Static in the street
A teenager runs past us. A thick book is under his arm and its thin, text-heavy pages leave a literal paper trail behind him. A bearded man in a waistcoat runs after him, at a slower pace. “Can I have my bible back?” he shouts at the teenager, a little breathless and in a baritone, Nigerian accent.
The teenager keeps running but he looks behind him; there’s a millisecond of uncertainty as he half-flings the book at his pursuer. Its prophecies thud into saddle-stitched chunks as it makes contact with the road. The man in the waistcoat stops running and points his index finger upwards.
“God will punish you for the rest of your life!” he bellows.
But the scripture thief is well out of earshot.
I’m in Bertrams, a forgotten inner-city suburb-slum that lies between Doornfontein and Bezhuidenhout Valley in Johannesburg. I’m here because this is where the Jukskei River appears above ground for the first time, and I want to see what the water looks like closer to its source. I live further downstream, and the state of the river in my suburb scares and angers me in equal measure. I feel like not enough is being done to save the Jukskei, and that most people are either ignorant or apathetic towards its plight.
On the corner of Queen Street and Sports Avenue in Bertrams there’s a concrete wall; I peer over – with some difficulty because I am vertically challenged – and there it is: its ‘eye’. In a 2014 Mail & Guardian article entitled ‘Searching for the soul of the Jukskei’, journalist Sean Christie describes the water here as “blue-grey, as though someone had been washing a pair of new jeans in the storm drain that leads back to the Ellis Park swimming pool.” Four years later, the water is grey-grey, as though someone had been doing a big load of filthy laundry. A full bin bag lies in the stonework canal, its thin black plastic flutters against the water’s flow. There’s a slight chemical smell underlying the stench – like a top note of ammonia layered on a base of shit.
“The water has been dosed with something, but whatever it is, it’s not working,” observes my friend Tyler. I’ve brought him along because Bertrams is not the kind of place that a woman goes to on her own. Tyler’s not looking down into the canal, instead, his eyes dart in every direction. He’s not the biggest guy, and he’s been looking skittish since we arrived.
Right next to the canal there’s an empty lot: ‘Car wash’ is scribbled in white on a wall, and the ground is black with engine oil. A graffiti-tagged sign warns ‘STORMWATER DRAINS. Be careful!! Water is dangerous. Running water is more dangerous. Fast flowing stormwater is deadly!!’ In his article, Christie states that the sign was put up in 2004, the same year that three boys drowned while they’d been playing in the canal, and the river surged. Their bodies were found further downstream in Bruma Lake. At the moment, the river’s eye is calm, but once the summer storms hit, it’ll turn into a deluge – it doesn’t help that a nearby storm water drain is plugged full of trash.
I try to look as nonchalant as possible, so I lean against the canal wall. I figure that if at least one of us pretends to appear laid-back it’ll make us look less like targets. I get the idea in my head that my five-foot-one self will somehow look bigger if I spread my tiny arms out, too. With my back to the river and my arms spread, I know I look ridiculous. I now face a basketball court, which appears to be more of a place of general loitering than sporting activity. A suspicious-looking guy in an orange T-shirt appears in my line of vision; he seems to be in a hurry, and he stuffs something into a canvas sling-bag with busted zips, before disappearing down Queen Street and out of my periphery.
I decide it’s time to move along, and Tyler is visibly relieved. We walk down Queen Street, past a busy spaza shop, and make a left into Thames Road – not coincidentally named after London’s famous waterway, I suspect, as the road runs parallel to the river. It’s just after 10am on a Saturday, and the road’s residents are still enjoying last night’s party; a few clusters of men shout and whoop in the street; their arms round each other’s shoulders, and quarts of Black Label in their hands. The brick houses look the same: all of them have rusted, corrugated roofs and many have steps that lead to a stoep, or a veranda with colonial, peeled-paint pillars. Most of the properties have low walls or fences; some of them have gates made from a patchwork of scrap metal. Beer-bottle shards, chip packets and overflowing wheelie bins decorate sections of the pavement.
We pass a house that has a muscular dog standing guard on the front steps. Metal links dangle from its neck; it sniffs the air, looks at us, and pees on a broken garden gnome. Next door, two children, a boy and a girl, stand outside a house that has a hole for a door and sheets for windows. The girl looks about five or six; the boy – who’s wearing an oversized Spiderman shirt with holes in it – is barely a toddler. They’re both blonde and barefoot; the soles of their feet black, their faces dirt-smeared. Tyler waves at them and I say, “Hello”. The boy puts his fingers in his mouth and stares blankly ahead; the girl blinks and looks straight through us.
“I can feel static,” says Tyler. “There’s so much static in the street.”
Bertrams had idyllic beginnings. Started by stockbroker and estate agent Robertson Fuller Bertram in 1889, it was initially seen as a ‘country escape’, and Randlord property owners set up orchards and horse paddocks on whole blocks of small stands. Things changed between the Anglo-Boer War and the First World War, when Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian refugees descended upon the area; many of them were manual labourers and they became hawkers or small traders. The suburb gained an Eastern European grit (the Bertrams Synagogue on Kimberley Road still stands: it stopped operating as a shul in 1982, became a bioscope for a while, and is now ensconced behind electric fencing).
The Jewish population prospered and moved on to better places, and Bertrams gradually became a seedy, rundown area. In the 1930s, a housing scheme was set up for poor white Afrikaners, which coincided with slum clearances in Doornfontein: a precursor to the apartheid government’s forced removals, starting in the 1950s. Post-apartheid, the community is now predominately made up of people from other African countries, plus a few Afrikaners and a handful of die-hard Portuguese, who moved into the area in the ‘70s.
Bertrams is also close to the Jukskei River’s source. The Jukskei is about 50km long and it winds its way east past the Linksfield Ridge, eventually flowing north into the Crocodile River, before it’s emptied into the Haartebeesport Dam. But the exact location of its source – which is a natural spring – is unknown. All theories point to the neighbouring suburb of Doornfontein, but where the spring actually comes out of the ground remains a mystery. Some say it’s under the Standard Bank Arena; others insist it’s the reason why the Ellis Park swimming pool often overflows. One theory suggests it’s halfway up Sivewright Avenue, a road close to the Ellis Park Stadium that’s named after James Sivewright, a man who established the Johannesburg Waterworks company in 1888. He knew that the nascent gold-mining town needed a large water supply, and he bought a portion of the Doornfontein farm from Frederick Bezuidenhout, which, it’s said, had a spring that naturally pumped out 18 000 litres of water an hour. He set up his waterworks next to the spring – which, some say is now Sivewright Avenue, while others think it’s definitely on Joe Slovo Drive.
Nature dictates that the Jukskei’s unchartered spring continues to pump water out the ground, but, despite a mushrooming population, upgrades to the city’s sewerage system have been non-existent, while illegal dumping of solids and liquids continues unabated. ‘Sewer rats’ – desperate men who mine the sewer pipes for valuables that have been accidentally flushed down the toilet – remain a problem, as they deliberately block already-strained sewer pipes to get to their faeces-buried treasure. Johannesburg’s sewerage system was only designed to last for about 70 years; we’re currently on 90. An overhaul of the entire sewerage system is needed but the city doesn’t have the budget, and this will not happen in our lifetimes. Instead, Joburg Water attends to daily emergency blockages, leaks and stolen manhole covers. This is, I have been told, the ‘new normal’.
And so the waterway flows, seeped with sewerage and choked with plastic, from its beginnings in Bertrams, through areas worlds apart, like Dainfern and Diepsloot.
And the suburb that I live in, called Morninghill.
Same river, different universe
I’m standing at the bridge that crosses over River Road – the road that I live in – in Morninghill. It’s a Saturday morning, a few weeks after my visit to Bertrams. I rest my body against the bridge’s iron railings; the stench is minimal today due to the recent rains, and also because downstream stinks less, earlier in the day. The sound of the river always calms me; there’s something about flowing water that makes me want to breathe deeper and think less – two things I often forget to do. I look down: the reeds have plastic packets stuck in them, while a couple of empty two-litre Coke bottles bob next to the river bank. A lonely polystyrene cup floats further out, carried by the water into the distance.
The water is less grey than in Bertrams. Or maybe I’ve just become used to its lifeless colour? The bridge is framed by an old weeping willow; its layered bark swirls like a life-size bonsai, its leaves bow to the water. A Japanese girlfriend of mine once told me that the mind is like a river: the movement of the water and the murky riverbed represent thoughts and anxieties; instead, the mind should be a still lake. Years later, my head is mostly a raging torrent.
I sit under the willow, and I can now see the bridge from a different angle: under it there’s a cramped enclave that has S-N-O-T-!-! spray-painted in fat lettering on the concrete behind it. I wonder how the person who did this got down there – it’s quite a feat as the Jukskei’s banks are really steep here. I have no idea who Snot is – it may be the same person who spray-painted ‘Jared is gay’, along with a rudimentary penis, on the back-end of a nearby property wall. A red convertible Mercedes drives over the bridge, and two women in running gear jog past me. Next to the willow is a green municipal bin. It’s only about a tenth full, and inside is a tampon applicator, a golf ball, and a few RocoMama’s burger wrappers. A pair of hadada ibis pick at the grass next to me, their amethyst and emerald shoulder feathers glint in the sunlight.
The state of the river deeply perturbs me – I know it’s merely a symptom of the city’s bigger problems – and it makes me feel hopeless and outraged. But right now, I’m not thinking about the state of the Jukskei. I’m focusing on the sound of the water and the yellow weavers chirping. I feel a momentary lightness; I feel centred. I get up, and make my way back to my townhouse complex, which is just a little up River Road. I cross over the bridge and a man in a Mamelodi Sundowns T-shirt walks past me. He greets me with a smile, his hands in a prayer position.
In Morninghill, if you’re still for a moment, you’ll hear the rhythmic click of an electric fence. It’s a place that has booms and cameras, where criminals drive German sedans with false number plates, and where the community news is dispensed via the neighbourhood WhatsApp group, which mostly centres on crime and pets:
“BOLO White 1 series BMW with sunroof just triggered the smart cameras. Wanted for burglary. PLEASE LOOKOUT”
“Help us find a furever home for Gemma, she is lovable, spayed”
“Will the owner of the dog barking in River Road sort it out please??? Are you DEAF”
“Suspicious man on corner Sugarbush and River Road with yellow packet”
“Claire we think your dachshund is outside”
Morninghill is new, as Johannesburg suburbs go, as it was only proclaimed in 1968. Bordering Bedfordview – which is known for its Serbian underworld hits and a large Greek community – Morninghill is popular amongst hijackers and dog-walkers alike: the former because it’s right next to an onramp; the latter because it has a green belt with 2km of river. The green belt, which is owned by Joburg City Power and is punctuated by giant pylons, is next to an ancient koppie that forms part of the Linksfield Ridge. Climb up its primordial quartzite and you’ll be rewarded with views of the Joburg skyline, and in the summer, the sight of hundreds of proteas in bloom.
Stairway to heaven
Back in Thames Road, Bertrams, a source of loud music competes for our aural attention. It’s coming from a small, stationary truck. The truck has a South African flag pinned to its side, and the back is enclosed with solid bars. Behind the bars are eight people, each holding a microphone and energetically singing and dancing. I’m curious about the truck, and so is a weather-beaten white guy in frayed stokies, who is now standing at the truck. Mid-song, a young woman reaches over the truck’s bars, and drops a booklet into his outstretched hands. I approach the truck, and hold my hands out, just like stokie guy. Two booklets are dropped from above.
The booklets are entitled ‘Rhapsody of Realities’; a cover line shouts ‘WE MUST KEEP PRAYING’. ‘Christ Embassy Kensington P.F.C.C, 433 Commissioner Street’ is stamped at the front of each booklet in purple ink. The first chapter, written by a Pastor Chris, is entitled THE CHRIST-ENVIRONMENT and reads: “The Christian does not live in this world. The vagaries of life and nature can’t impact on you because you’re from another plane.”
“Safety is obviously a concern for those touting the word of the Lord – judging by the bars on that truck,” comments Tyler.
I laugh, but I wish the vagaries of life and nature – like the state of the Jukskei River – did not impact on me.
We reach another corner; we’re on Viljoen Street, which is technically in a neighbouring suburb called Lorentzville. Piles of plastic rubbish lie heaped on a sunken, moth-eaten couch. A little further up is a sign on a building, that’s heavily fortified by security gates. The sign says ‘La Jamonópolis de Johanesburgo’. I think it’s in Spanish – at least that’s what my high school French tells me. Something about Johannesburg’s ‘ham city’? There are pictures of Donald Duck in various poses at the entrance, as well
as a sign that reads ‘Seventh-day Adventist Church’.
Tyler and I peer through the security gate. It’s a bit dark in the building but I can just make out another sign that reads ‘Fama Deli’, which is accompanied by a still-life painting of ham on the bone. An open door leads to a stairway, and the most beautiful choral singing emanates from where the stairs lead to. It must be the Seventh-day Adventists because they’re at church on a Saturday, I think to myself. The irony is not lost on me that they’re vegetarian and follow kosher laws, yet here they are, worshipping above ‘ham city’.
Tyler rubs the back of his neck with one hand.
“I can’t believe you wanted to come to Bertrams alone. It’s really stressed me out.”
Kwaito pumps from somewhere in the distance; across the road, a pair of young men puff from the same cigarette and look at us with narrowed eyes. I can hear hymns and smell the river.
It’s Sunday, a little before dusk in Morninghill. The sun’s light illuminates clouds from behind, giving them an almost biblical backlighting; the pylons’ powerlines add a strangely beautiful symmetry to the sky. I look to my right towards the koppie, which is gradually slipping into shadow, and Zionist prayers have started to echo through the rocky landscape. Straight ahead, and in the distance, I can see a section of the city’s skyline begin to glow. I hear an owl hoot, and the Jukskei’s water flowing and foaming over the weir.
Some days are worse than others, but we’ve all become used to the river’s stench. It’s omnipresent, like a turbid shadow that only changes depending on where the sun is in the sky.
Many thanks to Gail Scott Wilson who helped me source some of the historical information for this piece, as well as Ekurhuleni Ward 20 DA councillor for environmental oversight Jill Humphreys, who fights a thankless battle for the Jukskei River. Sources used are The Mervyn Ridge Trail, a booklet issued by the Johannesburg City Council (1986), The North Flowing Rivers of the Central Witwatersrand, a visual survey 1975 – 1981 by Wendy Bodman, The Johannesburg 1912 blog by Marc Latilla, and Searching for the Soul of the Jukskei by Sean Christie, published on The Mail & Guardian online (2014). Thanks also to Tyler Pieterse for joining me and taking photos.