I Walk the Line: Joburg’s Cultural Divide
By Michael Schmidt, 9 May 2016
The Triumph of Sophiatown
It has long been a joke that if you traverse certain parts of Johannesburg, you cross a subtle, semi-invisible cultural line and need to present your passport. That three decades ago these internal borders were real, and if one was of colour one did in fact have to present a dompas to some dour cop in a kortbroek, seems strangely to have been forgotten.
Sure, the official municipal cartography has since altered: the Johannesburg of my youth, with two distinct working-class, mostly Afrikaans, suburban wings to the central Witwatersrand, the East Rand and the West Rand, has given way to a new invented geography of a “Johannesburg” shorn of these wings, which are now designated as other to us, as Ekurhuleni and Mogale City.
But we’d already separated them out, for it was usually in reference to those wings, their skylines studded by cyanide-stained gold mine tailings dumps, their bar-counters swarmed with Afrikaner sparkies, motor-mackies, and other blunt-fingered tradesmen, that the old joke was applied by my nameless tribe, the English-speaking-white-South-Africans, to delineate the cultural divide between those wings and our Johannesburg.
The usual term for that divide is the Boerewors Curtain and it has a certain reality. In more recent post-apartheid years, I lived in the mostly lower-middle / working class coloured and white suburb of Westdene, to the west of a bar-and-restaurant strip developed along a street of 1920s bay-windowed, pressed-ceilinged stores, a place called Melville.
In the mornings, from my home, you could hear a recorded muezzin from a speaker bolted to a stairless minaret call the Slummos to prayer and feel the subaural whoomp of open-cast mine detonations out towards Carletonville, and at night, if the Cameroonian immigrants weren’t partying too hard and arguing over the latest soccer scores, the lonely hammering of a diesel train making its way into Coronationville, near the presses of The Citizen, founded as a pro-apartheid front in the 1970s, near the cemetery where Walter Sisulu was buried after his teddybear-like visage finally succumbed to eternal inertia.
A decade ago, I was married at a Catholic church in Coronationville, which lies cheek by jowl with the coloured gangland of Westbury – one block from my house – where Drum photographer Bob Gosani’s son’s dreams of following in his father’s footsteps went to die when tsotsis stole his cameras.
Here, in a warren of dead-end streets live the cart-drivers, most of them descendants of the Bushmen, who, in echo of the rural Karretjiesmense, earn money by removing builder’s rubble and garden refuse in their horse-drawn carts in the manner of the Brazilian Catadores whose shotgun shacks I once visited at Gravataís in southern Brazil for acidic wine, potluck and great company.
I once drove my 1970 Ford Mustang with the spiderwebbed 351 large-block Cleveland engine and its peeling black paint into Westbury to give one of the cart-drivers the ride of his life, and a chance to show off to his friends. A regular lover of mine, a sassy, petite coloured girl with a cute ass who used to bring me booze to drink under my desk at Sunday Times when on deadline, lives with her mother and two teenage children in a ghetto there.
For my wedding, my wife, an Indian woman from a family in Estcourt whose father, since deceased, had been a lawyer who was friends with Steve Biko but who eschewed a city-slicker legal career for a rural practice where he once defended a murder suspect for R7 and who, as a good Catholic, wrote a book called In Defense of Jihad, had her hair and makeup done for the wedding by a Syrian dude who made her look like the perfect Middle Eastern habibi with heavily-kohled eyes – for that was his ingrained version of beauty.
So, it was there in the cultural mash-up of Westdene, with my Cameroonian neighbours who slaughtered pigs and goats in their back yard to celebrate – much to the consternation of my SPCA rescue dogs who no doubt thought they were next – where drunk knifemen reeling out from the barricaded shebeen around the corner once stabbed my 26-year-old neighbour to death for his cellphone, a neighbourhood crammed between a sweet-scented biscuit factory and a noisy steelworks, with used-car lots and cheap hair-braiding salons – that I used to quip that my house was “a watchtower on the Boerewors Curtain.”
