Johannesburg is like one of those layered, rainbow cakes we often had at birthday parties long, long ago. I hadn’t thought of them for years but when this analogy occurred to me, I googled and found them to be alive and well and living on the internet. They look more streamlined now. I remember them as starting with lighter colours at the top and becoming darker and more viscous the lower you went.
I love Johannesburg and I love living here. There are too many reasons why to list here. But sometimes living here is, for many of us, like living in the upper layers of a rainbow cake. It’s fun, it’s dynamic, very friendly and often beautiful. For weeks and even months, life ticks over smoothly and although there are grumbles about pothole-dodging and taxi drivers, we essentially get on with things and have a pretty good time. ( If you don’t believe this, check out “Dear World, Meet Johannesburg” at www.brandslut.co.za )
But every now and then, the layers run into each other a little and the fluffy, frosted bits get mixed up with the middle bits and if we’re really unlucky, even with the bruised-purple layer underneath it all.
This past week the cake flopped rather badly.
It got off to a perfectly good start: Beautiful weather, a few spectacular thunderstorms, a lovely post-summer-holiday lunch out with girlfriends etc. We could have been anywhere.
Then on Wednesday one of my dearest friends was hijacked. It happened right outside her daughter’s home in a quiet, pretty, suburban street and it was fast and furious. She lost her jewellery, her handbag with much of her life in it, her cell phone and, of course, her car. She was left feeling shaken from being flung on the ground, nursing a very sore finger where a ring had been particularly roughly wrenched off and feeling thankful that her attackers had not used the foul and abusive language that usually goes with this sort of episode. And then, of course, there is that quite significant sense of relief that comes with the realisation that you’re lucky to be alive at all and for a while afterwards, the burden of dealing with the ‘what ifs?’ in the small hours of the night.
There is an immediate sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. We shouldn’t wear ‘real’ jewellery, good cars are targets, our neighbourhoods are under siege and so the conversation goes on.
Later in the afternoon I retrieve The Star from my driveway and am horrified by the images on the front page. ANC supporters, carrying rocks and hammers, are photographed waiting to ambush members of the DA who have been brave enough to stage a protest march in the city. The march had to be stopped because of the imminent and very real danger it posed to anyone in the general vicinity. What has happened to Freedom of Expression, a right supposedly enshrined in our much-vaunted constitution? Did anyone stop for a minute to wonder how Madiba – “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” -might feel about such intimidatory tactics? I don’t read much of Wednesday’s newspaper. The photos are more than enough. I’m already in a negative frame of mind following the hijacking and don’t need any further reminders of the conundrum in which I live. I feel rattled and edgy and wonder about the wisdom of leaving our garden doors open onto the hot, Highveld summer night after dark.
But then it’s Thursday and we start all over again. The hijacked car has been recovered by one of our excellent vehicle tracking companies. They do, of course, get plenty of practice. The hijackers have left behind a handbag (it could not have been a designer label. Our hijackers are highly discerning…), a purse emptied of cash, a driving licence and credit cards. Thoughtful.
I have arranged for painters to come and in due course they arrive. They were due on Tuesday but now here they are and I express concern for one of the young men, Charles, who is on crutches. I learn that he has been shot in the leg and I assume this was quite a recent mishap. But no, it was more that a year ago and – I quote verbatim – “The tsotsis broke into his shack wanting money and when he didn’t have any, they shot him anyway.’ I’m appalled. More so to be told that he is still on crutches because the bullet remains lodged somewhere behind his knee and is unlikely ever to be retrieved. Images of incompetent state medical facilities flash through my brain and I get an unwelcome glimpse into what it must be like to be without access to private health care in this country.
We haven’t moved beyond the entrance hall to examine what needs painting when I am casually informed that Thomas, the senior painter of the trio, was also shot last year. Also by tsotsis. They wanted his (very old) car and although he tried to get out of it quickly he also ‘took a bullet.’ Fortunately his injury was less serious and it seems the bullet was extracted. The men look resigned. Charles manages the stairs, crutches and all, and later I see him climbing a ladder onto the roof.
Looking for light relief on tv later, I find our president giving his ‘State of the Nation Address’. Nothing light about this. I try but find it impossible to watch or listen. I go to bed despondent once again.
