From the late 1800s, mining was the backbone of the national economy, though it is now in decline. The city that sprung up around the seam is the country’s largest; it is where most powerful corporations are headquartered, and the seat of the country’s stock exchange. It is also one of the world’s largest urban forests. The puzzle of what Johannesburg is, and why it is so, has always felt akin to identifying a species that doesn’t fit neatly within the taxonomies we have created. It is the platypus of cities: a metropolis that breastfeeds and lays eggs, a jungle both concrete and organic. For a city of around 4.5 million people (or 8 to 10 million, depending on where you set the boundary), Johannesburg has between 6 and 10 million trees. If one discounts places where cities have engulfed pre-existent forests, it is perhaps the largest urban forest in the world. This fact is so psychologically important to people who live in Johannesburg that was it was the subject of an investigation by AfricaCheck, the fact-checking organisation that usually spends its time verifying claims made about the country’s most livewire issues: inequality, poverty, land, and other variations on who owns what.
AfricaCheck, in fact, re-factchecked their article just to make sure: what is the perfect environment for a fact checker? I’m not sure Johannesburg can claim any special conditions, but tall buildings surely help with perspective.
For example, there are higher-than-average sightings of large objects on fire, particularly around the old city centre. This is not just because the winters are cold, and some people must stand outside in the freezing highveld air for their living; and these fire are also not, as is frequently the case in the other South African cities, centrepieces of protests. There is a more nonchalant, a more spontaneous attitude to fire in Johannesburg. Take this scene I was once saw on Marshall Street, for example: three people waiting for a bus, and one of them is a texting, and all of them are ignoring the double mattress to their left, extravagantly aflame.
I also quite often see people kneeling in prayer at the side of the road. Often in habits or cassocks of some particular Christian sect, but sometimes in the light-check short sleeves and beige slacks of someone who might be a clerk, or the square block heels and black skirt of a sales woman. Sometimes holding hands, sometimes facing each other, always kneeling. As if they were strangers, walking in opposite directions and were both gripped, at the exact same spot, by a feeling that they had to divert onto a strip of grassy hillside and bow their heads beside the traffic. Why does this occur here, more than elsewhere?
Perhaps, most importantly, consider this: why in this city are there so many PIs? They are on the radio, on the TV, on the cover of books written by impressive journalists, with their bald heads or gravity defying hair, and strange signet rings, and sharp suits, telling me I just want to make the world a better place.
Can I reverse-engineer the nature of a place from knowledge of its most common, or maybe most bizarre, endemics? Because, they say, the PIs are thriving, and, they say, the Parktown Prawns are disappearing. And if I have to be specific, that’s what this essay is about. It might be a nature story, it might be a story about industry, but most probably this specimen is a mystery.
For mine shafts, the Randlords needed wood. An enterprising German immigrant bought land north of the Witwatersrand ridge and planted blue gums and pines which grew quickly. He called it Zaxenberg, where the suburb of Saxonwold now is, and where today’s controversial businessmen find their mansions. That forest grew and diversified, and, as the city developed, trees were planted along streets to make shaded avenues. Apartheid spatial planning kept population densities in the northern suburbs low and white. Low densities kept stands large. The white landowners hired poor black workers, many of them immigrants, to cultivate magnificent gardens, and plant yet more trees. The urban forest this created is now a mature woodland hosting species of tree from Europe, South America (most famously its jacaranda avenues), North America, and trees indigenous to Southern Africa. All of these trees provide different nourishment or habitat for insects and birds, or for the bugs that are attracted to their sap. Together, this makes for a high level of overall diversity.
When I was a kid the biggest baddie in town was the Parktown prawn. The Parktown prawn is actually a species of king cricket, endemic to the forests of the highveld, and was probably transported to the city by human migration, where it found the gardens of Parktown and other suburbs around the original Zaxenberg to be a comfortable niche. To comprehend fully its stature in the memories of Johannesburg residents of a certain age, you must understand is that this a big bug. The Parktown prawn is six to seven centimetres long, with black stripes across its chitinous body. The males, in addition to a formidable jaw, have large tusks, and the females have an ovipositor that looks like a sting. When frightened, the males eject a black, foul-smelling sticky liquid. This is, to be fair, a type of excrement, but it is not, as I believed as a child, corrosive to metal. They can jump up to a metre in the air. They are very difficult to kill.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of waking up to my sister’s hysterical screams as a Parktown prawn crossed our bedroom floor. Ever the hero, I picked up a gigantic illustrated atlas and hurled it, flattening the creature with a loud crunch. Later, the atlas lay between me and the wardrobe and I need to get dressed. The thought of lifting it up, let alone moving it, was nauseating. I hesitated. I leapt on top of the atlas and paused to judge my next move. Half of my foot hung off the book, and underneath it, slowly, an antenna scraped the underside of my arch.
