Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A walk through Hillbrow and Orange Farm at night: Venda Sun 17

Venda Sun 17
Museum of Apartheid, Johannesburg

I've been putting Christmas presents together for the family and was remembering the last trip I began writing about months ago. I'm not sure what this piece of writing will become, if anything. Some poems have already emerged from that trip in 2012 but I need to finish transcribing the last diary before I can stand back from it and assimilate it all.
In a matter of weeks I'll be 60 and it feels as if I'm moving so far away from the person who wrote these diaries, even the person I was in 2012. I've been held back, I think, by wondering what right I have to reflect on a country I've never lived in but which has had such an impact on my life. But I've decided I want to write about what's difficult, especially if I have a sense that I shouldn't be. Where does that come from? Self-censorship? Fear?
We often discuss the politics of race around our kitchen table. South Africa provides plenty of good material. Maybe these diaries live in that arena and in the discussions that don't happen elsewhere about white mothers of black children.
But they're not children anymore. They are adults. Is what I do with these diaries, then, about letting go of a borrowed place?

Tuesday 24 July 2012 
The neighbour, Patrick, came round a few moments ago asking about cutting down the palm tree which is apparently home to about 90 pigeons.  His wife also dropped in. She is proud of her electric fence.
The ibis has just flown over. It has a call like a seagull but more monotone. Its beak is as long as one of my hair clips and curved to a point in the same way. They peck the grass for worms, presumably, while the pigeons flap around cooing and shedding feathers and the tiny sparrows and weaver birds seem to spend their time singing.
A weaver bird is making a nest at the end of one of the palm fronds. Mani said that rats climb the tree and get them but I don't know if I believe her.
Maps! When we tried to buy one yesterday the bookshop said it would be useless because all the names have changed but the maps haven't been updated. So we have to ask directions. But people don't tell you road names, they say left at the third robot (light) and right, then straight on. The street names around Flora street are Dasher and Ferret. I love the hand painted signs and shop names. I love the two views from this garden, both of red hillsides, rocks and trees.
Today we go to the Museum of Apartheid, to eat in Soweto and to visit Margaret's sister.
Fallen angels outside Spaza Arts, Kensington,

We see burned marshlands, burned wasteland, fires by the side of the road, men burning tyres for heat, a broken water main, men pushing trolleys of gathered rubbish or scrap, men piled into the back of a van.
The Museum of Apartheid is next to Gold Reef City - two distinct architectures: modern, concrete, minimalist next to old, garish fairground. The big wheel of Gold Reef City stands on the skyline. The towers that announce the museum somehow blend into it.
At the entrance, tickets are randomly distributed - either white or non-white - and we go in through separate entrances. The old signs are all there, like the ones we have at home (rescued by Risenga) and passes, blown up, as reminders.
On the slope towards the museum are mirrors printed with the back view of several people. You see yourself and their backs. As you get to the top and look down you see them all from the front. All of them have a connection with the development of Johannesburg or fighting apartheid.
Most of the museum is tv, photos and text and it's oppressive after a while not to be with objects or in spaces that are domestic. But there's a red merc in the Mandela exhibition, a rugby shirt, t shirts and posters, an armoured van in the main museum, three cells, lots of wire fences and a room of nooses. It's full on, airless, exhausting.
Outside, as we're leaving, I see a small sign for William Kentridge, Goodman Gallery. There's a sculpture and pathways through cut grass. It's intriquing and beautiful after the museum and feels like a great relief to be in this natural space.
As we leave a woman's collecting leaves from a tree for her knees.
We drive to the theatre in Soweto to see if there's anything on. It's dead. We go to a restaurant in Vilakazi Street. The past is ever present. It runs alongside the car and squats in the boot, on the roof, hangs onto the door handles.
Kendell Geers, Songs of Innocence and Experience
 at the Goodman Gallery

Wednesday 25 July 2012
Heading towards Rosebank, through Yeoville, R shows us where he was nearly shot by police. We were meeting Duncan at 11 so ended up getting a minicab with cracked windscreen, seatbelts that didn't work, a taped together taxi sign that rested on the roof. Illegal as you can get. At the Goodman Gallery, "Songs of Innocence and Experience" by Kendell Geers - a barbed wire/razor wire bed, hands grasping skulls, transparent police batons arranged in a heart shape on the wall and a massive lorry tyre painted with lines by William Blake.
Then Circa on Jellicoe just up the road, to an exhibition by Wilma Cruise, the Alice Diaries - clay sculptures of animals but not really animals because they had almost human expressions, a room full of babies in clay and outside there was the most amazing terrace with a view of the city.
Finally, the Everard Read Gallery's stunning collection of SA art, which should have been in the main city art gallery. But this is private.
And then the walk home....through suburbs with flats named St Johns Wood, office blocks, walls, razor wire and lush gardens with gardeners. The traffic pollution is overwhelming, suffocating.
Eventually, with a short taxi ride, we arrive back in Yeoville and Rocky Street, notorious haunt of criminals and drug dealers - according to Risenga. We stop at the wonderful fruit and veg market and the avocados we buy are the best I've had in a long time.
We are walking back towards the house when we reach some old thirties buildings, a shouting match outside a hairdressers, and two guys appear smelling of ganja. I'm about to take a photo of the flats and one starts pissing against a tree. Risenga says something to them and we have to divert. Later he says he saw a gun.
So we skirt the Yeoville reservoir and hilltop water tower around another bare patch on the hill where a ZCC church meeting is taking place among the rubbish and loiterers. We pass a row of garages where R asks directions and is told not to go over the hill or we'll be mugged. We cut down again on a dirty and run down stretch of road and we're in Hillbrow near the Telecom tower, apparently one of the most dangerous places in Johannesburg, a 'no-go' area.
Perhaps people are just so amazed to see us, a white woman, a black man and a mixed race young woman. Afterwards we laugh about being a walking curiosity.
A view of the city of Johannesburg
at dusk, from Kensington

But the grime and rubbish is Orwellian. It is nothing to see rats jump out of the shrubbery, dead rats by the side of the road. You can walk from white walled galleries to streets that seem to have been created out of torn plastic, shoe soles and rags.
Tonight we meet Terry, R's neighbour, who's involved in a paraolympics sports club. We watch some of the match between the South African and Columbian Olympic basketball teams. There's a warm fire in the clubhouse.
Wilma Cruise, The Alice Diaries, Circa on Jellicoe

Thursday 26 July
Giya goes to Orange Farm to stay overnight with her grandma. We drive out on the motorway. A lot has changed. There are vast stretches of low one bedroomed brick houses that were built to replace acres of zozos on the plains around Johannesburg.
They sit among acres of burned grassland, sometimes still smoking, where old men collect what's left of a tree and its branches, charcoal black. On the way back the sun's setting over a curve of rooftops and through a haze of smoke from the fires, criss-crossed by wires, tv aerials and the odd tree.
R wants to show Giya El Dorado park, another estate where his uncle Harry lives. More driving. We go to a supermarket - Shop Rite - to buy food for his mother and at last I find some big boxes of matches. A big bag of biscuits, bread, milk, eggs, meat.
Orange Farm has changed, I wouldn't have known my way there. It's a random, unmarked turning off the main road in the middle of nowhere and immediately it's red earth, small shelters where something's sold, wire fences and chickens. There's a barber's in a corrugated iron cubicle and masses of schoolchildren taking up most of the road.
There are speed bumps thought, now and gravel strips across the road where electricity's been put in. More brick houses, but zozos still, too. People rent them out to Mozambicans and Zimbabweans who are there for work. R's mother gets rent for hers.
R's mum's house is spotless. She has an indoor loo and a bath but no hot water yet. It's good to see Joyce, her neighbour, who's genuinely warm and interested. And we another neighbour who's now looking after her great grandchildren.
Friday July 27
Last night I dreamed about a dead fish. The weaver birds and sparrows woke me up before dawn. And a flock of geese made a line in the sky.
I've baked pasties, made a bean and tomato salad. I washed bedding which hasn't been washed for months. I'm watching the shadow of the palm tree on the white wall moving in the wind. A sparrow's taking straw into the eaves. The weaver birds have made two nests now at the end of the palm fronds but the wind's so strong I wonder how anything could stay in there. The weaver bird's on one of the fronds now, its tail fanned out. It makes a harsh clacking. It seems to pull building material out of the frond or maybe it's starting another nest. It makes itself a perch, which also secures the nest to the frond. It's now attaching a really long bit and flown off for more. Does it weave the nest around itself? Pigeons fly in pairs. The small birds skitter through the rivers of cooing, intense low notes from the heart of the palm. The small birds sing around the edges of the fronds.
The wind's strong. There'll be a dust storm in Orange Farm. Will we find the right turning in the dark? Tonight we spend three hours in the car to pick Nkateko and Giya up from R's mum because they hung around at uni for so long it was too dark for them to come into town alone.
Wilma Cruise, Circa on Jellico

Orange Farm at night:  people walk out of the dark caught for a moment in the headlights, a flash of red, blue, green, dusty tracks, beside fences, making journeys from home to a distant bar to a mother or friend. Others stand at crossroads holding cigarettes for sale, invisible until they're close enough to touch. The road and the night roll together in the dust. A man waves a baseball bat at an empty verge, taxis drive without lights, anyone might be drunk at the wheel behind you. The dark sketches a dog, a man made into a giant by the trolley he's pulling, piled high with scavenged plastic, a woman with a suitcase on her head, thin men in tracksuits dark as the burned, charred marshlands, a woman whose child is a curve on her back - you and me, here for a moment, strangers to everyone, alive on in the headlamps, between here and there.