“Johannesburg: a cityscape” by Dominic Pretorius


People say that the walls have ears. People, he thinks, have always misunderstood me. Firstly, that’s like saying humans taste with their eyeballs. Although he listens constantly—darkness being the only silence—he does not give a shit about what people say. Unless it’s about bombs or fires, then he cares and does what needs to be done, lest he forget the Great Fire of London in 1666. The tale is lodged in childhood memory; his grandmother always blathered on about how London is a relative by marriage, not blood. It was a tragedy for the family. She was so lucky to recover. God saved her so that she could mother the empire. So, that’s why he has streetlamps on every road: to have ears on the ground. The cost of safety is an endless, eavesdropped cacophony. The neon smog at night is often an unbearable tinnitus. He has grown to live with the background anxiety. His multiplying lights excited him, when he was developing. He still remembers looking up at the Milky Way many years ago and thinking, “Fuuuuck, I want to be like that when I grow up.”

These days he cannot see the stars through the golden haze and the piercing gunshots that shatter the silence. He is told that he must be realistic and let go of his childhood dream: his role model must be New York or Paris. Despite having grown up a bit, he still worries like an adolescent about his appearance. How can he be a great city when, as nobody tires of pointing out, he has no lake, no ocean, no natural beauty? He resents his father, Kimberley, for his looks. He thinks that if that flaw is fixed then he can be great. His name will be famous and people will love him and then all he needs is an icon, an Eiffel Tower. He wants to prove them wrong. He can be great. He isn’t dysfunctional. Reconciliation this, psychologist that. Fokof, what do they know?

Hope is tiring. Sometimes it is small things like the onslaught of advertisement boards on the highways that make him unable to resist relief. “Stuck in traffic? Extended shopping hours. Extended bliss.” Other times he takes a hit because he is unsure what to think or believe in. Take the decay of the Carlton Centre or the number of hijacked buildings in Yeoville. If he is sober he can see the corner of End and Kerk Street too clearly; the building clasps to its neighbour as if the ground is collapsing beneath it, its windows broken like tears, wounds in walls bandaged with plastic, the inside so dark that the city cannot hear its screams, not even at midday. Although ugly, he knows it’s inevitable. He couldn’t expect the streets to remain the same after he denied his family. His grandmother in the Cape just carries on not allowing people into her heart. He wanted to change and must live with the consequences. Johannesburg always had an invisible shadow self. Soweto did not exist on maps of Johannesburg until 1976.

He now acknowledges the contradictions. That’s what makes him different. Acknowledging the past, like hoping for anything different in the future, is tiring. The drugs seep into his mind and slowly blur the particular. He knows everything, but cannot differentiate a car from a person and a rattle of shacks from a Tuscan townhouse. De Korte Street stretches eastwards, away from the molten sunset, upwards—away from the city centre’s streets, down which men wheel rubbish. His awareness floats in euphoria and he sees his skyline reaching for the drowsed expanse, light giving into darkness. It’s early December and an evening storm is approaching from across the veld. He’s glad he will be high when the storm arrives. Lighting will strike and give him an extra rush. Then the raindrops hitting hot tar will have a soothing effect on his hot core.

Getting high is always a paradox. He enjoys the lethargic sense of fulfilment, but there is always an ominous paranoia. It’s always the same thought: admitting that he cannot control people completely. He tries to imagine people’s thoughts in their microscopic brains, unmappable. They think that with their city development plans, architectural drawings, and government policies they can control the streets. They’re wrong to an extent. When he is high he holds the relationship in full view: he defines them and they define him. He thinks of his plan to build a bridge from Braamfontein to Newtown. People named it Mandela Bridge and put colourful lights on it that turn from red to yellow to green to blue. Two red eyes atop the bridge watch the muggings at the end of the rainbow. People would not have had a place to build a bridge without him, without the city. He has existed for longer than any of these people have been alive. They do not understand his lifecycle and his history and his future. Apartheid would never have ended without him. But, when high, he knows that he would never have been able to do it without them: Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani, and the other struggle heroes and “nobodies.” Individual lives do not matter much to him. Yet, he believes cities should have morals. They should look after their people in general.

