by Achal Prabhala
“You know what Hillbrow and Yeoville are like,” says a resident of Katlehong, glibly summarising the moral character of an inner-city he must have visited about twice in the last decade; “Full of criminals.” But naturally: mainstream Jo’burg circles – the Melville café, the Soweto shebeen – have turned both names into abuses, conjoining them to a list of African cities similarly revered. So Time Square is apparently in Kinshasa; and Ponte Tower – rumoured host of the Miss Transvestite Africa Contest circa 1996 – is Little Lagos, with garbage piled up to the seventh floor in its central hollow. (The standing joke with Ponte is that the authorities wanted to turn it into a prison, when someone suggested that all they would have to do is lock the gates.)
Other times, you’ll hear tender evocations of the days gone by, from good people – living in good suburbs with good security and not a Nigerian in sight – unable to forget an era when the House of Tandoor actually served tandoori food and cappuccino abounded in swish European patisseries. All very quaint, but frankly, the stories bore me. They’re the memories of people with golden age syndrome. My own Yeoville memories are exactly one year old. I’m not haunted by the ghosts of cappuccinos past – and I like that just fine.
When I moved to Yeoville, I knew nothing of its cosmopolitanism and its vivacious bustling streets. I moved because I happened to find a friendly housemate and cheap accommodation there. My motivations, I discovered, were widely shared. After six months of sitting on food stains from the last century, I tried to reupholster my housemate’s furniture while he was away. A snooty Mozambican tailor from the neighbourhood suggested leather – “Then you can take it with you when you move to Sandton.” I asked for something cheaper and told him I wasn’t planning on moving to that hallowed outpost of exclusivity anytime soon. “Ah but you will,” he said, “Never give up hope.”
In Mughal India, Sarai denoted a space, in a town or along a road, where travellers from all walks of life and social classes could find refuge and company. It signified a location of cultural exchange. The Sarai was thus at once a destination and a point of departure: as is Yeoville.
If all departures need a getaway vehicle, then the bed in Yeoville is a rented car. Precisely, an early 1980s Japanese model with mouldy seats, a reliable engine and a radio that catches pure static. Hillbrow is a “borrowed” VW Beetle – lots of character, malfunctioning taillights and frequent engine breakdowns. Berea, with its giant blocks of concrete, is a bit like that Trabant you inherited from your East German aunt: presumably functional, but entirely mysterious. As much as this seems to be leading up to some trite explanation for the inner-city’s aesthetic degradation – such as “No one in the history of the world has ever washed a rented car” – it isn’t. One visit to Kin Malebo, the Congolese restaurant on Raleigh Street, and a sense of its casually glamorous ambience, would correct any misconceptions about aesthetic standards in itinerant Africa.
Yet, it’s likely that no one in the history of the world has aspired to grow old driving a 1980 Mazda. Beer-soaked conversations in Time Square inevitably invoke the escape plan – to a better suburb, country or continent. For the real people who live in Yeoville, there are real fears. It’s not a nice place for the walking classes at any time of day, especially after dark. Women fear they’ll be parted from their cellphones, and grown men prefer to walk in groups. The streets are poorly lit and it’s not because the lamps are being stolen – suspended at a height of 20 feet off the ground, it’s hard to imagine how they could be.
Long-time residents who’ve never dialled beyond Durban suddenly discover their monthly phone bill is at 99,000 Rand: someone has tapped into their line and leased it out to people homesick for Douala, Lagos and Kinshasa. This actually happened to our phone, and though I began the lengthy reconnection process with Telkom a whole year ago, things have stalled. We will only have our phone back once the background checks and the police clearance certificates come through clean, which – judging by the progress so far – is never. “You see,” a tired official explains, “it is a high-risk area.”
Residentially speaking, high-risk mainly applies to people living in houses. Flats are considered safe, though in some buildings, you have to watch out for the other residents. At the hardware shop on Raleigh Street, I get my first lesson in the etiquette of loot and pillage. “People come in here to buy big beams of plywood,” the man at the counter explains. “The next day some house has been broken into and the owners come in to buy reinforcements. But as soon as we’ve sold that plywood, we know that someone’s in trouble.”
