Archive for May, 2013

Maboneng Precinct

Maboneng Precinct

Over the past while I’ve been reading Resident Alien, a collection of articles written by Rian Malan (author of My Traitor’s Heart, a book I bravely tried to read in my angst addled teens, but gave up after chapter 1) spanning twenty-something years. It’s been an education. I think as South African’s, we forget, or at the very least, are blasé about what we’ve been through, and what we managed to achieve. Has it all been good? No. But has it been exciting? Without a doubt. What I really love about Malan’s writings is that he isn’t afraid to put it all out there; sometimes messy, often negative, but always honest. But then he’s as brave to admit when he was wrong, and when his white, male South African-ness was just a tad too quick to judge, too quick to expect the worst.

I remember sitting in a bus, on the way to the beach, in 1994. It was one of those perfect Durban summer days, and the beach was calling. The bus was full; whites standing alongside blacks, jostling against Indians, swaying against all of humanity. Next to me sat an old white man, in fraying shorts and leather sandals. As he watched another black passenger embark, he turned to me and said, “I don’t think you’ll ever quite understand how hard this is for some of us.” And to be honest, at the age of 14, I didn’t. I’d grown up in a fairly liberal household, with a black sister, attending an all-girls, ethnically mixed Catholic School since Std 1. And before that, a multi-racial primary school. This was a pretty normal experience for me. But for this man, who’d been raised to believe in an ideology of superiority and separation, it must have been hell. Every fibre of his being must have been screaming out in bloody protest. Nearly 20 years later, and I still have moments of utter revelation at how far we’ve come. I see it when I sit in one of those wonderful Woolies café’s, sipping on a gingernut and honey cappuccino, and at the table next to me is a young black family; little girls in frilly dresses, mom looking like she just stepped off of a catwalk in Milan, dad looking every inch the successful businessman. Or when I head into the more unsavoury parts of Jozi and find, in an old parking lot, a roaring food market and a completely racially mixed crowd, chomping on oysters and chucking back glasses of champagne, tucking into steaming plates of paella and waiting for handfuls of exotic mushrooms to roast and layer onto their freshly baked sourdough loaf. It’s amazing. Here we all are, together, merging and actually enjoying it. Who would have thought.

In Malan’s article, Kind Words for a Mean Town, he talks of his fondness for his hometown, Johannesburg. And how, though strangers and foreigners will probably never understand it, he loves it. It’s a city of contradictions and surprise; of old Africa and the new world, “witchdoctors entering one building, accountants exiting the other” (p.268). And I feel the same way, not necessarily about Jozi, because it’s not my hometown, nor do I feel particularly drawn to it, with its beige and tan coloured gated estates, and its obsession with money and status. But it is how I feel about South Africa. As broken and dangerous as the rest of the world may perceive it, I love it…it makes me feel alive. I’m rarely bored, hardly a passive spectator, always a participant in some aspect of life (often someone else’s). Malan says to foreigners, and I’ve thought it enough times myself: we may not live as long as you, and we may never be as materially wealthy , but man will we live on the edge (p.269), on the cusp of something wonderful and dangerous and exciting. And I don’t know if this in an unhealthy way to live, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than being perpetually safe, nanny’d and unchallenged by the sheer ferocity and unfairness of life, which is dished out in a seemingly random lottery in our neck of the woods. Because as Malan says, “it’s a jungle out there, the most dangerous city in the world. But also the most interesting, if you have the courage to go.” (p.267). And courage we have aplenty, and go we did, into the heart of darkness.

Myself, and two friends, recently returned from our bi-annual cultural pilgrimage to Jozi; South Africa’s crime-ridden den of iniquity – and it was awesome! Durbanites are considered lazy, backwards and far too cool to actually buy a ticket to an international concert or play 8 months before the artists arrive. Instead, we find ourselves excluded from virtually every tour, spending three times the amount on accommodation, and flying or driving up to Jozi. So, to make it worth our while, we really go out of our way to explore the city. This time, we stayed clear of trendy and “safe” Parkhurst and Greenside, and headed straight into inner Johannesburg.

Maboneng Precinct main change

View from the Main Change building

Our first find was the Maboneng (place of light) Precinct, which can be found under a freeway, just off of Fox Street. It’s part of a regeneration plan for the less than desirable parts of the city, and has been upgraded to encourage urban artists to flood the inner city with their creative spirit. We headed into a courtyard of pebbles dotted with lemon and olive trees, and walked through to an old building filled with art galleries, edgy clothing stores and photographic exhibitions. It was a Friday, so it wasn’t exactly humming, but apparently the weekends are great, with a little market pulling in the crowds. We walked up the street, past gritty walls covered in graffiti, and were greeted by private security guards standing on each corner; letting you know that you are safe here in this once unloved section of the city.

At the Main Change building, we took a lift to the fifth floor, to check out a rooftop venue called Living Room, an eco urban café,  and walked into a fresh, green oasis of calm, succulents hanging off of and out of every available space. Nedbank was hosting a “green” event, but no-one seemed to mind our intrusion, so we sat and drank revoltingly healthy fruit and vege smoothies, and watched as small succulents were tenderly separated and replanted, as take home gifts for guests.

