Tag: Johannesburg

Why we painted Jozi pink

(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Lungile Zuma)

I land in Johannesburg for the third time in four years.  I drive into the city guided by faint memory and intuition. I drive carefully but still I end up taking a wrong turn and land in the middle of town, on Main Street. Two things then seem clear: The first – there aren’t any white people on the streets. However, this is inaccurate; I look harder and find a single, tall white man exiting a mechanic’s shop. He has dropped off his Audi and is walking across the street towards a coffee shop. Though the abolishment of apartheid happened 20 years ago, downtown Johannesburg’s colour palette has changed, but not in the way one would have predicted.

The second: There is a plethora of big, fat, abandoned buildings, ten stories and higher, each of them marked by broken windows, barred doors, and bricked up floors. They are beautiful, hallowed objects left behind by time and a history long forgotten. From art deco to modernist and post-modernist architectural treasures, they are spread out sporadically from block to block, colour-less. Witnessing these human structures, one is reminded of post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds popular in science fiction films and literature.  Yet this is our world today, one in which thousands of people, most of them black citizens from all over Africa, live on the streets surrounded by squalor, in a city famous for its gold and diamond trade. Many of these individuals who migrate south hope to escape the hostility of war torn countries and encounter instead, a different type of war zone in Johannesburg.

Fascinated by how the city seems to have abandoned these buildings just like it has some of its population, I can not imagine that, almost six weeks later, I would find myself transported from the roof of one of these dilapidated buildings to a jail cell in Johannesburg’s central police station. The jail cell – with its many barred, fenced, and frosted glass windows–made me feel helpless. By contrast, the abandoned buildings – where most windows are broken or missing altogether-made my team and I feel an empowerment and awareness that vibrated with possibility.

Consider windowless buildings. Bleeding and gutted buildings. Consider a system in which government and privately owned buildings are left uncared for from block to block throughout the heart of a city. If the broken windows theory prescribes a zero tolerance policy for even minor damage to property, how can entire structures be abandoned, left to rot, without devastating effects on those who can not afford to move to other neighborhoods?

It was back in 1982 that the broken window theory was first introduced by social scientists Wilson & Kelling. They asked their audience to consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows were not repaired, vandals would likely break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and – if it was unoccupied – perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Chapter two, section 26 of the Constitution of South Africa states that “Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.” With so many evictions happening due to Mayor Park Tau’s “Operation Clean Sweep” and with thousands of people in the inner city with no place to live, how can we go on ignoring all of these buildings that could be renovated as potential homes?  “Demolition by decay” – as it is referred to in the blogosphere – still plagues the city centre today. The wickedness of some owners is only matched by the sheer indifference of the municipality, taking no action, even when owed millions of rand in rates.

The project
As I keep thinking of these still beautiful buildings, I speak to friends of mine, local artists, about turning them into “Living Sculptures” so that the people of Johannesburg are reminded of their presence and the injustice they embody.Maybe we could highlight the buildings? Maybe we could paint them hot-pink? From what I had observed in Jozi’s urban environment, there is not much of that colour anywhere… no South African brands seemed to use this colour and therefore it would be easy to create new associations in Johannesburg’s cultural landscape. The artists, and most people who learned about the project in the following weeks, were excited about the idea and “valued the style, urgency, underground stealth, surprise approach and the overall intention” of the project.

It is not until later, amongst painters, photographers, and print-makers that we decide on the style of painting: we will pour the paint from the top of the chosen dilapidated building first.  Then we will go down floor by floor and collectively decide which windows will “bleed out.” We are excited by the notion that the buildings would appear to be crying, bleeding, leaking colour. The colour and medium of choice will take the form of more than 1000 litres of hot-pink, water-soluble paint.

Once the idea is solidified, we spread the word over a period of three weeks. More than thirty local creative agents of all colours and creeds join our nightly excursions to help paint and document our process. Friends invite friends. All show up after midnight wearing their old clothes, their curiosity, and their courage. We start in the last week of June and finish in the first week of August.

