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Letter from Johannesburg

South Africa
African National Congress (ANC) election posters are seen on street poles in Alexandra township, in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
African National Congress (ANC) election posters are seen on street poles in Alexandra township, in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A few weeks after my grandmother died I sold my Ford Ikon and found myself without a car in a place where owning one, navigating with one, felt as essential as being in a world where my family’s matriarch still lived and breathed. From the time I moved from Cape Town to Jo’burg the city’s vastness has always left me in awe. It stretches, unknowable.

And depending on who you are, how much money you have, your gender, your sexuality, and of course whether you have a car or not, that expansiveness is experienced in different ways. Being an architect who also worked several years for an urban designer, this way in which cities are used differently – by machines and bodies – has always been of interest to me.

When as a 21-year-old I worked for an architecture studio in Milan I wandered the city, riding the public transport, with rich and poor, the old, the rambunctious youth, the beggar. I saw people crying and kissing; I had cried too once, and brooded. I saw couples fighting. I once saw a man with what looked like half his face eaten off; he looked neither in pain nor particularly bothered to be seen in such a way. I averted my gaze but he looked everywhere.

Sometimes life-bedraggled people came onto the train, their profound fatigue evident in their gait, the slump onto the bench, their fast-to-arrive deep slumber. I recall jumping off a tram when a man, possibly with mental-health problems, started to gesture towards me, pointing, scoffing. The sounds he uttered were gibberish but his intention, to mock me, was clear. Feeling exposed, I never rode that tram again.

After I sold my car I started to understand, for the first time, how in Jo’burg the car was a kind of barrier to life. I could move cordoned off from other city-dwellers, from island to island. In some ways my humanity was also cordoned off. I didn’t have to notice anyone or be noticed. I’ve now lived in Jo’burg for almost six years; I’ve found it awe-inspiring, unfathomable, expansive and, like many cities, stratified mostly by wealth and race. At any moment I’ve known that my experience of the city is only a very thin slice, always curated by privilege and motor vehicles.

The architect in me says Jo’burg is not designed for pedestrians: the millions that walk it have little choice and the transport services they make use of are inadequate and expensive. As a city dweller I’m seeking connection in a space that was never designed for such. But is it architecture or instinct that tells me that the way to belong to and in a city must be enmeshed with how I move through it? And where did I learn that if my movement through a city is somehow gilded then that isn’t real movement?

These days I speak to Uber drivers. One explained what was wrong with the country, another told me he had HIV, was amazed to hear I was a writer and instantly – all while driving – pulled out his phone and started interviewing me on Facebook Live. A woman driver, a South African, once regaled me with the wonders of her Zimbabwean boyfriend, making the astonishing statement, ‘Our men don’t know how to love’. Certainly my sense of isolation is not helped by my lifestyle. Perhaps I want public transport to mediate my introversion, the chance to be around others without having actually to attend a party.

At the shopping mall – arguably the city’s promenade – in the absence of some other more egalitarian means, I observe. I see a guy paw at his balls. A young woman, with a t-shirt proclaiming #FreeTheNipple – she wears a bra. I see an old couple who talk without looking at one another; the husband addresses his wife, she stares at her cellphone grunting responses. Once, driving a friend’s car, I stopped at a traffic light, looked across and saw a woman in the car beside me, crying into her lap. She looked up and caught me staring. I didn’t look away.

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