Maboneng Precinct

A walk through the Maboneng Precinct

The next day we made our way to Braamfontein, to find the Neighbourhood Goods Market. The market, can be found inside a building on 73 Juta Street, and is based on the successful Cape Town version. It’s apparently a landmark building, and again, the concept is based on regeneration of urban areas; getting people back into the city, claiming space that had fallen prey to misuse and crime. As we walked up the street, we passed a little corner deli and coffee bar; the scent of roasted coffee beans spilling out the door. Next to it is a retro camera shop, selling lomograph cameras and showcasing an exhibit of images taken on an iphone across South Africa. If you look closely enough at the detail, you’ll find small cement turtles making their way up the sidewalk, ready to cross the road, and explore the great beyond. You’ll also find a bustling, noisy, wonderful crowd of hipsters, students, foreigners, locals, buyers and sellers, all under one roof. The market has the feel of an underground car park; cement floors, harsh overhead lighting, and pools of water bought in by sodden feet and dripping umbrellas. But inside it’s also alive, with the scent of community spirit and optimism.

Juta street

Unconventional art on Juta Street

I left Jozi feeling a little less uneasy about the city, and more inclined to continue our exploration on our next trip. Walking those streets, I got the strong impression that the people that now inhabit these formerly avoided areas, did so with confidence and with sense of belonging. They were staking their claim and creating a new space, filled with movement and purpose, and a love for their city.


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place of shades

She sits alone on a bench of roughly hewn timber; her gaze sweeping over the vista before her. From her perch, high in the undulating folds of petrified rock and long grass, she watches the world unravel below. To the untrained eye, the land is mostly silent and empty. The only signs of life — the most obvious: the belching roar of a baboon troupe bouncing off the quarry walls, and the swoop of a hawk as it flies in low to catch a scurrying mouse. But to her the land lives and breathes, and in it, she finds comfort. She has sat on this bench, for months now. Her time spent learning the habits and patterns of the creatures that live in it, on it and above it. She has sat from sun-rise to sunset, and this is her favourite time of day, that magical hour between the suddenly rapid descent of the setting sun, and the onset of the darkest of nights; it is called the gloaming, and with it comes a sense of another time and place.

It’s not that she’s been lonely, up here on her hill. For each day He joins her and they sit together; sometimes talking about her life and her dreams: both realised and unfinished; sometimes sharing the hopes she has for her family as they continue without her. And He tells her that she was always loved, even when she felt so separated from His presence. No, she has not been lonely, but she has grown restless of late; a sense of longing wells in her chest every now and again, which she does not quite understand. There is something deep within her; a memory perhaps. A feeling of expectation, that she knows must soon be resolved. She lets the spiced scent of the veld wash over her like the gentle eddies of a lazy stream, and she watches.

Across the veld, caught in that soft light, a long line of elephant sway gently as they make their way home from the water hole. When she first arrived, the smallest elephant was fragile in its bumbling gait; she feared for its safety against predators. But now, these many months later, she can see he has grown in confidence as he chases a small warthog, trumpeting with glee as his quarry flees into a burrow. His trumpet unleashes a flock of tiny birds, which move as one in a wave of flight, their bodies swerving in and around the acacias and lala palms.

It is then that she notices she is not alone. There is a subtle shift in the density of the air, and she feels a presence add weight to her own. Her gaze moves across the breadth of the veld, and then down into the depth of the quarry. At the base she sees a small knot of people, who look both familiar and foreign. She stares hard at each one, trying to place them in the landscape of her mind, which feels like it is no longer her own. And slowly, the memories start to filter through; a vivid reminder of a life once lived, a life of colour and character, of love and friendship. It is a motley crew, for this small band of warriors have all fought a war of body and mind – some for months and years, others for but a few minutes. Their bodies display the scars of battle, and their weary heads are bent low as they make their way up the rocky path. She is standing when they reach the top. She understands now why she has been waiting here all these months; waiting for something she couldn’t quite explain. But now she knows that she is here to welcome them home, to have them sit their shattered souls upon a bench of roughly hewn timber, to have them rest from their fight for life, and the fight to convince their loved ones to feel strong enough to let them go. As the six of them sit, facing the soft orb of light that sets their hair alight; their bodies begin to mend, their souls begin to heal, and hearts — destroyed by sadness and loss — begin a beautiful reconstruction. And all the while He sits there, the heat of the day radiating from his open hands, and suffusing them all with His glorious light and enduring love.

(This past year has seen many dear and wonderful friends and family lost to us. When my mom passed away from cancer in August last year, we scattered her ashes over one of our favourite places on earth. High up on that hill, the wind swept through, carrying her spirit over the land and into the heavens above. I like to imagine that she sits there, watching over her domain, welcoming in the new arrivals, as they are born into life ever-after. This post is in remembrance of my mom – Geraldine McCarthy, of our dear Aggie’s sister – Tiny Sheshange, of Simi Harrison – friend to so many, of our childhood American dad – Rowan Caderet, of the wonderful and soft hearted Joyce Samuels – friend and helper to Kate, and most recently of Mrs Searle – my long-time friend Kerry’s mom.)




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May 2013 newsletter

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