Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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?"

Preconceived notions
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".

Vote for an informed choice

We’re dropping the paywall this week so that everyone can access all our stories for free, and get the information they need in the run up to the local government elections. For the latest updates and political analysis, sign up to our daily elections newsletter.

If our coverage helps inform your decision, cast your vote for an informed public and join our subscriber community. Right now, a full year’s access is just R510, half the usual cost. Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Latest stories

Eskom to take ‘extraordinary measures’ to avoid load-shedding for elections

Stage four load-shedding rolled out to ensure the polls on Monday 1 November are energy secure

Khaya Koko: John Steenhuisen, please take a knee

The Democratic Alliance leader rebuking cricketer Quinton de Kock would be this election season’s greatest triumph

Paddy Harper: Will the Covid-19 cigarette ban come back to...

Flashbacks of nicotine deprivation and not poor service delivery may see a run on the polls on Monday

Eskom resorts to stage four load-shedding

Stage-four outages will continue until Friday after the loss of two units during the night, and three in total at Medupi, Kusile and Matla power plants tripping
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×