With the incessant rain of the last two months literally bogging down our building progress, I decided to switch my focus to indoor things and I set aside last Thursday to seek out Slavin Kitchens in Wynberg, an industrial estate in the north east of Johannesburg. The morning dawned – barely – in another downpour and it just so happened that Eskom – our national electricity service provider – chose that day to start a programme of ‘load shedding’. (This, for the uninitiated, is a euphemism for cutting off the power supply.)
Undeterred I set off, only to find that the power cuts included all the traffic lights between my home and the freeway. Despite the seasoned Johannesburg drivers switching automatically into 4-Way-Stop mode and taking turns to cross in a surprisingly orderly fashion, chaos reigned, heightened by the unfamiliar weather conditions. Sunshine, I decided, makes so many things more bearable. I eventually made it onto the M1 North and took the Wynberg turnoff. It should have been straightforward from there but I’d not reckoned on the fact that street names are a thing of the past in many parts of Johannesburg. In the teeming rain, dodging potholes, random vehicles, pedestrians spilling onto the road to avoid hawkers, cooking pots, beggars and work-seekers, it was quite impossible to find my way. We’re not used to weather like this in Johannesburg. We pride ourselves on our bright sunshine and blazing blue skies. The grey, unremitting gloom casts our surroundings in a very different light and leaves us rattled.
A few years ago I read ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy, a book described by Adam Mars-Jones of The Observer as ‘conjuring up the end…..of all humanity’ with ‘it’s poetic description of landscapes from which the possibility of poetry would seem to have been stripped.’ I’ve always thought of that book as being written in black and white and this was how the world looked to me in Wynberg. Against a grey and blurry backdrop, charcoal sketches etched against a leaden sky. Misery seemed magnified. Usually we see only what we wish to and I started to wonder if we’re routinely blinded by sunlight in this country.
Wynberg stretches into the sprawling township of Alexandra and with great respect to the thousands of people who live there, it is not a place where I’d like to get lost, so with a block to go, I eventually admitted defeat and headed for home. On the way back I questioned the logic of building a new home; here, now. And then reminded myself that one of the reasons we’re doing it is to be more self-sufficient. The new house will have solar panels, a generator and water tanks. When the government infra structure wobbles, we’ll have some back-up.
But other people are not so lucky and I drove home haunted by images of the morning: An old man with a face perfect for a portrait, standing at a frantic intersection with a black rubbish bag. Collecting detritus from passing commuters in return for small change, he kept his dignity; the barefoot children running among waiting cars, the outstretched hand of a mother on a traffic island and worst of all, a frail, elderly black woman, badly crippled, struggling toward somewhere.
It’s tiring to turn a blind eye; to look the other way in the face of so much need but it can be dangerous to stop. Relieved but with my heart in pieces I turned into my old, tree-covered neighbourhood. I arrived home to find the power restored. I made tea, battened down my personal hatches and stayed indoors for the rest of the day sheltered from those other realities.
The very next day, in pouring rain once more, I pass another woman in a street close to home. I recognise her as Zimbabwean. She is in lightweight summer clothing and has no umbrella. As I pass her she stops to tip out the water that has collected in the carved wooden bowls she’s been carrying on her head and the action breaks another piece of my heart. I ‘know her’. She is one of many Zimbabwean women who roam the suburbs selling handmade crafts for a living. This time I can stop; I’m in familiar territory. But I cannot buy another bowl. I have so many. I give her a spare umbrella from my car and a handful of cash and suggest she gets something warm to eat. It’s atonement for the day before.
And then it’s Thursday again and I’m on my way to meet a kitchen designer. Once more I’m in unfamiliar territory. It’s still raining but this is a different journey. I’m looking for a gated residential estate just beyond a much newer industrial area. I pass factories, warehouses, showrooms and huge construction sites. Building cranes bisect the sky. The energy is tangible. It’s feels like a completely different country from where I was a week before and the only way this one seems to be going is up.
I see the housing estate in the distance but first I need to cross a huge fourway intersection and the light turns red. I stop reluctantly. Mine is the only car in the intersection and to my right, on the centre island are three young, black men. I am not threatened by them. They are hoping to be picked up by a contractor and given casual work for the day. This happens – and has happened for years – at several, specific corners all over the city. It’s unsettling but I’m used to it. I’m surprised though when one of the men calls out to me and I turn instinctively to see that with hand motions he’s asking for food. I try to see myself as they might – a white woman of a certain age, in a dry, warm German car with little to think of but herself and I wish I was anywhere but there. The light seems to take forever to change and I count no fewer than 19 men around the crossroad, all hoping for work.
At last I arrive at the imposing gates of the housing estate. It’s called Kent Gate and from the map I’m given I see that all the roads enclosed within these electrified walls have been similarly named. Gentle English counties are reproduced in this alien environment. But before I can explore this removed British territory, I must get through the boom and I have never encountered such a battery of security barriers in my life. A plethora of cameras, intercoms and other equipment are pointed at me and the gate house is manned by three guards that I can see. There may be more. I am asked for the erf number of the property I’m visiting and I don’t know it. This causes some consternation. I have never been asked for an erf number before. I have the street address and the name of the homeowner and eventually I show them the email with all her details on my iphone. Unappeased, they call her. I am then asked for my licence which they copy. I start to edge towards the boom when I’m told I need to be fingerprinted too and that to leave the estate later, I’ll have to reproduce those prints. I oblige and finally the boom lifts.
I drive through the boom and I must have fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole or through the Narnia wardrobe because I emerge in Perfectville. Huge, immaculate homes line quiet, suburban lanes. There is not a pothole in sight. Pretty English lampposts dot perfectly coiffed pavements, a curved bridge arches over a stream (that anywhere else in the country would be called a ‘spruit’) and manicured, unwalled front gardens are visible for all to see. There will be no broom, wooden bowl sellers, or beggars at these front doors. I feel completely disoriented.
I reach my destination in something of a daze but the meeting goes well. Lots of first world technology highlights all the first world kitchen paraphernalia one could wish for. It’s all most reassuring and an hour later I’m on my way to the exit gate. I press a finger onto the keypad and nothing happens. For a panicked split-second I picture myself spending the rest of my life wandering around Cloud Cuckoo Land but my second attempt does the trick and I’m ejected back into the real world.
Now I have to run the gauntlet of that awful intersection a second time. Fortunately this time there’re lots of cars and I’m not as conspicuous. But the light’s red again and I have time to do a quick headcount. Seven men are missing. It’s still raining and perhaps they’ve simply given up, but I prefer to think that seven families will have someone coming home tonight with money in their pocket. I wish I were a contractor with a big truck and lots of work to offer.
This kitchen project is taking me away from my usual stamping ground and far from my comfort zone. I decide to see it as an unexpected occupational hazard… But perhaps it’s good for me. I’m forced to confront all these other realities. The drive home is uneventful. The freeway (a toll road) is excellent and everything seems to be working. Even the traffic lights on the last stretch are functioning this Thursday. I ponder the concept of reality; what it means to me, to the men at the intersection, the milieu in Wynberg and to the people in Perfectville. We’re all in the same country but we could be on different planets. As for myself, I feel as though I’ve been to outer space and back in the last week. I haven’t seen any rainbows in a while but maybe tomorrow the sun will come out and all will seem well with our world.