Hackles at Half Mast

May 22, 2016

Johannesburg, South Africa

Recent history going back at least a couple of decades and possibly longer has always painted Johannesburg in shades of danger. I remember conversations with other travelers from more than a decade ago of how nobody stops at traffic lights because they would be shot at. Of how muggings were the norm if you were unfortunate enough to walk; of how taking public transport was simply begging for trouble. And that seems to true to a large extent today as well. Sitting next to a young woman on the flight into Jo’burg, I heard anew of the dangers of this city. That people still live in gated communities behind high walls sporting barbed wires and electrified fences. Of how being burglarized is more the norm than an exception. I was told by others who have travelled here in recent years that I should not brave the public transport coming in from the airport. And so I played it safe and took a taxi on arrival.


But like all cities, Johannesburg has pockets of crime-ridden areas mixed with neighbourhoods of affluence. There are areas where the rich live in luxury and upscale shops and restaurants are the norm. Walking down the street in these areas is no different than any other affluent area in any other city of the world. The smell of coffee wafts out of a café and people dressed expensively saunter down the pavements with shopping bags on their arms. Glitzy shops line the streets and there are tastefully landscaped pockets of green.

But in this vast, spread-out city there are plenty of neighourhoods where burned out buildings stand next to ones that have been taken over by squatters. Broken window panes look like gap-toothed grimaces. Wires that draw electricity illegally from meters hang like black spaghetti on poles that lean drunkenly over cracked pavements.

Multicoloured laundry in straggling lines hang from clotheslines strung between windows. On the ground are piles of rubble that have morphed into garbage heaps that grow bigger by the day. Discarded tires, assorted filth and shattered glass litter what used to be pavements. Now they are broken slabs of concrete liberally sprinkled with holes, some of them large enough to engulf an adult. Mangy dogs scrabble in the refuse while groups of men loiter around street corners. Their shifty eyes follow me as I walk past and their unblinking stares make my nape hairs stand at half-mast. I scurry past as fast as I can, barely short of running, trying to appear like I know where I am going.

Maboneng, close to the central business district is one of these areas that is being given a facelift. An investor or a consortium of investors have bought up the property in a few blocks radius. The old buildings that used to be warehouses or factories are slowly being given a makeover. Some are converted into hostels, some into cafes and some into art galleries. The innovative ideas of the investor of this particular area are evident in the school that he has built and in the recreational park built to attract families to this area. The ground floor spaces are meant to be rented as retail space while the upper floors of the buildings are made into apartments. While the living costs are low, it attracts a community of artists and their work is evident everywhere. Their art graces facades of buildings and hang in art galleries. In a country where the government doesn’t do very much for the public, it is the community that has to look after themselves. Here, in areas like this it is the investors who ensure safety by hiring security guards around the clock. The streets, shops, cafes are patrolled by the men in orange vests. As long as one is in view of an orange vest, one is safe. In the company of a local who is known to the others, one is safe as well. I had the luxury of going on a walkabout with a local artist and got to meet folks in what is a dodgy area. And in the process met friendly locals and a healer of traditional medicines. Big smiles greeted me and we whiled away the afternoon chatting and at the urging of one woman, even dressing in Zulu clothing. I must have provided a lot of entertainment; not only was she cackling with glee, by the end we had quite an audience in the form of locals peering in at the door.


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