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World Cup soccer matches allow Johannesburg to update its risky reputation

By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 2010; F01

It's a Sunday afternoon in Soweto, Johannesburg's most famous -- and, often, infamous -- township, and the line at the door is growing. Township youths in baggy shorts and Steve Biko T-shirts; black sophisticates from the northern suburbs; skinny girls in skinny jeans; a handful of flushed white faces.

Somewhere behind the scenes, a young Zimbabwean hustler named Beni is wondering what happened to Tumi. The name ripples through the crowd. Has anyone seen Tumi? Tumi, one of South Africa's biggest hip-hop stars, is the day's main act. But he seems to be the only one who hasn't made it to the party.

It could be a scene from any club in any city on the planet: an anxious promoter, a missing headliner, a grumbling audience. But we haven't come to some hip new nightspot to plunk down our hard-earned rands. We're standing outside a very pleasant home in a very pleasant Sowetan suburb named Rockville. Sofas and armchairs are arranged on the lawn; so is a white catering tent, beneath which a local DJ, Medicine, is spinning American hip-hop, old-school R&B and Afrobeat for the increasingly restless crowd. In the garage, local chef Obi Lepile has set up an impromptu kitchen, where he's whipping up a three-course meal for the guests. It's a typically Joburg party: one part improvisation, two parts elbow grease and a whole lot of hustle.

That this crowd has gathered in Soweto shouldn't be surprising. Suburbs such as Rockville and Orlando West are increasingly drawing middle-class black professionals to what was once a notorious township (an area set aside for nonwhites during the apartheid era). While many parts of Soweto are still plagued by poverty and violence, the prosperity that has trickled down to these suburbs offers a glimpse of hope in a city where, 16 years after the collapse of apartheid, the fruits of black majority rule often remain elusive. Driving through the streets of Rockville on our way to the concert, we passed row after row of tidy brick cottages -- a small garden in front, a satellite dish on the roof -- that suggested a new and promising chapter in the long and checkered history of Soweto.

It is a microcosm, perhaps, of Johannesburg as a whole, a city whose tarnished reputation tends to obscure a broader transformation in recent years. More than a decade after the flight of businesses to the affluent northern suburbs crippled the city's downtown area, much of the inner city is being reclaimed. The historic Newtown district has been revived as a thriving cultural precinct. Across the broad span of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, galleries and trendy bistros are moving into the Braamfontein neighborhood. The city's much-maligned public transport system is getting an upgrade, with the introduction of a rapid-rail network and new bus lines connecting some of the more far-flung suburbs. Guardedly optimistic, city officials are hoping that the World Cup, which opens here on June 11, will finally herald Johannesburg's arrival on the global stage.

In Soweto, the arrival of Tumi is equally anticipated. By the time the rapper takes the stage, he's two hours late -- just on time, if you set your clock to Joburg's rhythms. The crowd, having long since given itself over to the bar, is in a forgiving mood. The air is kinetic.

"There's so much creative energy, so many things happening in this city," says a young Frenchwoman, shouting to be heard over the music.

"I feel like Joburg's time is now."

* * *

What makes a city world-class?

The question was posed earlier this year in a newspaper interview with Amos Masondo, the mayor of Johannesburg, as his city and country prepared to host the World Cup. A journalist from the Sunday Times took Masondo to task for his aggressive campaign touting the city as "world-class."

What about the potholes? the reporter asked. The broken traffic lights? The litter? The lack of public transport? Masondo objected: He himself rode public buses once a year, he said, to lead by example. And besides, he added, the city had a vision statement and a 30-year plan. If Johannesburg wasn't a world-class city yet, it was "definitely moving in that direction."

It was hardly a ringing endorsement for a city as much in need of a PR facelift as any. But while the interview became a viral hit on social-networking sites and further fodder for Joburg's eye-rolling political classes, it cut to the heart of a truth as old as the city itself: Since the prospector George Walker famously -- and perhaps apocryphally -- stubbed his toe on a piece of gold-bearing rock in 1886, setting off the gold rush on which the city was built, Johannesburg has always been a city on the move.

The South African poet Lionel Abrahams called Joburg a city of "chancers and transients"; from the beginning, the lure of untold riches made this barren patch of Highveld a cosmopolitan place, its identity constantly shifting as new arrivals poured in. Prospectors from across the globe came to try their luck in the young South African Republic. Black laborers, too, migrated from around the region, hoping that the wages earned in the area's gold mines would be enough for them to be able to pay dowries and return to their villages to start families.

The entrepreneurial spirit of those early gold-rush years had a dramatic effect on the city's character. Even half a century later, when the writer Herman Charles Bosman worried that the city of his heart was becoming too "respectable," he took pains to remind readers that their forebears "were a lot of roughnecks who knew nothing about culture and who came here to look for gold."

Johannesburg today may have added a splash of high culture to its rough-and-tumble roots, but it remains a city of commerce. The miners and prospectors of the Victorian era have been replaced by Nigerian taxi drivers, Zimbabwean laborers, Ethiopian traders and Congolese restaurateurs, all looking to find their fortunes in Joburg, Jozi, Egoli, "the City of Gold." Africa's El Dorado.

That so many are coming here, and not running from it, might seem odd to someone living abroad. To say "Johannesburg," if you've never set foot in the city, is to invoke a shorthand for all the worst pathologies of urban life: crime, paranoia, deep divisions of class and race. Those things are part of the mottled character of this city, too. The layout of Joburg -- with poor, crowded black townships ringing wealthy, mostly white suburbs -- was designed to impose racial barriers. And the high rate of crime -- often of a shockingly brutal nature -- is impossible to ignore. The recent saga of a 1-year-old beaten nearly to death by a Mozambican immigrant kept the headline-writers busy for a week. So did the dramatic fall of Lolly Jackson, the fast-living strip club king whose gangland murder this month seemed to capture all the best and worst elements -- sex, money, violence -- of Joburg today.

Most locals have long since lost faith in the ability of the city's overstretched police force to protect them. Personal security is big business in Joburg. In the northern suburbs, with their leafy, jacaranda-lined streets, wealthy residents live in tightly fortified homes, ringed by high walls and patrolled by armed security units. In townships such as Alexandra and Diepsloot, meanwhile, with their congested rows of tin-roof shacks, security is a padlock and a prayer. It is in these poorest townships that most of Joburg's crimes take place. The police rarely track down or prosecute the township tsotsis, or thugs. Often, citizens will take justice into their own hands: Public lynchings make it to the front pages of the local tabloids almost every week.

"Crime touches us all in some way," says Mothusi Shupinyane, who runs a local media company. "It is not a racial thing." One man, an insurance salesman, tells me that he keeps a pair of martial-arts nunchucks in his car. Another, a lawyer, says that any thief who tries to pull a smash-and-grab on his BMW will get a knife to the throat.

"It's just the survival mechanisms we develop here," says a young psychology student when I compare her city's state of emergency preparedness to New York's after 9/11. At a hardware store, where I've gone to buy an adapter for my laptop, bottles of pepper spray sit beside the register like packs of chewing gum.

"You need to get yourself a piece of steel, just like that," advises a bus driver, a heavyset man with a thick Afrikaans accent, holding his hands about 10 inches apart. "If anybody tries anything, you let him have it."

* * *

"When I was growing up, I always dreamed about getting out of Joburg," says Naomi Roux, a researcher in urban studies, over lunch one day in Yeoville. "But now I love it here."

"Love" is a word I hear often in Joburg; "hate," too, in equal measures. The city's inhabitants are a mess of frayed nerves and contradictions. Hope, pessimism, fear, desire: The average Joburger goes through the whole run of emotions over morning coffee. The author Heidi Holland, describing their peculiar blend of frustration and resignation, called the people of her city "permanently aggrieved yet incapable of changing the script." Violent crime on the front page. Broken traffic lights. A lazy housekeeper. An overbearing baas (boss). The day's woes -- whether small-scale or writ large -- are just another bump in the post-apartheid road for this young, scrambling city.

