“Is everything still all right?” Asked the girl again. She’d already been out about four times, bringing something each time, salt and pepper, ketchup, a fork, a stray napkin. And each time she said “Is everything still all right”. I told her that it was. I’m never much of a fusser at cafes or restaurants. When I’m trying something new, what have I got to gauge whether what they are giving me is all right? What would they do if I said no? Would they take the stuff back, leave it for a minute and come back again with exactly the same dish hoping that I wouldn’t notice, or heat it up in a microwave for thirty seconds. Or would they throw the dish away and serve me up a six course banquet for free in recompense for being inconvenienced because the french-fries were shaped slightly oddly?
Of course they wouldn’t. So the question was completely superfluous. Actually the thing that was worrying me most was that my Beef burger, chips and salad (OK it was nothing extraordinary at all) were about to be washed away by a huge thunderstorm which was looming over the next valley. I suppose I could have commented on this, but then again, why bother – what were they really going to do about that – shoot iron filings up into the sky to neutralise it? It all seemed so silly.
The young girl was obviously very worried that she was giving good service. I got the feeling that she might have been covering up for something sinister, or that she knew something was wrong and hoped that despite this, I didn’t really mind. I’d hoped that there was nothing. It was an attitude I had come to expect from a lot of people on this holiday, and no wonder. This was South Africa. Newly reborn in a spirit of reconciliation, the new model of African politics, social welfare and harmony. Despite this it had the worst crime rate of any country in the world, the gap between rich and poor was more stark, and the air of old tensions and separatism still hung around. So it was little surprise that everyone was worried and asking the rest of world “Is everything all right”?
I had had first hand experience of the tension. I’d been mugged in Johannesburg only the week before.
It was my own fault. Nonsense. I didn’t ask to be mugged. I refuse to be guilty of doing what I consider normal in other countries. I was warned; they know what is wrong. But pity the nation that has common sense which restricts one’s liberties and natural habits so much. DON’T wear jewellery in Jo’burg streets. DON’T drive around with your doors unlocked. DON’T EVER open the house door after sundown unless someone has phoned. DON’T carry bags on the street. DON’T live your life the way you want to.
Gauteng is the worst by a long way. Gauteng is the province in the centre of the old Transvaal region of South Africa, a Boer Stronghold and honeypot attracting South Africans, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Botswanans. The streets aren’t paved with gold, but it lies under the streets of Jo’burg in heaps. The population of Gauteng is exploding, not naturally but with migrants. Some are only there during the week and you have to watch the ones who head back to their families on a Friday evening, clinging on for dear life to the overcrowded minibuses and lorries that hurtle north or east to the borders. This is about the only time when the rest of Africa imposes on this strange country. This place looks western but isn’t, it feels African but isn’t.
And I had the South African experience a mere two days after arriving.
I was staying in Irene, a beautiful little town a few miles south of Pretoria. It is set above a pleasant gentle valley on a slight hill with tree-lined avenues, a dairy and the Jan Smut’s House, the home one of the founders of the United Nations. My friend let me relax on my first day, and the most exertion I had was walking down to the Jan Smut’s House. I discovered that Irene was the centre of the South African Film industry, as I was passed by a Nissan low loader with a man on a boom holding a camera following a Mercedes Benz at high speed. I never got to saw the particular film, but if you are ever in a cinema and see a guy in shorts and an orange T Shirt on the screen, that was me. I spent the afternoon thinking of a joke I would tell when I got back to the UK. “I was shot on the first day in South Africa.” I never got the chance to say it.
That was because the next day, Kirsty asked whether I wanted to see Jo’burg. She had a meeting in work – she was with Anglo American at the time, and then she wanted to see a computer exhibition afterwards at the National Exhibition Centre in the south west side of the city. I said, “ Well I might as well get mugged on the first day”.
We set off early that morning, in the typical grey misly fog that hangs over Gauteng at this time of year. We joined the motorway, the N1 which links Pretoria and Jo’burg, travelling through the sprawling mess of Mid Rand. Mid Rand is not really a place, but more of a bit in between. It has posh offices, grand houses as well as vast new estates for the “reasonably well off”. It has shopping centres. In fact it is developing around the typical American model of Los Angeles or Houston, where no-one cares about containing the development, because they feel that they have tons of room left. The desecration is dreadful.
This gives way to the city proper and the last few miles of motorway winds through the prosperous northern suburbs of the city. The skyscrapers of the old city centre rise up, many of them shells of their former selves as the wise money has moved out from this hostile centre. Anglo American have a pledge to stay in the centre, to try and stem the flow of the economic apartheid that others protect themselves against. They have huge offices on the west side of the city centre. We parked in the Anglo Lot, a couple of blocks from the office. The streets are lined with Anglo Security guards to stop you from being mugged between your car and the office. We walk through the law courts, I pass my haversack through an X-ray machine there that checks for bombs as they do in the Airports. I get it back on the other side. On we walk. Into the huge air conditioned offices of Anglo, slightly relieved to have run the gauntlet and won….this time.
We went up to the seventh floor and I had a quick chance to look over the remote sensing facilities that Kirsty used. Then she said that she had this god-awful meeting to go to and I had to amuse myself. There was a geological museum just around the corner. I couldn’t miss it.
So off I went. I found the entrance to the museum easily. It had closed a few months earlier and was moving to the Library. I had two hours to kill in Johannesburg and could think of nothing better than to just walk the streets; with my haversack, and my camera in my haversack, and my guide book in my haversack next to my camera.
It was the biggest mistake I have made in all my years of travelling.