And now it’s Friday and I feel more than ready to welcome the weekend. The painters arrive early. Charles is first; swinging on his crutches all the way from the taxi rank several blocks away. They are followed closely by carpet cleaners. It was not intended that both groups should be working in the house on the same day but since the painters were on ‘African Time’ they arrived two days later than scheduled. The morning degenerates pretty quickly into chaos. I whisk Daisy-dog down to the Parlour for a much-needed shampoo and blow-dry. I have booked specifically for this morning so as to keep her away from the carpet cleaners and congratulate myself on such foresight. I hadn’t banked on the painters who will be here all day. It is also Valentine’s Day and the birthday of our gardener, Joseph, who has worked for us for 32 years. This calls – as it does every year – for a birthday cake, so on my way back from Le Pawtique, I pick up a cake substantial enough to feed the entire crew on the property. I expect to find Caroline (our housemaid of 30 years) reigning serenely over her kingdom and waiting to dispense cake and coffee to all the workmen. But, arriving in the kitchen, I find her trapped by another unexpected visitor: This is a middle-aged man who appears to be some sort of supervisor for the actual carpet cleaners who are very busy shampooing the stairs. I think this ‘supervisor thing’ is a peculiarly South African phenomenon. He is nowhere near his staff. He is ensconced at the kitchen table with tea and home-made cookies and is regaling Caroline (who has a distinctly glazed look) with his life history. His eyes light up at the sight of me and chocolate cake and in no time I am drawn into part of the story which, to my dismay, comes complete with illustrations: He holds out his right arm to show the entry and exit sites of the bullet fired at him during an armed robbery. Both Caroline and I are most uncharacteristically stunned into silence. It strikes me that on this beautiful, late summer’s day, I have three people in my home who had been shot and have survived to tell their tales. I think of my sister in the English countryside and my sister-in-law in Sydney and feel 100% certain that neither of them will ever be in this position. There is something wrong here. Our kitchen guest, undeterred and still talking, is about to tuck into chocolate cake. Uncharitably, I do wonder if he had suffered injuries other than to his arm. For once I am pleased to be caught in gym clothes; I make my excuses and beat a hasty retreat to a Pilates Class. I need to do some deep breathing.
I’d arranged to take my hijacked friend out for lunch and we meet at the pretty, peaceful nursery garden down the road. I get there first and unusually for a week day, order myself a glass of wine. I feel I deserve it. Sue is calm and like my painters, resigned. We talk ourselves through the week; the ‘what ifs, whys and if onlys’. She’s spent the morning getting new house keys cut and having her car cleaned. The police actually took fingerprints – we’re both quite surprised by this – and wrote the case number on the windscreen in a sticky substance that’s been difficult to remove. It was case number 300-and-something and we debate whether this was for the year, the month or the week. Determinedly positive, we agree it’s ‘for the year.’ My son, living in London, calls while we’re there to ask after her; she is his Godmother. While we talk I am acutely aware of her naked hands. No wedding and engagement rings. No jewellery to speak of. Suddenly I need to block out what could have been and I want to hug her.
We leave together, making our way through the rows of plants and terra cotta pots. Johannesburg pulsates just beyond the gates. The nursery hums with activity; the staff are upbeat and busy. The florist is preparing magnificent table arrangements which must surely be for a wedding. The carpark guards are friendly and helpful. One wishes me a ‘Happy Day’. We’re in one of the top layers of the cake here. We look at each other. How does one explain this city to an outsider? There is so much wrong with it and yet at its heart there is something irrepressibly wonderful. I think of Charles and Thomas again. No cash, no jewellery, no German cars. Once upon a time is was ‘them’ and ‘us’. But now, in this city, it’s ‘all of us’. For better or worse we’re in it together. Perhaps that’s one of things that gives Johannesburg it’s unique multicultural energy. Despite everything, once you know it, it’s hard not to love it.
I watch my special friend drive away. She’s off to Cape Town for a few days and I’m glad she’s going to have a change of scenery and a change of pace. But I also know she’ll be happy to get back here. It’s her home. She’s lived here all her life and like so many Johannesburgers, she’s already picked herself up, dusted herself off and is ready to start all over again.