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Letter from Johannesburg

South Africa
Illustration by Sarah John

‘I’m a Jo’burger at heart,’ I remember my friend saying once. It struck me that, at the time of the conversation, he hadn’t lived in Johannesburg in years and was speaking, in fact, from some other city – I can’t remember which – where he was then living.

His words reminded me that a city – a geographic location typically navigated and experienced with our external senses – is also experienced and lived internally, regardless of your physical location. You could live in London but carry Dakar within. When I extrapolate this idea, it makes me think that a city, then, is not only defined by external urban geography but also by internal GPS co-ordinates – heart, gut, soul.

My friend’s conviction as to his Jo’burg-ness threw into relief my doubts about my own. What could it actually mean to be ‘a Jo’burger at heart’? Should one even be trying to essentialize a city-identity? Is it as heretical as saying, this is what it means to be black or a woman? In fact I found it an interesting exercise, trying to decipher quintessential qualities of the Jo’burger.

The first that came to mind was a kind of savviness as expected of any big-city dweller. As is the case with several other metropolitan centres, the typical Jo’burger has a unique sense of fashion. I think I’m keenly aware of this because of my lack of being ‘on trend’. I never feel quite sufficiently put-together to play the real Jo’burger; my nails aren’t done, my shoes aren’t high (nor are they strappy since I’ve forfeited style for comfort).

Next, perhaps because of an experience I once had in New York, I wondered if Jo’burgers were naturally friendly. I recall being in Brooklyn and going up to a worker in the subway to ask for directions. He stared through me, said not a word and continued with his job. On later reflection that exchange felt very ‘New York’. Possibly due to the prevalent rhetoric around tourism (Covid-19 notwithstanding) a Jo’burger may have been more forthcoming with directions; helpful I’d call it, friendly might possibly be taking it a step too far.

For anyone trying to be a quintessential Jo’burger, an appreciation of house music wouldn’t be remiss, as well as a penchant for partying, a seemingly endless capacity for debaucherous fun. This same appetite for fun I see in my own people, the Yoruba. I’ve always maintained that the Yoruba have a real alacrity for celebration but are useless at grief. As if, for them, enjoyment – and not death – is a natural chapter of what it is to be human. On the other hand, when I think of grief in relation to Jo’burg I’m compelled to recall Toloki in Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying – the professional mourner navigating an unnamed urban city easily recognized as Johannesburg. Toloki’s job is to cry, with feeling and depth, at funerals, a calling that makes me think this might hint at another quality of the Jo’burger – a capacity to mourn, to be intimately connected with loss, the many kinds that pervade this country’s history.

Unable to move on, I went back and asked my friend what he meant when he described himself as a Jo’burger at heart. He said he meant that no matter where he lived he would merely be in those locations but not of them. Once again I was struck by how he’d changed the relationship to a city as somewhere we live in to somewhere that lives in us. I liked it very much and while I, for now, live in Johannesburg, I will keep wondering – possessing none of my friend’s certainty – what city lives in me?

New Internationalist issue 528 magazine cover This article is from the November-December 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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