Rockey Street was a beachhead of the new South Africa in the late Eighties and the Nineties, but it has seen a lot of changes since those heady days.
I was eight or nine when my parents opened their shop at 20 Rockey Street in what we called Yeoville, but is apparently, technically, Bellevue. It was 1984 or 1985. The shop had black-and-white tiles at the front and an old door with a wooden frame and glass panes. In the back was a big stockroom where my mom would sit and do accounts, or something like that, and my brother and I could hide and fight and draw pictures and plot how to kill each other. Once I stapled my thumb.
By the time I was 12 I was working weekends in the shop, selling wire bicycles made by Billy Makhubela and wooden sculptures carved by Doc Phutuma Seoka.
We stocked earrings with Ndebele designs, cut and painted on leather; cards and calendars and T-shirts designed by Caroline Cullinan; soapstone snake boxes from Swaziland.
It was called African Magic and it had its own soundtrack: Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba.
When I wasn’t working, or I was bored, I would sneak off and explore — never along the side streets, never really further than the Checkers on one end of the street and the corner of De La Rey Street on the other. Five blocks of Rockey (and Raleigh) Street, and they were all mine as long as the sun was up.
By night, Rockey Street had a very different geography, marked out by dark shop fronts that remained stubbornly shut during daylight hours. Rumours. Elaine’s. The House of Tandoor. The Harbour Café. Caricatures. I knew them the way they were the morning after, smelling of cigarettes and beer.
Maybe the real Rockey Streeters were the night owls, but I was a magpie. My territory was marked out by shops and restaurants: there was Mama’s at one end, the Army Surplus store at the other. In between was an ever-changing landscape filled with bright and shiny things waiting to be discovered.
I knew Rockey Street on a first-name basis: Lolly and Dimitri sold the coolest clothes at So Modern — shiny suits with sharp edges and sleek linings; Rosemary curated vintage objets d’art and clothing — fur coats, silk scarves, glossy strands of jet beads — at Remniscene (of course, we didn’t call it vintage then; happily, she’s still around: Remniscene is now on 7th Street in Melville). At Robin’s Nest, Robyn would let me try on Victorian wedding dresses and pore over trinkets with garnets and moonstones and enamelled gold, the start of a life-long love affair with antique jewellery.
Rockey Street was where old danced happily with new: there was Feigel’s for kosher food and the very first Fruits & Roots, started by Pritam and Har Bhajan (although the names I remember from that time were their English ones).
On the corner, next to my parents’ shop, was the RockRay café where my brother and I would go to buy baby bottles of Coke and play video games on Saturdays and school holidays. The games changed — Ms Pacman to pinball and Kung Fu streetfighters — and so did the street. The city council changed the direction of traffic by making part of the street a one-way, a trivial thing perhaps, but it shifted the mood.
In retrospect, it was perhaps the first of many attempts to impose petty changes on a suburb that later, but still sooner than we’d expected, would in effect be marginalised by the city proper. One-way traffic.
But that wasn’t the future we saw then. Rockey Street had always been a beachhead, one of the few places where it felt like Jo’burg — all of Jo’burg, or at least the cool residents of the city — mixed freely.
When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, the shop briefly became an unofficial signing-up point for the party (until a formal office could be established). When Mandela was released we rushed to print T-shirts to sell at his welcome-home rally. They carried a picture of him as a young man because, of course, there were no photographs of him after 1964. Nobody knew what Mandela looked like.
In the courtyard at the back of our block, the landlords opened up an outdoor section for their restaurant and new shop spaces, which they called the Bizarre Centre. For a short time, my grandmother had a second-hand bookstore there. I was more interested in Nadja’s clothes in the neighbouring stall: party dresses, outrageously bling jewellery made of plaster and plastic gems. She dressed me and my friends for several matric dances (my own included), which I accessorised mostly with big hair.
Rockey Street by night came calling. The adults, with their good music and fringe arts and liberal credentials, must have hated us: hordes of teenagers, some Goths, some soon-to-be ravers. Most of us would become whatever the post-Eighties version was of a yuppie.
At Rockafellas I saw a boy I’d later — briefly — date wearing eyeliner. It was secretly thrilling.
I played my first-ever live “gig” in a room on the side of a pool hall. A handful of mostly bad love songs, sung with just enough conviction to redeem at least my memory of them.
Down memory lane
I have to go from memory, because it’s all I have. African Magic closed its doors, a casualty of my own family’s break-up more than anything else.
Maybe somewhere, someone is sitting on a box of old photos labelled Rockey Street, 1984-1993. There used to be something a bit like that on Facebook, but I can’t seem to find it anymore. I had the same problem when I was trying to find photographs of Rockey Street for my first book on Johannesburg.
Maybe we didn’t take pictures. But, if you were there, you would have taken away stories — fragments of Rockey Street every bit as real as parking meters and old 5c coins. Of the woman who impregnated herself using a semen sample from a champagne glass; of the bouncer who swallowed 10 caps of acid to avoid being arrested. Do you remember the one time, what was his name, wasn’t there a place in the back that …?
I’ve been down Rockey Street twice in the past year: once, a little after six in the morning, running with some of the Rocky Road Runners (on what is their Wednesday route, or maybe it was Thursday); and once to visit Maurice Smithers who, almost single-handedly, has been trying to keep the engines turning at the Yeoville Bellevue Community Development Trust. It’s an uphill struggle. People love nostalgia, but it’s easier to forget.
Rockey Street is home to new communities now, including a large number of African immigrants. Some are good citizens, a handful are not.
It’s not any different, really, from whichever “back then” you want to remember: the first- or second-generation Jewish migrants, the bohemian thinkers, dope smokers, free spirits and jumped-up smouses. It’s still a beachhead.
Rockey Street is dead. Long live Rockey Street.