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An Immigrant City

by Sipho Hlongwane / Illustration by Trevor Paul / 31.08.2011

I don’t like clean cities. There is just something incredibly wrong with them. As if they weren’t made for human beings at all – that’s it. It’s the inhumanity of it that gets to me, the sterility, like God wiped it clean with his heavenly cotton swabs. Washington DC is the worst offender. There is nary a beggar to be seen in any direction. Nothing out of place and everyone behaving themselves.

My lip curls with contempt as I walk through the sterile alleys of 44 Stanley, in Milpark. The place is inhumanly clean. People even bring their babies and albino huskies here. People have driven dozens of kilometres to sit in a little slice of suburbia. In Milpark! And in Main Street Life and in Newtown. It would be laughably pathetic if it wasn’t the perfect metaphor for Johannesburg’s solution to the poverty problem.

Johannesburg is an immigrant city. As such, it changes all the time, to reflect the taste and tone of the newest batch of arrivals. It is never, ever still – and nobody can claim to own this city.

Like my grandfather and his peers did all those years ago, I too left KwaZulu Natal for the city of gold. I’d like to believe that I too will have left my indelible mark on the city once I leave it. I hope to have changed this place even as it changes me. Johannesburg is good at that sort of thing, is it not?

Of course, some things remain constant. Johannesburg will always be a mining town. There’s nothing refined or effete about this place. You’ll sooner fill the Coca Cola Dome if you promised to show – for some handsome ront, of course – two men bludgeoning each other to death with their bare fists than you would if you showcased some other art form. And the poor will always be here. If anyone could claim to own Johannesburg, it is the great unnumbered, the human rejects that have been pushed to the very edges of Johannesburg, away from the exposed veins of Sandton, the “Parks” and even the bits of Soweto with paved streets.

But sometimes the new arrivals threaten the old guard a little too strongly. Sometimes the city changes a little too fast for those who’ve been here long enough to think that they have an exclusive claim on it. And so they rise up. The townships become slick with the blood of Zimbabweans, Somalis and Mozambicans, murdered at the hand of their own African brethren. Violence is once again called upon to arrest the pace of change in Johannesburg, as it was in 1960, 1976 and 1993. The old guard quickly learns that this is a process they can never arrest.

As the townships burn, the caffé latte yuppies sit at 44 Stanley and Arts on Main, sneering at the wars of the poor. Yet they have done exactly the same thing. It may not be a war of tribes, or countries, but it’s a war nonetheless. Not a shot was fired – but it is a war. There was a loser: the poor. The unnumbered and unnoticed. They lost their space so the yuppies could frolic “in town” and pretend to be socially conscious.

“We’re gentrifying the city. Restoring it to its former glory”, is the excuse wheeled out every time I point this out. So they’ve repainted the buildings, cleaned up the streets and turned ruined factories into art galleries. But they’ve pushed the true residents out. Johannesburg isn’t the buildings, remember?

The gentrification of the city will mean nothing if all it serves to do is to transplant the sensibilities of Parkhurst into Newtown, or Sandton into Milpark. These skin-deep changes will always be that if they only serve to alienate and exclude those who would otherwise live there.

The main language spoken in Johannesburg has been isiZulu, since the great mining days. The influx of labourers from KwaZulu transformed this place. In our lifetime, the main spoken language of Johannesburg will probably be imported from a neighbouring country. The efforts of those men in the townships in 2008 to arrest that change will fail. So too will this low-key war against the poor and the spaces they occupy.

Johannesburg needs more projects aimed at education and skills – not those that sweep the uneducated and unskilled away for rich people’s playgrounds.

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RESPONSES (17)
  1. old grumpypants says:

    Sipho, move to Lagos and stop complaining.

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  2. Karen-Dei says:

    Great article! Oh, and old grumpypants: we don’t need to move to Lagos-it’s coming here!

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  3. mud-debunker says:

    Sipho we know you mean well but you come across as a lazy, doos chameleon, sunning himself in the colours of whoever will pay his wages.

    Maybe this plays better at 2OV or the Daily Maverick, where you can spin out the Afro-enthusiast vibes but i think that Mahala readers will want some slightly more nuanced views on the social order.

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  4. devil's advocate says:

    A fair point Sipho, but if there was no interest in rejuvenating the old city, those who still reside in the broken down buildings would have no work as car-guards, security guards, kitchen helpers, cooks or buskers. I’m not saying it helps everyone, but it certainly puts food on a few tables.
    Also, are you the same Sipho Hlongwane from Bergville?

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  5. nissim says:

    Not sure I agree with all the assumptions and deductions, but I like the writing style. Not too politically overblown, verbose or self-conscious poser. I look forward to reading more of Sipho’s writing.

    Personally I think it’s a little alarmist. I can’t imagine the gentrification o fJozi to ever get so popular it would squeeze out the urban unhipster.

