All of my encounters with Ndebele artwork have been so removed from the people it belongs to. I remember being a child, when Ndebele artwork printed as cardboard borders would go around our class's whiteboard and pin-boards. I saw pictures of the Ndebele people in my Life Orientation books or history books. One school trip that was a far drive North from Johannesburg had us girls staying in a room with Ndebele patterns on the outside, the paint now peeling.
I always see Ndebele artwork in the airport shops geared towards tourists' last stop before their ‘less-exotic’ homelands like Germany or America. My Ndebele earrings were sold to me by a kind woman who told me the meaning of the colours of the beads for each piece of jewelry she was selling: white for peace, red for love... I wonder if you can ever be South African and not have Ndebele artwork imprinted in your imagination? The question is, in all these forms, was I ever engaging with Ndebele art authentically? I can certainly appreciate its beauty and its artistic significance. However, though Ndebele art reminds me of home, reminds me of South Africa and growing up in this country, I can never claim it as artwork belonging to my own cultural identity. For I may be South African, but I am a white South African from Greek descent who lives in the old suburbs of Johannesburg, a very different reality to the Ndebele people.
What I have come to realize is that a country is a home but never the same home to all who live there. A country like South Africa exemplifies this truth, especially with its difficult past and rampant inequality. South Africa is my home. I was born in here, I have lived here for twenty-three years of my life. If ever I do leave, I pray that life leads me back home. But what is clear to me is that just because I live in this country doesn't mean that all its parts are mine to claim as my own. When I write that Ndebele art reminds me of home, you must know that it reminds me of all that I do not understand of my home. And so I cannot write about Ndebele art with any authority just because I am a South African. I cannot tell you the story of the Ndebele people or why their art is significant to them. From European anthropologists to Apartheid officials, many have tried to tell the story of black South African people like the Ndebele, most of the time with no understanding of the story they were trying to tell. I do not want to be part of this tradition. But what does this then mean for this essay? It means the only story I can tell you today is my own.
But where do I start? There is so much to be said and I cannot say it all here. So I will take inspiration from the Ndebele. They paint artwork on their homes and so I will try to paint a different kind of artwork on my own home. Hopefully, some story will unravel itself if I travel through all the spaces of my home, navigating myself by my postal address: 29 River Street, Houghton, Johannesburg. Where the Ndebele create artwork with each colour representing different truths, I will speak to the patterns in a postal address and hopefully find some truths too.
To bring you to my home I have to start with the widest part of my postal address. I have to speak about far-reaching Johannesburg, the city of space and sprawl whose enormity I both know and fail to grasp daily. I live in Johannesburg, a place whose neighbourhoods drape themselves on the landscape like fabric unrolled. It is a metropolis so large that there are parts of the city I have not visited for years, if ever, and where a place close by can easily be a twenty-minute drive. So many parts of the city are foreign to me that I sometimes wonder whether I can call myself a Johannesburger. However, the parts I know, I know well. I have fallen in love with these faces of Johannesburg, these neighbourhoods that present their own particular patterns. From the streets of Braamfontein, a walk from my university that is the canvas of so many of my youth's awkward flourishings, to the Emmarentia botanical gardens where I have had many a romantic moment. Johannesburg is a multi-coloured palette, like the Ndebele's painted houses, each space so different from the other that it is a struggle to think of them as being part of the same city in all but name. Johannesburg's history is one of the merging of multiple small towns such as Edenvale and Germiston. It is also the merging of what the Apartheid government designed to be separate: the townships of Soweto and Alexandria. Johannesburg is a city of distance and the distance between each part of its pattern is so vast that you can easily stay within your world and not go beyond it. I have to admit this is what has become my reality, mostly because I don't drive and because I don't have the desire to be in a car for an hour in traffic to Montecasino to see Tuscan architecture look artificial and misplaced. Part of the toxicity of the city is that I can stay in my world because I am in a ‘good’ area, but generally the poorer citizens have the most to travel in taxis whose recklessness is notorious.
