Sunday, February 8, 2009

Boating on the swamp of broken dreams

At number 75 Maude Street, Sandton, lies a metaphor for our imperfect land. It is a pit, an enormous cube of empty space, one hundred metres square in surface area, and then about twenty metres deep.
This pit, or swamp, as it now is, began life as the foundations of a 40-storey skyscraper to be known as the Sears Tower, or more likely “The Sears on Maude”. It no longer matters which, because in April 2008, construction on the Sears building was abruptly suspended.
I know this because the Sears Pit borders the back of our office building. With the wonder common to all boys with a view of a construction site, my co-workers and I had been merrily observing the progress of the build.
We’d watched the excavation of the hole, and the building of the retaining walls. Then the contractors began digging even deeper, sinking individual pits that would accommodate the feet of this massive structure, destined to be the tallest building in Sandton!
They dug ever deeper, until they reached the water table. Now, Johannesburg has a shallow and healthy water table. Once the contractors got down there, an epic battle began between man and nature. They got out the pumps and began frantically dredging the footwells of the skyscraper.
With the aid of some kind of waterproof concrete, they were able to lay some foundations and sink reinforcing steel rods. The dredging was a complete failure, though, and the foundations were soon swamped by the water table. Almost immediately thereafter, the site was abandoned.
This was in the dark times of autumn 08, so we immediately blamed the power shortage, the lack of infrastructure capacity, xenophobia, the government, Polokwane and all points in between.
Most probably it was caused by all of the above, but ultimately, the contractors never returned.
As winter became spring, the steel reinforcements began to rust. With the summer rains the water table rose and the concrete pylons began sinking. The clay walls of the footwells subsided into the swamp. Plant life, weeds… reeds appeared. Around October, a family of ducks moved in.
Today it resembles the set of some post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy. Blade Runner meets Waterworld. All man’s dreams of greatness reduced to rubble and flooded. The swamp of broken dreams.
I’m not certain about the address of this pit, because pits do not have addresses. But it’s certainly on Maude street, opposite number 76. And all along the street frontage is a large billboard depicting lush, golden wheat fields, caressed by the wind.
So no one driving by even knows that the pit exists. Only us in our building, monitoring the decay, watching some architect’s dream sink into the mud.
We’ve decided that one of these days we’re going to launch a dingy in the pit. We’ll send some oke to clamber down the stairwell and push himself out into the middle of the lake, where the concrete bollards stand forlorn, rust-stained, askew. Then he must float around smoking cigarettes, and we’ll video him.
That’s our dream. I think we should do it soon.
You can’t take anything for granted these days.

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