Yesterday I finally entered the behemoth that is Johannesburg. And came out not only alive, but carrying packets of spice and some rose petal jam. As well as lots of pretty pictures on my camera.
Joburg (as it seems to be known colloqially) is one of those infamous cities whose reputation strides before it. Known for years as a centre of terrifying crime, it is finally starting to get its day. In the past few years, the city has gone from mass robberies and tyre burnings to street art and hipster markets. I have seen it mentioned many times as one of those “up and coming” places that you must get to before everyone else arrives….which is probably news to the many people who have been happily living there for years. But it is definitely being cited as one of the hip and happening cities on this planet right now.
Nevertheless, for someone like myself living in cosy, provincial Pretoria, sprawling Johannesburg is still a fairly daunting prospect. So I was grateful when one of the parents at the school my children go to invited me along on a photography group walking tour in the city – a great way, I thought, to not only learn more about the country I live in but also to start to get a feel for Johannesburg and it’s districts. As well as have a social outing and meet some new people.
As it turned out, the tour was of an area that I would otherwise probably never have thought of visiting, which was even more of a bonus. I should probably have started with Soweto, where I could have learned more about the Apatheid regime and the uprisings against it. But I do at least already know a bit about that era (after all, didn’t all us students in the 1980’s sing Freeeeee Nelson Mandela and take part in protests aginst our government’s support of the South African government of the time?), and I look forward to learning more. Yesterday was about visiting the area where some of the most recent immigrants into this “rainbow nation” have made their homes: Fordsburg.
We were met by our guide Ishvara (a South African chef with a side-line in tour-guiding) on a street in the middle of this compact centre of immigrant life. Right next to us was an old train carriage that had been adapted into a meditteranean restaurant. Next to that were some toilets bearing an inscription that told you the building now housing the Ladies and Gents had once been the focus of a communist uprising. Across the road was a huge banner proclaming that this was a place to buy your “share” (eg a goat or other sacrificial lamb) for Eid. We were surrounded on all sides by a reminder that this was an area that was forever changing – as new immirgants arrived, those who were more established moved on to other areas.
We set off as a group and were taken down streets, into shops, through covered market areas, past a huge variety of colourful streetlife that made me feel more like I was in South London than South Africa. It was a good reminder that we are becoming ever more multi-cultural in this world and wherever you go you will almost certainly be able to source a good curry.
Each street or couple of streets was home to a different culture and thus we met and photographed people from Pakistan, Morocco, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia….it was certainly a fascinating insight, although difficult in such a short space of time to really understand how these people felt about living here or how intergrated they were able to be (not very much I understood – but these are the first generation. It usually takes two or three generations before cultures properly mix). We did learn though from our guide that these were peaceful people, trying to make a living from their clothes shops or their jewellery outlets. No-one was interested in some of the more extreme ways of others of their religion – many of them had moved from their home countries to escape from that way of life.
Overall, it was a very interesting whistle-stop tour of a fascinating part of Johannesburg. We ended with a return to the South Africa more familar to most of us – a traditional Afrikaans-run butchers shop. It felt like a fitting ending and a good way to remind us that although there were many people arriving in Johannesburg and bringing with them their culture, food and way of life – we were still in South Africa.