It has been a topsy-turvy week in Johannesburg. We pulled in to the Melville house of our Capetonian buddies, Shaheen, Dominique, Dean and Mika on Friday October 7th, delighted to trade the impersonal lodgings of the road for homely comforts and the warmth of friendship.
Our car is still stuck in Nelspruit, awaiting repairs, and Leanne is due to spend four days covering a high-profile court case in Port Elizabeth for Eyewitness News, her former employer. With our friends generously offering to host us for the full week, we therefore decide to abuse their hospitality indeed and to make their home our base for the boys and I to explore the more touristy side of Johannesburg.
Its business and industry facet is already very familiar from my corporate days, peddling strategic advisory services to clients based in swanky Sandton offices or leafy industrial parks along the N1. Those days may seem long gone but they have never generated any fondness for Africa’s richest metropolis. Fortunately, I am well aware of how skewed and limited that perception of the City of Gold is and the next few days will serve to fully dispel this notion and present a more endearing picture.
We spend our first day attending a lively market in Fourways, a suburb north of Johannesburg. On that day, it was entirely Belgium-themed as the Chamber of Commerce and other federal and regional entities were leveraging it to market some of the tiny European kingdom’s products, delights, skills and businesses established in SA. I also meet a potential future colleague, Jean-Pierre Muller, in charge of promoting Wallonia’s exports and foster South African investment into this southern region of Belgium from Johannesburg. Two years ago, I successfully passed the necessary exams to enter the network of trade attachés abroad that Jean-Pierre belongs to and I have been waiting for a vacancy ever since. He has provided very friendly advice, from the day I decided to prepare the exams, and it is fun to share a Trappist beer with him just as I am starting to hear noises about potential movement on this front.
We spend the next day in Maboneng, an area of downtown Jozi that has been rejuvenated into a trendy, ‘urban chic’, design quarter. There, amid a buzzing crowd of fashionable hipsters and design-conscious youth, we meet some more friends who have traded the beauty of Cape Town’s sleepy shores for Jo’burg’s fast track to a more dynamic career. It’s a well-trodden path, by now.
We eat lunch at the very cool Arts on Main market and soon the adults are engrossed in endless conversation. Guy and Max make it very clear how much it bores them so I relent and take them on an exploration of the market’s surroundings while Leanne continues to catch up with our friends.
As the three of us wander through Maboneng, we drink in more atmosphere than sights. We listen to a very cool jazz/funk trio furiously strumming their instruments beneath a highway overpass covered in showy graffiti.
We browse the shelves of a trendy bookshop where the kids are invited to draw while I listen to the chatter between a chirpy old man behind the counter and a young customer. Casually, between references to poetry classics and Tutu-like maxims dripping with naïve yet wise optimism, the man lets on that life under apartheid had meant heavy torture and persecution.
He describes the torture graphically – electric shocks to the genitals, beatings leading to broken ribs, etc. – in a successful attempt to impress his conversation partner (and, I suspect, the wider audience now tuning in from the aisles of the shop) but dismisses it all immediately with a smile and brush of the hand as the necessary stepping stones for his current occupation as writer and poet, which blossomed under the new rainbow of South Africa. Now, well into his eighties, the man can claim to have achieved fame, to have roamed the world and to have expressed himself in complete freedom. ‘I should probably thank my torturers’, he winks ironically.
The whole exchange, which would really be a monologue if it weren’t for the youth’s frequent indications that he was as impressed as his counterpart intended, was very theatrical but it made me smile benevolently. Oblivious to it, the kids finish their beautiful renditions of wildlife in the Kruger in crayon and we move on.
We stroll through the art galleries dotting the neighborhood, interspersed with clothing designers’ tiny stalls, and marvel at the heaps of creativity on display. Finally, on our way back to Leanne and friends, a West African outfit offers a short drumming clinic to the boys. With cheerful enthusiasm, they sit in front of mini-djembes and attempt to follow the instructions of the lead drummer and sync their beats to those of the wider band behind him. The chatter I exchange with the band in the aftermath reveals that they are mostly from Abidjan, with the exception of a Senegalese who was, predictably, manning a mbalax drum.
Should I take this as an ominous sign of our future destiny?
In truth, last week already, while roaming the Kruger, rumours reached us that the opportunity to join Belgium’s network of trade attachés might materialize sooner than anticipated. At this stage, all I know is that the postings in Côte d’Ivoire and Latvia are vacant and I have been asked to express my preference between these two, should I come into contention.
Before dropping Leanne off at the Gautrain station on Monday afternoon, on her way to O.R. Tambo airport and Port Elizabeth, we visit the impressive Apartheid Museum. The exhibits really bring to life not only the intricacies and meticulousness of the apartheid machinery itself but also how it came about and what its consequences were for people living on the wrong end of oppression, i.e. the overwhelming majority of South Africans. Struggle was therefore apartheid’s natural corollary and the museum also pays tribute to all the countless heroes and victims that helped to ultimately bring it down.
The stroll through its lugubrious corridors is an emotional journey for Leanne and I. For the boys, however, it is an exercise in patience more than anything, despite their acute awareness of the fact that, had apartheid lasted longer, they wouldn’t exist today. They get bored of the hours we spend reading displays, pouring over newspaper excerpts and watching archived footage of speeches and interviews but, deep down, as later conversations reveal, we know that seeds have been planted that will grow into consciousness.
On Tuesday morning, as the boys and I prepare to tackle Johannesburg on our own, the rumblings finally become official. I answer the long-awaited, yet fateful phone call from Brussels to hear that I am being offered the vacant position in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, starting in January 2017. It is good news, of course: the culmination of much effort and patience. However, it also means that our travel through BRICS trip has hit a major, albeit not altogether unhappy, roadblock.
Were we perhaps just tempting fate with our decision to plan such a long and carefree journey? Isn’t it just part of Murphy’s unalienable laws that after more than two years of waiting for this outcome, it should materialize just as we set off on the BRICS road?
These are moot questions. Life is indeed, as John Lennon sang, what happens when you’re busy making other plans… I call Leanne in PE; over the phone, we first rejoice over the good news and then both reaffirm our wish to not fully abandon the BRICS project. We have invested too much emotionally in this journey to accept such an abrupt end. If holidays allow it, we will endeavor to complete it in “chapters”, over the next few years.
For now, however, we are determined to finish the ‘S’ leg of BRICS properly. Immediately, that means enjoying Sci-Bono, a brilliant, interactive science museum where Guy and Max get to learn about optics, mechanics, sound, electricity, gravity and a ton of other concepts while they play.
The following morning, it means admiring the beauty of the Pretoria zoo where the kids get to impress me once more with their encyclopedic knowledge of animals. Their interest and curiosity is so genuine, it is a real pleasure to see them shriek with delight when they finally see the wild dogs that were so elusive in the Kruger and even to witness their profound disappointment when the red panda and the anteater seem to be hiding too well to be spotted in their respective enclosures.
Finally, just before parting ways with Dean and Mika, the boys also spend some quality time with them roaming the deceptively green parks of the city – the drought is as fierce in Gauteng as elsewhere in SA.
How we close what has been an amazing road trip in South Africa so far will be determined as soon as Leanne is back from Port Elizabeth. The news still needs to properly sink in, even as we know that the Brazil leg, due to take place between now and the end of the year is already off the cards.