A journey down Louis Botha

Louis Botha street in Johannesburg South Africa

The great adventure began at Randelaagte. In 1876, fierce ambition mingled with dust to form a sweat so thick that gold prospectors became as the land they foraged—brown, severe. Wooden carts ambled along wagon tracks, chucking up dirt but not enough to mask the aroma of orange skin awoken by the blasting rays of the African sun, perforating nostrils. Wooing travellers over the ridge through Lemoen Spruit and down the valley into Lemoen Plaas. As if the gods knew. Unhitching their load, fortune seekers filled water bottles and ravaged trees of their fruit, contemplating the journey ahead—north-east along the boundaries of the old Witwatersrand farms (first Klipfontein, then Doornfontein) before diverting south, on a road that would take them through Halfway House and onto what would become the Zeedeberg coach route to Pretoria. Destiny on the horizon.

In 1886, gold was discovered at Langlaagtefarm on the south ridge and that old Pretoria road, named after prime minister and Boer War general, Louis Botha, has been hectic ever since.

Johannesburg was born out of the Gold Rush on the Witwatersrand but it’s not the Johannesburg I know, or knew. Randelaagte turned into Hillbrow—drugs and death. Orange Grove has more palms than farms and Louis Botha is a traffic-jammed city street macerated by potholes, robots, seedy and not-so-seedy businesses, mad taxis, rubbish, beggars, hijackers and street vendors. Every day for five years I drove across a wave of dreams and despair conjured by history along that old road—toll for passage to Rand Afrikaans University. In and out, to and from. Voices on the wind.

I started in Edenvale, blitzed through suburbia, past Saheti school onto Club Road, always taking a detour left to give a friendly wave to my favourite Homeless Talk guy. He stood day-in-day-out peddling reality to cynical commuters. I’d roll by with my window down anticipating the familiar, ‘Hullo Mees Unives!’ With his winning grin and smooth talking, I have no doubt that in another world he would have made his millions selling shares with his smile, judging beauty pageants in his spare time. In this life, his office is the pavement and his clients, surly drivers on the way to somewhere. He could’ve opted for wire curios, cigarette lighters or fruit—apples or avocados (drugs under the avos—slight of hand, a quick exchange). Or, he could’ve stood in the middle of the road with a bottle of soapy water and a rag (a 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, to slop water on before catching the driver’s wild gesticulations of “no thank you” (“voetsek” or worse) and then rely on the common decency of his fellow man. But no. The Homeless Talk.

Sometimes I was downgraded from world domination to ‘Mees Umerreecu’ but I was always ready with conversation and R2 to buy my guy’s lit, which I would then display on my dashboard for all the other Homeless Talk guys to see. I’d done my bit. I had my favourite. There were only so many Rands I could spare before I’d run out of petrol. Sorry not sorry.

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, Louis Botha—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, I’d drive couple of minutes through Orange Grove and onto 2nd Street, where I nearly crashed my dad’s bakkie that time some dumb driver wasn’t watching where he was going. Then pause…right-left-right, squeeze in between taxis, through the dreams and despair (shake off a shudder—pay the toll), ignore “death bend” (double shudder—double toll), turning right onto Houghton Drive, where, in spring, the Jacaranda snowfall took me back to Kensington days.

Purple blossoms rained down like confetti. We’d scoop 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 guerrilla 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?  

And then, purple blossoms behind me, I’d meander along the back roads to my destiny.


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: Deviantart.com/magnoliagrandiflora

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