Sunday morning in Newtown. We joined the lovely Jo Buitendach from Past Experiences, the original city walking tour company for a graffiti walk. Jo’s in the process of writing her M.A. thesis focusing on the heritage value of graffiti in Newtown. Hopefully it will end up as a book. She has an anthropological take likening it to early human’s need for self-expression once realised in rock art.
“What’s your top seller?” I ask Fatima Nanabhay of the African Music Store near Diagonal Street in Joburg’s city centre. “The goat bells,” she says. At R14 a piece they fly out the shop. Cow bells are also a big hit, she tells me. As I ask the question the only thing flying past us is the traffic along the city street and the guy wheeling a trolley with blankets piled high past the doorway. For the record there’s not a goat to be seen.
Taking a walk in Joburg’s inner-city city may just surprise you for all the right reasons… [The brilliant photos are by Wesley Poon]
Ask anyone who lives here to describe the city of Joburg and they rarely extol its beauty. Mostly they point out it’s a city without a sea and until the Nelson Mandela Bridge it was a city without any remarkable landmarks that aren’t communication towers or apartment blocks. And those are the polite remarks.
Over the past five years, it’s a little known fact that the city has installed an impressive and growing number of public artworks – at last count at more than 50 sites. In 2006 a strategy was put in place to use public art as a way of fulfilling a range of Joburg’s developing needs. It called for a public art levy, a common global practice, that would devote up to one percent of the construction budget on major city building projects to this end. This was implemented by the Johannesburg Development Agency at a time when the city has been undergoing something of a boom, and it will continue.
Saturday morning we joined a walking tour of Joburg’s inner city. “Through the lens: 125 years of Johannesburg photography” was a fascinating trip through the city’s history using collected photographs as a guide. A city walk takes on new meaning when you take its history along with you, making comparisons between its past and present on every block. It’s an interesting way to track a city’s progress or the lack of it, to get back to what the planners intended or how they got it all so wrong.
Using historical photos as a guide also creates anticipation – Was that beautiful building replaced by a parking lot or now a derelict burnt-out shell or will it have been appreciated and better yet, restored? Joburg is not fond of history. And for much of this mining camp’s life it has spent more time taking things down than shoring them up. It’s a place often lacking in nostalgia.