07 December 2013

Melville Crossroads

It's that time of year when it gets dark early in the northern hemisphere. The time of year where I feel laden with the weight of the many jumpers I have to wear to keep warm. The time when I longingly look at my photos from South Africa and dream of returning to my beloved Johannesburg.

Until that day comes, I want to show you a series of photos I took earlier this year. To explain: I spent a lot of time in this one cafe down the road from my flat in Melville, the Cafe de la Creme. The corner window table was much sought after by itinerant writers like me, but occasionally I managed to grab it. Staring into space being an integral part of my writing routine, I began to notice the life passing by outside. Soon I had started a collection of mini events occurring on the crossroads in front of me. Here is a selection:

These guys trudge up and down the streets of the city collecting recycling.
Hard work.

One of the many street sellers

These ladies pass through Melville most days, selling baskets

'Ice for Africa'. I liked the eskimo with the sign, and the incongruity

Someone is moving house, perhaps?

The tuktuks have become a popular attraction around town

These tough guys handle private security, a subject on everyone's mind in

While all the other shots are caught as they happened, I asked Heather to go
out in the rain for me for this one. There just weren't enough people
passing with umbrellas.

Training guide dogs for the blind

Pikitup, the wittily named refuse collectors

This lady passes through most days, selling 'mealies'. I used to think
she was shouting 'Henry' for her lost pet.


I am not trying to find deep meaning in these images, or reflections of South Africa's current political landscape. I just revel in the memory of warmth, friendliness and normality.

(You can also find these photos on Instagram by searching for #melvillecrossroads or in a set on Flickr)

24 June 2013

17 June 2013

31 May 2013

19 May 2013

Songs of Migration

A trip to the to the theatre. In Jozi it's my first time. While I visit the theatre in the UK frequently, I am not in step with the venues and schedules of shows here. My impression so far has been that there is the famous Market Theatre, fabled point of resistance against apartheid (but I have no idea what quality of shows they put on now) and a load of touring shows from Europe and the US, interspersed with Afrikaans comedies and bland Whitney Houston impersonators. It turns out I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Joburg Theatre is a big 70s building at the top of Braamfontein. I don't know what I had been expecting, but the space is massive, more South Bank than regional playhouse. A grand entrance hall with escalators, high ceilings, a cafe and lots of room for mingling outside the vast auditorium.
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We had come to see Hugh Masekela's production of Songs of Migration, a story of the African experience, where men and women frequently travel long distances to find work, away from home for months and years.
The audience was overwhelmingly black, and raucous. Whether that's because there were local drama students in the cast, and the whole balcony seemed to be filled with friends and family, cheering every nifty turn and perfectly pitched note, or that the material generally invited calls and participation, I am not sure. It made for a lively atmosphere.
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As soon as the performance started I realised that it would be even better than I expected. The cast of 20-odd was impressive, all singing with individual voices, dancing superbly, and performing without the over-acting that often happens with performers primarily trained as singers. The whole show was narrated by the indefatigable Hugh Masekela, dressed in a snazzy black and purple suit and a loud tie. He threw in amazing trumpet solos, all improvised. The guy is 74, but he performs and dances like a much younger guy. It was a joy to see him sing at the top of his voice, to boogie with the much younger women, to dance his peculiar style: he bends his knees low, almost kneeling, and walks with a groovy shuffle that Michael Jackson could have learned from.
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The locally famous Gloria Bosman, a soul/opera diva with an interesting choice of boldly patterned dresses, is his partner on stage. They take turns narrating the lives of poor workers flocking from the country to the city in search of work in the mines (for men) and as housekeepers (for women), of the people left behind, and of the people travelling from faraway places to South Africa to improve their lot, to flee persecution and war.
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For most of the first half I was quite lost, as most of the songs were in either Khosa, Zulu or Sesotho, so I was guessing the meaning of the story from the acting, and the occasional narration in English.Even the old Apartheid SA flag hoisted as a backdrop wasn't familiar to me. I just let the songs flood over me, enjoying the moment and slight dizziness of confusion. In the interval Moeketse and Corlette, my South African friends, explained the jokes that everyone laughed at, like the young man courting a girl while wiggling suggestively and it seemed involuntarily. Apparently there is a kind of herbal Viagra, which is popular and much joked about. 

