CityLife Arts

I had a strange feeling walking the streets of Yeoville this week.

By Edward Tsumele

Increasingly, each time I pass through Yeoville these days, I somehow feel a sense of discomfort. Yes, over the past 15 years or so, discomfort for visitors to this suburb has certainly been to a certain degree a constant reality. I mean this once beautiful suburb designed uniquely with apartment blocks on one side of the street and houses on the other, the new South Africa has not been kind to it.

It is because it is as if policy makers have forgotten about this place and that people are living there.

The place has gradually since the dawn of democracy become so neglected to the  extent the  place has become an urban oasis of  decaying buildings whose walls reek of urine and the painting is continuously peeling off  until these building will look like a new old building site. And so this is the place whose streets I am always warned by  both those familiar with the suburb’s streets and those who have not even set a foot in the suburb’s existence.

The warning is voluntarily offered whenever I mention the idea that I would like to take a walk there, down memory lane kind of an excursion. And walk, I eventually did this week.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura during Africa Day celebrations in Yeoville. Picture: Giyani Baloi

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And as I walked the streets, walking on Raleigh Streets that changes to Rockey Street at the once famous Time Square, I had this strange feeling about the place that used to be a playground for the famous and influential in its heyday. I mean many a successful actor, filmmaker, academic, politician, including Gauteng Premier David Makhura, ANC Regional Secretary Hope Papo, playwright and journalist once called this place home at one stage in in the evolution of the the country and South African society.

However the place I visited this week is a sore sight. It seems only the brave and stupid are advised to visit this place, and yet the place is full of culture from different parts of the African continent. Disturbingly during this pandemic, I found little distancing.

But at least a good number of the people in the streets were wearing face masks. However  I had long told myself that this week I was going to be both brave and stupid and venture into these streets. The streets of Yeoville gave me a certain strange feeling, unlike what I had experienced before there.

This is an unusual feeling for me because in my life as a writer and journalist, I have been in all sorts of situations, moving easily and at ease within various social circles, including the extreme circles, such as being in the company of those extremely poor in an informal settlement, and the next three hours or so later  finding oneself dinning with the rich and the powerful in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, If you are lucky to be invited to some of their events.  

This fluid movement within social classes is not only unique to me, especially in this country of extremes. In fact this movement within these circles on opposite sides of the capitalist system happens all the time within the ranks of the media, artists, writers, and occasionally among politicians, especially towards elections.

I mean a journalist has to write about stories involving both the poor and the rich, an artist cannot find inspiration to paint from the wealthy living in the northern suburbs, nor does a novelist often finds award winning stories involving only the wealthy and the powerful.

Stage plays telling us only about  how the rich in the northern suburbs are still able to enjoy their drinks stocked in their home bars would be boring If the same plays do not tell us about how the poor risk contracting the coronavirus by travelling to work in  minibus taxis allowed to load 100% passengers when the country is about to hit the peak of infections during this Level 3 lockdown.

In the case of my latest encounter with Yeoville this week, it felt different and awkward, because it is not the first time that I have passed through this suburb, on the eastern side of Johannesburg in recent years and in its current form. In fact not so long ago, some of us were so stubborn that we continued to go and even drink, feeling at home, at that now God-forgotten place called Ekhaya.

We only left the place when the people who ran the place died, the always pleasant to be with owner Sue Mabalane who died in recent years, followed shortly by her trusted manager Lawrence . May their souls rest in peace.

The lot of us were obviously still hungering for the old good days of Yeoville, when it was still a place and home of music, artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, politicians of the left of centre of politics type and students.

 It was also a place where one could enjoy various cuisines on one street, Rockey Street, where whether your taste when it comes to food was for Chinese, Greek, Italian, southern African contemporary menu, kosher, or vegetarian, everything was catered for.

That was way back before the big trek to the north.  With the big trek that gradualluy took place after 1994, Parkhurst and Melville replaced old Yeoville as the new place for the old Yeoville tribe that was now scattered all over various parts of the north.

These became the two suburbs, apart from others such as Norwood and  Linden where the former Yeovillites would occasionally gather, and as usual, talk loudly over a beer or grass of wine. This tribe once called Yeoville home.

That was the time when Yeoville’s streets barely had  a single word of Yoruba, Shona, Lilanga and Igbo spoken, as compared to now. Now these are the majority of African languages spoken in this suburb, among a sprinkling of isiZulu, Xhosa and Sesotho and Tswana, among other South African languages spoken in the suburb. Then there was more English spoken on Rockey Street in restaurants such as BAPITA, Mamas, One Drop,  and Tandoor than now.

The streets were also less menacing than they are now, as it was not unusual for a lady to go out on her own to any of the restaurants and suddenly be joined by a dozen of friends, to embark on an endless night of talking, eating and drinking that did not end badly.

And yes, the demographics of the place have changed remarkably. Now there are poorer residents as compared to the past and they speak African languages from the northern parts of the African continent.

The streets culture has also changed, and one has to watch their back much more carefully than before. But still this remains a place of fascination for many. The locals that still wonder about what direction their once beloved suburb has taken.

Tourists from overseas who want to see the whole of Africa in one suburb in South Africa – that is before the current pandemic disrupted the rhythm of life in this suburb. There are also still curious visitors to this suburb –politicians looking for votes from the now  predominantly working class community that is illegible to vote and cannot move out of this place out of necessity.

In fact this suburb is the only one where the ANC still holds a council city –where as its richer  neighbouring suburbs surrounding Yeovile, such as Observatory, Kensington and Houghton- all have the official Opposition DA councils.

I walked through this suburb this week, and I had a feeling of mixed emotions about the place. This is a place that will always remain etched in many people’s consciousness .

 I was not sure what really caused this strange feeling. Could it be because of the queues I witnessed at Shoprite, Pep’s Store and Supa Bet where people were so close to each other to an extent that one would think in fact the coronavirus is still only talked about in China, and not in South Africa where people are now starting to die and the rate of infection is yet to  reach its peak? Was it because the one time popular eatery, (especially with drunks wanting to nurse their babalas with a hot meal),  Nandos,  FNB, ABSA and Capitec branches are no longer there on Rockey Street? Or is it because KFC, and just like these other businesses have been forced to close down due reportedly to crime in this once beautiful suburb? I do not know the answer, but what I know is that I had a strange feeling in the streets of Yeoville this week.

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