Indeed, on the rare occasion when I climbed up on my rusted corrugated-iron roof with a bucket of tar to seal the holes, I could sit and look westwards across the Curtain. In reality, I was located right next to Sophiatown, what had in the 1950s produced probably South Africa’s most famous culture, a vibrant melting-pot, though mostly black, that had produced the likes of gangsters like George “Kortboy” Mpolweni of The Americans, do-gooders like Father Trevor Huddleston, torch singers like Thandi Klaasen, and Drum hacks like Henry Nxumalo. Then, of course, the place fell under the pall of the forced removals, and the rigidly conformist Afrikaner residents that replaced its hep culture had the place renamed Triomf by their masters, as if this was a significant defeat for the forces of darkness in apartheid’s race-war.
With the rescinding of Group Areas and eventually the entire apartheid edifice (except for its stolen wealth), Triomf reverted to Sophiatown again, and while never recovering the vibe of the 1950s, turned into the rough-and-tumble suburb I lived in; a place where the Afrikan Freedom Station played jazz and promoted pan-Africanist literature. In recognition of this demographic shift, I came up with a more subtle joke: “You know you have crossed the Boerewors Curtain when the black guys at the robots selling cellphone kits are replaced by white guys selling sjamboks.”
That was at least anecdotally true, based on my observations travelling westwards out from Westdene towards the Tarlton International Speedway, the drag-strip where I would go irregularly to show off my ‘Stang, and watch souped-up Beemers be beaten hands down on the quarter-mile by innocuous-looking bakkies with god-knows-what under the hood, and to thrill to the whine and flaming thunder of the improbable jet-cars.
I had hoped to watch Nascar races while living for a month in North Carolina, but the state was disappointingly short of hillbillies and petrolheads: in fact, I only saw one Mustang while I was there, hanging out with my neighbour Catherine Haywood, a pretty, long-faced, rust-haired rockabilly Bettie who worked as a cook, pretty much the only working class person I was able to befriend there.
All of the drive-ins of my youth, the Top Star, the Veldskoen, and others, have shut down, so Tarlton is pretty much the only place to get in touch with a cheap hotdog-and-motor culture that I had only tangentially intersected with as a teen; my father was the bookish one among his engine-stripping brothers and he passed that quiet ethic on to me; I was always nervous of the motocross kids who squinted into the sun and were at home with dirtbikes and roasties, with zol and girls.
Besides, my folks had climbed out of the working class into the comfortable, rather prissy middle; my mother, one of seven children, had literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks as her shared “bedroom” was an enclosed verandah overlooking the railway line.
As with the lines that black folk could not cross back then, those tracks weren’t just an impolite cultural joke, they were a real barrier to advancement. Now, realising that I am probably irrecoverably slipping in the class rankings, at least back into the lower middle class, I felt the need to test my mlungu trash credentials; not that I had much to show except for my Mustang – earned from suing a brass-rail bar in Rosebank n the North, the floor of which collapsed, breaking my left knee and hip – my rough-and-ready neighbourhood, my crappy journalists’ salary, and my hard-on for a brassy Marisa Tomei teaching the Alabama prosecution about automotive engineering in My Cousin Vinny.
Suffice to say that it is a hard task to figure out who the fuck one is supposed to be in this ethnically complex society. I mean, I really don’t resonate with the Voortrekker Monument – whether or not it is filled with Chinese tourists, or whether or not it is actually secretly a Masonic shrine as some conspiracy theorists speculate – as it’s built on a pact with a god that I think is an absent landlord at best, a genocidal maniac at worst.
But I do feel the pain of my young Afrikaner rock ‘n roller friends trying to discover what it means to be a white African today when the geographic and cultural lines are being redefined, often arbitrarily, by the mandarins of racial gerrymandering: our “national democratic revolutionary” state actively promotes a crude oversimplification of apartheid race-classification. For the would-be gatekeepers of a certain cultural rectitude, my Afrikaner friends’ search for identity in itself damns them to perdition.
