Ode to my Yeoville

“You know what Hillbrow and Yeoville are like,” says a resident of Katlehong, glibly summarising the moral character of places he must have visited about twice in the past decade: “Full of criminals.” But naturally: mainstream Jozi circles — the Melville café, the Soweto shebeen — have turned both names into abuses, conjoining them to a list of African cities similarly revered. So Time Square is apparently in Kinshasa; and Ponte Tower is Little Lagos, with garbage piled up to the seventh floor in its central hollow.

Other times, you’ll hear tender evocations of the days gone by, from good people — living in good suburbs with good security and not a Nigerian in sight — unable to forget an era when the House of Tandoor actually served tandoori food and cappuccino abounded in swish European patisseries. All very quaint, but frankly, the stories bore me. Having lived in Yeoville for exactly one year, I haven’t caught the Golden Age Syndrome.

I moved to Yeoville because I happened to find a friendly housemate and a cheap room there. My motives, I discovered, were widely shared. After months of sitting on food stains from the past century, I tried to reupholster my housemate’s furniture. A snooty Mozambican tailor from the neighbourhood suggested leather — “Then you can take it with you when you move to Sandton.” I told him I wasn’t planning on moving there any time soon. “Ah, but you will,” he said, “Never give up hope.”

In Mughal India, Sarai denoted a space, in a town or along a road, where travellers from all walks of life could find refuge and company. The Sarai was thus at once a destination and a point of departure, as is Yeoville.

Beer-soaked conversations in Time Square inevitably invoke the escape plan — to a better suburb, country or continent. For the real people who live in Yeoville, there are real fears. It’s not a nice place for the walking classes, especially after dark. Women fear they’ll be parted from their cellphones, and men prefer to walk in groups.

Long-time residents who’ve never dialled beyond Durban suddenly discover their phone bill is at R99 000; someone has tapped into their line and leased it out to people homesick for Douala, Lagos and Kinshasa. Residentially speaking, houses are considered high-risk and flats, safe. At the hardware shop on Raleigh Street, I get my first lesson in the etiquette of loot and pillage. “People come in here to buy big beams of plywood,” the man at the counter explains. “The next day some house has been broken into … As we’ve sold that plywood, we know that someone’s in trouble.”

As a new resident of the new Yeoville, I took all the usual insults against the African Diaspora personally. Determined to show off my neighbourhood, I had friends over for lunch. After the meal, we moved to the balcony, with a view of colourful jacarandas and the street below. My friends were impressed. Later, one straggler remained. As I triumphantly concluded my “Yeoville is a normal place” lecture, a gunshot rang out. Below us, people ran screaming on to the main road. After the street had cleared, two shirtless gentlemen sauntered down the road, their heads and torsos covered with blood, broken beer bottles in hand. My friend thought he heard them speak French. “Now this,” he said, with a smug grin, “is what we call the Inter-Congolese dialogue.”

Contrary to the warnings, civilians in South Africa have done me no harm. I realise that I owe this happy existence to owning a car, to living in a building that is strict about security and to being a dark-skinned male. Friends in similar circumstances, but lacking transport, have not had it so good. Yet it hasn’t stopped them from exploring inner-city nightlife.

In part, this is because the walking classes have their own ways of making nightlife safe. When people need to get home they take South Africa’s safest form of late-night transport: the Armed Response Taxi. Security company employees, driven to boredom on late-night patrols and eager for a buck, will take you home for the same price as a minibus.

All weekend, Yeoville’s bars are buzzing and Hillbrow’s clubs are packed. In staid old Berea, the bootleg Kilimanjaro — an unlicensed “house party”– is swinging to the beat of an urban Africa. While Yeoville’s hot spots are well known for their beverage selection, food (of the dining-out kind) is not the inner city’s forte.

Exceptions are Kin Malebo on Raleigh Street or the legendary Charro’s — a remnant of old Yeoville — which continues to roll out Durban Indian food to a clientele that has no idea who Brenda Fassie was. Some shebeens around Time Square, and one well-known house in Bertrams, serve spicy Ethiopian food at incredibly low prices. Wherever in Johannesburg an immigrant working-class community exists, so does a cuisine.

But wherever a working-class community exists, according to folklore, so does crime. Throw a party, and people will assume that BYOB stands for “bring your own bodyguard”. An acquaintance once wrote, in response to an invitation, that he would love to come over except that Yeoville was “like Fallujah, bro!” — this from a man who grew up in KwaMashu.

In India, which is where I’m from, people fear lonely, rich neighbourhoods — they assume that it’s where the crime is at. Twelve months of Johannesburg, and I’m convinced there is an urgent need for two manuals: How to Tell Your Working-class Neighbourhoods from Your Battlefields and its companion volume, Not all Poor People are Criminals.

Actually, I can think of at least two more: Nigerians are Human Beings Too and Nice Old Ladies who Sell Small Bags of Potatoes on the Road should Not be Put in Jail.

When I first moved to Yeoville, I needed a temporary place to work, and I found it down the road at an Internet café. It was run by Ephraim, an enterprising man from Nigeria. Before this story goes any further, let me explain that, unlike the rest of middle-class South Africa, I bear the nation of Nigeria no grudge.

