Braamfontein | (up)settting the status quo


Cited by some as a model of the kind of free-thinking, free-roaming, freely interactive non-racial South Africa of Mandela’s promise, Braamfontein, Johannesburg is a throng of culture, fashion and enterprise. Yet below this model exterior, argues MR LEE MOLEFI,  lie patterns of inequitous cultural and material ownership.

Car hooters blare. Spirited movement in every direction entraps your eyes while the constant hum of conversation keeps your feet on the ground perpetually vibrant. A Saturday afternoon spent in Braamfontein, Johannesburg is always a glorious occasion. The streets turn into a dazzling showcase of fashion, art, music and sub-cultural expression.
A massive mural of a beaming Nelson Mandela routinely overlooks the bustle as scores of well-dressed young people roam the streets in fervent pursuit of cheer and nice times. Or party time shandeez – as the local “cool kid” slang would have it. The slang itself is a sign of the times. It’s representative of the suburb’s ever growing desire to break with the status quo. Braamfontein’s predominantly millennial inhabitants and frequent dwellers live by their own rules – tearing at the seams of every LSM and demographic grouping as they bluster along. Swarming with people of all races, class divisions and gender identities in a parade of open egalitarianism, at first glance Braamfontein appears to be a mirage of the South Africa we have all hoped for. On any given day in the suburb, the rainbow nation dream – where ownership of opportunity is universal and race is trumped – seems very real. The dream of a prosperous nation that upsets the historical conventions that still haunt other iconic Johannesburg areas such as Sandton or Soweto seems evident.
Sitting just a few square kilometres from downtown Johannesburg with dozens of tertiary institutions and a high rise of privately owned student accommodation, Braamfontein, it is universally understood, is the capital of SA youth culture – upsetting the status quo and rejecting every outdated notion of South African life as it does so. So goes the popular narrative of Braamfontein. If only it were that simple.
It isn’t.
The recognition of the area – in 2015 – as a symbol of the nation imagined in 1994, the year Nelson Mandela’s ANC came into power, is typically regressive, and tells a very limited story. It threatens, worst of all, to rob the small suburb of its true magic: an interface that forces us to authentically confront each other in a convergence of people, attitudes, notions and sub-cultures that represent every conception/variation of South African life. In so doing, it raises within itself themes of ownership, identity, opportunity and race that force us to reconstruct apartheid configurations. Most importantly, it requires us to dig a little bit deeper in assessing the role we play in it.

The forces that make Braamfontein what it is, however, are all political – perhaps that is its charm: it unearthes the true nature of culture: politics.

The vibrance and glitz of Braamfontein makes it easy – as most do – to think of it as anything but political: simply as a cultural centre of life. The forces that make Braamfontein what it is, however, are all political – perhaps that is its charm: it unearthes the true nature of culture: politics. The great opportunity and ominous threat of Braamfontein reside on the same plane. It will either consolidate the status quo in a coat of shiny gloss or dismantle the status quo by inspiring within itself thoughts and dreams of breaking Apartheid patterns of ownership, identity, opportunity and race. First within itself. All of this requires us to look at this place a little closer.
“It’s a block, really,” Mr Mpumelelo “Frypan” Mfula begins with a giggle. Wearing a beige 100K Caps cap that he produced himself and sporting a beard that stretches the border of “goatee”, Mr Mfula, founder of online fashion store RHTC, is one of Braamfontein’s foremost young black influencers. And, critically, an entrepreneur. He sits with me at the famous street-facing, people-watching bench of Father Coffee. First, the Braamfontein we often describe is not a town – it is merely a block that conjoins Juta and De Beer streets. Very little more. The popular narrative is a narrow definition of the town that ignores everything that exists outside of the throng of designer stores and boutiques that surround Kitchener’s Carvery Bar, Great Dane, Doubleshot Coffee, Father Coffee and the bar Anti-Est. All of which, interestingly, are white-owned (although Nathan Reddy, the advertising and branding heavyweight of Indian origin was a founding owner of the aforementioned Anti Est.). This upsets the notion of black “ownership” that the Braamfontein narrative so strongly suggests. In fact, the Braamfontein of corner Biccard and Smit streets, teeming with “Nigerian-owned” clothing and food stores that charge a fraction of designer stores such as the Foschini Group’s sneaker and streetcar store  Anatomy, are not glorified in magazines, blogs, newspapers and lifestyle TV shows. It is a harrowing contrast.

While black kids in Braamfontein do have more freedom to operate than in Cape Town, the Apartheidesque patterns of white infrastructural and financial ownership remain as stark here as they do in Cape Town.

The difference seems to boil down to the ownership of the spaces. Black-owned spaces – and “ownership” in this sense means largely renting space from white landlords – do not find a home in this conception of “neo-Braam”, and are almost completely ignored. Ever since the area’s “gentrified” image took hold circa 2012 – a dream that property developer and Braam emperor Adam Levy envisioned in 2003 when he bought the two-storey building that houses Kitchener’s and now Great Dane – two of Braamfontein’s premier nightlife spots, it is difficult to ignore the influx of white bodies that has coincided with the injection of capital in the area. Sensing my suspicions, Frypan emphatically confirms: “yeah, of course race is a factor in deciding what is and isn’t ‘Braam’.” The concept of ownership – cultural, philosophical and structural – is significant. The legions of young people who visit the area cite the ability to be “whomever they want to be” when in Braam as a reason for their love of the area. Blue braids fused with a football jersey and an expensive three-piece suit finds little resistance in the area – such is the energy and respect for individuality and personality. This vibrant sense of cultural ownership that supposedly throws off the historical, social and economic implications of identity, however, still operates under a massive shadow of non-black structural ownership that undermines its legitimacy.
Described by essayist Mr Lwandile Fikeni as a distinct “black cool”, it is this predominantly black army of influencers that are attracted to the area – artists, musicians, photographers and social media rulers of opinion and commentary that activate the culture that underpins Braamfontein. Significantly, however, they are not the curators. In Mr Fikeni’s Sunday Times Lifestyle article on Braamfontein, penned this year, at least partly at Daleah’s – another white-owned restaurant – he posits that unlike in Cape Town, young black people in Braamfontein are opposed to coveting a Western hipsterism to a more indigenous cool. While this is true, it is difficult to argue for the philosophical independence of black youth when it does not translate to genuine structural ownership.
It is the two white foremen to the ten black miners. While black kids in Braamfontein do have more freedom to operate than in Cape Town, the Apartheidesque patterns of white infrastructural and financial ownership remain as stark here as they do in Cape Town. The ownership of capital, means of production and space still appear more white than black. The master is kinder in Jo’burg – but is a master still.
Look out for Part 2 of this essay soon. 
Additional reading: Braamfontein: Jozi’s epicentre of indigenous cool
Images by Mr Siyabonga Mkhasibe
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