"Why is this guy pimping you out?"
As I took my bulkhead seat on the plane, I was welcomed by the pretty blonde girl seated next to me. She introduced herself as Ilke. She hailed from Johannesburg. We got to talking and it turned out she was an artist—doing politically charged art installations, of all things—which I thought was very cool. I’d yet to understand that Joburg is more or less one giant ghetto-cum-art-installation, such is the prevalence of visual spectacle. I asked her about her name, which sounded odd for a South African. She said the name was Bulgarian. Her parents had chosen it because they liked the sound. She asked about the nature of my engagements in South Africa. I told her. I was there to poke around and eventually meet up with my girlfriend in Durban, a city out on the coast, who is doing field-work there. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said. “My brother gets mugged every time he goes to Durban.”
This is something that one grows accustomed to when planning a trip to South Africa. Everyone knows someone who has been mugged, kidnapped, run-over, mauled, shot, or otherwise imperiled in the country—usually a close blood relative, usually meeting a violent and grotesque fate. The typical anecdote sounds like this: “Oh, South Africa. My great aunt Mary went there once. She was sitting at a traffic light when two armed men shot her and snatched her purse. They would’ve taken the car, too, but they couldn’t see through the windshield on account of the scattered brains.” As a would-be traveller to South Africa, you collect a small treasure-trove of anecdotal nuggets of this sort.
Usually when I get off the plane in a new country, I take public transport into the city. Figuring out the transport system is part of the fun. However I decided to ease into my South African experience, on consideration of possible death, and took an Uber to my hostel instead. I tossed my belongings in the back of the car, and we sped off into the urban sprawl of Johannesburg. I looked idly out the window as we passed through nondescript highway systems of concrete interspersed with patches of yellowed, garbage-strewn grass. It didn’t look like much, honestly. There wasn’t a lot to take in. My sense of curiosity grew as I noticed we were nearing my destination and the urban landfills grew denser and apparently more combustible. It was like being on a boat in a sea of household trash. Fifty-gallon metal drums sat on the side of the road, trash fires ablaze inside. Just as the trash water-line reached the height of a twelve-year-old child, we turned onto a street of appealing storefronts, brightly colored murals, and happy, attractive people strolling on their way to brunch. I had arrived in the serene and beguiling eye of the dereliction storm: Joburg’s Maboneng district.
I presented myself at the front desk of my hostel where I was greeted by a young woman with a face as soft and buoyant as a cloud, yet dark and enticing like Nina Simone’s voice. She has long braided hair, and a colorful shirt. She introduced herself as Dudu. I introduced myself, and told her it was my first time in South Africa. “Welcome to Maboneng, Cody,” she said my name slowly and deeply. The way she said it, it occurred to me for the first time that my name had two syllables. She showed me through the hostel. It had a homey, worn-in feel, with a bar counter situated against the back wall and an iron hearth in the corner. She took me past the open courtyard in the back to where the barracks were. She danced as she walked. “This is your room, Cody, isn’t it lovely?” She twirled as she posed the question, and I agreed that it was indeed lovely. Then she took leave of me to return to her desk. I set my stuff down, freshened up, and set off to see what was happening in Maboneng.
Dudu had recommended a café, her favorite, which I called at first thing. I sat at the counter. The ladies were really nice. I had the "Jozie breakfast." There was a sausage, green chillies, scrambled eggs, and toast. It warmed my soul. As my attention wandered away from breakfast, I was struck with a feeling of guilt: I was in cheater Africa. Sure, the people around me were Africans, as most everybody was. But really I was in a western land, transplanted to this continent for the enjoyment of people like me. As this occurred to me a family of white people came in to order cappuccinos. I could have been in Venice Beach or Melbourne. That’s exactly what it felt like: Abbott Kinney or Fitzroy. Then I was overcome with a second feeling—wow, they took everything I love from places like Los Angeles and Australia and plunked it down in Africa. Cool! Both feelings were equally heartfelt and equally silly. Really, I was just overwhelmed by the prospect of being on a continent I didn’t know the first thing about.
