A tale of three passes

The ridges cutting through Yeoville and Observatory/Linksfield are a natural barrier between the north and south areas of Johannesburg. These ridges were first populated in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Johannesburg grew in response to the ongoing gold rush and people began to look for alternative places to live, especially as the CBD of early Johannesburg was not a particularly salubrious place. While the first wave of migrants into the city comprised mainly single men of all colours (and a handful of women to provide for the various needs of those men), there was an increasing number of families settling in the area and accommodation in a more appropriate environment was needed.

Three winding passes were cut into the ridge to allow access for travellers. Stewart’s Drive links Bellevue and Yeoville to Bertrams and Judith’s Paarl. Munro Drive allows people to travel from what is known as Upper Houghton to Houghton proper to the north of the ridge. Sylvia’s Pass allows people to travel from Observatory and Linksfield down into Orange Grove.

Both Munro Drive and Stewart’s Drive are lined with dressed stone walls, some say built by Italian prisoners of war. Sylvia Pass does not have dressed stone walls, but can boast a link to architect Hermann Kallenbach, long-time friend of Mahatma Gandhi.

Sylvia’s Pass and most of Munro Drive have houses lining the road, while Stewart’s Drive has none.

But the biggest difference between Stewart’s Drive to the south and Sylvia’s Pass and Munro Drive to the north is an economic one. Stewart’s Drive links two largely black middle class/working class suburbs, whereas Munro Drive and Sylvia’s Pass carry two-way traffic between upper class suburbs mainly occupied by whites.

According to the SAPS in Norwood, there are very few problems of criminality along Munro Drive and Sylvia’s Pass. A drive along the two roads will show that they are reasonably well-kept and that there are few pedestrians using them. Most users travel by car.

Stewart’s Drive is very different. There is (or would be) a predominance of foot traffic up and down the pass. Most of these walkers are black. There are vehicle drivers using the pass too, of course, and would include residents in the two areas as well as people passing through.

I say there ‘would be’ a predominance of foot traffic. However, what should be a pleasant walk along a stone-walled lined street next to a wooded hillside has become a nightmare for residents and an indictment of the SAPS and the City of Johannesburg.

Firstly, there is effluent of some sort which is almost always flowing down from the blocks of flats high above the pass, through the grass and foliage until it reaches the rock face on the south side of the road. Once it has run down the rock face to the pavement, it continues down the pass into the valley. The effluent starts in Ward 67 and ends up in Ward 66. However, neither Ward Councillor has succeeded in ensuring that this problem is permanently resolved. Relevant CoJ departments are seemingly ignoring the problem.

The metal fence on top of the historic stone wall has long been stolen for scrap and some sections of the wall are not looking good – there is a desperate need for maintenance before it is begins to crumble. It certainly needs to be restored to its former glory.

The wooded section enclosed by the winding pass should be a beautiful natural spot, to be enjoyed by those who see it as they drive up and down the pass and also by residents who could use it as a natural spot to which to escape for a walk. In fact, this area forms part of the ‘green belt’ that they City of Johannesburg said they wanted to develop from Hillbrow to Observatory. However, this has never happened.

The area is very poorly maintained. Dumping over the wall takes place regularly. Homeless people have been known to take up residence there, presumably also using it as an open-air toilet.

But worse than all this is that most people now fear walking up and down the pass. The road is now known as Snake Way because of the risks to men, women and children posed by criminals who wait for those brave (or foolish) enough to use it. There have been countless muggings, with people losing everything, including their shoes. Women have been raped. Bodies have been found.

As a result, many people congregate at the top of the pass and at the bottom, both daytime and night-time, hoping that someone will be kind enough to stop and give them a lift along this short but treacherous stretch of road.

The SAPS seem unable to do anything effective to stamp out the problem. There has been one attempt by the SAPS to make a difference – however, this seems geared more to addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. They asked a taxi company to allocate a vehicle to travel up and down the pass, ensuring that everyone gets through safely. However, the taxi understandably wants to be paid by each passenger, however short the distance. But the stranded people, equally understandably, don’t want to pay the taxi. Why should they? The very reason why they are walking is because they do not have money to pay for transport. They are being asked to pay for the failure of the state to ensure that the road is safe to use.

Neither the SAPS nor the City of Johannesburg believes that it is important enough to allocate officials to patrol the area on a permanent basis (or to explore other creative solutions such as employing local people as security or, even better, employing local people to clear the area of alien trees, plant indigenous vegetation, and maintain and manage the area on an ongoing basis, making it a safe pleasant place to walk, both on and off the road). Suggestions have even been made in the Yeoville Community Police Forum for the SAPS to establish a base in Bertrams for mounted police who could patrol the area on horseback or on off-road motorcycles. However, there is no sign that this proposal has been seriously considered.

At the start of this piece, I pointed out the differences between the three passes. Sylvia’s Pass and Munro Drive link well-off suburbs, they have few pedestrians and there are markedly lower crime levels. Stewart’s Drive moves between less-advantaged suburbs, there is (or would be if the risks were less) a lot of foot traffic, and crime levels are sufficiently high to make most people frightened to walk up and down.

Is it a coincidence that an area that is largely poor and black has these problems? Would this situation be allowed to continue indefinitely in a more affluent area? I think not. At the very least, the people of the more affluent area would, in the face of inaction by the state, come together to do something to address the problems. The people in Yeoville Bellevue of course don’t have the resources to do that. This is all the more reason for the state to intervene, to act on behalf of the community so that they don’t have to be further disadvantaged by the fear of walking along a public road.

Of course, one could argue that even a disadvantaged community could find a solution. Perhaps a band of volunteers could patrol the area in shifts to provide ongoing security and to monitor anti-social behaviour. There is merit to such an argument. But experience has shown that pure voluntarism has limited appeal in a community that is struggling to survive. Often, people wearily accept a problem like this as just another inevitable burden to bear, as just another reminder of their underprivileged condition. What’s more, expecting community members to take on this task would be relieving the state of what is clearly their responsibility to deal with the situation.

Paulo Freire says that ‘the oppressed (and in this context we meant those ‘oppressed’ by poverty and deprivation) ….. have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed and have become resigned to it’. A state which says it is pro-poor should therefore ensure that it pro-actively addresses situations such as these as part of its duty towards the disadvantaged while, at the same time, creating enabling conditions in which people can play a meaningful role in managing their own environment.

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6 Responses to A tale of three passes

  1. Paul Voice says:

    Keep up the good work Maurice.


    • yeovue says:

      Thanks Paul. Wish I could be more regular. It’s a struggle, but important to do so because that’s how I can improve my writing and my my understanding. Responses from readers are therefore good because they encourage me to be more diligent.

  2. Renza Brickhill says:

    We lived in Woodlands, the block of flats at the bottom of Stewarts Drive, during the 60’s and then moved up into Yeoville. Thank you for the history and recall of the past. The area has changed demographically but the history is still in our minds.

    • yeovue says:

      Well, even though the area has change demographically, we hope that it will make its own unique and prud history. Change is usually difficult and often traumatic. I am convinced that it is possible to re-shape the area in a way that makes sense to those who live and work here and that makes the area attractive to those who currently don’t.
      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad the blog is interesting to you.

  3. Hello Maurice,
    I am the editor of the website http://www.MountainPassesSouthAfrica.co.za and we are currently busy with the Gauteng passes – most of which are suburban passes. Sylvias Pass will be recrded and indexed as South africa’s shortest pass at just 290 metres! I found your nteresting and plausible history on the 3 passes on this website and would like your permission to publish excerpts from this article into the relevant pass pages in an effort to perpetuate the history.
    Kind regards,
    Trygve Roberts

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