It’s hard to describe some cities. Perhaps we try to give it an identity based on how it is commonly experienced. But Joburg is a very, very fragmented place – its parts just do not seem to sum up into any kind of cohesive whole.
Most cities at least have a river that helps to define its character. The closest central Joburg has is its busy thoroughfares, and prominent amongst these is Commissioner Street, one of the founding avenues that gave the early town its southern boundary, and where I have come to experience just a small section of its streetlife.
Appropriately, our first stop is a set of sculpted wooden heads set on top of waist-height streetposts. They face in all different directions – perhaps a homage to those who pass through here every day. They are inconspicuous; they do not loom over their audience, they just sit humbly amongst passers-by. I like to think it’s a sign of respect by someone who has realized that a city’s assets are really its people.
Much less friendly is the branch of the Department of Home Affairs that we pass, where some floors look abandoned and which reeks of urine all around. Its austere, unfriendly facade looks like it was intended in a previous era to impose a sense of power and intimidation over any who came near it. Perhaps it deserves the effective urinal that the surrounding humanity has donated back to it, if it can’t find a way to welcome those to whom it is meant to offer its service and protection.
And then, we emerge onto a happier part of the street and find an angular wrought iron construction sitting in a corner, covered with pigeons. On close inspection the metal sheets are actually hammered into the shape of two gigantic pigeons. Their sides are whiskered with hundreds of horizontal spokes, and their real life friends are gripping onto them with hundreds of little birdy feet (reminding me of kids on a merry-go-round, waiting for it to start). And the panels are cleverly given more texture, resonance and colour by artful splashes that could have been painted on with oils – except there is no need – the birds have obliged by depositing them in layers that the artist must have anticipated.
More artwork. This time, a giant-sized work of graffiti, painted on a triple-story building. This one is of an African child with the most gorgeous, big warm brown eyes. World artists are invited every year to the city to decorate its specially demarcated industrial canvasses, in a festival that draws a huge fanbase. What I love is the story of the adoring street children who approached this artist for his autograph – they brought a brick along and he duly spray-signed it for them. I hope it gave them hope for their own futures.
On the other side of the street we encounter a story that started over a hundred years ago: Old China Town. Not the new warehouse giants that have sprung up south of the city, but the original community that entered into South African history at the dawn of the gold mining years. We head for one of their supermarkets, the entrance of which is framed by Art Deco doors covered with oriental lattice work and fire-snorting dragons of the large nostril variety, which have survived intact for generations.
What makes the experience extraordinary is not just the availability of items that are novelties to shoppers from the suburbs, but also for those items that are not. I find a speciality soap that normally retails in the coveted chains of the suburbs, but available here at a fraction of the price; and my favourite silken tofu blocks – twenty times cheaper! And then the uniqueness: hard to come by oriental cooking ingredients, and a gallery of imported teas sold in uniquely decorated tins. Before we leave we are invited to a cup of jasmine tea – an alternate way of drawing in shoppers to the big ugly sales signs of the malls.
Next, a traditional medicine shop, with rack upon rack of dried, leafy, seemingly organically-derived ingredients. To the uninitiated it is hard to fathom this world, but there are those in our group who swear by it, much as the fans of homeopathy and other alternative medicines do.
Then there is the home of the renowned tshwe-thswe fabric: a proud display of the blue and white originals (possibly to do with their origins in wrapping Dutch chinaware that was brought to the Cape in previous centuries), plus modern variations and cheaper adaptations. Any colour goes as long as it is bright and brings cheer to the outfit that is designed to stand out.
Around the corner we come across a long and orderly queue that stretches well down the street. These shoppers wish to enter the kingdom of blanket heaven – with their specialty being ‘Lesotho blankets’ which are particularly warm, durable and brightly printed – to purchase these not just for themselves but to send well north of the border to relatives in need.
Our last stop is a unique homage to the heritage of music. Friendly and passionate, people here want to share their joy by helping you discover jazz, African music or their vast vinyl collection that includes many forgotten hits of the eighties. It’s a long time since I saw Adam and the Ants dressed like they were viciously attacked by a fancy dress shop, but some of the reunions are happier, and I could spend hours combing through their vast basement collection in this relaxed and soulful place.
And we soon return to where we started. The insights we have gained do not tell one big illuminating story, but rather a million small tales of lives and circumstances that are interwoven in intricate ways that we have as yet not even begun to understand, only to briefly taste, as it is perhaps with all corners of the universe.