After breakfast I was ready to have a look around. But walking and biking as usual weren't serviceable strategies. I was told it was too dangerous. And I believed it. Maboneng is a rectangular strip of about five blocks by one which are safe for people who look like me. Step a half a block outside of that and all bets are off. I opted for a guided tour instead, mostly because they were easy to sign up for at the hostel. The first was a bike tour of the surrounding area. I didn't have to wait long for it to begin.
We saddled onto a fleet of dinged-up old bikes and set off. There were a half dozen of us, looking like a gang of multilingual Aryan enthusiasts. Our first stop was a mural, commissioned by a Mr Jonathan Liebmann. He’s the one who has invested in making Maboneng look like an Angelino neighborhood. After that, we made our way through a variety of squalorly dilapidations: Doorfontein, Troyville, Ellis Park. We looked quite the sight, a fleet of white people on small bikes cruising through ghettos, just to check them out. People felt compelled to provide commentary as we proceeded down the street. They yelled things like, “Hey, what’s up guys!!”
The arresting thing about these cross-sections of Johannesburg was that they featured two distinct layers. The bottom layer was garbage, strewn about the ground on every available square foot. Meanwhile the top layer was art, mostly commissioned murals, many of which are several stories tall, which are festooned all over the city no matter how beat up the area looks. We passed a whole garden full of children’s art and sculptures in Troyville.
At the end of our tour we stopped to visit a "roof-top bar." I say it with qualification because it was a bar on a rooftop, but it wasn’t much of a bar and it wasn’t much of a roof. For one thing there was no one else there. It was three in the afternoon. The other thing was the building wasn’t taller than those around it. You had your choice of inspecting the mural painted on the adjacent office building or a dingy apartment complex. The most interesting visual offering was a pigeon stuck in a tree planted on a patio across the street. The pigeon was hanging by its feet. It was handcuffed by a piece of plastic to a tree branch and hung there limply like someone who had been hanged upside down. At intervals it would attempt a desperate escape, flapping its wings mightily and straining the branch like a fishing rod. Then it would give up hope and hang limply again. As I watched this protracted struggle, the Germans in our group took notice. They cooed in empathy. A guy named Pitts wandered over to see what was going on.
“What’s up with the pigeon?” he asked.
“It’s stuck,” I explained.
The Germans, Pitts, and I stared at the scene in silence for a minute.
“On what?” Pitts asked.
“Can’t tell,” I said. It was obscured by the tree.
We watched the pigeon give up its final hope at life in an attempted escape, only to work up the courage for another try a minute later. But it was to no avail. The Germans remarked how sad this was, how the pigeon was going to die there. Then Pitts and the Germans wandered off to enjoy the less dire offerings of the rooftop bar. There was, after all, nothing we could do. Thankfully, as with all difficult situations that are not strictly one's own problem, we could forget about it when we looked away.
After the tour I went out to catch the Spain vs Russia game. I ended up in a local "independent cinema." I sat for a few minutes enjoying one of the many local craft beers on offer. But soon I realized it was too quiet and took leave of the establishment. I went to get braai, which is the most celebrated local dish of Johannesburg, and South Africa more generally. It’s their version of barbecue. I’d identified a promising braai establishment in Maboneng, which blessedly I never strayed more than three blocks from. It was hardly even a restaurant. More likely some guy had set up shop barbecuing on the sidewalk, then grew in popularity until he had to throw a roof over the enterprise to make it legit. The menu was delightful. You choose between steak, chicken, and sausage. Then you point at the sides you want. I chose steak and pointed at the pap, a grits-like corn paste with little flavor but very cheaply made. It’s ubiquitous in this country. “Your order will be out just now,” said the girl behind the counter. This was actually a subtle instance of South African idiom—just now. There are three kinds of ‘now’ in South Africa. The first kind is ‘now’ which essentially means never. If someone says they’re going to do something for you now, you might want to renegotiate that contract. It's easy to see how this might confuse an interloper. The second kind of now is "just now," as I had just encountered. This means soon, shortly, presently, in a minute. The third kind of now is "now now" which is the only one that actually means now. At any rate, I scarfed down my steak, which cost only three bucks American, and returned to the hostel to watch the rest of the game.
