Tag Archives: johannesburg

It’s another way of life.

Monday, August 1.

It takes 12 minutes for the Gautrain high-speed rail line to connect arrivals at OR Tambo International Airport with Johannesburg’s high-rise business hub, Sandton, and about half that time for my carefully laid plans of recent months to get entirely upended.

I’m not exactly caught off-guard by any of this. I had spent the past week in Accra thinking about the future, wondering if the story line I’d plotted for myself just a few weeks ago was a convincing one. There would be my dramatic return to Joburg – a few frenzied weeks of boozed-up reunions and binge shopping – followed by a quick tour of Cape Town and the vineyards of the Western Cape. A few days later I’d be boarding a one-way flight to Tanzania, primed to indulge my tropical-island fantasy of book-writing and tourist-screwing in Zanzibar. All things considered, you couldn’t ask for a better script.

But I wasn’t entirely sure it was my script. I still remember my arrival in Joburg one night last April, the plane coming through a bank of clouds to reveal the city lit up and glittering like gold ore far below us. It was a beautiful sight for anyone who, like me, had grown up with city blood in his veins. Even before the plane landed, before I came to know and love this African El Dorado, I had a sense that moving to Joburg after three itinerant years in Africa was sort of like a homecoming.

More than a year later, the tropical tumult of Ghana vanishing like the vapor trails left in our wake, my Zanzibar plans already seem hazy. The crisp, dry air of the highveld winter burns my nostrils – a nostalgic smell, memories of late autumn in New York, the leaves like gold and copper coins. Joburg isn’t just a place on a map for me any more, a section of a guidebook to quickly leaf through, a collection of horror stories throwing lurid shadows against the walls of my subconscious. It’s a place where, however tentatively, I began to build a home. Last year, in fits and starts, despite some of the most difficult months of my life, felt like the start of something here. And just as I had the sense, when I boarded the plane to Accra in February, that I was leaving some unfinished business behind in South Africa – personal failures, emotional reckonings – I realize now that what I want more than anything is to pick up where I left off.

Like a sailor stumbling onshore after months at sea, though, it might take some time for me to find my legs. Already the acute sensory thrill of being back is blurred around the edges by a certain wariness – the Joburger’s hyper-vigilance which, while tempered after my first few months in the city last year, has returned as I fuss with the Gold Card that will grant me passage on the Gautrain. The lurid tales of carjackings and armored-car robberies and brazen burglaries are part of this city’s nervous tapestry. I feel it again, already. When I’m approached by a flak-jacketed security guard looking warily over my shoulder, I’m so on-edge after his first words – “I have to advise you, sir” – that I’m completely unprepared for what follows: “that there is no drinking of beverages on the train or the platform.”

No beverages on the platform! Gautrain, bless your heart! As with the gaudy shopping malls and garish residential complexes of the far northern suburbs – places so remote from the rest of city life that they should have their own consulates – the Gautrain is secured by the CCTV cameras and armed-response teams that keep the city’s frightful chimeras at bay. Oh, Jozi! Too stingy with your wealth, too full of your open-armed promises of a better life – these muted dreams which, like the morse-code tappings of your skyline, are like a thing on the verge, but still incomplete. This, too, will take some getting used to again. The city, so unlovely in so many ways, stretches out like a sleeper unhurried by the dawn. The sun hangs like a pendant over the mine dumps, the power stanchions, the six- and eight-lane highways. I suppose a love that’s easily explained is hardly worth the effort. When we get off in Sandton the morning air bites me to the bone. Goodbye, goodbye, tropics! I’m back in my mile-high city, my sun-scoured palace on the veld.

The taxis are lined up at the station. During the week there is a shuttle bus running between Sandton and Rosebank, but on this Saturday morning, I am shit out of luck. The driver handles my bags daintily, accustomed, perhaps, to high-strung Sandton types. He is of a familiar sort, found at taxi ranks the world over, reading a much-handled morning edition, pontificating with his peers. I do not have to pick up the day’s Times to know the score. Strike season has returned, he says, as sure as spring training in Port St. Lucie. “Monday it is the coal,” he says. “Tuesday is going to be another one.” Maybe it will be the teachers, or the nurses. Already some strike or other has crippled the delivery of petrol to the gas stations; there are shortages across the country. Fuel trucks are being escorted by armed teams under the cover of night. “Eish,” he says, that simple South African syllable which contains worlds of grief, resignation, gallows humor. And has he heard any news about the Gautrain station in Rosebank, I ask? “They keep telling us ‘month end, month end,’” he says, “but we don’t know which month. Maybe it is November, December.”

Had the Rosebank station opened according to schedule, I would’ve saved myself about 15 bucks. Still, I have no grief in my heart for this lovely, leafy suburb. Since meeting my friend Cihan last year, her two-bedroom flat on Tyrwhitt Avenue has been the lode star of my aspirations in Joburg. It is a beautiful apartment – hardwood floors, a garden, huge bay windows full of sunlight – and just a few minutes’ walk from The Zone mall, an open-air complex peopled by the city’s loveliest sorts in every color the Rainbow Nation has to offer. On dreary nights in Auckland Park, eating leftover stir-fry and simmering with quiet rage at the housemates who refused to do their dishes, I would dream of a time when, through some improbable career twists and turns, I could afford to live a Rosebank life.

And now, suddenly, I am. Had I been crashing anywhere but Rosebank on my first night back in Joburg, perhaps the city – big, sprawling, ungainly, in spite of its charms – might have lost some of its luster. Perhaps I would’ve stuck to my original plan and been booking a flight to Dar es Salaam as I type these words. But the neighborhood appeases my inner New Yorker; there are tree-lined sidewalks with actual people walking on them, neighbors stopping for a chat. Jan Smuts Avenue – a straight shot by taxi into the heart of the city – is just down the street. Everything I need in my day-to-day life is a short walk from my front door. In five minutes I can be shopping at Pick ‘n’ Pay, eating pizza at Doppio Zero, working out at Planet Fitness, or boarding a taxi to Newtown. For a non-driving New York transplant, the place reeks of a convenience you’re not likely to find elsewhere in Joburg, unless you’re squatting in Sandton City or Montecasino.

