/ 1 March 2024

Living in Joburg in a time of crisis

Blue Jacaranda Trees Of Johannesburg
True blue: Ivan Vladislavic explores Johannesburg in his new book The Near North. Photo: Murat Özgür Güvendik/Getty Images

What am I looking for on the streets of Houghton? It’s possible that I am trying to walk attachments into existence in the hope that sheer repetition might induce a sense of belonging; that in the face of crisis, and in the most obvious way, I am “using walking to make meaning” (Macfarlane).

In the middle of the road, where Seventh Street intersects with Eleventh Avenue, a man is bouncing a golf ball on the end of a club. You see the pros doing this, calming their nerves or showing off their skills, but he’s not much good at it. After a few bounces, the ball shoots off and rolls into the gutter. He has a canvas pack with the shafts of some clubs sticking out like antennae and I wonder whether he’s a caddy with a set of cast-offs. 

He could have walked up Eleventh from the Killarney Golf Course. His Covid mask has writing on it, but it’s slipped off his nose and I can’t read the crumpled message. An SUV approaches along Seventh and stops at a distance. Joburgers are wary of this kind of weirdness, especially near a stop street or robot. What’s he up to? 

The woman behind the wheel blows her hooter apologetically, a mere pip to make him move aside. He doesn’t notice. The ball drops again. I see that he can scoop it back into the air without bending down. He’s pretty good at that part. Then the ball rebounds off a kerbstone and vanishes into the ground cover on the verge. 

While the golfer is hunting for it the woman in the 4×4 eases past: she catches my eye and pulls a quizzical mouth.

I cross the intersection just as he stands up with the ball. “What are you doing?”

“I’m practising.”

“Are you a golfer?”


“Then why are you doing this?”

He looks at me for the first time. “I’ve got to get something right.”

Nothing to see here. I kept hearing the phrase on American television. Policemen said it to stop people from gathering at the scene of a crime, or even just a disturbance, an incident, a minor disruption of the order. 

People are curious, they think something’s going on, going down if they are Americans, and they want to know what it is. Good chance it’s something bad, something to get your blood up, something you’re not supposed to notice. 

Next thing you know, you’ve got a crowd on your hands. The cops spread their feet and slap their batons into their palms. Everyone in the vicinity begins to feel like a suspect individual. Nothing to see here.

The phrase came to me when I began walking in the north. But it was a temporary blindness. I had to learn to pay attention to things that are not out of place, that do not disturb the peace or threaten the public order, that are not portents of calamity. In a poor neighbourhood, like the one I lived in before I came to the northern suburbs, change is visible everywhere (Is it poor? Let’s say poorer, not exactly wealthy). 

Focus on a weathered surface and the undercoat of the past strikes through. Along the moneyed streets where I find myself now, change, when it occurs, is usually more complete and therefore less obvious. It leaves fewer traces. A certain thing was here before, now another thing is here. There was one house, now there are three.

There was a hedge, through which you saw a rundown double-storey on the far side of a lawn, now there’s a three-metre wall you cannot see through. The rooftops glimpsed through a crack in the gate tell you it’s a neat new cluster. The indigenous garden seems to have been there for years but you saw it being installed just last summer. “Before” and “after” seldom occupy the same frame. In these circumstances, making something of what’s before your eyes requires a perspectival squint. 

I had to rediscover the boring. Lefebvre’s project came back to me: to try to understand the world — “that bloody riddle,” he called it — through the everyday. “Why should the study of the banal itself be banal? Are not the surreal, the extraordinary, the surprising, even the magical, also part of the real? Why wouldn’t the concept of everydayness reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary?”

Writers often take this view. Svetlana Alexievich, the great documenter of everyday life in the final years of the Soviet Union, says that when she speaks to people about the past, she avoids the big concepts like socialism and instead asks after small human truths, feelings, memories: “The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story.”

Dr Google’s camera car passed through the neighbourhood where I now live in 2010, appropriating everything within range of its indiscriminate compound eye, capturing in a day a million (a googol?) times the number of images it took Ed Ruscha a working lifetime to accumulate. 

The immediate aim was to render South African cities, tourist attractions and sports stadiums virtually accessible to visitors attending the Soccer World Cup in June of that year. The exercise has not been repeated since. When I look on Google Street View to fill out the impressions left by a walk — Does this house have tiles or corrugated iron? Are the lamps on that stone gate round or square? Is the tree in the garden an oak or a plane? — the images are not always useful. 

Some of the houses have changed so much I cannot be sure I have the right one. Many have disappeared behind walls. Others have been demolished. The Google panorama, an unaccented overview that used to fill me with distaste, has become compelling. 

Will this turn out to be the most comprehensive record of our times? Will this impersonal, superficial record of the spaces we live along be what demonstrates how disposable we are, how easily and thoroughly everything can change, how simple we are to erase? Or will the Google record itself vanish one of these days with as little forewarning as it appeared?

The Near North is published by Picador Africa.