“When the cranes come to roost in an area, you know it is alive,” Peter Stark of Northumbria University said to me some time ago. Stark was involved with the regeneration of the city of Johannesburg. The cranes he spoke of were not befeathered, beaked creatures with wings, but rather, massive building machines that had descended upon Johannesburg to facilitate the city’s new urban identity through her town planning and architecture. A feeling of life and regeneration rings true for me almost every day I am in Johannesburg, especially at this time, 10 years into our new democracy. I feel it not only because of the presence of the industrious cranes, but there’s something on a much more grass roots level, too, that keeps me hooked to this city, and feeling hopeful, even while I feel afraid.
Louis Botha Avenue joins a major traffic intersection just 200 metres from what was recently my front door. Named for one of our white dictatorial and racist pre-apartheid leaders, Louis Botha Avenue remains one of the central arteries of suburban Johannesburg. I know this because of the fear and respect with which I was raised to regard this avenue: it is always busy and often unpredictable with wretched accidents and explosive traffic violence. But there is a harmony to be found in the cacophony of this street, too, and so in that way, it is much like the rest of Johannesburg.
Minibus taxis form a sub-culture in Johannesburg. Each represents an informal transportation system, which for a nominal fee, members of the community without their own private transport can travel hither and yon. A minibus taxi can take one to the next suburb, the next township, out of town or by mishap, directly to a wreck-strewn hell. Stuffed too full with patrons, the minibuses race about on tred-worn tires and screech to a halt on nearly shot brakes. They’re notorious for their careless, sometimes drunken or trigger-happy drivers.
In addition to serving as a form of commuting, these minibuses also serve as a communication alternative for their drivers. Sure, these vehicles are seldom roadworthy, and their drivers don’t show a clear respect for the legalities of road behaviour, but more significantly, minibus taxis have come to create a culture of their own that is now endemic to contemporary Johannesburg. Like a pack of dogs or a flock of birds, minibus taxis seem to converse as they hoot at one another, at passersby, at potential customers, at drivers alongside them, or maybe sometimes, just for the joy of hooting. The horns differ in tone and rhythm, ranging from single honks to staccatos of aggressive, shrill blasts, to custom-made hoots that rudely proclaim one or two bars of tune, then taper off into a very brief silence.
This cacophony on Johannesburg roads is part of the musicality throughout South Africa. The minibus horn is the street equivalent to the ubiquitous deep-throated roar of the “vuvuzela”, an improvised musical instrument derived from traditional African ritual, later adapted by migrant mine labour culture, now modified for modern use. The vuvuzela produces a sound much like that of an instrument made from an animal’s horn. It is used in a celebratory capacity; particularly in soccer matches to spur teams on. Since South Africa came into democracy though, the affordable, plastic version of the vuvuzela bought from a street hawker anywhere loudly proclaims celebratory connotations for any occasion, any time.
Corlett Drive was a “river” just beyond my front door. But rather than ducks, fish, tadpoles or river reeds, I had cars, motorbikes, ambulances, and vagrants streaming past me. Not far from this door the central suburban artery, Louis Botha Avenue intersects with Corlett Drive. Also named for a dead, white and yes, racist bloke who represented colonialist and apartheid ideals, Corlett Drive lies parallel to the M1 North, a freeway that extends from Johannesburg’s Central Business District into the neighbouring city of Pretoria, about 50km to the north. This intersection is noisy, cheerful, busy, and on the whole, functional.
But when the man who begs at the traffic light a few meters from my front door told my neighbour rather gleefully one day that he knew her, because he knew where she lived and spent hours watching her in her daily habits, I developed an inkling that perhaps, just perhaps, all this urban liveliness was a tad too much for me. Perhaps one day all my starry ideals of living in urban Johannesburg might fall from the clear blue sky and burn me.