The café was frequently full, even during the day. Curiosity took over. Peering into the next computer, I noticed a letter being composed in the name of Mrs Stella Sigcau. Now either the honourable Minister for Public Works (official hobbies: “reading and tapestry”) was wandering around Yeoville incognito, sporting snakeskin boots, considerable shoulder muscles and a trim beard, or I had landed myself in scam central.

I discovered that I was surrounded by a group of distinguished people: other than Sigcau, there was Albert Chissama, Esq (writing from his chambers in the High Court of Lagos), Olusegun Abacha (General Abacha’s hitherto unknown second son by his third wife), even the secret male lover of Colonel “Khadafi”. And they were all writing, with “a deep sense of purpose and the utmost sincerity” to inform you of vast sums of money hidden in Swiss accounts that could be yours, in exchange for some consequential personal information or hard cash.

Whatever your feelings on spam, there’s no denying the entrepreneurial genius. Douglas Cruickshank writes in Salon.com that Nigerian scam letters are their own literary genre: “The truth is I’ve fallen for them, too — not for the scam part, but for the writing, the plots (fragmented as they are), the characters, the earnest, alluring evocations of dark deeds and urgent needs, Lebanese mistresses, governments spun out of control, people abruptly ‘sacked’ for ‘official misdemeanours’ and all manner of other imaginative details all delivered in a prose style that is as awkward and archaic as it is enchanting.”

It’s not just Lebanese mistresses who have urgent needs: take the old ladies who travel from Sebokeng and Soweto to sell vegetables on Raleigh Street. They pitch up each day and take their place. Since everyone knows that selling potatoes on the road is the main reason for crime in South Africa, the police swoop down on them regularly.

They come in with sirens blazing, button up their bullet-proof vests and fearlessly confiscate anything they can lay their hands on. The contraband is then taken away, presumably, to that well-known national storehouse of illegal vegetables.

Perhaps the ladies need a corporation to represent them. Across the road is a Cell-C booth. I went there once to call India, and dialled without asking the rates. I found that Cell-C charges exactly double the Telkom rate for international calls — as it does in similar booths in low-income areas all around Johannesburg. But don’t take my word for it — go C for yourself.

One night, I was driving home late from work. At about 12.30am, I approached the intersection between Berea and Yeoville, when I was ordered to stop by police officers. They asked to see my licence and I did as instructed. Then they asked for my passport. I explained that I had left it in my office in Newtown — and that they were welcome to see it. Fresh from an intensive beginner’s course in Zulu, I even spoke as much of it as I could. It didn’t impress: the officer whose face rested on my window only seemed to speak Sesotho. It was another matter that he was armed and extremely drunk.

Apparently, I was being impertinent. I was a foreigner driving late at night through the inner city; ergo, I had something to hide. Officer One (no name badge) took my car keys and threw me into a police van. Inside were two frightened Nigerians and one Cameroonian. None of them had any money to bribe the police with — hence their confinement. Officers Two, Three, Four and Five went about harassing passers-by with their guns. Four hours later, after the night’s collections were in, I was let out. And, just for good measure, my wallet was “confiscated”.

I tried to lodge a complaint through the website of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) of South Africa. I examined the choice of complaints on offer and decided that mine was Type III, which includes offences as precise as “sodomy” and as poetic as “defeating the ends of justice”. But hit on the link to take you to the form, and you are confronted with a blank page. Call the ICD in Pretoria, and they will tell you procedure bars them from e-mailing the form. Ask in frustration, after several months of trying to register a complaint, about what you are expected to do and you will be told to come to Pretoria and lodge the complaint there.

But the ends of justice had finally defeated me, and I never got around to it. These love-ins with the police happen to everyone who lives where I do. The most bizarre event I have heard of is the police throwing an ID-less man from Durban in jail overnight — because he couldn’t recite the numbers one to 10 in Afrikaans (never mind that he spoke chaste Zulu).

Last week, a friend picked me up from home. It was a Friday night, and driving out, we noticed police patrol cars everywhere. “What a safe area this is,” he said, approvingly. Rot. As long as the upstanding citizens of Sandton believe that the police are keeping their 2,3 bedrooms safe from inner-city thugs, the men in blue are free to do their thing. Residents of Yeoville are not confused by flashing lights. Armed response wants passengers and policemen want cash. Try driving through the intersection of Rockey and Raymond streets without being pestered to buy some kind of narcotic, regardless of how many police officers are around. Try it.

And even as I whine about these self-appointed immigration squads, the problem goes above their heads. My indignation at being mistaken for an illegal immigrant comes mainly from the fact that I am not. This is not a situation that applies to many of my neighbours. If police corruption is the problem, is an efficient process the answer? Faced with the prospect of an indefinite holiday in Lindela, most people would prefer to part with some loose change.

In truth, the residents of Yeoville are quite happy to endure occasional police torture in exchange for residence in Johannesburg. The politics of nationhood and South Africa’s peculiar relationship with the Third World deserve a better examination elsewhere. As for now, we’re enjoying the salubrious delights of the inner city — wandering around an open-air market to the rhythms of five countries and three continents, having our clothes darned by seamstresses from Ghana and our malfunctioning electronics discussed with the contingent from Pakistan. It’s cosmopolitan and cheerful, the sort of place that makes you grateful for being alive.

In fact, it’s just like home: except, so excitingly foreign.

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