It’s a Thursday, early afternoon, the bright winter sun warms one side of the street. School’s out and the park is full of red-uniformed kids playing on the swings, sitting side-by-side along the railings, eating Nic Naks. The market is busy too; socks, scarves, beanies are for sale; a table groans under the weight of second-hand jackets and coats; the next stall displays boots and shoes; a single Dunhill Red costs R2; a small tin of Zambuck is R3; a half cabbages goes for R5.
Across the road is Park Station – people file in and out through the entrance on their way to a taxi, a bus, a train. The shady side of the street is lined with mounds of clothes – cast offs from Europe that find their way south, are dug through and dress the city’s inhabitants.
A man piles red tomatoes in a pyramid; the back of his bakkie is filled with more. Another man calls out the prices of his wares. A hunk of beef, hooked onto a pulley system, whizzes overhead down an alley into the butchery. Orange overalled men dig out the black slime of a blocked drain. Women and men push their way along the streets, weaving among the makeshift tables and stalls carrying plastic packets, suitcases, heading towards the taxi rank, towards home.
Food is cheap here; I resolve to return to do my weekly veggie shop. A bunch of carrots for R3, a packet of sweet potatoes for R8, we even bought a punnet of strawberries for R5 – unheard of in a grocery store in the suburbs. Lunch (R10) was a plate of salads and gravy – usual accompaniments to pap and meat, and we were the cook’s first customers requesting only salads. A few blocks down, in the hipster hub of Braamfontein, a coffee costs three times that. Walk west a few more blocks and you’re in Fordsburg; here flat breads and Indian fare take the place of pap and barbecued chicken.
Or you can try a local delicacy – meat from a cow’s head. There is no waste in Africa: this bakkie load of picked-clean skulls will be ground up for dog food.
Anything is for sale here. You want new sneakers? Second-hand shoes? Hair extensions? A wig? Three wigs? Local muti to cure any ailment or run of bad luck? Town offers an eclectic shopping experience where dark-skinned men with French accents and women bundled up in blankets beckon you to buy one, buy more, always for cheap.
“Welcome to the wire workshop my friends!” Stanley wears straggly dreds and puffs on his cigarette as he shows us around the workshop, a rubbish-strewn corner along a railing fence. The production line – Zimbabwean men here in search of a better life – sit on upturned crates and keep up a constant stream of conversation as they create multi-coloured giraffes, knobble-furred bunnies, geckos that add colour and character to any wall. They’re happy to chat; even happier to exchange wire animals for cash.
Walk slowly, look up, look down, look around. Smile. Start a conversation. Shake a hand. Look into the heart of Joburg and you will see, well, you will see life. Nothing much out of the ordinary really. But life in a city suffused with quiet beauty.