This “crotch” of the city, where busy roads intersect with the onramps to a primary highway, spreads across Corlett Drive, a street that extends maybe eight kilometres, but it embraces a range of socio-economic reality and dignity from top to bottom. It begins in a healthy suburban area, Rosebank, where one will find a metropolis of malls, offices, and businesses lubricating the city’s economy. From there, Corlett Drive descends gently to an area for the exclusively wealthy: Illovo. The large, high-ceilinged, well-maintained flats evoke the aroma of expensive perfumes worn by beautiful people who eat tender steaks. Here, the affluent Wanderers Hotel offers frontside seats to one of our biggest cricket stadiums, and varying daily room rates, depending on the tempo of the cricket season. Broadcast with bold class in colourful lights, a sleep over at the Wanderers Hotel can be R1 200 a night; or, as paltry a fee as R795 can get you the same service in an off-season period.
But follow Corlett Drive down the hill, eastward, and the area drops in status, the residents lower on the class scale. Down-at-heel shops stand cheek by jowl with one another along the roadside. They need a paint. Also on this part of Corlett Drive, now the suburb of Bramley, are brothels and laundrettes, greasy take away joints and pawn shops. In Bramley, a room at the Sunnyside Hotel can be had for R250 a night, or so a sign in peeling paint declares. Both the Wanderers and the Sunnyside, virtual neighbours but worlds apart, offer cognisance of the city’s grimness: no one but the hopeful street beggars and hawkers stand outside either hotel, and both establishments are heavily securitised with severe fencing and advertised alarm systems.
But as we go down this road, things do not continue to degenerate in class significance in a linear order, as one would expect. At this point, travelling further east, there’s an economic hiccup, represented on the right hand side of the road in the form of the newest suburban kid on the block, Melrose Arch. Melrose Arch is fabulous, exclusive centre that offers clothing stores and eateries for the rich, including a very fancy hotel and a restaurant that specialises in African cuisine called Moyo’s. Moyo’s fits the “swing of Africa”, with authentic, magnificent African jazz each night, food that is exotic for local and foreign customers alike, and an ambience considerably less about contemporary urban South Africa than it is about the great romantic continent, somewhere out there, beyond Johannesburg. Moyo’s fits very anachronistically within Johannesburg: it’s a comment on the underbelly of colonial history, from within Africa. It offers the splendour and richness of black Africa without the European influence. With a décor of beaten copper and carved wooden doors, extreme attention to detail is part of the Moyo’s experience, and everything from the carving on the toilet door of a man with an exaggerated penis, to the central and western African boldness of table mat and cutlery design celebrates the “real” Africa.
Passing Melrose Arch with its aromas ranging from Turkish coffee to Egyptian rose petal bread, ostrich steaks and Zulu cabbage, we reach the highway. And we find what was my doorstep until July 2004. The highway really is like the river of life in this city. It never stops. The flow might be congested at peak hours, but like the sea, the freeway is constantly alive, in hours both rude and regular. So many people going about their busy, aggressive routes. At this intersection I witnessed 15 road accidents: ranging from the small bumper bashings caused by half awake drivers, to massive trucks filled with industrial chemical taking the corner too quickly and landing, beetle-like, on their backs. I’ve even witnessed the road rage incidents where one driver would stop in traffic to hammer the daylights out of another who, for some reason, offended him or her. Sometimes such enraged drivers would use their fists, sometimes other weapons.
At this point, the street touches a suburb called Waverley. Inhabited by middle to upper class Jews, Waverley is sprawling, but subdivided with security gates, sectioning off potentially dangerous access points. These access points are dangerous because they’re in close proximity to the apartheid-created black township of Alexandra, which we’ll come to shortly. It is from Alex, as it’s colloquially known, where people of both good and bad intentions commute to Johannesburg daily. Some come from the townships to work as domestics in white homes. Others come to beg or look for work. And others come for opportunistic crime or street drugs. The Jews hoped to cordon themselves off from commuters with bad intentions.
Moving on, Corlett Drive becomes less sophisticated, wilder, and more industrial. We are closer to Alex now. Alex was the horrendous site of much internecine bloodshed during the early years of our current democracy, but like any other semi-urban, over populated section of our world that is coloured by financial difficulty and creative energies, Alex seethes with passion and drama. When you reach a point in the road where the asphalt ends, and where chickens and goats roam freely across the road, you know you’re not in Johannesburg any longer. If you’re white and maybe female, it’s generally understood that you’re lost: make a u-turn and get the hell out of there quick as you can.
