Joburg’s people are the pot of gold

2011-08-06 17:45

That is the time when I come to you, when your neon flowers flaunt from your electrical wind, that is the time when I leave you, when your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling ­darkness on your cement trees. Mongane Wally Serote wrote these words 40 years ago – a bittersweet tribute to this city.

Joburg now is much as it ever was, even some 125 years ago when a man named George stubbed his toe on a rocky outcrop that was part of the world’s largest gold-bearing reef.

In winter it is bitter and dry, in summer it rains. Every season we complain about the cold or wet. The highveld takes its toll on the city’s infrastructure.

Before roads were tarred, Joburg would experience such extreme dust storms that you could walk past your neighbour on the street and not see him or her. Some might say this is still a characteristic of this city even on a clear day.

In Joburg we know man-made mountains can be as beautiful as those created by God; that red robots turn into stop signs after midnight and that you must be cautious but never afraid.

I am a Joburger by choice. I was not born here but this is where I grew up, where I learned to ride a bicycle; had my first kiss. It is where my grandmother is buried and where my children were born.

It takes tremendous courage to stay. There is no water; the gold has run out. What we have in abundance is people.

But 17 years after democracy it’s easy to feel Joburg is often about the pot of gold than the rainbow.

It is scant comfort to be reminded there have always been more people than houses, more people than jobs, more people than promises.

As with our weather we have much in common with those who came before: we are rough, we are hungry and we are pioneers.

The city’s abrasive edges and volatile energy are catalysts.

Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were shaped and galvanised by their years in Johannesburg. Even our disappearing mine dumps are a reminder that when we want to we can achieve anything.

But for a city that does things on its own terms we have become mired in the quicksand of bureaucracy.

When Mayor Parks Tau took office earlier this year he did so on a promise of greater accountability and improved service delivery – coming off the back of spectacular failures in the city’s billing systems.

Fixing infrastructure and finances is essential but should also be seen as a politically ­expedient response.

In Cape Town they are busy putting doors on toilets; in Joburg the city is fixing 17 000 potholes, part of a project costing R77 million.

Joburg’s potholes caused such a public ­outcry that a private insurance firm set up a website for residents to report potholes.

There’s been much focus on improving our roads but as the mayor announced a new Growth and Development Strategy – the “roadmap” that will “drive” Joburg until 2040 – I wonder why we aren’t applying the same processes to our streets.

I’d trade a few holes in my road any day for the feeling of being safe on my street.

When there are power cuts we buy generators or install solar panels; we stock up on candles and gas and paraffin.

When road surfaces crack or robots don’t work the private sector holds our hands. But when it comes to crime we shrug our shoulders.

We criticise our police for ­being corrupt even as we ­complain about the increasing number of roadblocks – as if isolated examples of cops ­soliciting bribes excuse our ­national pastime of drinking and driving.

As a nation we spend billions on private security that, frankly, hasn’t made a difference to our crime figures.

The SAPS has a map showing ­national crime statistics per station. It’s colour coded: blues for stations reporting the ­lowest percentages of crimes. ­Yellow and red for those ­recording the highest number.

It’s easy to spot Joburg: a fiery brand of red and yellow in ­multiple categories, including carjackings, robbery with aggravating circumstances, motor vehicle theft .?.?.

The Institute for Security Studies recently launched a crime and justice hub ( One of the services available on the hub is a crime-map viewer.

This allows you to view crime trends and data for no less than 28 different crimes ranging from murder to shoplifting in each of the 1 118 policing ­precincts in South Africa.

Browsing crime statistics in your own neighbourhood is like getting a bad-news phone call at 4am – it’s a gut-punch.
White people like to blame crime on black people. Black people like to blame apartheid. Arguing about root causes of crime isn’t going to make my street or your street safer tomorrow or the day after that.

Neither are high walls, barbed wire, electric fences, street justice, boomed off-roads or fake Tuscan housing estates.
There’s only one way to make Joburg safer and that’s if we start to exploit our biggest resource – each other.

We need to start doing ­uncomfortable things like getting to know our neighbours, supporting our police ­stations.

It’s easy to criticise the cops but there are still thousands of men and women who put on their uniform every day and risk their lives for you and me.

Imagine if as a city we spent the same energy actually ­supporting our police services as we do protesting wage increases and complaining about ­power cuts and potholes.

Serote wrote: “Joburg City, you are dry like death. But in the summer, when it rains, the city is transformed. Cicadas buzz and hadedas go ha-ha.”

Johannesburg has more than 2?300 parks.
Imagine if these were places that were safe for our children to play.

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