Artwork by Mo Hassan

Short story | The thing about Jo’burg

A few words on a city with a penchant for knocking you down

Words by Dave Mann

Johannesburg is a beautiful city and it is a hard city. I imagine you could comfortably live here for a good few years and on any given day, without warning, Jo’burg would swallow you whole. The ‘gritty city’, as it’s widely known, is often marred with perceptions of crime, rampant drug abuse, and violence but really, it’s no worse than its seaside counterparts in this regard. The thing about Jo’burg though, is its tendency to knock you flat on your arse whenever it pleases.

I’ve lived in Jo’burg for just over six months now. Nearly every day, I will descend a few flights of stairs, walk through a few busy streets and bump into a few bustling bodies. Three cards neatly and rather efficiently dictate my movements about the city. The first, a faded gold card, sees me disappear underground for a few minutes before emerging into a decidedly busier and smoggier end of the city. The second, an orange card, then sees me take a 15-minute bus ride that’s nearly always cramped. The last, a shiny gold card, ensures that the other two keep working, and is brought out a bit too frequently for my liking. I do this twice a day, and it takes a combined two hours each day. As it goes, some days are better than others.

On the bad days, one of the three cards (most likely the shiny gold one) will refuse to co-operate, because to live in Jo’burg is a costly decision to make. To live in Jo’burg and feel good about it is even more costly.

“It was a good item of clothing like the billboard said, but without the other good things (Car! House!) it fell prey to Jo’burg’s endless concrete.”

Billboards seem to rival people in this city, and like Jo’burg’s many people, each one is different. But after a taxing day, the billboards, like Jo’burg’s many people, all fade into one. Clothing! Booze! Insurance! Cars! Houses! — all of them scream at you as you pass by. They tell you that Jozi is a great city, but it can be far greater if you have good clothes, good booze, insurance, a car, and a good place to live.

One day, early on in the year when I was far less accustomed to Jo’burg’s bad days, I surrendered and bought me some clearance sale adidas tekkies (“they’re sneakers” the cool kids will lament) in the hopes that they would bring a better day. It was a good item of clothing like the billboard said, but without the other good things (Car! House!) it fell prey to Jo’burg’s endless concrete. I still wear the tekkies, although now they lack their brilliant shine and are without a significant amount of rubber on the undersides — a message of sorts from Jo’burg, as if to say “Fuck your attempt at a good day and fuck these tekkies too.”

“High, whiny synthesisers, short and sharp lay themselves over the rolling percussion of endless drum machines, propelling the listener forward at a great speed.”

I remember late last year, as I packed up my four years of life spent in Grahamstown to leave for a larger and more foreign city, I was listening to a song by Jumping Back Slash called ‘Horses’ off his EP by the same name. High, whiny synthesisers, short and sharp lay themselves over the rolling percussion of endless drum machines, propelling the listener forward at a great speed. When I interviewed the artist, he had said the song was about drum machines and moreover, about “things that run and run and never stop.” I listened to that song often and I remember thinking “I wonder if this is what Jo’burg will be like.”

I still listen to the song. Most often when I’m on the 5:30pm bus, tired arms wrapped around handrails and backpacks as an impatient driver takes corners at breakneck speeds. “Jo’burg won’t win today,” I say to myself. “I still have a few hours to write about it all once I’m home. And besides, the day hasn’t been that bad has it?” But then I leave the bus and the train and on the walk home I will dodge the same traffic and bump into the same bustling bodies and on particularly bad days I will see my fatigue reflected in all of them. On days like that, there is no writing. “I’ll try again tomorrow,” I lie. And the city wins again.

This piece was originally published in Edition 10 of Ja. magazine.