When one considers Johannesburg recently, what comes to mind are the stadia it boasts. Most cities have stadia, but as befits a city that is the centre of a province that hogs + – 80% of the country’s wealth, it’s are the kick ass of all stadia.
Consider Soccer City; where Cape Town stadium is so non-descript as to be unmemorable, and Durban’s simply reminiscent of a basket, bringing to mind fruit- basket or basket case (having said this, I was brought up to speed in terms of the groundbreaking technical innovation included in all these new stadia, truly first world!).
Still, Johannesburg has in Soccer City the mother of all stadia with its uKhamba design. The clay pot brings to mind the mixing of the ‘races’ as in the ‘melting pot’, or the creation of wealth as in the ‘pot of gold’. So, of course, seen in a particular light it could be more than a pot, as when I saw it at dusk on the day of the official opening of the stadium. I was stuck in traffic on the highway bypassing the stadium, on my way back to the city after witnessing the spectacle of Blue Bull supporters streaming into Soweto to Orlando for the first rugby match in yet another brand new stadium and involving none less then the Bulls of Loftus fame, I found myself engulfed in a stream of soccer supporters streaming in or out, I could not tell, of the newly inaugurated Soccer City.
In my truck, I looked like the proverbial ‘Boer’, and couldn’t help wondering how I appeared to the average soccer supporter, and whether the war cry of Malema would be put to action.
Soccer City stadium began to take on reptilian proportions, its pot-like exterior looking remarkably scaly in the dusky light. And I began to think of the city and its many reptiles with their venomous bites. I remembered surviving a hijack attempt in the Orlando township from which I’d recently departed, in which I lost the sum total of my camera equipment, uninsured like that of most independent documentary photographers I know, but that event unremarkable in the everyday-ness of it all. Soccer City stadium looked much like a python, coiled, constricting and strangling its prey, but also ready to spring into action and attack, much like the inhabitants of the city have been conditioned to expect. Gold fever still grips Joburg, and it is kind to those of its inhabitants who revere its code.
Stadia, these relics of our Roman past, are perfect jousting grounds for the acting out of our ethos, namely competition and contest. All this talk of being given a sporting chance is twaddle. As the ad says, “Sixty four games, One cup and One winner”. It’s that simple really, and nobody gives a fiddlestick for the concept of a win-win scenario. It may be a fact that life evolved through co-operation rather than the survival of the fittest, but in the jungle of Johannesburg, survival is the order of the day.
Even the ‘Ubuntu’ of yesteryear now seems something from a mythical past, to be evoked in corporate or government workshops where nobody is under any illusions about the imperative to compete. In the stadia in which our latter day warriors compete, we relive the imperative to take the competition to the cleaners in our own backyards. Anyway, the bottom line is that its big business, VERY big business.
Commentators in the hysteria that led up to the Fifa World Cup were prone to singing the praises of the unifying aspect of sports, and partially, grudgingly, as someone with not an inkling of interest in sport, I have to agree with that. I also have a memory of the divisive aspect of sport, and can recall segregated sports, dehumanized sportspeople of colour, remember Papwa Sewgolum and Basil D’Oliviera amongst many others? Millions being chanelled into white sports by state and corporates alike and precious little in the form of support for black sports. Then sport boycotts, protests and mass action, ultimately unifying stuff indeed I suppose.
And when I think of stadia, I think of humungous budgets and fat contracts to construction companies. For the workers who actually labour at building these things, I suppose they have to be happy with the half a loaf syndrome, because the work is mostly contract based and tightly deadline driven. This is no doubt a better deal than fat contracts going to defense contractors, but a general and generous loosening of the fiscal budget in lean times. Perhaps its easier and more desirable for politicians to agree to the building of these grand multiple use structures than the more mundane sports grounds that are absent in almost all schools in previously black areas, urban and rural. Workers and smaller contractors could be kept busy for a long time trying to meet this deficit.
I also think of stadia being put to use as instruments of oppression, as in the example of Chile’s Pinochet and other South American tyrants and dictators, as change rooms become torture chambers, and the pitch holds a cowering and petrified mass of humanity, sweating through the day, and freezing through the night, as they impatiently await their moment of painful dispatch. Closer to home we have our own examples here as in the Ciskie.
Also, of course, Albert Speer comes to mind, and the arenas he built for his master Adolf Hitler, and through Speer we see that architects can make good War Ministers. Speer’s main regret was not that he was directly responsible for the dispatching of a good many concentration camp interns, but that he kept the war running far longer than it should have because of his logistical efficiency.
I remember too many mass meetings and gatherings in such edifices, and mass hysteria, as when in the same Orlando stadium (the old rickety one of 1990, in which I’d hoped the Bulls would stage their contest), I was approached by a panic stricken youth, who wanted to confess to all, his complicity as an enemy agent. I stopped photographing the first public address by Mandela in Soweto after his release, to hold this youth’s hand and persuade him that who he really needed to confess to, was a therapist at best, or, more practically, a priest.
So, stadia to my mind are far from the benign constructs that most make them out to be, and Johannesburg’s ones are the most notable in this regard.
Having relocated, like a good migrant, back to the province of my birth, I’m able to reflect on the city that held and sustained me for over twenty years, and has left me with many precious memories of living in a vibrant city, and yes, I had my fair share of stadia as a photographer, and thoroughly raved on being on the pitch with the addictive roar of the crowd in my ear, feeling that I too could have taken on a lion or a gladiator. And I must confess that my admiration for a far fiercer contemporary adversary, the Pirates fan, began in those heady days and heady stadia.
Stadia, like other large complexes for which architects compete for the honour, the privilege and the financial benefit of designing, are products of a process of pleasing a panel of judicators, and not really the heartfelt and believed visions of the architects themselves. Of course in an ideal world, that may be the case, but has not an architect studied and readied themselves for years to produce a habitat design that is credible, and by what process is that intent interfered with. Do we not have the confidence in our architects to produce structures that will do justice to our selves and our environments. Perhaps this is the reason why we are enveloped in a myriad of mediocre structure as unimaginative as we are.
And then finally, what of the perils that cities like Johannesburg and indeed the entire planet face? In Johannesburg’s case, the immediate problem of acid water drainage threatening to contaminate all potable water and undermine infrastructure; The privatization of water in anticipation of eminent water shortages; The glut of highly inefficient buildings that gobble up energy in a time of peak oil; The absence of something as basic as double-glazing for the cold winters; Or the least effort to site buildings correctly to maximize the use of the sun; Corporates, the contemporary equivalent of the patronizing church of the past, to whom even governments are obliged, pay lip service to environmental concerns, and far less in cash to avert a looming crisis.
In light of this, like Nero, it does seem we need stadia in which to be entertained, as our Rome burns.