There is a mist over the city as the drugged dreams recede. The sun is rising and light trickles through the waking alleys. The colours mingle, and flood the mist, giving the city a purple glow. Taxies pump along tarred lifelines and the daily rhythm of the city builds. Hawkers are setting up their stalls in town—it seems like the police wiped them out while he was not concentrating. It’s not a crime to be poor. People rush into his heart, from townships and the suburbs and still further out. He is forever growing, outwards and upwards, concrete expanding in the oven of the sun. He holds his breath in anticipation and, as he exhales, the mist rises off hot bread and the beat reaches its mad pulse. No other city has it. Rea Vaya.

Throughout the last couple of years, which is not much time for him, Jo’burg has been getting rid of the mine dumps that litter his cityscape. Eyesores, piles of solidified puke from intoxicated wealth. The profit from the re-sniffing the gold is going to help him grow. The dust and radioactive material are killing people. Put the golden dust on a conveyor belt and let the machines snort. The process is excavating memories for him. He does not speak to his dad much. He is angry about his upbringing. A city is still a child for seventy-odd years, the Drum Decade being the first spark of his immature self-determination. He was hardly self-aware for the first forty years. He has to go on what others tell him, and photos and books; you know, you think you remember a time captured by a childhood photograph, but you can never be certain. He hates his dad for his inherited privilege and violent history. The wealth made from diamonds in Kimberley fuelled the explosion of Johannesburg and his mines, his bursting into the world carried on the bleeding backs of slaves. Miners held up heaven from the hellish earth, like Atlas condemned and defeated by Zeus. He often wishes that he had never been born. He often wonders about suicide (how? he is not sure) or about people murdering him. He likes to think that getting rid of the dumps will cleanse him of his father, a middle finger to the old man and his big hole. Then he can forget him. A sight distracts him: a man is walking down Oxford Street carrying a dead pigeon. The man stops and drops the pigeon. He takes five steps and then returns to pick up the twisted bird by its feet. He raises it above his head and the wings flay in the sunlight. He speaks seriously to the carcass, almost pleading with it, as if to wake up. The city sees strange scenes. He can laugh at himself.

He thinks about his past. The main topic is obviously Apartheid. He is a product of Apartheid but consoles himself with the fact that he was the catalyst of its demise. He was the site of major resistance. He turned a colour-blind-eye to the bombing of Park Station. He brought people together, gave them a place to fight after each of the more indigenous peoples were defeated during the 19th century. He was willing to experience pain and sacrifice parts of himself for change. He provided grey zones of fluidity like Hillbrow that went against the political architects. He provided gaps in the borders that were drawn before he could know what was right or wrong. He was young, passionate and radical. Now, he is not really sure. Apparently he needs his Stock Exchange.

He looks at himself. Geez, the 50s and 60s were a horrible time for architecture: the ugly, monolithic alternatives to the towers of Babel. Many look like cardboard backdrops in a school play, painted with one cold coat of oppression.

Yes, these are the inheritances from his family that he cannot deny. Each generation attempts to create a new world, hoping to overcome entropy, by denouncing the old. Yet, identity is enmeshed, inseparable from the past—colourful, radical graffiti on decaying walls. His grandmother often gives him advice, often pleadingly. “Darling, you really should do all that is possible to attract tourists. I know you don’t have beaches, but gentrification is always an option. Woodstock is so, what’s the lingo, dope!” The ideas of ice-cream and flat whites are pleasant, but she is deluded. He consoles her with tales of his inner-city rejuvenation projects. The truth is that he is indifferent about the coffee shops and galleries that are popping up in his old industrial district; it’s mostly the people’s doing. She is so proud of her pavement cafés, but always complains about how “they” beg, it never used to be like that, when she had curfews, she adds. He would react with a snarky comment, but the shantytowns of her dementia are plain to see, except to her. And she is his grandmother, garbed in the frills of Dutch gables hanging from buildings that remember when they were built. Nostalgic dates are cemented like wrinkles in a face.

His mind wanders past the Cape Flats, slowly reaching the stability of her icon, Table Mountain. The mountain and the sea are fused when the sun explodes on the horizon, holding the city in a glowing glory. She sees herself in the azure mirror of the Atlantic, reflecting the hyperbolic beauty of her silhouette. An inkling of jealously nags, because every Christmas thousands of his people travel to the gateway to the West, leaving him empty. It’s fine, though, he thinks, soon the Cape of Good Hope will become the Cape of Storms once more. The ocean will rise and the beach will be closer to him. Table Mountain will be an island.

