Johannesburg is where I grew up. I lived there until I was thirteen, when my family migrated to Australia. I have never been there since. So my recent trip to South Africa was also the first trip in almost thirty years to my original “hometown”.
Initially, the visit to Johannesburg was an extended stroll down memory lane, retracing my early years through places like my primary school, the homes we’d lived in, and the neighbourhood I was a child in (see my previous posts: Johannesburg Part I – Then and Now, and Johannesburg Part II – Fortress Jo’burg). It was kind of like finding a once loved teddy bear hidden in the attic: a physical connection that breathed life into fading memories, in a way that was both nostalgic and calming.
At the same time though, Johannesburg today is not at all like the place I once lived in. For better or worse, this is a city that has changed immeasurably over the past three decades. And by seeking out the past, I was mainly brought into contact with the most noticeable of those changes. Like the degradation of old neighbourhoods, crime and security issues, and the shrinking of the city’s Jewish community.
If that was all I’d ever got to see of Johannesburg, I would probably have left with a pretty dismal view of the place. My cousin summed it up after reading my last post (on the city’s fortress mentality due to high crime rates) when she wrote to me: “I’m quite sad to read this … I hope that’s not all you took back from your trip here. Sure there is crime but there is also a lot of beauty and wonderful people here in Jozi … I don’t feel that is a true representation of Jo’burg – just some parts … I realize it has changed a lot since you were a kid and trying to relive one’s childhood memories will always lead to disappointment”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. So once the memory lane stuff was done with, thanks to having family there we got to seeing something of Johannesburg. Not as I remembered it, but as the locals now know it. In the course of which, and almost despite myself, I found myself genuinely enjoying my time in the “City of Gold”.
Downtown: Urban Cool
As a child I remember occasionally visiting downtown Johannesburg with my parents. This was the commercial hub of the city, and a centre for business and shopping. As well as where we went to get falafel, humus and other Israeli food that my dad likes. Since moving to Australia, however, I have only ever heard mention of downtown Johannesburg in the context of ex-South Africans bitching and moaning. As in: “Oh my God, you’d never believe how bad it has got there – the whole place has become a derelict, crime-ridden slum”.
This is not entirely untrue: through the 1990s the centre of Johannesburg was virtually given up for dead. Urban blight, drugs, crime and prostitution moved in; businesses and banks and professional service firms moved out, relocating to the city’s affluent northern suburbs. Johannesburg’s centre became a wasteland of beggars, pot-holed streets, cracked windows, and boarded-up shop fronts. Whole office buildings emptied out and fell into disrepair, sold for virtually nothing to anyone willing to pay the rates and deal with the squatters.
So I certainly didn’t expect that my visit to Johannesburg would include a sightseeing trip into the depths of the CBD. But, as my cousins explained, in the past ten years or so a couple of young Jewish entrepreneurs had begun to purchase real estate in two rundown CBD locations – Braamfontein and Maboneng (“Place of Light”). There, inspired by similar efforts in other places, they have set about the task of systematically reclaiming and renewing the urban heart of their city.
These efforts have been phenomenally successful. Today, these two areas in central Jo’burg have become clusters of everything young and funky and edgy. And being right in the midst of former “no-go” zones, they are so cool as to almost make your teeth ache.
As we walked about we saw old buildings that have been turned into fashionable office suites, ultra-chic apartments and boutique hotels, and artist collectives. The streets were lined with quirky shops, hip cafes, galleries, and artisan bakers and coffee roasters. I couldn’t help stopping every few metres to enjoy the striking art installations that cover the sides of buildings, or the cutting-edge sculptures randomly scattered on the pavements.
Plus there was a DJ mixing dance tunes on virtually every street corner, so spontaneous parties seemed to break out everywhere we went. Like on one sunny weekend afternoon, when we rode the elevator up to the rooftop of an abandoned building in Maboneng. There we joined a party that had been underway since noon. Complete with music and summer cocktails and a heaving crowd, all set against the ultra-cool backdrop of the Johannesburg skyline at sunset.
Headlining these incredible urban reclamation projects are two indoor food and craft markets – one in each of Braamfontein and Maboneng. These are set up several times each week, in the empty shells of former office buildings. Here food vendors sell an amazing array of delicacies from make-shift kitchens: barbecue meat and fresh steamed fish, cheeses and deli items, pancakes and cookies, gourmet sandwiches as big as my head, ice-creams and cupcakes and squeezed juices and steaming espresso. Other vendors offer the usual array of market knick-knacks, like hand-printed T-shirts, fashionable leather-goods, scented soaps, gifts and home-wares and glittering trays of costume jewellery.
