‘You see that building over there? Used to be known as ‘suicide central’ – people from all over town would go
there to jump…’
The driver is talking, and I’m listening. We’re speeding through Johannesburg in a faded taxi, the dashboard trinkets rattling at each breakneck turn. Staring out the window, passively absorbing the driver’s words of wisdom, helps me breathe.
During the course of the ten-minute ride, he goes on to explain that the building is no longer known as ‘suicide central’, for the predictable reason that no one sends themselves hurtling towards death from that particular building anymore. Turns out a couple of years ago, the Coca-Cola corporation decided the building would be a prime location for a large red billboard, and once this was erected, the roof of the building had to be fenced off, to protect the billboard from any local vandals. The people rejoiced…
‘Yeah, people started calling Coca-Cola ‘the people’s savior’’
I’m looking out the window, at the particularly unimpressive construction that is the subject of the drivers little eulogy. It’s not that big. In other major cities, it wouldn’t warrant the ‘skyscraper’ label, and even in Johannesburg it’s long since stopped being the tallest building around. I notice the huge billboard erected on the roof. And then notice something odd.
‘But the sign says Vodafone!’
'Yeah, well… saints change…’
It was just a silly little story, told to me by a taxi driver, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even now, I think it raises interesting issues concerning the public’s perception of branding. The Coca-Cola Corporation were hailed as heroes, yet all they did was fence off a piece of property. In pursuit of profit, they further restricted the movement of people, and yet this made them saints. And I doubt very much that the number of suicides each year actually went down. They just didn’t all occur in the same place, and weren’t so noticeable.
I don’t know what the moral of the story is, but it’s something to think about…