The rainbow nations wall of silence

There has recently been a new addition to the haunted Louis Botha death bend, bringing to the community a whole new array of bright colours and strong opinions.

“Dumela,” greets 23-year-old Mahlatse Sachane as he climbs into the taxi and settles into his favourite window seat directly behind the driver.

Knowing that most of the passengers will probably get off soon, the young man from Alexandra anticipates a slow commute to Johannesburg while the driver hunts for more customers.

After checking the time on his phone, the professional ballet dancer retrieves a book from his rucksack and makes himself comfortable. Then the door to the taxi slams shut and the journey along one of Johannesburg’s most famous transport corridors begins.

The business street of Louis Botha Avenue, which connects the residential area of Alexandra to the Johannesburg CBD, originated almost 150 years ago as a wagon trail. Since then it has, however, been paved, albeit poorly maintained, and now hosts a constant surge of bustling vehicles on their commute to and from the City of Gold.

Like many other residents of Johannesburg, travelling along Louis Botha Avenue is Sachane’s week-day morning ritual. On his daily commute to work, he usually finds himself absent-mindedly observing the endless stream of hooting taxis as they drift across the faded road markings, passing decorative traffic lights along the way. At other times he would rather read his book than wonder about the various pedestrians weaving between the Louis Botha street vendors, who have set up shop on the broken sidewalk.

At any given time during daylight hours, one is sure to find at least 10 pedestrians walking along the mural, often right up against the wall to shade themselves from the scorching sun, while a discarded plastic packet undoubtedly gets whisked down the sidewalk by the never-ending breeze blowing from an easterly direction down the hill. Photo: Stephanie Schaffrath

A breath of fresh air

Recently there has, however, been a shiny new addition to the sidewalk of Louis Botha Avenue, creating a divide in opinions among members of the community. As of 2019 a majestic wall reaching 8,5m in height now borders the bustling street, running along the extent of the infamous Louis Botha S-bend, also colloquially referred to as “death bend” for its high accident rate, which has caused countless fatalities among drivers and pedestrians over the years.

Measuring 451 metres in length, this “urban monstrosity” (as some label it) successfully separates the properties of prestigious Upper Houghton from Louis Botha Avenue and adjacent Bellevue, subsequently improving the resale value of those Upper Houghton properties. In an effort to disguise the so-called blatant intrusion commissioned by the City of Johannesburg’s Department of Transport, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) contracted Trinity Session, an art organisation responsible for the #ArtMyJozi project, to complete a mural art work on the wall’s bleak 2 800m² concrete surface.

#ArtMyJozi is a project responsible for enhancing recently upgraded areas through art that represents the communities residing in those spaces. Likewise, in creating the Louis Botha S-bend mural, Trinity Session did their best to involve the public in the planning and execution of the project.

“The brief for us was to implement an art work that was painted, and to tell a story of the evolution of the city and suburban Johannesburg,” said co-director of Trinity Session and coordinator of #ArtMyJozi, Stephen Hobbs. He added, “The wall was receiving a lot of criticism from the public for being this very offensive urban form, so the idea was for a large-scale mural to uplift the face of that concrete wall, and if the narrative could speak to the broader issue of Johannesburg, then it might have relevance to the public.”

Leading up to actually painting the wall, multiple open meetings were held at Spark! Gallery, just 3km down the road from the S-bend. At these meetings, members of the public were encouraged to discuss ideas and sketch their own designs. Then a makeshift wall was curated and the designs were further revised ‒ ten times over.

About six months later, two artists started sketching the final design on the wall’s surface, after which the wall was primed and a team of about 15 artists and various assistants spent three weeks bringing the sketches to life, starting at the top of the S-bend hill and telling the story of Johannesburg in chronological order as they went down the hill.

“As soon as people started putting art on the wall, it gave (the wall) a completely different feeling,” said Sachane, who has been riding along Louis Botha almost every day since 2012. He added, “The art took it from being a wall that divided people to a wall that symbolises hope — it gives me hope at least because it is so gorgeous.”

The big reveal

With the main theme of the art work being transportation, the Louis Botha S-bend mural was unveiled on October 1, 2019 in celebration of Transport Month, and it has since become a landmark for the avenue and its cultural heritage.

Despite the work’s representation of blissful unity and shared culture, however, the S-bend wall is arguably more of a divider than it is a medium for public expression and communication.

“I am generally opposed to walls,” said Norwood Oaklands Residents’ Association chairperson Brett McDougall, who went on to say that building a wall, in his opinion, went against the City of Johannesburg’s vision of knitting together communities through the Corridors of Freedom, an initiative that aims to transform the city by overcoming entrenched spatial issues created during the years of apartheid.

To achieve this, the city has responded to the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment by identifying Johannesburg’s main transit corridors and upgrading them to improve public transport services, provide housing along these routes and create further work opportunities. In doing so, the aim is to alleviate the distances between jobs and houses for most people living in Johannesburg, who spend an average of two hours a day commuting.

Among these is the Louis Botha Development Corridor, which has been identified as one of Johannesburg’s main transport routes.

ABOVE: Coordinator of the S-bend Mural project, Stephen Hobbs, and two South African graffiti writers shed light on Graffiti culture in Johannesburg within the context of the commissioned S-bend mural and unwarranted graffiti art on Louis Botha Avenue. Produced: Stephanie Schaffrath 

In troubled waters

That being said, the avenue has its very own musical ensemble of screeching brakes, rumbling trucks and hooting taxis, creating an atmosphere entirely unique to Louis Botha’s sidewalks. But if you listen very carefully, you may also hear the splashing of water as the local recycling guys, who can be seen dragging their trollies weighing up to 250kg up the hill every Wednesday, take a dip in the Sandspruit along the road to cool off before continuing on their trek.