15 May 2013

12 May 2013

Jozi walking part 5 - Worldwide Instawalk

This is part 5 in a series on walking tours of Johannesburg. While other cities also offer guided tours, Jozi is unique in my mind as a place where people will group together, with or without a guide, to visit places that they normally wouldn't. Whether for safety in numbers, unfamiliarity or companionship, it's a thing here.

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Instawalkers on the move
Today's worldwide Instawalk meets in Braamfontein. Its a special walk. Only my second, after the Fordsburg amble a few weeks ago, this one is very different. Part of the Worldwide Instawalk instigated by Instagram, it has  attracted photographers all the way from Pretoria. We even have a film crew to shoot a short film of the walk. I am happy to tag along, as I have wanted to shoot Nelson Mandela bridge at night, as well as the harder to reach parts of Newtown.
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Nelson Mandela bridge
Last time it was only the four of us: me, Heather, Roy and Allessio from Pretoria. Today there are twenty people. I am finally meeting Uncle Scrooch and Gareth Pon, two of the movers and shakers of the Jozi Instagram scene. This is the first time my digital life spills into real life. I have never met most of these people, but because I follow their photo stream I know quite a bit about their lives.
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Almost gone
The crowd is homogenous: kids, hipsters, young couples. Mostly boys. I am the oldest person there by far. There is some delay as we wait for everyone to show up, and for the crew to set up their cameras.
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When everyone is finally assembled, we walk across Nelson Mandela bridge in the late afternoon light. It's slow going, what with shooting the railway lines below us and the skyline on the opposite side. There is an element of wanting to get the best angle, the most interesting variation on a view, to 'see' a shot that no-one else has noticed. It's a competition of sorts. After a while everyone spreads out, looking for their own points of interest. When there is a good and easy shot, people cluster, but it's easy to get away. It's fun to look for the undiscovered scene.
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Getting water from the street mains
We walk down the ramp  into Newtown, past a building site with a lost house, an old villa teetering on the edge of the abyss that will one day be a mall. Cranes loom overhead. The motorway overpass edges the site, cars racing invisibly past. A little further a row of half-demolishd houses, a group of young men siphoning water off a broken mains, then we are in the warehouses of Newtown. A regeneration project of old factories, the area is now home to clubs and graffiti. In honour of the occasion we take a few group shots. Everyone is equipped with holi powder, and, positioned in front of a painted wall, we all jump. In between takes we all go back to shooting the small and the big, the unusual angle, the detail of the place. 
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getting ready for the jump
We return to Braamfontein via the bridge, catching the last of the great sunset light. Another photographer has the same idea, a fashion shoot is taking place across from us. A gaggle of girls and guys in skimpy outfits line up on the footpath, touching up make up and waiting their turn. It's a cheap and effective venue, with the colourful uplighters standing in for studio lighting and an unbeatable backdrop of the Jozi CBD. 
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Night time
There is a video made by Gareth and Micklas on Vimeo:

More photos can be found in my Flickrstream:
You can find an overview of Jozi walks here, my account of a guided walk in Melville here, a Yeoville walk here, another account of instawalking here and my story of photowalking here.

05 May 2013

Hanging out with the elite of Kramerville

If you live in Joburg, you know of Sandton, the financial and shopping centre in the northern suburbs. It's very shiny, very white and very far away from the rest of the city. It's where all the banks and big business fled during the bad 80s and the mad 90s when the city centre turned in to a riot - literally - of protest, squatting and chaos. Sandton it's all shiny high rises and expensive bank lobbies congealing around the gleaming mall of Sandton City with its incongruous statue of Nelson Mandela wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the central square.

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Trying on cool glasses
More on the weirdness of Sandton another time. Today the subject is Kramerville, a mini-destination just north of Sandton amongst the uber-leafy villas and secured compounds of the elite. My friend Heather is researching a book about Sandton, and after her initial trip dragged us out there to see how the other half lives. As most places in Jozi, it is a well-kept secret, a small proscribed area beyond which lie quiet streets of villas and other boring bits. Kramerville is actually a CID, a so-called 'city improvement district', which means that private money is brought in to carry out maintenance, security and communal improvements where the local council fails to do so. It means fences, rubbish-free streets and newly planted trees, but also fosters a closed-in exclusivity. A double-edged sword.

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Our aim was to visit two locations in Kramerville, Three Desmond, an interior mall with a Sunday market, and Katy's, a newly-opened bar/cafe nearby. Three Desmond is a blob of furniture, interior design and ethnic shops. It is really a retail park, with warehouse-sized buildings, parking out front, security guards in uniform and high fences around each parcel of land. The clientele is super-posh, rich, expensive. Once a month there is a market at the main block, a vast terrace filled with traders selling everything from laser-cut earrings to hand-made leather bags, from trendy t-shirts to pottery knick-knacks. There is a bar for the grown-ups and a pottery wheel for kids. The shops in the main building exhibit cool and very expensive furniture, carpets and flooring.

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Shop till you drop
The famous Mud studio has a big shop, selling its classic chandeliers made from recycled clay beads strung onto a wire framework. We saw them in London last year as part of the South Africa Olympics pavilion on the South Bank. Unlike most country pavilions for the Olympics the South Africans concentrated on community projects, development businesses, including Mud, which strives to empower its workers to become independent traders and set up in business rather than just working for them. The items on the shop here are quite cool: roughly handmade plates and bowls, mugs and pots, cast onto moulds and stamped in the back with the studio label and the individual maker: Daniel, Mketa, Doreen. I like the idea, but the items are crazy expensive. €18 for a dinner plate, €35 for a platter!

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A classic Mud chandelier
As we look around this trendy shopping orgy the place fills up with yummy mummies - and daddies, hipsters (there is a young guy flashing his analog Leica), stilletto-heeled Sandton babes, and wannabe outdoorsy guys. A neat-freak kid has been plonked by its mother on to the pottery wheel seat. The potter is showing her how to throw a bowl, but she is pulling faces, afraid to get red clay on her pink outfit. She can't be more than three. By the bannister, overlooking the valley of Sandton, two young black women sit on the deck, nibbling snacks and drinking champagne. Their legs delicately folded under them, they are trendy, skinny, at one with the crowd.

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We visit the other place on Heather's list for lunch and drinks. Amatuli is a vast warehouse that has been turned into an ethnic furniture and deco shop. On two floors objects, photos and furniture from all corners of the undeveloped world are for sale. There are huge beaded arm chairs decorated with lions; silver Ethiopian coptic crosses mounted on wood blocks; black and white landscape photos framed in remnants of pressed steel ceilings; wooden Buddha heads, blown glass lampshades, stone carvings of fern leaves, bamboo bowls, filigree tin-cut head dresses… It's like the Pitt Rivers museum if everything there was for sale.

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Upstairs reveals Katy's, a large open room filled with the good and beautiful of Sandton at lunch and Saturday drinks. Open to the skyline on one side and bordered by an upper level balcony on the other, wooden tables and elegant plastic chairs are spread round the large floor area. In one corner a two piece band noodles out average cover songs of REM and Coldplay, interspersed with original pieces of inspired fiddling and flute - until they are reduced to “It's a Beautiful World” and a terrible rendition of George Michael's “Faith” makes it time to leave.

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The waiters are black - except for the white manager - but so is some of the very chic clientele, which makes me wonder if South Africa it isn't at that stage where it's down to economic status pure and simple, and talking about colour is really becoming a confusion, at least where places like the posh suburbs are concerned.

More photos from Kramerville at Flickr.


30 April 2013

28 April 2013

Jozi walking part 4 - Joburg Places and Spaces

This is part 4 in a series on walking tours of Johannesburg. While other cities also offer guided tours, Jozi is unique in my mind as a place where people will group together, with or without a guide, to visit places that they normally wouldn't. Whether for safety in numbers, unfamiliarity or companionship, it's a thing here.

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Gerald, our tour leader, making a point
I met Gerald through my friend Heather. He is the author of the definitive Jozi guide - Joburg Places and Spaces 2.0. At long last I get to take part in one of his walking tours around the regenerated CBD. We meet in the current flavour of the month suburb of Braamfontein with its Neighbourgoods Market and the Lomo Gallery as well as an upmarket bike shop. It has everything a city borough needs to attract the better-off hip crowds of Joburg thirsty for new weekend venues: student bars, start-ups and refurbished condos.

