The living rot called Jozi

2011-08-05 14:36

Walking in the Joburg inner-city, I found a place so terrible, all the elements of its atmosphere conspire to register an atomic assault on the senses. So loud, grimy and smelly, you have to live in it to understand.

This is to say for the next 400 words, forget what you’ve heard about this city and come with me to the Terrordome; we are going behind what the PR machine has told you about Africa’s most exciting city, what artist William Kentridge called the second greatest city after Paris.

Now, once we hit downtown it shouldn’t be any trouble finding the nucleus of the grand decay, it is reputed to grab its visitors by the scruff of their neck to announce itself, without fail.

This is the square mass of city space, perched between Wolmarans Street down to Bree Street, then squaring out with Nugget and Rissik streets.

Here is an assemblage of shops and tenement buildings, some abandoned and some in dire need of repair. These also include the train station, the two major taxi ranks: Noord and Wanderers, and the myriad other taxi and bus- boarding bays that feed the main terminals.

Amid all of these are the hordes of hawkers and commuters going and arriving, to and from somewhere and everywhere. Loitering thugs are here too, along with homeless folks scratching out a meal.

These are made up of locals and refugees from all over the world, from Zimbabweans to Pakistanis, even Somalis and east Europeans too.

With well over three million people living in this fabled city of gold, we arguably have well over a million human beings in our nucleus at any given part of the day.

All eating, sweating, spitting, talking and breathing amid about a million car engines and buses, many hooting and all producing smog.

Nearer to the taxi ranks, because there are no useable public rest?rooms, the air is uniquely putrid. The smell of urine, leaking sewage pipes along with the rot of uncollected refuse bins and other rotting waste own the air.

Issuing out from a multitude of speakers is the loud din of competing rhythms and screams. These are stalls of traders selling cheap records, plus backroom producers promoting their latest albums.
All this squalor converges to create a fantastic post-apocalyptic aesthetic of sorts. Making this part of the city look like the set of a post-nuclear bomb movie. This is life-affirming badness.

How else could you explain the resilience mastered to survive this place? No amount of dashiki dialogue will capture the true kernel of how humans make it here, but we do and most gloriously. This is where dreams are made and lives wasted.

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