In Yeoville, where candy-colored art decos, rundown shebeens (local bars), green parks and abandoned lots all clamor for space, you can see this city's mixed character and fortunes on an afternoon stroll. In the 1970s and '80s, young bohemian residents flocked to Yeoville. Even before the fall of apartheid, it was one of Johannesburg's most progressive and tolerant neighborhoods; Roux's parents lived here more than two decades ago, giving her a personal stake in the area.

With the end of apartheid, when a period of lawlessness sent the city center into a tailspin, Yeoville declined dramatically. Most of the restaurants and nightclubs along its famous Rockey Street were abandoned and boarded up. Only in the past few years has the neighborhood begun to rebuild. Today, Roux sees it as a symbol of hope and renewal for the city.

"A lot of the perception of downtown is based on how it was 15 years ago," she says. "But things are always changing in Joburg."

For the past year, Roux has been cataloguing the stories of immigrants in Yeoville as part of a research project on the changing faces of Johannesburg. An Ethiopian friend once told her a story about three young men he met sitting in a park. They were tired, bedraggled, gaunt, dressed in rags. They had just arrived from Addis Ababa, Ethiopa, they explained -- a months-long trek they'd accomplished mostly on foot.

"It's incredible what people will do to get here," says Roux.

* * *

"How can you love what changes too swiftly," wrote the poet Abrahams, "too swiftly changes and changes again?"

Johannesburg is a city in transition; like the thousands of minibus-taxis that clog its streets, it's moving quickly, often dangerously, and with no guarantee of a safe arrival. For many residents, though, the risks of Joburg -- a city with no brakes -- are part of the thrill.

"It's exciting to be in a place that's constantly changing," says a young filmmaker, Stephen Abbott, one night in the artsy suburb of Melville. "We're writing our most checkered history right now." The nation might be mired in a political crisis, and President Jacob Zuma might seem like the wayward captain of a rudderless ship, but the transformation Abbott has seen in the past decade, with the gradual integration of once-white suburbs, is, he says, a tangible thing.

"It's a slow process," he says, "but we're getting there."

Across South Africa, the process has been too slow for many. Growing discontent among the ranks of poor blacks has led to cracks in the ruling African National Congress; the promises of the post-apartheid era have rung increasingly hollow. A writer I meet at a Melville bar insists that "the only way to move forward is to create black companies and entrepreneurs." In that regard, he says, the country is failing.

"There are very few black entrepreneurs coming through the cracks," he says.

Yet despite the hand-wringing -- almost a competitive sport in South Africa -- there is a sense of cautious optimism in this city. For better or for worse, the bright lights of the World Cup will be arriving in a matter of weeks. Security will be unprecedented; the hope is that the foreigners pouring into Joburg will be able to forget their fears for just long enough to appreciate Africa's most vibrant, colorful, energetic metropolis. The vuvuzela horns will be out; the braai (South African barbecues) will be readied. Whether an Afrikaans jol (party) or a Zulu phuza (drink), it will be a celebration for this city and country to rally around.

And when the tourists return to their northern climes -- whether with tales of woe or with optimism for South Africa's rising star -- they'll leave Johannesburg to the poets, the chancers, the searchers and the dreamers who give this young city of gold its shine.

One afternoon, I meet two boys in moth-eaten sweaters standing in the flow of pedestrian traffic in Newtown. Their names are Aaron and Innocent; they are students from the Veritus Secondary School, in Meadowlands, a suburb of Soweto, fundraising to buy new uniforms for their soccer team. They unfold a weathered sheet of paper where just two names, both "Anonymous," are written alongside contributions for five and 10 rands (about $.66 and $1.32, respectively). I hand them a small donation and ask about their team. They have four wins and two draws in seven matches -- not the best in the league, they say, but enough to keep them near the top of the table.

Innocent runs a finger along the frayed seam of his sweater. He is a striker, he says, and has already scored four goals this season. He wants to be a soccer player or a journalist -- he hasn't decided. He kicks at his shadow, scuffed shoes biting into his sockless ankles, and looks me in the eye.

"Next time you see me, it will be on the big screen," he says.

Vourlias is living in Johannesburg and working on his first book.

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