The quest for excellence.

These cold Highveld mornings. 7am. 8am. Muffled under two blankets, pulling aside the curtains. Joburg’s palette today is gray. Somber streets under a sky like battle armor. The rain is steady. In the living room, no sign of my technophiliac German friend, no sign of the Irishman. The old-timers were up late last night; today they’re sleeping off the whiskey and schnapps and cans of Castle beer. I have not yet asked what brings these two old salty dogs to this youth hostel. Later in the day I will see them in the armchairs, on the couches, staring blankly at the TV screen. It seems like a shitty way to travel.

Outside the raindrops dimple the pool. The sky is gray and more gray. I have plans to go shopping in the morning, to see an apartment in the afternoon. Texts with Etienne, a CouchSurfer, who wants to show me a house in a neighborhood that’s not on any of my maps. I have a hard time starting the day. My body shuts down on these cold, wet mornings. I make an extra-strong mug of Ricoffy and sit waiting for the sky to clear.

It is a public holiday, Freedom Day – embarrassing to think I’ve just discovered this fact now. This is the day that commemorates the first post-apartheid elections of 1994 – a day for national reflection, self-reckoning. There is a TEDx conference in Soweto, with activists, musicians, filmmakers gathered at the Apartheid Museum to discuss the way forward for the nation. All day the Twittosphere is abuzz with 140-character reflections on the state of South Africa. @brodiegal says, “#16yearsago i really believed in the ANC. That is no longer the case. But I still believe in South Africa, and in South Africans.” Not one to be left out, I add, “#16yearsago I never dreamed I’d end up in South Africa. Life is funny like that.”

It’s not always easy to gauge the mood in this country, if only because, as one South African friend put it, “We’re a very self-critical people.” A commenter on one blog observed that “South Africans are never happy unless they are on the horns of a dilemma. As a nation, we exemplify the saying that there is a problem for every solution.” The spotlight of the World Cup – hyped as a defining moment not simply for the country, but the entire continent – has brought with it an even greater level of scrutiny. South Africans are prickly at concerns over the country’s readiness. The “image-making burden,” read a commentary in The Guardian,

has led the local organising committee at times to interpret natural concerns about practicalities – the preparedness of stadiums, ticket arrangements, security, transport and accommodation – as attacks on Africa itself by a patronising European media.

The anxieties over the hosting of a successful World Cup – with some officials now suggesting as few as 300,000 international visitors are expected, after initial estimates of 450,000 – are being played out against a broader backdrop of fear and insecurity – one that cuts to the heart, on this Freedom Day, of what South Africa has achieved in the sixteen years since Nelson Mandela became this country’s first black president.

“It is now widely agreed that “black economic empowerment” (BEE) and affirmative-action laws brought in after apartheid as the star policies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have failed,” began a recent column in The Economist, which described how plans for “redistributing wealth and positions to the black majority…have resulted mainly in ‘a few individuals benefiting a lot,'” according to President Jacob Zuma. South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the growing disillusionment with the ruling ANC – as well as the antics of its chief provocateur, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema – has given the impression of a rudderless ship drifting on an uncertain course.

There remain, too, unhealed wounds over this country’s deep racial divide, which have been boiling over in recent months. In February, The New York Times reported on the heated public debate over a new bus line linking Joburg’s poor, black townships with the more affluent, largely white suburbs to the north. In March, storm clouds gathered over the revival of an apartheid-era song with an inflammatory refrain to “Kill the Boers.” Earlier this month, the brutal murder of the white supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche by workers on his farm prompted President Zuma to publicly call for calm. Days later, a BBC reporter was expelled from an ANC Youth League conference during a race-tinged tirade by Malema. And a confrontation between the leader of a far-right paramilitary group and a black commentator blew up during a live TV debate, prompting the memorable refrain, “(Don’t) touch me on my studio” (itself to become a viral hit after a number of YouTube remixes). With the World Cup just six weeks away, tensions are high in the Rainbow Nation, with one analyst saying South Africans were in a state of “hysterical pessimism” over the future of the nation.

