Things I want to say about Johannesburg

There are things I want to say about Johannesburg that I have held back. I have held back because I discount my opinion and interpretation in all spheres of my life about all things.  I start most opinions with a disclaimer, incriminate my own character, call into doubt my expertise. The effect is that only those who, on a daily basis, deal with people who prize their opinion above all others and are paid to be right tend to appreciate my humility self-doubt tenuous opinions.

This city is concrete and cinderblocks and glass and metal filled in with exotic species of plants and traffic robots.

Sandton is a series of traffic filled, three lane roads bounded by sky scrapers that are impressive for an African city and average for what I am used to seeing in the streets of Washington DC and Montreal. The size of the petrol stations, the pedestrians walking alongside and crossing highways, the incongruous trees in the median and the car dealerships give it away. It says, “I am the center of commerce and I am where the black diamonds go out to drink at night, but I am new money and new architecture and new business and new housing compounds. When the traffic robots lose power Outsurance agents direct our traffic. I don’t need invisible lines because the traffic on Grayston Drive, the limited BRT, and the privately tended 24-7 gates keep us safe.”

Woodmead is a series of office parks and small scale shopping centers that satisfy midday runs for lunch, small errands and petrol. It is home to large shopping centers filled with box stores that attract customers six days a week. The roads are clogged from 7:00am to 6:00pm Monday to Friday. The Kombies own the road during rush hour. Their passengers turned pedestrians cross the road with parasols and backpacks at a slow deliberate pace that dares single-passenger-commuter cars to take the right of way.

I live in the Northern suburb of Johannesburg called Parkview, or Emmarentia to those not familiar with the contiguous neighbourhoods of Randburg. These roads have honorific names like Barry Hertzog, Jan Smuts and Joe Slovo. These roads have numbers. These roads have wonky intersections with direction-ally alternating two-way stops. These roads are lined with canopies of trees, jacarandas, and cacti. Riotous red and orange irises peak over the top of 10 foot walls wearing electric fence crowns. Clusters of blue and white Agapanthus greet your eyes at every corner.

These roads do not have sidewalks but they do have pedestrians. They have women balancing bags atop their heads, school children in blue uniforms, joggers in the morning. On Fridays the garbage pickers come through at 6:30am, prepared with a massive plastic-laminated bag-bin set atop wheeled trolleys for collecting cardboard and bottles from the rubbish bins. Sometimes they work in teams, the bins usually end up back in their proper place, and as long as I am on the M1 highway by 7am I don’t have to worry about near-swipes with their bursting treasure on the roads. In the evening these roads have domestic workers and pairs of white women joggers in running shorts and spandex. There are golf courses. There are shopping centers with a proper sense of scale and commerce.

I have the one-by-two block long cluster of shops up on Greenhill Road and Barry Hertzog. My coffee shop with the consistent barista and familiar cook keep me coming back. District 6 restaurant, the hardware store, and the spice market keep me curious  but without need. I have my fruiterer, stationary shop, Post Net and BP gas station over on Tyrone Avenue.

I’m sure Parkhurst, Houghton and Saxonwold are indeed full of lovely homes as people claim, but with the walls and gates and speed bumps I cannot confirm this. If, however, I can judge based on the wealthy white people in posh fabrics with poorly trained dogs and smartly attired children buying things and eating in restaurants of 7th street in Parkhurst, then I would say that the area is very nice indeed. I feel somewhat ashamed to admit that it is one of the few neighborhoods where I don’t feel self-conscious about what the color of my skin might be saying about me. I am, however, aware that I do not fully fit in because my hair is not dyed blonde, my heels do not click or cause me to totter, and my handbag communicates absolutely nothing about how much money I make.

My favorite places are undoubtedly Emmarentia and Melville. One, for their proximity to my house, and two, for the familiarity the business owners have with their customers, the diversity of patrons and shops: bakeries, book stores, bead shops, bars, cafes, coffee shops, consignment clothing, designer clothing, guest houses, grocery stores, laundry services, pharmacies, restaurants, tailors, weekend markets.

When I travel further afield – away from Rosebank, away from Illovo, not to CBD’s weekend markets or independent movie theaters – I am reminded that I am living in a city with conspicuous markers of wealth and class. Reminded? Don’t be surprised by this. We make our worlds small: work, errands, apartments of friends, favorite restaurant for sit down or take away, groceries, bank.

There are signs that you’ve moved into an area without wealth. This is not to say poor. Having driven through townships in Rustenburg, Sasolburg, and a blip of a town in Pilanesburg I know there is a spectrum.

The roads are wild and lush green but have no trees. The left turn lanes become more pothole than pavement. The strip malls are long, low and without neon or bright white plastic signboards. The homes are set close to the roads and the walls are low and short. Men in blue jumpers hang around traffic robots and herds of people fill the sidewalks and pour in and out of kombies every other block. The major grocery stores are run down Spars or non-chain markets. The signs marking businesses are hand written or painted directly onto the cement and plaster walls.

I find the signage endlessly interesting. I am always keen on how business names are posted on shops. How advertising is placed on walls, buses, billboards. I think it is because I am drawn to the bones and ornamentation of a city. The former belongs to the builders and planners. The latter belongs to the proprietors and the people. In these things I feel you can locate the character of a neighborhood. Signs literally tell you where you are and aesthetically tell you about a place’s style and economy.

I will now offer a rather long quote from “Portrait With Keys – the city of Johannesburg unlocked” a nonfiction book from author Ivan Vladislavic, Pretoria-born and Johannesburg-resident-since-1977.  I devoured this book. Number 43 titled “Handwritten (Roll 2)” really stuck with me.

“The township is written in longhand across the printed page of the white city, in felt tip, in chalk, in gaudy heeltaps of enamel…

The white city is made of steel and glass, illuminated from within. It is printed on aluminum hoardings and Perspex sheeting. It is bolted down, recessed and double-glazed, framed and sealed, it is double-side and laminated, it is revolving in the wind on a well-greased axle.

The township is made of cardboard and hardboard, buckling in the sunlight. It is handpainted on unprimed plaster, scribbled on the undersides of things, on the blank reverses, unjustified, in alphabets with an African sense of personal space, smudged. Tied to a fence with string. leaning against a yield sign. propped up by a brick. secured with a twist of wire. nailed to a tree trunk.”

I want to stop and take pictures of these things. The young man with the reverse-side cardboard sign at the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Bolton Road asking for money to bail his cat, caught drinking the neighbors milk, out of jail.  The stunning handpainted signs with drawings of grocery store display shelving and industrial sized appliances in CBD near Anderson street, still secured one store up on a vacant store front. The ubiquitous signs on cardboard taped to electrical boxes and light posts for penis enlargement, “house paintrs,” “road repare and tar”. The “used tyres and autoparts” signs painted in tall white lettering against painted black background drawing attention to meticulously organized hub caps and tire pyramids I pass on my way into the Maboneng Precinct if I take the M2 and enter the city via Martizburg Street.

These are signs American urbanites with a longing for antiques and Americana buy in upscale vintage furniture shops. These are the signs artists living in tetanus filled lofts horde with the hopes of refurbishing one day. The difference is that these signs are painted onto plaster and so the only way to walk away with it is to take a photograph.

But I’m a white girl driving around in a rented Hyundai at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon who cannot spot through her car window the difference between a dilapidated vacant storefront and a rundown business hub. And even if I could spot the difference and even if I could work up the nerve to circle back, park, get out of my car, and point a camera I don’t have one to point. And I’d rather have no photo than a bad photo that didn’t capture the magic of these signs.

Or, let’s pretend that I would rather have a bad picture than no picture at all. I’m still an unsure white girl who is scared that if I point my camera at anything black strangers on the street will think I’m exploiting urban decay in my naïve belief that everything and anything in photographed in Jozi CBD is an artistic or social statement. The truth is I just like hand painted signs and rundown buildings that make your heart ache with the idea of what they could be again.

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