In the indistinct stretches of time between the visits of graduate students from nearby universities researching belonging, or Africa Day celebrations attended by high-level provincial politicians, Yeoville in Joburg maintains its grotesque place in South Africa’s new urban imagination. I saw this ironically play out on well-meaning groups on social media, set up over the last few years to share fond memories of youth in the suburb, but quickly turned into yet another online place to monger racist fears of inner-city Joburg and lament the failure of the post-1994 government to maintain order.
At the outset of an unfamiliar year, in just such a stretch of time, with the city newly in the grips of the same centre-right governance which has overseen the relentless entrenchment of the apartheid city in Cape Town and has recently feathered its bow with an unrepentant anti-African xenophobia, and where private accumulation and development continue to dizzily outstrip and undermine efforts at inclusion, I thought I might reflect on my first year in my new home and interrupt that imagination, if only for a moment.
The urban imagination I refer to lingers as a kind of melancholia and mourning for a city lost to uncertainty and grime since the country’s transition. It still circulates frequently in the pages of newspapers and private conversations, on social media and talk radio shows. In it, zones of danger far outnumber zones of safety, and Yeoville has come to share a reputation with Berea and Hillbrow, its neighbours, of an uncivil cityscape and street terror run amok. A place contested by drug dealers and users, corrupt politicians, youth gangs and other ignoble social outlaws. This reputation owes as much to the widespread informality there – the eternal antagonist to the modernist urban vision, which came crashing down together with influx control, but which persists in suburban daydreams and everyday governance in equal measure – as it does to the neighbourhood’s storied recovery from apartheid, which at one point included the outsourcing of community safety to the Hell’s Angels.
But in these times between the media attention and the university visits, where what people hear of Yeoville is largely left to the voracious appetite of the gated and razor-fenced, life goes on in the neighbourhood. Fresh fruit and vegetables make their way unfailingly every morning from the central market to the colourful plastic plates on which they are displayed on the sidewalks, suit-and-tie types from the leafier suburbs spend lunch-hour sojourns at Rasta House for some pre-rolled chronic, gas cookers emerge in the afternoon on street corners, filled to spilling with fragrant tripe, a favourite of many at the end of a working day, and the evening is ushered in to the sounds of kids throwing fire crackers before escaping in mirth, and the early French-African beats of the night time haunts.
I spent what time there was for carousing in 2016 at one of these haunts, the iconic House of Tandoor on Rockey Street. Rockey Street remains a main artery of cosmopolitan Johannesburg, and Tandoor is its most resilient edifice. The reggae temple, once a centre of bohemian Yeoville, sits on the second storey of a building which is also home to an Africanist clothing store adorned with black-and-white portraits of liberation icons, Robert Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Patrice Lumumba among others.
Of all the storefronts in Yeoville, those on Rockey seem to hug the tightest. The corner cafés, hair salons and pool halls are extensions of the cramped pavement. One is completely enveloped in the embrace while walking from the Yeoville Market, whose moss-green walls are eerie and solemn in the night-light, towards Tandoor. A grizzly old man guards the clandestine entrance – only an opening to a passage. One cannot be sure if he has been posted there, or if he has chosen the site himself for a nightly performance of doorkeeper. A series of ultraviolet lights hang above the long dark passage, white shirts and sneakers become glowing beacons, faces neon smirks, before leading to a steep staircase and a gaping dance floor.
A small bar and a baroque stage set-up, which looks like Xzibit and his Pimp My Ride crew could have put it together in the early 2000s, flank the floor. Drifters in wide-brimmed leather hats, reggae connoisseurs, old timers and wet-behind-the-ears alike, libertine dancers, and middle-of-the-road Yeoville residents mix in the heady fever of diasporic melodies cooked up by the wizards behind the decks. To call the Tandoor DJs purists is a gross depreciation – the establishment subsists on reggae, and reggae only, with beats sourced from long ago, far away, here and now. A locally-produced favourite sing-along is actually about life on Rockey Street.
The dancing eventually gives way to slow walks home, which, if you’re lucky, are shared with fellow Tandoor revellers or pool-hall junkies from across the road, painting wistful pictures of life far rosier than they should be, where tomorrow is almost inevitably going to be better than today.
Yeoville is a grand experiment in the African city, hidden in plain sight in the bosom of South Africa’s ruthless urban heartland. It exemplifies the cosmopolitan mixed-use neighbourhood, that holy grail of modern city planners; a major transport interchange where informal markets service the overwhelmingly pedestrian traffic, and a high-density home to people from around the country and continent. French, having made the long journey from Francophone Africa, is one of Yeoville’s official languages, alongside the more familiar South African languages.
A new limelight beckons for Yeoville in the next few years, with former Joburg mayor Parks Tau’s flagship Corridors of Freedom project eventually reaching its northern doorstep in the form of Rea Vaya bus construction. Residents associations in more affluent suburbs have resisted the project. In Saxonwold they managed to derail it entirely. Now there are calls to save Norwood from the spectre of this large-scale public infrastructure.
In neighbourhoods like Yeoville, however, citizenship cannot be as alienated from the state as it is in the more well-heeled enclaves of South Africa, and infrastructure of the Corridors of Freedom sort promises greater participation in the political community for its residents, premised as the project is on increasing their capacity to pursue their ends through greater access to resources and opportunities. Whether the rezoning on which the project depends, designed to encourage private investment, will serve the people who call Yeoville home, or more rapacious interests, remains to be seen.
Photo: Daylin Paul, A ZCC priest delivers a sermon on top of a hill in Yeoville overlooking the Johannesburg skyline.