiya, Nom'Ay Matola, Hayley Haynes-Rolando



The Space that is Us documents a creative collaboration between the Youth of The South (YOTS), the Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation (NEST) and Zitha Phethile, Sibiya Simangaliso, Matola Nom'Ay, Haynes-Rolando Hayley who are visual artists, literary scholars, filmmakers and psychologists (the Kousins). The project engaged high school students in Dobsonville, Soweto, working with them to transform and claim space in their school and to develop an important sense of belonging and self-imagining.

The main aim of this project was to use narrative methodologies in ways that would provoke imaginative counter-narratives, which we hoped would give the young people an opportunity to re-imagine the space and their lives. Furthermore, the project aimed for inclusivity and diversity in the narration of these youth and their stories.

Through narrative action using visual arts, text, and digital media, we worked with the students to create alternative personal and community stories that resist dominant narratives that position Black youth as intellectually inferior, lazy, unruly, reckless, and violent. The collaboration also highlights the often-undervalued power and value of the creative arts in building a robust sense of self, as well as in facilitating community development and regeneration. Engaging in these creative interventions simultaneously provoked resistance and rebirth. Transforming the school\'s space offered an opportunity to redefine boundaries and to creatively humanise, recognise and sustain the dignity of the community.

The Space and Place: Dobsonville, Soweto

Dobsonville is a community that is situated in Southwest Township (Soweto), in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many of the residents of Dobsonville were forcibly removed from their homes in Roodepoort during the Group Areas Act of 1950. The Group Areas Act was the title of three legislated acts of parliament enacted under the apartheid government of South Africa. The acts assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas in a system of urban segregation. Since the end of South Africa's apartheid, although most of the previously 'white only' areas are now accessible to Black people, almost all the townships have remained for 'Blacks only'. The Dobsonville community, while still 'Blacks only' includes a range of socio-economic statuses between poor and lower middle class.

Youth of the South is housed in a school, and this is where the Space that is Us projects were carried out. The classes in the school are overpopulated, with up to 70 students in each class. The state of the school, as is the case in many South African township schools, is characterised by failing infrastructure and limited resources which continues to impact negatively on the learning and overall schooling of its young people.

Apartheid architecture

As referred to by Chabani Manganyi (1981), spaces or architectural practice are very often a reflection of a society's perception, belief, and attitude towards its people. In tracing the spatial history in South Africa, Petrus Delport and Tshepo Lephakga (2016) note the colonial and later apartheid laws and policies that set out to dispossess the Indigenous people of their land and, in turn, created the 'settler' and 'native' towns. Kevin Durrheim (2005) points to how the continued existence of 'settler' and 'native' towns is (re)represented through apartheid's spatial planning that produced suburbs and townships, with townships located on the margins or periphery of the city and remaining in the margins in terms of economic opportunities. South African township communities reflect the historical crisis of poor service delivery and continue to be sites of struggle and resistance. Furthermore, township schools (as microcosms of South African society) highlight how the persistent and complex pattern of a racist past manifests today. This is evident in the poor school infrastructure, bare classroom walls, lack of sports and extra mural activity facilities, poor toilet plumbing, and more subtle relational patterns. These factors impact young Black people's understanding of their identities and relationships in the school environment. As noted by Ronald Sundstrom (2003) and Stud (2014), place and space are essential contributors to the development of a positive self-concept. In addition, Sundstrom further argues that "in our inhabitation of places, there is a looping effect between our identification of places and our identities" (2003, 90).

Consequently, the spatial dimensions of young people's lives impact feelings of belonging and alienation. Township schools, representing contemporary forms of racist inequality, impact young people's material conditions, social relations, and psychological wellbeing. On the experience of alienation in the education space, Kopano Ratele notes that an education that leaves individuals "estranged from the deepest yearnings of the self, an education that internally divides identity, leading to the constant, disorienting sensation of an individual living as if she were looking at herself from the outside" (2019, 176). In this way, the education space provides little opportunity for expressing individual identity and contributes to the dehumanisation of young people.

Creative arts as a form of narrative articulation

It is at the intersection of repression and resistance that this project seeks to fuel change. It does so by seeking to radically reimagine the school space allowing for newer, freer versions of realities and possible selves to emerge. In 2021, the Kousins, Youth of the South (YOTS), and NEST, initiated a creative arts narrative program for high school learners in Dobsonville, Soweto. The students were provided with various creative forms for capturing their experiences and reflections on being young. By representing their interests through texts, art and images, these students were able to express their multiple interests, explore different versions of themselves as well as begin to "project their individuality" (Manganyi 1983, 140) in the communal school space. Moreover, using the space in this way allowed for a reimagining of both the individual personal, internal, and physical spaces.

We created three groups. A reading group (facilitated by Thobile Ndimande), A Visual Arts group (facilitated by Simangaliso Sibiya) and a Digital Art Literacy and Design group (facilitated by Nom'Ay Matola and Johannes Machinya. Students met weekly for 4 months, the reading group and visual art group used the school space for their meetings and the digital art literacy and design group met every other weekend and used the university of the Witwatersrand's facilities.

  1. Reading Group

The autobiographical book Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (2021) was selected as the text for the reading group because of the ways in which it weaves together the personal and the political in a story of growing-up. Some of the themes the group has explored include: place and belonging, familial relationships, sexual trauma and racism and power in early democratic South Africa. The group members seemed to thoughtfully navigate and hold space for each other as they worked through Sisonke's and their own stories of violation, pain and growing up. The group identified 3 themes (familial relationships, place and belonging and childhood) as ways of the process of writing and telling their own stories.

2. Visual Arts Group

The visual arts group expressed and captured their experiences and stories graphically. The sessions involved innovative discussions on a particular theme or aspect of art and the group would then practice related skills or techniques together. The group initiated the bin project, where they painted the bins in the school with the intention of projecting their youthfulness in the school space. The group also initiated podcast sessions where they engaged each other in conversation on various topics, from social matters to personal issues and how they intersect with their everyday lives.

3. Digital Art Literacy and Design

These sessions taught basic computer and design skills for content creation with the intention that the Digital Art Literacy and Design group members would be able to use these skills in collaboration with the reading and visual arts groups to create and publish an online magazine. In addition, through representing their interests through texts and images, this group was encouraged to express multiple interests and to explore their identities and different versions of themselves.

Collaborative engagement with Kousins

Development work in South Africa, whether through NGOs or specific projects, requires ongoing support from benefactors. Often benefactors will provide financial support and have little involvement or investment in the work. The notion of Kousins (Sibiya, 2019) stresses the importance of familial kinship rather than superficial connections. It is counterposed with the more conventional formulation of 'Friends of the arts', who typically financially support museums or galleries and form elite inner circles of art consumers. Kousins suggests a move beyond a disconnected transactional engagement to a more active engagement that is deeply invested in the project's success (Sibiya, 2019). We enacted this by working collaboratively with the students, the Youth of The South (YOTS) and the Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation (NEST).

This collaboration took place through creating and engaging in zones of contact. The notion of contact zones is drawn from the work of Mary Louise Pratt (1991) and Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) and used by Maria Torres (2006). It rests on the idea that engagement is most powerful when it is developed in contact with those people who are affected by the issue. Thereby bringing different and important sets of knowledges to the conversation or 'problem'. Contact zones are "social spaces, where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations to power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today" (Pratt 1991, 34).

Works cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute. 1987.

Delport, Petrus and Lephakga, Tshepo. Spaces of alienation: Dispossession and justice in South Africa. HTS Theological Studies, 72(1) (2016): 1-9.

Durrheim, Kevin. Socio-spatial practice and racial representations in a changing South Africa. South African Journal of Psychology, 35(3) (2005): 444-459

Manganyi, Chabani. Looking through the Keyhole. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1981.

Msimang Sisonke. Always another country: a memoir of exile and home. Jonathan Ball, 2017

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession, 1991, 33–40.

Ratele, Kopano. The World Looks Like This From Here: Thoughts on African Psychology. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2019.

Sibiya, Simangaliso. The Kousins: A founding document. Johannesburg, 2019.

Sundstrom, Ronald R. Race and place: Social space in the production of humankind. Philosophy and Geography 6 (1) (2003): 83 – 95.

Torre, Maria. Elena. Beyond the Flat: Intergroup contact, intercultural education and the potential of contact zones for research, growth and development. Unpublished manuscript. City University of New York (2006).