A tower of trash. Our beacon of hope


The buzz of traffic reverberates through Johannesburg’s CBD. Neon billboards and high-rise buildings define the skyline. Lights flicker. People move from one place to the next, separate lives connected by the streets they share. On the edge of the city centre, a monumental piece of art stands tall. By day, iThemba Tower is a spectacle of intense colour, made from 7 000 plastic bottles wrapped around a disused communication tower. At night, the 20-metre structure lights up against the pitch black of the sky. Initiated by the street artist who goes by the name r1, the installation is a statement about our impact on the environment. While we have accumulated excessive waste, we also have the potential to create purpose and beauty where there seems to be none.

“iThemba Tower is more than just an art installation,” r1 says. The base of the tower stands in the Spaza Art Gallery, a community art garden in the heart of Troyeville. The overlooked community is now visible from a distance thanks to the addition of LED lights in the two-litre bottles. iThemba, the isiZulu word for hope, encapsulates the spirit of the project. Local school children added messages of hope and dreams to each bottle. “A diverse group of people came together and shared their collective hopes and aspirations for the future,” r1 says. In the process of creation, the project raised funds to improve the livelihoods of informal waste collectors, who rely on trash to make a living.

As an artist, r1 sees the city as a blank canvas where identities and cultures are formed. “I believe there’s something special about the streets of Johannesburg,” he says. r1 has a degree in Fine Art, but refuses to confine his work to galleries. Instead, he uses road signs and discarded materials to create eye-catching public installations for everyone to enjoy. “It’s about bringing a community together,” he says. “I think that’s all you can hope for.” iThemba Tower has done that. Against the backdrop of a diverse city, it’s a shining example of the hope that abounds despite our differences, and how much we can achieve by working together.

Footage recorded by Frans Borman was used in the creation of this film.