By late morning, I’ve mentioned to Cihan that I might stick around longer than planned. What’s the big hurry to get to Zanzibar, anyway? I can pass a busy month in Joburg, head down to the Cape in early September; surely there’s nothing stopping me from getting to Stone Town in October – to catch the tail-end of the dry season, the last straggles of Indian-summer tourists. Cihan, accustomed to my whims, still fruitless in her search for a roommate, offers me the guest room for as long as I need it. In the afternoon, cruising the shops at the Zone, plotting the week ahead – drinks in Greenside; dinner in Parkhurst; a show in Newtown; a panel discussion at Wits – I’m reminded of the fullness of life here. I’ve missed the social and cultural life of this city: the Tuesday-night gallery openings, getting shit-faced over Cape wines; the readings and exhibitions and high-brow ephemera of urban life. Since I arrived my gray matter has been overloaded, synapses firing like a 21-gun salute to the life I’ve always wanted. Why not Joburg redux, then? I’ve returned on something resembling sound financial footing – the first time I can say that in the better part of a decade. Renting Cihan’s spare room – so unthinkable a year ago, when I dreaded the first of the month in my Auckland Park commune – would strain, but not altogether break, my budget. I could be really happy here.

The more time I spend mentally trying on my new life in Rosebank, the more I like the fit. Zanzibar suddenly seems a long way off. Kwaheri, kwaheri, island fantasy! Just three days after debarking at OR Tambo International, I’m signing up for a one-month membership at Planet Fitness, a swank health club on the top floor of the Rosebank Mall. (Motto: “It’s not just another gym, it’s another way of life.”) More than a month removed from Ouagadougou’s Super Gym Club, shaken daily by the fear that my body will fall into some irreparable state of decline, I hit the floor on my first day with the passion of a religious convert. To squat! To crunch! To live! Surely there are some Latin phrases that would come in handy. The marvels of this high-tech masochist’s workshop, the machinery scientifically engineered to brutalize the body into some higher Platonic ideal, are alone worth the price of admission. What wonders have descended on the modern world of physical fitness as I was curling and pressing through my poor-man’s reps in Ouaga! Everything looks so finely calibrated, so lustrous, so goddamn efficient. The tribe that inhabits this rarefied space seems likewise disposed to make the most of each workout, to say nothing of our allotted time on earth. They are muscled and toned within an inch of their coiffured existence, primed for weekends of mutual admiration in Johannesburg’s finer precincts.

Have I mentioned the girls? They are a lovely species of gym bunnies. Spandex-besuited, fashionably flustered on their treadmills and yoga mats, they seem like an extension of the aspirational lifestyle I’m committing myself to here in Rosebank. After a single afternoon I find it hard to recall that I’d ever worked out any other way. You can imagine the shock and dismay of these South Africans – accustomed, as they are, to all the accoutrements of a Northern Hemisphere lifestyle – as I describe the rigors of my Super Gym Club routine: the windows rattling with harmattan winds, the unbearable heat of an April afternoon sans climatisée, the machines like the relics of some Soviet-era Olympic training complex in Podolsk. The things I have braved and seen would no doubt make for some interesting banter around the water fountain. But I am too focused for socializing. Time’s terrible passage might continue with each agonizing, irrevocable moment that slips away, but fuck if I’m going to stand around with my hands on my love handles.

The nights are cold; I pad around the house in my thick Pick ‘n’ Pay slippers, puffing into my fists. Still, the mornings start full of joy, promise. Sunlight fills the living room. A mug of Cameroonian coffee steams on the table. In my first week back I’ve launched full-tilt into a routine that would appease even the severest Puritan. Chapter three of my work-in-progress is coming along, slowly, surely. I am excited by just about everything. Just days after checking into Chez Cihan, I make plans to visit Cape Town the first weekend in August – to reconnect with my old friend Andrea, from Kigali, who’s getting a Master’s Degree at UCT. The days are long and fruitful – at night I’m happily spent, I heap onto the bed like a sack of coal. This bed is, in fairness, just a mattress on the floor, but I tell myself it’s a concession to my conscience: still unaccustomed to an upscale Rosebank lifestyle, that solitary mattress makes me feel like some exiled Marxist poet. With time I might add a boxspring, some bookshelves to add to the Spartan furnishings of desk and chair. This will be a project for another day. It feels like I have all the time in the world.

When you have blacks and whites together, then you will see nice things.

Tuesday, November 2.

Treasure has arrived, punctual, grinning, dressed as if he’s on his way to a wedding.

“You are going to say hi to Bob,” he says, giving me an awkward half-hug, then smoothing the front of his handsome shirt.

It’s been months since I’ve seen Treasure, my Zimbabwean taxi driver – not since he took me to Joburg’s Park Station to get on a bus to Botswana in July. Today, as I meet him on the sidewalk in front of my house, preparing for a 20-hour bus ride to the country of his birth, he is in raucous spirits. He arrives in a battered little hatchback; it is not Treasure but Pleasant, his sister’s son, who is at the wheel. Pleasant lives in Mpumalanga; he is visiting Uncle Treasure and picking up a bit of work on the side. I can tell he’s never driven in Joburg – I will be fortunate, I think, to make it to Park Station in one piece. Nervously he steers us into oncoming traffic. Treasure is rifling through his wallet, looking for pictures of his fraternal twins. They were born just days before we met six months ago. They are as old as our friendship.

“That one, she was even clever in her mother’s stomach,” he says, showing me his fat-cheeked daughter. “She was always kicking.”

Outside, Joburg passes in a flash. I have been manically busy this past week: catching up on work, preparing for Zimbabwe. It feels like South Africa is already speeding away from me. Last month, I learned that Variety will be flying me out to Burkina Faso in February to cover the biannual FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou. My lease expires at the end of January; the timing seems serendipitous. I’ve decided to make the most of my plane ticket and spend the first few months of 2011 traveling in Ghana and Burkina Faso and Mali. I might not be back in Joburg till April; I might not be back till June. Just as some semblance of a normal life has begun to sink in, I’m off on another grand adventure.

Treasure comes from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. He just went back to visit family last month, he says, sighing, but it was not the same. The Zimbabwean economy might be in recovery, but in Bulawayo – as with the rest of the country – a decade of economic decline has taken a heavy toll.

“It was good 30 years ago,” says Treasure, shaking his head. “Now there are too many blacks. If you have only blacks in one place, you will not see anything interesting there.”

He pauses, as if weighing these words himself. “When you have blacks and whites together, then you will see nice things,” he says.

They park at the station and carry my bags to the Greyhound terminal. A long line is already forming at the baggage check, men and women with heavy sacks and nylon bags, transporting whole households, it seems, back to Zimbabwe. Treasure and Pleasant pump my hand, wish me a safe journey. I inch forward with my duffel bag, nudge it along with my foot. It is a good bag – Adidas, the real thing, I bought it in New York last year. I would have gone through three cheap, Chinese-made knock-offs in the same time, I’m sure.

At the front of the line I place my bag on a scale; the man at the ticket desk approves. This is nothing compared to the furniture and kitchen appliances most of the other passengers will be taking with them. He hands me two ticket slips – bless the efficiency of South Africa. Behind his head are signs outlining the company’s latest prohibitions. “Greyhound and Citiliner will no longer take empty buckets at all.” “With immediate effect no paint will be conveyed on Greyhound/Citiliner.” “With immediate effect all blankets will be charged a standard rate of R20.” Nowhere do I see a sign, “Greyhound and Citiliner wish you a pleasant journey.”

