In 1876, the ambition of gold prospectors mingled with the dust thrown up by wooden cart wheels ambling along a wagon track beginning at the unused government land at Randelaagte (now Hillbrow) to form a sweat so thick it stuck to the skin like salt after a day at the sea. These men, women and families from all over the globe were heading north-east along the boundaries of the old Witwatersrand farms – Klipfontein to the north and Doornfontein in the opposite direction – before diverting south, on their way to fame and fortune. The blasting rays of the harsh African sun would awaken the smell of orange skin, the aroma perforating nostrils with tantalising voracity as travellers trundled down over the ridge through Lemoen Spruit (Orange Grove Spruit) and down the valley into Lemoen Plaas (Orange Farm), which offered welcome respite to weary adventurers. Unhitching their wagons and gathering their goods, remembering to fill their bottles with water, the fortune-seekers would harness their horses and prepare mentally for the journey ahead, on a road that would take them through Halfway House (the halfway mark on the Zeedeberg coach route in 1890—now Midrand) and on to Pretoria. Adventure on the horizon.
In 1886, gold was discovered at Langlaagte farm on the south ridge. The old Pretoria road, named after prime minister and Boer War general, Louis Botha, has been busier and busier ever since.
Johannesburg was born out of the Gold Rush on the Witwatersrand but it’s not the Johannesburg I knew in the noughties. Louis Botha was a traffic-jammed city street infused with businesses, mad taxis and potholes, which was part of my daily 40-minute journey from Edenvale to Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), later the University of Johannesburg (UJ), where I was studying Law and English Lit. There were many routes to RAU but the one we preferred was through Edenvale (or ‘the Vale’ if you were a local joller), past Saheti school and onto Club Road; we’d take a detour left, where my favourite Homeless Talk guy stood every day peddling reality to cynical commuters.
I’d roll by with my window down in anticipation of the familiar greeting “Hullo Mees Unives!”. With his winning smile and smooth talking, I have no doubt that in another life my friendly pedlar would have made not only a fabulous pageant judge but an excellent salesman in a corporate conglomeration. In this life his office was the pavement and his clients were surly drivers on the way to somewhere. He could’ve opted for wire curios, cigarette lighters or fruit—apples or avocados, usually a cover for drugs (my man Zan was always offered some or other narcotic rather than the avo in the box—his Italian eyebrows furrowed like a Mafiosi from the movies, one that wanted weed, apparently). Or, he could’ve stood with a bottle of soapy water in his hand, a rag (or Squeegee if he had the luxury of a corporate investor)—using red robots as an opportunity to clean a windscreen at a cost; the trick was to slop water on before catching the driver’s wild gesticulations of “no thank you” and then rely on the common decency of his fellow man. Come to think of it, drugs would have been easier. But my favourite peddler chose to sell the Homeless Talk, and even if I was downgraded from world domination to “Mees Umerreecu” on occasion, I’d always be ready with conversation and R2 to buy the guy’s literature, which I would then display on my dashboard to all the other Homeless Talk pedlars. I’d made my contribution to society. There were only so many Rands I could spare before I’d run out of petrol.
Pulling away with my token of contribution, I’d wave a friendly goodbye and quickly roll the window up, always leaving a couple of centimetres’ space at the top because word on the street was that leaving car windows slightly open gave the glass more flexibility, allowing it to absorb the impact in an attempted smash-and-grab. Whilst the best defence against rape “hot spots” was to pay attention to posted signs and avoid these areas at all costs, the law of the jungle dictated that when it came to smash-and-grab hot spots (street intersections, stop signs and driveways—everywhere, basically) top tips to avoid theft and/or death are:
- Always remain alert when stationary in your vehicle. Treat every stopping point on your journey as a hot spot. Even if you think you’re safe, you’re not.
- If possible, avoid stopping altogether: when approaching a red traffic light, slow down so that you reach it when it turns green, and yield at stop streets (rather than stopping your vehicle) if it is safe to do so.
- If you do have to stop at an intersection, leave a reasonable stopping distance between you and the car in front of you to allow yourself room to manoeuvre and escape any dangerous situation.
- Keep your hand close to the hooter so that you can alert others if you are in trouble. But do not expect help.
- If you do witness a smash-and-grab do not confront the perpetrators. Likely your phone will be locked in your car boot or hidden but if you are able, alert the authorities although it may take them hours to arrive.
- Have anti smash-and-grab film fitted to your windows, making it difficult for perpetrators to shatter your windows as well as reducing glare and potential injury from broken glass.
If you are confronted by a smash-and-grabber in spite of the above, do not be a hero! Remain calm, do not argue, avoid eye contact, hand over your possessions.
After ‘Homeless Talk intersection’, we’d detour briefly through Orange Grove (Lemoen plaas) and onto First Avenue (running parallel to Hope Road, which was our route home) and left onto Louis Botha. We’d steer along Mandela Drive for a bit and before ‘death bend’ (as it was infamously known by Joburgers, owing to the hideous accidents that wiped out both cars and people over the years) we’d turn onto Houghton Drive and meander along the back roads all the way to RAU, or onto Empire Road and then RAU, depending on the traffic.
The Jacaranda snowfall in spring on Houghton Drive always took me back to Kensington days, where purple blossoms would rain down like confetti and we’d scooped them into bundles, marrying ourselves to the season as we threw them over one another. I wonder how many times Nelson Mandela had to pinch himself awake when opening his eyes each morning surrounded by the strange grandiosity and comfort of his Houghton home; and how often he lurched mid-sleep into faux action, expecting to command some sort of guerilla attack, and how often he was curled up in a ball, cold sweat dripping from his body, in anticipation of a beating from his jailers in his cell on Robben Island. How can one man have so many faces? So many dreams? How can one country have so many faces?
Drive five minutes and you’ve moved from Houghton, one of the wealthiest suburbs in Joburg, to Hillbrow—where my mom and dad started their lives together all those years ago. We’d sometimes drive through this dirty, overpopulated, crime-infested part of the city to get to university and I’d try to imagine a different life that, quite easily, could have been mine.
Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin
Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.
Photo Credit: Russell Roberts