Midnight in Johannesburg: Random First Impressions
By Dave Fox
Johannesburg, South Africa
I landed in South Africa seven hours ago. It’s my third time in Africa, but the other two times were in Tunisia, which is 4,480 miles from Johannesburg. In comparison, Los Angeles is a mere 2,460 miles from New York. Africa is big.
These last seven hours haven’t been scrunchable into a cohesive blog entry, but random moments warrant more description than a 160-character Twitter post will allow. Here are a few of those random moments:
- Life after 26 hours of flying: Seattle to Washington, DC to Dakar, Senegal to Johannesburg — I stumbled off the plane in an exhausted stupor. But the customs agent cheered me up. As she stamped my passport, she began singing a Zulu folk song. It was beautiful, soulful, lilting, haunting. If only American customs officials could be so perky.
- My hotel near the airport is surrounded by an iron fence. I’ve been cautioned not to venture out alone. Guidebooks have warned me. People who have been here before have warned me. As I checked in, I asked the hotel receptionist if it was really that bad. In this neighborhood, he said, it was safe in daytime. But as the sun was beginning to droop for the evening at 6:30, he told me I should stay within the hotel grounds.
- The hotel bartender is from Soweto township. He taught me greetings in his language, which I had never heard of, which he tells me is similar to Setswana, the language I’ll be hearing a lot in Botswana in a couple of days. He gave me his impressions, as a black South African, of race issues in post-Apartheid South Africa. He told me the barbecues in the townships offer scrumptious food for five rand — less than one US dollar — and a side of porridge you should eat with your hands. “They’ll bring you a spoon if you ask them,” he said. But what would be the point of that? It’d be lamer than asking for a fork in the chopsticks-favoring nations of the world. After chatting for a couple of hours, he apologized that he has to work for the next several days. “Or I would bring you there in my car.”
South African TV commercials: I couldn’t help noticing that a casino ad shows only white people. White South Africans are the ones with money to gamble in swank casinos. Government-sanctioned racism is long gone, but economic disparity will continue beyond our lifetimes.
- Castle Lager, on the other hand, shows a goofy, multiracial, multilingual party of beer-swilling football supporters in their ads. It’s a party I would like to go to. “It all comes together with a Castle,” their TV advertisement says. And the slogan on their website: “Different Tribes. One Voice.” Change is coming slowly. But don’t kid yourself into thinking there is equality here.
- This all gets awkward as a white visitor. A long-forgotten memory popped into my head tonight of the time when I protested, at age 17, against Apartheid outside the South African embassy in Washington, DC. A second thought followed: “Am I remembering this now out of defensiveness?” Most of us are still ignorant. Apartheid is still causing a nasty hangover.
- I have two days free in this city before my journaling safari begins in Botswana. On Wednesday, a guide is taking me to see the Soweto township. But what about tomorrow? Sitting by the pool all day might be okay in familiar places, but I’m in South Africa. I’m not going to imprison myself in a gated community. The receptionist arranged for a taxi driver to show me around. Auspiciously, the taxi driver’s name is Dave. I met Dave in the lobby tonight, and he seemed to get it that I’m not into sightseeing. I’m into people and their stories. I got a good vibe off of Dave. I think he and I will have fun tomorrow. Also, Dave is approximately the same size as Mount Kilimanjaro. I think I’ll be safe with him.
- I wandered out for some fresh air in the hotel parking lot just before midnight. All was peaceful. The crickets were loud. I’m delirious with jet lag, listening to Johnny Clegg on my iPod.
A Castle Lager Ad Promotes South African Unity: