Representing the ‘wood: a Norwood ambassador (Brett McDougall)

Brett McDougall believes that we all need to be ‘neighbourhood ambassadors’, as the City of Johannesburg isn’t going to do it for us. In the late 90s and early 2000s he seemed to be the only person “stupid enough” to walk around the Jozi CBD. “I gawked at the amazing architecture and ranted about what could be if only people cared. Fifteen years later, that space has been transformed by those who saw potential, talked the place up, and invested.”

Areas like Maboneng and Braamfontein certainly fit the category of being ‘talked up’, but what about the places devoid of craft beer and hipsters? The places that have not (thankfully/yet – you choose) been ‘earmarked for development’?

“Joburg has so many other amazing neighbourhoods outside the city centre that seem to have fallen off the map: Jeppe, Belgravia, Bez Valley, Orange Grove, Norwood, and many others. If we love living in them, we have the responsibility to represent all that is good in them. I am amazed at how much momentum a (seemingly) small effort can gain.”

Brett McDougall: self-proclaimed neighbourhood ambassador

The ‘small effort’ he speaks of is a Facebook page called The Republic of Norwood.  McDougall tells me that it all began when he used to run a yoga class, and, in so doing, he met a lot of people who lived in the area – that area being Norwood.

“We used to gather at my place and have tea or head to a local coffee shop. It became a social group as opposed to a yoga class. We started laughing about aspects of living in Norwood; we called it ‘The Wood’ as opposed to ‘The ‘Hood’: this was intentional as Norwood, by that stage, had become quite grimy. It certainly wasn’t the trendy spot it was in the late 80s and early 90s.”

When he first started the Facebook page, he called it Tales from the ‘Wood, but, thanks to the rather obscure name, no one had a clue what it was about – until a friend of his “politely suggested” he change the name.

I ask him about the ‘republic’ bit, because it makes me think of pretentious white enclaves of privilege: The Republic of Hout Bay in Cape Town comes to mind.  According to McDougall, the name of the Facebook page had to reflect “beyond Norwood”; the republic part was a statement of intent. “It means that we don’t need anything west of the highway; the really interesting parts of Jozi are in our part of town – we don’t need to go anywhere else.”

He expands on this by explaining that development in Johannesburg has been mostly in the north, especially west of the M1 highway, with trendy areas like Greenside, Rosebank, Melville and Parkhurst. “East of the highway has become kinda ghetto. The [Facebook] page is about the north east – basically anything north of Houghton and south of Alex, east of the M1 highway, and west of the M3 – which forms the north east triangle.”

According to McDougall, instead of the word ‘republic’ having elitist connotations, it’s rather “a screw you” to the exclusiveness of the north western suburbs. “By harnessing the energy and creativity that we have in that area [the north east] we can do great things … People need to get excited about it.”

He tells me that the Facebook page has generated a lot of interest, although it was really slow to take off. The page now has over 400 likes and is growing, with the most successful post having a reach of over 2000 people. Along with highlighting things to do and places to see, there is also an emphasis on nostalgia, as McDougall – who is also a Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour guide – has a slight obsession with all things past tense. Unfortunately, some nostalgic posts have proven to be problematic, thanks to a large ex-pat community, who have “taken their prejudices and attitudes with them”.

“I published a photo of the Norwood swimming pool in the ’70s, which generated a lot of negativity. I try to stay out of those debates but I love nostalgia; I can wallow in it, which is probably a bad thing.”

McDougall’s fascination with history has led him to do long hours of research into areas like Norwood, which, he has discovered, have numerous layers  – historically, culturally, and ethnically. “I don’t think outside of the eastern suburbs you find as much diversity …. [in Norwood] you have a huge Jewish population, as well as an Indian population that’s moved in.” He tells me that there’s also a lot of irony, and he likes looking at the funny side of living in the area, too. For example, Palestinian and Moroccan émigrés live side-by-side with Hassidic Jews.

McDougall firmly believes that, as local residents, it’s up to us, as individuals, to make changes and get involved. For him, community involvement is key, and the worst thing we can do is “live behind high walls”. About a year ago he joined the Norwood Orchards Residents’ Association and he has helped resuscitate the organisation. He’s now focusing on sprucing up Norwood’s run-down parks and getting buildings recognised for Blue Plaque status. An area that holds particular interest for him is where he lives, called The Gardens, which is also known as ‘Red Square’, thanks to its Communist and struggle history.

“There’s a continuum of our political history in the area which is unique in Joburg, even in South Africa. On our eastern border there’s the influence of Gandhi, the father of passive resistance, who stayed at The Kraal in Orchards, which has now been turned into a museum and a hotel. Passive resistance was a key political tool of the ANC. Travel west and you find an extraordinary concentration of white anti-apartheid activists, for example Helen Joseph in Norwood, the Weinbergs, the Harmels, the Heymanns, and Bram Fischer’s house in Oaklands. And of course Mandela lived just up the road in Houghton in his final years. You can basically walk from the birthplace of satyagraha [passive resistance] to where the armed struggle was formulated in a space of 3-4km.”

We also talk about how Johannesburg is seen as a disposable city with disposable neighbourhoods; how new immigrants come in and make money, only to move onto the next bigger and better suburb. “No one really wants to set down roots and appreciate an area for what it is. You don’t really get that sense of permanence that you do in Cape Town, everything is very transient here. Then there are some ‘pop up’ neighbourhoods, like Derrick Ave – where was that 15 years ago? It’s frustrating; we destroy so much because we don’t see any value in neighbourhoods.”

His mission, it would seem, is to rediscover the worth of our own streets – especially in the areas of Joburg that have rich histories, but more urban decay than chic. Instead of sitting back and moaning about the state of our ‘hoods, we need to be proactive, or, as he sums it up, “If I manage to get a handful of people excited and that changes how they interact with others, the neighbourhood, and get involved – then I’ve done my job.”

For McDougall, the Jewish and Italian communities make Norwood special, as well as its struggle history, open spaces and parks. Norwood has a number of great eateries too – here are some of his favourites. Some are not in Norwood per se, but are in what he calls the ‘Greater Norwood’ area, which includes Orange Grove and surrounds:

  • Zahava’s on Grant Avenue: “Serves Sephardic cuisine, which is Mediterranean with a Jewish twist. The owner, Zahava, is from Morocco and offers Israeli breakfasts, Yemeni breads and hummus. People play scrabble in the courtyard and it has the best atmosphere.”
  • The Schwarma Company on Grant Avenue: “It’s the real thing and always full. It now boasts an upstairs section. Owned by Palestinian twins; the staff have been there forever and are always smiling, which says a lot.”
  • Super Sconto on Louis Botha Avenue (243): “This is where you can become lost in another world. It looks very boring outside, but inside is an Italian supermarket – everything is imported from Italy. They make their own pasta and sauces downstairs, and upstairs is a deli where you can have lunch and coffee.”
  • The Doll House on Louis Botha Avenue: “The milkshakes here are legendary”.

Image of Brett: Naseera Ebrahim; featured image courtesy Love Norwood

2017 update: Zahava’s and The Doll House have closed down.

The Republic of Norwood Facebook page is now known as Love Norwood

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