It’s quarter to three and most of the passengers have arrived, tossing their bags into a trailer hitched to the back of the bus. It is another marvel of the South African transport system – here you won’t see two ragged youths on top of the bus, strapping down our cargo, the whole bus tottering under the weight of boxes and suitcases and potato sacks. The passengers have now queued for boarding. A young woman in front of me, a pretty lady in her twenties, stands beside a red shopping bag from Alex Ladies Fashion, a Road Master toy truck, a case of Top Lay grade 1 eggs. I point to the truck and ask if she has a son – a boy, yes, waiting for her and her husband in Harare. She is holding a large bakery box – they are bringing home a birthday cake, too. Her husband has vanished into the terminal to buy food; I help her with her things as we move toward the front of the line. I tell her this is my first time to visit Zimbabwe. “Why?” she says, as if accusing me of some wrong-doing. “It is very beautiful.” One of the eggs in the Top Lay case has cracked. I can feel the yolk running down my leg.

Onboard there is a wild commotion of bodies and bags shifting, settling into the physical equilibrium that will carry us to Harare. Despite the trailer hitched to the back of this Citiliner coach, there are still suitcases and duffel bags and pots and buckets in the aisle. It is a tight squeeze – this, it seems, is one of the lesser options of the South African luxury bus racket. I might have done well, I suspect, to shell out the extra R85 for Greyhound. I am wedged into a seat beside a middle-aged man who has dressed for this journey as if for church: in charcoal slacks and a pinstriped shirt and an old corduroy hat. His body is snug against the window; mine is half-way into the aisle, my back awkwardly pressed against the contours of the seat. It is going to be a long journey.

We pull from the station at nearly 20 past three – an ill omen, I suspect, for the company’s promise to get us to Harare by 9:30am. Outside the blur of downtown Joburg whizzes by. I am going to miss this city. We turn through traffic and onto the M1, the highway that will take us first to Pretoria, then Harare. It is a beautiful, blue afternoon. We drive north through the green suburbs on the outskirts of the city, the trees studded with the purple of jacaranda blossoms. In the distance, the office towers of Sandton – the economic heart of the city, and the country. In the lanes beside us, the winners of South Africa’s post-apartheid sweepstakes zip by in BMWs and Benzes. We pass a billboard for Jameson’s whiskey. The drinking experience, it promises us, is “Rich and luxurious.”

The Citiliner bus, meanwhile, is poor and crowded. We have waited nearly an hour since leaving Park Station, but the air conditioning has refused to kick in. The smell of sweat, the sharp tang of body odor, will accompany us the rest of the way. The windows are shut against the prospect of a fresh wind – an African superstition, as I’ve griped before, that I still can’t unravel. We stop at a police checkpoint. The heat is unbearable. The children on the bus begin to wail. “Eish,” says the man sitting next to me.

It is close to five when we reach Pretoria, the city bursting with the color of jacarandas and flame trees. At the bus station, pandemonium. If I had thought the bus looked full before, I was mistaken. A dozen passengers are waiting to board, toting pots and pans and ironing boards, refrigerators and kitchen appliances. Touts circle the bus, selling cookies, chocolate bars, pudding, lollipops, hard candies (“Sweets! Sweets!”), and, fittingly, toothbrushes. It is twenty minutes before we’re again on our way. A woman across the aisle opens her book, True Life in God: Vernacular Conversations with Jesus. The conductor pops in a bootleg DVD; brittle, pixellated images of African wildlife flicker across the screen. We watch this shoddy entertainment for ten minutes before the screen goes black. People begin fussing with the curtains. “Now the sun is jealous,” says the man beside me, gripping his hat. His name is Richard, he installs CCTV cameras for banks and private businesses in Joburg. This is, I suspect, a very good business. He is on his way to see relatives in Harare, and then his family in Bulawayo. “Now, when you visit some relatives, you see the situation is getting better,” he says. “It is not like it was these last years.” The supermarkets are again full; for those with the money to buy things, life has returned to a sort of normalcy. But with elections looming – perhaps as early as next year – Richard knows this situation won’t last. “When we Africans have elections, we change everything,” he says.

It has been two years since the opposing sides in Zimbabwe’s fractious government signed a power-sharing agreement, effectively allowing Robert Mugabe and his cronies to nullify the electoral victory of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in the 2008 election. This was a bitter sort of political compromise for Tsvangirai and his party, who had won the March polls by a decisive margin. Even after the trickery of the electoral commission – which had waited a full five weeks to release the results – Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party conceded that the MDC had taken a plurality of the votes. But lo! they had just fallen short of the majority vote that would have granted them an outright victory; instead, the electoral commission announced a run-off to decide the presidency.

In the weeks that followed, brilliantly chronicled by the Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin in The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, Mugabe’s henchmen unleashed a brutal wave of repression and intimidation around the country. Dubbed Operation Mavhoterapapi? – “Who Did You Vote For?” – by Mugabe’s homicidal generals, the campaign sought to beat, bully, torture, maim and kill opposition supporters into submission. (It was followed by the even more violent Operation Ngatipedezenavo – “Let Us Finish Them Off.”) The tactic worked: just days before the June 27 run-off, Tsvangirai announced that he could not take part in the “violent, illegitimate sham” of a second-round election. With more than 200 of his supporters killed and thousands more lying bloodied in hospitals across the country, the man who would be president said that he could not ask his supporters to vote for him “when that vote would cost them their lives.” Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy. When voters went to the polls on June 27, goaded by Mugabe’s thugs, just a single name appeared on the ballot. Less than an hour after the results of the run-off election were announced, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was sworn in at a hasty ceremony boycotted by the entire diplomatic corps.

Even from the perch of his megalomania, Mugabe knew the farce couldn’t last. He was vilified abroad and wildly unpopular at home; with the international community refusing to accept the legitimacy of the election results and the country around him in ruins, he finally bowed to pressure to allow the MDC into the ruling fold. Under the terms of the Global Political Agreement, the government would be divided between the two parties (as well as a third, MDC-M, a splinter faction of the opposition group formed by Arthur Mutambara), with Mugabe appointed as President and chairman of the cabinet, and Tsvangirai accepting a neutered role as Prime Minister. Crucially, though, the most important ministries would remain under Mugabe’s control. So, too, would the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence services. Though the GPA staved off the immediate crisis, it refused to address the broader constitutional issues that vested too much power in the presidency, and offered little clarity on the rules of succession should the doddering old tyrant – now a few months shy of his 87th birthday – die while still in office.

There have been signs of hope surrounding the wobbly structure of the coalition government. Since the adoption of the US dollar – dubbed USAs, “oo-sahs,” on the streets of Harare – late last year, the economy has stabilized. Gone are the runaway inflation rates of 2008, the lunatic denominations in the billions and trillions that devalued so quickly that a loaf of bread would double in price as you waited on the check-out line. The stores are again stocked with goods imported from South Africa; teachers and civil servants, no longer paid in the worthless currency of the Zimbabwean dollar, have returned to work. Hospitals and clinics now have the basic medicines that most lacked just two years ago. The schools are again open – many stocked with nearly $13 million worth of text books recently donated by Western donors. Even the tightly controlled media space has been cautiously nudged open, with the granting of licenses to five new independent newspapers earlier this year.

But a political crisis still looms, with growing fears that the coalition government – the Government of National Unity, known with more than a hint of mockery by its unflattering acronym, Gnu – is on its last legs. Since the coalition formed, the president has balked at taking any significant strides toward improving the country’s appalling human rights record. No one has been held accountable for the horrible violence of 2008, though the perpetrators and ring leaders are well known. Civil society groups are already warning that the military and the dreaded Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) are setting up bases and torture camps in rural areas ahead of the next round of elections. Rights groups continue to face harassment by government thugs, and the contentious Marange diamond fields have become a virtual no-go zone for activists looking to shed light on the controversial mining being done there. The invasions of white-owned farms by so-called “war veterans,” meanwhile, continue unabated, while ZANU-PF hardliners – and Mugabe himself – have stepped up their efforts to introduce “indigenization” laws that would force all foreign-owned business to sell at least 51 percent of their shares to black Zimbabweans.

Crowning the laundry list of dysfunctions are Mugabe’s calls for early elections in June of next year – an effort by the octogenarian ruler to entrench himself for one last go-around, amid growing signs of his deteriorating health. The president has openly railed against the coalition government and its “stupidity,” acknowledging that polls in 2011 – after the expiration of the GNU’s two-year mandate – would allow the country to return to single-party rule. Last month Tsvangirai – criticized even by his supporters for taking too conciliatory a tone in the coalition government – finally lashed out at the president’s unilateral appointments of nearly a dozen provincial governors and cabinet members. The two have not met in weeks.

In spite of it all, on the Citiliner bus, the people continue to shuttle back and forth between Joburg and Harare, between Harare and the villages, bringing the household goods and hard cash that keep many of their families afloat. Even in Zimbabwe, life goes on. It is approaching midnight when we finally reach the border, the South African post well policed and fortified with concrete barriers and electric fences and miles of concertina wire. By some estimates, as many as three million Zimbabweans have fled the country – a quarter of the population – with most finding their way, legally or otherwise, into South Africa. The life for them south of the Limpopo River is hard; many live in crowded slums on the outskirts of the poorest townships, working odd jobs at slave wages, facing harassment and attacks from their South African neighbors. Still, there is the prospect of a better life for them there. They can earn enough money to survive, to send remittances back to their families. It is for this reason that some will brave the crocodile-infested Limpopo, the packs of bandits who prey on border-jumpers on both sides. Hoping to keep themselves afloat until the old tyrant dies and the country he destroyed can rebuild from the ruins.

We are processed by the South Africans with humorlessness, with blunt efficiency. In the toilet I read the political screeds written on the bathroom stall: “Mugabe must go now,” “No rights in Zim,” “Mugabe has killed Zimbabwe’s future!!” It is a sad commentary that many Zimbabweans are reduced to voicing their anger on the door of a South African shitter. Outside the bus is marshaled through another passport control, two policewomen boarding, inspecting the passports that their colleagues had inspected and stamped just minutes before. Incredibly, they haul half a dozen passengers off for various infractions. A young man behind me is protesting that he is going to renew his expired passport in Harare this week. Off the bus he goes. Outside they are lined up, weakly inquisitioned. “This driver is not very clever,” says Robert, knitting his hands beside me. He says the driver should have paid the police a small fee to let us pass unmolested. Instead, the fee is outsourced to the violators standing outside. One by one they reach into their pockets and hand over what one South African friend dubbed a “pay-as-you-go” fine. A blind woman gets onboard, holding a small plastic mug and singing gospel songs. She wears a khaki t-shirt that says “Champion By Choice” and makes a single pass of the bus, coins plunking into her cup. She gropes to the front and descends. The passport violators have again boarded, looking cheerful and chagrined. “Fifty rand later, and it’s fine,” says the guy getting into his seat behind me. Then we are driving across the bridge spanning the Limpopo, the dark waters rushing beneath us, and crossing into Zimbabwe.

The scene at the border control is dispiriting: a half-dozen coaches have beaten us here, the passengers are pulling their great hefty sacks of goods from the bellies of their buses to be inspected by customs officials. Richard gives a harsh guffaw. “We will not leave here before seven o’clock, let me tell you,” he says. It is just a few minutes shy of one. We disembark and begin the long, slow trudge from the end of the bus queue to the immigration hall. Huddling outside are dozens of homeless – some wrapped in blankets, others wearing only their shorts and skirts and blue jeans. Do they sleep here every night, hoping for some miracle dispensation that will carry them across the Limpopo to the Promised Land of South Africa? Inside the cheerless bureaucrats wait at their counters in soiled white shirts with missing buttons, two pinprick holes above the left breast where, in better days, a name tag was probably sewed. Across the room, on the departures side, three officials sit with their backs to me, games of solitaire on their computer screens. Their attention is evenly divided between their card games and their supplicants. A drunk lurches in and begins making loud accusations. I am processed, stamped, and given a receipt with minimal fuss. At the other end of the arrivals hall, men in worn suits and women in frumpy sweaters sit with their faces scrunched over declarations forms. I have seen the cargo being unloaded from other buses: the bicycles and sofas and armchairs, the refrigerators and microwave ovens, the plastic chairs and plastic buckets and plastic tubs, the pots and pans, the blenders and TVs. They will be declaring all night. A prim woman stands behind a counter beneath a sign that reads “Tip Processing, Carbons Tax, Road Access Fee.” They seem like the sorts of mythical duties invented by ZANU-PF officials to pad their salaries. The woman stands there, watching the comings and goings of the customs declarers, waiting for a tip to process.