Weeks after I moved in, I was determined to show off my neighbourhood. When you have to watch your friends’ faces contort in alarm on telling them you live in Yeoville, you begin to take all those insults against the African Diaspora very personally. It was October, the jacarandas were in bloom, and I cooked lunch for a few friends. We took coffee on the balcony and gazed down at lazy Saturday afternoon street life. Women stopping to look at the latest Nollywood offering; groups of men sprawled out on the grassy sidewalk, playing cards and drinking beer. My friends were suitably impressed (and suitably chastened.) Later in the afternoon, one straggler remained. As I triumphantly concluded my “Yeoville is a normal place” lesson, a gunshot rang out. Below us, people ran screaming onto the main road. After the street had cleared, two shirtless gentlemen sauntered down the road, their heads and torsos covered with blood, broken beer bottles in hand. My friend the straggler, leaning over the balcony, thought he heard them speak French. “Now this,” he said, with a smug grin, “is what we call the Inter-Congolese dialogue.”
Civilians have done me no harm in Yeoville, or indeed, anywhere else in South Africa. I realise that I owe this happy existence – in different ways – to owning a car that isn’t posh (in fact, a borrowed VW Beetle which doesn’t lock), to living in a building that is strict about security and to being a dark-skinned male. Friends in similar circumstances, but crucially lacking their own transport, have not had it quite so good. Michael, an Ndebele-speaker from Zimbabwe, lost a finger last year in an incident involving some thugs, one cellphone and a lot of knives. Isha, a Lingala-speaker from the DRC, had his head bashed in with a beer-bottle outside Tandoor, and lost sensation on one side of his face for weeks. None of this has stopped them – or me – from continuing to explore inner-city nightlife.
In part, this is because the walking classes have their own ways of making nightlife safe. When, for instance, people need to get back home – after working the kitchens and tables in Midrand, Melville and Norwood, or just enjoying a good night out – they take South Africa’s safest form of late night transport: the Armed Response Taxi. Security company employees, driven to boredom on their late night patrols and eager for a quick buck, will pick you up and take you home for the same price as a taxi.
On Wednesday, Friday, Saturday – even Sunday, when much of the service class finally gets a chance to relax – Yeoville’s bars are buzzing and Hillbrow’s clubs are packed. In staid old Berea, the bootleg Kilimanjaro – an unlicensed “house party”– is swinging to the beat of an urban Africa. Whoever told you that Rockey Street was dead is lying.
Food (of the dining-out kind) is not exactly the inner-city’s forte. Good food, however, exists: it’s the only place on this latitude where you can eat fufu and stew on the streets. Then there’s Kin Malebo on Raleigh Street, which serves excellent fish with ginger and “oignon”, or smoked chicken with peanut sauce and pap, in an atmosphere that pays just tribute to the sapeur – with patrons to match. Comfortable couches, a fireplace, a clientele decked out in black jeans and leather, and walls dedicated to images of Congolese music legends like Papa Wemba and Zaiko Langa Langa. Across the road is the legendary Charro’s – a remnant of old Yeoville – which, until very recently, continued to roll out Durban Indian food (and the occasional Durban Indian version of Middle-Eastern food) to a clientele that has no idea who Brenda Fassie was – as the owner will tell you, in between explaining that though he’s adjusted to the new Yeoville, he’s moving himself, wife and kid to Melrose – “A more suitable place for a family.” A couple of shebeens around Time Square, and one well-known house in neighbouring Bertram’s serve unbelievably good Ethiopian food at unbelievably low Ethiopian prices.
The other establishments on Raleigh and Rockey Streets mainly cater to liquid diets, though quick-fixes like meat and chips are always at hand. La Congolaise, Rockafellas and The Zone seem to attract far more male clients than female, and a recently advertised “Miss Rockafellas” pageant might have been designed to change that. If there’s one consistent performer in the Yeoville club circuit, it has to be the House of Tandoor. The original home of Johannesburg’s Caribbean fan club, Tandoor was – and is – something of a philosophy, even if Horror Café in Newtown has lured the trustafarians away.
A reality of Johannesburg is that good African food is rare. This is not a political statement, merely a matter of taste. I am from South India, and over there, we like it hot. Moyo’s is like going on a particularly tedious safari: many native curiosities and everything priced for Swiss pensioners. To eat the food of Ethiopia, the DRC and the Monde Arabe, then, one follows the passports. Wherever in Johannesburg an immigrant working-class community exists, so does a cuisine.
But wherever a working class community exists, according to South African folklore, so does crime. The connection is perplexing. Throw a party, and people will assume that BYOB stands for “Bring your own bodyguard.” I once got a response from an acquaintance, to an invite for drinks, saying he’d love to come except that Yeoville was “like Fallujah bro!” – this from a man who grew up in KwaMashu. One friend claps every time he leaves Yeoville on the occasion that he has to drive through it; another takes a taxi though she owns a car. “You don’t understand,” she says, “If I drive myself, there’s a ninety percent chance I will be hijacked.” Ninety percent?
Most of the people I know have been broken in (so to speak), and apart from the obligatory jokes about the safety of their precious Teutonic automobiles, they’re quite comfortable coming to visit me. My obligatory rejoinder is an offer to personally mug any visitor who feels he’s missing out on the inner-city experience. Not that I understand the perception of this experience. In India, people generally fear lonely high-income neighbourhoods – logically, they assume that it’s where the crime is at. Twelve months of Johannesburg, and I’m convinced that there would be a huge market for two very useful manuals: “How to tell your working-class neighbourhoods from your battlefields” and its companion volume, “Not all poor people are criminals.”
Actually, I can think of at least two more: “Nigerians are human beings too” and “Frail old ladies who sell small bags of potatoes on the road should not be put in jail.”
When I first moved to Yeoville, I had no office, though I had plenty to do. I needed a place to work and a good internet connection. I found both down the road from home. The “Best Yeoville” internet cafe cost all of 5 Rand an hour. It was run by a Nigerian. Now, before this story goes any further, I must explain that the Nigerian world has generally treated me very well. Except for that time when we were walking back from the Nigeria – Bafana Bafana soccer match at Ellis Park, and certain Nigerian residents of Yeoville, in a spectacular fit of patriotism, decided to urinate from their balconies onto the road (Nigeria lost).
Ephraim, the owner of the café, let me know immediately that he also repaired and sold televisions, VCRs, computer printers, and almost anything else, and that he was interested in new business opportunities of almost any kind. The first few weeks, I walked to the café and back, spending all day there. A little later, I was the temporary owner of the aforementioned VW Beetle, so I drove (this allowed me to work late into the night). Yet later, the Beetle had packed up, and my housemate, away on a trip, kindly lent me his car. It was a gleaming new Toyota Corolla. Ephraim watched my apparent upward mobility with growing interest – and growing respect. One day he took me aside and conspiratorially whispered, “I want to do your kind of business.”
I explained that I worked for a non-profit organisation, and that I was only being paid living costs. Unfortunately, critical investigations of intellectual property – which is what I work on – mean nothing to most people (and not just because they’re from Nigeria), so it was all a bit hazy. But Ephraim remained convinced that I was the man to know. As a preferred customer, albeit one who was soon going to move to a real office, I was given special treatment – like being allowed to keep my time (if I didn’t use the whole hour in one sitting) or, embarrassingly, having someone tossed out to accommodate me when the café was full.
It was frequently full. Initially, I was surprised at the number of people who needed to constantly send email through the day. Peering over into the next computer, I noticed a letter being composed in the name of Mrs. Stella Sigcau. Now either the honourable South African Minister for Public Works (official hobbies: “Reading and Tapestry”) was wandering around Yeoville incognito, sporting snakeskin boots, considerable shoulder muscles and a trim beard, or, I had somehow landed myself in scam central.
I discovered that I was surrounded by a group of rather distinguished people: other than Mrs. Sigcau, there was Albert Chissama, Esq. (writing from his own chambers in the High Court of Lagos, no less), Olusegun Abacha (General Abacha’s second son by his third wife, who had to go into hiding at an early age because Abacha’s first wives were jealous and spiteful, you understand), even the secret male lover of Colonel “Khadafi.” And they were all writing, with “a deep sense of purpose and the utmost sincerity” to inform you of vast sums of money hidden in secret Swiss banks that could be yours, in exchange for some consequential personal information or a little hard cash.
Nigerian 419 scam letters (named after the section of the Nigerian penal code that describes the fraud) had long intrigued me. Douglas Cruickshank, writing in Salon.com, suggests that Nigerian scammers have invented a whole new literary genre:
“The truth is I've fallen for them, too -- not for the scam part, but for the writing, the plots (fragmented as they are), the characters, the earnest, alluring evocations of dark deeds and urgent needs, Lebanese mistresses, governments spun out of control, people abruptly "sacked" for "official misdemeanours" and all manner of other imaginative details all delivered in a prose style that is as awkward and archaic as it is enchanting.”
Cavendish Street suddenly became a lot more exciting. Forced to relocate by crackdowns at home, my neighbourhood in South Africa had become the Grub Street of this Nigerian literary movement. The scamsters came in at dawn and left at dusk. All day, they would sit before their computers with software that trawled the internet for intact email addresses; then, with the flick of a wrist, Barrister Momoh Sanni Momoh’s dark deeds and urgent needs would be broadcast to thousands of unwilling recipients. They had it down pat. They knew exactly how many email addresses to append to each outgoing mail (Yahoo and Hotmail impose limits on the number of people you can email in one go) and their cellphones were always switched on, just in case someone needed to contact the offices of Sierra Leone Diamond Mines, currently represented by a Vodacom pay-as-you-go number in Johannesburg.
There’s a whole moral element to these scams, of course, but I can’t say I feel sorry for the victims. The letters make it plain that it’s a scam within a scam: the illegality of the entire enterprise is laid out right from the word go. How do you feel sorry for someone who thinks he didn’t get his fair share of a burglary? I tried to push this further with Ephraim, but he clammed up. All he said was this: “Me, I don’t do it. But what they get from these emails, it is what allows so many people to leave Nigeria and come here, to begin new lives.”
There are other people who hope to begin new lives in Yeoville. Some of them are frail old ladies who have travelled from Sebokeng and Soweto to sell vegetables on Raleigh Street. They pitch up each day, squat on the road, and offer a small quantity of fresh produce. Since everyone knows that selling vegetables on the road is the Number One reason for crime in South Africa, the police swoop down on them regularly. They come in with sirens blazing, put on their bullet-proof vests, and fearlessly confiscate anything they can lay their hands on. The contraband is then taken away, presumably, to that well-known national storehouse of illegal vegetables.
Perhaps the ladies need a giant corporation to represent them. Across the road from where they sit is a brightly coloured Cell-C phone booth. I went there once to call my parents in India, and dialled without asking the rates. I was alarmed to find that Cell-C charges exactly double the Telkom rate for international calls – as they do in similar booths set up in low-income areas all around Johannesburg. It’s an infallible business plan: charge the poor people twice as much. But don’t take my word for it – go C for yourself.
Six months ago, I was driving home late from work. It was a Sunday night, and I was finishing up a paper due to be presented at a conference. At about 12:30 am, I approached the intersection between Berea and Yeoville, when I was ordered to stop by police officers. They asked for my license. I showed it to them. They asked me where I was from: I told them. They asked to see my passport. I explained that I had left it in my office in Newtown – but that they were welcome to come with me and see it. After years of dealing with the Indian law enforcement, I know my police manners: always admit you’re wrong, grovel for sympathy and appeal to the greatness of the human spirit. Fresh from an intensive beginner’s course in Zulu, I even spoke as much of it as I could recall. It didn’t impress: the officer whose face rested on my window only seemed to speak Sotho. It was another matter that he was armed and extremely drunk.
He thought I was being impertinent. I was a foreigner driving late at night through the inner-city; ergo, I was a criminal. Officer One (no name badge) took my car keys and hauled me off to the back of a police van. Inside were two frightened Nigerians and one Cameroonian. None of them had any money to bribe the police with – hence their confinement. Meanwhile, officers Two, Three, Four and Five commandeered the road, threatening passers-by to stop or be shot at. Four hours later, after the night’s collections were in, I was let out. Just for good measure, my wallet was “confiscated.” And in case I didn’t understand the severity of my misdemeanour, I was told that they would be “watching me.”
I tried to lodge a complaint with the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) of South Africa. The ICD has an ostensibly simple complaint process. Its website provides two useful services to the public. One is, “Lodging a complaint against a member of SAPS.” The other is, “Complimenting a member of SAPS.” Funnily enough, only one service actually works.
I carefully went through the categories of complaint on offer. I decided that mine was Type III, a category that includes offences as precise as “Sodomy” and as poetic as “Defeating the ends of justice.” But hit on the link to take you to the complaints form, and you are confronted with a blank page. Call the ICD in Pretoria, and they will tell you that though they would like to email you the complaint form, procedure bars them from doing so. Ask in frustration, after several months of trying to register a complaint, as to what you are expected to do and you will be told to come to Pretoria during working hours and lodge the complaint there.
But the ends of justice had finally defeated me, and I never got around to it. I didn’t know the names of the officers who assaulted me that night, I was too scared to note down the registration number of the police van we were in, and frankly, I was just tired sick of the whole thing. These little love-ins with the police happen to everyone who lives where I do. The most bizarre event I have heard of is the police throwing an ID-less man from Durban in jail overnight – all because he couldn’t recite the numbers one to ten in Afrikaans (irrefutable proof of his foreignness, never mind that he spoke chaste Zulu.) I’m still frequently asked for my papers. But I’m wiser now: I tell them that my passport is at home, show them a photocopy, and if they persist, offer to call the Commissioner of Police to clarify matters – not that I know him, or have his number.
Last week, a friend picked me up from home. It was a Friday night, and driving out, we noticed the enormous police presence in the area. There were patrol cars everywhere. “What a safe area this is,” he said, approvingly. Rot. As long as the upstanding citizens of Sandton believe that the police are keeping their 2.3 bedrooms safe from inner-city thugs, the men in blue are free to do their thing. Residents of Yeoville are not confused by flashing lights. Armed Response wants passengers and policemen want cash. Try driving through the intersection of Rockey and Raymond Streets without being pestered to buy some kind of narcotic, regardless of how many police officers are around. Try it.
And even as I whine about the self-appointed immigration squads of Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow, the truth is, they are but cogs in a vast machine. My indignation at being treated like an illegal immigrant arises mainly from the fact that I am not. This is not a situation that applies to many of my neighbours. If police corruption is the problem, as seems the case, is an efficient process the answer? Faced with the prospect of an indefinite holiday in Lindela, most people I know would prefer to part with some loose change.
Perhaps the real problem is too big for this essay, or for the residents of Yeoville, who – for the most part – seem to be quite happy to endure occasional police torture in exchange for residence in Johannesburg. The politics of nationhood and South Africa’s peculiar relationship with the third world deserve a better examination elsewhere. As for now, we’re happy to go about doing our thing and enjoying the salubrious delights of the inner-city while we can.
For its hard not to appreciate a place where you can have your sandals stitched up – after you played soccer in them – for less than 5 Rand, or a place where you can haggle over the price of fresh plantains with people who then become your friends. It’s hard not to feel thankful for being alive when you wander about an open-air market to pounding rhythms from five countries and three continents. And it’s hard not to love the fact that you can always find someone to repair your microwave oven after it blew up when you hardboiled eggs for thirty minutes instead of ten, in the course of surprising your housemate with breakfast.
In fact, it’s just like home: except so very excitingly foreign.
"Yeoville Confidential" appears in the book, "Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis" edited by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (Duke/ Wits 2008). A version of this essay was previously published by The Mail & Guardian as "Ode to my Yeoville" in August 2005. This essay appears here courtesy of the author.