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Jo'Burg Days: Revisiting Yeoville

Barbara Durlacher visits the part of Johannesburg where she once lived, and is profoundly shocked by what she finds there.

I attended a memorial for a dear friend at a church in Yeoville. After the service and tea, I decided that as I was so close I would drive up the hill and take a look at my former old apartment and the surrounds.

My Gawd!

Talk about Lagos, the Bronx, and every degraded and run-down inner-city area you know. Include Bombay [Mumbai], Calcutta, the slums of Rio, the stews of Cairo. It's as bad, if not worse, than all of them.

Well-built, trim brick-faced three- and four-storied Art Deco apartment buildings erected in the period 1945 to 1960, once the home of hard-working families who commuted daily to offices in the city are in such appalling condition that nearly everyone of them will eventually have be razed to the ground. Tidy brick front walls have been swept away by neglect. Washing hangs from every balcony [how is it that the poorest always have so much washing?] and wrecks of quite reasonable family houses are nothing more than piles of dusty rubble in one dirty street after another. Loud reggae music blares out of every tavern and shebeen, drug peddlers abound, and the place stinks.

The Yeoville primary school, which produced many generations of kids who grew up to make Johannesburg work, lies neglected and abandoned, the grass playing fields, tennis-courts and netball pitches are scuffed and rubbish-strewn; weeds grow through broken railings and huge gaps in the sagging, broken tennis fences show that sport is no longer in the curriculum. The once thriving suburb, slightly reminiscent of London’s Edgeware Road and Notting Hill in the 1960s with it’s vibrant atmosphere and cosmopolitan population, supported four large supermarkets, streets of small shops selling necessities and uniforms for the many schools in the area; furniture and shoe shops; curtain makers, butchers, chemists and doctor's surgeries. It is now a blight on the landscape.

The lovely old house in the main street once occupied by the vet who looked after my dear cats for years - I always seemed to be there either buying food or bringing them in for check-ups - is now a shebeen. The children’s park and delightful municipal swimming pool where I spent many a happy afternoon with girlhood friends are both empty, vandalised, cracked wrecks of their former well-kept selves. Plastic bags and litter lie waist-high in the corners, and stinking brown water sulks curdling in the deep end.

The clean and efficient municipal bus service which ran late into the night carrying shoppers, clerical workers and cinema goers into town and home again, where combi-taxis vied for trade to the townships, no longer operates. Where curb-side vegetable and fruit sellers brought a touch of colour and movement to every street, overflowing refuse bins leak their smelly contents into the gutters and overflowing drains and sewage runs down the streets. Once a friendly place with scores of reasonably priced local shops, it attracted housewives from surrounding suburbs, happy to spend a morning looking for bargains. Spaza shops now occupy these premises, sharing space with ‘Sharp, Sharp’ hairdressers and braiding parlours sheltering behind heavy metal grilles. Windows are bricked-or boarded-up, and filth is everywhere.

For nearly 100 years the large Jewish community found the convenience of their nearby shuls and temples ideal for their religious observances of walking to the services; many of them are closed for ever. In October the mauve haze of hundreds of jacarandas brought a touch of magic to the quiet streets, today they are clogged with an assortment of unregistered broken-down jalopies double-parked at gambling dens and bars, their doors rattling with the ear-splitting sounds of rap. The squawking of bedraggled chickens packed into teetering cages vies with the shouts of hawkers peddling cheap Asian toys, while these noises are swallowed in clouds of rancid smoke from pavement and backyard braais. Tinny North African music pumps monotonously while pimps and prostitutes drape themselves drunkenly over walls angling for trade.

Trees stripped of their branches are dying from neglect, while on every horizontal surface - walls, balconies, front steps, street-curbs, car bonnets - everywhere - people are sitting, staring into space and doing nothing. They watch and wait and maybe smoke a joint. Sometime soon they'll get a banana, a handful of chips, or a piece of boerewors, until then just being is all they expect. The unemployment rate must be 120%. Ragged dirty children run and play, fight and cry - it's unbelievable.

I could not believe that this once vibrant, living, breathing artistic enclave, with some of the busiest restaurants, attractive shops full of interesting and original handwork and merchandise of all kinds, could have turned into this ghastly degraded slum.

Never, ever go back to a place you once enjoyed.


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