A Johannesburg Beauty

Johannesburg is a city that hides its beauty well, and sometimes, you can’t see the trees for the cell-masts. But keep looking, within as well as without, and the beauty of Johannesburg will find you

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Driving back from the airport late one night, my luggage still infused with the tang of the Atlantic breeze, I catch sight of a strange purple glow on the freeway up ahead.

I lift my foot off the petrol a little, and the other cars bullet past me, their brights blazing.

As I get closer, by a trick of the light, the methylated hue shifts to sapphire, illuminating the filigree of the girders that span the tarmac of the N1 near the William Nicol off-ramp.

I have just slipped beneath one of the new Gauteng toll gantries, and the sight of it, pooling in reflections on my windscreen, has taken my breath away.

By day it will take my money, sending out an impulse that will hold my voyage to ransom, unless I take the slip-roads to avoid the back-roads where the Metro constabulary stand in wait.

But this is Johannesburg, where we take our beauty as we find it, even in the industrial floodlighting of a monument to highway robbery.

I began thinking about this, about the secret poetry of the Joburg cityscape, in the metallic afterglow of a summer thundershower, as I edged out of my driveway, the security-gate rattling on its rail, my eyes on the rear-view, my fingers tight around the wheel.

Then I saw the beads of rain, clinging to the electric fence, like dots of music on a staff. It was a picture as pretty as a haiku, and I was smitten by the way a little moment can light up a life in a city as big as ours.

But it is not just the finer details that give Johannesburgers reason to be Johannesburgers.

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If you zoom out to the Google Earth eye-view, you will see, as we like to tell our visitors, that we live in the largest urban forest on the planet.

What we don’t tell our visitors is that many of those trees, the towering pines and the graceful palms, are actually Vodacom cell-masts, topped by cherry-lights to keep the birds and planes at bay.

Or that the others, made of actual wood, were planted not to green the dry and dusty klip-veld, but to harvest the timber to hold up the tunnels where men slithered on their bellies to hunt for gold.

We are, by nature, unsentimental about nature here in Johannesburg.

You will not find a park in Hyde Park, and nor will you find a place to park in Hyde Park on a Saturday morning.

I can’t recall seeing much of a park in Parktown or Parkhurst or Parkview either, although the roads that link them all lead at some point to the big road that bypasses the sanctuary where we keep our wild animals safe from ourselves.

Whenever I drive down Jan Smuts, and I catch a glimpse of a zebra or an eland or a wildebeest behind the high walls and wire, I think to myself, I’d better put my foot down before that robot changes from orange to red. And then I do.

Johannesburg breeds in its citizens a Darwinism of the heart, an instinct for self-preservation that manifests in our drive to get ahead, in the queue, in the organogram, on the hard shoulder.

But beneath those layers of Kevlar and steel, beneath the hooting and the shouting, we are all heart, bonded in spirit and deed by our shared sense of belonging.

The invisible landmarks of the Highveld are the summer thunderstorms that brew and rage at the close of a mercilessly hot day, furrowing the sky with heavy cloud, hurling assegai-bolts of lightning from the heavens.

Then the warm rain falls, slaking the soil, and we all drive a little faster to get home in time to see the benediction of the rainbow.

We don’t have mountains in Joburg. We have toxic dumps where the golden sand is stained with acid, and slender trees struggle to put down roots.

We don’t have oceans in Joburg. We have parking lots. We don’t have rivers. We have spruits that trickle past the pylons and the concrete pipes.

And yet, every time I have been away, and I see the skyline of Johannesburg in the distance, the lump in the throat of the Hillbrow Tower, the needle of the Brixton Tower pointing to the sky, the light falling on the glass spires, the whips of the brakelights and headlamps on the freeway underpass, my hardened heart skips a beat.

Not because of those buildings and machines and the people within and around them, but because of what they mean.

The ultimate destination, the city of my heart and soul. Home.