Speeding back west up Corlett, which changed its identity from “Drive” to “Street” when we entered Alex, my house was the pretty orange one that stood on what, to all intents and purposes, was an open piece of land, offering a view of the busy intersection. My orange house stood on the cusp between Bramley and Waverley. It had a garden, with potential that I recognised for all kinds of agricultural development. It was a big garden, with trees and grass and birds and things, and so it was presumably fertile, but I wouldn’t get to grow anything, here. The house and garden stood behind an electrically charged fence. I could see outward through the electric fence and passers could see inward, too. It was as if I were in a cage in a zoo. I will argue that electrified fences in contemporary Johannesburg are not about keeping apart the races, as white and blacks are on both sides of the fence; rather, they’re about keeping out the criminals. Technically, people cannot vault over this thing signage warns anyone attempting to jump or otherwise touch the fence will be fried but really, such a transgressor would only be frightened off, albeit with burned fingers to nurse. Admittedly, though, the connotations of living behind electrically-charged fencing is grim.
The house was lovely: it had pillars and porches, wooden window frames, a fireplace and parquet flooring, and it was crazily south-facing (in South Africa, for heaven’s sake, where the powerful winter sun warms from the north!) but I thought it was pretty and ideal for me at the time. With my education in visual culture, these elements and pretensions warmed the cockles of my little protected heart. But I’d missed the real signage that should have warned me to beware. Vagrants lived under the bridges and in the slippages of paving outside the property; my landlord was too scared to stay in this gated community at night; sometimes the people I saw picnicking in the garden were not fellow tenants, as I thought, but homeless people who had slipped in; maybe the feeling of security that being in a fenced terrain offers (a bit of peace for them too, perhaps?), or maybe they would make off with my car after nightfall, when the gate had been carelessly, inexplicably left open, again.
Gradually, with visitors grim and visitors sly, I became confused as to who were my neighbours, and who were the vagrants with less than salubrious intent. I grew too frightened to emerge from this pretty cottage, and barricaded myself inside for days at a time. Suddenly, I was no longer lying and sleeping in bed at night, but I was lying and listening. Was that a groan from the old house, simply caused by the cooling temperature late at night? Or had a door just slowly opened? Was that a window shattering? Or just the rattle of something in the night wind?
My fear wasn’t simply the phobia of a white woman living alone in this country that is historically full of racial and class-based strife. My fear was very close and real: four years ago, my aunt was murdered on her porch as she was leaving her home for work, one morning. She lived in a securitised house similar to this, maybe three kilometres from where I lay awake at night. We’ll never know why she was murdered. We know only that there were two young black guys, and my aunt on her way to catch a bus to the city centre, where she worked. There was nothing “glamorous” about her murder. They simply shot this 66-year-old white woman in the head. They didn’t even rifle through her handbag. Was her murder a botched robbery? Was it a racist crime? Who knows? The bottom line is, my father lost a sister, and my cousins, a mother. And four short years later, I lay in bed, frightened, thinking about all of this. I guess the signs had all been there prior to my aunt’s murder, too. But no one bothered to heed the message then, either, let alone learn to read the signs.
Johannesburg is a complicated place. To live here, one must laugh at one’s pains because sometimes, laughter is the only way to cope. When I look past my aunt’s tragic murder and see the activity of this city, I find myself inspired and excited by it. I see huge cranes that have come to roost in Johannesburg, and they are busy building the future. I hear the call of vuvuzelas from the streets, and watch the cars in their never-ending stream, like corpuscles circulating through the city’s heart. In taking delight in Johannesburg’s madness and beauty amidst all the suffering of South Africa I am not being heartless or tactless: I am being Johannesburgian. It is the only way to live in these times, this place.
I have also been quick to gather my possessions and get the hell out of the pretty orange house surrounded by the electrified fence. I still see that river that is the M1 North outside my window, but from my new third floor apartment it’s farther away, now almost noiseless just a shimmering band of light against the night sky. Jozi, Johannesburg’s colloquial nickname. The city of gold, they call it.