2014 Africa Date Geography Interest Jewish Interest

Notes from South Africa: Johannesburg (Part II) – “Fortress Jo’burg”


Johannesburg is where I grew up. I lived there for most of the first thirteen years of my life. Then in 1985 my family migrated to Australia, and I have never been there since. So on my recent trip to South Africa – my first visit in almost thirty years – I was keen to retrace my childhood, and to see once more the various locations I remember so vividly from when I was young. (See Johannesburg Part I – Then and Now and my previous posts from South Africa: Seals, Sharks & Dolphins, and Finding Cape Town).


First stop on the Memory Lane tour was a house we had lived in from 1984 – 1985, until we left for Australia. This was one of the first homes built in a new suburb called Bruma, and back then we were almost pioneers, our house standing alone in a large scrubby veld (open field). Thirty years on the whole area is fully developed – houses upon houses, with access roads blocked off by tall gates and manned 24/7 by armed security guards. Our house seemed much smaller than I remember it, surrounded by high walls, topped with electric wires.

Nearby we passed Bruma Lake, an artificial body of water that didn’t exist when I had lived there, construction having begun in 1985. It is a large garbage-filled cess-pool, surrounded on all sides by shoddy townhouse developments. My cousin Tom, who was showing us around the old neighbourhood, told us the lake had inadvertently been built on a sewage catchment area (oops), and as a result is now a health hazard for all who live nearby.

Next we drove to a solid, 1950s style brick construction, the house I had lived in from 1973 – 1975. Here, I had been an only child. My earliest ever memory is set in the garden of this house (I was not yet three at the time). I was playing with a friend, and together we studied a mound of dog pooh left behind by my first pet. Why on earth this, of all things, should be the first conscious memory I have completely escapes me, but it is what it is I guess.

I stood on the sidewalk for quite some time, staring intently at what is otherwise an unremarkable house on an unremarkable street in an unremarkable suburb of Johannesburg. The garden and house were obscured, like every other house on the street, by a massive eight-foot high brick wall. Still, memories came flooding back to me, and I felt goose-bumps up and down my arms.

Joburg Security

Before I could get completely lost in the past, however, the present intervened. That is to say, in “the new South Africa” a few blokes standing around looking at a house can mean only one thing: crooks, casing the joint. Our presence attracted the attention of a tall thin man in a small wooden booth at the end of the street, who called out rather angrily to ask what we were doing. I wandered over and explained, and he studied me with deep suspicion. But slowly, as I spoke of having lived in this street thirty-five years before, his frown melted into a big, toothy smile.

He introduced himself as Phineas, and told me that he was one of four private security men hired by the local residents. Of whom he said: “There are only Chinese and Indians living here. Not many Black people”. He shook his head in wonder, as if this was an incredible fact. I did too, but for an entirely different reason: once upon a time, when I had been a toddler in this street, the residents were not Black or Chinese or Indian, but White, and overwhelmingly Jewish. As we spoke an Indian man in a convertible pulled out of one of the driveways. He set off at speed, waving cheerily to Phineas as he passed.

We drove on to the next house of my childhood, where we had lived from about 1975 to about 1977. The house was still there and still painted in the same greenish colour I remember. But the public park across the road, in which I had learned to ride a bicycle and which had been the setting for countless family outings, is now overgrown and derelict, blocked off by a high, barb-tipped fence.

Our presence again attracted attention, this time from a domestic maid. She came to the heavily fortified front gate to ask what we were doing. I explained to her that my brother and I had lived in the house a long time ago, so we were just looking, and meant no harm. She stared at us intently for a few seconds. Then she nodded her head slowly, in a way that suggested this was something that happened every other day around here and why hadn’t we simply said so in the first place? Without any further questions she turned around, and went back to her chores.

Continuing our drive, we passed a sign informing that we were in a place of great significance to The Church of Scientology. Apparently Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard had lived in this area in the 1960s. Along the way he had attracted some local disciples, like the family of one of my best friends from Primary School. Seeing the sign reminded me of how when sleeping over at his house I used to stare at a chart that hung on his wall, explaining Scientology basics in child-friendly cartoons. I remember at the time thinking it was sort of cool how, according to Scientology, we are all originally descended from a galactic confederacy of spacemen. Or something like that.

Next we came to the house I most associate with my childhood, having lived in it from about 1978 to 1983. I remember the pool, in which I swam almost every day during the summer months. And I remember the large garden, in which I played soccer with myself as part of a phantom World Cup winning team, and where I built a cubby-house under a grove of bamboos.

But most of all I remember my bedroom, in which I read books and built Lego cities and conducted all manner of junior science experiments. In that room I would stay up late on Sunday nights listening to Casey Casem’s American Top 40 on the radio, manually recording my favourite songs onto cassette tapes. Even today, if I so much as hear the first bar of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” I am immediately transported back to this place and time.

Like everywhere else in Johannesburg the street view of the house is now limited to a massive brick wall, topped with electric wires. But more than the first two houses we’d seen that day I especially noticed the change here, because in my day the house had been surrounded by a fence low enough for a ten-year old boy to jump over. Something I had in fact done almost every day, using the garden as a short-cut entry and exit route instead of the front door. If anyone tried this trick nowadays they’d probably get impaled, electrocuted, or shot. Perhaps all three.

Across the street from that house was the Cyrildene Synagogue, which I noticed is still there. It looked exactly the same, with panels of multicoloured glass arranged in a 1960s art-deco pattern. It also looked incredibly rundown, and so I thought it might have been abandoned – in my day this was a mainly Jewish neighbourhood, whereas today only a handful of Jews remain.

In the open courtyard and cluster of rooms behind the synagogue I had attended the Morris Glazer kindergarten, from age 2 to 5. I peered in through the heavy iron gates, trying to catch a glimpse of what had once been my nursery-school. Again, within seconds my presence attracted an armed security guard. But this time I got no love, the guard refusing to grant me entry. He did however confirm that the synagogue was still in use, albeit infrequently. Then I was unceremoniously shooed away, like a pesky fly.

It was, all in all, a pretty weird conclusion to our tour of the old ‘hood. Kind of like walking around a ghost ship, knowing that I had once upon a time, long ago, been one of the crew. And then finding out a few hardy souls had rather foolishly chosen to remain on board, and feeling slightly remorseful for having left them behind. Only then to think that it was actually a pretty crap ship anyway, and so feeling rather pleased I had managed to dodge that particular bullet. Only then to have a moment of feeling bad for having had a moment of feeling pleased. And so on.

Isn’t Jewish guilt a wonderful thing?


no guns

Cyrildene Primary School is a small Government-run school that I attended for seven years as a child (see my previous posts Reflections on a Cyrildene Childhood and Johannesburg Part I). Thirty years on, in my mind’s eye I can still navigate my way around the school as clearly as if I was last there yesterday. Plus as a place this otherwise unheralded school occupies a central spot in so many of my earliest memories. So a visit there was pretty much an essential part of our Johannesburg tour.

On entering the school grounds I was immediately struck by how nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – seems to have changed in three decades. So, for example, the classroom where I had attended Grade One lessons, in 1979, was still exactly the same: the same desks; the same chairs; the same chalk board at the front of the room. Only in my day, the teacher’s name on the door was “Mrs Wilson”. Nowadays, it is “Mr Sikhulu”.

We noticed a group of children sitting on the steps leading up to the main building, playing monopoly. They were all wearing the same green school uniform I had once worn almost every day of my life. We explained to the children that my brother, cousin and I had all been students in the school many years ago, and we wanted to look around. They in turn stared at us like we were aliens from another planet. But one of the kids ran off and returned a few moments later with “Uncle Joe”, the school caretaker, and a young student who said she was the “Head Girl” (head prefect). Which was quite apt, really, because in my final year of primary school I had been the “Head Boy”.

And so we strolled down the school’s corridors together, peering into classes and staring out over the playing fields. As with my Grade One room, I was struck by how little things had changed. The classrooms were the same; the toilet blocks were the same; the cricket ground was exactly as I remembered it. The pool was the same, albeit now the water was murky green and clearly it isn’t used much these days. The quadrangle where we had roll call every morning, and on which my brother had memorably won a Michael Jackson dancing tournament (in 1983), had the same cracked asphalt surface today as it did when I was a child.

In fact, it seems that the only thing to have changed in thirty years is the colour of the student body – in my day, 100% White; now, almost 100% Black. Oh, and the addition of small signs on walls around the school showing a pistol, in a red circle, with a red line through it. At Cyrildene Primary School, circa 2014, people need to be reminded that guns are not allowed.

Finally, we came to the school hall, and my sense of nostalgia, already on high alert, went into overdrive. There was the stage on which I had received awards at annual graduation ceremonies, and on which I got kissed by a girl for the first time (at the end of a song in a school play – “I’ll Do Anything” from Oliver). There was the hard wood floor on which we had sat in neat rows every Friday at assembly, jumping up to stand to attention to greet the Principal as he walked in. There was the ancient piano, unpolished and untouched for thirty-five years, on which the music teacher had banged out hymns and songs. There were the same banners hanging from the walls, the same draped curtains over the stage, the same high windows exactly as I remember them.

It was as if a period of time, hitherto existing only in my memory, had been taken out of the freezer, defrosted, and rather bizarrely brought back to life.

We stopped in front of a large wooden board that was mounted on a side wall of the hall, and on which is engraved the names of all the head prefects and house captains of Cyrildene Primary School since the school’s inception in the 1950s. On it I found my name, from 1984. Around my name were other names I recalled, of old friends and school mates. The surnames from my time were almost all Jewish or Anglo-Saxon, but as my eyes moved down the list the names changed gradually, eventually becoming almost all Black South African ones.

So there we were – the White Jewish Head Boy from 1984, and the Black Head Girl of 2014 – staring at all these names on a board, which included our own. Two students of Cyrildene Primary School, past and present, separated by time, place, age, and just about everything else imaginable, so that our lives pretty much have absolutely nothing in common. Yet at the same time we will forever be connected via this small wooden board, at this obscure little primary school, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As moments go, that one was pretty darn memorable.



Retracing the past through Johannesburg those few days it occurred to me that, in the thirty years since I was last there, the city has become something of a security-obsessed fortress. The houses I grew up in; the park I learned to ride a bike in; my old school; the synagogue across the road: everything is fenced off, secured, topped with barb-wire, or patrolled by private security guards.

Statistics support this observation, Johannesburg having one of the highest murder rates on earth – about 40 a day (Sydney, by contrast, the most violent place in Australia, had a grand total of 43 murders in the whole of 2013). Johannesburg is also apparently the rape capital of the world. Not to mention the theft and armed robbery capital of the world. Not to mention the violent assault capital of the world. And it is also the car-jacking capital not just of the world, but the entire universe.

To be fair, recent crime reduction efforts by city authorities have seen the murder rate fall,  to the point that it is now “only” four-and-a-half times the global average, and you are now no more likely to get murdered in Johannesburg than in Mogadishu or Baghdad, say. And Johannesburg’s residents will also proudly tell you that the rate of increase in rapes has slowed markedly, so that it is “only” increasing by 2% year-on-year.

In short, this is a place that seems to have descended into lawlessness and criminality which the locals may have come to regard as “normal”, but which to anyone else is nothing short of staggering.

So for example, on more than one occasion I noticed road signs warning we were in an area of high car-jacking risk. Another time we drove past the turn off to the suburb in which my grandmother had once lived. I asked my cousin if we could quickly go by her apartment building, for old time’s sake. He looked at me like I had completely lost my marbles. “Three White guys in a nice car just don’t drive through that part of town – period”. Here was a lifetime Jo’Burg resident and a big tough guy, point blank refusing to drive into an area that not so long ago had been populated primarily by Jewish grandmas.

And the following day we drove past The Wilds, a large nature reserve near the centre of town. I remember The Wilds clearly from my childhood – we had often gone there as a family on Sunday outings, on picnics, or to wander through the gardens. I suggested that perhaps we stop and do likewise now, and my cousin’s wife literally laughed out loud. “You know, if you are a woman and you walk around The Wilds alone, there is a high chance you will get raped”, she said matter-of-fact, and in a way that didn’t at all sound like she was stretching the truth, or joking.


On Friday night we went to my cousin’s place for dinner. Afterwards he showed us around his home, pointing out the high walls, topped with electric and barbed wires. Every window is barred, and motion detectors are scattered all through the garden, which is also lit up at night by giant spotlights. It was all a bit worrying.