Yet that sense of locating oneself is necessary to be able to navigate this society: one of my ancestors, Anna de Koning, was the daughter of a Bengali slave, and via my paternal great-grandmother, who was Mayan according to family folklore, I am also descended from Belize in Central America, so how does an Afrikaner-Bengali-Mayan born speaking English fit into the mix?
In this impossible situation, rock ‘n roll has become a usefully viable identity and one I embraced in its gothic rock aspect back in 1987: derived from the alchemical combination of West African and Irish slaves in Hispaniola, channelled via the blues of Louisiana, rock ‘n roll expressed not only the multicultural blending of “low” cultures, but their transcendent virtues, whether uttered by the mouths of vodoun horsemen speaking as the Loa, or by the mouths of Southern Baptist preachers speaking as the Holy Spirit.
So it’s African and European, spiritual yet irreligious, as good a place as any to start. Rock ‘n roll has its own delineations, though, and while subterranean, subliminal, and interstitial cartographies remain, they too have shifted. By interstitial, I mean the interstices, the between-states nature of much of the being part of human being.
Our Mason-Dixon Line
So in barroom conversations over recent years I have come to recognise that there is indeed an “us and them,” a cultural divide that is not at all English/Afrikaner, or white/black, but rock ‘n roll/pop. This sounds like a laughable and inherently flimsy if not facetious argument, but hear me out. There really is a geographic divide across Joburg, what I term the Mason-Dixon Line, after the division between the Northern and Southern States in the USA: although the Line used to lie along the M2 highway, it now runs raggedly diagonally, south-east to north-west, roughly along the course of Barry Hertzog, and delineates what we Joburgers see as “Northern” and “Southern”.
Northern is Dainfern with its faux-Tuscan palaces in anodyne gated communities where a Pekinese is considered a dog, Northern is the hubris of a Sandton that has so many yuppies shitting in one place in its newly-built steel-and glass towers that the drains back up, Northern is the idiotic delusion of a Montecasino restaurant where the waiter asks if you want to sit “outside” under the concrete sky, Northern is Fourways where people believe that taking their 4x4 monstrosities “off-road” means parking in the disabled bay at the mall.
Southern is Emmarentia where people still use the public park and botanical gardens with a dogged determination to truly be outdoors, Southern is Melville where people actually speak to and befriend strangers in bars, believing in inherent human goodness and working out later whether they are rare assholes, Southern is Yeoville which has embraced a true pan-Africanness that actually makes those Northerners who pretend to it by upholstering their couches in zebra-skin, shudder in a reflux of Mau-Mau nightmares of blacks with pangas coming for them in their beds. It is perhaps telling that there is no oversized statue in the South of Nelson Mandela, whereas it became a necessary accessory to Sandton Square as a tribute to the Master of the Continuity of Privilege.
Northerners have gin-and-tonic festivals and dream of rogering Jenna Jameson; Southerners celebrate Porra-Mozambican food and dream of screwing Patricia Lewis. Of course it is not a neat delineation, for there are working class areas, like down-at-heel Randburg in the north, and craft beer oases like wanky Maboneng in the city, but as a rule of thumb, including these exclusionary enclaves, the line holds true; cross it travelling north and prices and pricks rise; cross it going south and prices and pretentions fall.
At least on the annual occasion – the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Awards – when I am invited to smoke cigars and tilt chalices of Chivas Regal on the balcony at one of those snooty Northern enclaves in the South, the Rand Club, I remember that a century ago, black-tied “gentlemen” had their batmen reload their pistols on that balcony before taking murderous pot-shots into the working-class crowd demanding their freedom from capital’s chains below.
The gentrified Fitzgerald Square in Newtown just a few blocks away is named after the radical socialist “Pick-handle” Mary Fitzgerald who in the 1910s used to fuck up the cops with said bludgeon; hipster hangout Arts on Main is located in the workshops of the old Joburg tramways where the first anti-racist trade union, the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, was established in 1910. We’ve certainly forgotten the original working-class delineations of Joburg!
If my stance has pissed some of you off it is probably because of one of two things: either you are a Northerner and feel offended by the caricature; or you are a Southerner and know that I have exaggerated our virtues and the North’s vices. I deliberately use the term caricature, however, for caricature rings true to the listener because it is a lampooning of certain widely recognised facts, or at least observable phenomena, whereas stereotype rings true (or false for that matter) to the listener because it echoes (or refutes) certain narrow prejudices of that listener. That I have exaggerated is certainly true, but all searches for centre of gravity of a culture test exaggerated caricature against nuanced experiences, yet if we recognise ourselves and our neighbours here it is because we have all seen the North-South divide function socially in real life.
To use my posited rock/pop divide for an explanation, when Radio 5 started out in the 1980s, it was very obviously rebel radio because it played the music of disaffected white and black youth under grey conformist late apartheid, which back then basically amounted to metal and reggae; it was swinging, vibrant, angry, celebratory music. Today, as 5FM, the once-independent station has not only long ago made the transition from medium wave to FM and been absorbed into a media empire, but its music has become teenybopper pop and milquetoast R&B, the music of a bland mainstream; it is squeaky, banal, somatic and devoid of significant content.
Now this is of course an old complaint, that a radio station has “sold out” or that the music genres it plays have become “commercial”, and it seems at first glance to be the whinge of the ageing rocker, that things now just aren’t as good as they were in one’s youth. But leaving aside the obvious location of the music of one’s youth within a hormonal wave of sex, angst and experimentation, it is in real terms an expression of past intersections of time and space – for the vibe of Rockey Street in Yeoville of the 1980s can never be recreated in the altered circumstances of 7th Street in Melville of the 2010s – and is also a marker of a real decline in some places.
One the one hand, to deride music as “commercial” is to pooh-pooh success, as if musicians really want to eke out a marginal twilit existence from their craft, but on the other it is a recognition that some music has either gone over to The Man, or was even from inception grown synthetically in his factory vats. It is the recognition that two decades of hard work and raw talent has seen The Slashdogs get no airplay whereas more “radio-friendly” acts such as The Parlotones with nowhere near the power, skill or message, secure greasy KFC sponsorships.
It is not a matter of taste but of real musical history to recognise that the schmaltzy would-be millionaire pyjama-party music called R&B is distinctly different to, and an afgenaaide distant cousin of its distant origins in rhythm & blues – itself a true child of the original rock ‘n roll, which in turn is rooted in Mississippi Delta blues, which was midwifed by vodoun. This is why even punks hail an “old school” that is truer, more visceral, more honest, than latter-day reworkings: it is UK Decay versus Blink 182, Army surplus boots versus Converse; something true – we know it in our bones – has been lost in current attempts to recapture the past.
And so, the search for cultural authenticity. Is it fake for a Northern hipster to affect the attitudes of a beat generation that was dead before he was born, or for a Southern rocker to strike a stance of a similarly passed rock ‘n roll generation? Well, some cultural transmissions from the past, like some sort of ghost radio broadcast trapped in the ether, exert powerful influences on the present; authenticity is often recognised by its longevity, but then longevity has to be at least in part a measure of “commercial” success, and while Carl Perkins was more authentic than Elvis Presley, his music reached its widest audience via the King of Cover Versions.
Yet we still know at gut level that The White Stripes is more authentic than Mumford & Sons – even when both bands do a cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene. Or at least, Melville recognises The White Stripes as rock ‘n roll, while Greenside, north of the Line, recognises Mumford & Sons; only in a post-modernist culture where all things are relative and have no inherent value can both be true; in the South, where onanistic po-mo obscurantism has little purchase, only the first assessment is on the mark.
Melville versus Greenside
Put another way, Greenside revels in the parody gangsterism of Die Antwoord’s Baby’s On Fire, while for Melville, those slick millionaires are patent frauds faking poor whiteness, while Melville nods at the truths of Jack Parow’s Cooler As Ekke, which the best contemporary working class put-down of the nouveau-riche I’ve heard in the democratic era.
Half-recovered from a long-ago fire, pizza joint The Ant doesn’t play Edith Piaf on the stereo or feature framed photographs of a nude Bettie Page on the raw-brick walls because these are “ironic” cultural references – as would be the case if it was located in Greenside – but because Piaf really is sublime, and Page really did have insousciance.
We Southerners have fun mocking the lumbersexuals, those faux-Boere-bearded pretty-boys in their checked shirts who eat tofu rather than venison they shot themselves, with tons of skin moisturising products but no clue how to skin an animal, or fix anything other than their coiffure. But the North/South divide is not simply a matter of competing cultures, with music taste or hairstyles being its obvious signifiers.
For one thing, there is a generational difference: I do not mean that Melville is all old rockers while Greenside is all young hipsters; no, while Greenside is all pretty much uniformly twentysomething, Melville is multi-generational; you will find the old rockers in their brothel-creepers chatting easily to the tattooed young rockers in their skinny jeans, so you have an actual live transmission of rocker culture from the old to the young – and back again as the youth test the mettle of their guitar heroes against the high-water marks of times past. In Greenside, the test of excellence is being hailed by one’s peers, but more usually, congratulating oneself on one’s selfies.
For another thing, while Greenside is fairly monocultural, or at least bicultural, consisting primarily of spandexed yuppie cyclists who work corporate careers and of trendy youth who ooze satisfaction with their niche jobs in invented pseudo-professions such as marketing, Melville is multicultural, from skint black UJ students hailing from far-flung rural areas to old SADF and MK veterans, from funky young lesbian couples to the odd corporate stray who prefers quality conversation, from visiting Free State farmers to foreign scientists.
Next, when Northerners go out partying they go out in hermetically-sealed friendship cliques to which they cleave xenophobically through the evening, barely talking to other folk – unless out hunting for a sexual mate – while Southerners often go out alone, knowing they will run into loads of people they know, and they will approach a stranger at the bar and initiate a conversation that might lead to a new friendship; we are never alone even when solitary.
Hospitality, Culture & Class
Face it, the South is more hospitable, and if we were to be honest, as South Africans we know that the welcoming geselligheid of which I speak is derived not from English, but from Afrikaner and black cultures, which are not only very similar in their rural expressions, but are more communal and less individualistic than the values of the English-speaking-white-South-African (can we please come up with a proper noun for these folk?). Which means that unlike the North, the South has been truly interpenetrated and transformed by those formerly excluded by law or cultural prejudice from the heart of Johannesburg.
But lastly, there is an obvious class aspect to the Line. I once dated a wealthy Sandton woman who was nothing short of horrified that I lived in Westdene, though she’d never visited there so her idea of its reality was a fabrication of pure class prejudice – despite her obvious attraction to someone who was a product of that other.
Likewise, it is somehow acceptable for the rudest New Yorker hucksters to sneer at the supposed unsophistication of Appalachian hillbillies to their south – although as Kenneth Rexroth tells in his tale of hillbillies treeing a fox without harming it merely to give their hounds some exercise, so one should never underestimate the sophistication of the poor. The dignity I have seen exhibited in many squatter camps defies the squalid environment and the erudition of many working class folk often exceeds that of the most learned varsity graduate.
So yes, our bars are dives and not brass-rail, and yes, we have our barflies, but also what former diplomat to France and unelected King of Melville, Charles Visser, calls boulevardiers, perceptive observers of the passing parade, and probing, philosophical discoursers on current affairs and the human condition: acclaimed authors share insights with brawlers, gays and straights exhibit genuine affection for each other’s subcultures, and engineers find common cause with artists.
A decade and a half ago, I moved into Brixton because of the presence of an amazing local bar, The Abelarde Sanction: owned by semi-retired mercenary Taz Viljoen, the place was postered with outrageous Daily Sun newspaper bills about pastors drowning in baptisms and so on, featured a large portrait of Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen over the bar, hosted emergent live bands like Running with Scissors and Damn the Icebergs, and operated as the home of the Expat Mercenary Union (a boozing club for Taz and his mates), and the Female Head-shaving Association (Clair Cantrell’s charity fund-raiser).
Diversity, that seemingly retreating lodestone of the New South Africa, was alive, well and tangible at the Abelarde back then, as it is at Xai-Xai in Melville today.