As a kid growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, annual holidays to the seaside in a jam-packed jalopy took us through my birthplace, Jo’burg, by night. Having snoozed and scrapped for 12 hours in the car, my four sibs and I would watch breathlessly for the first gleam of Africa’s legendary metropolis. When my father announced that it lay just ahead in the darkness, we opened our mouths, ready to burst into song, as soon as he, a native of Johannesburg, began to boom:
“Oh, Jo’burg’s the place for me, Jo’burg,
Where the liquor and the lights always shine ...”
Years later I heard a recording of the old Jo’burg anthem by Eve Boswell, with Afrikaans words that didn’t translate into the ones we’d sung. When a Zulu carpenter whistling the tune told me laughingly that his lyrics were much too insulting to reveal in English, I realised Joburg’s image was thoroughly contradictory.
You can never be sure that you’ve got the Jo’burg story quite right, which is why many of us remain fascinated by the city’s fragmented narrative. Apart from the fact that its fabled lights (shimmering invitingly way back in Nelson Mandela’s boyhood dreams) went out completely a while ago, the city’s inhabitants see the place so differently from one another that you have to keep asking: Whose Jo’burg?
But I confess to remaining caught up in the city’s nightmarish politics ever since arriving here to work at the Rand Daily Mail in 1976, a momentous year when the youth of Soweto hijacked the liberation struggle. Like many white Jo’burgers, I’m occasionally tempted to exchange Jozi’s hurly-burly for the scenic splendour of Cape Town, right on the edge of a troubled continent we sometimes don’t want to be on—but that seems a demographic cop-out; a solution for sissies.
I love Jo’burg’s scented springtime, the brave women who carry burning braziers on their heads in winter, the nerve-jangling Highveld storms that sometimes make me think of God even though I’m an atheist.
There are many more questions than answers for me here (as potent a fix as narcotics to a hack) even though I’ve written books about the incomprehensible, colourful chaos of townships explicitly distanced from Jo’burg by apartheid, about sangomas engaged in sacrificial ceremonies and about people driven beyond endurance to all kinds of horrible ends.
As a Jo’burger, I’ve spent years of my life working with our bewildered council to upgrade my own community in a city that is growing at such a rate that it is in danger of “simply spreading like gravy on a tablecloth”, as George Orwell once put it.
That Jo’burg’s urban fabric—walls and trains—retains old political motifs, such as “The People Shall Govern” (spotted recently on a building in what used to be known as the city centre), is a reminder of comments designed in the past to jolt the senses and prick our consciences. But waves of the fist just make me nostalgic now that we seem permanently aggrieved yet incapable of changing the script.
My enduring interest in these days of curdled idealism is in my own tribe, however.
I’m tired of wondering if the beast that brought us apartheid is evolving rather than facing extinction—but entirely fascinated nevertheless by the psychology of whiteness. If you believed all you hear in Jo’burg about domestic workers being part of the family to whom they’ve sold their labour, you’d be mystified by our terrible history. The way Lady Muck is as susceptible to rejection by Martha as the latter to rejection by her never ceases to intrigue me. Quick to forgive each other, they’re equally quick to go at it again. That their loathing and unease are often mixed up with love is reminiscent of family dynamics, I suppose.
The mere mention of Jo’burg brings a queasy shudder to many people in the world who associate the city more with crime and naked self-interest than anything else. But there’s a lot of unacknowledged generosity in this place, too. Newspaper appeals for help to people in desperate straits never fail to achieve spectacular results. And can you fathom why our charming petrol attendants are always smiling: how do they do it if not on fumes from their pumps, the cynics ask?
When I was putting together a collection of short stories called From Jo’burg to Jozi, my co-editor Adam Roberts and I were expecting loads of scary crime tales, but there wasn’t one. Both the Jo’burg writers and the foreign journalists who had clearly enjoyed their time in the city chose quirky topics instead of negative reflections. Perhaps they felt Jo’burg had endured enough damnation. I abandoned the gentle piece I was working on in favour of a jarring insight into the tsotsis’ mind-set because it would have been ridiculous to publish a crime-free Jo’burg anthology. We received so many contributions within days of asking writers to give us their words for nothing to pay the proceeds of the book to an Aids orphanage that we had to call a halt, even though some of them were stopped mid-sentence. (The charity, Cotlands, has to date received more than R45 000 in royalties.)
I’m proud of the energetic way Jo’burg has tried so hard to get into shape for the World Cup. Although fed up like everyone else with the piledrivers and jackhammers blasting us into soccer mania, I reckon we’re set for a deserved and lekker jol.
What will remain afterwards, apart from the inevitable hangover, are our recurrent challenges: how to live with the possibility that the past will flare up and incinerate us. And how to keep the lights on in Jo’burg.
Heidi Holland and Adam Roberts are the editors of From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories about Africa’s Infamous City (Penguin)