The hostel lounge area was the most happening bar on the whole of the Maboneng strip. I procured a seat at a long, wooden communal table situated near the TV. Communal tables being communal, I had to engage in human interaction during the match. Of particular amicability was the guy seated across from me, who was impressively drunk considering it had only just now breached dinner time. He was interested in everyone surrounding him, but he showed a special fondness for the two blonde girls sitting to my left. As trying circumstances bring people together, the annoying drunk guy gave the girls and me a special point of connection. One of them was Dutch and the other an American, who studied at Northeastern, just down the road from where I lived in Boston. I asked them how long they’d known each other. “Just since today,” the Dutch girl replied.
“That surprises me,” the dunk guy chimed in. “Seems like you two ladies have known each other a long time!” The girls gave me a look of undisguised dismay that said this had been the nature of their conversation for the past thirty minutes or so. Drunk Guy ogled the book lying next to me on the table. He directed his attention toward me and said, “Mandela, you know he’s a sellout right?”
I’d planned to go through Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, while in South Africa. At eight-hundred pages, it could prop open a bank vault.
“Really?” I offered Drunk Guy in return.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Gets all the credit… But he’s just a sell out, man.”
“A real sunnuva bitch,” I agreed.
Drunk Guy nodded in approval, pleased that I understood. Then something more pressing caught his attention, presumably beer, and he wandered off.
The girls and I talked some more. At length they said they were about to head out. “You’re welcome to join if you want,” said the girl from Northeastern. “Sure,” I said. “That sounds nice.” As I got up to use the restroom, I realized that I didn’t want to spend any more time with them, because they were boring. I’d rather sit by myself in a bar and read. So when I returned I wished them a nice evening, grabbed my copy of Mandela, and left on my own.
I strolled about a block down the street before being accosted by live music. I popped my head in to scope the scene. The venue was entirely cement, spacious and high-ceilinged, like an airplane hanger of which a section had been cordoned off. On stage was a duo of singer and keyboard-player-slash-DJ. They were killin' it. I procured a drink and sat down at a large table by myself. My attention rotated from the music to my book to the Croatia match playing silently from a projector onto the large concrete wall. The music was loud and good, so I put little initiative into reading. As I was sitting there, tapping my foot and staring into the middle distance of the stage, a beautiful African woman came up to my table and stood next to me.
“You look lonely,” she said. I was.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I replied.
She asked me something. I couldn’t hear what she said because the music was loud, but it sounded like an invitation to hang out with her and her friends.
“I’m okay,” I said and smiled. “Thanks though.”
She disappeared back into the crowded hangar. I immediately regretted what I had done. I wished I had just got up and gone with her. I looked for her, to make eye contact and beckon me over. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. Now I really couldn’t focus on Mandela. In the midst of my consternation another person came up to my table, a guy this time. He’d come over just to welcome me to Joburg. I was the only white guy in the hangar, save for the singer on stage, so I clearly wasn’t from the area. He wished me a pleasant evening. Imagine—one human being approaching another just to offer some pleasant words and welcome an outsider to their neighborhood. Now when’s the last time you saw that? Johannesburg really is a wonderful place.
Then I noticed another person present at the bar. It was none other than Mr Drunk Guy. He was dancing with a woman who was about seven feet tall in heels. Standing erect, he could practically walk between her legs, like a car under a bridge. She had a good natured look on her face. She was humoring him.
I walked across the room to the bar to get another drink. Then I found her, the girl who had invited me to her table. We made eye contact. She was standing with her friends at the back of the room. She beckoned me. I waved over the bartender and changed my order from a glass of wine to a bottle. The guy handed me a bottle of rosé and told me the glasses would be forthcoming. I went over to their table bottle in hand.
At this point, I wasn’t drunk, not even tipsy, at least not nearly enough to talk to a group of strange girls who infinitely surpassed me in coolness. I wasn’t there to hit on them, so without a couple drinks in my system the standard bar banter didn’t seem right. They were dancing, and it wouldn't have been inappropriate to join them. But the disparity in skill made it seem out of the question. I cannot begin to tell you how whack it feels to be the only white dude at all black dance party. I took off my coat, just to have an action to perform. Then I thrust the wine bottle in their direction, as offering of friendship. But I had nothing for them to drink from it, as I didn’t have the glasses yet. The bottle sat idly on the table. I looked over at the bartender. He proceeded to hold each of the glasses up to the light and meticulously polish each one.