Dear reader, a human child can jump higher than a metre too.
The vicious rumour, in its full form, goes something like this: the development of Midrand, for reasons unstated, caused a migration of snails from Pretoria. Hadedahs, being insatiable gourmands when it comes to escargot, migrated to Johannesburg in pursuit of their favourite dish. There they discovered the delights of ‘prawn’, and so the city’s favourite king cricket was doomed. That this story was believable says more about Midrand than it does about any of the creatures involved.
Hadedahs are large birds and not particularly pretty. They cast a large shadow overhead, not unlike the last thing our mammalian ancestor saw before they were devoured by a pterodactyl. Perhaps because they once needed to communicate over large distances across forest canopies, they have a hellish squawk, which has earned them the nickname ‘the flying vuvuzela’. For some reason – and I speak from personal experience – the trees where these birds nest are often near bedroom windows. I probably don’t need to spell this out, but they are undoubtedly the most hated bird in the city.
‘Has anyone ever seen a baby hadedah?’ @TashJoeZA asks on Twitter, ‘Or do they just spring, fully grown, from Satan’s forehead?’ A thread on MyBroadband, a popular online forum, finds other diabolical references (for example, sounds like Satan ‘gargling crushed glass at 3am in the morning’). Much discussion is about how to ‘deter’ them from one’s lawn (after the illegality of killing is established). Someone highlights a report by Albert Fronemen on Airport Wildlife Hazard Management in Africa: ‘Pyrotechnics were found to be ineffective against the ibises’. Reaching for more ammunition against the bird, hadedahs are accused of hunting the (now-)beloved Parktown prawn to near extinction – ‘Seen MUCH less often than when I was young!!!’ fumes one commentator.
The nicest thing anyone on that hateful MyBroadband thread can say about the hadedah is: ‘To me they are like an ugly version of swans’. However, Dr Susan Cunningham, Lecturer at the Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, is fascinated by the ibis family, and in particular their bills. ‘In suburbs and golf courses we provide a beautiful environment’, Cunningham explains. Hadedah ibises have moved into urban environments like Johannesburg because they provide two things they need: trees for roosting and nesting, and irrigated ground, in the form of sprinkler-watered lawns, for food. Hadedahs are ground-foraging birds, who probe into the soils to look for earthworms, grass grubs, beetle larvae – and, probably, crickets too. This has a lot to do with their peculiar beak. Cut through the end of a hadedah’s beak and you’ll find a honeycomb shape in the bone, a cluster of pits which house pressure sensors. ‘When they put their beak in the ground, it lets them pick up the vibrations in the soil that might be caused by an earthworm or a grub’, says Cunningham. ‘It’s kind of a cross between a finger and an ear. It’s a touch sense, but it’s remote – that’s where it becomes analogous to listening.’ Johannesburg’s gardens are perfect for this method of foraging, either – and there’s a scientific debate here – because watering makes the ground soft and therefore easier to penetrate, or because the pressure waves of a king cricket settling in to its burrow transmit better through a damp substrate than a dry one.
A man, let’s call him Jim, who is what I would call a ‘mid-range’ PI, tells me that ‘to be a PI, all you need is the starter kit: a gun, a website, a cellphone, and a Pack of Chesterfield 30s in the top pocket’. Registration with the only private security regulatory body is effectively optional. ‘Your normal PIs are all ex-policemen. Or a Kooks Van Tonder, who still has a brother in the police and uses him to get info or favours. That’s the niche that a lot of these guys are working on’. There are effectively three levels of PI. At the bottom is the gumshoe with the Chesterfields. At the top are sophisticated private outfits with expensive offices in Sandton, who function as an alternative to the state, at premium cost; law firms and audit firms all have in-house PIs, and some niche outfits specialise in digital forensics and other forms of high-tech inquiries. Then in the middle you have the most colourful characters.
These colourful characters have small offices in expensive, but less showy suburbs. They need to communicate an authority that compensates for their lack of mandate, so these offices often prominently display leather-bound books. In one particular large office there is an entire wall of leather-bound volumes that, when you are seated in front of the PI’s desk, have the appearance of tomes of law. Once, left alone in the place for a few minutes, I approached the glass-fronted shelves: it was the entire run of the last printed edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, by then already two years out of date.
