On certain nights at Ba-Pita, a Middle Eastern restaurant at the top of 7th Avenue in Melville, Johannesburg, there’s a sense of having stepped back in time and place. On these nights, most of the tables are occupied by former Yeovillites.
This is the restaurant’s second coming and many of those who spent the 1980s and 1990s haunting Rockey Street, Ba-Pita’s original Yeoville home, have flocked back like disciples. It’s partly for the sangria and partly for the garlic sauce, both are legendary, but according to owner Gerald Elliott it’s mostly for something less fixed: the memories.
Yeoville, now a densely populated neighbourhood on the northeastern edge of Johannesburg’s inner-city flatlands, was founded just four years after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.
During apartheid, it was often a refuge from the violence of the state, sheltering dissidents such as communist lawyer Bram Fischer and his most famous client, Nelson Mandela. Before that, Herman Charles Bosman shot dead his stepbrother on the fringes of Yeoville, a killing resulting in the prison sentence that eventually inspired Cold Stone Jug, one of South Africa’s most renowned prison memoirs.
Together with many of its Bohemian neighbours, Ba-Pita was at the heart of perhaps the most remarkable period in Yeoville’s storied past: the decline of white minority rule in South Africa and the advent of democracy.
Yeoville’s elusive allure
Throughout the interview with New Frame at the new Ba-Pita, seven comfortable kilometres west of Rockey Street’s present-day tumult, Elliot struggles to put his finger on exactly what it was that distinguished Yeoville during that time. He hesitates in his raspy voice — “Yeoville was… Yeoville was… Yeoville was…” — as he searches the empty courtyard around him in vain for a prompt.
Elliott, who is magnanimous and wears his grey hair in a thick ponytail, scrolls through his phone, muttering that he isn’t very good with technology, before beaming and lifting the phone, screen facing forward, to reveal a photo that says what he cannot.
The grainy image, taken by photojournalist Oscar Gutierrez (a one-time Yeovillite turned Melville regular) has a wistful, underwater quality to it. At the centre of the photo is a young woman in torn jeans and an untroubled expression, an anonymous angel of Yeoville. Behind her is Ba-Pita’s old storefront, arrayed with an off-the-wall crew of the restaurant’s chequered regulars, laughing in the sun.
The photo, which will soon be hung in the new Ba-Pita, looks like it could have been taken in the heady aftermath of a rock concert. But, according to Gutierrez, it was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.
Yeoville at the end of the 20th century was unlike anything Johannesburg has known since, according to Elliott. The sleepless, cosmopolitan streets of New York are a readier comparison. He likens Ba-Pita to the Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village bar in which the fight for queer liberation took one of its most significant turns during the 1969 Stonewall Riots, where, he says, the marginalised clientele also proclaimed, “We will be recognised!”
Street dealers and elite politicos
Ba-Pita was home to the icons of Yeoville and South Africa’s liberation struggle alike.
Long John, for instance, an ancient acid dealer nicknamed for his lanky figure, arrived at the restaurant early every morning to take full advantage of the bottomless coffee. The first cup cost him 95c, the next 15 cups were free. An eclectic crowd would often enjoy a shawarma while waiting to do a deal with Long John. “That’s why my R1 works for you,” he would tell Elliott.
On the other end of Yeoville’s spectrum, founding general secretary of trade union federation Cosatu Jay Naidoo and his family were enjoying a Ba-Pita breakfast there one morning while South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo sat at the bar drinking whisky, his famous red socks peeking out from his trousers.
Neither was Yeoville’s astral clientele limited to Ba-Pita. Martin Nel, 56, the self-described “Yeoville refugee” who ran Gershwin’s Café — an American-style diner across the road from Ba-Pita (Nel jokes that Elliott still owes him a borrowed bag of coffee) — recalls how a customer nonchalantly entered his store one day and began admiring the photographs of Sophiatown hanging on the wall. It was Dorothy Masuka, perhaps the greatest voice to emerge from the suburb, which had been the site of some of South Africa’s finest cultural production and one of the last areas to allow black home ownership.
Nel laments South Africa’s Jacob Zuma years, which he says “tribalised [the country] again”, undoing much of “the good work of the 1990s”, a time when Yeoville’s white and black residents were involved in a grand integrated experiment of how the new South Africa might look.
But while Elliott remembers Yeoville as “one of the first places where real integration happened”, he concedes that he and his fellow former Yeovillites may be remembering the neighbourhood “through rose-tinted glasses”.
Research by the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand suggests that, much like a rainbow, Yeoville’s beauty may have been something of a false impression.
While black participants in the research, which documents the experiences of former Yeovillites, cited the neighbourhood’s “relaxed racial atmosphere” and “intellectual and artistic life” as presenting unique opportunities in Johannesburg at the time, the research suggests that Yeoville’s integration may have been more an “illusion of racial mixing”.
In 1970, more than eight in every 10 Yeovillites were white. Two decades later, in 1991, that hadn’t changed much — more than seven out of every 10 residents were white. But in 1996, two years after Elliott had bought Ba-Pita, the “white flight” from Johannesburg’s inner city saw that number shrivel to fewer than three in 10. Fast forward to the most recent census in 2011 and 96% of the people who called Yeoville home were black.
By Elliott’s own admission, the former homes of Yeoville’s famed integration, including Ba-Pita, were not geared for the full demographic implications of the advent of democracy in South Africa.
South African ‘liberals’ outed
“We all did,” says Elliott, when asked if the exodus of Yeoville’s white residents to places like Melville was a sellout. “You had this wonderful liberal movement,” he chuckles, “that was all very liberal until the blacks moved in. And then they [former white residents] moved away to Cape Town, where they could be liberal without black people. And that’s a fact.
“It was all, ‘Let’s fight for the rights of black people until they arrive’.”
Investigative journalism TV show Carte Blanche eventually aired an exaggerated, if explosive, episode detailing a spate of crime that marred Yeoville towards the end of the 1990s. Taken together with the toxic paranoia driving white people out of Johannesburg’s inner city, the episode was a death knell for many of the establishments that, having defined Yeoville for the past two decades, did not survive into the new millennium.
For many of the old Yeovillites enjoying the new Ba-Pita, the restaurant is as good as ever. It may have something to do with its celebrated dishes. While the ingredients today may be more Melville (“We’ve tinkered with the quality,” says Elliott with a wry smile, poking fun at the new obsession with food shows: “Everybody’s a food critic.”), the menu and recipes are as Yeoville as ever — shawarmas, laffas, koftas.
But Elliott warns that Melville’s conservatism means the original Ba-Pita will never be recreated. The racial segregation among 7th Avenue establishments would have been unimaginable in Yeoville, he says, as would their early shutdown time. While Elliott was busier at 3am than at 8pm in Yeoville, by 2am in Melville people have “rolled up the tarmacs and put away the robots, it’s sleep time”.
Elliott is clinging to a humbler hope though, that the new Ba-Pita will buck the trend of Melville’s 7th Avenue and be a restaurant in which everyone feels comfortable to sit and share a meal.