Jozi, my ravaged Jozi


Jozi, my ravaged Jozi

ANNELIESE BURGESS spent four days walking and driving the streets of her beloved Jozi — from Sandton to Hillbrow and the twilight zone that the suburb of Yeoville has become. The city feels brittle, tattered and tired, yet life goes on in a place where governance went to die.


OPPOSITE the MTN taxi rank in Noord Street, Joubert Park, is a building utterly incongruous with its chaotic surroundings. There is something tended about the red-brick building with its long porch and a balcony overflowing with plants. 

I pick my way through the blaring music, vehicles, hawkers and sewage pooling in the broken pavements. An old man in a lumo vest sits on a wooden chair next to a gate opening to a narrow side street with small shops. The first sells Bibles, rosaries and statues of Holy Mary. There is a printing shop, a braiding joint and, at the bottom of the alley, a mechanic's workshop. A heavy gate opens onto a yard at the back of the former barracks for the Transvaal Regiment, which supplied soldiers throughout the Anglo-Boer War. It is also where 156 members of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela, were held at the beginning of the 1956 Treason Trial.

Five years ago, the neglected and abandoned Drill Hall was “taken over" by a Rastafarian art collective, Exotically Divine

I am greeted by Kganyapa Kganyapa. “Bless, bless, queen!" Fistbumps. “You are welcome. Come in. Come in."

Kganyapa lives here with his brother and their “two goddesses". The upper floor is a self-managed homeless shelter. They have turned the building “into a shrine to honour the heritage of the building" and a creative space and workshop for their art. It is an extraordinary oasis of weirdness and wonderfulness, every square inch covered in plants and objects foraged from the streets of the inner city. 

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Johannesburg feels brittle, tattered and tired. But beneath the surface of an undeniable coming apart at the seams due to a collapse in city governance and massive social problems, there is also just life. Going on. And you can only really grasp the inner strength of this city's people (and the despair) if you walk the streets. 

I meet two young guides from Dlala Nje, an organisation creating opportunities for inner-city youth, at the Ponte Tower. We walk out into Hillbrow, up the first hill, past the blackened, gaping wounds of an abandoned building on the left and a hijacked house on the right. Both are symbols of the most significant issue plaguing the inner city — from the old CBD up into Joubert Park, Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville: buildings that their original owners have abandoned or which have been hijacked. Many are now the domain of slumlords who extort rent from desperate people without paying for rates and taxes or services like water and electricity — and without investing anything in maintenance.

The 11-floor building on the left would not seem out of place in a hot war zone. Nothing is left besides the blackened concrete structure. The entrance is a carpet of putrid, stinking rubbish. Our young guide, Delight, tells us it was abandoned by its owner in the 90s during the “white flight" from the suburb. He briefly tried to reclaim the building in the run-up to the FIFA soccer World Cup but owed so much to the city council for rates and other services that he re-abandoned it. After that, it was taken over by so-called “nyaope boys", who stripped it of anything they could sell. Hence, the blackened interior because fire is used to remove the window frames and other fixtures.

Nyaope is a drug cocktail made with a combination of heroin, cannabis, antiretroviral drugs and other substances and is a massive problem in Hillbrow, Delight says. 

On the right is an old house. Some of its elegant architectural lines are still visible but most of the roof is a patchwork of plastic and stones. A slumlord runs this house, home to between 100 and 150 people. They each pay R600 a month to live in a warren of tiny, dark cubicles made with curtains and cardboard (do the sums to understand how lucrative slumlording is). There is no water. No electricity. The residents use the abandoned building across the road as a toilet.


Within two blocks, the neighbourhood changes dramatically. We are now in part of Berea with well-maintained high-rises, and spotless streets fringed with plane trees and CCTV cameras.

