An afternoon on 9th and Rusterburg

Originally taken from journal notes penned well before I’d had a tour of the new Johannesburg. Despite being in a car for much of it, some of the views expressed here have softened, but it is the nature of this place that all views persist in some form or another.

It’s taken me a few trips to this country to gain comfort in the use of terms like “black”, “coloured” and “white”, used here with no sense of guilt nor shame to differentiate one from the other. If you’re the slightest bit offended I’d suggest spending some time in South Africa. Your ruddy cheeks will wane pale as you adopt the local vernacular.

Carry Ol’ Bloke Guilt around you won’t find comfort here, nor will you experience the full splendour and despair, the anguish and intensity of a country that will bring you warmth in a blacks smile and chill you with uncertainty should you find yourself lost on the streets of Johannesburg. As local journalist and guitarist, Rian Malan says, “…you can repair to Melville in the small hours and argue with black jacketed intellectuals in a miasma of liquor fumes and marijuana smoke while old African jazz cats blow marabi in the background. You might get hijacked on your way home, but what the heck!”

I’ve wanted to hear marabi, even the slightest strains of it, but wasn’t prepared to pay RAN150 for a stadium seat to hear South Africa’s infamous Mambo Beat’s interpretation of a form of music that grew from the shebeens of Johannesburg in the first quarter of the 20th century. I’ve yet to hear marabi in any form, but I reckon I may have been led through a torrent of references to it on my first afternoon in Johannesburg when local trumpeter Marcus Wyatt played the cafe I’d been furiously catching up on emails in.

Marcus and friends at Wish Cafe, Melville
Marcus and friends at Wish Cafe, Melville

The Wish Cafe in Melville seems to be the last remaining venue to offer jazz live and free here. His double-bass player, an older black gentleman with a cheeky grin and nimble fingers, offered a furry of ingenious melodies and drop-jaw rhythms every time he was given the floor. It was irresistible and I couldn’t but help smile at which he caught my gaze and proceeded to dig deeper into his intuitive repertoire. After their first set we talked briefly. Turns out he’d borrowed Brydon’s double-bass for a gig in Cape Town. Small world. I played with Byrdon just over a year ago. But I never did get to find out where his charmed technique grew from. I was jet-lagged and lugged my tired self down 2nd to a futon with no less than four cosy pillows to which I immersed, fully clothed till day break. That was the 1st of May and I’m already done with near-on a month here since.

Can anyone truly describe what’s happening here? There’s the ANC bashers’, the Mandela sycophants, discourses on corruption and clearly a decline in out and out violence, and yet there persists in some, uncertainty at every step despite the fact that the all out war against the whites, expected by many in 1994, did not take place.

That aside, in recent months the ANC has sought from the High Court permission to sing a former anthem of theirs, “Kill the Boers”, considered by and large politically incorrect and no doubt inflammatory in these new times. Then there are the young men in the Cape Flats, on the not so distant outskirts of the city hosting the bulk of South Africa’s World Cup, who feel they can take what ever from whomever, whether it be sex or a phone, leaving broken lives and bodies without any sense of remorse.

But much of this is second hand and to be honest, I prefer to keep it that way. I can’t recall any black being rude, threatening or otherwise to me. Ignore me, yes, but mock me? Certainly not. On the other hand, it’s a hand-full of whites I’ve had problems with. Some, as my Cape Town buddy Alex suggested, are “damaged goods.” But I’d rather not go there. White’s can be rude the world over and far more threatening than any race I have thus far encountered. We all know this. Don’t we?

Every person is an island here. Every family a village interacting with each other within the safe perimeter of electric or barbed wire fences, private guards, security firms in ‘fuck-off’ 4 wheel drives and over-packaged food. Even avocado’s are so well protected they’re nested in sturdy green containers on a bed of bubble-wrap, encased in plastic wrap.

Plastic is every where. It’s as if plastic had only recently arrived in South Africa. They didn’t get TV till 1975, perhaps plastic arrived late too. It’s so prevalent perhaps the land-fills have yet to belch and spew and overflow in a country where recycling campaigns make for cool poster art and stickers. Although, I’ve not seen either. That too may arrive a decade or more late.

As I write a young black with taught, red banding around his left arm expertly lifts the lid back off a public garbage bin and inspects its contents. Well heeled whites in well washed cars drive by, their children strapped to rear seats. Well heeled blacks in their prized high-end “bling” mobiles, childless, glide by as the boy opens yet another bin, closing the other as carefully as he’d approached it. Finding nothing he leaves this second bin has he’d found it and disappears into the traffic as a pretty white woman instructs her black colleague how best to decorate the windows of a newly renovated ceramics gallery and studio.

Perhaps I’m the only grizzly person within vicinity. No one knows how to make a long black. A long espresso is a near filled espresso cup! Never mind. The view is good. I’m in a sun-lit cafe. The sun is unforgiving and I relish in it’s warmth. The black T-shirts and pristine long-drop aprons wrapped around the young waists of mixed table staff, one a pale-faced Eurasian lass, leggy in black shorts and a taught face, a red-haired, fair-skinned girl with supple lips and generous smile, the cool, unsullied gaze from a face far too young to sport a beard and the nervous coloured boy, who may have worked out in a smart gym, and seemed so eager to understand what I’d meant by a long-black, asked whether I was okay at 10 minute intervals and yet still served up a coffee that seemed to suggest I’d been speaking in tongues. Never-mind, the iced water with lemon was refreshing .

Life goes on.

Today, on the corner of 9th Street and Rusterburg Road I see no fear, no anger, no loathing. Only drivers disgruntled at each others poor navigation. But this is universal. Isn’t it? Not in the universe of the Balinese, but I digress…

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