Walk, don’t drive

Durban is a rapidly growing city responding to the challenges of a post-apartheid South Africa. Doung Anwar Jahangeer is fascinated by the implications of this simple statement of belief for the dynamic urban context of Africa’s busiest container port city.

 An experimental architect and shaven-headed chatterbox, Jahangeer initiated his Citywalk initiative in 2001 as a way of directly observing the flux and mutability of his adopted city — Jahangeer was born in Mauritius.

“The Citywalk is an investigative journey, an exuberant exploration as well as humbling and cautionary tale, an allegory of the infinite complexities of spaces and timings in the city of Durban,” he explains in a leaflet. In less florid terms, the Citywalk is simply a long winding walk through Durban. The walk starts in Cato Manor, an informal settlement known for its role in the 1949 Indian-African riots, the 1959 beer hall riots and the 1960 massacre of nine policemen. It ends on Durban’s beachfront promenade.

There is something almost subversive about the act of forsaking a car and walking through South Africa’s inner cities. For one thing it brings into immediate focus the prosaic reality of our urban environments, places all too often viewed as a momentary blur. It also radically reconfigures how modern South Africa’s engineered topography is experienced and understood.

There are, of course, lots of precedents for this sort of aimless wandering. The French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau elevated it into an art when he first celebrated the “rapture and ecstasy” of wandering on foot, in his confessional Reveries of the Solitary Walker. More recently, the mystical English poet Iain Sinclair walked the entire length of London’s M25 ring road, 122 miles, mapping the geographical expanse of London’s de facto tourniquet. In his travelogue, London Orbital, Sinclair states: “The best way to come to terms with this beast was to walk it … Enlightenment came with distance, detachment.”

Ambulatory detachment has also gifted Johannesburg-based writer Ivan Vladislavic with many insights into South Africa’s built environment. Some of these insights appear in his beautifully written evocation of Johannesburg’s mutable landscapes, published in the book Blank_architecture, apartheid and after. “The city is no more than a mnemonic,” Vladislavic at one point observes.

Jahangeer’s walk is certainly redolent with memory, particularly as it winds through the deteriorated environments of the Warwick Triangle Junction. Here some of Durban’s oldest domestic dwellings offer precarious shelter to the city’s poorest inhabitants. Equally poignant is Victoria Market with its out-of-date trading stalls precariously challenging the authority of the globalised mall.

But it is not strictly the visible that the walk celebrates. Jahangeer is a psychogeographer. As the Situationist raconteur Guy de Bord said of psychogeography, it is all about drift, or derive, the “technique of locomotion without a goal, in which one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”.

Accompanied by Thando Mama, Storm Janse van Rensburg and Khwezi Gule, among others, the delight of the Citywalk offered many unexpected insights. Possibly it derives from the pace. Conversations linger. I learnt that Gule, aside from being a sharp mind, belongs to a graffiti crew. He shared a story about a middle-aged white man whose quest it is to deny the existence of graffiti in the city by having his gardener paint white swatches of paint over it. Mama in turn translated some Zulu graffiti painted on a disused underpass, while Jahangeer constantly isolated fragments of the city in an attempt to animate the state of “in-betweenness often looked at but hardly seen”.

As a strategy for engaging the fractured modern metropolis, Jahangeer’s walk has much to commend it. For one thing, the experience of being urban is made complex, the contingencies of its many denials exposed. Sure, the walk is also a vastly unresolved reverie, a carnival for a cultural elite delicately engaging the city. But such contradictions will always underpin something of this nature, and indeed it is only after walking the terrain that all these unstated contradictions become manifest.Sean O’Toole is a Johannesburg based writer and the editor of ArtThrob.co.za