Amidst the horror of the most recent spate of xenophobic violence that has gripped South Africa, I wanted to write a positive piece about people, preconceptions and othering.
It is 2003 and I have just moved to Joburg after a year in London and Rome and before that, four years in Cape Town.
Growing up, we made the long trip from Keurbooms to Joburg a few times to visit family and to experience some city buzz. The last time I visited Joburg with my parents I was ten years old. It was 1989 and there was a bomb scare while we shopping in one of the northern suburbs malls. In high school we were made to read some horrific Nadine Gordimer short story involving high walls and electric fences. I forget the details but either the dog or the owner of the dog is frazzled by their own electric fence. The story was set in Joburg. To me, it may as well have been Bogota or Baghdad. A society of such violence felt foreign and far away from the safety of my surroundings in Keurbooms, Plett, George and even, later, Cape Town. Joburg was the wild west. A menacing metropolis that someone from the Western Cape (or certainly, almost anyone I knew) would never imagine living in.
But love is a powerful thing. And that is what leads me to move to the Big Smoke in 2003. I recall a brief conversation with a stranger on a subway platform in Rome. He must have asked me where I was from/ moving to and I must have answered “Johannesburg”. He responded by telling me that it was the second most dangerous city in the world.
Nonetheless, I arrive in Joburg in June 2003 with the contents of a backpack and a boyfriend with a townhouse in Illovo. No job and – more critically – no wheels. I don’t know Hillbrow from Hobart Road and I am going for interviews anywhere and everywhere around the city.
About a week into my arrival, I am to meet a recruitment agent at a coffee shop in Bedfordview. I don’t remember how I get there but I do recall that my only way of getting back is to order a cab. So, after the meeting I phone a taxi company and a driver duly arrives to collect me. In an effort to be very nouveau South Africa or something, I climb into the front seat of his car.
“Look,” my 24 year-old self is trying to say, “we are equal. I’m not sitting at the back like some Apartheid-era Madam!” If he thinks anything of this gesture, he does not let on.
I don’t really recall what we speak about during the drive but what happens next will remain with me forever. We are stopped at a red light and, somehow, he gets started talking to a the driver of the vehicle next to me. They are speaking loudly and animatedly in Zulu.
“Did you understand what we just said?” he asks me as we pull away.
I reply that I am embarrassed to say that I did not. Not a word.
And then he turns to me and says, “And we could have been planning to murder you and you wouldn’t even have known?”
And he smiles back.
I feel exhilarated. In that one moment in my first week in Joburg, this taxi driver has laid bare our country’s issues of violence, equality, language, race, class, education and has challenged me to confront them.
I dream that one day, we will all live in that South Africa. A South Africa in which we speak to one another as equals, regardless of the colour of our skins or whether we are expats or refugees seeking a better life here. A South Africa in which everyone feels truly free.