In Ndebele artwork, the white and black lines lie next to each other in harmony. Johannesburg hasn't been able to fully integrate like this. Due to Colonial and Apartheid engineering, the city still suffers from spatial segregation, with the rich suburbs being quite integrated and the townships facing the segregated reality of being areas where black people live in poverty. It is a city whose essence is still throbbing with the pain of demarcated neighbourhoods based on race and forced removals from areas like Sophiatown. This is a city of no real boundaries, no real edges, a city where the memory of the past is written in its space, which only encourages many inner worlds to be separated from each other. However, in the midst of this distance, in the midst of the potential for disconnection, is a city filled with the friendliest, warmest people I have ever met. It is a city where people are open because they know how easy it is to be far apart. It is a city where you can find an unlikely friend. And so I want to tell you about the enormity of it all before I narrow the space of patterns to look at, just so you can understand that the world I am speaking of is only a tiny part of the artwork of Johannesburg's existence. It is also because I don't want to pretend I know Johannesburg's secrets. Not yet.
If I am defining home by a postal address the next place to bring into focus would be my neighbourhood. I inhabit the world of so many different neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, for a person cannot be contained by a few streets. But the neighbourhood that holds me every night when I sleep, the neighbourhood I have grown up in, is the suburb of Houghton. We can say that it is the neighbourhood whose postal code is on all my official documents and so is part of my registered identity. My neighbourhood is either called Houghton or Houghton Estate depending on the side of the highway. But if I am going to be honest I have never known which is which. Houghton is known to be part of the Northern Suburbs which, now with the expansion of the city, can only be seen as ironic as it is very far from Johannesburg's Northern tip. It is a neighbourhood with streets that are cradled by the branches of old trees, many-handed trees forming a leafed ceiling that makes the roads into tunnels of natural splendour. In October, if you are lucky to have Jacarandas on your street, you will be overcome by a purple haze. At first, you can look up to the Jacarandas creating purple clouds above, then as the flowers fall you find a purple carpet squishing against your shoes.
It is a neighbourhood where I go on my long walks. Winding down the streets with walls so high you can only know that houses exist behind them by their roofs, a brief impersonal glimpse of a home. Your eye can't help but travel up to the electric fence stuck on top of the walls to keep people out, not to keep people in. And as I walk I understand that none of the homeowners expect pedestrians because there is generally no walkway but rather immaculate or neglected extensions of their gardens. Many a time I have been tangled in a bed of ivy or nearly run over by a car with whom I must share the road. On my walks, I can't help but think of who lives behind each wall. I know it’s nothing but a thought because the point is not to know. Those high walls are there to provide a feeling of safety in a city renowned for its crime. However, as I walk I am always greeted by those that are walking too. I am greeted by runners probably confused that I am not running. I am greeted by security guards who enjoy the sunshine in the summer and are huddled in their security houses in the winter. I am greeted by all those walking to the taxis after work. Houghton, like of all of Johannesburg, is a place of disconnected connection. High walls juxtaposed with citizens with embracing eyes. Johannesburg, like any big city, is a city of contradiction. What is important to note, however, is that when you think of Houghton you need to think of a suburb of privilege. Even though it is not the poster-child of wealth like Sandton, Houghton is one of the wealthier suburbs of Johannesburg. When Nelson Mandela died, my family walked to his house to lay down flowers. And so to tell you the patterns of Houghton I wish to tell you a bit of the colours of its history. What are the bones of this neighbourhood? How have they been formed?
To know the history of Houghton is to know the beginning days of Johannesburg. Houghton like all of the oldest suburbs in Johannesburg owes its creation to gold. In the late 19th century, Johannesburg was birthed due to a mad gold rush. Gold had been found in an old farm and soon a fever gripped the land, infecting those in pursuit of wealth. Johannesburg was always a city of opportunity, but what kind of opportunity one could acquire depended both on skin colour and class. The history of the city has always been coloured by a desire for freedom and the hope to rise above what you had before, as well as disappointment, injustice and the abuse of power and control. This pattern has not vanished but has been transformed in its own way, the colours both the same and dramatically altered. Johannesburg has always been a city difficult to pin down. Where the Ndebele patterns are bold in their clarity, Johannesburg's patterns are not as easily distinguishable. Johannesburg grew at an unfathomable rate and soon the burgeoning city caught the eye of the rich, especially the mining magnates of the diamond mines in Kimberley, out in the Karoo desert. As I have learned in my history lessons at university, gold mining in Johannesburg required vast stores of money to keep the mines afloat. And to survive the costs of the mining process (even with practically slave labour)—and the economic booms and busts—the mining process led to the creation of the Randlords, and the Randlords solidified the new mining world that was Johannesburg. The Randlords monopolized the wealth of gold and became ridiculously wealthy. In the process of accumulating wealth and power, they came to control almost every detail of their labourers' lives. The Randlords needed a place to live, a place that would augment their stature and in their eyes separate them from the drunken miners who frolicked with sex workers. The first place the Randlords called home was Parktown Ridge, but when no viable gold deposits were found in the land of Houghton, there was a push to design a suburb there for the well-to-do. Houghton was a suburb that belonged to the world of the Randlords and those that the Randlords kept close.
