Beth Vale, University of the Witwatersrand
For someone who only frequents Braamfontein in downtown Johannesburg during the day, De Beer Street at night would be almost unrecognisable. The city’s main party suburb is always an entanglement of cars and bodies. Always a lane of hovering vehicles, their hazard lights flashing, limbs and bass-lines pouring from the open doors. Always a current of club-goers claiming the night-street for pedestrians, willing to encounter strangers in ways they would not normally do during the day.
From the one corner, where the club cum bar Kitchener’s is, all the way up to the next corner next to the Bannister Hotel, people queue for the dancefloor and find solidarity in waiting. Someone argues with the bouncers, a child begs those in line, a dealer offers marijuana, a young woman yells to a friend across the street.
Yet not too far away from the De Beer Street turbulence are inner city roads that only a few hours earlier were a knot of activity. Congestion dissipates with the daylight and these streets are left empty, creating a cavern in which pedestrian footsteps echo, and drivers move seamlessly from one near-redundant traffic light to the next.
The night has a different rhythm, feel, and aesthetic to the day. This “second city”, academic William Sharpe once said, “comes with its own geography and its own set of citizens”. We occupy space differently at night. Yet so little attention has been given (both within academia and without) to the multifaceted articulations of place, power, atmosphere and identity that constitute Johannesburg after dark.
Fear of the dark
Scholars of urban studies are increasingly acknowledging that the discipline, and indeed the wider imagining of cities, is characterised by nyctaphobia: A fear of the dark, and relatedly, the night. As is so often the case, it is artists that are giving us a creative language to describe and engage with that which was once impenetrable.
Elsa Bleda’s recent “Nightscapes” exhibition is one such example. The young photographer’s arresting images capture the serenity, mystery and other worldliness of Johannesburg by night. A primary impetus for her work lies in the century-old Rupert Brooke quote that “cities, like cats, will reveal themselves after dark”. Nevertheless, urban residents are all-too-often strangers to the night.