South African stories: The real soul of a suburb
When night falls on Seventh Avenue in Melville, Johannesburg, the darkened storefronts separating the lit ones look like the gaps in a battered prizefighter's smile. There are a dozen "To Let" signs in the space of three blocks. An artisanal cupcake shop came to the neighbourhood and, within the year, was gone; the same with a pan-Asian restaurant, a fancy nightclub, a French bistro.
Entrepreneurs keep bringing their offerings to the Melville of the imagination – a more bohemian Parkhurst, or a 21st-century version of the old Yeoville where artists and intellectuals of all colours would come to sample tapas and dance – rather than the increasingly studenty Melville that it really is.
There is one exception.
You can see its fluorescent glow all the way from Seventh Avenue, although it is set half a block off the main drag on Third Street, where the rent is cheaper. It is called Mzansi Takeaways and is the first proper CBD-style takeaway joint in the suburb. It opened late last year and does a rapidly growing business in giant ladlefuls of pap and stew. It also boasts two hubbly-bubbly pipes.
Most evenings, a slight, olive-skinned man in a football jersey sits out front in a plastic chair and exhales tendrils of pale smoke around the storefront's bright pillars painted in Ndebele patterns.
This man is the owner, Tawab Petros, aged 30. He came to South Africa five years ago from Cairo. "I felt I was trapped in Egypt," he said. "You've got power, you've got energy. But there are no job opportunities. You wake up at one in the afternoon, and what for?"
He got a visa to South Africa, where he dreamed of opening a business. First he had to work to build up capital: in a butchery, in a supermarket, in a bottle store. Then he roamed Johannesburg in search of a niche.
Less constricted by preconceived notions of Jo'burg's various neighbourhoods than the city's natives, he noticed Melville actually had many working-class inhabitants – such as University of Johannesburg students on bursaries, or car guards – but almost no economical food options.
On a recent evening a veritable microcosm of the rainbow nation streamed through the door: a yoga-toned woman in fancy gym clothes looking for airtime; a mixed-race gaggle of university students; the wealthy proprietor of Primi Piatti; a young waiter from one of the Seventh Avenue restaurants still in his apron; plenty of car guards; a travelling drug-and-alcohol counsellor named Jannie who plopped into an empty plastic chair next to Petros to have a smoke.
That morning, Petros revealed, the hip-hop artist HHP had paid a visit. He was doing a photo shoot for Drum magazine and wanted the colourful pillars as a backdrop. At one point he asked Petros to fetch an old tomato crate for him to pose on. The point, laughed Petros, was to show how the rapper really "humps with the local culture".