Jo'burg by night: A time for dreamers, graffiti artists, lovers and dancers

Chilean-German DJ Matias Aguayo performing at Kitchener's Bar in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Charles Leonard

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.

Darkness often comes with a web of seedy associations -— of terror, shadow, deviance, abandonment and impenetrability. There are anxieties about criminals using the night as camouflage, about the vulnerabilities of women, and about the dangers of poorly lit roads.

And indeed the dark is often charged with ambivalent possibilities. On Friday, October 14 slices of Braamfontein’s night-streets, including The Orbit Jazz club, were torched amid turbulent protest: sites of play incidentally colliding with those of fierce, volatile struggle.

Darkness can also awaken the imagination, offering atmosphere for transgression, abandon and fantasy. Social anthropologist Julia Hornberger said of Johannesburg dusk:

Going forward into the night is like going backwards in time. Chipped corners on balconies heal, cracks in the plastering disappear …

The night is a time for dreaming, for graffiti artists, for activists, lovers and dancers.

One of Johannesburg’s most adventurous DJs Mxolisi Makhubo behind the decks. Charles Leonard

Paradoxically, darkness is often the necessary backdrop for glistening electric illumination, with all the associations of developmental modernity and consumptive excess. Indeed, despite the ways in which electricity blackouts have brought Johannesburg residents into new encounters with the dark, much of our urban night lives take place amid a superfluity of light technologies -— traffic lights, nightclub LEDs, police sirens or fluorescent towers in the distance. Light has been a mechanism to claim nocturnal time and territory -— to make the dark habitable, exploitable, police-able, profitable and beautiful.

After-dark nightscape

Curated lighting is so much a part of the nighttime infrastructure —- designating areas of safety, enchantment and surveillance, and then disappearing as day breaks. Braamfontein’s after-dark nightscape is marked by the multi-coloured spectacle of the Nelson Mandela Bridge overhead, abrasive car lights, flash billboards and flickering neon. Again in New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950, Sharpe tells us:

“Like a city, night has a history. And the two come together explosively with the spread of artificial light.

A recent event, "Alight”, saw artists and designers launch audiences into a series of encounters with electric light in the night. There was a maze of illuminated blocks that responded to touch. Also, a net of sparkle strung to the ceiling. Lasers sketched silhouettes across a cement wall. There were glowing balloons and networks of interactive video technology.

Part of the recent ‘Alight’ exhibition in Johannesburg, a net of sparkle strung to the ceiling Beth Vale

On the darker side of the Juta Street intersection, it connected audiences to Johannesburg’s nocturnal city and promoted a sense of place through play, light and music. But what “Alight” also achieved, in my mind, was to make explicit the infrastructure of our nightlives, which rather than being assembled from bricks and mortar, is more tangibly a composite of sound, darkness, illumination, and moving bodies.

A nightclub without the music and lights

Ever been to a nightclub during the day, without the darkness, the music, the ambient lighting or the intimacy of the crowd? It feels like a non-place. So much of our attachment to nightclub spaces is made from bodies in motion, set to carefully curated sound and light-scapes, all of which disappear at dawn. In urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone’s words, we might begin to see “people as infrastructure”.

Human practices, the absence or presence of others, in the city gives places particular contours, creates obstruction or permissiveness, and alters the look and feel of a place.

Moving through Johannesburg’s night city, particularly as a young woman, has meant adopting particular protective sensibilities. But it has also opened up alternate ways of knowing and encountering the city and its practices.

In the realm of the urban night, artists are exposing the dearth of academic language and imagery, prompting us to research and collaborate outside our conventional bounds. They are showing us how much of human life goes unnoticed, while most of the world sleeps.

The Conversation

Beth Vale does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.