‘Hey, watch out,’ João says, yanking me back under the safety of the overhang as a black garbage bag drops onto the rubbish piling up on the landing, like the yellow silt of the mine dumps that used to rise up around the city. He’s nineteen years old with a sharp face and a blunt nose and pit bull puppy eagerness. He pokes his head out from the safety of High Point’s undercover parking lot – an action hero checking for snipers – and then beckons me over, to safety.

It’s 2008. I’m researching my book, Zoo City. The idea of the great South African novel is all about the journey into the interior, the wide expanses of the Karoo scrublands that expose the interior of the soul. I wanted the journey of my story to be vested in more corporeal things. Forget the soul, I wanted the sparking nerves, the guts, the pounding heart of the cityscape.

João explains that the building’s lift is out. The water goes off periodically, people try their taps, cursing and cranking them wide open. They forget to close them and when the water comes on again, it floods the sinks and bathtubs, spilling down the walls. The last time it happened, it drowned the lift’s electrics. It will cost a million rand to fix. And in the meantime, building management has told residents it’s OK, as a temporary measure, to throw their garbage down onto the landing rather than lug it down twenty-four flights of stairs.

We carefully skirt the garbage dropzone to the edge of the landing that looks down onto the street, me and João and his young burly blond partner, Mike and my fixer, Johnson, a Zimbabwean recommended by a photographer friend to escort me through the wilds of inner city Johannesburg. Tour guide, translator, bodyguard. We have agreed he should leave his gun at home. ‘It just makes more trouble,’ Johnson says and we are not here looking for that.

Hillbrow is the place of breathless TV specials: documentaries following paramedics on New Year’s Eve, dodging refrigerators thrown from tenement block windows in some kind of high bacchanalian consumer backlash; Louis Theroux cringing coquettishly in the rear guard of private security guards in bulletproof vests storming up the stairs of abandoned buildings that have been hijacked by squatter slumlords.

As a teenager, my friends and I used to drive through here, on our way to the alternative club, the Doors, where you had to check your goth wannabe-weapons at the door. We never told our parents where we were going. Singing along to Tori Amos or Sisters of Mercy, jumping red lights on the lonely streets, always with that jagged catch in our throats of danger that made us feel restless, electric, alive. Because if there’s one thing everyone knows about Johannesburg it’s that it’s capital-D Dangerous.

I read everything I could on Hillbrow: Bongani Madondo and Charl Blignaut’s essays on the 90s scene, Ivan Vladislavic’s restless meditations, Kgebetli Moele’s spiky provocation of a novel, Room 207, but it was a blog about the death of Johannesburg that got under my skin. I won’t name it, but it’s one of those smug, hand-wringing then-and-nows contrasting photographs of how vibrant the inner city used to be and the wrack and ruin and decay it has fallen into.

The thin subtext of the captions and comments is that it’s because of ‘the blacks’. Always the blacks. As if apartheid’s (white) secret police, the Civil Cooperation Bureau, didn’t meet at the Quirinale Hotel on Kotze street in Hillbrow to orchestrate atrocities, assassinations and political unrest in their efforts to derail democracy. As if a hundred years before that Cecil John Rhodes and the (white) mining magnate Rand Lords didn’t scheme in the library of the gentlemen’s club downtown to bring the colonial Empire snaking into the interior on railway tracks.

But for all its shrill hysteria, the photographs on the blog don’t lie about the decay. Businesses have fled the city centre to soulless business parks surrounded by soulless townhouse complexes in Mid-Rand, a purpose-built suburb halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The premises they left behind have become dilapidated, boarded over and in extreme cases, bricked up, to prevent them being gutted for copper piping or taken over by squatters. A few kilometres away, Forest Town, the suburb where I grew up, where President Zuma lives now, has jacaranda trees that bloom in purple archways over the streets. Whereas the Hillbrow ‘blossom’ is the plastic bag, tangled and shredded in the branches.

There are a thousand pocket worlds in Johannesburg, rubbing up against each other. The students and arts scene in Brixton and Braamfontein, the black hipster hang-out of Newtown around the Market Theatre and Café Sophiatown, the suits and shiny cars in Bank City by the Diamond Building. Hillbrow has always been a separate animal.

The twin towers of High Point used to be the most desirable blocks in the most cosmopolitan neighbourhood with restaurants and bars and clubs. When my dad was considering divorce in the 70s, he planned to buy an apartment here as the perfect swinging bachelor pad.

That was before Hillbrow turned bohemian: sex and drugs and rocking disco soul thanks to the likes of Brenda Fassie, the madonna of the townships, who hung out here, got high here, made love here, in the middle of the hip multi-racial scene of artists and musicians and gays and lesbians in the 80s and 90s.

Now it’s the place people bring their hopes, packed up in amashangaan, the ubiquitous cheap plastic rattan suitcases used by refugees and immigrants from small towns in the rural areas, looking for work, looking to break in. Low income, high aspirations.

Mike, swaggering for my benefit goes to the edge of the ledge and calls down to a man on the street who is tossing away his cigarette, ‘Hey pick that up, you can’t throw your stompie here!’ Each building is a private fiefdom and the security guards are the protectors of the realm with batons and mace. What happens across the road is none of their concern. They manage the building, keep crime out, deal with troublesome tenants.

‘We caught a rapist in the building. It took three days, but we knew he lived here, so I stood outside the gate with the woman who was, you know . . . ’ João takes a swig from his Coke to hide his discomfort. It is exactly the same red as his canister of pepper spray. ‘Until the guy finally came out and she pointed at him and we grabbed him and took him down to the cops.’

‘But there was this other time, I felt kak, hey, because I had to evict this old black guy who hadn’t paid his rent. And I had to hit him with the baton to get him to move because he wouldn’t go. And it made me feel swak, like he must think of old times, like apartheid, this young white oke beating him, but it’s my job, what am I supposed to do?’

Johnson nods in understanding. When he’s not playing fixer for journalists, he runs his own security firm for other buildings in Hillbrow. He has the same problems with tenants, but even more so, he says, with their guests. ‘As a security guard, you learn to understand the characteristics of people. You can get to know people in the building and their behaviour. But visitors are a problem. You cannot understand the visitors.’

There are old attitudes that endure. The ghosts of the city. But people find ways to live with ghosts and that’s why we’re here, because despite the horror stories, the flying refrigerators and the drug dealers on the corner in their sharp shoes and cellphones, and the low-rise across the way that João says they raided last week with the cops to bust a sex-trafficking operation, Hillbrow is somewhere people live.

The city has changed. Cities do. It’s in their nature. Like language. Tsotsi-taal (gangster-speak) is the word on the street here, a patois of English, Afrikaans and Zulu that has stolen the best slang from other tongues and remixed them.

And maybe that’s the best way to think of Hillbrow and the inner city. As a remix.

Unlike the manicured pavements of the leafy suburbs or the glossy consumertopias of Sandton and Rivonia, the city streets are flush with people. Hawkers sell cheap plastic flip-flops alongside sandals hand-made from Nguni leather, in front of cellphone shops and Internet cafes and fashion boutiques and a church built in a reclaimed mall. Flyers pasted to a brick wall advertise the services of the Prophet Nkhomo, the St Paul’s Preschool, safe abortions, youth worship services. The big brands are moving back in – KFC and Jet clothing – to compete with the cheap clothing stores and the place on the corner that does Lagos-style chicken. It’s 70s Harlem: hectic, alive, on the rise.

As Moele describes it in Room 207, the city of gold is actually the city of dreams. Because dreams, like ghosts, are unpredictable. They can be good or bad. You have to live with them.

It’s driven home when we venture downtown to the Central Methodist Church. I have been intending to set a major scene in Zoo City here and have arranged with Bishop Paul Verryn to attend the Sunday night service.

We’re here a few months after a nationwide outbreak of horrifying xenophobic violence, where black South Africans turned on black Africans. A group of Somalians were thrown off the roof of a building, like refrigerators. They burned a Zimbabwean man alive in the streets.

There is a 40 per cent unemployment rate. Someone has to carry the blame and the middle class are safe in their suburbs with their high walls and their private security and their jacaranda trees. The ‘blacks’ again. Blacker than black. Us versus them. The colonials knew this, exploited this, indoctrinated this. They taught us there is always someone blacker than you.