Others, his grandmother included, have such warped ideas as to who he is. He always tries to understand how others see him. It’s scary that he can constantly analyse who he is, yet if that does not translate into how others see him, then he is not really who he thinks himself to be. Maybe he is the people’s collective consciousness made material. Cape Town is too old to worry about her identity; she knows (deep down) that her life is slowly ebbing out with the rising tide. There is no need for her to agonize over him and his wellbeing, either. There is no catastrophic end for him, though. Each New Years, people trash his streets in Hillbrow, televisions and couches thrown out of twenty story high windows. Time is cyclical, but people have been told that there is a linear progression. People’s guts know there is no point to accumulation. Each year they start afresh, falling into the drunken trance of New Years, knowing that there is nowhere to go, nothing worth holding onto. This is the closest he comes to being destroyed. Nature is not going to deliver him quickly.

The day is rushing. He smokes from factory pipes to take the edge off. Steelworkers sweat like melting metal as they construct tomorrow from the malleable earth. His grandmother once said something about his dad. “He is disintegrating,” she had said. He looks at his own skin, at the ruptures from which yellow-toxic liquid oozes, gathering in the waterways, mixing with the blood of Marikana, transported into the city by truck-tankers, which then exploded. The revolution will paint the city red with the tears of a thousand ancestors, drumming on your dormant soul. Yakahl’inkomo. He is disintegrating, not his father. Think straight! Get your shit together! Stop considering people’s condition, they are meant to be your slaves, cities have always known this. Stop trying to be different. Let them die. He swallows hard. He tastes the sweat and blood of drugs. The bodies scrape his larynx. He retches, he gathers the vomit and eats it like a dog. The flesh of men tastes godly. He must face the truth. He is killing them. And he loves it. He craves it all the time. He survives on it, remains sane because of it. The craving is like wanting a new building. He spends all his time longing for it and then as soon as he has it, desiring more. The bricks are their bones. The concrete is black ivory. His stomach aches. It is going to crumble, implode, expose him to the world for what he is. Men hack at his insides. He passes out.

He hadn’t taken such a big dose in a long time, having for a time taken only enough to numb him. He needed to forget. He needed to forget about his father’s addiction.

He wakes. It’s Sunday. The black silence lasted four days. He struggles to breathe in the smog. In a stupor he watches as the tiny people go about their religious rituals. Religion is one thing he has never been able to understand. People in white gather at a river in Orlando, a man with a beer belly is being submerged in the murky water, the surface of which is like petrol-sunshine. Another community chants in an old stone building. People’s lives are short and they fear death, he thinks, that is why they risk the poisoned rivers and churches. He thinks about death all the time, only death by fire or bombing, he is still not sure how he could commit suicide.

An idea begins to form carried by the stuffy air against the stain glassed windows of the old stone church. One day people will be extinct and after that, he will wither away, slowly fading. The people will stop believing. They will leave the church. The church will stand empty. Then, the stones will fall inwards, creating a tomb to a fallen hero. The earth will crack and the stones will fall back into their original places, filling up the void underground. The roads will crumble. Grass will grow. The roads becoming like footpaths once more. Cemented waterways will learn to be rivers again, rivers that erode earth. The earth will slowly shift and shiver until it is comfortable. People think they own land, but the sand in Gauteng today will be in Australia tomorrow. What is land except lots of sand and time? The possible loneliness scares him, but what is more frightening is the thought, the knowing that was enclosed in his ego like a hard pip, that he is just glorified nature like humans are glorified apes. Apes live in trees. Humans live in cities. Humans walked the veld, then dusty footpaths, and then turned mud into houses. He is not immortal. There is no development. He wonders whether he is even alive, or just glorified stardust. He finally realises how to commit suicide: he will stop controlling and helping people and they will ruin themselves, that much he knows, in a sense always known, then all he has to do is wait. Then he can finally become the ash of stars, as he always wanted.


Dominic Pretorius is about to graduate from the University of Cape Town with a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. His loves include public pools, collaging while drunk, The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga, and The Fall by Albert Camus. His writing has appeared on Aerodrome and in ITCH Journal

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