It has been a season of mourning the exaggerated news of Johannesburg’s demise. Almost every month there has been an article whose central point is that Johannesburg is in decline.
The tenor of the sentiment about Johannesburg not being what it used to be has been so similar that it is hard to not arrive at the conclusion that it is choreographed.
With election season on the near horizon, it is easy to see why such articles would become a dime a dozen. If you cannot win an election based on your capacity for the future, it makes sense to try to paint an idealised picture of the past when “everything was perfect” until “they” came and ruined everything.
The City of Johannesburg has many challenges, but that is no excuse to romanticise the past. This fixation with the rose-tinted view of how things used to be is commonplace in South Africa.
There is hardly an area of life where someone does not romanticise our past. Neighbourhoods, universities, schools and even places of worship were supposedly “better” when they were exclusive privileges of white people.
Of course, the language is not as crude but the sentiment about the trope “standards have fallen” is loud and clear enough for anyone to understand what it really means.
This is by no means to suggest that the City of Johannesburg is paradise. Far from it.
The city needs to improve in every department. We must improve our provision of electricity, the rate at which we close potholes and respond to emergencies. We must improve our billing system, refuse removal and cleaning up. Our Metro Police must do better to ensure public safety and by-law enforcement.
This must happen not just because we hanker to be the idealised city that some yearn for, but because these are challenges of modern cities that, unlike in our past, serve all the people and not just a privileged few.
This concerted story of Johannesburg’s glorious days has the eerie feeling of “Make America Great Again”. It is about creating a past where things were great for some. It has all the hallmarks of how those who were previously privileged think that every effort to normalise society and create an egalitarian society is an affront to them.
They hanker for a past when only those who were white had absolute right to be there, or if black, enjoyed the relative privilege of their dompas showing they were Section 10(1)(a) blacks — so called after the Influx Control Act section allowing for certain categories of black people to live in the city while the majority of black people were confined to the “homelands”.
As someone born and raised in Rockville, Soweto, I too remember the clean and neat Johannesburg. I also remember that this was a place where the so-called native had to make sure he was out of the city by sunset or risk the real possibility of being jailed and sent to farm potatoes in Bethal, in the then Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga).
I recall how a dash to the fancy shops like Riggs just opposite the Anglican Cathedral on Hoek Street meant the real possibility of having to first negotiate a police van standing just outside Park Station with officers demanding to see your dompas, or if a big-boned young man, your “school-pass” showing you were allowed by law to be in Johannesburg.
Looking at Johannesburg through that lens, artificially clean and efficient because of keeping people away, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that Johannesburg is on the decline.
That Johannesburg is not only on the decline, but also gone forever. The Johannesburg we have is one that is true to the Freedom Charter ideal that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.
This is a Johannesburg that has welcomed the foreigner and allowed her to set up her shop and home in a space that was hitherto only reserved for whites.
This is a Johannesburg which, like all of South Africa, must contend with the realities of rapid urbanisation and influx into the cities causing pressure on resources such as water, electricity, waste and landfill management, roads and homes.
These are challenges to be faced rather than weaponised for the short-term interest of gaining a couple of votes more than they otherwise would have.
Johannesburg is not falling apart. It is in the process of its rebirth.
It will not be reborn as a site of privilege and opportunity for some and squalor for most. It will be a site where one tax base for one city will be used to ensure that people grow up in a city where they know they have as good a chance of success regardless of whether they are from Diepsloot or nearby Fourways.
Our policy blueprint, “Growth and Development Strategy 2040”, makes a bold statement about the type of city we want to be by the year 2040. We are on track.
Johannesburg is a city of enterprise and innovation. We welcome ideas from anyone, regardless of their political taste, who wants to work with us to create the city of the future.
We will not avail ourselves to play nostalgic games about our city.
Nostalgia is a useful political gimmick. It works because the mind tends to choose the favourable about the past while suppressing the painful about the same past. That is why, after a while, some people return to relationships that were patently injurious to them or conclude that the past “was not that bad”.
As it turns out, nostalgia can even affect those who did not live in the past they idealise. They too buy into the romanticisation of the past. There is even a word for this form of nostalgia — anemoia — which is defined as “nostalgia for a time you have never known”.
This, hopefully, will get the attention of education curriculum creators who will put in our textbooks a history that tells the real story of South Africa’s system of dispensing privilege on grounds of race and gender.
While it is human to prefer to think of the past as being ideal, it is not always useful. We are here and now. We must work with the reality we have rather than the one we wish we had.
As Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez says of his protagonist Dr Juvenal Urbino in Love in the Time of Cholera: “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.
“But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.”
I reiterate. Johannesburg has challenges that must be faced head-on. This, however, cannot be done by conveniently choosing what to remember from our past. We owe it to ourselves and the future to avoid the deception brought by nostalgia. DM