My Johannesburg – musings of a former resident returned
Johannesburg is covered in rain. Outside there is a deluge. Inside the car, we are fighting to navigate the M1 – the eastern bypass around the city some people liken to New York (wonder if the Big Apple could function without any road markings?) – whilst the windscreen soon begins to mist over. We crank up the heater and lean forward in a bid to make some sense of the mess in which the M1 finds itself.
It’s around 60 days and counting to the World Cup and Johannesburg, like most of the other major cities of South Africa, is reeling. Projects, such as re-constructing the M1, appear to be behind schedule – certainly it’s doubtful that this major highway is going to miraculously conform to a smooth ride, with accompanying road markings, by the time visitors arrive, still, South Africans are resourceful, you never know. For locals it’s just one more reason they spend their lives stuck in traffic.
It’s good to be ‘home’. I haven’t lived here for nigh on ten years. Now I call the mountains of Cape Town my home, but with every ‘return’ to Jo’burg, there is a sense of homecoming. This despite the mania that is this city that seldom sleeps; the city that qualifies as a real African city. My Johannesburg doesn’t have gun-toting guys leaping out at you from behind pillars, despite the fears of all and sundry who don’t live here. Crime is in no uncertain terms part of the fabric of Johannsburg, but to live in constant fear gives it form and credibility. And the average visitor leaves pretty much unscathed, and the richer for the visit.
My Johannesburg is big, brash, and unashamed of the fact. Its main streets are lined with billboards, so much so, that if you’re not used to it, you find yourself craning your neck, despite the traffic. Did I mention the traffic. It’s manic. Gautengers do not obey ordinary road protocol like indicating before changing lanes or sticking within the speed limit – that’s for other cities, in other parts of the world. In fact, if there is a road rule, the average Jozi taxi has already brazenly flouted it for all to see, and without penalty.
My Johannesburg is a melting pot of cultures – black, white, coloured and in-between, north, east and west African, Zimbabwean and Indian. Some of them like this variety, others don’t. My Johannesburg is a mirage of fancy cars, sky scrapers, cool bars and restaurants and important history. It’s the site of the country’s most famous township, Soweto, and another less-famous but as dense, overpopulated and feisty – Alex.
Yet, it’s also a city full of trees, and villages where you can safely leave your car and stroll around, like Melville, Parktown and Norwood, where you can visit zany coffee shops, alternative shops, used bookstores, pubs and restaurants. It’s a city over run with gargantuan shopping malls – glitsy halls lined with boutiques, chain stores, book stores, music stores, gimic stores and just about anything else you can buy. It’s where most of the teenagers ‘hang out’. No longer safe in parks or subways, Jo’burg’s youth are mall rats. They pout, pose and swagger whilst self-consciously smoothing a fringe or tweaking the top of jeans. They’re cellphone touting, Ipod swinging spenders. And they hang out on benches, at the movies or McDonalds – it doesn’t matter to them where.
Johannesburg is fiercely loved by its residents, and hated by those who don’t live here. You’ve got to reside here to understand. The constantly changing metropolis, with an inner city bursting at the seams with illegal occupants, hawkers and non law law-abiding taxi drivers who behave as if their very existence is under threat by the BRT and the Gautrain, has to be savoured over time to be appreciated. There is something about living here and knowing your way around, that overcomes the fear those just off the plane experience as a result of negative media portrayals. The place gets into your blood.
My Johannesburg is home to a series of mine dumps, African muti shops, myriad suburbs each with its own flavour, a distinction between northern and southern suburbs, despite there being no river to come betwixt them, a mishmash of architectural styles that borrow heavily from Tuscany in the newer northern suburbs, none of which is distinctly South African, and signature six-foot walls lined with barbed wire and electric fencing.
This is the same Johannesburg people visit to see the Apartheid Museum, the Origins Centre at Wits, New Town and its theatre, the Nelson Mandela bridge and the Pilanesberg National Park, just outside of the city. It’s the city where Hillbrow was yesterday and Melville is today.
It’s electric and electrifying. You would be mad not to visit.