Opinionista Anita Powell 3 August 2012

Joburg, the town-about-town

A panel of cultural experts includes Johannesburg on an elite list of culturally rich international cities. But does the city that locals love to hate deserve its place next to heavyweights like Mumbai, Paris, New York and Sydney? Reporting from London, I’ve found myself coming around to Joburg’s humble charms. 

Walking around London, it’s easy to feel that one is in the absolute centre of the universe. The city has buzzed with perpetual energy for 1,000 years – during the Olympics, it’s positively electric. People are even talking to each other on the Tube.

So it comes as some surprise to come here and learn that Johannesburg, the city that residents love to grumble about, was chosen as a subject of the World Culture Report, leaving it rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paris, New York, Tokyo, Mumbai and Sydney. 

The authors of the report admit that it was chosen in the spirit of tokenism, an attempt to represent every continent. Research leader Paul Owens pointed to Joburg’s large economic impact, to its size, to its proliferation of immigrants.

“I think there are strong arguments for including it as an economic powerhouse,” he said. “It’s a pretty important place no matter how you look at it.”

But, he added: “It’s certainly true that it’s on a very, very different trajectory from a city like New York.”

Still, come on.

New York is… well, New York. It needs no introduction, no defence.

Paris inspired Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Claude Monet and Ernest Hemingway. George Orwell was down and out in London and Paris – not in Benoni and Randburg. 

We don’t even have a monopoly on Mahatma Gandhi.

London has a floppy-haired mayor known for taking mass transport to another level, for hosting the Olympics, and for – allegedly – rescuing a London woman in the middle of a mugging. This week in London, our biggest cultural ambassador is… Julius Malema.

Shanghai and Sydney have great architecture. So does Joburg, but you have to endure Mission Impossible-like barriers just to get into your house.

At least we share with Berlin a number of cultural monuments dedicated to making us feel sad about our bad, bad ancestors.

Photo: Johannesburg, by Greg Marinovich

When asked why Joburg was included, London’s Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for education and culture, pointed to our proliferation of second-hand shops and bookshops. This cynic in me says: Well, that’s great; we’re a self-sustaining recycling facility. Yes, the shops are great, but their popularity stems from a huge income divide, with rich people’s castoffs covering the backs of the city’s poor.

But listening to these cultural experts go on about what their cities have to offer, this jaded Joburger found herself thinking about the pleasures of Jozi.

Look at what Joburgers do with those second-hand clothes. For every Juicy Couture-clad Sandton girl toting an oversized Vuitton bag, there is a funky chick who took R30 to town… and went to town with her outfit.  

For every Renoir hanging in a Paris museum, there is a dude on a Joburg street corner who, given an hour or two, can make a two-headed meter-high dragon out of beads and wire. It isn’t high art, but it is living art.

And for every Michelin-starred establishment and pop-up restaurant serving re-imagined baby food or macrobiotic fusion cuisine eaten while blindfolded, there is steak and the Spur and the ever-humble polony and chips. It’s ours.

But most importantly, Joburg has the fundamental ingredient needed to make it a great cultural hub. It has its people.

The truly great multicultural cities –– New York, where 40% of residents are foreign-born; London, where 300 languages are spoken daily.

Ours come from overland, not overseas, but the effect is the same.

And unlike the established greats, Joburg affords every resident a unique opportunity to write the city’s living culture. And people are – in the past few years, the inner city has begun to flower, new art museums have opened, independent purveyors have popped up offering everything from artisanal gin to bespoke boots.

So what’s bringing Joburg down? We are. DM

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