Work in Progress - Regenerating an Urban Community in Johannesburg

Neil Fraser is Executive Director of Partnerships for Urban Regeneration and the Central Johannesburg Partnership- private non-profit companies dedicated to the revitalisation of urban centres. So he knows whereof he speaks in matters of community renewal. He wrote about the remarkable community regeneration work that St James Johannesburg and the School of Practical Philosophy are doing, in CITICHAT, a newsletter.

Here is part of what Neil wrote. The full article, in CITICHAT 29 November 2002, can be read on CJP's web site at

Another great example of the stirrings of ‘urban revitalisation through education’ and this time in one of the forgotten inner city suburbs, Jeppestown!

A 1997 drive to clean up the neighbourhood gave birth to a unique initiative. The drive brought together 4000 children from 8 schools plus local police, traffic and fire departments. I have always been sceptical of any real value of such actions because they are generally not sustainable. But a unique dynamic to halt urban decay and turn the neighbourhood around emerged from this one, Jeppe Phakamisu Ubuntu - ‘JPU” - ‘Upliftment and Fellowship in the Community.’

In 1998, a Saturday afternoon enrichment programme for the children in the area was initiated by the School of Practical Philosophy. It is still offered every Saturday and going from strength to strength. It offers art, music, physical activities, stories, environmental awareness, singing and good company to local children. Then, in 1999, a day school, St James Preparatory School (which will provide High School classes by 2004) was established by the School of Practical Philosophy which itself uses the School buildings in the evenings for a wide variety of teaching and activities. From all of this, a broader, emerging ethos through the children themselves of reclaiming the area for the community, by the community.

It was at this remarkable school that my morning had started, attending assembly. Established only three years ago in its current accommodation, the school starts at Grade 00 and its already 120 pupils (about 20% white) go through to Grade 6. A new grade is started each year. All the children and teachers were present at the daily assembly where the headmaster read a portion of the Ten Commandments and then probed the understanding of the children. Great competition and enthusiasm to answer but equally great discipline exercised. I grimaced inwardly - “thou shalt not steal” - whilst the environment around the school evidences the pillaging of the built environment.

Yet the philosophy of the school resonates with what we are all working to achieve. “In a world where values are in confusion, there is a real need to create love and reverence in the minds and hearts of our young people for all that is great and good. We need to remind them of the dignity and the excellence of human life, through which simple but profound virtues may shine for the well-being of all. The hope is that this generation may find the strength to live truthful, upright, magnanimous and disciplined lives that will serve to support the principles of unity in the family, the nation and the world.” And even in a short hour visit to the school one sees and experiences the philosophy resonating through pupils and teachers.

Those who have been working in the area for some time tell me that the environment has improved immeasurably. The palpable fear that permeated the streets has gone and a real community is starting to emerge. Beneath the grime and decades of neglect are some great jewels and the growth of the Schools of Practical Philosophy and St James Preparatory are slowly touching on some of the physical gems as they touch on the lives of the community. Such a gem is the now unused Synagogue, a remnant of the days when Lithuanian Jews settled in the area. The exterior of the shul is under extreme pressure from vandalism, its adjoining house overrun with illegal squatters who have decimated that building. But the JPU aims to develop the suburb into a Centre of Excellence by upgrading existing facilities of nursery school, recreation and sports centre, and the senior citizens’ home, whilst providing additional community needs such as a crisis centre. Somehow the sheer potential of the place excites one, here is an urban regeneration opportunity within a low income community that can be a model for other areas, and it’s started - and started by the community.

So now is the time for Council to provide support for the great work being done by the School of Practical Philosophy and St James Preparatory School.

Can you go wrong when the philosophy results in “assemblies centred on worship and singing …teachers enjoying the company of their pupils…children respecting their teachers….classrooms providing quiet places of learning….pupils being taught to pay close attention….that art is about fine drawings and accurate observation….pupils listening to the best music… the Bible, Shakespeare and scripture from both east and west being revered …. learning by heart is a basic practice…. grammar the essential discipline behind language….the Classics introducing the epic dimension….good lives, great deeds and the fine words forming the basis for history…. debating skills and fine speech being valued highly… sport being taught to instil fair play and team spirit.

A great foundation for revitalising lives and communities.