SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA — The top of an old water tower offers Mandla Mentoor the best point from which to survey the subtle transformations taking place in his community below.
From here, the view is vast and panoramic: Sprawling, haphazard jumbles of shanties and geometric rows of matchbox houses stretch to the horizon, divided by pockets of barren land. They are Soweto's black townships, created more than 50 years ago by the former apartheid government.
"We call this place Somoho, the Soweto Mountain of Hope," says Mr. Mentoor, a wiry man with a thin goatee and a broad grin, gesturing to the open hillside on top of which the water tower rests. "It has seen both rain and storm in terms of trouble."
Just a few years ago, this 45-acre space that divides Mentoor's township of Tshiawelo in half was strewn with garbage. During the 1980s and early '90s, residents protested apartheid by refusing to pay local taxes, so uncollected garbage soon piled high in Soweto's open spaces. Criminals frequented the area, women were raped, and local people sometimes found abandoned babies and dead bodies in the rubble, Mentoor recalls.
Today, however, the trash is gone, and patches of dusty hillside have been planted with trees and vegetable gardens. Residents have built makeshift theaters and cooking huts, and walls of rock have been piled up to form "dialogue circles" - spaces for meetings, parties, and performances.
Projects like this reflect a "greening" movement that is slowly spreading in neglected urban townships and degraded rural settlements, where most South Africans live. While communities improve themselves for a variety of reasons, Soweto's changes were spearheaded by one individual, Mentoor, on a mission to bring culture and employment to his home. "Through the development of this mountain, the young people are having fun and giving back to their communities.... They are becoming changed people," says Mentoor. "They have ownership of it."
In South Africa, there are several areas that are either under development or ripe for revival. "So many parks and open spaces here you find have no purpose. They're not giving direct benefits to people," says John Nzira of Food and Trees for Africa, a nonprofit organization that works with local governments and communities to turn derelict areas into food gardens and other amenities.
But in the small, northern town of Vryburg, residents planted olive trees along a crime-ridden strip of land between two roads, turning a previous eyesore into a lucrative community venture. Finding productive uses for discarded bits of land builds communities, generates income, improves nutrition, and reduces crime, Mr. Nzira says.
In the densely packed settlement of Diepsloot in the hills north of Johannesburg, with the help of Food and Trees for Africa, unemployed men and women have planted a garden of tomatoes, peppers, spinach, carrots, pumpkins, and medicinal plants on what had been an overgrown plot of land.
"Before, I had no knowledge of farming," says Pepu Mashele, a thin woman who lives in a nearby squatter settlement. She works in the garden nearly every day and earns money selling the produce. "Before, I was just staying at home, but now it's different. I'm generating something."
In Soweto, Mentoor began working out of his house near "the mountain" in 1991 to address problems of unemployment, crime, and environmental degradation in his community.
At first, he says, he funded his ventures and supported his family by selling his artwork and "stealing from relatives," he admits with a grin, adding, "the entire project was started with 50 cents."
Mentoor formed his passion for art and the environment as a child participating in Boy Scouts. It was only during the early '90s, as South Africa began its transition to democracy, that he saw an opportunity to make a difference in the community.
At first, he says, he recruited young people and unemployed women to salvage paper, cans, and other waste materials to sell, but he quickly realized this was not the best way to make money.
So he developed Amandla Waste Creations and began teaching people to use these materials to make low-cost building materials and crafts such as papier-mâché and wire sculptures to sell to tourists.
"I was a student of '76," says Mentoor, referring to the notorious 1976 student riots in Soweto. "I've grown up with the tag of 'lost generation,' and that never jelled with me as a youth."
The organization's first real grant money came when Mentoor won the World Wilderness Forum's Green Trust Award in 2002. Mentoor's group voted to use the prize money ($1,500) to buy rakes and masks needed to clean up "the mountain."
"We turned into a serious laughingstock in the community," Mentoor recalls. "But I kept reminding them of the starfish story: One day, a young person found all the fish had washed out of the sea and onto the shore, and didn't know what to do to save them. So he started throwing them back one by one. His friends said, 'You're mad, how are you going to save them by throwing them in one by one?' And he said, 'at least I'm saving those ones. At least I've made my contribution.' "
The following year, Mentoor won a fellowship from Ashoka, a US aid organization. Ever since, he's relied on networking with environmental groups to gain piecemeal funding to support Somoho.
Mentoor's house, once a modest four-room bungalow, is now crammed with visitors. He has added an office. A model of a house built using tires and glass bottles sits in his backyard.
On the blocks surrounding his house, and at the foot of Somoho, shop spaces are filled with art studios, women's baking and sewing enterprises, and film and recording studios - all offshoots of Mentoor's organization. Hundreds of young people have become involved in sports, music, and dance in Somoho since restoration efforts began.
Eventually, Mentoor says, these projects will all be moved up to the "mountain." Mentoor also hopes the space will include a craft market, an environmental education center, and even an African restaurant in the water tower.
Sydney Cindi, who runs the waste-art section of the program, says he's trying to get young people involved so they won't make the mistakes he did. He learned to work with clay in prison, where he served four years for robbery.
"To me, Somoho is not just a project, it's a school of learning," he says. "When we started on the mountain it was a dumping place. Now it's a place where people sit under the trees."