Spir­its from years gone by alive in Jeppestown

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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.

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