Letter from Johannesburg

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Letter from Johannesburg

Yewande Omotoso writes about Johannesburg, a city which is difficult to know.


African National Congress (ANC) election posters in Alexandra township, in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A few weeks after my grandmother died, I sold my Ford Ikon car. I was now without a car in a place where a car felt as important as having a grandmother. From the time I moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg, the city has always seemed so big and so difficult to know.

And it depends on who you are, how much money you have, your gender, your sexuality, and whether you have a car, how you experience the big, big city in different ways. As an architect, I am always interested in the different ways machines and people use cities differently.

When I was 21 and I worked for an architecture studio in Milan, I went around the city. I went on the public transport, with the rich and the poor, the old, the young, and the beggars. I saw people crying and kissing. Once I cried too. I saw couples fighting. I once saw a man with what looked like only half a face. He didn’t seem in pain or worried for people to see him like that. I didn’t look at him but he looked everywhere.

Sometimes people with problems came onto the train, they looked very tired as they sat down onto the seat and fell asleep. I remember getting off a tram when a man, possibly with mental-health problems, started to point at me. The sounds he made were nonsense but it was clear he wanted to make fun of me. I never went on that tram again.

After I sold my car I started to understand, for the first time, how in Johannesburg the car stopped me from knowing life in the city. I could move separated from other city people, from island to island. I didn’t have to notice anyone and no one noticed me. I’ve now lived in Johannesburg for almost six years. I find it big, wonderful and, like many cities, separated into the rich and the poor and by race. I know that my experience of the city is only a very small part.

As an architect I know Johannesburg is not made for pedestrians. The millions that walk have little choice and there is not enough transport and it is expensive. As a city person I’m looking to make contacts in a place that was never made for that.

I speak to Uber drivers. One explained what was wrong with the country. Another told me he had HIV and was surprised to hear I was a writer. While he was driving, he took out his phone and started interviewing me on Facebook Live. A woman driver, a South African, once told me about her wonderful Zimbabwean boyfriend. She surprised me when she said, ‘Our men don’t know how to love’.

At the shopping mall I see a young woman with a t-shirt saying #FreeTheNipple – she wears a bra. I see an old couple who talk but do not look at one another. The husband talks to his wife, she looks at her mobile phone grunting replies. Once when I was driving a friend’s car, I stopped at a traffic light, looked across and saw a woman in the car beside me. She was crying. She looked up and saw me staring. I didn’t look away.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)