Cities are fascinating things. These huge spaces of earth that hundreds, even thousands of people call home, each with their own lives. We connect certain emotions and experiences to cities and these define our perception of that city.
The second city in my series of Ode to a City, is the city I have been calling home for the past 5 months – Johannesburg.
Jozi, Jo’burg, Egoli, City of Gold… Johannesburg
The city of Johannesburg was established in 1886 with the discovery of gold. Today sand dunes, the product of these gold mines, litter the sides of Jo’burg highways. From my experience it’s a dusty place, and how else with so many mountains of dust lying around everywhere and not being rehabilitated properly (they have at least started doing it properly now).
Like most of the early settlers of Johannesburg I came to the city for work. After returning from the UK I needed a job, but I wanted a job in digital publishing (it’s what I’ve paid a few thousand Pounds to study, so yhea). These jobs are hard to come by in South Africa, not to mention in Gauteng (the smallest province in the country but also the economic hub and the province I have called home most of my life). A job finally opened up and I applied. Long story short, I have been working at this job for the last almost 6 months now and I’m happy.
The city of Jo’burg has however imprinted different emotions on me as a resident and if you were to ask me whether I could see myself settling down here or raising a family (now don’t get ideas, this is not going to be any time soon) here, I would give you a definite NO.
For an Afrikaans girl like me from Pretoria, which feels like a big town more than a city, Jo’burg is somewhat overwhelming. The fact that I also work in an industrial part of the city and need to drive through Hillbrow every day doesn’t help either. The thing is this city is noisy and dirty, busy and selfish. I can count the times cashiers at the supermarket have smiled, let alone speak, on my one hand. The roads are full of people who drive like they are the only ones who’s lives matter, swerving in and out, and if you don’t know the roads yet yourself and you are in the wrong lane by accident (there are a lot of turn only lane in Jo’burg), expect to be hooted at, cut off by other cars and be shown some very ugly signs (yes it’s happened to me a few times).
And don’t get me started on the taxis. If you know anything about South Africa you’ll know that taxi here means mini bus with a million people packed into it, completely un-roadworthy and the worst drivers in the world. I once ended up sandwiched between 3 taxis, in a one car turning lane (don’t ask) and the other day I saw a taxis with only half a door. It’s so unfair to me that these drivers think it’s ok to subject their passengers to these conditions because they can’t afford their own cars.
I had the biggest culture shock when I moved to this city and every day I become more and more sad and angry about the conditions people live in in Johannesburg. When I was a kid there was a song by a very eccentric singer Johannes Kerkorrel called Gee jou hart vir Hillbrow (Give your heart to Hillbrow). Internationally the song did very well in the Netherlands and other Germanic countries and many people thought the beautiful song was about a girl called Hillbrow. Kerkorrel was however singing about the Jo’burg suburb, Hillbrow. The area had been a cultural hub where even during apartheid times people of all races and cultures lived and socialised together. The iconic Ponte building was the place to live. Today it is a rubbish dump. The tower, which is the tallest residential building in the Southern hemisphere, was the setting for international films such as Chappie, which to a great extent depicted the residence of the tower for a long time very accurately. The Ponte building had been home to drug deals, gangsters, pimps and prostitutes and the inside, which is an open sphere, was filled up almost 57 stories high with trash. Many people committed suicide by jumping down the middle of the tower.
For a long time the Ponte building was a no-go zone and it is this desolate Hillbrow that Kerkorrel sings of. In recent years it seems Ponte has been placed under better management and is on the rise to become a safe living space again. If only this could be the case for the rest of Hillbrow. Kerkorrel’s plea for the people in the little square by the McDonald’s who collect rubbish on their trollies just to survive, who sleep on the ground and make fires in kongas for a little bit of heat in the winter, no cover during the rainy days, his plea for the trash heaping up on the streets because of a municipality that simply doesn’t care about these people, his plea for the broken pavements and bent over street lights, his plea for the women begging every afternoon with a whole nursery school of children on the island between the roads, playing with rocks, empty cold drink bottles and runny noses. His plea, these people’s plea, has not yet been heard.
We are on the verge of what could be an historical municipal election in a month’s time here in South Africa and I can only hope that Hillbrow’s plea, no scream for attention, like that dirty runny nose child, simply asking for a bit of attention, will be heard. Because Johannesburg is not only about Sandton and Rosebank and their fancy ladies in designer heels weighed down by their small mid-week shopping spree and the arrogant teenagers with manicures and who think they own the malls. It’s not just about trendy Mellville and Norwood and Maboneng with it’s bars and restaurants that open and close as the seasons come and hipsters. It’s about so much more, you just have to be willing to see.
You might ask why I stay here then. Why do I stay in this rude, angry, dirty, sad city. I’m still trying to figure it out myself, but one thing I know is that Johannesburg has opened my eyes to a world where everything is not always shiny and beautiful. I find my solace in this city on it’s rainy days, when the dirt and poison is washed away by the water from above and when the sun comes out I know the harsh reality of living in a metropolitan city will hit me again.
So as we sip our Starbucks and eat out Krispy Kream that make us feel so proud to be living in the great city of Jo’burg, getting all the fancy American chains first, let’s think about the real City of Gold, a city in need of healing, a city in need of caring, a city in need of understanding that it’s not big and scary, but rather a little deer caught in the headlights of promised prospects that were never real.