Article Creativity + Identity

The Joburg Rebellion: drugs, geography, art and the gentrification boom

Transport systems have played a vital role in Johannesburg’s fast-changing social and economic dynamic. The Rea Vaya bus system, planned for launch within the context of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, was finally activated at full scale in 2014. The upper class Gautrain system links the airport, Pretoria, the commercial district of Sandton and the city. As a result, tourists can get to the city and the townships more easily, while township dwellers with enough money can access the city and the Sandton business district faster than ever before.

And then there are the creatives: from painting murals to providing art for the bus stations to generating fresh musical forms a new, fundamentally artistic generation is infusing the city’s many commercial developments with a heady style and atmosphere.

Johannesburg’s duality remains obvious to all, however. The new transport backbone caters chiefly to the rising middle classes. Cost and physical accessibility keep city residents and those from surrounding townships like Soweto, Katlehong and Alexandra out of the loop. Indeed, while the grit of the inner city makes a compelling backdrop for the creatives, academics and journalists who populate its development zones, the city core remains abstract and can only truly be accessed and enjoyed by its new constituents within the context of extensive private security.

Some areas, such as the vast, sprawling Noord taxi rank, are simply no-go zones – even though many thousands of commuters move through them daily. Within the acclaimed development districts, protection is a primary concern. Every rejuvenated city block is guarded at all four corners. Cars can only be safely parked with the protection of one or more car guards.

Recently given a glamorous dance music treatment by American electronic music artist Skrillex, Johannesburg’s recyclers are notable, ubiquitous city figures. They drag trolleys of plastic and paper across vast distances, heading literally and metaphorically into the city’s aggressive oncoming traffic. The recyclers are a dominant part of the Joburg experience, yet as members of the city’s extensive underclass they are also an inherently alien presence; their face masks not only protect them against the elements but also heighten the science-fiction atmosphere of a city forced to make regular, awkward eye contact with a conflicted inner self.

Uncomfortable proximity

Artist Zwelethu Machepha regularly visits a group of Basotho recyclers in the abandoned building they occupy across the road from the city’s burgeoning Maboneng Precinct. Literally translated, Maboneng means “place of light”. The precinct is one of several highly successful, privately funded city development zones featuring a litany of art galleries, coffee shops, rooftop party and club venues, media agencies, vintage stores and NGO funded creative spaces. Eschewing the sci-fi approach, Machepha creates poignant watercolour paintings that depict the recycler’s nuanced social and economic lives, rather than the gritty, abstract veneer most locals recognise.

In his dealings with the recyclers, Machepha has discovered how much they fear eviction from their building. Maboneng is set to expand again, and when it does the recyclers will probably lose their operational and residential hub. Machepha expresses some concern as to how his art will be received by the art establishment that dominates areas like Maboneng. Are his pictures too direct a comment on the uncomfortable proximity between Joburg’s underclass and the booming art world? Will the arts scene simply ignore his work? An artist from a working-class background, these are important questions for Machepha, who needs to sell work consistently to sustain a promising yet nascent career.

Such issues of class proximity – and conflict – are relatively new in the Johannesburg city centre, which was abandoned by the private sector and the middle classes in the 10 years following democracy, when the Joburg CBD was widely perceived to be simply too ominous for anyone with any other options to use. Today, however, the clash of classes is on everyone’s minds.

“Development and gentrification are one thing. The definition is dependent on which side of the door you are”, says Banele Rewo, founder and creative director of the I Create We Create conference, a social development programme for creatives and entrepreneurs.

“Are you going in, or are you being pushed out of the building?”

Rewo articulates a widely agreed vision for the future development of the city. “I would love to see a Jozi that is run by young professionals and entrepreneurs. This would mean in that five years’ time education, government, big business and society at large would have put adequate emphasis on youth development.”

How to deliver on this vision is a point of much debate. The arts establishment (comprising those who earn reliable upper middle-class income from their work and presence in the city) often appears to relish the social affirmation and novelty of a racially mixed crowd as much as it does the language of social development. The subjects of the development narrative - the poor - are, however, conspicuous by their absence from Joburg’s rejuvenation zones. As a result, militant arts intellectuals such as Andile Mngxitama loudly disdain the “missionary impulse of the white liberal who is forever driven by a desire to rescue the native from the sin of blackness”.

Those on the fringes of Joburg’s creative establishment are more prone to overtly polemic art. Indeed, sometimes the art becomes positively activist. In August 2014, for example, a group of young art guerillas carried out a violently messy pink paint job on the many buildings in the city that have been allowed to fall into ruin by government and private landlords. The artists were led in their project by New York-based, Colombian-American artist, Yazmany Arboleda, who was arrested for his efforts (once released, he headed back to New York). Most of the artists were chased by police and “had to run like hell”.

Beyond ghetto

“I totally enjoyed doing it”, says one of pink paint artists. “Being in the buildings after midnight was weird. You rock up in some of them and see this beautiful architecture and infrastructure, but on the inside it’s beyond ghetto. It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah thing. It (the project) makes an important point. Things have to change.”

Allen Laing is a young white South African artist who has been living in the city for the last 18 months in a rooftop apartment on top of Corner House, on the cusp of the city’s banking quarter. Set to study his fine art Master’s degree in 2015, Laing creates carefully wrought, imagined mythology sculptures of the people and scenes he experiences in the city.

“I started imagining this mythology of Joburg”, he says. “For example, in Jozi people don’t look left and right before they cross the street. I started to think there must be some kind of superstitious or metaphysical explanation for this. For those types of stories where you have no explanation and so, for lack of anything better, you imagine a mythology. I’m spoofing, in a sense… It’s slightly satirical, but it’s not mocking. It’s a way of understanding.”

Laing is very reflective of the strange class dynamic taking shape in the new city. “I always take photos on my phone when I walk to work”, he says. “I’ve noticed that the photos I take are not of people, but of the residues of people.” He explains how his fondness for urban scenes devoid of humans is markedly different to many other, largely black, locals, who express their understanding of the city in terms of their relation to other people.

Laing’s ironic social awareness is one of the hallmarks of the new Joburg inner city, where most role players view social and racial complexity as an inherent part of their daily existence, and where the formal art world’s leading figures are aware that they are viewed as an elite club. Many, in fact, accept that this club is central to the business: art only holds its commercial value if it is exclusive.

Creatives who hail from working-class backgrounds and whose understanding of creative South African life is steeped in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid are the antithesis of this establishment. Even while participating within new development zones, this segment of Joburg’s creative community critiques gentrification often and younger members of this artistic opposition frequently take a racial view of the ongoing clash between classes.

“It’s totally visible, the racial thing. It’s in your face when you are out there at night, the clash”, says Michael Balkind, a regular DJ and the director and founder of, a 15-year-old online city entertainment magazine. Balkind tells a story about a racially confrontational conversation at Kitcheners, the tiny Braamfontein nightclub that sits at the heart of the city’s music scene. He, like many others, relishes the fizz of Joburg’s social clash. He views the interaction as both very necessary and very rare in South Africa, where 20 years after democracy racial groups remain fundamentally separated outside the sphere of formal office and organisational life. Balkind also (again, like many others) finds the creative output gushing from the city compelling.

“There’s this new sound – I don’t even know what it’s called. When you go to Kitcheners and listen to some of the stuff, it’s incredible. It’s dark, it’s lovely, it’s bassy … There’s a huge pack of young people out there doing their own thing. The Joburg sound is completely unique globally. It’s amazing.”

He lists a blizzard of new names creating a distinctly Joburg mash-up of sounds that fuses jazz, hip hop, rock and traditional African musical and cultural influences.

The new, mashed-up Joburg sound not only reflects the intensity of the city’s social interactions – it also holds a mirror to the city’s changed drug culture. Twenty years ago, Joburg was primarily fuelled by alcohol and marijuana. Today, the city offers a hard drug to every level of the social pyramid. Street kids and the indigent underclass smoke nyaope – a mix of dirty heroin and grass. Tik (methamphetamine) is spreading across the working classes, while creative types of all races indulge in cocaine and cat at unprecedented levels, a clear factor in the faster, harder Jozi sound. Joburg is, ultimately, a reliably intoxicated city. Drinking at Braamfontein’s Neighbourgoods Market – a Saturday morning showcase of art, craft and edible things – notoriously starts at 9am.

“Where the development goes, the drugs follow”, says an anonymous marijuana dealer, who has been selling weed in the city for over a decade. “As new areas are developed, the dealers arrive…”

And so do the petty criminals, who target suburbanites and long-time city locals indiscriminately. When viewed through the lens of drugs and crime, it seems impossible that Joburg’s new city development projects will shift a fundamentally blighted socioeconomic environment. Nonetheless, the ongoing commercial development of the city is viewed by most Joburg constituents – even those wary of the negative impact of gentrification – as positive.

“If you look at the Maboneng area compared to what it was, or what it’s adjacent to, it’s really a transformed space. It has transformed disused buildings into exciting spaces and brought a new cultural perspective to things. It’s inspired us on this side too. Now you can look at spaces and see possibility”, says Steve Kwena Mokwena, owner of the Afrikan Freedom Station. “The difficulty is that it’s the same old money recycling itself within the same small group of people. It’s also often the same artists getting the play again.”

Situated in Westdene, on the border of Sophiatown, many kilometres from Johannesburg’s new development zones, The Afrikan Freedom Station is so small it seems impossible that any kind of live performance could take place there – let alone that the venue could have featured the who’s who of the local jazz and spoken word scenes, along with regular fine art exhibitions. The “station” is a purposely communal arts space with a philosophy diametrically opposed to the coffee shop atmosphere of the Maboneng Precinct.

The other side

“My subject is always placement. Why isn’t that piece of art able to be exhibited on that side of the world?” asks Lebohang Goge, who works at the Afrikan Freedom Station as a part-time bartender. His recent fine art features cows within a blazingly abstract swirl of urban colour, while his sketches and line drawings offer a grotesque, tragicomic combination of city imagery.

Goge distances himself from overt black consciousness conversations, but as a Freedom Station regular he is well versed in the subject and is able, when he feels like it, to engage. This ability identifies him clearly as someone from the Other Side of the city: the side that connects geographically and culturally to the township of Soweto and to black working-class life.

Goge’s creative and commercial struggles fall into the general ambit of Steve Mokwena’s life philosophy as the founder of the Afrikan Freedom Station. A film-maker, writer, jazz aficionado and artist, Mokwena sees the new generation of creatives moving through his venue as notably racially focused, philosophically speaking.

“Mandela is now the bad guy”, he laughs ironically. “I find myself having to defend him quite often!” Mokwena himself, however, views notions of black consciousness and the class divide in terms of individual empowerment. “We can’t fetishise the day we storm the gates of power and take it all back”, he says. “What happens to the person after that? The 20 years since apartheid were squandered in a sense, but we’ve also had to learn a hell of a lot… things like the culture of business and money. The poetry of productivity.” Mokwena seeks to communicate this idea of individual empowerment to the new generations he interacts and works with.

Blessing Ngobeni is one Joburg artist who has jumped from the working-class context straight into a career within the city’s arts mainstream. A child runaway who fled domestic violence in his rural home, Ngobeni has extensive experience of all sides of the South African class conundrum.

“The Joburg development has been great so far”, he says. “But still, the masses face the problem of high cost. I believe development should also accommodate the poor.” Ngobeni’s cheery attitude and personal demeanour belie the hard-hitting nature of his art, which offers a uniquely savage critique of the still fraught nature of city existence. In Democratic Slave Master, for example, sinister figures march relentlessly forward with guns and whips and poles, carrying all the negative emotion of Henry Morton Stanley’s original violent colonial venture through the continent.

The little people, who are too small to really see, are simply crushed en route.

Ngobeni encapsulates the often extraordinary story of 21st century Joburg. He welcomes the new developments as very necessary for the city. At the same time, he is willing and able to express his disagreement with aspects of the developmental trajectory, and sometimes his disagreement is violently visually compelling. Like most people involved in the Joburg arts scene, he speaks with a broad rebel’s smile.

Ultimately, it is this inherently rebellious yet friendly nature of most of the city’s people that leaves one hopeful for Joburg’s long-term future. No one here is going away. And no one is backing down intellectually or creatively either. In a country of isolation, fear and enclaves, this kind of stubbornness can surely only be a good thing.

Image: Every Day Robots, (c) Zwelethu Machepha

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