In 2007, shortly after Apetown was published, I began work on short story called Crossroads. It was to tell the tale of an affluent family living in Plattekloof who became engaged in a battle of egos and budgets with their next door neighbours over the megalithic water-features located in their respective front yards.
The idea was to paint a portrait of the banality of a South African family whose life revolves around consumerism and materialism and to then take this family’s story and put it on a collision course with the life of a family fighting for survival on the fringes of the economy.
Like most of my writing projects it went off course. In this case running aground when I realized that the tale I had to tell was beyond the scope of a short story – forcing me to conclude it sooner than I’d have liked to by having the rivalry between the two families result in a landslide that destroyed their entire neighbourhood. It also wasn’t very good.
So while I’m probably not going to resurrect the concept, moving to Johannesburg has frequently reminded me of it and moved it beyond metaphor. In Johannesburg crossroads are often (and occasionally fatally) the places where the lives of the extremely affluent and the poverty stricken collide.
And with long daily commutes part and parcel of the Johannesburg lifestyle, I’ve had countless hours to witness these collisions and incubate a growing sense of alarm at what it all means for the future of South Africa.
When I first moved to Joburg I was surprised by the activity that takes place around many street intersections. Almost every intersection has at least one desperately poor beggar, often young men or boys, with no shoes and filthy, torn clothing who day after day kneel and bow on the tarmac whenever cars queue to a stop. Sometimes it’s abandoned mothers with babies, standing at crossroads all day with their possessions in plastic bags beside the road.
The busier intersections attract a wider cast. You’ll find clowns and jugglers who put on frantic 30 second shows before soliciting tips from the massed traffic. One intersection in Bryanston is home to an old lady who sweeps the side of the street in return for charity from passing motorists. The beggars at the busy intersections sometimes have humorous placards, a popular one requests bail money for a cat that was jailed for stealing the neighbour’s milk.
Then there are the hawkers, selling selfie sticks, sunglasses, ID covers and cellphone chargers. There are people handing out flyers for patio covers or security clusters starting at R1.8 million, cheap. There’s an entire crossroad industry built around selling energy drinks or pink ice lollies to taxis. You can buy sponges that buff your shoes while you wait for your turn to inch past a broken traffic light, and as dusk settles over the city young men walk beside the traffic selling sacks of mealies that look far too big to fit in a pot.
When all you’re used to is the occasional hawker and the odd sun-weathered heroin user begging on an arterial Cape Town road, this can feel quite overwhelming. The first time I found myself in an attempted mugging on an M1 off-ramp I thought the two men who accosted my vehicle were typically overenthusiastic hawkers trying to sell me something, which confused them, before one of them confused me by pointing something at me through his jacket pocket, at which point I told him ‘no thanks’ and we made the decision to part ways in amicable mutual confusion.
It can also be funny. One day while driving along Witkoppen Road I came across a teenager dressed up in a full cat costume with a perky tail doing Michael Jackson-esque dance moves in front of bemused motorists. Driving in the opposite direction to the traffic I felt a surge of warmth in seeing smile after smile light up the faces of terminally pissed-off and late Johannesburg drivers.
But as I got used to it all, the humour, warmth and novelty faded quite fast.
I’ve since spent endless hours sitting in load-shedding or accident-induced traffic on William Nicol, Rivonia and Witkoppen Road, wondering at the stories of the people who pass around me in my bubble. I watch the faces of the men gathered beneath overpasses or on the back of bakkies as processions of luxury cars inch past them. I wonder what it is like to have to stand out in the darkness, trying to sell a bag of mealies, to live with a constant absence of security or hope of security, let alone future prosperity.
And what I see often, and increasingly, is anger, resentment and frustration. I’ve seen both beggars and hawkers lose their cool after a long series of rejections from passing motorists and stalk a single motorist, banging on their window as the terrified driver attempts to steer their car away through gridlock traffic. I’ve learned the people who live off the trade created by the city’s seething traffic don’t take well to the pre-emptive dismissal implied by averted eyes or fixed stares at a windshield, that just being acknowledged means something to them.
Many of them seem really young. Youngsters forced to turn their daily fight for survival into a public spectacle, an infinite series of rejections broken by the occasional gesture of kindness or patronage, stretching into a future that promises them nothing.
I watch the people in the cars around me too. Quite often they are seated in luxury cars - Porsche Cayenne SUVs are a common sight in a city where even the metropolitan police drive around in orange and white Audis and BMWs.
I try to catch a glimpse of these commuters’ faces through their tinted windows and I wonder how they can afford a car that costs hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of Rand. What kind of money must you earn to buy something like that and still live in a palatial home on a gated estate? What kinds of jobs pay that generously?
In fairness I do see the wealthy extend generosity to the poverty stricken, even make the occasional easy connection across this massive gap in wealth and opportunity.
You’ve probably seen all this for yourself too, and I’m telling you nothing new. I’m just describing the reality of this country’s skewing Gini-Coefficient, growing population and fractious politics mapped out at public road intersections.
The thing is, the longer I watch the less I can believe that everything is somehow going to come right. I know that South Africa is amazingly robust, its people incredibly forgiving despite everything, that we’re buoyed by an ability to see the funny side of virtually anything. But despite this I sense that I am witnessing invisible, inviolable, irreversible forces of nature ploughing through all aspects of South African society like a slow motion tsunami.
And I think that those South Africans who can’t see or articulate this, feel it anyway, which is where the frustration and anger come into it. Which is why the pressure to find someone to blame increases daily, a political party, a social class, an ethnic group, a figurehead, an isolated heretic. There are the weekly witch hunts, the impassioned and sometimes violent diatribes on social media, the petitions and marches.
And the political class is obviously the easiest faction to blame for all of this, particularly where it overlaps or merges with monopoly capital. And while these guys are surely not blameless, from the crossroads all politicians and oligarchs are starting to look like flies on a steering wheel to me, moving in the same direction as the wheel, exerting the illusion of control of a situation that dwarfs and ultimately controls them.
So what’s the point of this essay, you may ask. What do I have to offer that can distinguish this from run-of-the-mill middle class hand-wringing and South Africa’s venerable tradition of doomsday propheteering? The answer is ‘nothing’, unfortunately.
I don’t even have a convenient set of neat, impassioned solutions to offer to the problems I have described. I think that the many people who are that way oriented already give of their time and resources to those in need and don’t need anyone’s advice on how to do so.
Those who aren’t that way oriented will continue to browse travertine paved malls with the curious indifference of millionaires browsing the gift shop of a sinking Titanic, and won’t be convinced to awaken by anything that I have to say. Even if they were, I’m not sure it would do anything to forestall what is coming, and I can’t even say what that may be.
Not to mention the fact that as a country we’re becoming increasingly impervious to logic and increasingly responsive to emotional arguments, no matter how idiotic or banal. Which means even if a perfectly reasonable solution was presented it would be buried beneath a collective verbal assault backed by preconceptions that refuse to be challenged.
So I guess maybe the only point of this exercise is to have some of release from writing honestly about what I see, to chart my own conversion from idealism to realism. And to share with you the pithily nihilistic observation that I have arrived at through my hours spent waiting at South Africa’s crossroads – that we’re a lesson to ourselves that we refuse to learn from.
"To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson in humility, which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society—a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals." Friedrich Hayek