Leaving Jozi

September 24, 2011

full sky
deutsche Version link zur deutschen Version
english My path leads up north, as if following a sign saying ‘Europe’. This is where I am heading to. Back to countrywide well organised education, national roads free of potholes, astonishing art exhibitions. I already picture Claude Monet’s ‘water lilies’ which I will see in Paris. It is an impressionistic masterpiece, transforming reality –water lilies – into a feeling. Horizontal waters mirroring vertical skies, no horizon. Monet had a gardener only taking care for his water lilies.
On my way to the Gautrain station at Rosebank I pass gardeners, caretakers, and watchmen. They keep staring at the big bags I carry. I feel intimidated. All I want to do is walk, walk through the city that I have called my home for more than two years now. And then catch the train to the airport, to Europe.
Straight in front of me, less than 5 km away, I see the downtown high rises, vivid Hillbrow, legendary Ponte City, the top of the top of Carlton tower. I remember my excitement when strolling through the areas of CBD for the first time. I left my purse and my cell phone at home for this trip, cached 50 Rand into my pocket to jump on a Metro bus heading downtown. Crowded streets, market stands, a feeling of Africa – so much different to northern suburb’s reality.
Above that fantastic downtown skyline I see the South African sky. Once more I am stunned: this topology, this dimension of clouds. It looks like a mega-screen movie in 3D, transforming clouds into massive geometric objects which create a feeling of glory. Yes, I admit, it looks better than Monet’s water lilies.

I pass walls and fences, security-cameras. Oh my god how I will enjoy walking German streets, at night, a bottle of cold beer in my left, without any fear of being mugged. I encountered South Africans who laugh at people that were mugged. “Stay in your house” is what they would tell. “Stay in your prison” is what I would hear.
Malls. That’s the public part of the prison, the area that South Africans consider as freedom. Those malls are unique in this continent. One of the reasons why South Africa might be rated as not being part of ‘Real Africa’, shifting South Africa closer to Europe and US. White people around, the ‘white factor’, that’s another argument for Milisuthando Bongela in her weekly Mail&Guardian column to explain why South Africans think their country is better off than other African countries. And another uniqueness for Africa: these streets, even 6-lane highways between Joburg and Pretoria. But then: potholes and potholes between East London and Blomfontein, on the National Route N6.
And potholes on Oxford Road. The Gautrain bus passes by. Hardly a passenger inside. Who wants to pay double the prize of the Metro bus fare? “Financial apartheit” I heard a colleague saying once. He would remember apartheid buses from decades ago. Now at least Putco and Metro buses take all passengers, even if in a Putco bus a white person can still be considered extraordinary. Whites being infected with HIV are also extraordinary – and it is hard to find the statistics that separate by ethnic groups. There is no easy answer for the spread of the epidemic in black South Africa. Multi partnerships is considered one outstanding accelerator of HIV. But no way to cut that down; even role models celebrate their multi-partnership life. Why should the citizen of – let’s say Mamelodi – go for single partnership or at least for condomizing? Because he feels like when condomizing he would defend his prosperous future?
This powerful poet from Orange Farm comes into my mind. Dazzling words hip-hopping out his ever-creative mouth. An enlightened person, I still consider him to be this country’s future. And – as soon as his girlfriend unexpectedly fell pregnant he started collecting for lobola. Culture catches everybody.
I remember my confusion when seeing these adverts on downtown and township streets that are touting ‘penis enlargement’ and ‘same day abortion’ on the same placard. Keeping in mind that especially in South African townships violence against women is worldwide leading in statistics. That’s how I learn that contraries do not exclude one another, in South Africa contradictions coexist powerfully and might even strengthen one another. Just look at the ever blooming security sector.
I will never forget these unbelievable helpful Africaaner, stopping for me in my broken beetle, checking the engine, swallowing petrol, toeing at the end. And then asking: “In Europe, you also have these many blacks?”
“Do you like South Africa?” was the frequent question when people found out about my status as foreigner. I learned from the answers of others what I was expected to reply: beautiful landscape, amazing beaches, Drakensberge, Capetown, the weather – did anybody ever mention the people? What really got into my mind was: ‘Yes, the weather is nice – but do not forget about these spontaneous Jozi rainfalls and artillery thunders, attacking you out of blue skies. Yes, and the landscape is beautiful. But remember, Europe obviously has a lot of beautiful landscapes too. And you can easily reach them with public transport, you can fearlessly walk through city centres, you don’t need to be endlessly grappling with your alarm system. Yes, I like South Africa, but – this is not my dream of a country.’ If I wrote something critical like that about South Africa people would then comment: ‘Why are you here?’ – maybe after looking at my name to find out whether I am black or white. Why am I here? Good question.

