Last week I arrived in Johannesburg. When people think of Joburg, good thoughts don’t generally come to mind. In many ways, the city is the epitome of “white flight” and most tourist itineraries leave the city off because it’s not terribly appealing to look at walls around homes, huge shopping malls and derelict business districts; especially when Cape Town happens to be one of the most gorgeous cities on earth.
Luckily, when I was in Gaborone in 2008, I met Phil Sandick, who turned me on to South African art (among many other things). A photography book on loan to Phil from Andrea Eaton, Some Afrikaaners Revisited by David Goldblatt, gave me the first glimpse into the fact that South Africa is not characterized just by Apartheid. Goldblatt describes that his work was not originally published in America because it was not political enough for an international audience—now his works sell for $30,000+ and are featured around the world. One of Goldblatt’s most recent publications, in collaboration with author Ivan Vladislavic, “TJ”, is all about Johannesburg, and how it has changed, but also its heritage (which could fill volumes).
While I am excited by the art in Joburg [Newtown, Maboneng Precinct, 70 Juta; all amazing; where you can pass the likes of William Kentridge on the sidewalk], what might be the most amazing part of being here is the lesson that I learned from David Goldblatt. Yes, Apartheid is part of this nation’s history, but it does not define it.
Tuesday night at the Market Theatre production of Woza Albert, mom and I were surrounded by young black and white students (high school age)—a generation that was born into a post-Apartheid South Africa. Yet, there were a few young black South African couples, as well as a number of older white South Africans in the audience—a few in the seats next to us.
It was to these white South Africans and me in the front row of the theatre that the two actors—black, shirtless, and spewing sweat—approached. With passbooks in hand, they acted out what it was like to be on a street begging white people to hire them in the days of Apartheid.
“6 month permit sir!”
“I make nice tea sir!”
“Please sir, 14 day permit, I’ll take any job!”
The actors had just described how it could take weeks to get a permit to work in “The City of Johannesburg”; how without a pass, they would be jailed for even being there. Inches from us, these two men fought for the attention of a potential employer, but it felt like they were talking to us––two Americans and two South Africans who very well may have once inspected passbooks before hiring someone.
As one man took a swing at the other, saying, “Look, I am strong!” the audience began to roar with laughter at the slapstick humor. Scene after scene of depressing anecdotes about life under Apartheid ensued. But, just nearly 18 years since a free South Africa, the black actors were eliciting the crowd’s laugh. Black, white, young, old—we laughed.
The power of respect and of comedy are everywhere here. They go a long way. For a white man to say, “Thanks boss,” to a black man in America would be derogatory…the way an adult might jokingly speak to a child. But here, it is respectful and friendly to address anyone as boss. After years of being forced to say “boss” to white people, many white people say “boss” to black people in passing.
"Thanks boss!" to the guard or parking attendant.
Or you could try Setswana (in northern South Africa): boss—morena, father—ntate, or king—kgosi. It shows that you have made an effort to speak another’s language.
The beauty of South Africa lies somewhere within this persistence to move forward—to laugh—despite the scars of the past and problems of the present.Most would find it hard to believe that a decade and a half is long enough to heal the wounds of this nation’s history—and it isn’t healed in all regards, but the nation has come a long way. It’s similar to the way that most Joburg citizens living in the scattering suburbs would be surprised that I can safely write this from a smoothie stand on a sidewalk in the center of “crime-ridden” downtown, but I am, and I’m having the best smoothie I’ve ever had.
(photos by David Goldblatt)