Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Johannesburg Unlocked by Ian Vladislavic

Occasionally, when Louise was teaching at the Twilight Children's Shelter in Esselen Street and I was working as an editor at Ravan Press in O'Reilly Road, we would meet for lunch at the Florian in Hillbrow. If the weather was good, we sat outside on the first-floor balcony. Then she would slip her arms out of her paint-stain overalls and tie the sleeves in a big bow across her chest, so that she could feel the sun on her bare shoulders. Despite the chocolate-dipped letters of its Venetian name, the Florian offered English  boardinghouse fare: chops and chips, liver and onions wit mashed potatoes, mutton stews and long-grained rice. We drank beer, although it was sure to make us sleepy, watched the traffic in the street below, and stayed away from work longer than the lunch hour we were entitled to.

The discovery of something unexpected about the world always filled her with infectious wonder. Once, she tugged me over to the balcony railings at the Florian to point out the iron covers on the water mains set into the pavement. Did I know the spaces below these covers , where the meters are housed? Well, the poor people of Joberg, the street people - we did not call them 'the homeless' in those days - the tramps, car parkers and urchins, used them as cupboards! They store their winter wardrobes  there and the rags of bedding they used at night, they preserved their scraps of food, their perishables, in the cool shade, they banked the empty bottles they collected for the deposits. It tickled her - she laughed out loud, just as if the idea had poked her in the ribs - that such utilitarian spaces should have been appropriated and domesticated, transformed into repositories of privacy for those compelled to live their lives in public. Any iron cover you passed in the street might conceal someone's personal effects. There was a maze of mysterious spaces underfoot, known only to those who could see it. And this special knowledge turned them into the privileged ones, making them party to something in which we, who lived in houses with wardrobes and chests of drawers, and ate three square meals a day, could not participate. Blind and dumb, we passed over these secret places, did not even sense them beneath the soles of our shoes. How much more might we be missing?

The food came. While we ate, I began to argue with her about the 'cupboards' and what they represented, as if it were my place to set her straight about the world.

'It's pathetic,' I said, 'that people are so poor they have to store their belongings in the hole in the ground.'

'No, it's not. It's pathetic when people don't care about themselves, when they give up. These people are resourceful, they're making a life out of nothing.'

'It's like a dog burying a bone,' I said.

'Oh, you'll never understand.'

When we'd finished our lunch and were walking down Twist Street, I wanted to lift up one of the covers to check the contents of the cavity beneath, but she wouldn't hear of it. It wasn't right to go prying into people's thing.

'What about the meter-readers?' I asked. 'Surely they're always poking their noses in?'

'That's different,' she said. 'They're professionals. Like doctors.'

'They probably swipe the good stuff,' I insisted.

'Nonsense. They have understanding.'

Then we parted, laughing. She went back to the children and I went back to the books. And this parting, called to mind, has a black edge of mourning, because she was walking in the shadow of death and I am still here to feel the sun on my face.

Ten years later, the domestic duty of a tap washer that needs replacing takes me out into Argyle Street to switch off the main. There is a storm raging in from the south, the oaks in Blenheim Street are already bowing before its lash, dropping tears as hard as acorns. I stick a screwdrivers under the rim of the iron cover and lever it up.  In the space beneath I find:  a brown, ribbed jersey, army issue; a red flannel shirt; a small checked blanket; two empty bottle - Fanta Grape and Lion Lager; a copy of Penthouse; a blue enamel plate' a clear plastic bag containing scraps of food (bread rolls, tomatoes, oranges). Everything neatly arranged. On one side, the empties have been laid down head to toe; the plate balanced across them to hold the food, the magazine rolled up between.  In the middle, behind a lens of misted glass, white numbers on black drums are revolving, measuring out a flood in standard units.

I kneel on the pavement like a man gazing down into a well, with this is  small, impoverished, inexplicably orderly world before me and the chaotic plenitude of the Highveld sky above.  .   .  .

Strolling home with the morning paper under his arm, Branko passes a salesman dragged a large briefcase. He looks like a salesman anyway, in blazer and flannel, white shirt and stripped tie, a door-to-door man lugging a set of samples. Branko feels sorry for him in this heat, trying to give the heavy case an extra little shove with his calf at each step, his free arm sticking out like a wing, pigeon-toe with effort.

At his own door, Branko nearly falls into a hole in the pavement. The iron cover that's supposed to conceal the connection to the water main is gone. It was here ten minutes, when he stepped out to buy the paper. He stands there puzzling.


He jams his paper in the letterbox and runs down the street, looking for the man with the case, unsure what he will do with this while-collar criminal when he catches him but he has already vanished.   .   .   .

Herman Wald's Leaping Impala sculpture was installed in Ernest Oppenheimer Park in 1960. Eighteen animals in full flight, a sleigh-ride arc of hoof and horn twenty meters long, a ton and a half of venison in bronze. In the sixties and seventies, fountains splashed the flanks of the stampeding buck, while office workers ate their lunch-time sandwiches on white-only benches. Although the park deteriorated along with the inner city in the following decades, until it came to be used primarily as a storage depot by hawkers, the herd of impala seemed set to survive the century unscathed. But towards the end of 1999, poachers started carving away at it, lopping heads and legs with blow-torches and hacksaws. At the end of October, a civic-minded hawker, who arrived at the park to find a man stuffing two severed heads into a bag, called the police. They arrested the thief, but he was subsequently deported as an illegal alien and the heads disappeared without a trace. A fortnight later, an entire impala was removed from the park by four men, who told security guards they were transporting it to another park, stock  thieves. A week after that, another ten heads were lopped. Police later rescued one of these heads from a Boksburg scrap-metal dealer. A leg was found in a pawn shop  in the CBD.

Johannesburg has an abundance  of wildlife, and the poachers have taken full advantage of the open season. They've bagged a bronze steenbok from Wits University; a horse from outside the library in Sandton (first docking the beast, to see if anyone would mind, and then hacking of its head like Mafiosi); a pair of eagles nesting near the Stock Exchange; and another steenbok in the Botanical Garden at Emmarentia. This little buck, which had been donated to the Gardens by the sculptor Ernest Ullmann in1975, was taken in 1998. The head turned up afterwards in a scrap-yard and was returned to the scene of the slaughter, where it was mounted on a conical pedestal like a trophy; along with a plaque explaining the circumstances of its loss and recovery. But before long the head was stolen for the second time and now the pedestal is empty.

Of course, urban poachers are not just hungry for horseflesh, any old iron will do. They are especially fond of the covers on manholes and water mains. When Kensington Electrical Suppliers took over Tile City  they painted the covers on their pavement bright yellow to deter thieves, but the logic was flawed: now thieves could spot them from a hundred meters.

Elsewhere in the city, the council has begun to replace the stolen iron covers with blue plastic ones. These bits of plastic tell scrap-metal thieves to go ahead and help themselves as the authorities have given up on protecting their resources. The council could wrest back the initiative by lifting all the remaining iron at once and selling it off. They could use the same argument the Botswana government uses for the controlled sale of ivory. Get a jump on the poachers  by selling the booty yourself.

The urban poacher is a romantic figure. In unequal cities, where those who have little must survive somehow by preying on those who have more, the poacher scavenging a meal from under the nose of the gamekeeper may be admired for his ingenuity and daring. AbdouMaliq Simone: ' There are young people in Johannesburg who spend twelve and more hours a day simply passing through different neighborhoods, different parts of the city, seeing what can be easily taken, but also running into others like themselves, sometimes teaming up to do "jobs", sometimes steering each in the wrong  direction."

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