Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.
By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.
It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.
When the official itinerary arrived two weeks before the trip, it said that all the lectures would be “on the stately, lush grounds” of Wits University, but all the students — about 50 of us, from over 20 different countries —would be staying at a “conveniently located” hotel in Berea. I didn’t know the neighbourhood so I looked it up in my pocket Lonely Planet. “Bordering Hillbrow,” it said, “these two neighborhoods were once the places to see and be seen, but now make up two of the most crime-ridden areas of Johannesburg. Tourists are advised to use caution when walking around these areas, and avoid them altogether at night.” When I read the passage to my boyfriend, Patrick, didn’t seem concerned. “It’s just a few nights,” he reassured. “And besides, you’ll get to see the real city. That’s cool. Not a lot of people get that chance.”
I didn’t bother tell my mom where I would be staying. “Do you know how violent Johannesburg is?,” she kept asking. “Everyone lives in fear. You’re crazy for going.”
“I think your ride has forgotten you,” says a lithe, bearded man in a slick, silvery suit, stopping me as I wonder around, trying to find a taxi stand or an info booth. “Where do you want to go? I will take you there.” An over-sized gold watch shines from his wrist.
“I’m fine,” I reply. “Someone’s coming to get me.”
He doesn’t buy it. “Really? I can take you where you want to go. You’ve been waiting here a long time.” I’ve been in transit for close to 30 hours, having stopped in both London and Paris en route. I’m exhausted, and haven’t eaten since I downed a Häagen-Dazs half-way through my Air France flight.
“Stay City. It’s a hotel in Berea,” I say, scanning the man’s alert, knowing eyes for any trace of fear or concern at the prospect of driving into Berea.
“Are you sure it’s called Stay City?” He replies with confidence. “There was a place in Berea called Student City, but it closed last year. Do you have the telephone number?”
I lie: “I’m sorry, I don’t.” The number is in my carry-all, which is slung over my shoulder, but so is my passport and my wallet, neither of which I want to expose.
“Hold on, I will call the operator for you and get the number.” He pulls out a cell phone and walks out of ear shot, his polished-to-a-fault shoes clacking loudly on the airport’s terrazzo floors.
“Why did he walk away?,” I think to myself. I watch his lips moving from afar but can’t make out anything he’s saying. “He’s probably not even speaking English.”
When he comes back a few minutes later, he says: “I have Stay City on the line, what is your name?” I stare at him. ” I need to give them your name to confirm that you have a reservation there. Otherwise they won’t let you in when you show up.”
My voice creaks with panic: “Carter Tegan.”
The taxi driver smiles. “Yes, it’s Carter,” he says into the receiver. “Yes…yes…we will be there in half an hour.”
Before I can stop him he takes my suitcase and wheels it out to his glossy blue BMW. As he puts it in the trunks I notice that there’s no TAXI sign on the roof, no radio on the dash or no license anywhere. “Do you drive people like this often?,” I ask as he opens my door. “Have you been driving for a long time, or is this something you do on the side?”
“I’m a private driver,” he says. “I’ve been driving for almost 20 years. This car is new. Do you like it? It’s German.”
Row after row of squat concrete columns line the road out from the airport.
“You see all this?,” asks the driver. I can hear pride in his voice. “The airport is being upgraded for the FIFA 2010 World Cup. The airport needs to be much bigger for when the world comes to South Africa in two years.” In the dark, the barely started buildings look more like decay than something new — mammoth carcasses rotting in the dark. And I don’t want to talk about soccer.
“How do we get to Berea from here?,” I ask impatiently as we accelerate onto the highway.
“You see this road we are getting on?” He responds, politely. “This is the R24 Electron Highway. It will take us straight there. It’s easy, you’ll see.” I don’t say anything so he continues: “But you know, I don’t think we are ready for the World Cup. I mean, the stadiums are not even half finished and they are coming on so slowly. And you saw the airport, same thing. And if it is all for the World Cup anyway, what will happen to all these new things when the World Cup is over?” I stay silent, staring out the window. “And then there is the crime,” he says, catching my eye in the rear view mirror.
