This morning I went to re-register in time for next year’s elections. My voting station is at the Ridge School, an elite primary school for boys perched at the top of the startlingly rich suburb of Westcliff. It is one of the oldest parts of Johannesburg, with its Arts and Crafts mansions and streets lined with old, well-established trees. It is where industrialists, whose fortunes were made on the mines, settled to live in the comfort that a city with cheap land and even cheaper labour could provide.
In some ways, it feels that Westcliff has changed very little since the early twentieth century. There were two black domestic workers, in uniforms and aprons, waiting to check if they were registered to vote. And there was a huddle of affluent white people gathered around the stall operated by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was nowhere to be seen.
Old is a relative term, though, and particularly for Johannesburg, a city founded only in the mid-1880s. For all that its northern suburbs give the appearance of static, solid, prosperity, it is a city which continues to evolve at a frantic pace: it grows, is torn down and rebuilt, has been run down, and is being gentrified. In fact, the urban forest of Joburg’s affluent areas is a pointed example of the constructedness of this city: planted to provide timber to the city’s mines, the canopy of green and purple which covers old Johannesburg in the summer has created a new ecosystem, replacing the original grassland of the Highveld.
A while ago, some lovely friends took me to dinner and pudding in two parts of the city which also show particularly well how South Africa’s shifting demographics – its growing middle class, in particular – are helping to change the city.
One of the oddest spaces to contemplate this transformation is Mandela Square in Sandton, a suburb in the north of the city which has, since the 1990s and especially after the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved there in 2000, become an alternative city centre to the old CBD. The middle of Sandton is dominated by shiny corporate headquarters and a collection of high-end shopping malls – one of which is Nelson Mandela Square. Known until 2004 as Sandton Square, the mall was renamed after the installation of a massive, six-metre statue of Nelson Mandela.
The statue – which is slightly out of proportion – is to one side of the piazza at the centre of the mall, and overlooks a fountain. To its left and right are restaurants, some of them branches of popular, but pricier, franchises. We had excellent ice creams at an Italian place, and watched as tourists posed in front of Madiba, and took photographs of the water feature.
Mandela Square – and, indeed, Sandton – is often held up as an example of the crass materialism which has accompanied – and has been produced by – South Africa’s transition to democracy after 1994. Uncomfortably, and ridiculously, it links a depoliticised Mandela – Madiba-as-friendly-giant – to a celebration of post-apartheid consumerism. It is true that Sandton is, to some extent, an unpleasant example of the city-as-anodyne shopping mall. Architecturally, Mandela Square – and Sandton City, and the Sandton Convention Centre, and Michelangelo Towers, and the Da Vinci Hotel – could be just about anywhere, and that, really, is part of the point.
My friends and I began our evening, though, at a wonderful, and in some ways equally incongruous, Thai restaurant in Edenvale, a suburb on the border of Johannesburg and the East Rand. It is one of a collection of towns and settlements established to the east of Joburg as result of mining (for gold and coal) and manufacturing. Recently, though, its low property prices and new malls have drawn the city’s new middle classes. It is, in some ways, the epitome of big city suburbia. And yet, down a not-particularly-lovely street, is a place which serves delicious Thai food.
In some ways, the South African taste for Thai has been driven by the fact that Thailand is one of the few countries to which South Africans may travel without visas, and, even with the current weakness of the Rand, remains relatively inexpensive. Thai restaurants – some of them part of the Wang Thai chain – have popped up in middle-class suburbs, alongside pubs and steak ranches.
Rising above the noise and bustle of Johannesburg – and with a clear view of the Sandton skyscrapers – Westcliff, secure in its incredible wealth, seems to be immune from the change happening around it. But Westcliff is as entangled in Johannesburg’s making as are Sandton and Edenvale: it was shaped and produced by the mineral revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. It was modelled on similar, upper middle-class suburbs in Britain. It is as much a construct as Sandton and Edenvale.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.