Yeoville: Racial harmony, love and loss in South Africa

In “Yeoville in 2 Genres” the late actor, writer and producer John Matshikiza and others describe the multi-racial and multicultural community of Yeoville, in Johannesburg, South Africa and its changing history.

In the early 90s, the eyes of the world were on Nelson Mandela, South Africa and a dream that the world’s most racially repressive regime might be able to peacefully transform itself into a new, multi-racial democracy, with broad human rights enshrined in a new constitution. It was a stupendous dream that was all the more momentous because Nelson Mandela and his political colleagues had spent more than 27 years in prison – and many activists were tortured or killed – because of their ideals.

In 1994 I arrived in Johannesburg on blind faith, idealism and the hope that I would find kernels of love and meaning in South Africa’s historical moment of truth – the democratic elections ending apartheid – that would burnish in my soul as a writer and a journalist. I had vast arrays of questions, thoughts and preconceived notions filtered from an African-American perspective; but I also couldn’t have fully known what I was seeking, because my eventual realizations were woven into the mysterious, complicated, dynamic and insular fabric South African society itself. They were hidden in serendipitous encounters, in people I would meet, places I would see and conversations I would have; there were fine grains of truth in ideas and stories I would stumble upon, in awkward moments, sublime emotions and magnificent human gestures.

On the day of my arrival, March 31, 1994, I found myself in Yeoville, a fascinating community that is intimately tied to a cultural vision of a New South Africa. Yeoville’s fragile story is the story of hopes and fears of what the best and worst of South African society can be. The loving, magnanimous community of Yeoville drew me into her bosom and captured my imagination; she opened my heart, nurtured my yearning and transformed my understanding.

Through contacts with a friend, I was temporarily put up in an apartment on Hunter Street, just one block over from Yeoville’s iconic and celebrated Rockey Street. On that first night, sitting on the patio, we heard the music in the distance; Rockey Street had a wild, frenetic vibe pulsating with rhythm and energy in the atmosphere, like an electric storm. My hosts – two lovely young professional African women, one Xhosa and one Zulu – were eager to take me out (“jowling,” in South African parlance) that night. “It sounds like the party is just getting started on Rockey Street,” Nomvuyo said, with an exquisite, charming smile that could melt any man’s heart. “Oh, you’ll love Rockey Street – it’s gonna to be fun tonight!” Thandi added, swaying her hips, ready to dance. We had a fabulous jowl that night, starting at Rockafellas and moving on to jazz at Rumours, and then the rest of the night blended into hazy memories of music, drinks and laughter. I had no idea how much this fascinating, eclectic community with its bars, coffee shops, restaurants, night clubs and colorful characters – writers, artists, musicians, actors, entrepreneurs, street vendors, residents and anonymous African folk – would shape my life in the 8 long years that followed.

Now, some 24 years later, I am delighted to find a documentary series, “Yeoville in Two Genres,” produced by Gillian Schutte, that bears witness and affirmation to some of my experiences. Part of the series is narrated by the late Aura Msimang, a beloved South African musician and Yeoville resident who passed away in December 2015, to the great sadness of her friends and colleagues. I loved seeing Aura and her peeps at Yeoville’s Times Square Café, a frequent gathering place for musicians, writers, artists, actors and activists. It became my favorite local hangout and it yielded many enduring friendships and phenomenal encounters; Aura was a treasured soul among that amenable circle of friends and acquaintances. Times Square felt like it could be an new millennium African version of Hemingway’s or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Les Deux Magots or St. Germain-des-Pres or some other Parisian café in the 1920s; there were South Africans of every stripe and Africans from all over the Continent along with a few African Americans as well, producing extraordinary dialogues and thoughtful philosophical forays. Aura’s walking tour was a superb vehicle for exploring and reflecting this eclectic spirit of Yeoville because Aura was an African mother and sister to the entire community. Much like her music, her personality was fluid and rhythmic; she seemed to know everyone in the creative and eccentric Yeoville Universe and she could move easily between various languages and social groups. In my later years in South Africa, Yeoville became an African cultural haven for me; I doubt there are many communities in Africa or any other part of the world with this kind of diversity from all over the Motherland. Towards the end of my time in South Africa – 8 years after my initial introduction to the raucous, exuberant party life on Rockey Street – I would typically hear 7 languages on the street daily, mostly English, French, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi and Setswana as well as Pidgin, a little Portuguese and a smattering of unrecognizable West African languages and dialects.

“Yeoville in 2 Genres” Part 2; Musician and singer Aura Msimang narrates a walking tour of Yeoville, talking with residents, entrepreneurs and artists. 

“Heaven is a Racially Integrated Neighborhood”

I’ve seen these words on a bumper sticker a few times in my life; I have no idea who thought this up and I’m not sure why it resonates intuitively as a postulate of inner truth. I may have seen the bumper sticker in New York, or Washington, D.C.; perhaps the originator was thinking of parts of Brooklyn or Adams-Morgan or places like that. Something in this message became a marker and an open question about the communities where I lived in South Africa, particularly Yeoville. From my first encounter with Yeoville, I developed an immediate feeling of transcendence that gave me a different idea about how many South Africans have their own way of appreciating each other and ignoring the categories and stereotypes that apartheid was supposed to designate, authorize and control. The distinct creativity and unbridled élan of South African jazz, the attractive beauty of African, Indian, Coloured and white South Africans coming together with their own style and cool was an open secret hidden away from the rest of the world, privy to those who knew. There’s a special magic in South Africa jazz, in its diverse elements and its unique power to bring different types of people together. Musicians like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Jonathan Butler, Moses Molelekwa, Pops Mohamed, Busi Mhlongo, Zim Ngqawana, Vusi Khumalo, Sakhile and Paul Hanmer are high priests and shamans of a numinous social dimension and a shared culture of oddly disparate ties that bind. The conversations that happened in Yeoville felt like the “New South Africa” had long been brewing in its own quiet existence, waiting only to rise to the surface and be accepted by all. During the 1994 election the excitement was palpable in glowing smiles and shining faces along Johannesburg’s streets and in weeks of seemingly nonstop nightly parties and celebrations. For those of us who wanted to believe, the future was bright and beautiful, like an endlessly blue summer sky.


Yeoville in recent times: Yeoville African Market, Ekhaya Restaurant, House of Tandoor and Times Square Cafe.

It is the nature of neighborhoods to grow, change and evolve and the Rockey Street and Yeoville of my welcoming to South Africa in 1994 was quite a different community than is being presented in parts of the “Yeoville in Two Genres” series, which Schutte produced in 2008. In 1994, most of the merchants were white and Jewish and most the residents were an interesting racial mix of African, Coloured, Indian and white South Africans – but not many Africans from north of the Limpopo River.

Yeoville in Transition

From what I remember, much of the change in Yeoville – although it happened gradually over several years – was attributable to (or at least sparked by) a pivotal event. At some point in 1995 a fight had broken out near the lower end of Rockey Street and a young man – a known drug dealer – was beating his wife or girlfriend. The Jamaican owner of a pub, Ridley Wright, tried to do the right thing by stopping the fight and protecting the woman. Apparently the man, fuming with anger, walked across the street to the Army surplus pawn shop and bought a large knife, with which he attacked and killed the pub owner. The pub was closed for several weeks and several nearby shops and establishments chained and locked their doors as well. Protests of police inaction followed. But for months the atmosphere on the lower end of Rockey Street was gloomy and dark, as the brute violence of this act cast its shadow on the freedom, light and joy that had been there. The reggae music that spilled over into Rockey Street from Ridley Wright’s pub was gone and there was an eerie silence and emotional shock that tore at the community’s heart.

Yeoville changed dramatically over the next three or four years . By and large, the Jewish shop owners sold their businesses and left, with African establishments coming in their wake, especially toward to the lower end of Rockey Street. The middle parts of Rockey Street became more of an open market bazaar, where Africans were selling food, clothes, fabrics, art and various sundries. One section had become a series of makeshift barbershop stalls and hair salons, run by West Africans who were catering to the vast influx of their countrymen and women who had started living, working and socializing in Yeoville. I regularly met people from Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon and Senegal and I found them to be kind and friendly. There was also a small African grocery market where I often bought tiny knuckle-sized fish, which were inexpensive and easy to cook, reminding me of my mother’s ikan asing dish that I knew from Indonesia. Rockey Street’s long sidewalks became packed with the cacophony African hawkers setting up small stalls where they would sell vegetables, fruit and trinkets.

Along with the increase in crowds there was an uptick in crime. I once went to the OK Market which closed at 3 pm on Saturdays and I arrived at 2:52, leaving me with just 8 minutes to pick up one small bag of rice for the day. By the time I had passed through the cashier’s line tsotsis (a South African word for criminals) had broken my car window, popped the open the trunk and made off with my wash basket and a good portion of my wardrobe. My stomach sank as I surveyed the damage and I flipped out over my clothes. It was astounding that it had taken a mere 8 minutes for tsotsis to strike; I had barely even crossed the street. Not long after that a good friend of mine was robbed at gunpoint inside his home. And this is not to mention that a year later I was shot in a carjacking incident as tsotsis stole my Honda Civic in front of my apartment building on Cavendish and Minor – but that is entirely another story, for another time.

“Yeoville in 2 Genres” Part 3; Musician and singer Aura Msimang continues narrating her walking tour of Yeoville, talking with residents, entrepreneurs and artists.

As Rockey Street rebounded from the emptiness of 1995, new establishments were offering food, music and entertainment. On Raymond Street, a friend introduced me to a gay Xhosa man who ran a small barbershop and salon with barber chairs and hair dryers. It was a scene where gays, lesbians and others were welcome, and the establishment had a fresh, colorful, artistic feel to it. A rooftop reggae club, House of Tandoor, had opened up as well, with great music and a wonderful atmosphere for dancing and partying under the moonlight. The patio made it easy for patrons to enjoy their blunts in the open air, and at the very end of Rockey Street there was a thriving business of pedestrian marijuana dealers plying their trade on the street with cars that were slowly driving through. Near the corner of Hunter and Bezuidenhout, a group of Rastafarians were renting a house and they sold various small packets of the prized Swazi herb. It was a brazen arrangement, a well-known open secret; anyone could unassumingly walk up the steps and into the door. I am sure the police turned a blind eye to this activity because they must’ve had far more serious and violent crimes to worry about. It was easy to imagine this house with a much higher property value and very different tenants 5 years earlier; Yeoville was changing fast, retaining some of its familiar spirit, but it was also becoming a new version of itself.

Dissent and “The Death of Johannesburg”

My memories of the two Yeoville’s are different – but both overwhelmingly positive. The second Yeoville was decidedly less multi-racial and more African, but it was also a thrilling and joyful place to be, carrying much of the original Rockey Street energy but driven by different economic forces and populations. After “Yeoville in 2 Genres” brought back a flood of memories, I searched the Internet for more information on Yeoville and Rockey Street and I found similar memories and perceptions from the daughter of a shop owner, Nechama Brodie, now a journalist for the Mail & Guardian. But I was also perplexed to find a harsh but sentimental blog, “The Death of Johannesburg” with several sections on the neighboring communities of Hillbrow and Berea, as well as a page dedicated to Yeoville. The tone of the blogger, who is white, is decidedly bitter, with a narrative that blames Africans, the African National Congress (ANC) and liberals for the destruction of once beautiful and comfortable neighborhoods.

The “Death of Johannesburg” originator uses the screen name “the real realist” and an avatar depicting the South African flag in a garbage can. He or she apparently lives in exile but has made visits to Johannesburg driving through the city using a telephoto lens to document old streets and buildings that had once been upscale, trendy and well-cared for, but now have become run-down or abandoned structures, are often overrun with squatters, filth and trash. He or she also made a “Death of Johannesburg” video compilation of the photos set to a melancholic Enya soundtrack. For the white people who experienced an exciting and delightful city life in these neighborhoods from the 70s through the 90s, the  general consensus is a feeling of loss and sadness. Most of the comments reinforce the “real realist’s” caustic belief that liberals have allowed Africans to destroy Johannesburg, although some people challenge the more morbid and racist responses. Few people are brazen enough to openly attack the idea of democracy itself,  but many comments are hateful and chide Africans for not being clean, not having decent moral values and bringing HIV and crime to their Beautiful City on the Hill that White People Built.

“Yeoville in 2 Genres” Part 3; Musician and singer Aura Msimang completes her walking tour of Yeoville, talking with residents, entrepreneurs and artists.

In the friendships I made and personal experiences I had in Yeoville, I would have expected more enlightened attitudes about race – and yet I can also empathize with the mourning, the sense of loss and grief, because I had a brief glimpse into the artistic, creative and cultural potentials of these neighborhoods and what they once felt like. In a relatively short period of time, parts of lower Hillbrow have gone from upscale apartment buildings to slum tenements. For decades Africans, whites, Coloureds and Indians socialized more or less openly in Yeoville, Hillbrow and Berea’s nightclubs and restaurants; but while non-whites could blend into those bustling areas during apartheid, the South African Police were always lurking throughout the city and it could be dangerous for non-whites – especially Africans – to be anywhere in white Johannesburg after curfew. The historic tolerance of those areas in the context of the broader apartheid reality is an enigma; perhaps the difficulty reconciling the grace and joy of the inclusive Yeoville and the resentful and combative “The Death of Johannesburg” commentaries are part of a greater paradox.

It is a natural South African dream and supposition that the Western world, with its thriving economies, expanding technologies and education, can synthesize in a harmonious way with wild beauty, ancient intuitions and mysterious power of Africa. People want to see each other, black, white, Coloured, Indian, African and Afrikaners – in restaurants and bistros, clubs, coffee houses and sidewalk cafes, in poetry readings and jazz performances – and we want to revel in the untrammeled wonder and beauty of it all, in neighborhoods that are safe where we can walk along parks and tree-lined avenues with graceful architecture to places where we all feel accepted in an all-embracing, loving society. It would be nice to see all of this and feel like we’re in New York City’s Washington Square or strolling through a quaint neighborhood in Paris. Comedian and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, in his book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhoodmentions how his African mother and Swiss father became lovers in Hillbrow during the 80s and at times his father would spend time with him as a child in Yeoville. But while some have experienced glimpses of these communities in some of their more serene days, in the larger picture they were not sustainable, precisely because of the inane and irrational foundations of apartheid itself.

Questions about the Future

“The Death of Johannesburg” is a provocative, antagonistic statement; it proclaims a certain viewpoint about South Africa’s eventual progression toward democracy and racial inclusiveness. Whatever South Africa may or may not become in the near future, some things are less dramatic than the white detractors would like others to believe, yet in other ways there are wider successes and much more at stake than “The Death of Johannesburg” comments portend as well. These small neighborhoods are a tiny portion of the Johannesburg metropolitan area, which has its problems, but by no means is dying. The northern and southern suburbs remain much like they were during the apartheid era, except now more African, Coloured and Indians are free to live in homes there alongside their fellow white South Africans, as their lives and opportunities are improving. Crime is a persistent problem throughout Johannesburg, although it is more concentrated in downtown and inner city neighborhoods. The South African Police Service (SAPS) is overwhelmed by crime because it is an institution that formed its model of policing by racial and geographical segregation. The idea of regulating non-white citizens movements and their access to better-paying jobs, higher education and the central parts of the economy was never rational or sustainable and it created delusional, misguided ideas about comfort and safety among white South Africans.

There are other questions that should be asked about the New South Africa as a whole and its well-being. Are people in African townships, communities and regions like Soweto having more access to jobs, education, health care, electricity and paved roads? Are more non-white South Africans showing upward mobility and entering the middle and upper classes, thereby uplifting their own families? Is the South African economy growing in ways that can mitigate some of the problems and miseries of mass poverty? Perhaps most importantly of all, are more South Africans of different backgrounds talking to each other with a sense of acceptance, tolerance and understanding?

This last question should be considered in its own context, outside of politics, former President Jacob Zuma’s foibles and failures, the weaknesses of the ANC government, as well as the dangerous racial demagoguery of Julius Malema. Beyond the Julius Malema crowd on one side and the Death of Johannesburg folks on the other side, it has been my experience that South Africans of different backgrounds often approach each other in far more authentic and genuine ways than most Americans, which I found joyful, heartwarming and refreshing (the contrast is even more stark in the Trumpean era). It is a very different dynamic when whites are only 9 percent of the entire nation’s population and are forced to contend being a minority among nonwhites.  But perhaps many South Africans don’t see or appreciate the value of certain qualities in themselves, because it is harder to view their own culture from the outside looking in. This question has more to do with day-to-day interpersonal interactions and expanding goodwill. Much as in the United States, South Africa’s economy and its culture as a whole are bigger than the politics of the government as the ANC and other political parties grapple with rebuilding the nation. With phenomenal achievements in science, technology, industry, music, theater, literature and art, South Africans are great innovators and have produced a fascinating, dynamic society. There will be noises and shouting on each side of the extremes, but hopefully South Africans will continue to find ways to approach each other and work out solutions amongst themselves, in their own ways, in their own neighborhoods, communities and regions. In the meantime the South African economy, culture and society itself will continue to expand and evolve of its own accord.

Watching South African events from a distance, there have been unfortunate turns and disappointments and some of the peace and hope that was prominent in the mid-90s has been lost. Vast levels of corruption and “state capture” of government agencies by the Gupta family’s private vested interests have flourished under the fraudulent and incompetent leadership of former President Jacob Zuma. Angry #feesmustfall student protests over tuition increases and ham-fisted police responses led to violence and obstruction on the University of Witwatersrand campus, causing South Africa’s premier university to shut its doors for more than a monthXenophobia has spawned mob violence and murders of African immigrants, particularly from Somalia and Ethiopia, and an anti-African immigrant atmosphere generally. The national media dialogue has turned toward greater polarization, demagoguery and race baiting. The spirit and ideals behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the sense that South Africans are working together and can hear each other, seems lost, or at least diminished in the current discourse. In this fearful, poisonous atmosphere, Julius Malema and his cohorts and the Death of Johannesburg and their right-wing media crowd are mirror-reflections of two emotionally destructive extremes. One side cannot accept, recognize or believe that anything was wrong with apartheid and institutional racism. The other side wants to empower themselves by channeling populist anger with no real intelligent policy strategies for reform, a la’ Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez and the horror stories of Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Both sides of the coin have naked hatred, contempt and blame for the other race.

The African concept of Ubuntu – which has no direct English translation – holds that all human beings are interrelated and each individual gains their significance from being a part of one another and a greater community. It is a pervasive group consciousness that is embedded in African culture and has an impact on broader South African society. South Africans, in the midst of all their inequalities and the legacy of apartheid, have some fundamental acceptance of their cultural differences and have also developed a measure of transcendence. Somehow, they find a way to get along. Singer Sibongile Khumalo has hinted at Ubuntu in its current relevance, in a conversation with Gwen Ansell, in her book, “Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa.

“This whole thing we see on television of people walking out on arguments and banging doors – that’s very rude. In African culture, you simply do not do that. The point is to reach consensus… Isn’t that how democracy works? If you do not agree with somebody, you don’t have to walk out and be rude to them or go out and shoot or stab them… The ability to put a burger together very quickly has negatively affected our ability to put a cast iron pot on the stove and let something brew properly… And in music, too, you can come up with something very quickly: program it… But it doesn’t give you that complete sense of satisfaction.”

Hopefully enough South Africans – from all sides of the spectrum  – are really trying to listen and understand each other and not doing the equivalent of walking out on arguments and banging on doors. Perhaps if the shouting voices of vexation can subside, South Africans in the middle – with their history, humanity and quirks – can create their own extraordinary, long-term brew.


Categories: Apartheid, Culture, Music, Entertainment, jazz, Music, South Africa, Uncategorized


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