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24 July 2000

Streets that white folk fear to tread

Bryan Rostron, mugged in Johannesburg, finds himself with mourners for a war criminal

By Bryan Rostron

Johannesburg – eGoli (City of Gold) to the Zulus – has always had a bad press. According to the puritanical Boer leader Paul Kruger, it was the great whore of Babylon. The writer Olive Schreiner, his contemporary, thought it was hell. More recently, a visiting correspondent from the Daily Mail reported back breathlessly to his British readers: “I have seen cities abandoned in war. This is the first city I have ever seen abandoned to the barbarians in time of peace.”

Jo’burg has always been a rackety city of shifting fortunes and changing sky-lines. Today, however, the fears of many white South Africans are summed up by the Mail‘s apocalyptic vision: “The skyscrapers are still there, but the people who gave them life and prosperity have gone, driven out by hordes of squatters, beggars and illegal traders . . .”

This, like the fevered imaginations of middle-class whites, is a warped picture. Whites often still work inside those skyscrapers, prisoners of their own fear, emerging only at the end of the day to drive home fast to the high walls and flashy malls of affluent suburbs. The streets of eGoli, however, are now black. When I recently wandered its teeming streets, I was, most of the time, the only white face. The pavements heaved with hawkers. Women squatted over braziers, cooking meat and corn cobs for kerbside takeaways. Men stood on street corners selling half-full packets of cigarettes. Others offered stolen licence plates.

At all four corners outside the neoclassical Supreme Court, security guards stood on pedestals to get a good view over the packed streets and alleyways. Such is the level of crime in this area that the Bar Council has sent a circular to members to ask if they intend staying in the city, or retreating to the suburbs. Most of those who intend to leave are white. Black lawyers seem happy to stay. The chair of the Bar Council, Nazeer Cassim, was himself attacked recently by four men, but insists he wants to remain in town.

Opposite the Supreme Court, I ducked into a cafe. Here were half a dozen white lawyers, the first white faces I’d seen in an hour. Will they be there next year? Outside, there was chanting. A procession of perhaps a hundred toddlers marched by, many of them not older than four or five, carrying placards reading “Stop child abuse”. They sang protest songs and waved their fists in the air. They start young here.

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In the nearby Johannesburg Art Gallery, Europe and Africa jostle awkwardly side by side. The gallery is housed in a small, elegant, neoclassical building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was founded by Lady Phillips, the wife of one of the great Randlords, and was opened in 1915 by the Duke of Connaught. The initial collection comprised French impressionists and 19th-century British, Dutch and Belgian artists. There were no South African paintings. Today, the roof leaks. Outside, it is an African city: crowds, street vendors, piles of second-hand clothing, fruit, ranks of battered mini-van taxis.

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A survey by the World Bank shows that 85 per cent of businesses in Johannesburg want to stay there. But the middle classes, both black and white, drive into eGoli to underground car parks, never venture outside their offices, then race away at the end of the day as fast as they can. The poor have indeed taken over the streets, the Daily Mail‘s worst Mad Max nightmare. Magnificent art deco flats are now occupied by impoverished black tenants, whose washing hangs from every balcony.

Such is South Africa’s new divide, but it is one of class. There are ambitious plans for urban renewal. The problem is that the government offers housing subsidies where land is cheap, but where jobs are also scarce. This simply replicates the gross dislocations of apartheid. The urban poor are still kept far from affluent areas. The solution for many of the dispossessed – perhaps as many as 12,000 – is on eGoli’s jam-packed streets. Hence, young men selling a couple of cigarettes or a box of matches. Some even set up an ironing board, with a couple of cheap plastic phones, the lines vanishing into some nearby Telcom access point. Crime is rife.

As I walked down Von Brandis, a particularly busy street, I was slammed to the ground. Three young men pinned me down, one with my head in an excruciating neck-lock, another with an arm twisted painfully behind my back, while the third kneeled on my other arm and groin. In seconds, hands went through all my pockets, lifting my wallet and ripping off my watch.

Then they vanished into the crowd. Everyone looked in the opposite direction. Even the hawkers, squatting on cardboard boxes feet away, avoided eye contact. Only when I began to walk away did someone point out that the muggers had, in a small gesture of charity, left my car keys and some small change on the pavement.

It was midday. I limped off to find a bank to report the theft of my credit card. In front of the colonnaded colonial splendour of eGoli’s City Hall, I threaded my way through a large, noisy crowd. They were gathering for a memorial service for Themba Khoza, a prominent politician from Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. South Africa is a confusing country. The ANC formally expressed a “deep sense of regret” at his early death, aged 49, of an Aids-related illness. It did not mention that Khoza still faced 19 charges stemming from the violence that tore apart black townships around Johannesburg at the time of our democratic change, nor that this was the warlord almost certainly responsible for the massacre of thousands of ANC-aligned migrant hostel-dwellers, nor, indeed, that Khoza was armed and financed by apartheid’s secret services. Themba Khoza was a war criminal.

But we are told to forget all that now. And, instead, worry about muggers.