And so we can say that Houghton was an area that housed the administrators of some of Johannesburg's most painful parts of its history. The city always created its own worlds, usually at the hands of the people who desired separation. Little did the original British administrators know that more than a hundred and twenty years later, it would house non-white citizens, and a mosque. Houghton may still contain the traces of its wealth but it has become a suburb transformed by democracy (though many would argue in a limited way.) Most of the residents in Houghton do not know the history of the suburb they live in. They do not know that their complexes where houses look upon houses, each year the suburb becoming denser, were originally acres of land on the edges of a rapidly expanding metropolis. They do not know that this was an area where power became consolidated. Would it change their views on these neat grids of streets, and the old trees embedded in the pavements?
I do wonder what knowing the history of Houghton has done for me. I think at the very least it has given me an appreciation for its constant metamorphosis. It has also given me a sense of how time has transformed the city, where what was a neighbourhood at the edge of the city is now in the centre of things. Even though I can appreciate its change, however, I can also recognize how a space can retain its character, its identity. Some patterns of space are continuous. Houghton was always an emblem of some kind of privilege, mostly an emblem of the privilege of being white and wealthy. And in this way, the suburb hasn't truly changed its pattern, its sense of self. What knowing the history of Houghton has done for me is that it is without a doubt a question of my inheritance since I have grown up in such a space. My address is emblematic of how lucky my life has been. In a country founded on a painful racial past, I have been born white to a well-off family that could send me to an excellent private school. This privilege needs to be acknowledged. A postal address is not a determinant to how one's life turns out but it can act as a sign of how easy life has been in certain respects. I have had my problems, as is natural for being a human, but the space of Houghton cannot be counted as one of them. And so in this sense, an awareness of Houghton's history, as the home of the Randlords, is a way into an awareness of my own. And even more so, an awareness that Houghton used to be the seat of privilege that used its power to cause harm, to control, to abuse power. And so I must be grateful for Houghton giving me such a beautiful neighbourhood to grow up in while also understanding that I can never become like its old residents. Houghton needs to become a new space, and I need to draw different patterns here.
In terms of Ndebele house painting, my street is like a single pattern on a single wall. It belongs to a greater whole but when gazing on it one can see it possesses its own individual character. You could say there is nothing different between my street and its neighbourhood. My street has the old trees, the unwalkable pavements, and the tall walls with the electric fences. What makes my street different from the whole of Houghton? Is it that River Street literally becomes a river during Johannesburg’s primordial thunderstorms? Is it that my street is opposite a small inner-city golf course, with few actual golfers even before the pandemic? What gives River Street its own pattern? What makes River Street unique? The answer could be that it is what is most familiar. It is what I could map out the easiest with my eyes closed. From the building site that has never ceased to be a building site on the corner of River Street and 11th Avenue, to the hedging outside our complex (my mother's doing). I can close my eyes and imagine my street effortlessly. In this sense, I know its colour, its pattern.
I have told you about the patterns I know. I have told you about the patterns of my world as best as I possibly can. But even in the parts of your world you think you know the most intimately, there are still unknowns. Imagine an Ndebele house incompletely painted, imagine a pattern undone. And what if this unknown is due to your complacency? What if there was a glimmer of the known and you didn't paint the pattern yourself? Last year, due to the pandemic and being at university, I had the luxury of completely changing my sleep schedule with no consequences. It was now possible to go to bed at sunrise and wake up at noon unless I had class. It was magnificent bringing in the dawn each morning. One morning was particularly magnificent, so beautiful I wanted to see it closer. So in my pajamas I walked down to the gate of my complex to see the dawn rise into the world.