The buildings here are managed by Ithemba Property, one of a clutch of private-sector management companies offering affordable housing in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Rentals here start at R2,999 a month, not a price many people can afford. This is evident from the many handwritten advertisements on one of the community noticeboards—also called “Gumtree walls" because people stick up their paper adverts using chewing gum.

We circle back into Hillbrow through a park with brightly painted playground equipment and a vendor selling bananas and apples for R1 each. Like everywhere, there is a heap of uncollected rubbish bags. The park's fences and gates are gone. Schoolgirls in blue uniforms play netball. Delight explains that many “private schools" have sprung up in these neighbourhoods because so many people living here are undocumented migrants who do not have the necessary paperwork to get their children into regular schools. Public spaces are the after-hour sports fields.

We stop to read the notices on a community noticeboard — mostly adverts for accommodation: a balcony, a space in a sitting room, a bedroom. One says: “Lady. Bed to share" with a cellphone number. It is a common practice, Delight explains. People who work shifts often share a bed. One person uses it during the day, the other at night. They split the rent. Life is marginal. People struggle. Every bit of income is a relief.

We walk past the boarded-up post office. It still has the apartheid signage for three entrances — for white, Indian and black people. Delight worries that this building, too, will be taken over by junkies. “It would make such a great community space," he says. “If only the city government cared enough."

The old Summit Club is still devoted to the pleasures of the flesh. Our guide tells us it is the most upmarket brothel, costing R50 to enter and R350 an hour with a lady in the rooms they rent here. The old Hillbrow Inn, a block away, is cheaper — starting at R50.

Pretorius Street is a jumble of fresh-produce vendors selling everything from smoked carp (the stall owner says they catch them in the Vaal River) to bunches of vegetables and bags of indigenous seeds and fruits. We buy roasted peanuts, still in their shells. The vendor scoops them into little bags with a metal cup. R10 a pop.

Hillbrow is a curious mix of total dilapidation and functionality. It changes from block to block and street to street. There is an energy to the place but also the undeniable stench of a dysfunctional city administration (the buildings that work are the ones under private management). Delight suggests it's more a case of lack of interest because these areas house so many migrants and are not places where the government will harvest votes, so they get abandoned to their own dynamics. 

Something Delight tells me swirls in my mind. On a corner, in that functional, shiny corner of Berea, I ask about the relative ease with which we move around taking pictures with our phones and cameras. He says there is a “street alarm" in these neighbourhoods. People have given up on the police and deal with crime in their way now. If there is a mugging or robbery, they will shout “Vhimba", the Zulu word for “catch him".  Then, everybody will leave what they are doing and deal with the incident. Just a few weeks ago, “there by that purple building" — he points up the road — a criminal was dealt with. Necklaced.


A week ago, my deep dive into Jozi was triggered by dropping off an old acquaintance and a long-term resident of Yeoville at his house — right next-door to an abandoned apartment building.

Before we enter the suburb, he reminds me we need to keep the bags in our car out of sight and the doors locked. He tells his wife to be ready for us when we arrive. You have to be careful and streetwise. Keep your wits about you here, he tells me as I pull the car into the small driveway. The gates are locked behind me. When I leave, he gives me exact instructions on how to get out of Yeoville without ending up in a one-way street situation. 

I return to Yeoville for a closer look some days later, this time with two burly close protection officers. Not because I fear for my life. Most of Joburg is not that kind of dangerous. But because I want to experience the city on foot without the hypervigilance required when walking around with a camera and cellphone taking photographs. I need someone to watch my back. Isaac and Zakhele do that.

We drive across a rubbish-encrusted bridge from Berea. Yeoville is a twilight zone. I am completely in awe of the level of degradation we witness as we drive down Rockey Street then up De La Rey. My vocabulary is insufficient to attempt even a thin veneer of justification for what I see. Of course, people go about their lives everywhere — shopping, trading, living,  sending their children to school. But Yeoville is where governance went to die.

Isaac and Zakhele grew up in Soweto and now live in the inner city: one in the jumble that is Joubert Park, the other in the well-managed part of Berea. Their increased alertness is palpable to me as we enter Yeoville. This place has become one of the most lawless parts of the city, they say.

Ravaged by dereliction

There can be no more in-your-face symbol of the dereliction of duty of the politically fractured city administration and the complete disregard for the rights of citizens than the carpet of filth that covers this city. Along street verges, in parks and on every pavement. Bags oozing. Bins vomiting. Smouldering heaps in open spaces.

It is not so pronounced in the leafy suburbs where I stay or even in parts of the central business district. But in most parts of the residential inner city, like here in Yeoville, the filth and decay is thick and in your face.

It is a disgrace. And inexcusable. 

In my week of wandering Joburg, I drive from sanitised Sandton and the buzzing business precincts to the fraying outer limits of Malvern and Kensington. I pass through the fortified, high-walled suburb of Germiston, where SUVs with blacked-out windows roam the streets. I pass through Cyrildene, where a thriving new Chinatown has taken root, and the Jewish suburb of Linksfield, where streets are adorned with yellow ribbons.

There is a franticness to the way people drive. With so many traffic lights not working, intersections are insane free-for-alls: taxis pass on the wrong side and vehicles drive over kerbs. There is an edge. An aggressiveness on the roads I do not remember.

I return to my old stamping ground of Melville. 

Seventh Street smells of urine. Drinking joints and nightbars abound. Here and there, still a coffee shop. And the old second-hand bookshop is where it has been for decades.

But there is a mournfulness to the place. The walls are higher and razor wire is everywhere — a subtle but unmistakable Mogadishufication that laces many parts of the city. People loiter. Waiters stand outside establishments, trying to entice people in. It is lunchtime. Places are empty.

The street cafes of Melville have since shifted to the former “old people" suburb of Linden. Parkhurst and Parkview still have a solidly upper-middle-class vibe about them with a buzzing restaurant scene.

I drive up Brixton Hill and check out my old house on Barnes Road, opposite the old Dutch Reformed Church. Brixton, above Fulham Road, retains its bohemian character. Neat homes. Clean streets. I find a fabulous retro coffee shop — with a guard outside under a tree. This is Jozi, after all.

Below Putney, whiffs of a warzone. I am told this is one of the worst suburbs for water cuts, which can last for weeks. Just like in Melville down in the dip.


Joburg reminds me of a battered woman. Those sad, scared women we used to let in through the fortified door of the women's shelter I used to help run in Cape Town during my young, idealistic years of social activism. Traumatised, but surviving. Somehow.

Like most towns and cities in South Africa, Jozi manages to survive, not because of the government but despite it. Because of its people, its civic organisations and private businesses that have stepped into the vacuum left by a disappearing state

Isaac, Zakhele and I walk past the Gauteng Legislature in the city centre, which is adorned by two giant banners: “Meaningful Participation by the People" and “Public Confidence in Governance." The banners are dirty, like the promises they make.

But there is also something else in Joburg — a strength, a beauty, and that uniquely South African generosity of spirit.

I feel it in that joyful, topsy-turvy universe created by the Rastafarians in the old Drill Hall. I observe it in the bustling informal markets all over the city and the vibrant recycling economy — people everywhere sorting through plastic, paper and tin; hustling to make something out of nothing. I feel it on the walking tour through Hillbrow, led by those two informed, funny, passionate young men who grew up in the inner-city hard lands.

We sit on the 52nd floor of the Ponte Tower, eating chicken and pap with our hands from styrofoam containers. We share a quart of cold beer from tin cups. And we look out, down and over our beautiful, scarred city, all of us loving her in our own way.

But we deserve more.

We deserve a functional government that cares more for its people than the selfish power deals that have collapsed City Hall and left this city's people to fend for themselves. We deserve better than the hand we have been dealt in Johannesburg.

It's scandalous. And it's unforgivable.

♦ VWB ♦

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