Forget what you heard.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I'm no David Goldblatt but I have gained a bit of confidence when it comes to using the weapon that is the camera as a tool to learn a little more about my new environment in central Johannesburg.   Those of you who are regular readers will remember a post I wrote two weeks ago about claiming my space in Yeoville, my new neighborhood.  I'm still quite enjoying the process and would love to share a little adventure I had two weekends ago when I decided to spend a Saturday morning in Joubert Park and the surrounds.

I started at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, one of Joburg's most iconic buildings and an important institution in South African art.  That was such a good visit that it actually deserves its own separate post.  I took too many pictures and between the Louise Bourgeois and Yoko Ono works that are currently on exhibition at JAG and the 19th Century Xhosa smoking pipes, Tswana snuff spoons, Shona head rests and Tshonga beer mugs that I found, it's a story worth telling properly. 

I spent about 90 minutes at the gallery and as I walked out onto Joubert Park, the park on which the gallery is built, I had high expectations for what I have always heard people say about it: that it's shit.  Clearly I have been hanging out with questionable sources or maybe things have changed.  I walked out of the park and saw a generous green carpet of grass on either side of the brick path.  The grass was dotted by two patterns: lovers holding each other and people taking what looked like pap induced naps, as if they were walking and then they got got by the itis and fell asleep mid stride.  All of the people in the park are black people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods or maybe somewhere else.  The lovers were all holding one another quite closely as if they would not get the opportunity to do this again for a long time.  Most of them were not sitting on blankets ''picnicking''.  Some were just sitting on the grass either lying on their backs resting on their elbows or lying flat on stomachs side by side also resting on their elbows engrossed in intimate whispery conversation.  Others were resting on the inclines of the hill lying flat on their backs not holding, but clasping one other's hands.  

It was a strange and pleasant thing to see because public displays of affection feel like they belong to  privileged people, people who have time to be preoccupied with being in love, people who can afford to place the public expression of love higher on their priority lists. The other day I was shocked when the cleaning lady at an office that I work from in Braamfontein said ''fuck'' when she realised that she would have to walk in the rain.  Growing up in a society where cleaning ladies and caretakers who are all black, are frozen in these positions by uniforms and a limited interaction with the employers (more like their employers limited interaction with their lives) makes it peculiar to see working class people relaxing in the park. 

The people that were sleeping were mostly middle aged men.  The perplexing rhetoric we grew up hearing over and over in South Africa was ''black people are lazy''.  That fucks with you as a child and it's something you have to unlearn by forcibly exposing yourself to the truth, which of course is the complete opposite because black people are the earliest risers on farms that feed the nation, the first to walk the streets of this and every other city in this country, not for exercise but on their way to work for a pittance.  The only thing valuable about diamonds and gold (I've never been a fan of either because I simply never understood what actually makes them special besides a value that is taught) is the mining and over the last 130 years since gold was discovered in South Africa, that job has fallen on the poor who were of all colours in the beginning but these days of course it's poor black men that go kilometers under ground and physically use their bodies all day long digging and digging for pellets that they find but will never be theirs to keep, wealth they find but that will never be theirs to own.  When I saw the sleeping men, I thought about the irony of the ''black people are lazy'' conditioning.  I would also want to nap in the park if I was a construction worker or a gardener or a practically trained Bantu Education victim. Maybe I was projecting too much of my current state of mind into a mundane scene of typical South Africa. 

I moved on from the sleepers and the lovers and made my way towards the exit of the park.  I saw kids running around with frozen ice drinks towing toy trucks behind their mothers, a teenage girl who was wearing extremely high heels walking like she was regretting it and people of all ages dressed in Church uniforms coming or going to church.  As I approached the exit onto Wolmarans street, I saw a sight that piqued a deep interest in me and began walking towards it.  I used to be a keen chess player when I was in primary school.  I would attend chess league matches with other kids and thoroughly enjoyed playing matches at school.  I always enjoyed the solitude that that territory comes with.  
When I saw a giant chessboard and chess pieces in this park and looked to the other side to see another giant board and pieces and mounds of men sitting engrossed in approximately ten games, I could hardly believe my eyes. 

I made my way to what seemed like the big leaguers and in a 60 minute shifting procession, made my way from the periphery of the group of 40 plus men, into the the centre where the cooler cats were sitting together purring.  I first sat and watched from a bench that I shared with a man who was at least 4 spaces away from me on the other end. I asked how one gets to play and he said he didn't know.  Between watching the game and dying to get involved, I didn't notice that I kept shifting closer and closer to the cooler cats, of which the main one looked like a dressed down Georgie Zamdela. When I was too close not to greet, I got up to introduce myself to them.  I asked them how one gets to play and one of them picked up a giant black bishop and said ''you tap the bishop twice onto the floor like this'' and he proceeded to knock on the floor.  This man, dressed in a navy golf shirt and grey tracksuit pants, looked like he was the organiser.  There was an air of authority about him but not of the douche variety. He had a friendly Phys. Ed teacher vibe about him. He said ''let me tap it on your behalf'' and he did.  He then told me that he runs a chess league and that I should come and play anytime and after a few minutes of conversation in which I could tell the others were listening, I sat down and felt like I was a part of the group.   

