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Culture, Reality

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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