People have fled to the church to take shelter from the violence, the same way activists hid out here during the struggle against apartheid. But now there are new struggles. There will always be a struggle. It’s the legacy we’re left with, from all those whites with their schemes.

The friends who drop me and Johnson off outside the church are reluctant to let us go. There is a mob clustered around the fence and the portaloos around the church. The anger in the air is a living thing.

It is the first time I feel a spike of fear. Nothing like in Hillbrow, which was daytime, admittedly, not even when the boy brushed past me and hissed, ‘put your cellphone away, they’ll rob you.’ And not like driving to The Doors a decade ago, the acupuncture prick of dread. This is a pitchfork twisting my guts like spaghetti. ‘Don’t worry’, Johnson says, ‘They’re my people. Zimbabweans.’ And although there are also Malawians, Zambians, Congolese, he’s right. Far and away, the greatest numbers are those fleeing Mugabe.

We make our way inside the church, to the upper pews. There is a constant murmur, people talking through the preamble of announcements and hymn-singing. Kids tumble over the stairs. There are chains of coughing, babies crying, a choir of cellphone ringtones. A man is coughing bloody sputum into a tissue, his whole body wracked with the effort of it. He has no shoes. His bare feet are like knots of wood. His toenails are cracked and yellow.

We find a place to sit next to a nurse, Melanie, dressed immaculately in a white linen suit, just in time for Bishop Verryn to deliver the sermon. He seems exasperated. ‘It is not satisfactory for you to live like this. I am not saying I don’t want you here, but I worry about the humanity of people in this place.’ He seems worn down.

It has taken this to make me realize that de-humanizing is not only something that other people do to you. It can be self-inflicted too. Switch off the light behind your eyes. Focus on the lowest rungs of Mazlow. Get through the day, however you can.

From the pulpit, Verryn rails against the city council that keeps trying to move them: ‘Treat us like human beings. Don’t move us like furniture, because we are not furniture.’ Outside, a young man tells me, ‘They use us like a ball. They kick us everywhere.’ He also says they go looking for trouble, seeking out Zulu guys and beating them up. Reprisals for the way they have been treated. He is thinking of going home. Even with no jobs, the messed-up politics, it is better than here. But he can’t afford the trip. He is stuck.

Melanie, the nurse, explains that she came here via Harare, via London, via Cape Town. She offers to show me where she sleeps and confides, ‘I don’t have friends. Only to share my jokes with, but not to share my secrets.’ She doesn’t tell me how she manages to keep her white linen suit so spotless.

It is a fever dream, following her down the stairwell to the basement, pushing and shoving through a crush of warm bodies in the dark, stepping over people who are bedding down for the night, on a scrap of cardboard for a mattress if they are lucky. On bare concrete if they are not.

We break free into the basement where the women and children sleep, the sum of their belongings arranged around them in amashangaan and battered suitcases. We are standing shoulder to shoulder, packed like tin cans. I cannot see how there will be room to lie down. Several women are bathing babies in buckets. ‘From Musina. The border,’ Melanie says. ‘The guards demand sex sometimes for getting you across.’

I reel away from the horrors of a refugee camp condensed into a church building, into the crisp Joburg night air, where young men cluster restlessly on the pavement, and into a warm car that will whisk us back to the suburbs. I feel shaken and raw.

‘How was it?’ my friends ask and Johnson, who has been dead-quiet, tjoep-stil, this whole time, bursts out in furious contempt, ‘It was pathetic.’ He shakes his head in disgust. ‘Pathetic.’

I’m speechless. He told me earlier about how he came to South Africa as a refugee fourteen years ago. How his wife is a refugee. How these are his people. And now he is denouncing them.

It’s a coping mechanism, I realize. He is distancing himself from the possibility that he could ever find himself living through a similar experience. He is saying that somehow he would be different in the same circumstances. We all want to be the exception. We all want to believe it couldn’t be us.

But then we were only visitors there. Who can’t be understood. Or understand. We can only imagine.


Photo by SprachLos

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