Welcome to the first post in Killings’ Notes from series, in which we hear stories from travellers in far-flung places. Artist Royce Ng recently visited Johannesburg and was shocked – but not for the reason you might think.
I had a pretty potted knowledge of South African history before I arrived in the country and my preconceptions about Johannesburg were coloured by second-hand reports from travellers who had met weary, white Afrikaners who lived in abject fear of the throbbing masses of vengeful Africans who had taken over their country. Gated communities, car jackings, violent muggings in broad daylight, home invasions, rape, AIDS, entire office blocks hijacked by squatters: these were the images and ideas I had in my mind about Johannesburg as I flew in from Nairobi, where I had been participating in an artist residency for five weeks. I had overcome my own ‘white fear’ very quickly in Kenya and had grown accustomed to the intelligence and friendliness of Kenyans, so I had to prepare myself to readjust to the prejudices and fears characterising race relations in South Africa. Certainly, South African Airways’ decision to screen the recent Australian film adaptation of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, about a white South African academic who visits his daughter on her farm to find she is being held in sexual servitude to a group of local black boys failed to set me at ease.
To a certain extent, all these horror stories were based on an element of truth, yet after two weeks in the country I found that the ‘idea’ of the crime and violence in Johannesburg was greatly exaggerated in proportion to the day-to-day reality of the place.
The most immediate and in some ways more shocking impression I got of Johannesburg was how much it looks like Melbourne: pristine concrete highways and shabbily genteel 1950s suburban houses amongst bland industrial godowns and wide elm-lined streets – dammit, there were even eucalyptus trees everywhere. Having come from Nairobi, which is an example of the third-world urban megalopolis par excellence – replete with extreme disparities of poverty and wealth, faltering and non-existent infrastructure and seemingly lawless roads, and its population of street hustlers and businessmen – I got the distinct feeling coming into ‘Jozi’ that I had already left Africa behind me.
Interestingly enough, I am not the only one who seems to think Australia and South Africa share certain similarities, given the large population of white South Africans who have migrated to Australia since power was handed over to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in 1994. South Africans are very funny and they have a kind of highly politicised and racially charged gallows humour that works so well because of their dark history. A local stand-up comedian, Trevor Noah, has a bit about white South African ladies telling their friends: ‘I’m leaving, I’m leaving, Mary, I am going to Australia, you know now that Mandela’s gone they’re going to eat us!’ At the same time, my Aunt Del, who has lived in South Africa all her life, said to me that many white Afrikaners consider Australia just like South Africa, only we managed to get away with it – a reference, of course, to our White Australia policy and attempts to assimilate our indigenous population, which in some ways was even more insidious than segregation.
While I was in Johannesburg, I was lucky enough to have my cousin Hayley and her boyfriend Nick show me around. Being roughly the same age as me and being ‘creatives’ – Hayley is a graphic designer and VJ, and Nick is a web designer, illustrator and songwriter whose band MTKIDU have played with Afrikaans hip hop superstars Die Antwoord– they were able to show me museums and galleries in Johannesburg as well as take me out to some local bars and nights around town. Highlights included the Bamako Photo Biennale being shown at the Johannesburg Museum of Art and checking out the Bag Factory artists’ residency in the cultural precinct of Newtown.
What struck me most about the city is that it would be an amazing place for an artist to work. Since the end of apartheid, there has been a steady ‘white flight’ away from the historical city centre of Johannesburg to the more wealthy financial and business district of Sandton. The city has essentially been left to the black population and as a result is now seen as a no-go area for most whites living in the municipality. Some of the older generation of South Africans, who still seem to hold onto Frantz Fanon’s idea that for the colonist ‘beneath every black skin is the jungle’, have watched in horror as their detailed recreation of an ideal European city, including its monochromatic population, has been displaced by the plurality of the African street market where shopkeepers, housewives, hucksters and street urchins drive a dynamic informal economy that seeps through the cracks and fissures of the old city.
Personally, I got a sense of Johannesburg as an incredibly exciting place, where an artist could take advantage of relatively cheap rents and sense of semi-lawlessness in the city to create new artistic communities. As with the Lower East Side of New York during the late seventies and early eighties, where economic deregulation and recession led to the hollowing out of the old industrial and business areas, which opened the way for artists to move in, I think Johannesburg has the potential for such a cultural rejuvenation.
My new friends in Johannesburg, having grown up in a post-apartheid, racially integrated South Africa, lack their forebears’ institutionally inculcated fear of black Africans, and so spend a lot of time exploring their city with a pioneering spirit of discovery. I am sure the city was significantly cleaned up for the World Cup, and it may only be a matter of time before it becomes further re-gentrified. Already, some of the office blocks that had become squats for Africans have been refurbished and turned into luxury apartments, and one can only hope that the city’s new residents aren’t as divided along racial lines as their predecessors.
Ultimately, my feelings about Johannesburg move between a sense of excitement about possible futures for South Africa and a frustration about its past, which still seems to have a strong hold on the present. After visiting the Apartheid Museum and speaking to my Chinese relatives who had been born and lived through the worst parts of white rule in the country, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness for the wasted lives of those people who had to live at the boot-heel end of those in power.
Royce Ng is an artist who lives in South Korea.