I ♥ Johannesburg

Tim Cohen

I recently turned 50, a frightening age when all hopes and pretences of youth are finally banished. Your memories, good and bad, seem to loom large everywhere. Your centre of gravity seems to lean backwards rather than forwards.

When a friend emailed to say happy birthday, the best I could do was say “What birthday?” He emailed back to say denial was not a river in Egypt.

With the denial door closed, I tried to sanguine about it, or even wittily off-hand, but nothing seemed to help.

There is nothing about being 50 that you can rationalise. I don’t like the physical decrepitude that it implies, I don’t like the pointed way it seems to accuse you of not achieving what you set out to achieve, I don’t like the strange way it alights in people’s minds and then settles there the way other dates do not.

“Oh, you’re fifty! I would never have guessed it. You are in amazingly good shape for someone who’s fifty.” (In other words, you are not, even for someone who is fifty.)

But if I was really searching, really scraping the bottom of the barrel, I would say the one thing that I did like about turning 50 was that I was in Johannesburg when it happened.

I don’t love Johannesburg, or even particularly like it. South Africa’s biggest city, its sprawling economic powerhouse, is the place of inchoateness; it has no binding character. Its people live in everything from glorious mansions and box dwellings of toilets and bedrooms.

The best it can do as a form of architecture is to copy – wait for it – Tuscan villas, a place with which it has no earthly resemblance or historical reason for trying to copy. And even that, it does not do very well. No Tuscan would be seen dead in the townhouse complexes that claim their heritage.

The centre of the city is visibly decaying, and its businesses are moving out, not to suburbia but just up the road to another place where corporate headquarters can eventually be deposited like so much litter before the companies move somewhere else.

It is in a place of fear; of crime and poverty and drunkenness, of electrical wires strung above people’s houses and huge automatic gates, the modern versions of moats around castles.

The city stretches out over a huge area, until it almost ambles into other towns and centres. It doesn’t seem to know where it starts or stops; is Boksburg part of Johannesburg or is it a town in its own right? Is Soweto part of Johannesburg or not? Nobody seems to know.

Nothing seems to bind Johannesburgers; its rugby team is simply miserable and it has too many soccer teams to attach a city identity to any one of them. Even the name Johannesburg is nondescript: the Afrikaans for John, the most common name in English, excitingly combined with the word for, well, “city”.

The truth is that Johannesburg is a bit of a blank page; it has few features of note – no mountain, no river, no lake. There are places that pass for attractiveness, but no one can accuse any part of Johannesburg of being actually beautiful.

When people try to romanticise Johannesburg they say there may be no river, but the city was built on a river of gold. Well, you just have to go down a gold mine once to have that thought well and truly banished out of you. Gold mines are hot, rough, and dangerous, very reminiscent of, well, Johannesburg itself.

The only real feature of Johannesburg was the mine dumps, but gradually even they are being eaten away as part of reprocessing efforts – the gold miners trying desperately to get that last little bead of sweat out of their pits. If you think about it, it’s slightly funny that the most notable feature of Johannesburg geographically was the dumps.

“I love Johannesburg,” a friend told me a long time ago. “It’s such a dump.” And that is Johannesburg people for you; they are not ashamed of the place, but they don’t long for it; they try, half-heartedly, to romanticise it, but generally fail.

But here is the thing: they keep coming back. I am in fact a good example. I was born in Durban, but my parents ultimately moved to Johannesburg. They then moved to Windhoek, but came back, bringing me with them. I went to university in Durban but returned to Johannesburg. I lived in Cape Town but came back. I lived in London, but came back.

When people try to put Johannesburg down – not a difficult task – they say things like, “If there was a god of Johannesburg, it would be mammon.” But this is precisely part of what I love about it. People come to Johannesburg not to feast their eyes or be entertained. They come to work. They come to build themselves and their lives and the things around them.

And because of that, Johannesburg is rich – not because it worships money, but because it values what is valuable; effort, achievement, striving. It has what the Greeks used to call telos, a purpose or a goal.

When Nelson Mandela set out on his journey to change the country, his first major move was the obvious one: he came to Johannesburg. And only in Johannesburg would he have been able to train in a white law firm and develop the following that would lead him to leadership. However hard the apartheid government tried, it could never quite impose its strict segregation on Johannesburg; it was like trying to corner a jellyfish. Johannesburg will not be defined.

I love the fact that Johannesburg is not the seat of government or justice or administration. It stands apart, on its own, with no assistance requested or required. There is a kind of heroism to Johannesburg’s dismalness and decrepitude that gives me hope. It makes me think; we are old, we are grey, and we are ugly. But what the hell, let’s push on.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to The Weekender and Business Day, where he has worked for most of his career. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.