Outside our bus has ambitiously pulled to the front of the queue. Richard, ever the realist, suspects the driver has finally found the right palm to grease. We haul our things from the trailer and stand beside them on the curb, awaiting inspection. Behind me is a hill crowned by a small police station and an abandoned shop with a sign that says “Third Party Insurance Here.” Homeless bodies are sprawled on the pavement outside. Nearby are two empty telephone booths, the phones themselves having no doubt gone the way of the missing manhole covers and pilfered street lights that have had even the wiring inside ripped out and resold. When a nation is ruled by kleptocrats, it is no wonder that the povos will resort to any means for survival. A young woman in a fisherman’s hat leads an old blind man through the crowd. He is holding a staff with a brass star on top, tapping it on the ground with each step. They are singing together, softly, poorly, in a way that makes your heart ache. Overhead two billboards cryptically read: “Green Zone: You are in the green zone,” and “Red Zone: You have now entered the red zone.” No one is around to explain either the zones or the prohibitions they entail. It is a dysfunctional border, a sense of barely controlled entropy. I can imagine the chaos at midday, the enormous bribes one has to pay to make it into Zimbabwe by nightfall.

Our driver, meanwhile, appears to be on the frugal side. An hour after moving to the front of the line, there’s not a customs official in sight. Clearly not enough palms have been greased. It is well after 2am, and I’d barely managed to grab 20 minutes’ worth of sleep on the bus. My whole body feels heavy. One of the other passengers – the young guy who’d had to pay R50 before – stands beside me, surveying the flea market that is our bus’ load. “That is the African mentality,” he says, looking at the shopping bags full of cooking oil and milk and eggs. “I don’t understand why you would go to South Africa to buy your groceries.” Behind us is a slick coach from maMundi Tours, the V.I. to Citiliner’s disreputable P. The seats are cushiony and plush and seat only four to the row (we are crammed in five across). There is no doubt the cabin has been cooled to sub-arctic chill. When we ask some of the passengers how much they’ve paid for such luxury treatment, we are appalled: R300, a full R15 less than we’ve shelled out for our own day of torment. The fact that they left Joburg more than three hours after us is only further salt in the wound.

At just a few minutes to three we are finally met by a customs official. Here the sheer lunacy of this border becomes evident. After peering into a few duffel bags and poking at a few sacks of potential contraband, he waves us onward. The whole inspection has taken just under 15 minutes; it takes us twice that time to repack everything into the densely crammed trailer in the rear. It seems almost ludicrous, given the near collapse of almost every segment of the public sector, to rail against inefficiency at the Beitbridge border crossing. (Earlier this year, the state-owned Herald reported that crime victims in Zimbabwe were forced to drive the accused to court, because the Zimbabwe Prison Service had run out of fuel.) As one final indignity, we’re not allowed to board the bus until it’s driven a further 100 meters up the road. We walk in a solemn, single file to catch up to it, the sky littered with stars, the blind man and his daughter singing off-key songs of praise to whoever is watching over them.

Out of Africa comes the soul of man.

It’s been three weeks since I arrived in Joburg, and almost as long since I updated this humble blog. While there are many plausible explanations for my absence – reaching a violent, Lolly Jackson-style demise at the hands of Jozi thugs; being expelled from the country by Julius Malema – the more honest reason is that I’ve been overwhelmed: by work, by moving into my new home, by the city itself. Sadly, this blog has to take a backseat now and then to the thing we call life. But now, with my biggest deadlines behind me, with something approaching regular Internet access in my home, and with my rump more or less settled in Auckland Park, I’m looking forward to getting the blog back on track.

Fragments of these past few weeks in the city, which have been filling up my little notebook, to be posted soon. Today, thoughts about Soweto.

Sunday I tagged along with the Johannesburg Culture Club for its monthly photo walk. These are, as the name implies, informal ambles around a city not known to favor ambling, with a group of photographers – both professional and amateur – training their very hi-tech lenses on all the little quirks, minutiae, oddities and inspiring sights of the city we call Joburg. Sunday’s tour, of Soweto – which I was lucky to catch wind of on Twitter – seemed like a good way to meet people who shared at least one of my passions, which is taking pictures of really poor black people.

A few thoughts, first, on white people, cameras, and white people with cameras.

Look at these African women with things on their heads!

I have spent my whole life as a white person, and most of my adult life as a white person with a camera. Only in recent years, however, have I grown sensitive to these facts. There is, I’m sure, a long history of personal idiosyncrasies and neuroses that has brought me to this peculiar place vis-à-vis my relationship with whiteness and cameras. There is also a great deal that comes from nearly three years of traveling in Africa, where the complicated dynamics of race and power have sometimes reduced me to such self-loathing and hysterics that going to the market to buy tomatoes requires three cups of coffee and 20 minutes of heavy breathing into a brown paper bag. Lastly, there is the symbolic distance that comes from putting a camera between me and a stranger – especially in Africa, where the above racial dynamics are no less acutely felt by the subjects of the pictures than by the sensitive, hyper-ventilating white guy. My default mode in Africa is to approach strangers with a smile and an extended hand; it has worked marvelously. It is not as easy to do this with a camera pressed against your face.

It is quite possible that I’m over-thinking all this. I realize that.

Another point worth getting out of the way: I had visited the Soweto Photo Walk’s Facebook page before deciding to join the group, both to scope out the potential presence of young hot chicks and to suss out the group’s racial make-up. I was happy to see not only a few pretty blondes mixed in among the confirmed attendees, but a number of young, black South Africans who seemed more fired up about the trip to Soweto than anyone else. This was important to me – so much so, in fact, that I’ll admit that I probably would have passed on the Soweto Photo Walk had I known in advance that none of those young, fired-up black South Africans were going to attend.

Last point worth getting out of the way: I’m very glad I didn’t let all this acute racial hyper-sensitivity ruin an otherwise marvelous day.

We meet in the parking lot outside the Apartheid Museum, a hearty and cheerful group in hiking boots and walking sandals, fussing with zoom lenses. Urban safari is the thought that crosses my mind. Much discussion of photographic equipment, prices in the many thousands of rands. I, with my dinky little Canon PowerShot, feel like the odd man out. Discussions of the day’s itinerary – we have a guide, the father of one of the group members, who will take us through the worthiest sights in sprawling Soweto. It is all loosely structured, and a spirit of improvisation reigns. “If we have some lekker photographic opportunities, we can stop,” someone says – my Afrikaans vocabulary growing by leaps and bounds.

The guide arrives, a ruddy old fellow who, I’ll later learn, has made it to South Africa by way of the Belgian Congo. Much to discuss with Mr. Edmond Parent. The bus pulls up, we pile in. Beside me a large, bald, cheerful chap named Jerome. “The last time I was in Soweto was in a buffel” – an armored troop carrier – he says. Jerome was serving in the South African military during the violent riots of the ’80s. “The police did all the shooting,” he says. “We were there to protect the police.” Now he’s going back as a camera-toting tourist – a very different type of shooting, and a development he seems to regard with ironic good humor.

Arriving in Soweto.

