Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

Johannesburg: The city that once was

About a year ago at a party, I met a well-known South African artist (he shall remain nameless) who described the Johannesburg Art Gallery as “Miss Havisham in her wedding dress”. He wasn’t saying it spitefully, he seemed to really like JAG; it was just a very honest, pithy comment.

I believe the metaphor can be quite accurately extended beyond the art gallery in Joubert Park to many parts of Johannesburg’s city centre.

Walking around some of the neglected, desolate buildings in and around the CBD, one does get the distinct impression of disappointed hope, of great expectations thoroughly dashed. So many empty buildings in varying states of disrepair, complete with cavernous holes in the walls and smashed out windows, that it resembles a place that has been subjected to heavy, sustained artillery fire.

A few months ago, while I was walking around the city, a little girl waved to me from the top floor of one of these bombed-out wrecks, her tiny arm, eagerly stretched out through the space where a window was supposed to be. It was such a strange, poignant moment and so representative of the thwarted innocence of these architectural treasures.

About two weeks ago a good friend of mine who has just relocated from London to Cape Town came up to visit me in Johannesburg. He’d never really ventured much beyond the suburbs before, so we decided to go for a wander around the city. We started off in the artsy Maboneng Precinct and then took a long walk down Commissioner Street all the way to the newly refurbished public library on Market Street.

Unfortunately, inner city Johannesburg has a pretty scary reputation internationally, so he was, understandably, a bit nervous; but it was a clear-skied, sunny winter’s day and we breezily strode along without any issues at all and reached our destination intact.

Many of Joburg’s suburban residents wryly refer to Market Street and its surrounds as “murder mile” and generally regard it as a no-go area. Me amongst them — I can’t actually remember having ever been before. But on that particular day the only people to be found were teenage skateboarders, loudly clattering up and down and around the steps of the library.

Faced with the innocuous scene before us, we burst out laughing — all that fearful anticipation and then to be met with something so completely harmless.

There was no sense of danger at all, just an overwhelming feeling of abandonment. That people and businesses have long since deserted this space.

Of course, there may have been certain lurking menaces that we were unaware of and in our ignorance arrived at the erroneous conclusion that there simply were none. There are other segments of the city which are far more treacherous. That I must acknowledge. Indeed it would be foolish not to.

But in this particular instance I was reminded of a scene in Louis Theroux’s 2008 film Law and Disorder in Johannesburg where, one evening, he decides to go into one of the metropolis’s numerous derelict buildings, despite much protestation and discouragement from his South African companion he presses on anyway and finds … well … nothing.

That’s it. Nothing. Just empty rooms and one or two impoverished squatters.

Although Louis never says it explicitly, he seems to imply that some of our fears of the city centre are perhaps a little too exaggerated. That the reality is far paltrier.

How wonderful it would be if commerce and activity returned to these forgotten places. In an interview, some time ago, with fellow Thought Leader blogger and public art practitioner Lesley Perkes, I wrote:

The quality of the material world is a product of our regard for it. And the relationship becomes mutually reinforcing: the more we neglect public space, the less pleasant it becomes, and the less we want to interact with it. We shut ourselves off more and more in private spaces, our expectations inevitably lower and we stop seeing not only what is, but also what could be. Laying our imaginations to rest.

But how and where do we begin?

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