As Mail & Guardian photographer Delwyn Verasamy and I sat at Arabi’s Kitchen, a modest eatery run by cultural activist Sanza Fakudze, a vendor trudged along Rockey Street in Yeoville with a trolley of coconuts.
He was soon surrounded by people buying the fruit, which had been sourced from Mozambique, at R5 each.
Using a big knife, the vendor cracked the coconuts open, asking customers whether they wanted to drink the juice, before slicing them into small pieces.
Rockey Street, one of Johannesburg’s most famous suburban strips, was once a partly Jewish middle-class neighbourhood. Its fortunes have changed with the constantly shifting demographics of the city.
Now the suburb is home to Africans from all over the continent, as the shops on the busy street attest.
There is La Camerounaise, a restaurant that serves Cameroonian cuisine. A sign reading La Congolaise is still emblazoned on what used to be a Congolese restaurant. It’s a role that Kin Malebo, a little further up the street, now plays as the go-to place for Congolese food.
Other nationalities, including the ubiquitous Zimbabweans and Nigerians, have carved their own spaces in this modern-day tower of Babel.
Since the Fifa World Cup two years ago, the neighbourhood has been undergoing a renovation of sorts that included fixing the pavements on some streets.
The House of Tandoor, one of the street’s most enduring hangouts, is now easy on the eye after the grime ingrained on its walls was scrubbed off. The reggae den’s dreadlocked owner, Eric Mpobola, was excited about the “coming of development” to his neighbourhood.
Financial institutions Capitec and African Bank now have a presence on the street, and food franchises McDonald’s and Debonairs have moved in to complement Nando’s, something of a fixture on the street for the past few years.
“Whoever buys a building renovates it,” said Mpobola. “There is a lot of potential in this street.”
The House of Tandoor is one of the few spaces in Johannesburg where former president Nelson Mandela is placed on a continuum with fellow black revolutionaries. A mural on one of its walls features Madiba with other black leaders such as Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, South African icons Steve Biko and Chris Hani and Jamaican heroes Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey.
Close to the Tandoor is the Seal of Ujamaa, a shop that stocks a variety of wares — books, T-shirts, incense and CDs — mostly with a Caribbean flavour. If you are looking for Jamaican intellectual Horace Campbell’s book Rasta and Resistance, or Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop’s tome Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, or even late Zimbabwean nationalist Joshua Nkomo’s autobiography, Story of My Life, or perhaps a CD by reggae legend Henry Junjo Lawes, then go to the Seal of Ujamaa.
The shop, owned by Trinidadian-born entrepreneur Ras Chiedza (Shona for light), used to be up the street, at the corner of Raymond and Rockey. The shop’s former home is now occupied by the Jo’burg-Pretoria Restaurant.
If there is a constant in this suburb it is change. On the outside walls of the Shoprite supermarket there are dozens of notices advertising accommodation for rent that confirm this: “Someone to occupy a balcony.” Another notice says there is a “room available”.
Yeoville-based artist Breeze Yoko says that the suburb is “changing from being a transitional space into a place in which people settle”.
The new, more spacious library has been open for almost a year now and the community centre has been revamped. A building that used to house The Zone nightclub is now a church and the old synagogue has become a church. “God lives here; we mix with God,” Yoko said.
And there is a yearning for a different kind of change too. On the day we went to Yeoville, there was a banner on the wall next to the community centre on which was written, in English: “Congolese Democracy and Justice Campaign: we want justice and democracy now.”
If Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila has a grain of sense in his head, he has already sent his agents to monitor what’s going on in Rockey Street.
As DJ Badda Badda, who plays at the Rockafellas nightclub, told me: “The residents of this neighbourhood are well placed to advise the African Union on how Africans can live [peacably] in one place.”