Joburg : Despite. A guide for visitors at Easter, and other times.
For Joburgers of a certain age, Easter is associated with men in hats. When the Rand Easter Show was on at the Agricultural Showgrounds, where Wits West Campus is now, out-of-town visitors could be seen driving carefully along the freeway, always wearing hats.
I thought of those anxious drivers of long ago when I saw a hand lettered sign at Wits, admonishing us to Qaphela Ungasabi; Be Careful but Never Scared. I am sure the sign went up for other purposes than to provide guidelines for living well in the big city, but hey, you must take your wisdom where you find it. The advice is good for nervous visitors and citizens alike.
For starters, it’s helpful in traffic. Of course you must be careful driving in Joburg. You have to check your rear-view mirror before stopping at a red light, and look right and left before proceeding on the green light. But you can’t be scared – you have to take the gap. Willingness to make a space, combined with zero tolerance for shilly-shallying, characterises Joburg drivers. Entering the stream of traffic or crossing it, a gap will open up for you. But if you don’t take that gap you are toast. Somehow the next 100 cars know that you were offered a gap and fudged it. It doesn’t matter whether you missed the gap because you were texting, terrified, or too polite; the opportunity won’t come again.
Giving the gap also matters. Do it with style: smile at the taxi-driver and let him in – he’s going to push through anyway. If you magnanimously wave him along you’ll get a big smile and the illusion of control.
Mind the gap, spot the style. Safety warnings will tell you to be alert at all times and aware of your surroundings. Turn this to good use, and look out for Joburg style. Spot the black and white Volkswagen beetle stretch limo that drives around Melville and often parks at Wits. Note that the fold-down top is made of black garbage bags. Garbage bag bling: that’s one of Joburg’s styles. Of course we have the real bling as well. The blingest of bling: vulgar, competitive, deeply rooted in the corrugated iron call girl gold nugget days.
Joburgers make their own style as they make, unmake and remake their city. Citizens elsewhere may wish to take personal credit for natural beauty which they clearly did not create – mountains and seas and suchlike. Joburgers know that they made their city. We planted our forest – the largest man-made, it’s called, though it is more than likely that women had a hand in it. We even made the mountains. We raised them up and took them away again, the yellow mine dumps which we knew and maybe loved, and their choking dust which we certainly hated.
Spot the style and remember the history. The sight of a very small boy straggling to school with sleeves flapping over his hands and a backpack almost as big as he is, will bring a smile to your face anyway. But remember that 25 years ago his family did not attend suburban schools. Think about the difference this school will make to his future, and he will make to our future, and your day is made.
But don’t get stuck in the suburbs that went skittering across the veld, fleeing the grim and the grime of the inner city. Much of that grime has gone, some of the edge has stayed. You will find it whether you venture just past the great grey (and slightly green) Eland into Braamfontein, or across the bridge to Newtown, or right down Pritchard Street to the Fashion District.
Pritchard Street is one of those inner city areas where chaos and renewal march side by side in a manner that is in itself almost orderly. A neat, four story school block stands next to a burnt out building. Inside the next building, two beautiful avocado pear trees flourish.
Joburgers sometimes say ‘cosmopolitan’ when all they mean is a combination of black, white and the shades in between. The closer you get to the inner city, the more genuinely cosmopolitan it gets, as you encounter an abc of continental accents – Angola, Cote d’Ivoir, Ghana; soft Portuguese and French alongside a malleable and often shapely English.
Listen for the style that comes with the cosmopolitan languages. A Mocambican friend sent me condolences on a bereavement, mourning “the passing of your lovely one”. That made me smile and cry, for indeed the person who had died was lovely as well as loved, and none of the ‘pure’ English condolences had captured that.
If you listen carefully, you can catch the style in the suburbs as well. The car guard who wants to talk to you may be asking for money for funeral/fees/fares. But he may also just want help with the crossword puzzle. At a local shopping centre, two car guards bent over a newspaper stopped me on a grey bad-tempered day. The last, stubborn clue was “notwithstanding”. Could I explain? I offered a couple of offhand sentences, and walked on to my car. The shouts of glee as the clue was cracked stopped me in my tracks. “Despite!” “It’s ‘despite’, ma’am. “
Despite. Now that’s the way to enjoy Johannesburg.