Is Johannesburg beautiful? At first glance, One may not think it so, but this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. The story of the global metropolis as a “loved one” or a “lover” is not a foreign concept. I think of the passion evoked when New Yorkers, Parisians and Romans talk about their cities. I’ve found myself pondering in the quiet of every morning as I hurry down Main Street everyday on my way to work. I suppose, as with all things on the African continent, it is probably yet another complex conundrum of aesthetics, culture and, well, safety. To be frank, I am not even certain one could actually call it beautiful without adding a “but”.
Needless to say, I’ve been wondering about it recently. Is she, this city, beautiful? And if so, is she beautiful because she’s broken or is she beautiful because she’s under reconstruction, repair or rejuvenation? Is she beautiful because she progresses and regresses almost simultaneously in some spheres or is she beautiful because even the smallest innovations (almost insignificant to others) make the kind of difference that is only imagined in the daydreams of a few, surrounded by the many — the overpopulated fullness of a city packed to the rafters.
I’ve caught “unnaturally” gentle moments on celluloid, in the wee hours of the morning. An elderly man, about 60 or 70 years of age, and a first grader chat softly at the bus stop amidst the rush behind them and as the crowd moves away, the two of them step forward awaiting what would turn out to be two separate buses. See, in a country with such a distinct generational gap and more than enough societal clashes related to the latter, this moment of tenderness, a moment just as the sun had already risen, a moment shared by them and witnessed by few, well …that was beautiful.
If anything, that calm awakening amidst the rush of a city that readily clenches its fists by the time it’s brunch is what makes this city alluring. I believe it’s this well-structured oval face beneath it all (without the make-up of a thousand acne scars in the form of buses, taxis, school kids, businessmen and women.. and that caked foundation of hawkers), that early morning clean face that might be considered beautiful. It’s before thousands descend upon her streets in their collective hurry, that process of making a living, in that process of striving to survive. Before the stench of an assortment of body odours, various national dishes grilled on make-shift barbeques clogging up the spaces of air between the buildings and lingering for hours into the day have entered the scene. Before the Ethiopian store-owners and Malawian, Zimbabwean and Nigerian street hawkers who can’t afford to rent out office space, set up shop in the middle of the pavements. Before the urine and litter congregate on some of the streets for their daily dose of a life that should end in an incinerator — that is when Joburg, the city with one of the highest crime rates in the world, is innocent…and safe.
At 5:50 am, Joburg hasn’t had a chance to layer on the cheap perfume that is the common call to all: “Five rand for two” or “Hey…umbrellas…mama…umbrellas” or the hustle of the Taxi Marshalls as they scream over each other various city names: “Randburg!” or “Sandton!” or “Cresta!” to get business up and running but, what they seem to forget (or are acutely aware of…depending on how you look at it) is that this city is an unruly tidal wave rising and falling in perpetual movement – from 6:00 am until 8:00pm. There really isn’t a need for that haggle because the people will come to them, rain or shine. At 5:50 am, Johannesburg is a kinder, softer, younger specimen.
Joburgers love to hate their city…and hate to love it. It is that relationship that is strangely toxic, yet survives, grows, even becomes stronger. While in the city, no one can really see her allure — yet when they’re in other parts of the country, they are vehement in their proclamation that they are Joburgers to the core. How strange is that? Is this what people term a warped sense of identity? The call girl who hates herself in the evening and heals in the morning…yet finds herself in the same hotel rooms every other night despite the overwhelming desire to run.
Granted, this city has gone under the knife, received some BOPE(Elite force) inspired implants and is on a road to rehabilitation. She was once a city high on everything: drugs, murder, rape, theft – if you could think it…Joburg was on it. Although I’m pleased to see that some of the ugly scars have been reconstructed into fancy lofts and studio apartments and the sirens call to lure back big business has helped tremendously in this facelift…the ugliness has been strategically placed on the worst streets: Noord, Bree, down Von Weilligh and End streets and they stick out like sores, bulbous oozing scabs on an otherwise precise surgical repair.
Is it unfair to ask so much of Johannesburg? To be beautiful or to measure up to some fantasy of the perfect metropolis or even measure up aesthetically at all? Would it surprise you that, on some days…when I see little tender moments, almost existing separately from the chaos yet pinned down, enveloped by the city – I find myself under the Joburg spell? I don’t know about beautiful…but I know that if there is one thing that Joburg is: a master of the binary opposite. She is the ugliest beauty, the fantastically ugly or the softest “Hard-knock” city on the African continent and I know this inside and out.