Jozi City Feature

Playing it by eye

There is a park in the central business district where a group of men sit and wait, watching as people enter or leave the area. This is Joubert Park, with its fearsome reputation for criminal activity. These men are keeping an eye out for potential targets, scanning each person as they pass, wanting their money.

But not in the way you might think.

They want people’s money in exchange for their services. They are the band of street photographers who work inside this recreational area – and who have formed an unlikely force in the park’s renewed safety.

The park, and the suburb with which it shares its name, falls under greater Hillbrow, an area with unenviable crime statistics.

It had a murder rate of 50 people per 100 000 between April 2010 and March 2011. This is higher than the national average of 32 per the same population. Hillbrow’s murder rate is also only slightly less than Jamaica’s 52 people murdered per 100 000, which placed third highest on the United Nations’ global study on homicide rates for 2011.


Until three years ago…

However, between the police, the City of Johannesburg – and these photographers – things have started to change.

Joubert Park was once the city’s prized green heart. But as the profile of Hillbrow and the CBD changed in the past two decades it became more of a playground for criminal activity than it was a place of recreation. Until about three years ago.

The Community Agency for Social Enquiry (Case), a research NGO, released a report in 2006 stating that the Joubert Park area was known for a high crime-rate, drug trafficking and “slum buildings”. Its survey revealed that crime was the biggest problem local residents faced.

Crime was so rampant during this period that people would often be robbed just walking from one side of the park to the other, according to Sarose Lawrence, head gardener of the park. Criminals would even hide and then drop from tree branches on unsuspecting park goers.

Lawrence says a joint venture between the photographers, Johannesburg City Parks, the Metro police and the South African Police Service (SAPS) has made this playground safe for the public once again.

“We are the eyes of the park, we keep an eye [out] for criminals,” says Varrie Hluzani, a photographer who has worked in Joubert Park since 1993. There were only about 14 photographers when he began working, but he now estimates this figure stands at 30 or 40.

The photographers had already formed a committee by the time he arrived at the park, Hluzani adds. They had proposed to City Parks that they would watch out for criminal activity in exchange for their being allowed to trade legally.


The eyes and ears

Jenny Moodley, marketing manager for Johannesburg City Parks, says although it technically violates the by-laws of the park to allow unauthorised business inside, the photographers provide a much-needed security service.

“They are the eyes and ears of the park,” Moodley says, echoing Hluzani’s statement. This has helped reduce crime inside Joubert Park and allowed people to feel safer there again.

Gibson Moyo, another photographer who has experienced the changes in Joubert Park, says this agreement came about after City Parks expressed unhappiness with the way the photographers advertised. Moyo, who has worked there since 1988, says they used to display their work in large picture frames. Park’s management said the many frames blocked the public’s view of the park.

Playing it by eye

Calvin Mazibuko, a street photographer, seen through the display of his camera. Mazibuko has been taking photographs inside Joubert Park for seven years.


Through the week, the park is generally quiet and the grass is strewn with sleeping bodies. The only time the silence is really disturbed is on the weekends when music from the surrounding area pierces the peace. The smell of amasi, or sour milk, also drifts on a breeze from the line of traders along King George Street, the western border of Joubert Park.

Lawrence says the maintenance team have a strained relationship with some of the photographers. “Some of them ignore [their responsibilities], mostly the new ones.” He explains that some of the newer photographers do not watch out for possible criminal activity and do not keep the park clean, like the photographers who have been there for many years.

He says they do not have to pay to work in the park and must therefore repay the park by controlling the crime.

Calvin Mazibuko, a photographer who has been working in the park for seven years, says the photographers watch out for everything, even for people who jump on the flowers.

When he began working in the park, the photographers “couldn’t even leave our bags for a moment”.

It is obvious this has changed. The photographers often leave their bags, with equipment such as portable printers, cameras and spare lenses, while they take photographs of their customers.


Don’t say ‘voetsek’

Mazibuko says it is difficult to handle people they suspect of crime or destructive behaviour. “Don’t say ‘Voetsek man!’ You have to approach them [calmly].”

Moodley says the park is largely a thoroughfare for people as opposed to a destination. People often cross it to catch taxis, mostly at the Noord taxi rank, just southwest of the park.

This makes it difficult for security as many people pass through Joubert Park’s gates every day. The park did go through a period in which residents were concerned about using it, she says, but since their revival process began in 2002, this has changed.

Hillbrow police spokesperson, Sergeant Jenny Pillay, says the area has “shown a decrease in crime” because of a joint venture between the police and the community, including the photographers.

Crime statistics for Hillbrow police station support this statement. The number dropped from a high of 140 murders during 2004-2005 to 50 for the last recorded year. All “contact crimes” – committed physically against a person – have also dropped. These include sexual crimes, attempted murder and robbery. Reports of these crimes have dropped by 58% for sexual crimes and 32% each for attempted murder and robbery since 2004.


From a cemetery to a park

Just one year after gold was discovered in Johannesburg, a piece of land bordering the railway line was reserved for Joubert Park – on what was originally a cemetery.

By 1887, Johannesburg had already become a wild and bustling mining camp. The park grounds were reserved in the heart of this mining community. The bodies were exhumed and moved to Braamfontein Cemetery, according to Moodley.

The Joubert Park area includes the park itself and the blocks surrounding it, including Wolmarans, Wanderers, Bree and Claim streets. In Walk Out Walk On, co-author Deborah Frieze writes that the park was reserved and named after General Petrus Jacobus Joubert, the main political opponent of the then South African Republic’s fifth president, Paul Kruger.

The park was named after Joubert in case he became president. But three times he stood against Kruger in presidential elections, and three times he lost.


A ‘white area’

Joubert Park was designed as a residential area, according to research conducted by Case. It remained “a white area” until black people began moving into the area in the late 1970s and 1980s to be closer to work in the CBD.

This was illegal at the time. The Group Areas Act of 1950 denied “non-whites” the right to live in urban areas, which were reserved for white people only. Black people were only allowed to be in these urban areas if they held a pass, known as a dompas, which specified how long they were allowed to be in that area for.

As black people began moving into the area from the 1970s, both white residents and white businesses began leaving central Johannesburg for the northern suburbs. Case research puts the population of Joubert Park at about 30 000 people now.

Joubert Park serves as South Africa’s largest voting station at election time. Five marquees were set up and just over 4 000 voters participated there in the 2011 municipal elections, according to the Independent Electoral Commission.

The area is also one of the regions on the City of Johannesburg’s inner city regeneration programme. This includes the renovation of “slum-buildings”, through incentives for landlords such as writing off debt for building renovations and a waste management system organised by Pikitup, the company responsible for the city’s waste removal. City of Johannesburg and City Parks are also trying to reduce crime by placing CCTV cameras at the gates and involving photographers as security in the park.

While there are a few smaller pocket parks such as Oppenheimer Park, Atwell Gardens and End Park, Moodley says Joubert Park is the flagship park of the CBD.

However, there may soon be another “natural green lung” in the CBD. City Parks is planning a new park, estimated to cost R600-million, Moodley says.

It will be “similar to Central Park [in New York]” and “much bigger than Joubert Park”, she says. This process is still in the conceptual design phase and will not roll out until at least 2013.

It will be designed as a family-friendly park as there is an increase in families living in the CBD, says Moodley. It will aim to meet this demand as she recognises that Joubert Park is not popular with children and is “more of an adult playground”.


Everywhere is a studio

Nicholas Vundla extends his arm and says, “Step into my office” through a broad smile. His hand points towards a flower bed in Joubert Park. In front, he has arranged a group of picture frames, showing off his photographic work – and a can of Mr Min to keep them clean and shiny.

Playing it by eye

Joubert Park photographer Nicholas Vundla looks through a collection of his past work, including a photograph he took of Nelson Mandela.


The photographers are like living statues, scattered across the main walkways, and are as much a feature of the park as the flower beds and the fountains.

They have created a mini-economy inside this playground and have also taken steps to protect it. Like many businesses, they have advertising strategies, pricing tactics, committees and a desire to improve their workplace.

It is estimated that between 30 and 40 street photographers work this small area, so competition is high. Yet there is no visible antagonism. Each sits at his own location, which never changes as they say this allows their customers to find them easily. They talk and joke with each other, sometimes playing cards when business is slow.


The passing parade

Their advertising includes A4-sized picture frames, with wooden borders and a glass front. The frames are filled with a collection of their work. These capture the passing parade of people who have had their pictures taken in the park.

“Photos, photos, same time,” they chant quietly to passing strollers. The “same time” informs potential customers they can take their pictures away immediately.

Most of these men place themselves along the paving which runs through the middle of the park, from both the east and west side. The paving is bisected by another paved route to the north entrance, creating a cross-shape from a bird’s eye view. The east and west entrances have a higher concentration of photographers, trying to catch potential customers as they walk in or out.

In the centre where the two paved walkways meet stands a large fountain – now dry and empty. The photographers say this used to be a great attraction and many customers enjoyed having their pictures taken in front of it.

They can spot a customer easily. It is normally parents with their children, couples and people who look like they are not Jo’burgers. Hluzani says people from outside Johannesburg want to be seen in the city and take a photo home as a souvenir.

Playing it by eye

Andile Mazibuko takes a photograph for his customer, Petronella Gwena. The photograph was taken at the southern border of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which is situated next to Joubert Park.


A fixed price for photographs has been agreed on by the photographers so that no price wars break out. A standard-size photograph costs R15 and smaller ID photographs R20 for two.                                             

For an ID photo, the photographer will ask one of his colleagues to hold up a white sheet behind the customer’s head. They do this to give the illusion of a white-walled backdrop, in compliance with ID photograph requirements. In this sense, every single part of the park has the potential to be a studio for these businessmen.

They then return to their demarcated space, where each keeps a portable printer. The customer needs only to wait a couple of minutes while the photographer places the camera’s memory card in the battery-powered printer and produces the image almost instantly.


Sit and wait

However, their business is largely a waiting game. They sit on the low, face-brick walls of the flowerbeds and watch people go by.

“Sitting on these bricks all day makes your bum sore,” says Mazibuko. But he doesn’t mind this because he doesn’t have to chase customers. They come to him. He is also unconcerned about how many photographers work in the park because “when you leave the house, God reserves customers for you”.

This is not always the case though. Photographers say an entire day can pass with just one or two customers. Hluzani says there have been times when he has not had a single customer for an entire day.

Playing it by eye

Varrie Hluzani waits for potential customers in Joubert Park where he has been working since 1993.


“Some days I just earn R20. The pain comes on me when there is no bread for my kids,” says Mazibuko.

The photographers say month-end is a good time to work, when people have more money to spend. They also agree that holidays such as Christmas and Easter are good because people are happier and in a spending mood.

They capture a moment in time for their customers, preserving their reactions at being in the park on a particular day at a particular time. And now, partly because of these men, their customers are able to take advantage of their services, and the park, safely.

They are there every day and are a part of the park’s culture, part of its economy, part of its history and part of its future.

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About Brendan Roane

Brendan Roane is an aspiring journalist with a love of print news. He received his bachelor of arts degree in English and psychology at Wits University before embarking on an honours degree in journalism. Brendan has a desire to cover a wide variety of stories and never to stick to one field or beat. His interests include music, travel and writing.

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