Jo'burg ... for an urban jungle full of surprises

IT TOOK a while before I saw my wry amusement for what it really was - naivety. By this point, the streets had grown cold and dark. Those electric fences bordering every house that I'd thought of as ludicrous wildlife barriers came to seem more like symbols of an inverse prison. Baboons may be irksome but not to the point of justifying 3500 volts. The fences were for something else. Was Johannesburg really as dangerous as the rumours implied?

We sped down the M1 highway, my friend locking the car doors as she talked about her city with an enthusiasm glowing with utopian romance. There's the Hillbrow Tower, she said, pointing to a spike in the distance like a child who had just spotted the moon for the first time. It has been closed since 1981, its revolving restaurant stilled by security concerns about anti-apartheid violence. But things are changing. There's even talk of Sentech Tower reopening its viewing decks.

In cities with long histories of sectarian clashes and racial discontent, people like Jo Buitendach are a godsend. Many visitors to South Africa use Johannesburg as a transit point, or skip it entirely in favour of the serene vistas of Cape Town. Buitendach set up a trail-blazing tour company, Past Experiences, seeing the strange history of Soweto and inner-city Jo'burg as an undiscovered selling point. This is a place where no natural sources means water must be shipped in at great expense, where Kwa Mai-Mai Market sells animal parts for witchcraft. And who wouldn't want to learn about that?

The second annual Food-Wine-Design Fair was held in the converted space of an exclusive shopping mall car park. Nobody seemed to notice any irony in this. Instead, sashaying in designer clothes and waving around Grey Goose cocktails, the focus of the crowd was simply to celebrate all things local. We left the car and Buitendach pulled me into the fray, pushing past the famous artist, William Kentridge, and exchanging rand for paper tokens and paper tokens for pinot noir.

It's tempting to satirise the scene at hand, the car park turned into a tented pavilion, with beach chairs and iced tea and endless iterations of pesto, sampling spoons held aloft by an aspiring glitterati. But the truth is that it was completely wonderful. People laughed good-naturedly when the power failed - twice. The stalls were filled with lights built from abandoned scrap and loaves dyed blue from berry juice. Buitendach was needlessly effacing: it wasn't bad for a small town, she said modestly, which is what Jo'burg really was, once you got to know it. She squeezed my arm and pointed out a silver ring with a ram's head set in it like a diamond. It wouldn't have been bad for anywhere, I replied.

Back in the electrified threat of the Jo'burg night, we hailed another taxi. I was pondering how the strangest places can serve up the most memorable moments.

Buitendach struck up a conversation with the driver and somehow they got on to Chappies: the small squares of bubblegum beloved in South Africa. The driver smiled, sizing us up. Then he let us in on a little secret : in the 1970s, during the Soweto uprising, he and others had used chewed-up Chappies to improve the structure of their Afros, which were symbols of the Black Consciousness movement. Surprise after surprise.

Comments