Skip to content

Signs and Wonders

In the middle of last year, the City of Johannesburg was ordered to take down its advertisements describing Joburg as a ‘world-class African city’. The Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints that the City’s claims that it is as financially stable and well run as any big city abroad, were untrue:

The advertisement, which boasted of the city’s ‘many significant achievements’, was heavily criticised by Johannesburg resident Steven Haywood, who lodged a complaint at the authority about it in July, after hearing it on Talk Radio 702.

The advertisement included the words: ‘Imagine a city where you can rest assured, knowing that it is financially stable … A city that continues to create new jobs despite the economic downturn. … Can you imagine living in such a city? You do.’

Mr Haywood claimed that the commercial told ‘blatant untruths’.

He questioned how the city could claim to be financially stable when it had received three qualified audits from the auditor-general; its waste-management service provider, Pikitup, was bankrupt and left ‘refuse lying in the streets for days’; and the Johannesburg Roads Agency was unable to repair the city’s roads.

Although the ASA overturned its decision a few months later, Joburg residents still view the radio ads and billboards comparing their city to New York or London with a certain degree of scepticism.

It’s not only the potholes, the malfunctioning street lamps, intermittent electricity supply, and traffic lights which stop working the moment it rains, but the fact that this unpredictable, occasionally chaotic, and ever-changing city, is plastered with signs. These are not the usual posters for political parties – we’re heading for a general election on 7 May – and music concerts and exhibitions, but small, A5 bills pasted on to buildings advertising penis, breast, and hip enlargements, help with procuring abortions, advice for finding lost lovers, and the services of a variety of prophets.

In Sophiatown.

In Sophiatown.

There are flocks of these little signs on lampposts, walls and bridges, public buildings – I’ve spotted some even on the Constitutional Court – and bus shelters. Thabisani Ndlovu, a sociologist at Wits University, has argued that the booming business for penis, breast, and hip enlargements can be understood as being part of a wider process of urban dwellers’ self-invention.

Joburg is by no means unique in being understood as a site for remaking its residents’ identities – that is, and has long been, part of the appeal of city living – but there are very few cities in the world where this desire for remaking bodies and selves is so very obvious.

At Constitution Hill.

At Constitution Hill.

But a few weeks ago I saw a sign – similar in size and design to the ones for prophets and lost lovers – in the CBD advertising something I never realised could be sold for profit: seawater. I was in a car at the time, so I couldn’t photograph the sign, but I’m curious as to why someone would sell seawater in a city centre. I asked around, and my father answered that, when he was a child in Olifantsfontein in the 1950s and early 1960s, then a small mining town halfway between Pretoria and Johannesburg, the family’s African servants would ask him and his brothers to bring back bottles of seawater from their holidays at the coast:

They always had the same plea: Please ensure that there was at least an inch of sand in the bottom of each bottle. I eventually discovered that … the sand was indisputable proof that the bottle contained genuine seawater. … It almost became a ritual for my brothers and I to visit the beach for the last time and carefully rinse and fill … [glass] bottles with seawater. We never forgot to put in the sand.

Seawater has a long history of being used in the manufacture of medicine by sangomas and other healers – practitioners operating outside of the parameters of Western biomedicine. I seem to remember, though, that seawater is also understood by members of the Zion Christian Church – and other, affiliated, churches – as having religious, almost magical, significance. Is this true? Any and all ideas and suggestions are welcome.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Sarah,

    A lot of African culture believe that seawater cleanses the body – they drink it in vast quantities to purge the body of impurities both physical and spiritual. Naturally, drinking that much salt water induces vomiting, which they take to mean that they are now cleansed.

    The sand in the bottom also prevents the water from going weird – I can’t be more specific than that. The taste and colour changes, it’s like it goes bad.


    March 18, 2014
    • Hi – and thanks! I had heard of seawater being used as an emetic, but I wonder if also has a wider use? And I didn’t know that about the sand – that’s fascinating. -Sarah

      March 18, 2014
  2. Nafisa #

    This was very common in Durban. I understand that the seawater is drunk as an emetic – as part of ritual cleansing and just ‘to stay healthy’ (something I heard often). I think the word was ‘phalaza’ (which I always understood as a reference to the act of throwing up due to the onomatopoetic nature of the word…have no idea what it really means though)

    March 18, 2014
    • Aha – that’s fascinating, particularly the term ‘phalaza’. Thank you! I wonder if people would be willing to substitute salt water if they couldn’t get hold of proper seawater? -Sarah

      March 18, 2014
  3. teatrayinthesky #

    Found this which confirms most of what you know already.

    March 18, 2014
    • Oh that’s absolutely brilliant – thank you! xx

      March 18, 2014

All comments, criticism, and ideas welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: