A suburban idyll fades away in Johannesburg


Each morning, an old Toyota arrives at the park, its engine protesting but its light blue paint work spotless. A sprightly woman with neatly coiffed snow-white hair alights. She and her arthritic dog, part border collie, part mutt, walk once around the park. Passing, she nods and smiles.

A man, wearing only his briefs, sits in the sun on a rock in the middle of the park’s river, his clothes laid out to dry. On the riverbank, faded yellow signs with skulls and crossbones warn against drinking, swimming or washing there.

This 40-acre snip of parkland in the suburbs of Johannesburg, quaintly named the Field and Study Center, has its regulars: the dog walkers, the Lycra-clad cyclists, the joggers. And the homeless men who live in a squatter camp across the river, the smoke from their fires drifting over the water with their laughter.

The dogs-and-exercise crowd is mainly white; the homeless men, black.

They share a park that is slowly becoming run-down, like eroding good intentions. Here, the two groups are thrust into intimacy, a closeness still unusual in a country where years after apartheid’s demise, people remain separate voluntarily.

They take turns at the park’s water faucet: the men washing their clothes or collecting water in plastic bottles to boil for tea; the dog walkers watering thirsty animals. They either make eye contact, or avoid it. They either greet each other, or choose not to. The white dog walkers either reassure the wary black men that their dogs won’t bite, or leave it unsaid.

Each day a widow with a sturdy stick arrives for a looked-forward-to morning conversation. She stops and talks to dog walkers about the weather. She remembers the time she took her dog to visit her husband in the hospital. But the dog didn’t recognize him because of the medical smell. She’s alone now. Telling the story, she’s suddenly crying.

One windy Sunday evening, just before dark, there’s a movement down by the river. A huge eucalyptus tree falls, crushing the green bridge that crosses the water. For months, the homeless men teeter across the log before the tree is sawn up and taken away.

The bridge is not rebuilt. The homeless men — and the domestic servants crossing the park on their way to work — hop across river boulders. In the summer rainy season, when the river’s high, they get their feet wet.

Jogging one spring morning, I fall heavily, just as the lady in the blue Toyota drives by. My spectacles fly, I cut my lip and I find myself looking for her, for comfort. But she hasn’t seen. The little blue car putters noisily away, and I’m alone.

Winter mornings, smoke from the squatters’ camp fills the valley like fog. I’m walking by the river one chilly morning when two men emerge from the smog, carrying thick pieces of wood on their shoulders, like weapons. There’s no one else, just the two men and me and my dogs. We stare at one another.

And say hello and pass on.

The riverbank erodes. More trees fall over. Some of them are cut up and carted away. But mostly the logs, half cut up, are left lying around.

Plastic bags hang like mermaid’s tresses from bushes on the riverbank. Plastic bottles whirl in eddies beneath a waterfall.

Once, a man sees me and my dogs from a distance and clambers into a tree, terrified. Another morning, a young man approaches as I walk one dog. The dog sniffs his leg. The man looks afraid.

“Good morning,” I say.

“Good morning.”

“Don’t worry. He won’t hurt you.”

The man’s expression changes. The benign face contorts, replaced by something fierce, close to hate.

A suspended moment. A realization.

He throws me to the ground and prods a knife toward my belly. I scramble backward, watching the knife coming at me again, thinking of the many people stabbed to death or shot dead for a cellphone.

He reaches for my small fanny pack, which has a phone, some cash, my car keys and dog treats. As he grabs it, the dog chases him off.

It’s nearly two years before I can walk by the place without fear.

The erosion goes on. Someone steals the faucet by the river, causing a gush; it is replaced and stolen a few times, then turned off forever. The fences are dismantled, the cross struts slowly disappearing one by one, squatters’ firewood. The toilets are vandalized and have to be closed.

One day, the lady with the snow-white hair and blue Toyota comes to the park. There is no old dog with her this time. She walks steadily, following the path.

After that, she doesn’t come to the park anymore.