Opinionista Mark Heywood 8 September 2016

Reclaim Johannesburg: Two Tales of the City and a Funeral

Godfrey Phiri’s memorial service took place in the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein. During two dusk hours I discovered that Godfrey was a lot like the city – he was a man I thought I knew but whose nooks and crannies of character I was actually ignorant of.

The Golden City belongs to the white people of South Africa, and the Dark City to the black people. The Saturdays and Sundays of Alexandra roar, groan and grumble, like a troubled stomach. The same days in Johannesburg are silent as the stomach of a dead person. The weekdays of Alexandra are of a place that has been erased; in Johannesburg, weekdays are a time when thousands of people arrive in a place at the end of their pilgrimage – nothing is still, the streets buzz.”

Mongane Serote, To Every Birth Its Blood, 1981

In memory of Godfrey Maximilian Phiri (1962-2016)

The first time I came to Johannesburg was as a child in 1977. In those days the Carlton Centre still gleamed in the centre of Johannesburg. Soweto was kept well out of sight behind the mine dumps. Black people “knew their place” and workers kept white streets white. Since then I have lived in eGoli, on and off, for nearly 40 years, a not-so-mute witness to its changing colours.

I used to think I knew this city fairly well. I thought it was brash, barriered, brutal and shallow. I had the privilege of going to school in York, an ancient English city, in northern England. That once Roman City has ghosts of yesterday’s past coming out of its pores. It is inhabited by its spirits. I used to think eGoli was a city without ghosts, except perhaps in the vicinity of John Vorster Square.

I was so wrong.

Two books and a departed comrade have recently brought the ghosts of my adopted city to life, given me a perspective not one that I had lost, but one which I had never had. The Johannesburg I found while reading them was always there. I had sensed there was something special about it, somewhere; that what you see is not what you get; but reading has brought it to life.

The two books are strange sisters, because their subjects are ostensibly very different. Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk (Jacana Media, 2013) written by Christa Kuljian is about the ways in which, for over a century, the city flowed through a downtown Methodist hall/church; how the church has cared for the flotsam of capitalism, the jetsam of apartheid and later the flotsam of Mugabe and other tin-pot plunderers.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball, 2014) seems to me to be about the ways in which the city has flowed through one man, the author. Gevisser follows the rivers than run through him. By doing so he traces the river that has run through so many other Joburgers.

From these two books we get to understand how physical geography, our cities’ landmarks, make our people and how our people make the cities’ landmarks. Johannesburg is a virtual circle, constantly replenishing itself. With Gevisser you can meet The Wilds, that sliver of indigenous parkland on the banks of a buried Jukskei; you discover Serote’s Alex through white eyes, a township that was a township long before townships were invented when the bulldozers moved in on Sophiatown.

Kuljian on the other hand takes you to meet the neighbours of the Carlton Centre, invites you to understand the inner city and the rich complex soul of that rather blank-faced building, the Central Methodist Mission, born in 1889, consecrated in 1917, rebuilt on the corners of Pritchard and Smal streets in 1965.

I used to think that Johannesburg was barren-brutal, matt-modern. Yet, there is so much colour in the many stories going on around us. Our history is buried beneath our feet – the Jukskei, the river that “rises” in our cities’ heart and was concreted over and in the people in front of our noses. One Godfrey Maximillian Phiri was a piece of the flotsam. He died suddenly on August 29 in Charlotte Maxeke hospital (named after the first black woman in South Africa to be awarded a degree) at the age of 54.

Godfrey’s memorial service took place in the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein. During two dusk hours I discovered that Godfrey was a lot like the city he was a man I thought I knew but whose nooks and crannies of character I was actually ignorant of. A symphony of voices sang his praises a choir of the ordinary, people we pass in the streets and don’t see. “Godfrey assisted at an HIV clinic.” “Godfrey was part of the Church soup kitchen.” “Godfrey worked with the LGBTI community.” “Godfrey was an active member of the Zimbabwean diaspora.” And, as one person said, “if Godfrey did so many jobs why wasn’t he a rich man?” The answer was simple: he didn’t do it for money.

The tributes, offered so freely and spontaneously, made me find comfort in a poem by Brian Patten:

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.

Our people are like our city. They have so many unknown characteristics.

Johannesburg is a city of immigrants with attitude. Godfrey Phiri, arriving in 2003 on the run from Robert Mugabe, was an immigrant with attitude, a human rights activist, an anti-corruption activist, an AIDS activist, an anti-xenophobia activist, a quiet revolutionary.

Johannesburg is a city with attitude. If you are restless, get on a bike and find your way to Troyeville to the one-time home of David Webster or to Vilakazi Street or to Morris Isaacson High School. Reclaim The Wilds. Visit Pieter Roos Park. Locate the cities’ two buried rivers. Find the grand St Mary’s Cathedral where Desmond Tutu was made a Bishop 40 years ago in the clutter and detritus off Wanderers Street. Dust off Hillbrow, reclaim Plein Street….

A city with attitude spawns cultures and books. Ours certainly has. If you are less inclined to traverse the dirty streets read from the catalogue of novels set in our city, Mongane Serote’s To Every Birth Its Blood; Phaswane Mphe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow; Ivan Valdislavic’s The Restless Supermarket; Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Read the plays of HIE Dhlomo or the essays of Eski’a Mphahlele.

Re-encountering Johannesburg through two books and a memorial crystalised various thoughts and struggles that have been going on in my own mind: how to relate to this city? How it could be made better for all its inhabitants?

It is a rule that if you love something you look after it. Johannesburgers live in a museum of urban history (at least those of us who have not fled to the truly uniformly bland estates that are now rising on the edges of our city). If you love something you protect it.

Johannesburg needs social archaeologists to excavate what we have allowed to be buried. We need entrepreneurs to assist people to build livelihoods from rebuilding the city.

These stories of Johannesburg – the richness that abounds around us – should give us courage to think how to build by including rather than excluding; how to start taking walls down rather than putting them up. Could we make a virtue of naivety and establish food banks on our streets, rather than armed plot watches? Would robbery be more difficult if petty thieves thought we actually did give a shit?

Johannesburg has the potential to be the foundation for projects shared by all its citizens. It is a living museum in which we could chart the folly of racial discrimination and inequality – not leaving it behind the walls of one hard-to-reach museum.

We could use our city to teach how influx control doesn’t work, not in a blaming way, but in a way that uplifts, that gets buy-in for a legacy project to eliminate the legacy of inequality.

Not much more than a month ago the people of Johannesburg showed that they are still alive when they held up a red card to a political elite that mistakenly thought it could own the city for us. The change of the guard at the Metropolitan Centre might be just the opportunity we need to rethink the city.

Do it for Godfrey. The humble man who died in this city of strangers. DM