Given that the spruit flows mainly underground from its source in Bellevue, it only briefly appears above ground next to the Louis Botha sidewalk before ducking under the road and forming the Orange Grove Waterfall on the opposite side.  The waterfall is, however, very well hidden in the corner of the derelict Police Reservist property in Upper Houghton.

“It is unfortunate (that all this money had to be spent on building a wall), when these millions could have perhaps been better deployed in restoring the Orange Grove Waterfall and working with stakeholders to create a public open space for local residents,” said McDougall, who is also the former chairman of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and frequently hosts guided walks along parts of Louis Botha and its surrounding areas, including a visit to the waterfall.

The silver lining

Despite robbing the waterfall of its much needed restoration, the S-bend mural seems to have also brought a sense of renewed hope to this drab area.

“I find the wall fascinating because it captures South Africa as a whole,” said Sachane, who especially likes the vibrant colours and versatility of the images.

Even nine-year-old Zac Segal, who attends King Edward VII School, located just one block from the start of the S-bend mural, was intrigued by the art on the wall.

“We don’t really think about it when we are at home, but when we see it, then we just want to look at every single thing on the wall,” said nine-year-old Zac Segal, who stares eagerly out of the window to spot his favourite artwork every day on his way to and from school. Photo: Stephanie Schaffrath

As he sat in the back seat of his mother’s air-conditioned car, he stared intently out of the window until he found his (current) favourite painting of a man holding an orange to symbolise the area’s history as an orange farm. Upon spotting it, he rolled down the electric window and excitedly called to his mother to look at the painting.

“I am glad it’s not an orange farm anymore,” said the grade three scholar when he found out that the surrounding area, including his home in Fairwood, used to be farm land. “I wouldn’t want to eat oranges for the rest of my life.”

Zac’s mother, Anya Segal, said he and his 11-year-old brother, Skye, often point out and discuss the art on their way home from school. “Every day they spot something new,” laughed the 44-year-old. “Personally, I love the art work because it’s done so well and it brightens up Louis Botha, which is quite a drab area as it is.”

When Segal arrived home from fetching Zac, her domestic worker, 37-year-old Tobeka Notyowe, was there to greet them and help carry the groceries inside. When asked about the mural, Notyowe, who walks past the wall every day on her way home to Soweto, said, “It’s quite catchy. When you walk past, you just cannot miss it.” With a smile, she added, “There is a message there and that is what I like most of all, because it tells the story of our history.”

Similarly, Suku Ncube, a domestic worker in Bellevue, said, “I see myself in these paintings, especially in those pictures of the ladies carrying things on their heads, because that is what African women do.

“I do it all the time,” added the 30-year-old, explaining that she can carry a 20-litre bucket of water on her head without using her hands.

Thirteen-year-old Bianca Kambaji, who had just hopped out of a taxi and was on her way to school, seemed more interested in the representations of South Africa’s more recent history.

“I like the art work at the bottom of the hill most of all, because it sort of speaks about me as an individual. I love music, so the lady listening to music and the man making music are my favourites because music is something we all listen to.” 

A great divider

While most people seem to have responded positively to the art on the S-bend, the wall itself has created a major divide within the community.

“We were not aware that there would be a ceremony to unveil (the mural), nor were we invited,” said chairperson and treasurer of the Upper Houghton Residents’ Association, David van Heerden. “We were not involved in the project at all.”

ABOVE: Despite feeling proud of the artwork they produced, artists commissioned to paint the S-bend mural were conflicted in doing so. Graffiti writers and mural artists are often commissioned to upgrade an area through art, which, in turn, usually involves the covering up their friends’, and perhaps even their own, graffiti. This goes against graffiti ettiquette but is a saccrifice graffiti writers make to earn money. Photo: Stephanie Schaffrath

The COO of a manufacturing company and resident of Houghton, Tereza Martins, said, “I think the whole idea of having a mural along that wall is great, although personally I find the colours quite heavy and dark in some places.” She went on to say, “There is so much doom and gloom in daily life, so I think they should have rather done a more happy and vibrant-looking mural.”

Martins said her husband would have preferred a plain white wall to the graffiti-style art, because he thinks it encourages defacing of property in the area. “We live in Houghton and one thinks that Houghton should have a more professional look,” she said. “But in saying that, I tend to disagree because this mural is about Louis Botha, not Houghton.”

On the other hand, the manager of Sasol Houghton, Jeru Eric Leutwetse, was very pleased with the new wall and its art.  “The wall has changed the image of the street in a good way,” said the 37-year- old, who added with a chuckle, “I like it too much, I almost wish they had made it longer.”

The corridor to freedom

Despite the controversies surrounding the wall and its commissioned art, the Louis Botha community seems to agree on one thing: that the area needs to be uplifted. For many, the Louis Botha Avenue region has become a place to be avoided because of its badly maintained roads and high crime rates.

For some, Louis Botha Avenue might simply be the fastest route home, but for someone like Sachane, the avenue is much more than just a grimy corridor of urban decay and irresponsible driving. For this young man from Alex it symbolises a journey from his humble beginnings as a boy living in the township to a man with a promising career as a professional ballet dancer in the big city. For Sachane, Louis Botha Avenue represents his corridor to freedom ­- and the mural is simply a reminder of that.

FEATURED IMAGE: ABOVE: These broken sidewalks have, however, recently been revamped, bringing a splash of coulour and new life to this busting Johannesburg transport corridor formerly characterised by its urban decay and illegal businesses. Photo: Stephanie Schaffrath