Race and the city

Yewande Omotoso reflects on why no-nonsense Johannesburg is the place that suits her best.

Illustration by Sarah John

Johannesburg is the only city I have ever lived in by my own adult design. All other cities I was either born to – Bridgetown, Barbados – or moved to by my parents – Ile-Ife, Nigeria and Cape Town, South Africa – but Jo’burg I chose, bundling myself from a good job in Cape Town to my father’s spare bedroom to write. When luck and hard work paid off and I was able to get my own place, I chose to stay on.

Almost six years have passed. When I decided to remain, it took a while to find a place I could afford that I also liked. My criterion was simple if whimsical – natural light. After much looking, I found 70 square metres of space, not including the balcony that is barely the width of one stride.

While my reasons for coming to Jo’burg were practical, there were other reasons for staying, including a sense of fatigue with regard to Cape Town (a city in which I had spent 20 years of my life) and its veneer of sincere liberality covering up segregation, white fragility and truckloads of wilful ignorance.

I don’t claim that everyone who stays in Cape Town is comfortable with the subtle ways in which racism prevails but I do notice an assortment of responses when I tell people I moved to Jo’burg from Cape Town and, while I hate to generalize, the comments are usually quite commensurate with if not the person’s race or nationality, then at least their politics. A certain kind of white South African, for instance, is often perplexed: ‘Jo’burg is so ugly,’ they might say, or ‘You’re going the wrong way.’

Another kind of South African might understand instantly how Cape Town can resemble a final bastion of colonial rule, black workers and white owners, and how dispiriting it might be to live in such an environment. The odd black South African might scoff at my relishing of Johannesburg’s diversity, proclaiming their love of Cape Town: ‘…so what if the only other blacks I see are waiting tables, I want my piece of mountain and sea!’

On the radio the other day, on political analyst and writer Eusebius McKaiser’s show, a white man with an American accent phoned in. He expressed fatigue at how everything now was about race or gender or sexuality. He stopped short of saying that he was fed up but asked if everything had to lead in one of these three directions. I suspect he was also heterosexual.

Was he complaining about being called out? I wondered. Regardless, what struck me about his complaint was that it was the corollary of mine. I prefer Johannesburg because it is what it appears to be. Perhaps this can double as an answer to the radio-caller: so much has gone unsaid for so long, veiling prejudice and plain old wickedness; finally, we are crawling into a time when we can discuss race, gender and sexuality – don’t complain, rejoice.

Joburg is eGoli, City of Gold, a town where race exists but money presides and in between are the soft places where people meet, fall in love, play, cry – all the small moments that fill up a life. Whereas Cape Town always occurred to me as the house scrubbed clean for guests but whose natural state is mired in grime, its mountain and sea necessary panaceas for all the haunted hushed histories.

Jo’burg has no such trappings to help it shine, it does not reach towards an idealized beauty, it is at turns rough, plain and even terrifying. It doesn’t always look good, but it feels true and at least for now, for me, that seems most important.