/ 2 March 2023

Joburg: There’s still life in the old skelm

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Dirty old town: A derelict building at the old 17 Shaft Mine at Crown Mines. The City of Gold has failed to maintain many of its historical artefacts, Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

I know this city. 

The tortured geography of the Cape Peninsula is a closed book to me; Durban is the unappealing bit one skirts when travelling north or south to other coastal destinations.

But I know every road, landmark and vista in the metropolis where I was born and raised.

Cresting the last hill on the N3 I feel a lift on seeing that distinctive skyline — the monstrous neon-crowned phallus of Ponte, the Hillbrow Tower, the old water tower teetering on Northcliff ridge.

Knowing does not mean loving — one could never say “see Johannes-burg and die” as one could of Paris or Moscow. It has few man-made beauties. But a lifetime’s acquaintance has brought a comfortable familiarity.

I have no plans to emigrate or join the Little Trek to the “Mother City”, with its insufferably cultish attitude to its mountain and its whales.

So when I was asked to write a piece about falling out of love with Johannesburg, I cried off. It’s “sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn”, to quote Bob Dylan, but the old skelm is still kicking.

I’m well aware of its hard face: almost everyone I know has been mugged, hijacked, burgled or house-invaded at some point. My sister recently received a R250 000 water bill. Fountaining pipe-bursts have become a common sight and potholes are creeping like smallpox across the roads. 

But we are not yet at the point where persistent complaints to the municipality, reinforced by the nagging of local councillors, fall on incorrigibly deaf ears. A case in point: when medical waste was dumped in our park, a week, ten days of protest passed, nothing. Then, suddenly, the blue rubber gloves disappeared.

Johannesburg is not a “world-class city”, whatever that means, but life is still eminently liveable. Traffic still flows, despite the dead traffic lights. Supermarket shelves are full. The generator’s purr has become the defiant anthem of suburbia. 

One of Johannesburg’s greatest assets is its rich but incompletely memorialised political and industrial history. In no other South African city is there such a wealth of civic monuments to political events and actors — the men of Kensington killed in the First War, the revolutionaries of the 1922 Rand Revolt, Walter Sisulu, Neil Aggett and David Webster, miners, council workers, Umkhonto we Sizwe…

The pity of it is that much has been lost and some of what has been restored at municipal expense has gone to rack and ruin. Neither the council nor the police seem willing to crack down on cultural vandalism and the taggers, squatters and business philistines who perpetrate it.

The Drill Hall, refurbished to commemorate the Treason Trial initially staged there, has been gutted by vagrants, fire and thieves. A wonderful bas relief which captured the vitality of apartheid-era Fietas (Vrededorp) has been half torn-down for the hell of it and almost obliterated by advertising.

The Oudstryders Monument in Cottesloe has been degraded by a century of wind and weather. Why have the guardians of Afrikaans kultuur not preserved this unique relic of the Anglo-Boer War, which carries the names of long-dead oudstryders en bittereinders who fought the British Empire to a standstill? 

Also abandoned, and perhaps no longer in existence, is the Crown Mines graveyard of the Chinese who died in 1904 to 1907 after being imported to work as “drill boys” on the goldmines.

In a characteristic piece of historical insensitivity, Rand Mines demolished the compound where they were confined, and the claustrophobic “bread oven” bunks where they slept, in the 1980s.

But this should not be grounds for hand-wringing. It gives scope for “active citizenry”, like the private mosaics, statues and plantings that have blossomed in The Wilds botanical garden.

Some civic history is not so easy to efface. Only in one or two other South African cities — eMalahleni/Witbank comes to mind — have the fossil remains and scars of mining become a fixed part of the landscape. 

Flying in from exile, communist leader Joe Slovo remarked the first forms recognisable from the air had been Johannesburg’s mine dumps.

As they are being leached away for trace metals, they will not last forever. But they continue to impart the unique flavour of what still feels like a temporary encampment founded on the lust for quick money.

One of its fascinations is that Joburg is at once South Africa’s most cosmopolitan and most African city.

Sucking in a constantly shifting cocktail of fortune-seeking ethnicities, its population has jumped from about 100 000 in 1900 — three quarters black people — to its current peak of eight million in the greater metropolitan area.

Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Ruth First were all products of the eastern outgrowth of the central city, now thoroughly Africanised. Rocky Street, once peopled by Jewish and Lebanese immigrants, now belongs to the Nigerians.

Feeding the tidal swell from the late 1800s were north and south Indians, Cantonese Chinese, Lebanese, Jews, Greeks and Italians; from the 1970s Portuguese and East Europeans; and from the 2000s a more narrowly African influx including Zimbabweans, Sudanese, Ethiopians and West Africans.

To its great cost, Joburg has lost half its Jews to re-emigration and more than half its Greeks, now down to about 35 000. But one wave succeeds another. After the fall of apartheid, 350 000 mainland Chinese are thought to have deluged into the country, most Johannesburg-bound. A third of Joburg’s shops are foreign-owned. And exotic fare such as jellyfish salad and injera bread are still readily available.

More than anything, a city is a collection of personal memories evoked by particular locations.

The zoo and Zoo Lake are places of my childhood, but also of my children’s childhood. When I drive past the lake, I picture myself with my two young sons, vainly chasing geese in a rowing boat. 

The former SAB corner, opposite Wits University, conjures up the neon pride of lions that once lounged there, tails wagging jerkily.

A Joburg poet has written evocatively of “Sunday’s rock plant”. Indeed. Weekends meant clambering up koppies, sifting through river silt and wading through veld grass with family, searching for amethyst and agate for a rock collection.

It is also the landscape of phases of adulthood. It is my first nookie, in Ethel Grey Park. It is finding my tyres slashed after a Johnny Clegg concert. It is being teargassed at a student protest. 

It is St Mary’s Cathedral, where I saw Neil Aggett’s coffin hoisted onto the shoulders of chanting mourners, draped in green, black and gold.

The city of one’s birth, growth and late years is more than it can ever be for an onlooker or temporary sojourner. It is the map of one’s life. And it is home.