Zunaid Khan’s Wild Ride

THERE WAS A NIP IN THE AIR IN NEWTOWN one May morning and a small group of tourists were bundled in caps and scarves. They huddled in a small circle listening to a hulking Indian in bright white Nikes, a white T-shirt and a red Ohio State baseball cap who was telling them how it was all going to go down.

“This is not a democracy,” declared Zunaid Khan, the founder of the tour outfit Urban Walkabout. “I say where we go, where we don’t go. We are not at war here in Joburg. We are not going to get shelled. There are no snipers. But it’s not an easy city to read. People get mugged. There is safety in numbers. If you are uncomfortable at any point, just tell me.”

Khan stopped short, thought for a moment and turned back to the group. “Oh,” he said to the Swede, the Canadian, the Russian, the New Zealander, the American, a guy from Argentina and the token South African. “And I’m not PC. I’m a hip hop fan. I might just say mother fucker every now and again. Please don’t take offense. It’s just the way I talk.”

Indeed it is. Khan is the potty-mouthed Wits-trained town and regional planner whose homebrewed tour is a favourite on the international NGO circuit. This is no glassy-eyed tour. There are no visions of Joburg grandeur in Khan’s world, even if he is a self-professed lover of the city whose favourite haunts happen to be in places like Hillbrow, where his father once owned a corner shop. This 31-year old streetwise intellectual knows a whole lot more about the city than those who are in charge of planning it.

It was actually one of his instructors at Wits, Garth Klein, who required Khan to take to the streets as part of the curriculum. Klein told his students something that Khan takes to heart: you can’t learn about planning a town from a book. Khan began taking visiting foreign students for tours of the city as a hobby. Hobby turned to work and now his bustling little business hosts everyone from high-level government delegations to school kids, taking them into places in the inner city where most northern suburbanites wouldn’t dare to go.

It always starts at the same place: Melrose Arch’s Primi Piatti (Khan is the restaurant’s owner and also runs a town planning consulting business) where everyone must sign an indemnity form, abdicating him from what could happen. Because this is Joburg, after all, and anything could happen.

Kahn begins his tour at the beginning – with the two Johanneses – and he tells the group about where we have parked – Mary Fitzgerald Square, and talks a bit about the bubonic plague that emptied out the area at the end of the 19th Century and finally about its current incarnation: the Newtown Cultural Precinct, courtesy of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

But it is in front of the old Worker’s Library that Khan takes aim. He bemoans agencies like the JDA for their less-than-visionary plans, starting with their ideas about adding more restaurants to the area and booting out the Worker’s Library – a former mining hostel which was, until recently, used as a resource centre for mine and domestic workers but is now slated to transform into yet another restaurant hub.

“This isn’t the Champs-Elysées. There are no people in Chanel gowns with little white poodles. There’s no foot traffic. You can’t pimp out these things. You see if I’m lying,” he says gesturing around him, toward the Gauteng Visitor’s Centre, which sits in its steel and glass shell waiting idly for visitors to flock forth from the pavement. “There are no tourists here.”

And Khan is right. There are no tourists, except for the ones that he’s brought with him. And that would make those planners over at the JDA, who have poured millions into Newtown, flinch. Khan’s beefs about the city run throughout his tour: unscrupulous developers, little to no educational outreach and planning done via Google Earth by people who have never walked the streets.

The group follows their leader toward the South African Breweries building, the Reserve Bank across the road with its slick, imposing and impenetrable grey granite. Kahn stops. He points out that there is not a single person on their side of the street, then upward to the cameras that make sure no one violates the ‘no trading’ signs posted, and again across the road to the bustling shops, the informal economy exploding, vehicles being loaded with goods for all points north.

Ahead are several empty buildings, one wrapped in a Johnny Walker ad, and another owned by property developers Urban Ocean, who snapped up the high-rise on the cheap in boom times and marketed the units as investment property. But without many takers, many of these developments are at a stand still. Khan takes the group down Diagonal Street where the former Johannesburg Stock Exchange once sat; now it’s an Edgar’s office. “When the JSE left, that was it,” he says. “Imagine if the stock exchange left New York City. Bloomberg would have a heart attack. There’s just no way.”

Next stop is the Metro Mall, the taxi rank where vendors are selling everything from chicken feet to dried mopane worms and toilet paper. Khan gives a 10-minute talk about the history of the taxi industry, shows some hand signals for getting around – hold up your index finger for town – and says Bus Rapid Transport won’t work. “The taxi drivers will attack the first bus and that will be it, nobody will take it,” he says.

Back toward the minibus, at the foot of a Newtown housing project, Khan pauses to show off some of the better ideas that the city has had. The brightly-painted social housing sits on one side; just opposite are decaying buildings filled with squatters. Still, Khan likes what they’ve done here – housing on top, shops at the bottom – but says the planners forgot about schools.

He bemoans the Mandela Bridge, which sits off in the distance, calling it another bastardisation of an icon and tells the group: “If you want to do that bridge, you can go with someone else because my Black ass does not go across that bridge.”

The group follows his black ass and does not go across that bridge toward the Faraday muti market and taxi rank. The group wanders among the endless stalls with animal bones and skins, tortoise shells, dried whole starfish and bottled animal fat captured in small glass Smirnoff bottles. Any other city would capitalise on this – think: the floating market outside of Bangkok or San Francisco’s Chinatown – but the vendors here sit quietly, their goods lying before them waiting for the taxi riders to come by for their fix.

And then it was time for Hillbrow. Khan used to take people up into the 51-story Ponte building but that was before the New Ponte plans for luxury apartments collapsed and the original owners slapped up security guards at the entry points. No matter, he drives, pointing out the Ethiopian quarter, the Mozambiquan quarter, Little Lagos, the old Jewish synagogue where the sacred stone was removed so it could serve as, among other things, the Voice Pub and a grilled chicken outlet. Khan hits a stoplight on the corner of Beit and Claim, and that’s when the tourists discover the real Joburg.

A guy in a thick beige jacket walks up to the driver’s side, hitting the window. “Open the door!” he shouts. Just seems like a drunken vagrant, mildly harmless, until he starts slamming the window harder, grabbing inside his jacket as if he’s trying to show Khan what he’s going to do about it. “Open the door!”

“Okay my brother,” Khan says calmly. “Okay, hang on my brother. I’ve just got some tourists here, my brother.” The man in the beige jacket bangs harder. Khan gets a gap, the light changes and he speeds off.

Welcome to Joburg. Now go home.

August 19, 2009, Live Out Loud