Joburg belongs to no one and everyone, but it’s for all time
The city of gold is young and has shallow roots but it rises fast and high - but the city that’s yours never goes away
Today I walked down the street in Johannesburg where I lived when I first moved to the big city.
I arrived back then in a small car loaded with everything I owned, with nowhere to go and knowing almost no one, and I slept for two months on the sofa of an acquaintance who lived opposite the Rosebank Hotel, ruthlessly overstaying my welcome until I could finally move to an apartment of my own, just two blocks down the road, where I stayed nearly a year in a big empty flat furnished only with a collapsible camp bed, a ratty old two-seater brown couch with worn upholstery that looked like someone’s childhood teddy bear, and a cooler box.
It was a strange time, somehow both dissociated yet keenly felt, fearful and fearless. I used to wander the neighbourhood in the afternoons and evenings, lost and aimless and lonely and alarmed but also excited to be there, sensing all around me that unmistakable electric Joburg thrum of money moving around in the high, thin air.
I stayed in Joburg for 10 years and made a life there. I left 10 or so years ago and have returned many times – for several years I went back once a week; currently it’s every three months – but today was the first time in all that time that I walked down that street in Rosebank.
Everywhere changes. At first it seemed much as it was, then, as in one of those uncanny dreams that are like real life but not quite, I noticed that this three-storey block, where I once sheltered on the doorstep in that afternoon thunderstorm, is now seven storeys. The block across the road where there used to be a parrot in the window is now twice as high. The block where I lived with its big, sunny lounge has been torn down and will soon be a skyscraper.
I walked back up the road to the mall and went in at the bottom entrance where the payphones used to be. I couldn’t afford a cellphone then and sometimes when the loneliness became too much I would walk up with jingling pockets of twenty-cent pieces and call people back home and tell them how well things were going, how happy I was in the big city, how they should move up too.
Every store in the mall is changed now – the bookstore is gone; that mysterious shop that only sold teddy bears is gone; the restaurants are all different – but the underlying structure of the place is similar enough that I could walk it as though hypnotised and see what used to be there. I was in one place but in two points of time.
Back when I lived in that street I went many times a week to the Parktonian bar in the Rosebank hotel. I used to write about it in my columns and give everyone different names. It was quiet and discreet with plush booths around the walls and a round wooden bar in the centre where Leon the barman stood lugubriously awaiting the arrival of his regulars. It was perfectly old-fashioned, wood-panelled, hushed and with low flattering lighting, the way a bar should be. Leon wore a red waistcoat and a bowtie and an immaculate white shirt. He made the best martinis in the world. He didn’t talk much, but he knew all the secrets and kept most of them, although you could generally winkle out who had been in recently, and more importantly who’d been in with them. You knew Leon had always been there, standing inside the mahogany circle of his bar, polishing that martini glass with a white cloth, pretending not to listen to your conversation.
Joburg is young and has shallow roots but rises fast and high. Everyone has come there from somewhere else, so it belongs to everyone who has struggled and survived in it. It’s the mark of a real city that everyone makes their own version of it. The place that I remember wasn’t there 20 years before me and will be different in 20 years’ time. It’s melancholy if you let it be, but it’s also perfectly right.
It’s good that things change. It’s good that new people come to the city and make their starts, make a new place that will be torn down and built over, moved aside for new cities in their turn. Colson Whitehead wrote that you become a New Yorker when you realise that it will go on without you, and I think you become a citizen of Joburg when you realise that it belongs to you and doesn’t, that the city that’s yours never goes away. The Rosebank I lived in is still there, underneath what’s there now.
They tore down the old Rosebank Hotel and replaced it with a bright, loud new hotel, with a wall around it so that you can’t just walk in. They gave Leon the opportunity to reapply for a job in the new hotel bar, but they decided he didn’t fit the feel of the place. I don’t care. The old Rosebank Hotel is still there. The lobby still smells of brass and wood polish and cut flowers and sesame noodles from the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor. I can still meet my friends Rob and Leigh and Gal there, and the second half of life hasn’t started happening to any of us yet. Leon is still there, polishing a martini glass and it’s a quiet night and as I walk in Leon gives me a smile and a nod because he’s always pleased to see me.