The View From Here

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Monday, October 3, 2005

The weekend Africa Market bazaar at the Rosebank Mall is total sensory overload. Among the hundreds of stalls hawking jewelry, paintings, carvings and other curios, hundreds of people roam as if mesmerized, browsing, preening and looking totally out of place if you remember what continent you're on. But this isn't really Africa. Sure the crafts are made here, most of them in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Angola. But this place, this crowd, belongs to another world.

The mall itself--three floors of glittering excess--beggars belief that it's in Africa. And so does Joburg, where people come from all over the continent, and now the world, to run the biggest rat race this side of the Atlantic. Call me a philistine but I like my Africa African, raw, chaotic and unkempt.

Being in this city is disorienting, a Los Angeles in Africa, sprawling, fast and prosperous. I'm a city person, and am fascinated by the surroundings, the clean streets, the manicured lawns, the shops and white beggars. But this is a little much. I feel like I fell asleep in the bush and woke up in Beverly Hills. And I'm not even sure that I don't like it.

Having escaped the disorientation of the mall, I manage to find the street-side coffee shop I'd seen before Settling in with an espresso and a glass of good South African white wine, I wait for Mandla, Zeng's sister, to take me somewhere new and exciting. The sisters are part of a family that has long friendship with mine. It's been 15 years since I'd seen the Msimangs, and catching up with them is like seeing my long lost relatives.

Mandla takes me out to see her mom, Faith, at her parents estate in Midrand. An exclusive (read mostly white) neighbourhood, Midrand is literally midway between Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, a bastion of great estates, money and privilege. Unfortunately, Faith's husband, Mavuso Msimang, is in Spain on business--he's the CEO of the State Information Technology Agency. But Faith is a wonderful host, and like a proud auntie, has spread out a feast.

After a peasant lunch Mandla and I head to her place in Sandton, one of the most fashionable neighbourhoods in Joburg. Behind her house is a bird sanctuary, below the tops of buildings in the distant hub of the suburb. While there might be sidewalks in Sandton, it's still not a place where people walk if they can help it. The only pedestrians I see are black, and Mandla says people look at her like she's crazy when she jogs around her neighbourhood.

Like Randburg and Midrand, Sandton has the manicured lawns and sprawl that easily impresses, but it's at Mandla's sister's place in Melville, a neighbourhood bordering on downtown Joburg, that I am blown flat on my ass. High up on a ridge overlooking the city is a house straight out of the pages of Wallpaper magazine.

Arriving after dark, I'm speechless at the view, the city lights spread out below the patio like the Milky Way. Behind, the house stands like a wonderful white Lego block, with giant windows richly illuminated within by stylish lamps, showing off in perfect light a brilliant interior of bookshelves, tasteful furniture and African art.

Sonke and her husband Simon have built one of the sexiest homes I've ever seen, and sitting out on the patio, sipping fine white wine and enjoying the conversation, I can forgive myself for revelling in my own lifestyle. The discussion ranges over South African politics, development, the West, life and the future. Describing my own adventures I can't help but do a "hair toss" at the allure of living the way I do, without strict observance of the great race of work and time.

It's here, then, that I feel the constraints of both. Someday, perhaps soon, I will have to put down roots. As much as it suits me now to have them blowing in the wind, I can't keep moving forever. Could it be in a city like Joburg? A place I've only seen so far through rose-coloured glasses? Looking at Sonke and Simon I get some kind of an answer.

The couple--and indeed all of the Msimang children, active in development, politically avowed and articulate--are the hard-working, ambitious future of South Africa, and are already turning the country, the city, into one of the great places to be in the world. When the time comes and the wind dies down, I hope I'm in as advantageous a position as they are. For now, hedonism, freedom, and freelancing for me it is.
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malende on

'Call me a philistine but I like my Africa African, raw, chaotic and unkempt.'

I find that comment rather rude and it exudes a colonial mentality. who are you to say what's African and what's not? and to hope for it to be unkempt I think is rude to the max- why should Africans live like that for the amusement or comfort of westerners? i find many westerners expect Africa to be a certain way- raw, chaotic purely for their own experience then they leave and go to their comfortable west and have a story to tell or a blog to write for many years to come. Leave our cities develop, if they mirror a western image, let it be. they will never be like the west because we will always have sunshine and the hustle and bustle that we call home.
it is such attitudes such as yours that have resulted in Africans being kicked off their land for animal reserves and other entertainments for westerners to call feel a 'real' Africa.

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