Everywhere the crowds were elbow-to-elbow, and overflowing into the surrounding streets. In the markets big communal tables were scattered amongst the various food stalls. They were packed with happy diners, merrily munching away. The atmosphere was vibrant and buzzing and entirely good-natured. The air was filled with the sounds and smells of a bustling, happening marketplace.
I was struck by how unmistakably and proudly South African it all was. Benches and chairs were painted in bright African designs. Walls showcased the output of young South African artists. The music was upbeat and distinctly African. And the food stalls offered specialties from across the South African spectrum: like pap (cornmeal porridge), biltong (dried beef jerky), boerewors (traditional South African sausage), bunny chow (a kind of hollowed out stuffed bread loaf) and koeksisters (fried dough of Afrikaner heritage).
Most of all I noticed the crowd, which was a fascinating mix of all the different people who nowadays call Jo’burg “home”. Young or old, rich or poor, starry-eyed couples or young parents pushing strollers or hipsters with shaved heads and tattoos: in Maboneng and Braamfontein everyone seemed comfortable to be together under the one South African umbrella, regardless of whether they were Black, White or Coloured. Which I guess shouldn’t have been the first thing I noticed, but what can I say, it was, probably because this was a scene that would have been utterly unthinkable when I was a child.
All in all I felt like Maboneng and Braamfontein were departure points from the city I once knew, and arrival points into a new Johannesburg. A city of the here and now, that most unexpectedly was turning out to be a pretty cool place to hang out in.
Soweto: Pap and Bungee
If modern-day Maboneng and Braamfontein were unthinkable thirty years ago, then the idea that I would one day go sightseeing in Soweto was a notion so bizarre as to border on science fiction.
You see, when I grew up Soweto was a sprawl of townships on the edge of Johannesburg proper (SoWeTo is the abbreviation for South Western Townships) where about 1.2 million Black people lived but where White people just did not go. A place where, when I was four, Black students had rioted against the introduction of forced Afrikaans education, in an act of defiance that probably marked the beginning of the eventual end for the Apartheid regime. A place that was not twenty kilometres from the clean manicured suburb in which I lived, but with its unpaved dirt roads and sea of shanty huts was a place so strange and different it may just as well have been on the moon.
Yet now my cousin was telling me that Soweto was totally fine and actually quite interesting to visit, and so one afternoon he drove us there. We headed to the Orlando Power Station, where two huge cooling towers, decommissioned in 1998, have most improbably been turned into an entertainment venue of sorts. The towers themselves – each 97 metres high – are painted over in massive murals depicting scenes from daily life in Soweto. Like two giant colourful canvasses, they are visible for miles around.
We paid to ride a rickety open-air elevator up the side of one the towers, and once at the top found we had a menu of three choices: (i) look around at the view; (ii) walk out onto a platform suspended between the two towers and bungee jump back down from there; or (iii) walk out onto a platform inside of one of the towers, and then free fall from there into an air mattress at the bottom. Since none of us were feeling especially suicidal that day, we opted for the first choice.
Afterwards, back at ground level, we joined a party. In Johannesburg music seems to be ever present, and at the base of the cooling towers a DJ was playing and a crowd of people (many in a state of post-bungee euphoria) were laughing, drinking beer and dancing. It seemed to be a crowd mostly made up of university age students, which just like in Maboneng and Braamfontein was a colour-blind mix.
Nearby was a tin-roofed shack of sorts, which my cousin explained had once been a shebeen, or illegal drinking den. In Apartheid times, Black South Africans were not allowed into pubs and bars reserved for Whites. Shebeens became the alternative, especially in the townships, where people would gather to talk, listen to music and to dance, and where ladies known as “Shebeen Queens” would serve up potent home-made moonshine brews.
I had heard about shebeens when I was growing up, in a distant “those are bad places” kind of way. Our live-in childhood nanny’s husband would occasionally stay with her at our home. Then he’d disappear for days on end, and when he returned would invariably have some story to tell us, usually involving a visit to a shebeen. Like a fight he’d witnessed (or been in), some new song he’d heard (shebeens were the breeding ground for urban South African music), or a raid by the police (apart from being illegal, shebeens were often where anti-Apartheid activists met, and thus were a frequent target of police action).
But nowadays in South Africa it seems that shebeens are fully legal, and have been embraced mainly by young South Africans. They are the “in” places to go for drinking and food and music, and given their history have a kind of counter-cultural trendiness to them.
In any case, we made our way over to the shebeen for a drink and some late afternoon lunch. We sat down at a long wooden table, and ordered a spread of roast chicken, mieliepap (a polenta like porridge made of ground maize, and a staple food of South Africa’s working classes), accompanied by stewed green vegetables and a bowl of chakalaka (a mix of beans, tomatoes and onions traditionally used as a relish with pap). All served up on prison-issue style metal plates.
This was food I am no stranger to: our nanny had often made us mieliepap for breakfast (eaten with milk, butter and sugar). And in the evenings my brothers and I had occasionally wandered into her room, where she would be cooking up pap and greens on a small stove. We would sit and eat with her, using our hands to form little balls of pap, to dip into the chakalaka.
But this was the first time I had eaten this type of food in almost thirty years, and it was absolutely fantastic. Not just because it was totally delicious, but because it was “comfort food” in the true sense of those words, instantly bringing back so many memories, and wrapping me up tight in a blanket of familiarity and warmth.
So there we were – my brother, my cousin and I – in a shebeen, using our hands to hoe into a huge mound of pap, chakalaka juice dripping down our chins. All around us were young South Africans, of all colours, eating and drinking and dancing together to the kwaito music. The sun was slowly setting against a backdrop of two giant, mural covered cooling towers. The atmosphere was fantastic – literally bursting with happiness and laughter and fun.
That afternoon there was no mistaking exactly where we were – in Johannesburg, South Africa, circa. 2014. And as afternoon’s go, it was unforgettable.
But what made it a truly special afternoon for me – almost magical in fact – was when I stopped, between mouthfuls of pap, to take in that I was doing all this in Soweto, of all places.
A place that until now I’d instantly associated with the “old Johannesburg” that I once knew, and with Apartheid and repression and poverty. But which now will no longer be any of these things for me, and instead will always be a uniquely South African afternoon, in a shebeen, listening to music and eating pap, in the shadow of two colourfully decorated cooling towers.
Lunch with Family
Most of my family has now left South Africa, but I still have some relatives in Johannesburg (although paradoxically not on my South African mother’s side; the family that remains in South Africa are a niece and nephew of my dad – so my first cousins – and their extended families. They had also moved to South Africa from Israel, following in my father’s footsteps).
One cousin still lives in the same house she was in thirty years ago. She invited us there for lunch on our last day in Johannesburg, for what turned out to be an extended family reunion of sorts. Gathered around the table that day were twelve of us, all closely related, and representing three generations of the family, ranging in age from one to seventy.
This was my dad’s branch of the family, and my cousin is an awesome cook, so her table was covered – literally groaning – with assorted Moroccan and Israeli foods: a dozen different salads, fresh grilled kebabs, stew, vegetables, rice, falafel, couscous and fresh pita bread. There was more food than seventy hungry people returned from a week at military boot camp could ever hope to eat. So in Jewish-Moroccan culture, this was what is known as a casual light lunch.
We ate and talked and laughed a lot. I heard stories from my older cousins about my father when he was young, and other stories about my family in general. In particular, I barely knew my father’s mother, who lived in Israel and spoke only Arabic, so I had never really been able to communicate with her on the few occasions I’d met her before she died. But my cousin who had organised the lunch, and who is quite a bit older than me, knew our mutual grandmother very well, and told me one story after another about her.
It really was a wonderful, wonderful afternoon, and a perfect conclusion to our time in Johannesburg. I was with family that I hadn’t seen in almost thirty years, yet without a second’s hesitation I was welcomed and accepted into their homes, no questions asked, simply because we are family.
In a different time and place, Johannesburg was once my home. Today, it is a different city completely, and one that can never again be the home I once knew. But it occurred to me, sitting around the table at my cousin’s home, laughing and telling family tales and eating Moroccan food via Israel on the southern tip of Africa, that we live in a world where “home” is no longer a physical place. Instead, home is a mental state, to be reached wherever you feel connected and at ease, and where you are accepted and loved unconditionally.
I am glad I still have some family in Johannesburg. Without them, I would have only ever visited a city that I remember, and that long ago ceased to exist. But they took the time to show my brother and me something of “the new Jo’burg”. They introduced me to a city that I have never been to before, replacing a lot of old and broken memories with new ones. And along the way, I learned something about myself, too.
Which in the end is what travelling should be about, don’t you think?