Catwalk on a Dark Continent

I’ve been away for quite a while, on another continent, and on arriving back in Johannesburg I’ve been reminded of why I called this blog ‘Africadayz’.  There is just that certain sense of unreality, of the absurd and the unexpected that prevails; always.  It’s what makes life interesting.  There’s never a dull day here.

This time I’ve been quite slow to settle down to my usual urban/suburban life.  Urban because the city of Johannesburg is right on my doorstep but suburban because, despite that proximity, there is a stillness about the streets at night that belies their location.

Analysing what it is that I miss most when returning home from Europe, I realise that it is the busy hustle and bustle;  the peopled neighbourhoods of European cities and towns that buzz long after nightfall.  The streets of London are alive with activity; brightly lit red buses, taxis, cars, cyclists and pedestrians continue about their business until the small hours of the morning while in the sun-burned European towns and villages, people are out at pavement cafes and restaurants until all hours before strolling complacently home.  It’s not like that here.

Most of residential Johannesburg goes into lockdown after dark.  Public transport is almost non-existent and going out means driving, even if you do only live two blocks from your favourite restaurant.  Strolling through local leafy streets after sunset causes armed, private, neighbourhood guards to pull up next to you in powerful, black pick-ups just to make sure you’re actually ok.  You find yourself going to considerable lengths to reassure them that you are in fact just fine and it’s only because you wanted to exercise the family dog before bedtime that you’re out after dark.  Or, as was the case with me a few days ago, it’s because your cat’s missing that you’re wandering up and down the road waving a torch, tapping an open tin of pilchards and whistling under your breath.  Again.  This sort of encounter seems to unsettle the guards more than potential robbers might and they return again and again to curbcrawl alongside you, the idling of their diesel trucks shattering the peace or any chance you might have of hearing a plaintive miaow in the darkness.  The first blog entry I ever wrote was about this, my own personal catwalk, about eighteen months ago.   It’s the same inconvenient cat but the guards have probably changed.  They are bemused but only faintly suspicious and I can almost see the same thoughts their predecessors had crossing their faces as I try to explain the situation:  “Crazy, Reckless Woman.”  I suspect I’m something of a nuisance as they feel responsible for my safety and perceive what I’m doing as risky.  They might be right, but, – and I know I digress rather – I’m getting quite good at this exercise.  It must be all the night drives we South Africans do in game reserves, looking for the gleam of bushbaby or leopard eyes in landrover spotlights, because suddenly there they are, emerald-green eyes flashing at me from the same rooftop of the same long-suffering neighbour.  So my first two days back in the country were largely spent trying to coax him back to the comfort of his own home.  His behaviour is a mystery which is not surprising for a cat, but since it’s not the first time he’s done this when I’ve been away for a while, I suspect it’s a way of showing his disapproval of such absences.

So perhaps since I’ve been prowling about after dinner rather more than usual, I’ve been extra sensitive to the quiet, dark and almost ghostly feel of suburban Johannesburg by night.  Regardless of errant cats, a torch is a good idea because our streets are very dark.  Our streetlights seem to work in phases these days; one week our block is brightly lit while the blocks above and below us are plunged into inky blackness.  Then it’s our turn and we’re grateful to all the residents who have put their own lighting along the outsides of their two-metre-high garden walls.  As with security, in more and more areas, South Africans (who can afford to) are taking responsibility for themselves in ways that were once expected of the State.  More and more of us are putting in solar power and generators to take over when the electricity goes off and gradually more and more of us are starting to consider water storage tanks.  Our suburb almost vibrates to the hum of generators in a power outage.

Power cuts in mid-winter when the temperatures plummet have become fairly predictable and we have come to accept ‘overloading’ as a fairly valid excuse.  We light our candles and get out our camping gas cooker, now kept conveniently on hand for just this sort of event.  This is something that intrigues me when visiting large overseas cities in winter.  I have never experienced a power failure in London despite the largely ancient buildings, pipes and infra-structure.  But here we are coming inured to them.  It’s a phenomenon called ‘Boiling a Frog’ but more of that another time…

When  large swathes of the city were plunged into darkness in the balmy temperatures of Wednesday evening and left that way through all of yesterday and into today, questions arose.  This time, we learned, illegally striking workers had simply ‘switched off’ the power to countless suburbs.  In The Star newspaper last night we read that one of the suburbs affected was Houghton.  One of the headline events here in the last week has been the return home, by ambulance, of Nelson Mandela to his Houghton home – still on life support and with his team of hospital staff now installed in his house.  While it is almost inconceivable that his house might not have more than sufficient back-up power sources available, it seems our beleaguered City Council was taking no chances: A very large generator was delivered to that particular road in record time.  The consequences of that home being without power for any length of time would be interesting to say the least.

Tonight’s newspaper describes the City Power technicians as ‘holding the city to ransom through widespread electricity outages’  and goes on to say ‘a cold, dry, dark weekend is looming for some Johannesburg residents caught up in the crippling blackouts.’  ‘Dry’ because the ‘knock on effect has led to water shortages.’ There is no mention of when this might end and private security companies have been employed to guard certain substations.

When, just a few days ago, I found myself comparing the bright London streets with the quiet, dark ones of Johannesburg, I could never have guessed just how dark the city would shortly become.  This takes us to a whole new level.  I looked up ‘Dark Continent’ in my Oxford Dictionary this afternoon, hardly expecting to find it, but there it was: “historical; a name given to Africa when it was little known to Europeans.”   Back then it was metaphoric.  Today, unfortunately it is not.  On this little bit of the continent it is absolutely true.

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