Mayfair in Joburg is where the Sun, Moon and Star, each the name of a corner barbershop, take each other on in the fiercely contested male-hairdressing trade.
It’s here in Mayfair – between a traffic light that hasn’t worked for longer than two weeks since it was installed two years ago, and a BMW showroom that is now a shopping centre – that Mogadishu is not just a city in Somalia and Hanover is not just a town in Germany.
As the sun dips low in the sky over Arthur Bloch Park, the call to sunset prayer sounds over Mayfair, a chorus of voices calling the Muslim faithful to pause and reflect. Traffic on Hanover Street has ebbed.
A trickle of cars flows into the mosque’s parking lot. Men and children walk to the building in groups, chatting in the glow of the sunset.
Hanover Bakery prepares to close and a guard watches over its entrance with a wary eye. Down the road, the Bangladeshi-owned corner shop has shut, but still serves customers through a small opening in its gate.
When darkness descends, there’s little glamour about Mayfair.
Residents scurry indoors behind high walls and electric fences – if they are lucky. The less fortunate retire to flattened-out cardboard boxes beneath the stars on Railway Street.
This is Mayfair, where people seek refuge from bloody conflicts and hopelessness and where people come to survive, whatever it takes.
Mayfair, home to the middle class, working class and homeless. A home to Somali refugees, Ethiopian asylum seekers, Tanzanian shopkeepers, Malawian cooks, Turkish butchers and Pakistani barbers.
It’s a chaotic union of colour, language and culture that seems to find harmony in only one common complaint: that the Somalis really must learn how to park better.
This is Mayfair, where, between the cheese deli and the fruit juice shop on Queens Road, is “Dr” Moosa. He plies his trade in bringing back lost lovers, rescuing businesses, predicting futures and righting past wrongs.
He and his colleagues are keen marketers. There’s hardly a street in Mayfair that hasn’t been littered with pamphlets advertising the services of prophets, doctors and holy men.
Those in Mayfair are not unique in the attention showered on them by these peddlers of the dark arts. But in Mayfair there are other dark arts that others rarely see advertised.
Pamphlets advertising everything from prostitution, “hit man services”, your choice of narcotics and “terrorism training”, all conveniently located at a hair salon on Church Street, were distributed in sealed envelopes earlier this year.
One pamphlet announced: “We are freedom fighters. What we don’t get, we will grab. As you know that Home Affairs and South African Police Services is in my pocket. I will be more than happy to provide you my services to sort out all your illegal matters, the only condition is that you have to put your hands in the pocket and spend money that’s all (sic).”
By the end, the pamphlet seemed to be lampooning itself. It just couldn’t be real. Still, some in Mayfair were shocked, while others were less surprised.
As one businessman puts it: “It’s probably a hoax, but that salon has a dodgy reputation.”
Months later, the salon’s owner dismisses questions about the pamphlet, saying he identified the employee who did it “and we gave him a warning”.
“I don’t want to talk about it any more,” he adds.
Some in Mayfair wonder whether Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor was right when she said it is no longer easy to obtain a South African passport through illicit means.
The so-called White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite, who reportedly lived in Mayfair, was somehow able to obtain a South African passport.
If you want a SIM card that has escaped the Rica process, need to renew a driver’s licence without the queues, prescription drugs without the prescription or a firearm licence without the test, there’s always someone in Mayfair who knows someone who can help.
In the Amal shopping centre in Mayfair’s “little Mogadishu”, Somalis are annoyed at journalists who have beaten a path there, hunting for clues about Lewthwaite’s stay in Joburg.
A middle-aged Somali man sits at the reception desk of the shopping’s centre offices.
“Nobody knows this woman (Lewthwaite) here. How will a white woman be here with Somali people and nobody can remember her?” the receptionist asks.
The shopping centre has the feel of a Middle Eastern souk, though it sells chiefly cheap Chinese goods. A group of the man’s friends gather around.
“Somali people are not so advanced to know how to make fake passports,” the receptionist says. “We know that if you want fake passports, you go to Hillbrow?…”
One friend adds: “To the Nigerians.”
The receptionist continues: “But you know, even in the immigration, if you have enough money, you can get a real South African passport.”
The friend interjects again: “But us Somali people, we are not doing these things.”
Somali elder Sheikh Ahmed Abdi says his countrymen have carved a niche for themselves in Mayfair, because this is where they’ve felt most at home.
“Somalis are Muslim. They are 100% Muslim. When they settled here in this area in the 1990s, this was a Muslim area. They want to be connected with their faith – at the mosque and the madrasah (religious school) and all those things,” he says.
Mayfair was also a convenient base for Somalis working at the Oriental Plaza in neighbouring Fordsburg. Few Somalis, however, work there any more.
Abdi describes the Somali community as a “business-minded people”. And their South African neighbours take issue with that.
Bird Street has been entirely transformed in the last two years.
Homes have been turned into restaurants. The ground floors of blocks of flats are now shopping centres. All this has been done without rezoning permissions or respect for bylaws.
But as Somalis radically convert parts of Mayfair, they are also credited with driving up property values.
“The price of Mayfair has gone up,” Abdi says. “When you are talking about rent or to buy houses, it’s gone up.”
Few homes for sale in Mayfair are bought by anyone else. No one knows where the money comes from, but speculation is rife that Somali piracy has provided some of it. Abdi denies that Somalis are flaunting any ill-gotten wealth in Mayfair.
“It’s not that they have the big money, but the money that they have is from hard work. They go to the locations and work hard without electricity, water or anything,” he says.
“This is the securest place in Johannesburg, because people see this as a safe haven.”
Hairdresser Ivan Constance has spent most of his life living and working in Mayfair and Fordsburg. His salon on Church Street is always on top of the latest gossip.
Constance shakes his head at “the drugs that are going on”, but has harsh words for some of those who have moved out.
“Somebody came and said to me, ‘Oh, is it safe for me to park my car here?’ My God!” Ivan says with disgust.
“You come here to the butcher shop. Your parents live around the corner. You come to the spice shop here. You come and buy food at Akhalwayas and you used to go down to Rama’s to buy your veggies. Now everybody comes here to Sameer,” he says pointing out the window in the direction of the Egyptian grocer.
“So why do you ask me a stupid question like that? It’s because you live in the north now.”
As Constance bemoans the squalor he believes is bringing Mayfair down, others are more upbeat.
Muhammad Abdul-Azeem says, “There are no junkies. At least you don’t see many junkies hanging around here.”
He has recently opened a restaurant, Heavenly Smoothies and Sandwiches, on Church Street.
Still, Abdul-Azeem admits crime lurks in the shadows.
Mayfair is many things. It is dodgy in places and some of its people are indeed dodgy too. But it is much more than that. It is home.