    And love it or hate it, I’d rather sit at 44 Stanley than in the food court at Sandton city, or that African diorama on the glorious shores of Zoo Lake.

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  6. Oliver says:

    Gentrification might not be a bad thing if it means the higher income groups are growing. More people with more money is a good thing. And like the poor, the rich must also live somewhere. (And please be fair with you criticism on capitalism). I see appeal of a filthy city. It feels real and honest, it’s not trying to clean away the evidence of human existence. But we should be careful not to confuse ‘evidence of humanity’ with run down, broken and criminal. I had a similar argument but when the people you speak of (the poor) get more money they start moving in with the yuppies and those guilty of gentrifying the city. The fact of the matter is that dirty is often also dangerous. (The Gautrain for instance in super clean and super safe, I’m not sure about cause and effect but there is a correlation between cleanliness and safety)

    In talking to ‘the poor’ I’ve found that they all aspire to cleaner cities. (And when I say all ‘n mean statistical all, I’ve not spoken to every person). I found my crime was that I like ‘slumming it’ in a filthy city as long as I can go back to the clean suburb. I think people might want to be clean. Even in downtown Ghana people wanted to be in ‘cleaner’ gentrified areas.

    Am I correct in assuming that ‘the rich’ is aligned with ‘immigrants’ and that ‘the poor’ are the only true citizens?

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  7. penny hanna says:

    Why is there a tiny black penis on the story? are you saying that black men have tiny penises? that’s racist.

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  8. Oliver says:

    @ penny.

    This black one is huge. You should see the white one…

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  9. The Jim says:

    Oh Lord, mud-debunker. It must be agonising to be so damned nuanced.

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  10. christopher steenkamp says:

    wonderful piece darling

    these revamped spaces you’re talking about can only be good for the surroundings, art is an accessible, rewarding and spacious go to place when you have fuckall money, i know this from experience. The only problem would be making them elitist via pricing, not the fact that they’re springing up everywhere.

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  11. XO says:

    Awww… Sipho wouldn’t last that long in Lagos maybe in VI …but the real Lagos like most African cities are waaaaay to real for SA’n…so stop complaining…

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  12. Thato says:

    Oh wow…haven’t been here in a while and I think I like Sipho…

    I would like to see him tackle something that isn’t as old hat as inner city re-development,
    then again I talk about the slums with way too much zeal…

    Good one!

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  13. raimondo says:

    Hey enough of the skorrokorro mentality. Jozi is a world class city with a bright future. Why do you find it so hard to shed the stereotype image of tribal Africa, dusty and desorganized? Respect brother, first yourself and then the future. Wake up and smell the coffee, (African beans) my friend and they make a great latte. We must come into the 21st century, in our ethnic way and show ourselves that we are dynamic, proud and capable of excellence. At the helm of the new world order. Ya!

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  14. Thabz says:

    geez man… this is so eerily true. thinking bout my many years since moving to Jozi… the hangout centrals on my radius have changed from yeoville and surrounds, melville/milpark/newtown and surrounds, and now inner city city… we keep trying to find tiny little pockets to host our little revolutions inside of… everything always picture perfect before it becomes another shabby mess ex-patriots would not be caught dead in… jozi does indeed, belong to its everyday people. if we could stop over-glorifying maybe and just co-exist with it…

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  15. Jirrith says:

    I used to live in Troyeville. In the year I spent there my neighbour tried to flush a chicken down the toilet and sewage spilt, knee-high, into the surrounding properties. I found a man shot dead in the derelict park next to us , and another was cut to pieces by two men wielding bicycle chains. Walking to the local SPAR meant treading between gobs of spittle and used condoms.Living like this is not ‘real’, it is mildly disgusting, and sitting and drinking latte at 44 Stanley is an innocent pastime.To regard cleanliness as a sign of elite preciousness is just damn silly. I agree with you about Washington. The main drags are stage-sets for West Wing, but venture a little further and you will find a comforting amount of squalor.

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  16. Adventeroux says:

    So you would prefer dirt and chaos? Shit in the alleys and no blood on the bathroom walls? Grimy bars that seem gay due to the lack of women?

    I wonder how many more people are employed in a functioning city than one falling apart.
    eg New York city has more hotels than the entire SA. Perhaps you dont remember 44 Stanley when all the shops had closed and business moved out. Did you prefer the Arts on Main area two years ago? I bet there are a lot more people working there plus the employment created when developing it.

    Gau train cost nearly R30 billion. New building commitments made around the Sandton station alone, surpasses that.

    I want Jozi to be a 24 hour city where people flock to try make dreams true.

    There are plenty of grimmy places left – go hangout there and walk in piss

    I find your mentality defeatist.

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  17. Evil Gorilla Overlord says:

    Oh deary me, Sipho. Politics – potential. Sport – so so. Music – perhaps. This – notsomuch. Kindly read your homework – Achille Mbembe & Sarah Nuttal. Now.

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