Soul therapy in the city of gold

Posted on 4 August 2023 By David Henning

If ever there was a city with a pulse, it’s Joburg. It’s energy charging to produce a breakneck velocity. Decades after leaving the place of her birth, Pippa de Bruyn dives in, witnesses prosperity and decay, experiences beauty and kindness, and gets her fill of an intoxicating elixir. But before we dive in, you also check out the top malls in Johannesburg.

The front man does a somersault, then the four pick up red beer crates to beat out a syncopated rhythm on the hot tarmac, all rat-a-tat-tat and fancy feet. With only seconds to go before the lights change, they spread out among the cars, looking for any sign that someone will part with a few coins for their pantsula show. A far cry from the guys in Cape Town who sink to their knees and gaze imploringly at you, I think. This is Joburg. And Joburgers know how to work it.

This then, is a story about travelling for work. You don’t come to Jozi to lounge beside a large pool, cocktail in hand (though that’s exactly what its citizens do on any given weekend, curling braai smoke and the smell of lamb chops in the air). You come here to make the deal. To tap into industry. To connect with a citizenry that is at once welcoming and impatient, gregarious and indifferent, giving and grasping, and always, always on the move. So here I am. A working tourist, watching the sub-Saharan pulse of Africa at the corner of Jan Smuts and Bompas.

It’s more than three decades since I steered my Mazda 323 down the N1, looking for a new life in Cape Town. But I learnt to drive here, and after the initial terror of finding myself on a 12-lane highway, trucks thundering, cars weaving in and out like some loco loom, the old instincts kicked back in. It can be a real rush, driving in a city where time is money. You have to go for the gap, or stay stuck. Orange lights mean pedal to the metal. Ain’t nobody got time to wait for your confidence to catch up.

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The roads are the city’s rivers. I flow from Alberton to Brooklyn, Centurion to Roodepoort, Kempton Park to Bedfordview, Boksburg to Benoni. Edge through downtown Joburg, dodging potholes, happy I signed up for the super waiver. In Joburg there are myriad ways to get where you want to be. Punch in the same destination, and Google will pick out a different route, every single time. How crazy is that? 

The Hillbrow tower was the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere when we moved into Berea, a few blocks from the recently completed Ponte. Memories stirred by steel-frame windows and red brick architecture, those mid-century high-rise apartment blocks that were once the epitome of modern.

Hillbrow, Braamfontein, Parktown, Melville, Brixton, Fordsburg – this was the backdrop to my youth, but Joburg is a palimpsest, the past constantly effaced by the present. I drive down streets that feel familiar but are unrecognisable, the young girl I barely recall buried inside a lost landscape.

Driving through the derelict streets of Bez Valley, the broekielace ripped from the last remaining Victorian houses that stipple the road on what was once Doornfontein Farm, I make a detour to the park bequeathed to the nation by the Bezuidenhouts in 1949, on condition their family graveyard be maintained. Headstones are broken, metal lettering picked out. Joburg is a constant reminder that prosperity does not mean posterity, and why should it if prosperity isn’t shared, or comes at such cost. Decay as a kind of social justice.

With no geographical landmarks I keep the radio off and Google Maps on. Driving like this gives you time to think, to feel. An uneasy awe at the metropolis’s interminable sprawl, but also shards of joy: it is spring, and on certain jacaranda-lined streets the branches reach across and right into each other, creating an intricate arch overhead and carpeting the pavements in purple.

Cottonwool clouds cut out and stuck on a powder blue sky – kitsch as a religious painting. The rolling sound of thunder; the sweet smell of rain on hot tarmac, steam rising like mist. Flying past dilapidated old Joburg on the M1, the thrill of barrelling under that long concrete corridor before whooshing on and up, past the Parks, the Randlord mansions and Westcliff overlooking an urban forest that stretches as far as the eye can see. 

Beauty and kindness

I visit the Centre of Memory in Houghton, into the basement of the Mandela Foundation to view wall upon wall of Madiba’s notebooks – all his writings carefully archived – and the myriad gifts and awards received. Upstairs is an exhibition room filled with photographs and personal belongings, like the jackal skin kaross he wore to court on 16 August 1962, the day he was remanded in custody for leaving his country without permission, and inciting a strike. Looking at his old office, untouched since his last day at work, I am moved almost to tears – if ever there was a Joburger who showed us that the work only ceases when you’re dead, he was it. 

