Umlungu in the City (23 Feb 2015)

Just over a year ago, this Bloemfontein boytjie left the 051 and went completely corporate; moved into Sandton and began a career in law. It didn’t take long before the dirty judgemental looks got the better of me while walking through Sandton City. You know, the ones where you’re made to feel incompetent to walk in that space because you haven’t spent two hours in front of the mirror preparing yourself.

After a year, it was time to get out so I packed up my things and moved into a flat on the top of Ponte City. If you’re wondering whether that’s the tower on the border of Hillbrow with the Vodacom sign on top, it is. Reactions stem from, “Are you serious” to “Oh I heard they’ve really done it up”…and they have. If you can overcome the rules resembling those a high school hostel you too can wake up every morning to an unrivalled view in an apartment that would put the minimalism of Morningside apartments to shame.

Each time I step into the foyer, I’m greeted by the resident children shouting, “Ee Umlungu [White man]” with similar innocent ignorance that I used to request ni***r balls from the tuckshop ladies 15 years ago. The culture of the building is only second to that of the area. So much so that my neighbours established an incredible organisation called Dlala Nje (http://www.dlalanje.org/) meaning just play. They offer the best and most informative walking tours of the inner city and use the proceeds to fund a community centre children (which is generally where each tour begins and ends).

After attending a Chinese New Year party in the heart of Johannesburg with some neighbours, they suggested that we walk most of the way back before catching a taxi. Apparently, Johannesburg has “invisible borders” in both space and time and walking through Marshalltown is reasonably safe at night but Doornfontein is to be avoided. I was unconvinced and looked at them with the same look of distress my parents gave me when I popped the surprising, “I’m moving into Hillbrow!”

In the darkness, we walked from Chinatown and were met by Main Road; a road mostly purchased by private industry and turned into a well-lit security patrolled walkthrough museum. I enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following day, I trekked through inner Johannesburg. I wanted to prove to myself that by staying street smart, the place is not as dangerous as people make it out to be, nor is it a slummy wasteland.

Fortunately, this trip fell on a Sunday morning which meant that as I left home and hiked up Yeoville Koppie, I was surrounded by various praise songs and chants of the local worshippers. Coupled with the view, it was enough to tempt staunch atheists into singingHow Great Thou Art.

The enchanting music was soon substituted with powerful speaking as I braved through Doornfontein. Muffled voices from warehouses that were seemingly abandoned for 6 days gave hints as to the subject matter when a powerful “Get more from life”, “Can I get an Amen?” and “Jesus saves!” seeped through. After I heard “forgiveness,” I ruled out financial advice and determined I was hearing the evangelical preachings of the area.

As I made my way through Commissioner Street, I looked up at the Carlton Centre; once a pride of the continent as its tallest building. Today it retains the latter title but the fame that came with it has somewhat withered. A trip up to the top floor observation deck is a mere R15, yet I only shared the exquisite view with some four tourists.

Continuing, I found myself staring at a street name, I had only once known as the most expensive property in Monopoly, Eloff Street. Looking down, I understood why newer versions have replaced it with Clifton and possibly why the game regards Cape Town to be more valuable than Johannesburg but Jozi just has something more to it. From the CBD right down towards the M1 you’ll be exposed to incredibly displays of architectural prowess and wealth as a background to the street vendors selling fruit that has been lying in the sun slightly too long. The sights and smells offer a metaphor of the decaying surroundings built up once again to be put to as best use as possible but never quite what they were intended to be. A powerful sense fills the air containing the ingredients of what was, what is and what was meant to be and the resulting presentation in front of you is something in between but you cannot really place where.

The architecture is enough to make Christopher Wren turn a purple-green hue of lustful envy. From the Rand Club to the provincial offices, every building offers a sense of grandeur with a hint of more awesome than the next while avoiding any commonality.

It only gets better from there. If you find yourself on the Main Street Mall, you’ll be graced with the mining history of the city amongst all the Anglo American offices spread over a pedestrian street with nuggets of interesting information boards and old equipment turned into a street worth of exhibitions.

By the time I got to the end of Fox Street, I had decided it was time to turn around. Actually, I just wanted an excuse to stop over in the Sheds and enjoy an Aces Lager, the most refreshing craft beer I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting (readers of this blog will know I’ve had a few). The Sheds has got to be the only place in the country that is a greater attraction to hipsters than Maboneng…or Cape Town, though the food is creative and boasts huge variety. If you have older parents who insist that they are still 24 years old and demand that you take them to Maboneng, the Sheds is a great alternative.

While craft beer is great, I couldn’t overlook the contribution SAB played in many of my (sometimes poor) decisions which got me to where I am. A pilgrimage to the SAB World of Beer, and consequently Newtown, was in order. Unfortunately the World of Beer is closed on a Sunday but that only afforded more time to pillage the sights of the former offices of the JSE, now home to only Scorpion Legal Insurance, the NYDA and a to let sign. When the JSE emigrated north back in 2000, it took much of the surrounding wealth with it. This much is evident from the occupancy of the beautiful stalls across the street.

The trek back home included an impressive array of street art and citizen expression, from chess boards etched into tables in the parks to political graffiti on the statue Carl von Brandis outside the High Court. A walk through the Smal Street Mall landed me back on Commissioner Street and on the path back home.

Walking down, I caught a glimpse of Maboneng and thought I’d include that in my tour of Johannesburg, even though this meant crossing an invisible border. Surviving the risk, I quickly regretted my decision. I’m exceptionally conflicted about the Maboneng project. On the one hand it’s reinvigorating the area and of course that’s a good thing but on the other hand, I always feel judged walking around there for not being alternative enough. My facebook status was updated at that time to read: “Maboneng Precinct – The only place where hipsters high on daddy’s money will judge you for not being hipster enough. It’s like the anti-jock jocks’ hangout.” This is quite a generalisation though and I’m sure that if I had the inclination to endure, I’d meet many great people there.

As I got into the elevator back at Ponte and began the 51 story ascent to my apartment, I had plenty of time to reflect on my morning journey and realised:

There is so much to do in Johannesburg, where, for the most part, the people are friendly, the sights are incredible and history of South Africa is engrained in the fabric of the city. The regeneration of the city is really effective and promotes great modern uses of old infrastructure. My Bloemfontein upbringing and love for the place was greatly challenged and while the number plates on my car will always be suffixed with FS, I’m certainly keen to get a GP bike to explore more of this amazing city.

Next time you find yourself in Johannesburg, be sure to schedule a street tour. Do it with a professional group. They understand the invisible borders. Explore your own city. The hidden treasures are worth the day out if the day out itself isn’t good enough. Staying inside the Sandton cocoon is an injustice your mind does not have to suffer.

While I don’t profess to be a photographer, you can see all the photo’s of my selftour at:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152811300666977.1073741835.708181976&type=1&l=2d6c5500ee 

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