Spirits from years gone by alive in Jeppestown
EFORE the great Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai left Joburg, he lived in the perfect place to tell stories.
Like so many other creative people, he occupied a large, open warehouse in Jeppestown on the outskirts of the inner city. His tattooed body reflecting his density of ideas, his living space had become his own skateboard park where he quite literally rode while he thought.
His anguished work grappled with conflict in Africa, that intensity having driven him into exile in the first place. But out of his windows above Macintyre Street, Chiurai could see other pictures: the railway lines that ferry the working class, and, down on the streets below, ordinary city people reinventing themselves out of old-fashioned stores selling fine suits and silk ties out of glassfronted drawers. Not far away, the magic spells of Maboneng fizzed quick as dynamite under the End Street bridge.
It’s sad for us that Chiurai decided to leave South Africa and go home, but little else in Jeppestown has changed.
Down over the tracks just past the old Grand Central Hotel, are the tales of
Belegant African men in pin-striped shirts. They stroll among white shopkeepers, whose families may have run businesses here for 40, 50, 60 years. They, in turn, live among Muslim families in old penthouses, flats and council plots some have known all their lives.
There are childhood homes tucked here behind the counters of stores specialising in exquisite, hand-painted footwear. Bassett braces lie softly coiled in velvet boxes. Clan William jackets are pressed for the rails. The traders’ houses behind are fragrant and spotless, walls decorated leanly with spiritual verses and cardboard calendars.
In their white kurta swept up in the morning shadows, many fathers from this community attend the Zia-ul-Badr mosque in Marshall Street, a 10-minute walk away. Christians will instead kneel in the pews at the Assembly of God church, repurposed out of its past with its golden masonic domes. Other believers will light a candle in the Dominican convent, or pray quietly in a sudden park between the streets.
Many Indian families grew up and played cricket here on the streets of Jeppestown where their great-grandparents settled after they first arrived from the other side of the world in the 1930s.
If you ask, grandmothers will lovingly unpack portraits of their ancestors. Rows of sequins on their saris disappear in and out as they breathe upon the faces of those who’ve gone before.
This district has long been intricately worn into the cultural consciousness of those who understand Joburg, where the kindest people act fearlessly in a feral town. Just a few years ago, there were xenophobic attacks here when furious gangs moved in. Good people were trapped inside their homes and shops. But they stayed.
Perhaps, if it were not for those families and other visionaries who remained proud and resourceful, living, working and teaching in a community whose detailed forensics define the city, slumlords and criminals would have long taken over Jeppestown.
Right now, top of the list of visionaries are those occupying two old mansions across the road from each other on the corners of Berg and Marshall.
One of them is the magnificent Salis- bury House, designed by George Leith at first for shopping and luxe living with its broekie lace verandah, cast-iron columns, wood-panelling and leadlighted doors. Three weeks after it was finally refurbished in 2006, a car drove into one of its columns and its verandah collapsed. But its love story continues as its latest restoration is almost complete.
Its companion Jeppestown jewel, the old St Mary’s Collegiate for Girls, is St James Preparatory School, a pacific hybrid of conventional education and illuminated thought, led by headmaster Mark Grace. Together, Salisbury House, which is the School of Practical Philosophy, and St James – where children learn Sanskrit, mesmerise with a knowledge of Shakespeare and are encouraged to find meaning – are working with architect Christine Meissner on renewal for the whole neighbourhood.
Meissner speaks beautifully. She says seeing Jeppestown for its true value operates almost at an “unseen level”.
“It means moving away from subtle, preconceived ideas that keep us apart; this little otherness that we carry.”
Jeppestown can hardly wait.