IN THE winter of 2008, shortly after reading Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys: Joburg & what-what, I took to wandering around Johannesburg on foot. I was so inspired by the book I wanted to experience Johannesburg anew. But I did not want merely to retrace Vladislavic's footsteps in an eastern corner of Jozi. I wanted to chart my own path in my corner of a city that Vladislavic calls, with a hint of irony, "the Venice of the South".
I was staying at a friend's apartment in Killarney at the time and began with modest walks. The first walk I took was from Killarney to Zoo Lake and, as I grew more comfortable, I started walking from Killarney to Rosebank and back again. When that walk grew familiar, I changed direction and walked towards Johannesburg's old central business district. Some of these were just random walks and they began with my choosing on the spot to walk in a particular direction. Others were more purposeful.
Once, I walked from Killarney to downtown Johannesburg; from there I walked along Jan Smuts Avenue to Randburg on an errand. I then walked back to Killarney via Rosebank. On another occasion, I walked from Killarney to Rosebank to Illovo and then tried to go from there to Atlas Studios in Parktown/Auckland Park for a function, which was set for 6pm.
I left Illovo at 4pm, thinking I would have enough time to make it to the event by cutting through Craighall Park, Rosebank, Parktown North and Parkview. But I knew I was not going to make it when, after walking through unfamiliar side streets for about an hour, I discovered I had got no farther than the northern section of Zoo Lake. I dropped my plans and walked to Killarney instead. One week I walked about 50km. It was a winter of revelations and discoveries.
I had always negotiated Houghton and Saxonwold by car and had not thought much of the bodies I saw often on the street. Walking through these two suburbs in particular allowed me to appreciate them in ways I had not considered before. I discovered, for example, that there are no pavements for pedestrians in Houghton. What footpaths there are have been "cut out" of lawns by thousands of pedestrian feet. Houghton, it seemed, was not meant for walkers.
I discovered that nothing made a street safer than fellow pedestrians. There was nothing like seeing fellow pedestrians going about their business to make me feel safe in my wanderings. I also found out that Killarney and Saxonwold were major transit points for people walking between Hillbrow/Joubert Park/Yeoville - where they lived - to Rosebank and Sandton, where many worked.
My wanderings were inspired by Vladislavic's book, which offers an idiosyncratic guided tour of Johannesburg. Vladislavic uses vignettes and meditations to examine what it means to live in a city where, for example, (middle-class) houses have burglar alarms as a matter of life and death and car steering wheels are routinely put under the grip of a Gorilla lock.
Vladislavic's spot of Johannesburg happens to be around the corner from the Marymount Nursing Home, which he uses as a landmark when giving people directions to his home. It works. When I recommend Portrait with Keys to (white) people over 50, I always ask where they were born. A few have answered: "The Marymount". Read the book to hear Vladislavic's brother, Branko, explain why, as the book puts it, you "can hardly turn a corner in Johannesburg without bumping into a Marymount baby".
Portrait with Keys is more than a guided tour of a corner of white Johannesburg. It is also a melancholic take on what it means to live in anxious times and to walk through a city filled with nervous energy. The book also guides the reader to other books. Two that stood out for me were Pentimento, an intriguing memoir by the playwright Lillian Hellman, and The Art of Walking, a delightful collection of essays.
Why am I remembering my winter wanderings from 2008 now? My long walks ceased a long time ago. I now cover greater distances, such as that between Katlehong and Pretoria, by minibus taxis. My intention is to see Johannesburg from a different vantage point. This time, instead of seeing Johannesburg from the pavement up, I am trying to experience it from the relative "safety" of a minibus taxi seat. I am trying to experience Johannesburg and its environs the way thousands of people experience it every day. I am, of course, aware that I have a choice in the matter and that there is a big difference between taking a taxi at 4.30am just so I can make it to the gym by 5am and someone taking that same taxi so she can be at work on time. But there is something to be said for the joys of being a flaneur, even one in a taxi. As Walter Benjamin, that flaneur par excellence, said: it takes real skill to lose oneself in a city.
- Dlamini is author of Native Nostalgia (Jacana 2009).