While exercising for long distance running in the Joburg northern suburbs streets in 2009 I experienced people pro-actively looking at me, keen on greeting with the unquestioned “fine and you”. After the Soccer Worldcup Jozi people seem to have lost their pro-active willingness to greet passers-by. In Capetown I felt as a disturbing person when exercising, I received a lot of unfriendly looks and was greeted only reluctantly. Running East London disturbed me, people just ignored this white person, nor friendly neither unfriendly, just indifferent. That was one point when I re-learned: in South Africa it never is appropriate to talk about ‘people’. Differences are ethnic and financial, differences are in talent and in opportunity, differences are in self awareness, difference is everywhere. Any generalization would only lead to conflict, because, again, in South Africa you most easily will find proof for opposing arguments.
Some questions remain: Why do some people not lock the door when visiting a public toilet? Why is it that people are surprised every year when they experience the coldness of winter? Why do I find advertisements for music CDs and there is no place you can buy those? Why do some people complain about crime and in the same sentence say they would love their country? Why isn’t more money spent in schooling? I remember, after reading in his newspaper about the national matric results 2009 some person sitting next to me in the bus said: ‘this country is a brain-low nation’.
People on the streets hardly ever get the chance to leave this country. On the contrary, South Africa rather absorbs more and more people from other African countries. If I was to imagine Europe conceiving all these immigrants, there would be high chances of xenophobia – also in Europe not everybody welcomes foreigners as source of fresh brain. Even if there’s room for enhancements I consider South Africa to be doing a damn good job compared to ‘first world’ countries. I notice a surprising level of social peace in South Africa – considering the colonial and the apartheit history, considering the huge gaps in income, considering the temptations of corruption. South Africa copes with having the first and the third world within its boundaries. Whereas Europe desperately tries to keep the third world out of its boundaries – by means of huge walls and fences and security cameras and rude laws.

The moment I enter the Gautrain station I figure it out: to me South Africa feels like a real world with all its distinct contrasts. Thus it is a model to learn from. Maybe in Europe continental fences cannot be kept forever, maybe a kind of ‘third world’ will upraise within the ‘first world’. Then Europe would need to cope with this, and I am not sure whether Europe will do better than South Africa does now. That’s what South African reality made me aware of. To get rid of European arrogance, that’s the reason why I was here.
As the Gautrain doors close smoothly it feels like being back in Europe – within South Africa.

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One Response to “Leaving Jozi”

  1. Hi dear Norbert, somehow I missed to learn to know you, busy in my own world of survival and dreams of doing what I consider as worth doing (very difficult to combine at least in my case).

    Very happy about what you wrote. All things I was pondering about many times and many more of such paradoxons. Things hard to digest when coming from “arrogant” Germany.

    I got that often resistance about my talk, that I have started to self censor in order to avoid trouble and nonconformity in my African environment. The next step will possibly be changing at the next Generation to a thinking that is still “foreign” to me.

    Also offensichtlich bist Du schon im Flieger nehme ich an.
    Vielleicht koennen wir uns dennoch einmal ueber Skype unterhalten.

    Schade dass wir uns nicht wirklich kennenlernten.

    Nochmal Danke fuer die Texte und Beobachtungen.

    Alles Gute!
    tilmann

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