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Project Background

Tembisa (derived from Thembisa, an isiZulu word meaning Promise or Hope), is a large township situated to the north of Kempton Park on the East Rand, Gauteng, South Africa. Purported to be the one of the largest townships in the Southern hemisphere, Tembisa has had its fair share of political turmoil, particularly in the early 1990s, as violence erupted in the lead up to the first democratic elections but little has been recorded about its history, particularly when compared with Soweto, the other large township in the Gauteng province. 

On 27 April 1994 the residents of Tembisa Township, in the East Rand, went to the polls to vote for the first time in the non-racial national elections like many other black people across the country. Like many black South Africans, their ‘road to democracy' was long and difficult. But while the history of Tembisa in some senses reflects the broader struggle for liberation in South Africa, it arguably was unique in the role it played in the struggle for liberation. 

Under repressive times, the township had one of the strongest and most influential groups of Black Consciousness proponents who helped to revive and shape politics in the township in the 1970s. This was largely due to the political influence introduced by those removed from Alexandra Township to Tembisa, as was demonstrated when secondary school students took to the streets in solidarity with their counterparts in Soweto a day after the student uprising erupted in Soweto. 

The township's singularity was further evident when the competing political ideologies such as that of the African National Congress' inclusive politics and that of the Pan Africanist Congress' exclusive politics emerged. Notwithstanding this, the political momentum in the residents' fight against the government-created structures like the councils was not disrupted. Instead, the residents of the township fought side-by-side to accomplish their demands. In the mid-1980s their relentless struggles forced the township's council to collapse. 

The residents, through the Tembisa Residents Association, took over the running of the township, fighting criminals and restoring law and order in the township. Despite the initial reluctance by women, particularly older women, to participate in the struggle for liberation, the township was able to form one the strongest and active women's organization. This organization took up local civic grievances and opposed the council. But most importantly, this organization helped to politicize some of the conservative women in the township to join the struggle.

It is for these reasons, and many more not mentioned here, that it is imperative that the history of the townships should be documented. It is hoped that the history of Tembisa, as told by its residents, will help to redress the pervasive neglect of the history of the township.

In keeping with the South African History Archive's commitment to capturing lost or neglected histories, SAHA worked with three community interns from Tembisa in 2010 and 2011 to conduct oral history interviews with residents about the history of the community. Using images of the township in the 1980s taken by Gille de Vlieg, activist and Afrapix photographer, as a departure point, 27 interviews were conducted and transcribed, numerous scans of artefacts gathered in the course of this project, and a small exhibition and oral history competition with two high schools in Tembisa was hosted by Tembisa West Library to mark Heritage Day 2011. This virtual exhibition has been adapted from the project report, drawing on these interviews, archival research and photographs to tell a brief history of Tembisa.


Project concept: Catherine Kennedy & Gille de Vlieg
Lead oral historian: Tshepo Moloi
Report writing: Tshepo Moloi
Report compilation: Catherine Kennedy & Gille de Vlieg
Project management: Catherine Kennedy
Photographic support: Gille de Vlieg
Archival support: Debora Matthews
Community interns: Nonhlanhla Ngwenya, Mmatjatji Malabela, Lucky Zimba.
Design and layout (report): Rizelle Stander Hartmeier
Design and layout (virtual exhibition): Black Square
Compilation of virtual exhibition: Nelson Dlamini 

This project, including the development of the publication and this virtual exhibition, was made possible through the
financial support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies.

SAHA is grateful to the City of Ekurhuleni for paying for the printing of this report.

Thanks to all interviewees and community members who gave of their time to participate in this project.


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