Cheap playing cards slapping against concrete – “Twa! Twa!” – are louder than you might think. And in a leafy rectangle of grass and concrete in the shadow of the Hillbrow Tower, it is what punctures the hum of the inner-city’s pedestrian traffic.
Squeezed between Hillbrow Street, Tudhope Avenue and Park Lane in Berea, Barnato Park, as it is informally known by the people using it, appears to buck the trend of many of Joburg’s inner city parks.
Where parks are often plagued by drugs, alcohol, petty crime and uncollected trash, Barnato Park is a family affair. Its grass squares were filled with young couples and families throughout the summer holidays, and on weekday afternoons it is a sanctuary for school children on their way home. (The park sits among a host of inner-city schools, Johannesburg Girls Preparatory School and Barnato Park High School among them.)
This success is partly down to design. Unlike many of the other inner-city parks that have been upgraded over the past few years, Barnato Park has low perimeter fences with multiple entry points, facilitating access to the park rather than restricting it. It has also been fitted with enough rubbish bins (some inner-city parks have none), which means keeping it tidy is easier.
But, according to some of the park’s daily users, the environment also has something to do with those cheap cards.
Cards without the house
Timothy Maphosa, 45, is one of the men who spend their afternoons on the northern fringe of Barnato Park playing Casino. Played either between two players or two teams of two players each (the latter is preferable), the game revolves around fairly basic but rapid addition, with players combining cards to add up to the tricks established by their partners and opponents. It is played at a rapid and performative pace, including – “Twa! Twa!” – the loud slapping of cards.
Casino’s entertaining, if simple, infrastructure means it travels well, and has become a properly regional game. It is enjoyed as readily on the floors of Johannesburg’s MetroRail trains as it is by punters in the city’s parks and migrant workers in hostels on the platinum belt.
Maphosa himself arrived in Johannesburg in 1995 from Tsholotsho in Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. Together with his wife and three children, he now shares the living room of a two-bedroom Hillbrow apartment with a family he doesn’t know. His landlord uses one of the bedrooms, while another family lives in the other.
After a stint packing supermarket shelves, Maphosa became a security guard in the early 2000s. He now works security at large events, like sport matches and music concerts, when he can get a shift. But he struggles to secure regular work.
“You’ve got stresses,” he says, “Like no permanent work.”
For Maphosa, cards in the park offer respite from this uncertainty. He comes here “to push time, to kill time. If I am here, I forget about those stresses. The concentration on Casino distracts me.” With card players for the most part keeping money out of the game, Barnato Park is mostly a gambling-free space. For Maphosa, it’s down to Casino’s partner-based set up. Nobody is willing to risk their money on somebody else’s skills, he says.
While South Africa has been Maphosa’s home for more than two decades now, his countryman, Thembalethu Mthunzi, 22, has recently arrived.
At one of the four draughts tables in the centre of Barnato Park, Mthunzi is scraping out a different sound with plastic bottle tops – Kingsley, Coca-Cola – and metal bottle lids – Black Label, Lion Lager – in a series of quick and calculated moves. Capturing an opponent’s pieces can be as showy as a card being slapped in the nearby Casino games.
But behind the spectacle of Mthunzi’s draughts play, he is philosophical about the game. “It helps with quick thinking,” he says, while protecting vulnerable pieces in the face of a queen attack is a lesson “in how to avoid dangerous situations.”
Like Maphosa, Mthunzi says that spending an afternoon at play in the park is a healthy distraction from otherwise difficult days. Since arriving in South Africa towards the end of 2019, he has been unable to find the work he had been hoping for. Draughts, he says, “keeps my mind from just thinking. There are many things to be stressed and depressed about. I find this helps me. Before I know it, it is sunset, and I did not smoke, I did not steal.”
In the late 19th century, Barnato Park was a part of Johannesburg’s immense private wealth. It made up a sliver of the estate of one of Joburg’s most infamous randlords, Barney Barnato, who built his mansion nearby. At the time, his estate included a lake big enough to boat on.
Now owned and managed by the municipality and used by the cosmopolitan residents of the dense inner-city neighbourhoods of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, Barnato Park is the image of a functional public good.
On the southern end of the park, a group of primary school boys has devised a game of their own. What at first appears to be a furious few rounds of rock-paper-scissors is actually a complicated wrestling match. Muscular figurines – which they have cut out of foolscap paper (including a championship belt) and keep in a dented biscuit tin – pin one another, kick out, or submit to their opponent, all depending on the outcome of their rock, paper, and scissors.
“Glorious boot in the face! Glorious twist of fate!” shouts one delighted boy as his rock defeats a crestfallen opponent’s scissors, allowing his figurine to leap from an imaginary top rope to victory.
In 2011, Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo was moved out of the council’s Environmental Sector into the Community Services portfolio, in an effort to orientate the city’s parks around its people. If this decision is to bear fruit, those who play games in Barnato Park every day might hold part of the answer.