A man selling cigarettes came around to sell to the group and they were so engrossed in the game that he might as well have been a fly. I bought two Courtleigh (gross) loosies for R5 and lit up.  I noticed that I was the only one doing anything either than concentrating on the game.  None of them were drinking anything. None of them were smoking anything.  None of them were concentrating on anything else.  The game that was going on wasn't that interesting in that you could see who was going to win.  20 minutes later, the same ''fly'' guy came around again, this time with frozen guava juice ice drinks.  I bought one for R2 and again, was the sole supporter of his business in the group.  10 minutes later, a new game had started and I was feeling anxious about my imminent game.  It wasn't going to play until the 11 players ahead of me had played.  A person, I can't remember whether it was a man or a woman, came around with a trolley full of canary yellow bananas.  I bought one for R1 ndalumela ngeIce. I figured it would be another hour or so before I actually played and I didn't have all day to wait.  I must have been there for about 70 minutes before I decided that I would rather be taking pictures. I asked a guy that was the same age as me whether it would be okay to take photographs of this setting and he said yes.  I was a bit shy and only mildly took my camera out of my handbag.  I took two pictures almost surreptitiously and another two when I realised that these men did not care to look at me.  I got up and said I would see them later. I left with a sense of accomplishment, that even though I did not get to play, I felt like I was part of something else.  I was the only woman in that group and I enjoyed being surrounded by older black men who were sitting in silence concentrating.  I stood out because I was the only one that was fidgeting - with an oral fixation and restless fingers.  I didn't have my cellphone with me so I think I was having a hard time being fully present without my usual vices.  It was strange to be in a social setting without music and alcohol.  It was sobering. 

I walked out of the park and onto Wolmarans Street.  To my left, I saw a large congregation of Zionists at church and took a few photographs in between the grooves of the metal fence. I have not stopped thinking about the phenomenon that is black people and the church ever since I moved to Yeoville where I am surrounded by praying people all the time.  Seeing them is now commonplace but it has awakened a serious interest in the religious zeal of Africans.  God must have heard my cry for more knowledge and a better understanding of this because out of thin air, I found a book while I was unpacking my apartment, a tattered old thing called ''Essays on Black Theology''.  I have no idea how this book got into my boxes but I opened it to find a hand written note from 1982, a gift to the recipient on his 84th birthday.  In it is a collection of essays written in or before 1972 by the leaders of black thought at that time including an essay by the then South African Students Organisation president Steve Biko and a striking essay by Adam Small amongst many others.  I have been reading this book and my understanding of the world is unravelling like an epic poem.  I won't say more until I have a better understanding of it and have fully grasped how to understand in in the context of modern life. 

I continued to walk around town this time with my camera confidently hanging from my neck and I photographed things that I found interesting.  The kids that you see in the first picture were on their way to a birthday party at their father's friends house.  The young man standing in front of the Johnnie Walker advert asked me if I could take a picture of him and there were other people whom I met.  I walked around the area for about an hour before heading back to JAG where my car was parked.  I drove out of JAG down to the Steers near Ponte.  I was starving and felt like I deserved a burger.  I drove home rushing to eat and change and go to Greenside where I had an appointment.  The weather had other plans.  By the time I got to my building, a very dramatic afternoon shower had descended upon the skyline and I watched our dirty city take a shower through the steamy windscreen of my car.  It was too intense to get out so I sat in the car slowly chewing the fat of a franchise burger.  And I loved it.  


Nomali said...

It's so good to see you enjoying your new home.

Zimmy** said...

You are a great writer. I really got into this post and pictured every last scene. You should definitely pen a memoir or novel


Ms. Overproof said...

The photo of the building you took has a interesting effect when you scroll up and down, the viewing angle actually appears to change.

Creative Soul said...

Me and my friend Andrew have some sort of a ritual we call "Adventure Tuesdays". Tuesdays always seem like the only day we have out of our works, so we kinda take advantage of it and make the best out of it by walking around the city and it surroundings in search of delicious foods under R50. The interesting part is that I'm a meat eater while Andrew is a grass eater (vegetarian), lol!! So we always have to find a place that will cater for both our taste and we then share the food. It a wonderful adventurous experience that has made us appreciate Jozi even more. Maybe one day you can join us and get to experience this crazy adventure. By the way, I really enjoy your blog. Its so refreshing and so honest. You are a very good writer.

Nwabisa Bantom said...

I enjoy reading your pieces about your new surroundings Such a refreshing and sober view of the inner city. Excellent writing!!!

Milisuthando Bongela said...

Awww you guys got me blushing. Thank you so much for your complements. I enjoy sharing things i see and when other people can see them too, I feel very useful. I will try my best to keep it up

slomokazi said...

oh wow, really enjoyed reading this article. I live in jhb cbd and get glimpses of this everyday beauty. I love how you capture the reality as well as the atmosphere

Lisa said...

Milli, this is truly the most incredible post! When my baby is a little older I'd love to show him this side of our city, just like my mom did for me all those years ago. What a great experience & what a great story! Good job.


Being an Eastern Cape girl I have always been afraid of going to the concrete jungle (JOZI) because of all the stories my uncles who worked at the gold mines told. I opted for Cape town cause its 'safer' and reminded me a lil' bit of home (mostly because almost every black person speaks Xhosa :) ).
This post has completely changed my view of dear old "Dzo-burg", I may give it a try soon. Who knows.
Great post by the way, have you thought about writing a book? It would be a great read.

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