The bus pulls to the side of the road. Diepkloof. Orderly rows of brick cottages with terra cotta roofs. “I have stopped the bus here because most people don’t believe they’re in Soweto,” says Edmond. Sure enough, a road sign says, “Welcome to Soweto.” Everyone piles out to take pictures beside it. Nearby a bit of graffiti (pictured right), keenly spotted by one of the group. Much commenting on the goodness of her eye. Then we line up, one by one, to take the exact same picture.

“From 1886 to 1904, all the people were living together,” says Edmond, as we pull again into traffic. In 1904, a cholera epidemic swept through the city. There wasn’t enough water on this parched bit of Highveld to sustain early Johannesburg, and sanitation was a problem. After the cholera panic subsided, the first great segregationist fervor took hold. The black population was moved to the city’s outskirts. The old area was burned to the ground. Atop it they built a new district, called Newtown. A century later, Newtown was at the heart of the local government’s plan to reclaim the inner city.

Edmond is telling us about the early difficulties encountered by surveyors in today’s city center. Different measurement standards were used as they laid out the city streets; as a result, many of the streets today are skewed. From the start, this schizophrenic city couldn’t quite get its act together. Edmond shakes his head.

“Everything went wrong when they started Johannesburg,” he says.

Sunday morning, Diepkloof.

We stop at a playground. Kids on slides and swings. A bunch of older guys playing soccer on a small, concrete pitch. We buzz about like horseflies, snapping away. No one seems to be paying us much mind – they’re used to tourists here. Soweto tours have, in fact, become big business in the past decade, as the day will make increasingly clear. At each stop we seem to be chased by a minibus full of French tourists. On Vilakazi Street, a small UN congress marches up and down the road.

Edmond again stops the bus and swings open the door. Already our reactions are Pavlovian – we diligently hop out, cameras at the ready. He points across a small valley to a bunch of long, gray hostel blocks – built for mine workers in the 1920s, he says. Most are still inhabited by poor families; we can see washing hanging from lines, people sitting in the shade. Nearby are a bunch of bright, candy-colored duplexes – recent developments for more upwardly mobile families. Cameras clicking and whirring. One of the women goes stalking down into the valley, as if she’s on a big-game hunt. Edmond stomps out his cigarette and points to the hard-packed earth.

“One cow, to feed for a year, you need 24 hectares,” he says. “In France, three cows can use one hectare.” It was the barrenness of the earth that made this such inhospitable land for farmers, he says. If it weren’t for the discovery of gold, this place would have been uninhabitable a century ago. Edmond shrugs. “That’s Highveld,” he says.

We crowd back into the bus. Driving through the streets – women selling apples and bananas, men with electric clippers shaving heads on the side of the road. Shops. Lovey’s Curtain Specialists. Bling Hair Studios. Eric Builders & Plant Hire (“We pay cash 4 scrap metal”). Jeff’s Mobile Kitchen and Food Warming.

Again we stop, just down the road from the massive Baragwanath Hospital. Everybody itching for some unstructured camera time. Bodies pouring into the sunlight, hyperactive trigger fingers. We look around like overstimulated kids. Fruit and vegetable sellers, men and women in church clothes. “Welcome to South Africa!” a black woman shouts to a bunch of her countrymen. Viewed ironically, this would make a certain bit of sense. Everyone scattering like marbles. Click. Click. Click. Advertisements for revival meetings. Africa Rejoice – “4320 minutes of praise.” Gospel Fire presents Miracle Revival Crusade (“1 million souls in 2010”). Ads, too, for quick, same-day abortions. “100% pain free guaranteed!”

I find Edmond smoking cigarettes beside the hospital – the largest in the southern hemisphere, as I’ve been frequently told. South Africans are proud of this country they’ve built. The largest hospital in the southern hemisphere. The largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere. Across the road, the largest taxi rank in the southern hemisphere. “In 1994, that’s where they were fighting with Kalashnikovs,” says Edmond. It was during a fierce period of the city’s notorious taxi wars, with gangsters scrambling to secure the most profitable routes. A 2006 New York Times story described the phenomenon:

In the last two decades, thousands of South African taxi owners, drivers and passengers have been killed and many more have been wounded in one of the strangest guerrilla wars to bedevil any nation. The combatants are rival cartels that control thousands of low-cost minibuses, or “combis,” that haul a large share of South Africa’s urban commuters and much of the nation’s intercity traffic. Combi drivers are mostly poor, and competition is fierce. Many operate illegally, and even legitimate ones may poach others’ routes to grab as many fares as possible.

A casualty of a BRT shooting in Soweto last September

Edmond explains. “I am starting a new route,” he says. “I come with my own empty vehicle, I follow you on your route. The next day I come five minutes early, and I charge one rand less.” Edmond had seen how such tactics could provoke violent outbursts. More recently, the introduction of an ambitious new bus rapid transit (BRT) system has prompted protests – and gunfire – from disgruntled taxi drivers around the city.

We stop again nearby. Motswaledi, a “squatter camp,” as they’re called here. An informal settlement of tin-roof shacks, sitting just off the main road. Dozens of homes pressed close together, glinting in the sunlight. Kids everywhere. A woman braiding another woman’s hair in the yard. Edmond explains how the camp had sprung up in 1994. The tenants are living here rent-free, he says. They tap into nearby power lines for electricity. The government provides shiny little port-a-potties for each home – cholera is always a fear. “The majority of these people, they don’t want to move,” says Edmond, explaining how many residents are making up to R5,000 a month, but choose to stay here. I have my doubts. Five thousand rands, for starters, is an astronomical sum – more than twice the minimum wage – and I suspect most of the inhabitants of Motswaledi are, at best, casual laborers and piece workers. There is also, too, the grinding economics of poverty in Africa – the fact that most employed people are supporting extended families on meager wages: an unemployed uncle, a sick mother, a drunk cousin. The upward mobility we’re brought up on in the West is built on principles of personal growth and achievement – an individualist’s ethos. Here your responsibility is to your families and neighbors. This collectivist spirit of the African family is both a blessing and a burden. For most, it is an impossibly long climb to the top.

Again we pour out of the bus, everyone in high spirits. This is like a lunar expedition; for most white South Africans, the life of the squatter camps is something you see on the evening news, not experience first-hand. It is a very good group, too. My great fear – that we would plow through the township like a safari vehicle, snapping pictures out the windows – proves unfounded. Most of the group is friendly, engaging. They chat with people, ask to see their homes, ask about their lives. Jerome, ever the good sport, has a barber shave what’s left of his hair. I imagine how much good it would do for this country if you plucked up families in Sandton and Rivonia every weekend and deposited them in a place like Motswaledi. Most of the fears and prejudices of white South Africans, I’ve felt since I arrived, stem from a simple lack of understanding about poor people’s lives. Sympathy, kindness, trust: it is impossible to build these feelings behind the high walls of the northern suburbs. Like plants, they need sunlight and space to grow.