Mid-range PIs have a staple role in Johannesburg media in articles about crooked cops and ‘controversial businessmen’. They are, as several journalists have told me, good for a soundbite. This is a thriving symbiosis. For the PIs, being quoted in the media is useful in several respects, not least of which is the free advertising as people who know things about controversial businessmen, who are also some of their primary clients. There are two interpretations to the term ‘controversial businessmen’. Firstly, a man in private enterprise to which any controversy is attached. Or, secondly, a man the reporter knows is a gangster – but all their sources are other crooks who would not go on record, and, besides, who wants to go to jail for a source like that?
And which editor feels like getting sued this morning?
A PI who has risen above gum-shoe level will avoid criminal matters like the plague. Crimes like murder and disappearances are hard to solve. It’s bad for business, and disappointing to boot, to take someone’s money and then not close the case. But when they are hired by a private company, there is no guilt about the results: ‘It’s a war chest’, says Jim, ‘It’s no one’s money’. A man who runs a very powerful, very large ‘private forensic investigations company’, tells me, ‘Traditionally, people used to come to us when they’d been to the police and things weren’t moving. Now they come before they’ve opened the case. We prepare the cases and monitor the process, from cradle to grave’. These outfits effectively hand over completed dockets to overworked policemen for them to file into the justice system – if their clients want things to go down that route. Often, the defrauder and defrauded would both rather keep things quiet. Alongside private investigations, private arbitrations are a booming business. So far so good for the businessmen. But what about the rest of us?
His job would be considerably harder because Johannesburg is a city of walls. Of walled gardens, of secret gardens, of gardens whose contents can only be divined by the nose. The urban environment has never recovered from the epidemic of wall-building that accompanied the peak of the crime wave in the late 1990s – where the rate of ‘aggravated’ (read: violent) home robbery was highest in Johannesburg. The walls may be why, in an urban forest where insect and birds flourish, there are so few wild mammals. It’s true that every now and then one hears of a jailbreak – a monkey seen on the rooftops of Bertrams, a hyena that has run through over the asphalt streets so long and so desperately that it has worn through the pads of its feet. And, of course, there are a wide variety of suburban pooches and kitties (all of them aliens, and invasive, if given half the chance). But Jo’burg has nothing like London’s fox populations, or Boston’s raccoons. It is firmly a city for creatures that burrow or fly.
Walled, tree-rich gardens, of course, are a bit of a luxury. Many walls surround cluster homes, or a driveway, maybe a small square of lawn, or a bare patch of earth. And so the people of Johannesburg, particularly working-class people, flock to parks to get their fix of green stuff and birds. Geoff Lockwood, ornithologist and author of Garden Birds of South Africa, manages the Environmental Centre at Delta Park. He’s been keeping a record of the birds he’s seen arriving there since the 1970. So far, he’s up to 278 unique species. By way of comparison, there are 600 unique species of bird in all of Great Britain.
Most people don’t have a garden because most people in Johannesburg are poor. The unemployment rate is at 25%, and almost a fifth of all residents live in an ‘informal dwelling’ – in other words, a shack. I have always struggled to express the feeling you get from living, half awake, in the most unequal city, in the most unequal country, during a period of time when the world is experiencing some of the most acute inequality in human history. It’s a pressure you seem to hear: in the traffic, in the birdsong, in the silences between things. Like there’s something on fire all the time, and everyone is praying for things to change or maybe just not to get worse. Which is where, now that I think about it, an analogy to hell comes in.
There is this other thing with parks of Johannesburg. A friend goes several times a week to a particular park to walk her dog. Then, the next time you visit, the park has changed. It’s better not to ask why. I visited once and my sister was driving half an hour across traffic to Emmarentia Park to let her dog Bullet run around because Rhodes Park was now out. I asked why, and I regretted it. For days, it poisoned me – a sharp, heavy thing I had to carry around. I’d think, how can something like that happen, for the sake a battered Nokia and one gold ring? I would sigh at odd moments. Then my sister would ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I’d say, ‘Rhodes Park’. And then she’d sigh too, and underneath those sighs would be the question, ‘Is Johannesburg a good place to live?’, and, underneath that question, another, harder one: ‘What is the true nature of a human being?’
Johannesburg is an excellent place to conduct a study to find out (as long as one does not hope to arrive at definitive results). Because just as it can display all of our violence and greed, so too is it a place of enormous creativity. Walking through a public park on a Sunday, one that is safe and busy, you keep an eye out only for errant soccer, cricket, or basketballs, weave between the smells of different cuisines, observe street fashion that seems to be a running commentary on the meeting of indigenous and Western aesthetics, and may be pulled into an impromptu music video. Perhaps Johannesburg’s most beautiful legacy is the music of its larger-than-life songbirds: Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie. Bra Hugh told a journalist, before his death, that he had made cheerful music out of a dark past because, growing up amongst migrants seeking work on the mines in Witbank and then Johannesburg, ‘music was a way to lift ourselves out of our situation’. On a good day, one can think, even if our worst problems fester here, they may yet be solved in the shade of these trees.
