South African arts center for kids changed lives but couldn’t survive

South African children’s center

Malose Malahlela and a partner ran an arts center for children in Johannesburg for eight years, but it became too tough and they burned out, partly from dealing with bureaucratic hurdles.

(Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)

The library doors have closed, the books are dusty and unread, and the children don’t come anymore.

For eight years, Johannesburg artist Malose Malahlela and his artistic partner, Rangoato Hlasane, ran Keleketla, a library and after-school art and performance project for inner-city children in the Drill Hall, a disused old military base in central Johannesburg.

Lives were changed. Stories were told.

The Drill Hall had a rich history as the site of the 1955-56 treason trial of Nelson Mandela and 155 other people. In its reincarnation as a library and arts center, children in the neighborhood of Joubert Park came every day and learned things never taught at their schools. Some discovered a talent for dance; some wrote poetry, made videos, performed rap or formed bands. Some produced art posters condemning violence.

“The kids started coming up with their own performances and writing their own scripts. The kids changed, massively,” Malahlela, 31, recalled. “They have found their own voices, and when they walk into university, they have lived already. They have experience in life. They have flair. They have lived and created.”

Some children just came for the books and the company, dragging along the little siblings left in their care, taking home a pile of books and returning them later to borrow more. Some needed a trusted confidant.

“The children would come and tell you their deepest stories: My parents don’t support me. My uncle does this. It would tear us apart,” Malahlela said.

Malahlela grew up in rural Limpopo province, a place, he said, where art isn’t seen as a career. He studied business and marketing in college. After he graduated, his parents hoped he would get a lucrative job in marketing, advertising or journalism. Instead, he and Hlasane started the Drill Hall center.

“My parents didn’t understand what I was doing,” he said.

And then last year, after years of mentoring children, Malahlela and Hlasane suddenly burned out.

“We were overdriving ourselves,” Malahlela said. “We didn’t have the capacity, we were working overtime. It really drove us crazy in a sense. We were exhausted, emotionally, physically, spiritually.”

Part of the exhaustion came from the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to keep an inner-city space going with no lease or funding. Malahlela is surprised that it lasted as long as it did.

For years, the artists had struggled in vain to get a lease for the Drill Hall from city officials. With no lease, there could be no funding. With no funding, the electricity would be cut off regularly, and when the plumbing clogged, there was no money to fix it. The paint flaked and the place looked shabby.

Art for children seemed a low priority, Malahlela said.

“Arts and culture is frowned upon,” he said. “That’s why there’s no funding. Especially in the inner city, there are no teachers to teach these things.”

Fanis Sardianos, executive manager of the Johannesburg Property Co., said the city has a policy of allowing rentals of properties to nongovernmental organizations at nominal cost, but that it didn’t own the Drill Hall. It is negotiating to buy it from the Gauteng provincial government.

“It is regrettable that the school had to close down,” Sardianos said, but negotiations for the purchase are “at an advanced stage of finalization … and once transferred the property will be available to be leased to various NGOs.”

For Malahlela, the death of the library is disappointing and sad. But it is also a moment of respite. And it’s a chance to build his career as a sound installation artist — his work includes an audio “tour” of Johannesburg called “Third Space” that went on the road last year to Marseille, France, and Lisbon, Portugal — instead of putting all his energy into others.

“We had to put so much energy into the space to support that community, and no one was giving us any energy back in the sense of supporting us,” he said. “So we decided to move out, because we were going to kill ourselves. We had to survive.’'

After the doors were closed last year, the children kept coming.

“The kids would come with the previous books. ‘Is the library open?’ ‘The library’s closed.’ We had to turn those children away. They would look us in the eyes and it was very emotional. They could see we were exhausted.”

Sometimes, Malahlela said, it seems like folly that he poured so many years into a financially doomed project.

“I wasted my whole 20s building this organization,” he said. “Did I make money from this whole process? No. Other 31-year-olds in South Africa are driving fancy cars. When I go home, you’re only recognized if you drive a fancy car, you have a mortgage and a house. I can’t have those things because I don’t even have a salary.”

But at other moments, he’s glad he made the choices he did.

“I didn’t waste it at all. We contributed. We changed those children’s lives,” he said.

The children’s library and art project are over, unlikely to be revived. But Keleketla continues, in an industrial site in central Johannesburg hosting other kinds of art events. It’s a sprawling, almost empty warehouse, a gallery, workspace, meeting place and arts hub. Its focus is now on adult artists and performers; there are few children and few schools in the neighborhood, which is full of factories and auto repair shops.

In June, Malahlela and Keleketla collaborated with the Goodman Gallery’s “Post African Futures” exhibition on a live performance launching the new space.

Malahlela is waiting to see what the site will bring. The next phase of his life is about his own artistic development.

“It’s a vision. It becomes something you see when you sleep, something you dream of.”

Twitter: @robyndixon_LAT