The Jozi rumour mill is often kicked into gear by something said on talk radio. A few months ago Melville made the news, although those telling the story second-hand did not quite know the details. Even in the newsroom of the Mail & Guardian somebody asked me what's barring black shopkeepers from trading on Seventh Avenue.
It would be difficult, I thought then, to pick up the phone as a journalist and ask whoever answers at an organisation like the residents association: “Hi, are you racist?”
At any rate, given the amount of time assertive black intellectuals such as the late John Matshikiza and the still alive Eric Myeni have spent theorising on the Melville sidewalk at Wish restaurant, a charge of racism would seem out of place. That, plus the nightly invasion of the incredibly raucous and very much at home motley crew of University of Johannesburg students would seem to defend Melville’s honour.
Conway Falconer, who owns the restaurant and bed and breakfast Lucky Bean, is emphatic that Melville, although not a haven, is “dealing” with issues.
“We deal with a broad range of people from across the world and they say there are integration issues around the world.” But, Falconer said with typical, down-to-earth South African positivity, “they say our issues are more raw and we are dealing with them”.
Falconer’s restaurant is one of a few remaining establishments in which one can get a meal that has had a bit of thought put into it and Lucky Bean has a cultural programme to boot. In other words, on a street that is made up of too many drinking holes and empty shops that fell on hard times, there is still invention. Lucky Bean has hosted some of the country’s finest jazz talents, including harmonica player Adam Glasser and veteran singer Dorothy Masuka, to name a few.
Falconer is also on the organising committee of this weekend’s Fête de la Musique that is considered to be the opening event, although not the official opening, of the France-South Africa Seasons. This French cultural showcase will continue well into November and a similar programme of South African culture, to be shown in France, will play out in 2013. Other partners on the organising committee are the residents’ association, Alliance Français and the French Institute.
There goes the neighbourhood
Back to Melville, where Falconer rates his suburb way above other “homogenous places” such as malls, where “you are in your comfort zone, you are moving along and you are not engaged with your issues”.
It is due to the efforts of people like Nicky Rofail of the residents’ association that a general stream of good news emanates from the suburb. And on the street one hears, informally, that people feel more secure than before.
Yet the local knock-and-drop newspaper, the Northcliff Melville Times, runs a small but steady stream of letters from angry residents about negative trends in the commercial activities of the shopping strip. Over the past month the newspaper has run stories about a general petition launched by members of the public aiming to stop Saturday’s festival.
The objections cited in the newspaper are characteristic of community journalism in the white suburbs of South Africa. Take this quote by Melville Sector Crime Forum member Cynthia Rose: “We definitely don’t want to encourage the return to Melville as a place to get drunk and for live music entertainment because, not long ago, we were fighting to close down and control about 50 liquor outlets that did not comply with the law.”
Rofail and company of the residents’ association claim to be in the dark about exactly how many people signed the petition. She was given a figure of 50 signatories and, predictably, she does not believe that qualifies as a public outcry.
But Rofail is determined that her association is on the right path. “The relationship between the Melville Residents’ Association and the landlords has strengthened to a point where they are willing to keep their properties vacant for the right tenants,” she said, defending the fact that many shops are empty.
“A positive mind-set about Melville becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is the message I want to bring across without people feeling they are being indoctrinated by an idea that is not real. I think we must be open to the fact that we are part of a new reality and we must embrace it.
“People are very fearful of what they don’t know, instead of being open and embracing. For example, if you look at the line-up of the Fête de la Musique, even that is foreign to some people. Instead of saying “We’ve never heard of this”, people should rather come out and discover what they don’t know.”
The Fête de la Musique, which is a highly regarded series of events internationally, will become an annual event in Melville. Falconer agrees that the artistic programme is meant to challenge viewers and, although its emphasis this year is on music, in future years it will include “more dance, more poetry, street fashion, a broader cultural mix”.
Sounds in the suburb
The Melville 7th Street Fête de la Musique will take place on 7th Street in Melville all day on June 30. The street will be closed off to allow pedestrians free rein. Artists, including the Brother Moves On, the Mahotella Queens, Nibs Van der Spuy and Davy Sicard, the Fantastique Guys, Uju, Giant Match and Bongeziwe Mabandla will perform during the day.
Some special projects such as Invisible Cities Pirate Radio and the Melville Actors Studio will also be part of the event. Restaurants will spill out on to the street and create a special menu for the day.
Launched in 1982 by the French ministry for culture, the Fête de la Musique is held in more than 100 countries in Europe and around the world. It usually takes place on and around June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere.