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My Johannesburg | The Nation

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My Johannesburg

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Drawing for the film Other Faces (2011), by William Kentridge

Drawing for the film Other Faces (2011), by William Kentridge

There are some nice old trees in the more established sections of West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, but the newer reaches of the Jewish section approximate the grasslands that existed before the Witwatersrand was settled. Around my father’s grave, right up against the koppie at the top of the cemetery and with excavations all around us for other new burials, the landscape seemed especially harsh and brittle. Burying the dead here scours you and dries you out, and you are grateful for the Jewish ritual at the end of it that requires you to wash your hands with a two-handled jug—one that you hold with your death-soiled hand and the other with your now-clean one. But West Park also, quite appropriately, makes you think about the earth: the red earth you shovel onto the pine casket, the red earth into which your loved one is dropped, the earth you wash from your hands, the earth you traverse so carelessly in a day and in a life. Often, I have left a funeral here discomforted by our denial of this earth, and I have been wondering recently if this is a condition specific to Johannesburg.

In his novel Portrait With Keys, the city’s muse, Ivan Vladislavic, describes Johannesburg drily as “the Venice of the South” because “the backdrop is always a man-made one. We have planted a forest the birds endorse. For hills, we have mine dumps covered with grass. We do not wait for time and the elements to weather us, we change the scenery ourselves, to suit our moods. Nature is for other people, in other places.”

“Nature” was actually imported into the highveld: there were almost no trees on the grasslands of the Witwatersrand, and Johannesburg’s developers realized that if their upper-end real estate was going to be attractive to foreign investors, it needed to be shaded. And so, when they planted the Sachsenwald forest on the northern slopes of Parktown Ridge to provide pit props for the mines, they decided to multipurpose the trees to provide shade for the settlers and to reduce the dust of the veld and of the mining activities. The project succeeded. Look at Johannesburg’s northern suburbs from the top of one of the ridges, or from my bedroom window up in the Melville Koppies, or from the sky or the Google Earth view, and you will see a vast forest that the birds have indeed endorsed; the largest man-made urban woodland in the world, according to the city’s publicity shtick. Plane and oaks, blue gums and jacarandas, immigrants all.

Like the people who flooded into the city at the same time, these trees are exotics and have rooted well—even though they have been threatened by democracy. In an echo of the nativism that flickered across the country in the first decade of freedom, the new government declared shortly after coming into power in 1994—not without reason—that South Africa’s exotic trees were severely depleting its water table and needed to be uprooted. In Cape Town, shock teams took to Table Mountain to clear it of Port Jackson willows. The jacarandas that drizzle Johannesburg with their surreal purple haze every spring looked like they might be targeted, too, before they were granted a reprieve on the grounds of age: nearly a century old, they will die their natural deaths soon enough anyway.

Trees were needed on the highveld not only to prop up the mines and provide shade from the harsh sun, but to stake a sense of place into the seeming emptiness of the landscape, writes the urbanist Jeremy Foster; to stake a sense of temporality, too, into the “timelessness” of these seemingly featureless folds of high-lying land. Foster writes that when you plant trees, you mediate a sense of history, because trees have life spans and change “seasonally at a pace synchronised with the unfolding of human society.” The greening of Johannesburg, he says, was also an attempt by the city’s new European settler population “to isolate itself from a regional environment they perceived as hostile…. In this treeless region, most white settlers saw the park or forest as a metonymic fragment of an imaginary ‘home,’ a triumph of civilization over nature.”

If the veld lurking on the edge of my childhood was the place of black people and Boers, of poisonous puff adders and ticks and bilharzia-transmitting snails in stagnant pools, then nature itself was conscripted to encamp a suburban laager against such threat: a canopy of oak trees and jacarandas and blue gums, a European screen of green, a fragrant curtain against this wilderness of cracked red earth and yellow grass and thorny silver scrub.

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Rising above Johannesburg’s man-made forests are piles of white and yellow sand extracted from the mines and dumped, in mesa-like formations, along the southern perimeter of the city. “Slimes dams,” “tailings dumps”: the names given to these man-made hills are wonderfully onomatopoeic. They were the mountains of our childhood, covered in grass and planted with trees and, in one case, with the Top Star drive-in theater, long an iconic image of—and view site over—the city. There are 270 of these mine dumps spread over 400 square kilometers, fashioned from more than 400 million tons of earth removed from the mines. They provide the negative image, above ground, for what is going on below, and you can trace the route of the ore-bearing reef from above by following their line from east to west, just south of the ridges of the Witwatersrand. It is no coincidence that the green canopy of the Johannesburg urban forest spreads northward from this, while the tightly packed, treeless, zinc-roofed mass of township housing, glinting silver in the sun, is to the south. The mining lands formed an obvious buffer between the white parts of the city and the black ones: an urban vacuum, in effect, that reminded me, conceptually, when I visited Berlin for the first time in the mid-1990s, of the empty space left by the destruction of the Wall.

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