Dirty, Dangerous and Delapidated
Trip Start May 25, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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Aiybee leaned out of the window of the bus and waved to his friends who were shouting as we passed.
It was good to know he was known, I think!
This was a tour of downtown Joburg that I wasn't expecting. Lisa had arrived and had organised a tour to Soweto. It's just that we had to get there first. So why not go through Hillbrow - the place everyone simply avoids for life-or-death reasons.
I had been lost in Johannesburg before, and I had felt intimidated by the dirty streets, but nothing compared to this
'Wanna see the red light district?' Aiybee shouted, turning his full body around to see our reaction, even though we were speeding through the streets.
"Sure! Why not!" we replied. It wasn't like I would be coming back here anytime soon.
This part of Joburg is affectionately known as little Lagos, due to the number of Nigerian immigrants who have moved here. The large glass skyscrapers belie the reality of life here. It is dark, crowded, deprived and squalid. The society is surviving on air, and a lot of hard drugs. The ladies of the night have no competition here from the authorities. Who exactly is going to come here after dark and quietly ask them to move along? The only police officers seen here are the kind who don't mind mixing recreation with duty.
'A free ride for anyone who spots a while person on these streets!' Aiybee said, his grin spreading from ear to ear as his belly-laugh jiggled his middle in time with the music blaring from the street.
"I see one!" I yell to the front.
And sure enough, a white lady was walking along the street, through the cages of chickens for sale at the corner, and through the group of men who were hanging around, talking.
'She doesn't count! She lives here!' he said.
I couldn't tell if his tone was one of continued surprise, derision or simply withdrawn indifference. Why would a white woman choose to live around here? This was the only place I had felt identifiable fear in South Africa.
As we drove through the streets I began to breathe easier. At least we were moving.
Animals and children played in the rubbish dumps; the rubbish dumps found on every street corner, and taller than the first storey windows of the office blocks. Women sat next to rickety tables, piled high with one-cent sweets and plastic bags stuffed with bright orange corn snacks
'Did you know that Ghandi used to live here?'
"No Aiybee, I did not! You mean Ghandi who freed India from the Brits? That Ghandi?"
'Yesum. I'll take you to him now.'
Union Square was deserted. This was a place where the riots had met the privileged as Apartheid came crashing down. Until then, Union Square was only for the whites. It was a place to shop and be seen, so no mixing with the riff-raff had been tolerated. Shops here were for whites only, and if you had no business to shop, you had no business being there.
Blacks and Asians had been allowed to cross the periphery in a diagonal fashion, only using certain streets that kept their time and proximity to the upper echelons to a minimum.
'You can get out here. Come on. Let's go.'
Aiybee's large hand throttled the gearstick. We'd stopped.
'I want to show you something. Come! Lezgo!'
('Crap. We're going onto the street. I don't want to. I don't want to. Shit. Where is he taking us? Is this all part of the deal?')
I flashed Lisa a quick glance and stepped out of the bus. The light almost blinded me as I looked up and down the street. No one was close by. And then I saw it - a sign that just made me smile.
Above the shop was a sign left behind from the dark days of separation
If for every action, there is a reaction, then this shop was it. Located just off Union Square, this was an area where the whites had not been welcome. Perhaps they are not still, but this had been a shop for blacks and Asians only.
'You' Aiybee said, pointing his turgid finger in my direction. 'You could not have come here. You would not have been served here. This shop was not for whites.'
"And today?" I ask.
His belly rolled again from within his ironed shirt. 'You can come here now. Things have changed. You are welcome my friend.' His hands and arms circled wildly in the air. 'This sign, it is just for history. For my tour that I am giving to you. Come! Lezgo!'
It was strange. Having stepped onto the streets, I wanted to explore. My curiosity had been stirred. Between these immaculate empty skyscrapers lay the history of the city. The architecture of the small older buildings gave tribute to a past long forgotten and now rarely recognised
As I boarded the bus, I turned to notice the reflection of the shacks in the glass of the tallest building. The windows of the shack were stuffed shut with ripped material and flaking, yellowed newspaper. Someone was living there, but yet the businesses around them had been abandoned.
'What are you looking at?' Aiybee enquired. Perhaps most people run to get back on board.
"Look at that building." I said, "It was once very beautiful, and now it is used and dirty. Look how it is mirrored in the windows of that ugly empty skyscraper. How long do you think it will be until this part of the city is used again? It seems such a shame to see things falling apart when they should be the support for the people, the hope of things to come."
The conversation just slipped out of my mouth. I had been affected. I had been altered by this landscape. Perhaps I could understand a little why that white lady was here after all.
'Now all the businesses have moved to Sandton. They have left. The financial heart has gone and now no one has to come here. The city has moved out. Now all there is are the people that try and live here.'
And with that we drove on to see Ghandi.
Union Square was decorated with lights and flags and billboards the size of Times Square adverts, although a little less flashier
Ghandi was up on a pedestal, his robes blowing in the wind. For twenty-five years he had lived and worked in Africa. Was it the reason he went to India and brought about such change? Had it given him the desire to live in a free world?
'Come now, we have no time to stop. I drive slow. You can take pictures. I want to show you my hometown, SowEEEEto!' His tongue dallied on the 'e' and a smile of pride reflected in the rear view mirror.
And with that we picked through the streets and headed for the highway to the largest (former) township in South Africa. I was amazed how easily we had emerged into 'civilised air', and how the light poured through the windows as we left the stagnant heart of downtown Joburg behind.
What will the place be like in 20 years time? Will life have returned to its antiquated streets? Will the trendy suburbs give up their titles easily, and will the rich be tempted to shop and play in the old fashioned downtown way?
But for now, it's a place I'm glad I've seen, but also a place I do not really want to be.