“Is it really bad?” I reply.
“You will be fine. Berea isn’t the safest area after dark so when you want to go out and dance, just take a taxi. Go to Melville. Young people like to party in Melville. It’s a nice area.”
I fix my gaze back out the window. It’s black out but I can see brush covered hills and fast food restaurants, gas stations and suburban houses. Everything looks so quiet. There are almost no cars on the road, and there are very few lights. In the distance I can see the Johannesburg skyline – dimmed, grey towers. It almost looks North American.
“I live in Hillbrow,” he says. “I have lived there for many years. When I first moved in it was a very lively area. Very safe. Lots of nightlife. But now it is different. It is full of crime, run by Nigerian drug lords. But as long as you stick to your own business you are fine. And
anyway the drug lords are all very religious, calling themselves pastor so and so…pastor John and pastor Michael. Very religious, so they won’t hurt you.”
“That’s good,” I reply distractedly, missing his sarcasm.
“Berea, on the other hand, is known as the United Nations of Africa. There are illegal immigrants from all over Africa there. Congolese, Senegalese, Zimbabweans. They come because they think there is opportunity in Johannesburg. But it isn’t always easy. They hijack buildings that have been abandoned by their owners — rich South Africans who have left for London, Sydney or Toronto. The buildings are slums. The refugees live in fear of being evicted, being sent home. There is so much crime because they feel like they have to defend what little they have. They don’t want to go home. But you will be fine. They won’t hurt you.”
We exit the highway and drive down a narrow street of low-rise, modern apartment buildings. They all have boarded-up doors and cracked windowpanes. There are no people, anywhere.
“Are we getting closer?” I chirp.
We turn a corner onto a high street dotted with food shops and bars, all closed. Two women holding each other by the arm are walking in the street. They are bare-legged and bare foot but wrapped in heavy, puffy coats, one brown and one purple. I can make out their creviced faces — they look like they are my granny’s age. They are walking towards a group of four much younger men sitting silently on the sidewalk, but not walking quickly.
“We are just around the corner from the hostel. Right now this is Hillbrow, and your hostel is where Hillbrow meets Berea.”
We turn down another street of modernist apartment buildings. Everything looks like it was built in the ’50s, but abandoned in the ’90s. The sidewalk pavers are all ruptured and the street gutters are filled with beer bottles, chip bags and newspaper pages. We slow in front of a tall, freshly painted, pink stucco wall with vines climbing over the top. We stop when we are in front of a black wrought iron gate, with a voice box and small security keypad to one side.
“We are at Stay City. I will just buzz them to let them know we are here.”
The building across the street is a four-storey, grapefruit-coloured block with long, horizontal, strip windows, many of which are broken. There are two men sitting out front, staring blankly at the blue BMW. Looking up the street, similar buildings, in yellow and beige and orange, line the sidewalk. But there is no one else on the street.s
The black gate clicks open and the driver gets my bag. I pay him and he gives me his card. His name is Daniel. “In case you need anything else — city tours or tours of Soweto — call me.”
Through the gate is a garden courtyard and a large wooden door with a small circular window. A large face with eager eyes peers out at me. When the door opens, a seven-foot tall, broad-shouldered man with a toothy grin is looking down at me. “You must be Carter!”
He is wearing a navy blue wool jacket and a scarf wrapped tightly around his thick neck. There is a toque on his head on top of which sits a wide-brimmed policeman’s hat. Only it’s not a policeman’s hat. In the plastic silver star in the middle of the brow is written ‘Zoo Security’.
“You are very, very late. We were expecting you here for dinner. Unfortunately, there’s no dinner left. I hope you ate. Where are you coming from? Canada? That is so far. Canada, it must be cold there.”
The hotel has no central heating and is probably zero degrees. I can see my breath as I say: “sorry, my flight was late.”
“Well we are glad you are here. I will show you to your room.” He shuffles into a small side office and grabs a skeleton key from a rack of a dozen or so other keys that look exactly the same.
