Games heal public park

Dennis Webster

Squeezed between Hillbrow Street, Tudhope Avenue and Park Lane in Berea, Barnato Park, as it is informally known, 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.

  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, which means keeping it tidy is easier.

  Timothy Maphosa, 45, is one of the men who spend afternoons on the northern fringe of Barnato Park playing Casino. Played either between two players or two teams of two players each, 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.

  Maphosa arrived in Johannesburg in 1995 from Tsholotsho in Matabeleland, 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.

  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, like no permanent work,” he says.

  For Maphosa, cards in the park offer respite from this uncertainty.

  “I come 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 money on somebody else’s skills, he says.

  While South Africa has been Maphosa’s home for more than two decades, his countryman, Thembalethu Mthunzi, 22, 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 in a series of quick and calculated moves.

  But behind the spectacle of Mthunzi’s draughts play, he is philosophical about the game. “It helps with quick thinking,” he says.”

  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 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.

   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. New Frame

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