Jolly and jaundiced in Joburg


Jolly and jaundiced in Joburg

CELESTE THERON reads a colourful coffee table book about the contradictions, challenges and freedoms of a weathered, cosmopolitan city.


CITY and regional planner Tanya Zack, in collaboration with photographer Mark Lewis, tells 10 poignant stories about the mundaneness of the activities on which Johannesburg's informal economy relies.

These stories focus on the individual, who frequently functions as a fringe figure in wider society, and show the extraordinary survival mechanisms that each of the characters had to develop to make a living in this complicated postcolonial metropolis of contradictions.

The book explores the city's inconsistencies in a nuanced manner with fantastic photographs — emphasising the routines, rhythms and rituals of the people with conflicting worldviews who make the city tick. Surprising aspects of Johannesburg were revealed to me, broadening my own interpretation of the jolly, jaded city. Each chapter deals with a character, place and activity that represent the many changing faces of Johannesburg. The stories were collected over five years and chosen to reflect different sides of the city.

The layout of Johannesburg is remarkable and influenced by the presence of the mining industry and the hierarchies of society that have sprung up around the gold mines since they were first developed in 1886.

Thanks to the discovery of the world's richest gold reef, Johannesburg has developed faster than any other city on earth. It is the only metropolis in the world that has been completely rebuilt within one century. This had several implications — most state officials were convinced the town would be just as short-lived as several other mushrooming communities elsewhere in the Transvaal republic, and therefore did not want to spend too much effort on the layout.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Paradox boxes

The region attracted thousands of destitute people who came looking for work at factories and mines. Black workers from South Africa and neighbouring countries were employed to build the city of gold, but even foreigners were appointed, including Chinese. By 1928, when Johannesburg gained city status, segregation was already deeply entrenched. The random geographical layout of the city's identity is ingrained in the power of whiteness: neighbourhoods were divided into paradox boxes that determine who had a chance at survival and who was at the mercy of the bureaucracy.

Today this balance of power has faded but the symmetrically laid out gardens, skyscrapers, malls and sky-high fences represent the partitions of a small elite while the outcasts must wrestle innovatively for self-preservation. Wake Up, This Is Joburg draws the reader's attention to the fearless survival mechanisms of a city that is developing beyond the boundaries of informal settlements.

Chapter one starts in Newtown, at Kazerne. The title of the chapter refers to the abattoirs that function in this liminal space along the train tracks, where cow heads are thrown in and out of shopping trolleys. The brutal building dating back to 1951 was once used to accommodate cars but was later reimagined as a full-scale underground abattoir until it was destroyed in 2013. This chapter focuses on Elizabeth Okahi, the mother who gets angry when you don't dance to her tune among the skulls cracking like shells in the parking lot. She processes the skin into stews: “We Nigerians eat everything except the shit of the cow, and even that we use for fire or manure."

The next chapter tells the story of Tony and Orlinda living among the inventive opulence of discarded objects. Somewhere in Turffontein, the collecting bug bit Tony, turning him into an incurable hoarder with a nostalgic collection of objects that remind him of Madeira, where he married Orlinda in 1964. Tony transformed the house into an eccentric paradise as he turned the top floor into rooms he rents out to foreigners. Just 550m² is home to 35 people, and it's where he and his wife live happily too: “I don’t sleep, I dream of things. I think of what I can do with things I have found.”

In Joburg, there are several systems of justice and the law is rarely legally enforced. You may be trapped for years in a system where you drift between the boundaries of legal and illegal as an immigrant; depending on your native country, what language you speak, what skills you possess, what products you sell or where you live.

Senga Mutombo is a refugee from the Congo and operates a stall at the Rockey Street market in Yeoville, where she offers foods from Malawi, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Zambia and the Congo. “Every six months we must go and renew papers. On the day all our children must stay out of school and we must all go to Pretoria to renew papers. It’s been 10  years living like that.”

Flee or starve

Among the tailors, fruit, donuts, hairpieces, hats and watches there is always one more fugitive who says, “It was leave or starve …"

Each of the stories illuminates enigmatic characters who have to live an inventive life in the shadow of the glamour of gold. The challenges each has to overcome are enormous.

Some of the characters in the book are formidable buildings, such as the art deco Anstey's, which shoots up 20 storeys — and in the 1930s was the tallest building in Africa. Today it is a creative postcolonial kingdom: artists, architects, photographers and fashion designers hang out in luxury apartments that were still on sale for R45,000 in 2010.

The stories open the reader's eyes to the larger mysteries surrounding Joburg, such as: How many kilograms of rubbish can one 61kg man drag over a hill? And how many miles will a waste recycler walk for another rand?

Lewis stretches the reader's eyelids wide open to the exceptional ingenuity it takes to survive between the cracks of these systems formulated by the grooves of segregation. With their contrasting focus, his photographs crystallise the tug-of-war between regulation and lawlessness, inclusivity and alienation, marginalisation and abundance.

The title calls the reader to order: open your eyes. There is nothing strange about the survival strategies that have developed in the cracks opened by unemployment, lack of income and documentation, poverty and alienation — it's these sidesteps out of the system that liberate the infrastructure of Jozi so people can realise themselves.

Who, what, where and how much?

Wake Up, This Is Joburg by Tanya Zack and Mark Lewis was published by Duke Press and costs R675 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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