From the rooftop at Hallmark House that night, between underdressed youth sucking on hookah pipes, I try, and fail, to capture the raw beauty of that iconic Joburg skyline in a single picture frame. Next evening I crest William Nicol Drive at sunset, the new city washed in pink, Sandton’s windows glinting like rose-coloured jewels. When Mampintsha’s banger “Joburg” comes up, what feels like love blooms in my chest. 

Finally, the last day. I’m exhausted. An afternoon thunderstorm. Puddles the size of dams, the sound of the water underneath my car like an elephant taking a long pee. I approach one of the many toll road plazas that rivet the city’s freeways; point my hire car towards the prepaid e-tag lane. The boom fails to rise. Behind me, a queue starts. Wild panic sweeps through me. I have no cash. I am trapped. I need a glass of wine, goddamnit! A man standing on the side of the highway steps closer. He wears ill-fitting clothes and a smile like Jesus. ‘Ai, this thing. Try again, Mama.’ 

I do. Nothing. Shaking his head in sorrowful sympathy, he encourages me to try yet again, indicating to the motorists behind me to choose another queue. Overwhelmed, as if the boom’s failure is a punitive act from God, I am by now almost weeping. 

‘Ai! Mama,’ he says. ‘Please don’t cry. So sorry.’ He starts to pat his pockets. ‘Let me see what I got…’ I snap out of my white privilege fugue. 

‘Will they accept a card?’ I whimper. His face lights up. ‘They will.’ 

The toll booth lady hands back my card and the boom lifts. What price, kindness? I should’ve asked him what he was waiting for. I should have offered him a lift. In Joburg there are so many ways to get to where you are going. Sometimes you need more than a map. 

My place, my people

‘What do you feel like, white or red?’ the man behind the counter asks.

Outside the rain pelts down with a violence that feels personal.

‘Red, I think.’

His eyes are fatigued but caring, like a good doctor working a long shift. 

‘Something heavy, like a cab? Or you prefer something on the light side?’

It’s been a heavy day, at least five hours on my feet, beaming at strangers, the same old sales pitch on repeat. 

‘Definitely something light.’

He rattles through the bottles, places two on the counter, both unknown to me. 

‘How about a pinot from Elgin, or this, a lovely light blend.’

‘I’ll have both.’

I’m one of only six patrons seated in the dinky wine bar called Mr Pants. It’s cosy and convivial, the conversation flowing between strangers with the ease of a dinner hosted by someone who knows how to put together a party. At one stage a newcomer steps in, then immediately turns away. ‘What was that?’ someone asks. 

‘She wanted a cup of tea,’ says Andile, seated nearest the door. We throw our heads back and laugh together, a choir in this little church.

I pick up my second glass. ‘Why is this so fruity?’ I ask, my face an easy reader. 

‘Ah, you prefer a minerality to your wine,’ he says, nodding sagely. 

‘Try this,’ he says, pouring some liquid heaven into a fresh glass – a French Bordeaux he’d stumbled on by chance at a Portuguese importer. 

Transference: what happens when you mistake your psychologist’s insights into who you are and what you need as a kind of love. 

I order a snack – a plate of white Spanish sardines with a dollop of atchar – and another ‘surprise me’ glass. Like the first, the Savage is a perfect match. ‘So light, yet with an earthy honesty, a flinty elegance,’ I opine, tongue loosened by its silk. Perhaps it’s the wall of wine, or the easy flow of conversation, but this is the best place to be on a Saturday eve, and I’m not just talking in Joburg. 

I ask for one last glass of deliciousness. They pour me something that blows my hair back so far I feel like a punk rocker, and there is no way I can leave without one more glass of that. Only when the bill is presented do I realise that what I thought were random codes written on each bottle, like the ‘155’ chalked on the last, is actually the per glass price. But I don’t care. I take my dumb blonde ass home, and the next day wake feeling fully energized, reconnected the way you do when you feel you have found your tribe. Cheaper than therapy, and much more fun. 

See you next time, Joburg.


This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Getaway Magazine

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