But even more worrying was when Tom told me that “serious” bad guys could still sidestep the security measures in an instant, and for this reason the bedroom area inside the house is separated from the living area by a heavy grated steel door, which gets locked at night. “The wall and electric wires will deter amateurs, but if real crooks want to get in, they will. Although then there is a kind of understanding in place between us and them – they can take what they want in the living room, as long as they leave us alone in the bedrooms”, he explained.

On leaving that night we opened the front gate to go out to street, where I’d parked. Half tongue-in-cheek I pointed out to Tom that this was a weak link in his formidable chain of defences. Surely bad guys could just hang about outside, and then pounce once the gate was opened.

Tom didn’t see the humour in this, having clearly considered the subject before, in depth. “You are so right”, he told me, “… which explains why most ‘casual’ home invasions start in the garage. But that is also why we have CAP – Community Active Protection”. He pulled out his car keys – “here, watch this”, he said – as he pressed a little alarm button dangling on the fob.

Within ten seconds his mobile phone was ringing. An operator on the other end asked if everything was OK, and Tom had to give her a secret codeword to prove it. No sooner had he hung up – so probably less than a minute after he first pressed his alarm – than a four-by-four came screeching to a halt in front of his house. Emblazoned on the side were the initials “C.A.P.”, and sitting in the vehicle were four of the meanest, toughest, angriest looking guys I have ever seen. They were kitted out in full military gear, and two of them were toting some seriously big, bad-ass looking guns.

They smiled at my cousin and politely asked if all was well. “Yes, sorry guys”, Tom replied, “I just pressed the button by accident”. So they smiled again, said good night to us all, and lowered their weapons as they drove away.

Those guys are some of the hardest mother-fuckers you will ever meet”, Tom explained as he turned to face me. “All ex-army, we have six of those jeeps on permanent patrol around the suburb. The Jewish community all chips in to pay for it. Kind of like our own private army,” he said.

To be honest, I was impressed. I mean, c’mon, how many people have their own private army? And on call no less. But truth be told, it was pretty bloody terrifying as well. This is no way to live, I thought to myself, as Tom waved the security goons goodbye like you would old friends.

On our last morning in Johannesburg my brother and I visited Benoni, a suburb about 20km outside of town, and where my mother grew up in the 1950s and 1960s (and apart from that is most notable as being where Charlize Theron is from, too). My grandfather is buried in the nearby Jewish Cemetery, and we went there to place a stone on his grave – it’s unlikely that a member of our family will be in the area again anytime soon.

Back in my mum’s day Benoni was an almost entirely Jewish suburb. Today, fewer than 60 Jews live here. Some of whom were in the cemetery for a tombstone unveiling on the morning of our visit. We chatted, and one of the women said she knew my mother – they had apparently shared a tent together at summer camp in the 60’s. Another man said he knew my aunt quite well, having been in the year above her in school. Quite a few people said they remembered my grandparents.

In and amongst all the reminiscing about “the good old days”, someone mentioned that nowadays the Jewish cemetery of Benoni is surrounded by high concrete walls, with a private security guard on duty through the night, privately paid for by the community, and so maybe I could make a donation?

I asked why the need for the security – was it because of anti-Semitism, and the resultant threat of vandalism? No, was the response, it was because until these security measures had been implemented, tombstones were regularly being stolen, to be used as building materials.

Another man chipped in to explain that the concrete wall surrounding the cemetery was built of a special non-reusable material. I must have looked confused, because he went on to explain that the first attempt at securing the cemetery made use of a steel fence, but this was a dismal failure because the fence itself was repeatedly stolen, the steel reusable in construction.

But now the thieves had been cunningly outwitted, because the concrete blocks were made in such a way that if moved they would immediately crack, and thus become unusable. Quite a few folks even chuckled at their own devious cleverness. I did too, to be polite. But what I really thought was that this is not so much amusing as it is downright disturbing. Surely a society has to be seriously dysfunctional if cemeteries require self-shattering concrete walls, so as to prevent graves – and the wall itself! – from being looted for building material.

All in all yet another strange little quirk of life in Fortress Jo’burg. That, if I am being perfectly honest, is way more sad than it is funny.


[To be continued next week]




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