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Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein
Grabbing some delicious biltong from the market we set for our six hour walk to see the CBD regeneration. Yes, six hours, but as Gerald points out, there are lots of opportunities to sit and listen to his story, or to gaze at the view, or to have a rest on the bus between destinations. The tour is offered most weekends, together with another walk from Newtown to Maboneng.

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Gerald explaining the layout of the CBD
Our tour today comprises of a German family whose son lives locally, a Portuguese couple of photographers - he lugs a tripod and heavy camera from shot to shot - and two older Jozi couples giving wistful insights into the history of their home town.

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The view from Randlords
Before we set off Gerald gives us an introduction to Braamfontein, the CBD and general Joburg history. With the historical Kitchener's Hotel pub behind us and the freshly renovated Play Braamfontein store fronts in front of us, Gerald takes us through his theory of cities as microcosms of a country. The struggle for political power, for economic improvement, for cultural dominance, all this is played out all over South Africa, and in a concentrated form, in Joburg.

The view from the ladies - no, really!

We walk down the street to Randlords, one of the many private rooftop bars dotted around the city. The 22nd floor is one great window to the skyline, currently being set up for a wedding of hundreds. There is an elaborate deck with cushioned beds for lounging behind a glass bannister. There is even a swing for the playful-minded. The views south across the railway lines towards Newtown, east over the green suburbs to Brixton tower and the slag heap remnants of the gold mines, west to Hillbrow and the CBD are stunning, giving us a taste of what's to come.

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In the midst of the city
We meander our way through Braamfontein to the Rea Vaya bus stop at Park Station at the western end of Braamfontein for our drive to First National Bank in the heart of the city. The Rea Vaya, together with the Gautrain, are Joburg's latest addition to its frankly pathetic public transport system. This is a driving city, and if you can't afford a car, you are reduced to taking the crazy minibuses. They are dangerously driven, overcrowded and feel themselves above traffic rules, but they are cheap and run back and forth to Soweto. The Rea Vaya buses on the other hand have the potential to transform the public transport scene. They run on routes currently serviced by mini taxis, which made them controversial to set up (the mini taxi racket is highly profitable and tightly controlled by private bosses, which led to violent demonstrations, strikes and threats when the bus system was first implemented), but in its own pragmatic fashion the bus company has contracted the routes out to the former mini taxi owners, and employs the taxi drivers as bus drivers. There are still some problems, resulting in shiny new stations being boarded up while contracting disputes are resolved, but in the city at least the buses are running more or less on a schedule.

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Street trader selling peanuts and underpants
The bus arrives as soon as we get to the station, a cool sleek glass container with ticket barriers at either end. A sign tells us of all the activities that are not allowed at the station: no eating, no hawking, no waiting, no littering, no graffiti, no flyposting, no music, no smoking, no skate boarding, no guns, no dogs. One symbol of a hand is mystifying: No smacking? No waving? No gloves?

All the activities that are not allowed on the Rea Vaya

There is a smart card system in development, but for now we get paper tickets. The clean, new, fast bus (it runs in dedicated lanes through the CBDs grid) takes us downtown to the first of the regenerated areas. The Kerk Street development used to be a rough informal market street, but now has French-style open roofs for the traders and hair braiders stretched along the centre of the pedestrianised street. Both sides are lined with mainstream shops selling fashion like any other shopping street.

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Braiding supply shops
We stop at the bottom of the street next to a row of fruit and veg stalls to listen to Gerald explain the concept of public area regeneration. The premise is that since the council can't afford to renovate the whole CBD, it would improve the public areas to encourage private capital to come in and take over the run-down buildings. So far the city council has made good on the promise of making the streets of the CBD safer and more pleasant, and slowly businesses are moving back and transforming the dilapidated office blocks, many of which have previously been squatted. It's a huge struggle against the inertia of decay. Despite the new paving, the numerous pieces of street art, the pragmatic accommodation of informal traders, there are still plenty of potholes and broken kerbs. I see some of the grand old city buildings have been rescued or replaced with marble shininess, but there are still plenty of ruins with smoke-blackened window holes, graffiti-covered walls and boarded-up shop doorways. It's a long and slow process. 

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Hair braiders on Kerk Street
We proceed up Eloff street, once the fashionable shopping mall of the CBD with the most expensive properties, now slowly recovering. The new buildings of First National Bank nearby are bringing flush shoppers back into town. The kerbside is clogged with street stalls selling underpants and socks, bags of sweets and phone credit, cheap jewellery and pens. Women sit on wobbly stools having their hair braided.

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Markham's Department Store
We hear about the Markham building, an elaborate wrought-iron clock tower topping the oldest department store in the city, about the CNA headquarter, a once stylish five-storey corner block now boarded up and abandoned. We stop at the famous Rissick street post office, built by Paul Kruger to show the British that an Afrikaaner government could be as sophisticated as the Empire. Now a burnt-out shell after a 2009 fire, it was going to be demolished until a campaign to save the historic building forced a rebuilding project. At catty corners sits the grandly white Mutual Insurance building. Equally significant for its Edwardian building style, it, too, was going to be demolished, and will now be renovated and improved.

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Rissick Street Post Office
This is something of a theme: there seems to be absolutely no sense of architectural heritage here. Amazing historical buildings are simply abandoned until squatters make short work of the structure, and then pulled down to leave an empty lot that can only hope to survive as a parking lot, or have an anonymous glass and granite edifice parked on it. The CBD is filled with ugly sky scrapers from the bad old days of apartheid, the fatally style-deaf 70s have left their legacy, but there are also still some elegant Art Deco affairs, some late Victorian and Edwardian edifices of the Empire age, and some stylish 60s modernist blocks. No-one seems to think it important to preserve them.

Another intriguing architectural style, representative of 60s Apartheid paranoia
We have arrived in Gandhi Square, a large open space of bus ranks lined by lawyer's offices - the courts are nearby. Behind the bronze statue of the young Gandhi flutters a banner from the current council proclaiming:
 'Jozi, you've come a long way. Now let's go even further.'
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Gandhi would approve
Much of the regeneration of this historic square has come for the unlikely direction of a law firm (Olitzki) that took over many buildings in 1989 and has been involved in preserving both Gandhi's- he practiced law here before going to India to overthrow the British colonialists - and Mandela's offices - who also practiced law here before his arrest and imprisonment.

The regenerated Ernest Oppenheimer Park
Our walk ends at the Reef hotel, with the funky and cool Gold Reef Cafe on the ground floor. We take in one more sweeping view of the city, this time from an opposite vantage point of the earlier Randlords' view. Gerald takes us through the recent history of the city, explaining the seemingly sudden abandonment of the centre for the suburbs - and the new centre of Sandton. There was an element of self-destruction involved in the legal restrictions imposed by the Apartheid government to control the movements of the black majority. Laws to limit how many black workers an industrial businesses could employ if they had their factory in the city caused major problems. The number was six. With the introduction of the laws manufacturing businesses were forced to relocate. Large factories left the CBD, abandoning the southern area's industrial zone. Pass laws restricted blacks to homelands in rural areas, and only those  that had a job were allowed into the city. Since the factories were forced to move out, there was no access to the city for black workers or shoppers.

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Chilling on the rooftops
Then, in 1985, president Botha made a famously shocking speech called 'crossing the rubicon': in the face of international pressure instead of liberalising he clamped down on the anti-apartheid movement, made South Africa a military state, and declared a state of emergency. In expectation of the coming sanctions all international businesses left the city, leaving empty offices and ruined support businesses behind. At the same time the city workers left the northern city suburbs of Hillbrow and Yeoville, then bustling middle-class neighbourhoods, following the direction their workplaces had taken. Vast numbers of flats were unoccupied. Landlords keen to keep their income allowed flats to be occupied by poorer tenants, who turned to overcrowding to finance their new homes. The local municipality turned a blind eye because it disagreed with apartheid, allowing the deterioration of properties. In a few short years at the end of the 80s Jozi CBD turned from world metropolis into ravaged slum.

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A fashion afficionado in Kerk Street
We leave Gerald's tour here to return to Braamfontein, exhausted and enlightened in equal parts by this half day wander through the city. He will take the rest of the group on south and then return to Braamfontein by bus. I am left with a head buzzing with all the new impressions. It seems that every time I brave the CBD I see a new and fascinating part of it. There is the student hipness of Braamfontein, the cultural hub of Newtown, the hip lifestyle centre of Maboneng, the unjustly neglected art gallery and Joubert park. Now I can add the intriguing shopping streets of Kerk and Eloff streets.