(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Yazmany Arboleda)

We study the buildings during the daytime: we draw up floor plans, circulation patterns, and check the finishes on floors and walls – mostly scattered debris. Then, at the agreed-upon early morning hour, we gather and travel downtown with our buckets of paint and our ladders. The big challenge with most of our buildings is gaining entry to the second floor – once inside, we usually have access to the rest of the building. We walk up to the roof, and prepare our tools, pouring the pink paint slowly and evenly from top to bottom.  As much work as could be done in preparation, we never have control over how the paint will actually adhere to each building.  The speed and texture always varies, and it is always exciting to gaze upon the end result the following morning.

(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Yazmany Alboleda)
(Pic: Yazmany Arboleda)

It is not until we have found a comfortable pattern, meeting and working together while most of the city is asleep, that the head of security of our seventh highlighted building approaches us and calls the police. He wants to know what we are doing and why were doing it. From our pink stained attire, everyone could easily assume that we are responsible for the buildings that have been dressed in pink in the previous weeks.

As the leader of this project, I feel it is my duty to take care of whatever charges may come up and asked my fellow artists and activists to leave the scene. The police ask me to follow them to the station, along with the security guard, to talk to the colonel.  Once there, I realise that I have no phone, no identification, and no way out.

At first, he claims that he could not let me go because I have no way to identify myself.  Sometime after three in the morning they find a case number for a “malicious destruction of property” that had been pressed the previous week for one of our transformed buildings.  With the case in hand, I am booked into Johannesburg’s central police station as a suspect.  Feeling completely isolated and alone, one question comes to my mind:  “what is more unjustto allow buildings to decay and create an atmosphere that permeates of fear, or to use colour to create a conversation about how we can all be a part of bringing said buildings back to life?”  And also, aren’t these buildings, a vital part of the fabric of the city of Johannesburg, all of our responsibility?

There are no white people to be found in the police station either. Again, this is inaccurate, as the colonel who deals with my case, pale and blonde haired, does so in a heavy Afrikaans accent. Everyone else in the prison, from the guards to the captives, range in colour from dark-chocolate to dark-caramel. My own colouring, pale-olive by comparison, is so striking to the rest of the population that, in the morning, one of the janitors come into my cell and inquire about why I am there. He claims that I look “out of place.” Even earlier, when I was being admitted, the constable looked up from her form and asked me if I was Black, Coloured, Indian/Asian or White.  I looked back at her responding that I am not any of those things. “I am Latin American, Hispanic.” Looking back down and speaking sharply she responded, “We can just say you are White.”

Some parts of the prison feel as neglected and dilapidated as the buildings that I have been studying for weeks. Buildings like the CNA, Shakespeare House and New Kempsey – a full city block of historical Art Deco buildings, bricked up and left to crumble as rain pelts through the broken windows – are not that different from this local police station, and its inhabitants are often the very same hopeless people who sit and walk around the city’s Central Business District.

Painting is a way for us to challenge our colour-blindness to these issues. By highlighting these facades in pink, we have generated important dialogue and debate among the denizens of Johannesburg. We hope that these conversations will in turn, be a call to action. The project we started is ongoing and more buildings will be painted soon. Just like some of the legacy of apartheid, these buildings may be abandoned, but they are still standing. Now more than ever we are responsible for being aware of colour – whether it be in the black and white of race, or the pink of social injustice.

Yazmany Arboleda is a New York-based Colombian-American artist who lectures internationally on the power of art in public space. He is the Creative Director of MIT’s ENGAGE program as well as The Brooklyn Cottage. His work has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, UK’s Guardian, Fast Company, and Reuters. In 2013, he was named one of Good Magazine’s 100 People Making Our World Better.

Africa’s top tweeting cities revealed

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

Johannesburg was the most active Twitter city in Africa in the last three months of 2013, according to a new study called How Africa Tweets.

The city had 344 215 geo-located tweets, followed by Ekurhuleni with 264 172, and the Egyptian capital Cairo with 227 509, communications agency Portland said in a statement on Wednesday.

Durban followed with 163 019 tweets and Alexandria, also in Egypt, was closely behind with 159 534 tweets.

The study by Portland also found that cities in South Africa and Egypt were the most active on Twitter.

Twitter activity in Africa peaked on the day former South African president Nelson Mandela died.

“The day of Nelson Mandela’s death – 5 December – saw the highest volume of geo-located tweets in Africa,” it said.

The study also found that English, French, and Arabic were the most common languages on Twitter in Africa, accounting for 75.5% of the total tweets analysed. Zulu, Swahili, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Portuguese were the next most commonly tweeted languages in Africa.

Tuesdays and Fridays were the most active tweeting days.

“Twitter activity rises steadily through the afternoon and evening, with peak volumes around 9pm,” it said.

It also found that soccer was the most-discussed topic on Twitter in Africa.

“[Soccer] was discussed more than any other topic, including the death of Nelson Mandela. The most mentioned [soccer] team was Johannesburg’s Orlando Pirates.”

Politically-related hashtags were less common.

Allan Kamau, head of Portland Nairobi, said the African “twittersphere” was transforming the way that Africa communicated with itself and the rest of the world.

“Our latest research reveals a significantly more sophisticated landscape than we saw just two years ago,” he said.

“This is opening up new opportunities and challenges for companies, campaigning organisations, and governments across Africa,” he said.

Jeppe on a Friday

The dreams and fears, hopes and histories of five people intersect in this compelling documentary filmed in one day by eight female filmmakers in Johannesburg.

It features “garbage” man Vusi Zondo, ambitious property developer JJ Maia, folk musician and hostel dweller Robert Ndima, Beninese migrant and restaurateur Arouna Nassirou and his wife Zenaib, and shopkeeper Ravi Lalla.

The film was written and directed by Arya Lalloo and Shannon Walsh and shot by the  filmmakers on one Friday in March, 2012. It uses the template of the film À St-Henri, le 26 août, a documentary shot in and around a Montreal suburb on one day.

For more on Jeppe on a Friday, read Percy Zvomuya’s review.

Jozi taxi diaries

“God’s case, no appeal” is the name of a long-past-retirement-age taxi in Chinua Achebe’s novel, No Longer at Ease. This pithy aphorism is right up there with “We mend broken hearts” and “Don’t steal, the government hates competition”, as freely dispensed taxi-wisdom goes in many African cities. A fan of most things offside, I feel morally obliged to like “God’s case, no appeal”, which is also a pretty appropriate description of Johannesburg taxi drivers, who are second only to the Gupta family as a law unto themselves.

There are many sins that can be laid upon Johannesburg taxi drivers’ heads. Humour is not one of them. Except for this one driver my friend Vuyo told me about: his taxi had the usual sticker asking passengers to refrain from paying with large notes, but somehow one morning there were lots of R50 and R100 notes on board, which left the passenger seated next to the driver – the fare collector – stuck for change. The taxi driver quietly noted the problem.

A short drive on, he casually turned into a garage, parked, and walked into the express shop with the batch of notes. He emerged with a plastic bag filled with random groceries, which he proceeded to distribute along with the respective change to the passengers, deducting the taxi fare and the cost of whatever random item he had bought them. Exclamations flew around as non-smokers received packs of cigarettes and school children got dish-washing liquid. Two of the luckier passengers received a piece of New Lifebuoy Total and a nondescript packet of condoms, which promised total hygiene and total pleasure respectively. “You must read that sticker,” he said, easing out of the garage.

(Pic: Oupa Nkosi, M&G
(Pic: Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

I suppose taxi commuting would be a lot less stressful if all taxi drivers had this dry sense of humour. Sadly, they don’t, as I once learnt across the road from Luthuli House in Jo’burg.

Its illustrious history as the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC) aside, Luthuli House’s other claim to fame is that former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema once defended its revolutionary honour with choice expletives – including that classic Malemaism ‘tjatjarag’ – which sent the revolutionary house trending on cyberspace while klevas churned rib-cracking spoofs and soundtracks to Malema’s gallantry on YouTube.

For me though, Luthuli House brings back less-than-revolutionary memories of a taxi ride gone wrong in 2005, which ended with an irate taxi driver screeching to a sudden halt on a street curb near Luthuli House, jumping out and pacing near the taxi as he quarrelled about thieving passengers. I was one of the said thieving passengers. On this day, I learnt the value of one rand. And that a rand is not just a rand.

It was after 11am and I was on a taxi from Soweto to Braamfontein for a noon meeting. As usual, the taxi stopped at edge of the CBD, where Noord Street taxi rank-bound taxis part ways with Bree Street taxi rank-bound taxis. At this point, unless all passengers are going to one taxi rank, taxis generally swap passengers in a loose ‘division of labour’ arrangement to avoid driving to both taxi ranks. So, the Noord Street taxi rank passengers moved to another taxi, while two of us (myself and a middle-aged lady) were joined by several other Bree Street taxi rank passengers from the other taxi. A short ride on, the middle-aged lady asked the taxi driver for her change.

“How much?”

“One rand.”

“Didn’t everyone get back their change?”

“No, I haven’t received my change.”

After repeatedly asking who had the missing rand to no avail, the driver suddenly braked, jumped out and banged the door shut, too angry to drive on. Seemingly, this had happened before and he was simply fed up with this emerging sticky-fingers tendency in his taxi. Some commuters protested about being unfairly delayed, especially as they had switched taxis after the monies had been collected.This left me and the aggrieved passenger as the chief ‘suspects’. Except I was certain I hadn’t handled any change. And the lady was certain she had not received her change. And she wanted her rand back.

As 12pm drew closer, I contemplated getting off the taxi and walking the short distance to Bree Street taxi rank and over Nelson Mandela Bridge to Braamfontein for my meeting. A second thought crossed my mind as the driver ranted about our theft: maybe I should just offer to replace the damned rand. But something stopped me from making either of these faux pas. It occurred to me that, despite their annoyance, none of my fellow passengers was offering to replace the missing rand or take the short walk to Bree. So, I impatiently watched the spectacle of our ‘thieving selves’ packed outside Luthuli House, until the taxi driver – apparently deciding he’d rather be rid of us – got back in the taxi, gave the lady her rand, and drove on, covering the short distance to Bree with an angry rant about cheap passengers who stole one rand. What kind of fourth-rate thieves were we anyway? Serious thieves busied themselves blowing up ATMs and hijacking cash-in-transit vehicles for proper monies, not pinching one rand coins from underpaid taxi drivers.

It later dawned on me that my fellow passengers obviously realised – and respected – the fact that there was more than a rand at stake. This was not about a rand. There was a principle at stake, and the potential corrosion of the implicit trust between a taxi driver and his passengers. This explains why, unlike the Kenyan conductor or the Ghanaian driver’s mate who collects fares, Johannesburg commuters pass on their fares all the way to the passenger seated next to the driver, who in turn processes the change and gives the driver the total collection for the entire taxi load of people. It wasn’t just a rand at stake. This system and its implicit trust were at stake. To date, I still don’t believe it was a case of theft; it was more likely an inadvertent mix-up of change. But in such a well-oiled system, there is no room for inadvertent mistakes. Not even one-rand mistakes.

Naturally, I missed my meeting that day. But I learnt the value of a rand.

Tata ma chance love in Jozi

Long before P Square and Akon had made that risqué endorsement of gold-digging, insisting that “she must chop my money!”, and even before Ridge Forrester had gone down on his knees for the umpteenth time to propose to Brooke in The Bold and the Beautiful, the Johannesburg Casanova had already reconfigured the flirting game. Thanks to this change of rules, most women in South Africa have had the displeasure of having The Question popped at least a few times, often from the most ‘unlikely’ quarters. It is not the most affirming experience and in fact, the other extreme of this trend manifests in horrendous ways. But that is a conversation for another day.

My friends and I have christened this trend tata ma chance love, in honour of a long-running lottery advert which encourages people to ‘take a chance’ because ‘one day is one day’. In a similar vein, these men try their luck ‘just because’. It is a democracy mos. Unlike mainstream lotto players though, these men have neither the expectation nor the desire to win. In fact, ‘winning’ this Casanova lotto would be rather like Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) getting shot with real bullets by Blakkie Swart during the making of the movie Jerusalema. It would attract the same degree of scandalised shock as Taffy’s in Caribbean author Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Can’t Dance.

One day, Taffy, a man from a slum suggestively called Calvary Hill, declared himself to be Christ and, put himself up on a cross, and told his followers: “Crucify me! Let me die for my people. Stone me with stones as you stone Jesus, I will love you still.” And when they started to stone him, he got vexed and started to cuss: “Get me down! Get me down! Let every sinnerman bear his own blasted burden! Who is I to die for people who ain’t have sense enough to know they can’t pelt a man with big stones when so much little pebbles lying on the ground.” You see, like Taffy’s flirtation with the crucifixion, the Casanova lotto winnings lie in the make-believe rewards of a chuckle, a smile, a laugh, a playful friendliness from a familiar-stranger. The Freedom Charter neglected to put it in writing, but the people shall flirt.

I have had The Question popped countless times. Very unceremoniously. No bent knees. No rings. No ridiculously perfect bouquet of flowers. No candlelit dinner. No Enrique Iglessias crooning syrupy songs dripping with sticky sweet Spanish love like wild honey. Nothing cliché. No. All my roadside proposals have been simple, point-blank, no-frills affairs, in true tata ma chance tradition; whose vocabulary ranges from variations of “Ngiyakuthanda sweetness” (I love you) to the Twitter-compliant “Ushadile?” (Are you married?), which stays safely under 140 characters, to “Fanele si’shade s’thandwa sam” (We should get married, my love). Often without preamble, often from strangers who have known me for all of fourteen seconds. These amorous grooms are men of few words. They have stuff to do and proposals to make. So they have long dispensed with such bourgeoisie niceties like greetings and getting to know their bride-never-to-be.

'The Freedom Charter neglected to put it in writing, but the people shall flirt.' (Graphic: Kenny Leung/M&G)
‘The Freedom Charter neglected to put it in writing, but the people shall flirt.’ (Graphic: Kenny Leung/M&G)

My strangest tata ma chance proposal came from a parking attendant at the corner of Jorrisen and Henri Streets, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, across the road from the Senate House entrance into Wits University. It happened on a sunny October morning, as I walked from my flat a few metres away to campus, like I did every morning just after 8am. I often saw this parking attendant, whose name I never got to know; and we often exchanged polite greetings – a quiet nod, a wave of the hand, sometimes a “hi” or “hello” (me) “Sawubona sisi” (him on a formal note), “Hello ma’darl’in” (him on a playful note).

On this October morning, I nod at him from across the road as I walk past, and he says, “Hey, my sister! Linda kancinci!” I stop, and wait a bit as requested, slightly puzzled at what I imagine is an unprecedented request for some coins; a request which will most likely involve a complicated tale of an urgent trip to Krugersdorp, inadequate money for the taxi and a sick child. I have heard infinite versions of this tale before. For me, the bottom line is that the narrator needs the money. Whether the story is convincing or even true at all, is immaterial. I mentally check my purse to see if I have any money to share. I know there will be no trip to Krugersdorp, and in fact, my coins are likely to make a welcome contribution towards a nice cold Black Label dumpie at that shebeen down the road. By now he has walked across the road to my side. He stops in front of me, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “Asishade sisi.” A confused “Mmmh?” is all I manage. He repeats: “Ngithe asishade.” (I said let’s get married.) Straight-faced. Not a smile in sight.

Now, there must be many possible responses to a slightly unexpected marriage proposal from a parking attendant (whose name you don’t know) at 8:06am on a sunny Wednesday morning in October; when your mind is busy trying to figure how to fix that chapter in your dissertation which, your supervisor declared, has no argument. When you are in the middle of pondering whether you are so clever or so domkop that you can write 46 pages of argument-free waffle, it is hard to give the correct answer to a parking-lot proposal, with only the Johannesburg morning traffic for a soundtrack. There is something to be said for the inspiring power of Enrique Iglesias promising to “be your hero baby” or Linda Ronstadt declaring “I don’t know much, but I know I love you…” after all, syrupy or not.

But as they say, when in doubt, keep it simple. So, I return his unsmiling gaze and say, as straight-facedly, “Yes. Let’s get married. Today.” His turn to be briefly scandalised, a la Taffy. I’ve just shot Lucky Kunene with real bullets. “Yes” is clearly not the answer he had in mind. I was supposed to play the usual script of “No, I have a boyfriend” to which he would reply “It is fine, I don’t mind” in true Casanova-lotto player spirit.

“Yes; today” was clearly a possibility he hadn’t considered. But he quickly bounces back from my humorous subversion of the official script and bursts out laughing. Hard. So hard, he bends over and slaps his thighs, too amused. Then he straightens up and waves me off. “Hayi, suka! Khaugqibe isikolo kuqala, then ngizokushada,” he says as he walks off, shaking his head, amused at this ridiculous student. (Get off! Go and finish school first then I will marry you.)

Where do you find a comeback to that? As I walk into campus, one useful Nollywood phrase comes to mind: “It is so bad, it is worse.”

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.