At the gate by the bottom of the driveway would be Alex, our night security guard. If Alex could be a colour he would be sun-yellow for he is one of the brightest presences I know. Every time I see him he smiles this enormous smile and dances as he waves, I do the same, dancing back hello, even if I am in the car. This is our friendship, a friendship made of greeting each other and asking if we are okay. Yet we do not know much about each other. We have the colours of each other but have not formed those colours into a pattern of a life. Alex has seen me very drunk and sitting in the driveway with Macdonalds, I have heard him speak of living alone but other than that our lives are mysteries to each other. Though I admit he knows more about my life more than I know about his, such as the fact that I have a sister or what my friends look like.
I do know that Alex and I have something genuine: he told me that I make him feel the most welcome and at home in our complex. And when I was staying alone I told Alex I was scared and asked him to keep me safe. When thinking of my street I cannot help but think about Alex, who sometimes wears traditional Zulu headbands and wristbands and is always attentive, especially if he feels something is not quite right. Alex, who in my running phase would tell me I was doing well after only two laps up and down the driveway. He cannot be removed from the picture of my street, for his presence is always at the point where I turn from my street into my home. I wonder if I have taken for granted his presence even if there is unknowns between us. I wonder if I have become complacent in my acceptance of how home has always been. What I now recognize is that even in the most familiar pattern there are still patterns that need to be realized, patterns that still need to be painted.
However, there are also moments that seem like patterns unto themselves. As I walked to the gate Alex got a fright and was very confused that I was still awake, but then I explained to him I wanted to watch the sunrise and he came to watch it with me. We stood outside the gate on my street and saw the sunrise through the trees. We talked about the stillness of the highway and the beauty of the sun. We talked about how everyone misses this beauty, how everyone misses out on a lot of things, and spoke about how sunrises are what happiness feels like. We told each other how we found the night peaceful and the day overwhelming. His shift was ending soon and it was time for me to go to bed. And so to end off our sunrise we thanked each other while still standing on the street. I went up to my house and Alex changed to go home. We still didn't know the pattern of each other's lives but this moment felt like a pattern unto itself. There were so many unknowns but the pattern painted was still beautiful. This moment had its own colour.
There are so many things that need to be thought about surrounding my relation to Alex, such as race, gender, and class. We are completely different in all those respects, we both have completely different intricacies of identity. When looking at those variables a pattern could emerge, some of the unknown could be filled. That could give a structure of a pattern but it won't fill the colours of the unknowns or explain how we dance to greet each other and how that sunrise was a shared moment. My odd friendship with Alex is an important part of the beauty I see of my street. And it shows that there can be beauty between two people who don't know much about each other. There can be beauty in an unfinished pattern such as Alex always commenting on my outfits when I go out and me asking him what he is reading. However, I wish to fill in more of the pattern. I wish to draw in a greater understanding of Alex. As I said, Johannesburg is a place of unlikely friendships, a place of disconnected connection, a place difficult to pin down. This truth comes down even to a street. Ndebele artwork's beauty is in its clarity while Johannesburg's beauty is in its messiness. It is time for another sunrise conversation with Alex. Alex's presence is part of my street in the fullest sense, and I think it is time to truly know the essence of my street to say I know my home.
The Ndebele create artwork with their homes. I cannot be the judge of whether I have done this for mine. But I hope I have shown some of the patterns and colours of my home, the patterns that are held within the world of my postal address. I hope that I have painted the truth of my world so you can picture its beauties, its contradictions, its pain, its flaws, and its majesty. There is so much more that needs to be said and I am struggling with all that I have left out. How could I ever describe Johannesburg in a few paragraphs? How could I ever capture its history in a few lines? But then I think of Ndebele house painting, the black and white spaces are just as important as the coloured patterns. The unknowns, the feeling of how wide and expansive the truth of a home is, is just as important as knowing the details of its colours, of knowing the reality of its patterns. I don't want to pretend I know the secrets of River Street or Houghton and definitely cannot claim the secrets of Johannesburg, though I pray that one-day I will. Ndebele artwork reminds me of my home. I am reminded of the home I still have to understand. However, the magical nature of home is always in its possibility to be continually discovered. Home, you could say, is the most intimate part of our lives still undiscovered. What do I have to search for in the patterns of my postal address? Each colour in Ndebele art has a meaning, has a significance. All of the colours are placed together to tell a story, to tell a truth. Each colour and pattern of my home has a message. What is that message? What are the patterns of my postal address trying to tell me? What is the story, the truth of my home? This is my own story about a place that seems to have a story unto itself. I couldn't expect anything less from Johannesburg, for what else can you expect from a far-reaching place made from many worlds difficult to pin down?