Tourists can now see the city at a remove from the deck of a London sightseeing bus. There is no need to walk the streets of this beautiful and complex place, to touch and meet and listen and see, or to understand. To them Johannesburg will always be just the Apartheid Museum, some run-down inner-city neighbourhoods and the flash of Houghton as the bus whizzes past Madiba’s former home.
The Nelson Mandela Bridge reaches into the sky, ferrying souls from Braamfontein into the city centre across the tracks of the abandoned railways upon which the city used to depend. Cars race furiously back and forth while in this park set on an island in the concrete mesh of roads, homeless men wait on benches until its time to go somewhere else.
Fallen comrades of the Shosholoza Meyl stand still, retired from a time when the city shook with a different kind of industry. South Africa used to depend on the railways as the main transport for goods, and particularly coal. Mining was and is to this day the major industry of South Africa and Johannesburg’s very existence and the mine dumps that break the flat landscape of the Highveld, are a testament to the lengths men will go to accrue wealth, usually at the expense of others.
Life imitates art on Johannesburg’s sidewalks as a construction worker helps to erect a cordon around a piece of sidewalk that is to be dug up. As symptom of the re-gentrification of Braamfontein is the proliferation of art on the buildings and in windows around the neighbourhood. Major fashion label Supreme has also made it’s home in Braamfontein and just around the corner graphic designers and students from the University of the Witwatersrand mix in the coffee shops Post and Doubleshot. It’s a microcosm of South Africa’s geo-politics, beside opulence and ease exist lives of struggle and difficulty.
Tata Madiba’s face smiles down on the re-gentrified side of ‘Braamies’, decorating the side of an apartment building full of expensive lofts. Juta Street is littered with bars, coffee shops and the trendy Neighbourgoods Market which was founded in 2006 by Justin Rhodes and Cameron Munro, in association with Adam Levy of Play Braamfontein. The company’s mission is to use “design-thinking and intelligent, thoughtful/strategic interventions as a catalyst for engagement and community building” in Braamfontein.
Karabo Mntzeleni waits for a friend on a bench on De Korte Street. It’s the school holidays so she’s got some time off and she’s going to the movies. Amidst the crowds of upwardly-mobile, Mac Book toting creatives are normal people going about their lives. Two streets away from the offices of Play Braamfontein, Mntzileni was the first person I spoke to that didn’t have an iPhone.
A small boy goes window shopping for a dream at Fourthwall Books at 93 De Korte Street, Braamfontein. Fourthwall Books publish coffee table photographic books, graphic design journals, poetry and art texts by the likes of William Kentridge, Mark Lewis and Grahamstown’s own Professor Dan Wylie.
Art decorates the walls, doorways and the sides of buildings throughout Braamfontein, but nowhere are the names of the artists omitted. Except here, on a black gate behind which lies a deserted garden. It’s not in the middle of the city, and it’s not in a particularly ‘nice’ spot. But someone, some hopeful soul somewhere, has left this love note to the city, just to say ‘I care’.
A woman walks with her children up Jorrisen Street in the direction of the Metro and the Johannesburg Theatre. One of the best things about this area is the hopelessly confusing one way streets indicated by white arrows on red rectangles. Driving in circles in your bubble of highly engineered comfort you may never find your destination. Walking, you can go anywhere, take any path, ask anyone for directions. When walking you have the freedom to choose.
Three blocks away from this point on Harrison Street lies Hillbrow, infamous for its wild New Years parties and drug-related crime. However, in ten years the total crime rates for the densely populated area have decreased from 23 772 in 2004 to 11 015 in 2014. The long climb back up is underway. Like a patient recovering from a long battle with cancer, Johannesburg is slowly crawling towards health. Some days are good. Some days are bad. Some days we just live and hope for the best.
Johannesburg groans and stretches, gathering into its arms the moving mass of humanity that scratches, fights, skips and shuffles through it. In Braamfontein some of the mass find a home, in well-lit spacious studio lofts and grimy back alley doorways.
The city’s past is reflected in the faces of the shrunken men and women who shuffle slowly down Jorissen Street and its future is in the skip of the young boy who peers in at photographs in a studio, window shopping for a dream.
When I tell people that I wandered the streets of Braamfontein, Johannesburg, alone, taking photographs, the typical response is, “You did what?!?”
I’m a small white woman and I felt safe. It’s about belonging. In the 1980s Braamfontein was the social hub where my parents went ‘jolling’. Then it lost its sparkle to drugs and poverty. However, with incredible joints like Kitcheners and Anti-Establishment pumping music and people all weekend, every weekend, and a project of re-gentrification, Braamies is getting its groove back.
But beneath the painted façades the old city is still there, telling its story. Listen.