By Derick Matsengarwodzi
As the day comes to life, it wakens entrepreneurs handing out leaflets promising a range of goods and services from fortune telling, love portions, illegal abortion methods, manhood enlarging and sex improvement mixtures. All these are available at a bargain price, of course.
Collectively the team invades the street corners with all their selling potential, turning it into one large informal market. If you were there you maybe greeted, “What can I do for you my dear brother/sister. Come to me. I offer the best prices in the whole city.” The speaker then flips a pamphlet in your path. If you are new, welcome to Johannesburg or Egoli. The City of Gold - a town oiled by its countless clever fortune-seekers and anonymous risk-takers.
Walking through the city prompts the question - Who rules Joburg?
Mornings are for traders like “Professor Oluga” to rise and shine. Originally from West Africa, he claims his medicines can cure all diseases and give luck to gamblers. His haphazard leaflet boldly declares that his medication has been tried and passed the herbal test. It boasts: “Same time and same day muthi expert. See your enemy in water; bring back love same day; muthi to love you alone and have a baby; boost your business, job promotion and luck; win gambling and lucky charm; safe women’s clinic and know your enemies and take revenge.” The Professor, only 27 years old, can only be seen by appointment. Judging by his daily presence, business must be roaring. On the contrary, his life is a daily struggle just like many Joburgers regardless of his fortune charms.
Jozi is a city of firsts in many ways. A ten rand may be almost worthless elsewhere - here it regains its buying power. With the same note you can buy the latest blockbuster movie as it is released on the international cinema circuits. “Yes, boss. Are you looking for the latest James Bond 007 movie? You have come to the right place boss. Just take your pick and we can talk.” The charming hawker hands over a pile of compact disks to a customer and digs into his bag for more. “Here we stock everything, including Nigerian movies.” he smiles satisfied with his marketing moves. Suddenly, someone shouts loudly. “Police! Police are coming!” This is a warning to flee from danger. In a minute the streets are deserted but as long as the sun will shine, they will return. The purchase is however at the buyer’s own risk as most of the disks produce unclear images with little or no volume.
It’s real - Egoli residents rarely sleep. In fact, the only moment you really sleep in Johannesburg is when you die. Even before the sun rises, the noisy hooting from Park Station signals muggers to prowl, for taverns to open, for street wares and traditional muthi market to lay out their goods. With each train loaded with people ready headed to work at the city’s busy firms, the chaos is certainly not limited to the pavements. You will be shell-shocked as overloaded carts with plastic and cardboards for the recyclable factories squeeze through heavy traffic at high speeds. No matter how much motorists hoot, the carts will duck and compete with cars. “Hey, mind your own business. Do you want my family to starve to death?” A cart owner yells as he overtakes them. And life goes on. For some, their destination is the cross boarder bus station. As you may have guessed, these are loaded with household and electronic goods destined for beyond South Africa. Their owners follow behind to keep pace with the cart man’s heavily built body shinning with sweat, a mark for his “successful job”.
“Be careful, you will be knocked down,” is his warning to fellow pedestrians.
The term fong-kong needs no introduction in Joburg. Asian traders have conveniently taken over most retail space and in style. A label such as Sony becomes Fony, Fila relabeled Pila, Nike distorted to Nice while Adidas maybe Abibas in that fake order. Even communication with the owners leaves a lot to be desired. However the benefits of China Town cannot be underrated because they mean a television set in many households, sneakers for winter or even a dual SIM card mobile.
As night falls the Professor retires while gangs of street kids harassing fast food shoppers. “Can you give me just a 50c to buy a loaf of bread? I haven’t eaten anything for the last two days sir.” The famous begging language begins.
While darkness may signal the end to daylight activities more troubles soon start for the traders in sleeping dormitories spread around the city. Property owners have divided renting space to sleeping tenants’ exact needs using curtaining material. Again, a R10 note will pay for a small sleeping space at night - but privacy is not guaranteed.
By now streets lights have taken over for the sun. Night operators emerge. Prostitutes and drug peddlers spring into action. Addicts know where to stop and get a quick joint. Hookers assume their positions. Amongst them are young girls whose grandparents have lost any hopes of ever being reunited. Most share a common sad story. “I came here to stay with a relative and look for work. My aunt later told me life is now expensive and I had to “make a plan” (find a solution). The result, for some, is witnessed now. Among the girls are students and professionals looking to “supplement” their meager income. Despite that, they walk the streets flashing their “merchandise” to passing cars. Their conversations begin “Hi, do you need entertainment for the night?” A scantily dressed youth forces a smile to attract her tenth client for the night.
The driver stares her from top to bottom and repeats the same procedure. “Get in, we can talk inside the car.” Inside the car, she repeats her questions for emphasis. “So, do you need a quirky, oral or a full house service mister?”
“You are a professional. I am really impressed.”
Their conversation continues until the car turns into the lodge’s parking lot.
Gun shots, car hijackings and death are part of Johannesburg’s daily street life. Even with cops on patrol. Nobody wants to be associated with the city’s various unsolved crimes. Drug lords are always reportedly foreign. The same goes for the bombing of automated teller machines. In fact, all wrongs are supposedly “committed” by them – the foreigners.
A few years ago blind beggars came from neighboring countries looking for a new set of well-wishers. Since then they have invaded street junctions depriving local beggers of much-needed income. When xenophobic attacks happened in 2008, they were allegedly led and sparked by “Joburg thugs”.
If one is a true South African, chances are that he supports either one of the two Soweto soccer giants, Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs. Their affirmative reply is usually “sure sure” (shoo shoo) instead of “yes”. Their speech often begins with an “eish!”. For example: “Eish, I really need a beer right now.” Probably then, you have met a true Joburger.
For sure, for shoo…Mzansi belongs to someone.
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Derick Matsengarwodzi is a Zimbabwean journalist currently working in South Africa.