Sihle, left, and Zweli, in Motswaledi

A group of schoolchildren, playing soccer on a dirt road. They crowd around me, asking questions, whistling. America – it might as well be Mars. They squeeze at my biceps and pluck at the hairs on my arm. The simple amazing fact of my being here on a Sunday afternoon. Two clever boys, Zweli and Sihle, inquisitive, telling me about their studies. Sihle wants to be a dentist – he is 11. Zweli, a tall, handsome 13-year-old, is the second-born in a family of eight. He looks after his younger brothers and sisters, he tells me. Then they both start to speaking to me in French.

On our way to lunch we stop at a Bonjour gas station, newly built. Two years ago, says Edmond, a group of brazen thieves tried to dynamite the ATM. These were hardly master criminals – the wisdom of setting off explosives in a highly combustible gas station never seemed to cross their minds. The whole station went up in flames, says Edmond. And when they found the ATM, he adds with a mischievous smile, it still hadn’t been cracked.

The Orlando Towers, in Soweto

We stop again for a photo op. The Orlando Towers, part of a disused power station, now painted with colorful murals and used for bungee jumping. One of the men is giving us a taser demonstration – he keeps it clipped to his belt, like a Blackberry. It is 1.5 million volts, he says; if you hold it to someone for three seconds, they’ll hit the floor like a sack of mealies. It is, he says, his one concession to self-defense in the home. Last year his house was robbed while he was in his bedroom upstairs. He wanted to have something in case a thief came into his personal space. Unlike many white South Africans, he refuses to buy a gun. “I was thinking of getting a crossbow, but it takes too long to load,” he says, not unreasonably. He presses the button on his taser, which crackles wickedly. Everyone laughs and takes a few cautious steps back.

Lunch, Orlando West. The famous Vilakazi Street, which Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – both Nobel laureates – had once called home. Tour groups stomping up and down the street. An overpriced restaurant, which, admittedly, serves a mean buffet. Sitting with Edmond, his son, Pascal, and Pascal’s wife, Geraldine. Pascal has been trying to start a business – it’s taken six months, and still he is wading through red tape, waiting for more documents and permits. Aggrieved at the contracts he’s already lost. I thought I’d left this sort of thing behind in Burundi and Congo. Pascal grimly shakes his head. You have to pay the right people, he says, to speed things along. He is losing hope. “What this country needs is a slap in the face from itself,” he says.

'Out of Africa comes the soul of man,' said Mbongeni.

Sidewalk buskers, souvenir sellers. Flags and masks and batiks and bracelets and little shebeens made from popsicle sticks. A young boy comes up to me and says, “Excuse me, sir, can I sing you a song for a small donation?” His name is Mbongeni; he lives in Orlando West with his grandmother and four brothers. He clears his throat and sings the South African national anthem with a wavering voice. It is a complex song, written in five languages – testament to the hopes of this “Rainbow Nation.” When he’s finished he recites a poem. “Out of Africa comes the soul of man,” he says.

I ask about his brothers, if they sing for tourists, too. “I do not want them to be like me,” says Mbongeni. “I want them to study so they can do something.” He says he studies, too, when he isn’t hustling on Vilakazi Street. “I do not want to have one job, like a lawyer,” he says. He wants to be a singer, a TV presenter, a poet. “I want to do many things.”

Up the street a pretty young woman calls out to me. She wants to know who I am, where I come from. She says her name is Refilwe and she is opening a spa – she jerks her thumb to a storefront, where two construction workers are busily laying tiles. “Next week it will be finished,” she says. “You can take a picture and come back in a week to compare.” So I take a picture:


“Do you have a girlfriend in South Africa?” asks Refilwe. I tell her I’ve only been here for three weeks. She bats her big, attractive eyes and takes this information in. Clearly this is a problem for which she’d like to propose a solution. She invites me to the opening party for her spa the following week. I tell her I live a long way from Orlando West. “I will come get you,” she says.

Refilwe, right, with friends

Arms waving down the street – Alpha Team is moving out. I exchange numbers and complicated, South-African handshakes with Refilwe. Her friends are hooting with mischievous laughter. Inside the bus much happy chatter – lunch has lifted everybody’s spirits. It is a marvelous afternoon, blue and sunlit. Everyone is leaning across the seats, comparing pics. Someone proposes an evening of wine and photos – we’ll send the best of our shots to Mark, the group leader, and arranging a viewing party. It sounds like a swell idea. Our bus motors up the street. People outside are flashing thumbs-up and waving.

Sowetans show their support for President Zuma.

'Africa my beginning, Africa my ending.' A street mural in Orlando West.

Looking down Vilakazi Street.

A bathroom break at the Hector Pieterson Museum – we have the bladders of toddlers, a situation not helped by the lunch-time beers. Outside a black woman is explaining to her young son the history of Pieterson’s death, and the Soweto uprising. “That is when the black people started fighting against the white people who were oppressing them,” she says. Pieterson was killed by police fire during student protests over the introduction of Afrikaans as the official language of instruction in schools. He was only 12. His death – captured in the iconic photograph by Sam Nzima, below – became one of the symbols of the apartheid struggle. Jerome is explaining the history of Pieterson’s name: it was originally Pitso, he says, but the family changed it to Pieterson, hoping that they could pass for colored (mixed-race) and be granted privileges under the apartheid system that were denied to blacks. Jerome, it turns out, who works for the railways, is also something of a writer; he’s written and edited, by his count, thousands of Wikipedia entries, including this one on Hector Pieterson.

A fellow student carries the dying Pieterson.

A graffiti mural depicts the famous killing of Hector Pieterson.

A woman crosses a bridge at the Hector Pieterson Memorial.

These last, lazy hours of daylight. Barreling down the freeway, endless advertisements painted onto traffic medians and walls. Dreadlock Art. Dreadlock Artists. Cool Ideas Catering Equipment. Handsome Pest Control. The Road House Buy & Braai (“Here chilling is a factor!”). And the funeral parlors – a generation of black South Africans, wiped away by AIDS. Mashigo Funeral Services. 4 Roses Funeral Parlour (“We cover families at reasonable prices”).

Outside the Regina Mundi church – itself a symbol of the apartheid struggle – men in suits, the parking lot full of black sedans. There is a funeral service inside: Sheena Duncan, the former leader of the Black Sash – a group of middle-class white women who fought against apartheid and gave legal counsel to poor blacks. This day has had a bit of everything. Stepping awkwardly with our cameras. “We don’t want them to think we’re paparazzi,” someone says. I busy myself with bits of graffiti painted on a nearby wall. Embarrassed by how little I know about the country I now call home.