On the street the sky low, the air cold – an early taste of winter. I’m told this is atypical weather for April in Jozi (only to be assured that this will be quite typical in June). The hostel is on the outskirts of Randburg, a once-autonomous city that has since been gathered into Joburg’s sprawl. The CBD is a series of linked pedestrian malls and rundown shopping centers. Not for Randburg the glitz of Joburg’s famous commercial precincts, like Sandton. On the sidewalk a man arranges Christian books on a table: Heaven Is So Real, DVDs by the preacher T.D. Jakes. Two men in overcoats beneath an umbrella, selling apples the size of a big man’s fist. In a shopping center I buy an outlet adapter, deodorant, the newspaper. “Trusted friend attacked baby,” reads the headline in the day’s Star. The attack on a one-year-old has riveted the nation. Also, a story on a criminal syndicate posing as the police. Their cars were outfitted with lights and sirens, they had uniforms, a small arsenal. Men in a brightly lit gambling parlor, holding pencils over small slips of paper, watching the horses on the big screen. Outside a painted signboard for herbalist healer Dr. Zungusm. WE MAKE MEN’S PENIS BIG AND STRONG. WE REMOVE BAD LUCK. WE HELP PREGNANT WOMEN. BUSINESS ATTRACTION & MORE CUSTOMERS. HELP PEOPLE WITH HIV/AIDS. PROTECTION OF CARS, HOUSE & BUSINESS.

Moving from mall to mall – Joburg life. This one flashier, more modern. Expensive handbags, splashy sneakers by Adidas and Nike. In the supermarket I buy bread and a brick of cheddar cheese and a disreputable package of something called “chicken ham.” Children in sweatpants kicking little soccer balls. Boys blasting South African horns, the vuvuzelas. On the classifieds board, women offering their services as cleaners, cooks, nannies. Nessie from Malawi. Precious Nsimbi. A woman named Lindiwe. Gertrude. An advertisement on the wall – hotlines for HIV and animal cruelty, for drug abuse and child abuse, for human trafficking. The poster reads, “Wild Island Smoothie supports the fight against crime.”

On the way back to the hostel, SUVs and BMWs and a Hummer muscling down the road. A woman waits for the bus holding her cell phone and a single red rose. Another in a ski hat and heavy coat, a quilted blanked wrapped around her legs.

After lunch I have an hour to kill before meeting Etienne. Outside the hostel, I flag down a minibus-taxi. It is large and roomy and generally a few steps above its east African cousins. Music I’ve never heard before. Single gents, a young mother, older women. Money passes to the front, where the driver keeps one eye on the road. “Four,” they say, or, “Two.” The driver makes change for four or two and passes it back, saying, “Two,” or “Four,” until it reaches the right hands.

Hyde Park, jacaranda streets. Another mall, this one a fortress, hermetically sealed against the universe. I circle the building, looking for an entrance. Not for pedestrians, the Hyde Park Mall – I have to walk through an underground lot to get inside. Holiday shoppers, families eating at restaurants designed to look like Italian trattorias and Parisian cafes. The life of suburban Joburg, its walls and malls – enclaves of privilege and safety. The families are blond and red-cheeked, with a few handsome black couples mixed in. You would come here and think the demographic reality of South Africa was something like 85 percent white, and not the other way around.

In a vaulted atrium a slick car, the Renault Laguna Coupe, the prize in some promotional give-away. Two men bent under the hood, talking shop. A young blond with wind-blown hair, chin upturned, answering questions. No doubt his body was enbuffened surfing the swells outside Durban, or Jeffries Bay. A tall, grave black man in a belted overcoat is watching. On the promotional billboard, over a skyline of New York, the words, “The Quest for Excellence.”

Upstairs, in the bookshop, children in strollers, young women in puffy winter boots. Stacks of books on pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. Tell-alls by former soldiers and generals and special-ops commandos on the low, dishonest regional wars of the ’70s and ’80s. At the Front: A General’s Account of South Africa’s Border War. The Covert War. The Silent War. Beefy Boer men flipping through the pages, faces grim with honor and remembrance, thumbs like soda cans.

Outside the rain is steady. Three women standing under an umbrella. A panhandler on crutches. And me, a white guy, waiting in the rain. Minibus-taxis shuttling by, tooting their horns. Bystanders flag them down with hand signals – a finger pointing up, or to the right, or five fingers extended. These I am yet to decipher. This afternoon I won’t have to worry – Etienne arrives in a compact, rescues me from the rainfall and the whims of public transport.

In the backseat songbooks, a guitar case. His band is leaving on a two-week tour in the morning. They’re playing eleven shows in fourteen days, working their way down the coast until they reach Cape Town. In Joburg, he says, there are just a few good live-music venues – they’re lucky to get a gig once every two weeks. He drives us through the tony suburb of Rosebank, through Parkhurst, with its galleries and sidewalk cafes. At the traffic lights young men selling flags and soccer jerseys. Some holding garbage bags, offering to collect your car’s trash for a few rand.

Westdene. Students from the university walking with their backpacks slung over their shoulders. A rundown shopping mall. Trash piling on the sidewalks – the sanitation workers have been on strike, Etienne assures me, “It’s not usually like this.” The house is a work-in-progress. The renovation is behind schedule, there are still ladders and cans of paint and dropcloths on the floor. It’s a beautiful house, early-20th century, with hammered-tin ceilings. The rooms are large and full of light. Etienne is still unsure – he might want to keep the house for himself. It’s as good a place as any, but the timing is off – it will be a month, I think, before it’s inhabitable. We agree to take a few days to think it over. If I decide to move in – even if it’s just for a few weeks – Etienne’s roommate, Abi, will have a set of keys for me.

Afternoon. Skies like wet cotton. Etienne takes me to Melville, Joburg’s famous bohemian quarter – long a home to artists, writers, intellectuals. 7th Street, with its bookshops and restaurants and cafes. We stop at a sushi restaurant, plates of salmon and tuna and California rolls circling on a conveyor belt. Porcelain pots of green tea. Even mediocre sushi, after all this time, sets my heart racing. Etienne is telling me about the South African music scene – there has been a revival in recent years, sales of Afrikaans music are booming. There seems to be an important subtext to this – disillusionment with the Rainbow Nation, a reclaiming of Afrikaans heritage. Etienne doesn’t disagree with this assessment. Most of the music is trashy – an Afrikaans version of Euro-pop. David Hasselhoff on the Highveld, I imagine. The song currently tearing up the charts has a catchy refrain – it translates, roughly, to: “We will sail to a land full of women in bikinis.” I can understand the appeal, I say.

I ask Etienne about the dangers of life in Joburg. Like the other Joburgers I’ve asked so far, he laughs and rolls his eyes.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t go around downtown with my camera around my neck, asking a homeless guy with a broken bottle for directions to the nearest bank,” he says.

“It’s as dangerous as you make it.”

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3 responses to “The quest for excellence.

  1. a nice start on taxi hand signs would be at the post office… they have a new series of stamps that depict the most popular joburg signs 🙂

  2. Pingback: South Africa, rise! | This Is Africa

  3. Nice description of Jo’burg. I was there briefly in July, and the only place in that city I walked to was the very Hype Park Mall that you mention in good detail. It’s quite fancy inside but I found it striking that one of the bookstores (Exclusive?) had a sign warning people to watch their belongings because robberies had happened recently. I also found it strange that the pedestrian entrance is underground in the car park, and perhaps this design speaks to the divisions in the country- an attempt to inconvenient pedestrians who don’t drive cars, or safety reasons. In the end, I found SA to be extremely fascinating for good and bad and I can only hope that it can overcome its past.

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