My room is at the end of a long corridor on the second floor. It isn’t locked when I get there. As soon as the front desk man flicks on the lights, puts my suitcase down and gives me my key, I lock myself in. My room is freezing, with air whistling through a louvered glass window. It’s also enormous, with twelve-foot ceilings, and a king-sized, four-poster bed, but sparsely decorated.
“I thought everywhere in Johannesburg would have burglar bars?” I mumble to myself as I test one of the louvers; they are slotted into a metal frame and slip out effortlessly. “I suppose coming in through the window isn’t a necessary effort, though, considering the room door barely even has a lock. What kind of a room key is that, anyway?” It’s chunky and looks like a prop from A Knight’s Tale.
For a minute I think of Patrick at home in Toronto, probably having a Heineken on our patio. Relaxed. Then I think of the off-duty zoo security guard. I feel vulnerable. Not because anything happened on my drive in, but precisely because nothing happened. I was expecting action or commotion or violence. A situation to react to. Some tangible thing to test my reflexes, or instincts or ability to survive against. I wanted to know the danger, to see it. Instead, I got a big blank canvas for my imagination to fill in with horrors.
“Don’t go out at night, but what if they come in?,” I think to myself. “Are those two men on the street waiting for me to turn my light out? Shit, Zoo Security should have never turned the light on the first place. Now they know where I am.”
I flick out the light and almost instantly fill in the darkness with images of people breaking into my room. “What if those two women in Hillbrow followed the car? What if they need money to pay a pastor?” I turn the light back on and move over to the bed, sitting on the end, with my feet on the ground. I start composing the headlines: Foreign Student Kidnapped in Berea, Tenth this Month. Then start wondering if my mom would pay my ransom. “Whatever it is, right? She would take out a loan if she doesn’t have the cash, right?” Then I start making a list of all the things I haven’t accomplished in life yet: writing a book, making a movie, running a marathon, building my first building, developing my own clothing line. “I haven’t even finished school yet.” Every time the wind whistles through the panes I think “This is it. They’re coming in. I’m toast.”
When I wake up the room is flooded with a brilliant light, flowing gently through the louvered glass. I open the window. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. The grapefruit coloured building across the street is a radiant pink. “The two men are gone,” I think. “But why wouldn’t they be?”
Stay City’s tiny lobby is packed with chattering students, from China, India, California, Egypt, England. Everyone looks well rested, though many people are talking about how cold it was last night and how they weren’t expecting it to be so cold in Africa. One girl from Sudan is bundled in a down-filled, copper-coloured parka, looking completely unimpressed. “I have never been so cold in all my life,” she says to anyone who will listen. I’m too tired to talk to anyone. I just grab a bagel from the continental breakfast bar and sit by myself.
When it’s time to go to the university, we file out the front door past the man in the ‘Zoo Security’ hat who is still on duty. As we exit, he takes back our identical keys and neatly, purposefully arranges them on his peg board. “It’s so none of them get lost,” when I ask what he’s doing.
In the street we get on a shuttle bus heading to the university for the conference’s opening events. I sit in behind of a professor from Rome who is talking loudly to a graduate student from Columbia University in New York City. “There are definitely two Johannesburgs,” says the professor. “There is the Johannesburg at night — muted, paranoid and lurking. And the Johannesburg during the day, where everything is washed in this brilliant light, and everything feels benign. Look at this sunshine – it is hard to feel that anything sinister could happen when everything is so clear.”
The shuttle bus heads back in the direction of the highway, through Hillbrow. There are people out walking, shops are open and carts set-up on the side walks to sell potato chips, newspapers and chocolate bars.
“I’m really looking forward to the opening lecture,” says the Columbia student. “Over-Coming Spatial Prejudice in Post-Apartheid Johannesburg. It’s being delivered by a theorist from Harvard who I really admire.” The professor nods, then replies: “I’m giving a lecture later on today about how international sporting events like the World Cup affect poor urban centres like Johannesburg. Should be interesting, I hope you can make it.”