Portraits of Madiba, near Regina Mundi.

'Africa leads the revolution.'

On our way home, driving through the tidy streets of Soweto’s middle-class suburbs, we pass a busy playground full of screeching kids, swinging on swings and sliding down slides. Everyone marvels at their exuberance – such joy, such reckless freedom, splashed across their faces. No overbearing dads keeping a wary eye on the kids; no nervous moms on the lookout for strangers. It is impossible to imagine such a scene on the northern side of Empire Boulevard. Even here, in hectic, modern Johannesburg, I get a sense of that same trust in the community that I’ve encountered in so much of rural Africa. The older kids are here to watch out for the younger kids, and everyone is here to watch out for each other.

It reminds me of a day a few weeks ago, when I was walking down the street in my very pleasant, leafy suburb of Auckland Park. There was a birthday party down the road – a great commotion of children’s squeals and colorful balloons drifting over the electric fencing. A gate opened as a car backed out of the driveway, and suddenly two apple-cheeked kids game bolting onto the sidewalk. Their faces were painted – little lion’s whiskers drawn across their cheeks. Soon a hysterical father came chasing after them. “Get back in here! Get back inside!” he yelled. They pouted dramatic little children’s pouts and dragged their feet behind them. The father, seeing me on the sidewalk, cracked a wry smile and said, “You don’t know who this man is. He could be crazy.”

“Even worse,” I said. “I’m American.” We both laughed at this.

But the scene filled me with sadness. Already, these children were being taught about walls, barriers, boundaries. Their most natural impulses – to be free – were learning the lessons of white South African life.

Late in the day, driving toward the sunset, we pass a busy gathering on the street: music, teenaged boys posturing, girls playing hopscotch. A few older men, sitting on milkcrates, deep in conversation.

“Look at that!” says a woman behind me. “Everything is happening out on the street. You wouldn’t see that in one of the northern suburbs.”

It is the saddest moment of the day – such regret, such loss, such longing in her words. I’m sure there was a time when white South Africans in Johannesburg, secure in the protected freedom of the apartheid era, would let their children play on the street, would walk freely with the neighbors, would enjoy the blessings that this marvelous Highveld climate has bestowed on them. Now this is a city of gates and walls and cars with their windows rolled up, a physical testament to the decades of separation that shaped this country.

Often, when I tell them about my life in Kenya, or Burundi, or Malawi, people here are stunned to hear how difficult it was to walk down the street without falling into conversation with a stranger. It is impossible for them to imagine how natural it felt – and impossible, too, for them to understand how, in such a way, you surrounded yourself with joy each day.

We reach the Apartheid Museum, where we are all brisk handshakes and goodbyes, heading to our cars. A woman is reciting, as if in prayer. “Just a wonderful day,” she says. “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”

Dusk over Walter Sisulu Square.

What makes a world-class city a world-class city?

The author Heidi Holland, in this lovely piece from the Mail & Guardian, called the people of her city “permanently aggrieved yet incapable of changing the script.” If nothing else, though, Joburgers have proven themselves to have a sense of humor, as illustrated by this interview from the Sunday Times, with journo Chris Barron asking the questions and Joburg mayor Amos Masondo fumbling the answers.

Is Joburg ready for the World Cup?

I think we are.

What about the potholes?

We are addressing that problem.

What about the trenches that are left open for months for people to fall into?

The hardest working man in Joburg? Or a hardly working man in Joburg?

Again, that’s one of the big problems.

What about the broken traffic lights?

It’s being addressed in an ongoing way.

What about the street lights that don’t work?

You keep on mentioning these things one by one. And my answer is an honest one, to say yes, there are gaps, and we are working on addressing the problems.

What about the missing street signs?

The matter has been raised with the mayoral committee by the executive director of 2010. And, again, a commitment has been made that we’ll be upgrading these in the next two to three months.

What about the litter?

The city’s much cleaner than it used to be.

There’s still a lot of rubbish around, though, isn’t there?

There is a lot of rubbish around. Pikitup is working on a programme that seeks to mobilise communities.

What about the blocked stormwater drains?

Yes, because it rains quite heavily. Some of the problems … have been exposed and we are addressing them.

That’s an issue of maintenance, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s an issue of maintenance, but you know …

They’re not being properly maintained?

They’re not being properly maintained. It’s the kind of thing that should be done in winter.

Why isn’t it happening?

There have been some problems there.

What about the lack of reliable public transport?

Well, I mean we have introduced BRT (bus rapid transit).

On all routes?

Not all the routes.

Do you use public transport?

Once in a while, yes. I use a taxi once in a while.

Wouldn’t it send an encouraging message if you used public transport to get to work?

I don’t know if you’re aware of this but annually, every October or so, we use public transport.

You use public transport every October?

Just to try and encourage people to use public transport.

So you use public transport once a year?

Yes sir. I don’t use public transport daily.

Don’t you want to encourage people to use public transport?

We’re doing our bit.

The mayor of New York uses public transport every day to get to work.

The mayor of New York?

The current mayor of London goes to work on a bicycle.

That’s going to the other extreme, but he’s doing something that’s positive.

Do you think you might use a bicycle one day?

I will do anything possible to incline people in the right direction, but I will not do a public stunt simply for the sake of it.

If the public transport was any good would you use it?

Absolutely, absolutely.

So you admit that it’s not?

It’s not very good, but there is something that we are doing to get public transport right.

You plug Joburg as a world-class city. Isn’t this false advertising?

No, it’s not false at all. That’s a goal we’re working towards, that’s a vision.

In your view what makes Joburg a world-class city?

One has had an opportunity to travel to many cities in the world and therefore I’ve had an opportunity to compare and reflect. Very clearly, Joburg is one of the best cities on the African continent.

But you call it a world-class city?

We are definitely moving in that direction. If you’re talking global cities in the world Joburg is definitely one of them.

What are your criteria for a world-class city?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with our Joburg vision statement?

Is it the vision of a world-class city that makes it a world-class city, or the reality?

What reality are you talking about?

Do you know of any other world-class city where an unelected mayor has been in office for 10 years?

Unelected? What do you mean by that?

That you haven’t been elected.

I’m sure you know that the political system is different in South Africa. I get elected by the councillors of Johannesburg.

In other words you’re deployed by the ANC, not elected by the people?

If you want to criticise the ANC and bash it, do so. But don’t try funny tricks. That won’t get us anywhere.

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.”

Manchild in Africa’s Promised Land.

Above the clouds: somewhere over Zambia. Or Zimbabwe. Or Mozambique.

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.

Arriving at OR Tambo.

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.

OR Tambo International Airport, 2009.

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.