You can find more photos in my Flickrstream.
You can find an overview of Jozi walks here, my account of a guided walk in Melville here, a Yeoville walk here, an account of instawalking here and my story of photowalking here

22 April 2013

An Easter outing

We pick up Heather at 9am. The sun is blazing, the long weekend is upon us, it's time to get out of town. Hartebespoort Dam is easy to get to, so that's our aim for today. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea, so the little town is busy by the time we get there, the main road clogged with visitors. As the closest resort to both Jozi and Pretoria, Hartebespoort consists of holiday homes and retirement communities. It's all very Afrikaans, as Heather points out, although I can't really tell, a white South African looks like another to me.

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The signs of autumn are upon us
We have two destinations in mind today, perfect and easily digestible both: the newly renovated cablecar going up the Magaliesberg and the film set of the comedy musical Pretville (Afrikaans link).

Hartie's Cable Car

Cable car first, to avoid the after lunch crush. But when we get there, a queue is already building, the car park full of SUVs and bakkies. Stuart gets tickets while we start queuing up the stairs. The lift was built in 1973 with Swiss equipment and know-how, but closed down in the 80's, only re-opening last year. It's a pretty nice renovation, with a few shops and cafes, clean toilets and an organised system to maximise passengers. A ticket collector checks the queue to match groups to always fill each carriage with six people. Everyone is happy to jump the queue. We wind our way up the ramp until we enter the station hall, a big room open at the end where the carriages slide in and out on overhead wires.

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The lift cars are small, green and glassed in. They keep moving as passengers get out and in. We have to swap seats to balance each other's weight, then the car slides off with a big whoosh like a fairground ride. Suddenly, at great speed, we are above the car park, and then above the wild hills. Underneath is a thicket of green trees, red earth, yellow rocks. We gain height and the valley unfolds below us. In the distance the green-blue of the dam blazes in the sun. Behind it low hills point the way to Joburg, while to our right and left the eroded slopes of the Magaliesberg step away from us in geometric uniformity. Below me I can make out a thin path winding uphill. Above me the slack lines of the cable connection hold us in the air.

The threesome opposite us, a couple and their lady friend visiting form Cape Town, smile at our excited exclamations at the view. The visitor was not impressed. Having the table mountain cable car on your doorstep, this must be a comedown. I am intrigued: by the sheer cliffs we pass and the trees growing stubbornly out of a tiny crack in the rocks; by the possibility of seeing animals; by the loud fresh green against the harsh dry red soil.

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The ride is over too soon, and we step off the moving cart at the top station. A walkway guides us around and up the hill with pointers along the way. It's hot, with children jostling to climb the rocks on the edge of the hill, nervous parents holding on to their hands to prevent fatal falls. Haartebespoort spreads below us in a hot haze. We can just make out the sailing marina, the main road and blotches of retirement estates.


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Pretville's hairdresser set

Next we backtrack to Pretville, the film set for a 50s Afrikaans musical. It's an incongruous place, a fake ice-cream coloured confection used to film an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle of history white-washing. While the Group Areas Act was being designed to force families from their homes, the diner served milk shakes and the pharmacy treated babies with colic.

An innocuous-looking police car is parked in the square, dinky and cute. I have the overwhelming sense that it is missing a black offender of the pass laws in the back. The car repair shop lacks an oily labourer, and the tiny prison tucked away behind the children's clothing store really should have been staffed with ANC supporters. The place feels like a lie, all of us white people (unlike the cable car, there are no actual black faces at Pretville) wandering about this movie-glossed version of a reality that never was.

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the sweet shop
Unlike the photos in a photo book I saw recently, where the poverty of mind and life, the harsh conditions of the Karoo, the wiry stubbornness and hateful relationships with blacks was clear and unmistakeable, here all the issues have just been airbrushed out of the picture. I guess the 50s in South Africa is just not a a historical period that lends itself to bubblegum entertainment.

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On the way home, by way of irony, we passed Diepsloot, one of the biggest 'informal settlements' just north of Joburg. This woman was cutting straw from a fallow field across the township to sell as roofing material. No pink here.

You can see more photos on Flickr: