Coming out of the clouds, 10,000 feet above African terra firma – suddenly, a city of lights. After close to a year in central Africa, Joburg by night is like goddamn Shanghai. Highways like veins of gold ore. Towers of flashing lights. The city is glowing, incandescent. We pitch to the side, turn to start our descent. Out the window, suddenly, darkness – night descending over the Highveld. Then we wheel again over the city, Joburg, Egoli, “city of gold” – Africa’s El Dorado.
It is raining on the tarmac and the breath is puffing from my mouth – 12-degrees Celsius, says the flight attendant. Buses taxi us to the terminal. The airport is lit like a city. Inside the arrivals halls, the luggage carousels are empty. It is half-past seven, but OR Tambo is bedding down for the night. Lonely mops getting pushed across the floor. Gates pulled down in front of the Big Five Duty Free shop. Still open: the Airport Medical & Travel Vaccination Centre, offering 24-hour service. And the MTN shop, where I buy the SIM card that will connect me to the number that will anchor me to my new South African life. Outside the shop, two divas and a drag queen. They look fabulous. Already this place feels like a wonderland. A great inflatable soccer ball hangs over the arrivals area. In the bathroom the hand drier is like a furnace. It practically flays the skin from my palms.
I remember arriving in OR Tambo a year ago. I was on my way from Maputo to New York, nearly two and a half years after I’d left. The airport was a wonder. It was bright, modern, floodlit, stocked with cafés and bars and restaurants and shops and paunchy tourists set to return to their northern climes with reports of the rising star that is South Africa. There was something called an “express spa,” which seemed as therapeutic as Drive-Thru Yoga. Everything was dazzling and marvelous. I had spent close to two years scuttling between African cities – Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Maputo – and yet this patch of Highveld fluorescence seemed more modern than anything I’d found in Kigali or Lilongwe. But there was no time to spare before my flight left for Dakar. I bought a sandwich and the latest issue of The Economist, fumbling with my fistfuls of rand – another funny, pastel-colored currency covered with scenes from Animal Planet. Then I bolted through those gaudy halls of commerce in search of the flight that would take me to the place I called home.
Now, arriving again, arriving at the start of another chapter in my African life. Napoleon is waiting for me. He is tall, Nigerian, a youthful forty-five, sent to collect me by the hostel. We are shuttling through the streets, the notorious Joburg traffic has thinned to a trickle. Office parks, strip malls, white people in little hatchbacks. These endless suburbs – Edenvale, Rosebank, Craighall. Napoleon has been living here for almost three years, he left his children in Lagos. Nigeria was good, but there were no jobs. None in Accra, none in Abidjan, none in Dakar. Here he joined the swelling ranks of African migrants, lured by the promise of a better life in this sprawling city built on dreams of gold. Another prospector hoping to strike his fortune. The job isn’t easy – all day, back and forth from the hostel to the airport. The life is expensive, the pay is not good. “My boss is Jewish,” he explains. In Nigeria he served for 19 years in the military, rose to the rank of colonel. The corruption in the government was widespread, it was destroying the nation. “If I had the means to plan a coup, I would have done it,” he says. Instead he washed up here on the Highveld. Twice a week he calls Lagos, he talks to his two children to say he’ll be coming home soon.
I should not neglect to mention: that for the 40 minutes it takes to reach the hostel, at every traffic light and under every dodgy overpass, I am warily watching the shadows for men with guns. Joburg’s reputation – its reputation in the West, not the energy and dynamism and opportunity it represents for 700 million Africans – has its grip on me. Then we pass through another tree-filled suburb, another shopping mall lit like Times Square, another office park of architectural firms and graphic design studios, and I am ready to begin a new life here. Fear and wonderment, I suspect, are big parts of the Joburg experience.
At the hostel I am checked in, debriefed, unpacked. There is a folder of take-away menus at reception – a marvel, this, I receive it like Moses receiving the tablets atop Mt. Sinai. Somehow fast-food delivery and strip malls have been elevated in my mind to the highest ranks of civilization. This is not a pleasant realization. The receptionist, a Zimbabwean, is watching prime-time dramas on SABC. There is some dispute over a shebeen in Soweto, he explains – some disgruntled drunk is about to take revenge. The shebeen erupts in a blaze of cheap digitized pyrotechnics. The characters talk in English and Zulu and the hostel employees, South African and Zimbabwean, speak in Shona. A Zimbabwean guest, a student, calls to a girl in a harsh, guttural tongue. He is trying to learn Tswana, he says, but has trouble getting his tongue around the sounds.
In the TV lounge a lanky guy with dreadlocks is picking at his knots of hair. On the bookshelf are dog-eared paperbacks, a Rough Guide to Portugal. Outside a group of middle-aged travelers – a German, an Irishman, as drunk and carbuncular as the worst of his country’s stereotypes – are drinking schnapps and insulting the TV screen. The German lives in Port Elizabeth, he tells me at great length about his 42″ flat-screen TV, which cost R15,000, and for which his love is unambiguous. He is able to watch a program in the living room while his son watches a different program in his bedroom, all the while recording two other programs on something called a PVR. He has over 1,800 movies which he has recorded and downloaded onto his hard drive. Each night he goes through the TV listings with a highlighter, on the look-out for more movies to record. His wife did not agree with the purchase at first, but she has come around. Now she watches her own shows all the time. After he bought the TV he built his own console out of oak – the job was so good, he explains, that there was hardly an inch of space showing on any side of the screen. When people come to his house they comment on this marvelous oak console and ask where he bought it. He loves to see their reactions when he says he made it himself. The project took weeks, his wife complained every day. He told her to go into the kitchen and cook the meat, because that was her job and this was his. You couldn’t even fit your finger between the TV and the oak, so marvelous was the work he had done.
The food arrives: a plastic tray inside a cardboard box, a single compartment for the flaccid fries and onion rings, another for the burger, as charred and unloved as any piece of beef has ever been. The mushroom sauce is thick and congealed. A napkin, salt and pepper packets, plastic utensils are packaged in a hermetically sealed plastic sleeve. A young guy, South African, of Asian descent, is slopping down a bowl of soup nearby. “Good soup,” he says, “but not as good as a Spur burger.”
“Um,” I say. This place is going to take some getting used to.