It is this cluster of things to love and hate in Johannesburg that Adam Schwartzman so elegantly captured in his collection, The Good Life, The Dirty Life. In the poem Hadedah, he imagines those birds flying upwards over that city that encompasses ever more ambivalence and abundance:
…they climb, over people singing
home in trains and other people talking softly
saying Next year in Jerusalem, London, Sydney,
over neon paradises, shebeen kingdoms
and corrugated churches on earth. They level out,
leave behind the thatch and bougainvillaea,
slasto, rosaries, private Edens that were not always good,
but always there, over dunes, rivers, mountains,
lakes, jungles, ancestral homes, the unmarked graves
of sleeping cultures, until, when no one can see,
they catch a warm thermal to ride on and upwards
and out of the world.
What would Jo’burg be like without the trees? Markus Scheuermaier, co-chairperson of the Johannesburg Urban Forest Alliance: ‘The trees are a defining feature of Johannesburg – they’ve been there from the city’s beginning and are tied to our mining industry’. Some of the trees in the northern suburbs go back to this original plantation. I ask Markus, do the people of Johannesburg truly value it? He hesitates – no, he says. ‘The forest is taken as a given, like the air or the rain. There is only an inchoate awareness of it’. When I ask Lockwood what Johannesburg would be like without the trees he says, rather bleak.
This is a question people are considering closely as the polyphagous shot hole borer beetle makes its way through the city. Infestations of the sesame-seed-sized beetle, originally from Vietnam, have already decimated trees in Israel and California. The beetle drills into a tree – it’s been known to attack over 300 different species – burrows inside and raises its wee larvae there. It isn’t the beetle itself which kills the tree, but rather the fungus its larvae eat. As part of a symbiotic relationship, this fungus which accompanies the beetle spreads spores throughout the borer’s tunnels, blocking flows of water and nutrients through the tree’s vascular system. In time, this kills branches or the whole organism. There is no known cure and the only recommendation is to immediately cut down the tree and incinerate it, to prevent the infestation spreading further.
The shot hole borer is just about the only insect that is thriving. The real cause of the Parktown prawn’s decline is probably less specific than the tastes of one ground-foraging ibis. Recently, two major studies have recorded catastrophic insect population loss in disparate parts of the world. In nature reserves in Germany the population of flying insects has decreased by 75% over 25 years – scientists don’t entirely understand why, but suspect pesticides, land-use changes, and climate change. In Puerto Rico, warming temperatures have seen as much as a 60-fold decline in insect biomass.
It’s almost like the shot hole borer is trying it’s absolute hardest, by way of those tiny inexorable mandibles, to be this moment’s metaphor. It’s like it is here to say, this has been great, but in 20 and 30 years, through my sheer greed, I will destroy it all, and hence my own species, as I am killing the thing that sustains me.
The mining industry that gave rise to the forest was also one catalyst of, and later a beneficiary of, racialised inequality. Through its quest to secure labour, it played a key role in driving black Africans off land and away from practices of subsistence agriculture and pastoralism, and entrapping them in labour which was exploitative and unsafe. It drove industrialisation, and put money in the colonial and Apartheid states’ coffers that paid for a large repressive police force, road networks, and the power plants that feed on another bountiful geological seam in South Africa’s earth: coal. When sanctions cut off the Apartheid government’s access to fuel imports, they relied in part on a state-owned company, Sasol, to produce oil from this coal. The plant where this is done, Secunda, is the largest single site of carbon emissions today.
The story – about the trees attracting the Parktown prawn, but the bugs attracting the birds, and then decimating the bugs – is really very comforting when you think about it. Because then humans are responsible for the creation, not the destruction and decimation. We humans like to draw attention to our role in things, except when the outcomes are bad or annoying. All the dilemmas the human race now faces could ultimately be boiled down to, so what do you want to be known for?
Conversations with people who love the natural world cannot skirt these questions for long. ‘The problem is the only defining issue of our time is not inequality, is not land reform – it is climate change, and climate breakdown’, says Scheuermaier when I ask him what the greatest threat to Johannesburg’s urban forest is. ‘We’re on track for four degrees of warming and then the entire country will turn into a desert. So, we can fight all the other battles but in the end they are pointless because the land itself is destroyed’.
What is the biggest baddie in Johannesburg? Is it corruption? Is it inequality? Is climate change the true baddie? Is it the screeching bird? Is it the cop, the PI, the Parktown prawn? Is it even possible to separate out the economic justice from the environmental justice from the democratic concerns? Some of these answers are obvious, and we thank them for it.