C’mon buddy, just bring the damn glasses over…
I engaged the girl who’d brought me over in conversation. I asked her where she was from. "Soweto," she said. “That’s real Johannesburg,” she told me. I wasn’t really dancing and I had no drink to hold, so I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands, like Ricky Bobby in a television interview. They moved from my hip to the chair to my shoulder back to the chair and then to a different chair. We soon understood why our first interaction had gone the way it did. I was sitting alone because I am no fun, and things would have gone better for everyone if I had just remained in my natural, antisocial state.
I inched my way toward the back of the group, a wallflower in bloom. Then my glasses arrived. I finally had some social utility to offer. Drink in hand, I was ready to give dancing a shot. The alcohol helps, sure, but it’s more about the comfort of having an anchoring activity—holding your drink and sipping from it. If you’ve ever watched inept white guys like me dancing, you may have noticed there’s a lot of finger pointing involved. All we’ve got is hips, shoulders, and fingers. I don’t know why. It’s just how we do. Having a glass to hold helps quell this inclination. By this point I had been soundly rejected as a square by the girl who had brought me over, and rightly so. But her friends didn’t know that I was lame, so I went to talk to them instead.
I was quite inadequate in my initial attempts to participate. But they appreciated my engagement anyway. I excused myself to the bar, just to collect myself for a moment without having to wallow in my shameful lameness. Another drunk gentleman attempted to engage me in conversation at the bar. He offered some unsolicited advice about picking up girls. “You have to go to them, not let them come to you,” he explained. He then provided two unsuccessful examples. At this point he decided my education was complete and dragged me in with him. He offered my romantic services to one of the girls in the crowd I’d been hanging out with. She inquired of me, “Why is this guy pimping you out?”
My mentor seemed deterred by this question and left. I was abandoned to talk with the girl on my own. I engaged her on the only subject I knew we had in common: how uncool I was. This turned out to be a productive talking point, as it led to an enumeration of all of the guys who were in fact less cool than I was. There was Drunk Guy from the hostel, who had hit on her earlier in the evening. Then there was another guy, wearing a Canadian Tuxedo, dressed in denim from head to toe. Then there was the guy who was going around soliciting the attention of girls and offering the services of men he had acquired, my former mentor. I was less uncool than all of those guys, and that gave me a sort of statistical, somewhere-around-the-mean credibility. This helped my confidence greatly. The wine helped, too.
Another of her friends approached us. She was large and imposing, like an army general. She volunteered to teach me to dance. She would lead, I would follow. We salsa’d: one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four. It was a valiant attempt at teaching, but I’m not a great instruction follower. Mercifully, the wine was really starting to kick in. I started to let loose as a dancer. I was making lots of friends now. I went up to the singer who had been on stage earlier in the evening and told him how much I enjoyed his stuff. I offered him some wine. He graciously accepted. Then I saw him set it down on a table and wander off. So I picked it up for myself and sloshed it down the hatch. At this point, my mentor came back into the mix. He tried hitting on the girl to whom he’d been pimping me out. Multiple of us had to run interference on him to deflect his attention from her. Eventually I started to let loose. My dancing was South African Approved.
By now the party was starting to cool off. The Croatia game was in its final throws. I approached a group of African dudes, which included the keyboard player from earlier in the evening. We got to talking. He pointed at a guy across the room talking to a group of three girls and told me, “See that guy? He used to be the most popular recording artist in all of Johannesburg.” We got to debating World Cup teams.
I got the number of one the girls, I think the original one who had invited me over, but I can't rightly recall. She said she would take me to Soweto, the real Soweto for the real Johannesburg experience. As I stumbled back down the street to my hostel I thought to myself about how much I loved Joburg so far. One of the things the girl said to me stood out: “It's important to us that people like you come to see our city. I’m glad to you get to experience Africa, to realize people don't have lions in their back yard. We have civilization here, too."
Next: A Tourist in Real Africa.