Gauteng Maboneng, Jozi, my home

Introduction for Zola and Deb by: Neha Singh

Deb lives in Kaduna, Nigeria. Zola lives in Jozi, South Africa. I live in Mumbai, India.

The similarity of our story transcends the differences in our names, our identities, our cities.

This is the story that was supposed to define us, our lives, our destinies.

The similarity of the stories we choose to tell with our lives are a different kind, though.

You will know.

As you journey with Deb and Zola into the spaces that they occupy in the cities that they have come to live in, you will know the difference between what they were meant to be and do and dream, and what they choose to be and do and dream.

Our childhoods shape us. This cannot be understood like maths. Two plus two isn’t always four.

The human spirit defies mathematical principles.

We do not create new homes where we go. We carry our homes with us. Not on our backs, but in our hearts. We restructure that home as we grow. As women. We shed our skins. We shed fear. We shed scepticism. We embrace risk. We embrace this city with its narrow lanes and strange, loud folk. We embrace it, but also call it out. When it’s callous and unfair. Our voices aren’t gentle then, our eyes not timid.

We learn, unlearn, relearn. To have fun. To be strong. To have hope.

As we restructure our home, we also reshape ourselves. Our bodies—not invisible anymore, our eyes—not downcast anymore, our minds—not fearful, but curious.

We embrace this city with its risks and dangers and trauma and its history—and make it our own. Not the way we were supposed to, but the way we choose to.

And then we share.

Because what’s home without people, right?

I open my eyes. Cars are hurtling by my window with their headlights piercing the night. The stench of sweat from long, working hours hangs in the air. My body is squashed into the old side panel of the minibus taxi. I sit up, trying to be comfortable. The taxi driver, two rows ahead of me, boisterously laughs as he shouts something out of his open window to another taxi driver. The man slumped next to me shifts in his seat, his bulky frame taking up more space. He reeks of alcohol and keeps falling onto me as the taxi sways about the streets of downtown Johannesburg. I attempt to shove him off with my shoulder, gently. I don’t want to wake him up. It feels safer not to, so I turn back to look out the window, just in time to see the taxi driver nonchalantly dash past a red traffic light.

Taxis. Taxis. Taxis. The notorious death machines of South Africa. These are not yellow cabs hailed on the streets of New York by well-heeled socialites. These are mini-buses that are supposed to seat 12 to perhaps 15 people, but have been known to sardine pack even 20 people into one. Yet, to many, myself included, they are the livelihood that keeps the country’s economic engine running. For those without the convenience of a car, accessing this sprawling city usually means resigning oneself to possibly becoming a sardine.

So, it’s been a month since I joined my home city’s sardine run—the workforce. Yet, it doesn’t feel like home. It feels as though I took Phillip Pullman’s Subtle Knife and migrated into another world that I must now inhabit to survive this thing called adulthood. I now find myself morphing into the mythical being that is the downtown Jozi commuter I’ve heard so many sensational stories about. As the taxi forces its way through the never-ending traffic, I wonder if I’m indeed seeing prostitutes, drug dealers and the hosts of wild New Year’s Eve parties, as promised by news broadcasts. The type of person, I’ve been told, to be found in these parts of town at these ungodly hours.

Instead, what I do see is a woman on the side of the road, using a portable gas cooker to feed the passing, rushing crowds of workers and Jo’burg hustlers. The crowds that have converged from all over the African continent to the city of gold. A gold rush that has devoured many souls. The fear that grips those simply passing through the city is in the tight-fisted knuckles of women holding onto their handbags or those paralysed by the lack of direction and the confusion caused by the commotion. Yet, they keep coming. They keep dreaming that they too will discover the city’s riches. We all keep dreaming.

The taxi comes to a halt to let the drunken man next to me get off. Finally! I have my seat to myself. I no longer have to pretend to be sleeping. As the taxi lurches forward, I look out the window to see the drunk man stumble towards a pole holding up an advert for a strip club right around the corner, but he seems more concerned with throwing up. We are yet again stuck in traffic. I look out the window and I’m faced with the soaring Hillbrow Tower. I smile. The symbol of Johannesburg’s skyline on tourist brochures. Yet, the camera lenses of tourists or the curious eyes of suburban Jo’burgers never seem to pass through here. Perhaps they are afraid their belongings will get swiped in a blink of a lens and prefer to only explore the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg. We move off slowly and eventually make our way into Noord Street, where the taxi comes to a complete stop and all remaining passengers get off. I get out and face the MTN taxi rank.

I still remember the first time I stepped foot here. I was 15. On the brink of 16. A school friend and I were coming back from our first day interning at our work placement school program. We had wanted to go to a ‘safer’ part of town, to a taxi rank we were much more familiar with. But as a taxi user you do not always have a say in which part of the Jo’burg downtown you get dropped off. That day, we landed up in Noord, the notorious location. It was surreal. We didn’t even know it until we asked someone exactly where we had been transported to. Although we had no idea how we would arrive home, knowing nothing about the connecting taxis between Noord and Soweto, standing in the midst of the shifting crowds, in the waning evening light, it was exhilarating.

It still is. As I move with the crowds, I probably look like I’m half-running. Voices shout past me as taxi marshals try and convince everyone passing that they are all going in their direction and need to fill up their taxis. I walk towards an intersection and wait for the traffic light to give pedestrians the green light. The hardened downtowners on the other hand, dash through the oncoming traffic. While waiting, I look around at the street vendors trying to make a living from selling township snacks, hot meals, household cleaning goods and even porn. I wonder who stops in this commotion, just for a second, to add to their porn collection. Yet, the young man with the well-displayed DVD collection on his makeshift table is here every day, so he must have customers. The pedestrian traffic light flashes green and I spring into the street, despite knowing full well that taxis and cars will still try to drive through their red light.

After all, I’ve become that hardened downtowner. At least I like to tell myself that. Even though I still hold my bag tight under my armpit, and constantly look around me, alert to any threats to my female body, I stand tall in these streets. Noord has emboldened me. From being that startled, wide-eyed teenage girl, learning to be independent, to years later navigating its dirt strewn streets, this commotion was the real internship for the life I would choose. Commuting with taxis, through this space, has given me the confidence to dare to explore new spaces, refusing to let my fear of physical safety and the unknown to constrain me. Instead, navigating this small part of my home city truly made me believe the world could be my oyster, waiting to surprise me with pearls if only I dare crack the hard shells.

I finally reach my second taxi for the evening. I settle myself into a comfortable seat. Everyone gets to sit comfortably in the new quantum taxis that are supposed to be an upgrade for the public transportation experience—inclusive of always blank flat-screen TVs and hardly-working WiFi connections. The woman next to me takes out money from her purse and passes it to me for collection. She looks the part of a Sandton career woman in her heels and formal attire. She takes out her iPad, earphones, and a bottle of Savannah cider, settling in for the 40-minute ride to Soweto. The taxi ignites and slowly tries to squeeze itself between two cars. I pass the passenger fare I have collected from my row to the person in front of me. I then take out my mobile phone to partake in the daily mindless perusal of social media.

But then I decide to look out the window one last time, as the Jozi street lights illuminate the taxi. The city of lights. The city of gold. It might not be for the faint-hearted, but there is a pulse that runs through this part of the city that thrills me. It forces me to be present, vigilant, and aware of the tremors that course through it. Even as I fear its dangers, it screams out that life is meant to be lived, to experience its thrills, not hide away. As the taxi finally forges a way out of the downtown commotion and makes its way towards the freeways out of the city, the taxi driver switches off the lights and a silence settles inside the taxi. I fall back into my seat with a sigh and close my eyes.


Nokuzola Zingithwa

I am the founder of Ratoloka, a digital media company. We produce travel-related digital media content such as videos, photography campaigns, podcasts and more. We also publish a travel website called Ohambileyo. The website aims to promote unique South African destinations. We engage in the practice of narrative change by using digital media content to change perceptions of South Africa to its own citizens.

I love to travel, but because of South Africa’s complicated history, many parts of the country are and have felt inaccessible to someone like me: a black woman who grew up in a township. Thus, part of Ohambileyo’s mission is to promote all of South Africa’s citizens embracing the country as their own and becoming stewards of this beautiful country of ours.