By Selabe Kute
A dense, salty musk hangs over the air as I gaze through one of the many dusty windowsills that plaster over Kitcheners Carvary bar in inner-city Johannesburg. The bar revels in its antiquated appeal, its peeling walls are punctuated by a disintegrating painting of Lord Kitchener who looms over the slurred-sentences of its patrons. The steamy, swelling sound of an Erykah Badu or a Musiq Soulchild often enchants if not linger through the fingertips as an Amstel Lager massages one’s inner-cheeks. A plethora of cranky motorists wiz along in the outside traffic as the sun chases pastures anew. Low-hanging circular sunglasses and thrifted silk tops populate the bar which is now home to the regular back-pack adorning, Wits kid bunking his or her ‘2pm’. Its young, spunky and unapologetically black.
Kitcheners has experienced a renaissance in recent times, a neo-revival that has coincided with the rejuvenation of the surrounding braamfontein precinct. The scene was different, however, some five years prior. Before the emergence of an adolescent black vibrancy, Kitcheners’ sticky counter-tops were occupied by the acidic voices of middle-aged Caucasian men, surveying the Springboks on a small Panasonic tube-box. Half-lit Camel ciggies and racial microagressions were the norm – a brown-skinned foray into the abode was tentative if not non-existent. Kitcheners, much like ‘Braam’ itself, has straddled two worlds.
The proverbial paradigm-shift could be attributed to a young Jewish entrepreneur, Adam Levy, and his property management company PLAY BRAAMFONTEIN. His swift purchase of old motor-spare and informal merchant spaces in the area created the space to profoundly monetize this neat corner of the city, opportunely situated a stones-throw away from Wits University.
Blue-collar labourers and working-class hands were replaced with sun-drenched cassio watches and dungaree-wearing millennials, flocking to the rustic coffee-shops and swanky boutiques that erected along Braamfontein’s main artery of Juta Street. An exportation of the hyper-pretentious Neighbourgoods Market from Cape Town consolidated Braam’s overnight gentrification. It was dope. Kitcheners was black, POST coffee shop housed the young MacBook’d up young professional and Parooz was a hegemon in Braam’s apparel economy. Hell, even a synthetic beach was built on one of Braam’s rooftops – Aptly named The Beach, serving chocolate covered shooters while one basks in endearing sand dune. Braamfontein was embracing the inherent mimicry of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or London’s Peckham.
This mimicry, however, is found wanting when one removes their cute, apolitical rose-tinted glasses and takes a stroll through Braamfontein in 2017. The picture is bordering on dire. Juta Street now a hollow, fatigued clone of its former self, stands a lone figure – left disserted and destitute. Empty retail spaces are nothing more than a distant memory of enterprise, with the faintness of a new crop of young shop-owners keeping the precinct on life support. The previously mentioned marquee attractions have up and left for the capitalization of the Parkhursts and Mabonengs of the world. The ‘brand new’ sentiment has evaporated rather abruptly.
A deep and wide-ranging analysis of this profound stagnation would be nothing short of ambitious – but one deduction could be proposed? What the hell.
Gentrification, often vilified by the left-leaning social justice warriors, has more dimensions than merely displacing the lowest socio-economic strands of society. The real teeth of the gentrification machine come with its operationalization, which involves the systematic reconfiguration of an area to fit modern tastes. This reconfiguration may displace – but innately attracts a new segment of society. Braamfontein’s romantic surge to relevance has had a few telling implications.
First and perhaps foremost, was the failure of the precinct to acclimatize to the inevitable ballooning of its clientele, all valiantly chomping at the bits to experience the new, modernized vision of Johannesburg. PLAY BRAAMFONTEIN’s own vision of a modernised, hispterfied Jozi was premised on shaky capital-friendly ground. This vision was built on creating an exclusive space in the city for high-end bars and avant-garde boutiques to ply their trade, effectively engineering a proverbial island of privilege and inner-city romantiscm. The proliferation of students and other members of lower economic quantiles was not part of the plan. Naturally, this clientele could not be absorbed due to the non-existence of affordable, student-friendly places of consumption. That’s an easy observation if you take in the wide-spread acts of public drinking along the arid bicycle lanes of De Korte street on Saturday afternoons. What requires more intellectual nuance, however, is the sub-process that has followed.
The novelty behind the heralded idea of Braamfontein, was that holders of material resources, lets call it capital, could come into the city and have a Steph Weiss or two – albeit temporarily. Now, when one thinks of a laymen definition of capital in contemporary South Africa, you make a few deductions. Capital, ala Karl Marx, is derived from surplus in the production process – let’s just call it money.
Money, in South Africa, is unfortunately tethered to the minority and select pockets of a tockenised majority. A brief skim of the country’s geopolitics illuminates the idea that capital tends to seclude itself in geographic enclaves. Sandton, Rosebank and the Cape Town CDB are but a few lucid examples. Much like when capital flew out of inner Johannesburg at the advent of our democracy due to a looming special inclusion, Braamfontein is a case of revisionist history.
Capital flight, or ‘white flight’ as a provisional term, has occurred once more, true to form. As the law of causality would prescribe, the systemic stagnation of Braamfontein has coincided with the movement of those who own the proverbial means of production. Buzz words, but pertinent I’m afraid.
As the dream of what Braamfontein could have been recedes into the everglades of speculation, a more awkward political question emerges. When exactly do the unrestrained luxuries of capital succumb to inclusion of a regular kid – just looking for a cool place to chill. For now, Braamfontein remains a dream deferred.