We had a girl over for dinner and she has her problems. She is pregnant, hates her job at a call centre (she is on the complaints division!) and her boyfriend is abusive – emotionally and perhaps physically as well. For this reason I shall call her Mary.
I met Mary recently on a weekend visit to Johannesburg when I accompanied her and Xolani (Mary’s housemate and a friend of mine) to a Pick’n Pay to help shop for Xolani and her boyfriend’s road trip to Mozambique. Xolani and the boy drove to a beach and he proposed to her at sunset with no poor people in sight. Of course she said yes. Anyway, the point is that while shopping at Pick’n Pay (I was strafing through the vegetable section as Xolani did the toiletries) Mary was most surprised to discover that a man, me, could find his way around a supermarket.
“Where did you learn to shop?” she said to me.
Never, in all her life, had she witnessed such a thing before. I felt for the moment that I was after all an exemplary gentleman, contrary to all that my mother, and many women after her, has ever said about me. But Mary’s perplex was better explained by her youth than by my gentlemanness, for she was only 18 at the time and the fact that she grew up in Bloemfontein. It is this youth and naivety that compelled my girlfriend (Tobre) and I, hosting Mary for dinner, to hand down some worldly advice, though she was by then 19.
“Let him cook his own dinner,” I said, “You need to be independent from him,” Tobre said, “Just let your mum raise the child,” I said, “Just leave him,” Tobre said, “You need your own group of friends,” I said and finally “Don’t go to Cape Town to look for a job, everyone comes here to Johannesburg for that instead” Tobre said.
And indeed that last point is most sound. The thing to do in South Africa, after you graduate, is to apply for a job in Johannesburg and relocate (unless you live here already). And for those who do have a job outside Johannesburg, if you want to have at least a half chance at a raise or a promotion then you must transfer to the Johannesburg office or find a new job over there. Indeed for some, in a time of downsizing and cutting costs, the choice is made for them when their branch is closed down and they’re forced to move to the city of a thousand taxi ranks and faulty traffic lights. And so was the case with Tobre, who left me in the Cape Town southern suburbia to attend to the maid, the garden, the garbage men and the hawkers all on my own.
And the move suits Tobre just fine. All her friends are already here after all; both the ones from uni and the ones from her school days in Port Elizabeth. And better than that, they all live quite close together, which is quite remarkable if you stop to think about how large Johannesburg is. But then if you consider that all your logo companies have their head office in or around Sandton (north of the city centre) and that there is a relative new forest of flats and town houses north of there in or not far from Morningside, Rivonia, Fourways and other areas currently under construction; you need only turn off the N1 (part of the ring road around the city) and go north to find the city growing, complex by complex. It is nice in a way. A kind of heaven for the over educated youth of South Africa today. After the various trials and phases of your life, primary and high school, university, work overseas, when you have made friends, regrets and careers, you finally settle in a world where you are all (close) together again.
I find the friend-space situation a little unreal. Take for instance the coincidences it brings up; when Xolani moved north after her PhD to live with her boyfriend, it turned out that Tobre and the boy lived in flat complexes (yes I know it sounds like a term out of Computer Science, but what else do you call a collection of blocks of apartments corralled around a swimming pool and enclosed by an 11 foot barbed wire fence with a single guarded entry and exit point?) right across the road from each other; a high school friend of Tobre’s from Port Elizabeth and a friend I met in Switzerland, who at the time did not plan on moving to Johannesburg, live a few blocks away from each other on the same street; just the other day, picking up the aforementioned German and her boyfriend for a game of tennis, Rashin, one of my closest friends from university, who I haven’t seen in years and somehow lost touch with (facebook doesn’t count), pulls up and parks right next to me – he lives in the same complex (for him too, the Cape Town office closed). This is like six degrees of spatial separation by flat complex.
Mary, who lives in the flat complex across the road, drove over for dinner. When I said to that that was ridiculous, she said she didn’t want to walk home at night. Either way, for all the serendipitous proximity of friends, visiting one another is not an easy thing to do. For one thing, these single entry-exit gates, some of which rival medieval fortifications for vulgarity and size, are designed exclusively for motor vehicles. There is no pedestrian gate, or even a separate path, should you be on foot (should a car come along you must step aside) and doing so can raise deep suspicion from the guards, who are sometimes sat behind tinted windows and are want to give you a full interview before they give your own best friend’s flat a buzz to say there is a visitor at the gate. And even then they go ahead and interview your best friend to see if all the details you supplied are correct. So much for just walking across the road to visit a friend. Not that you are exempt from suspicion if you drive up to the gate mind you, it just gets you one step closer. And should you give the wrong flat number, then you really raise the ire of the guard and could render your visiting rights revoked (I have had my share of shouting matches with the tinted window). To put it simply, visiting is discouraged.
When Mary came in she found Tobre and I behind the kitchen counter chopping, stirring, mixing and drinking wine with music, as we like to do. Mary sat on the other side and watched. She said it was nice to see that we cooked together. When I offered her some wine she said;
“No thanks. I can’t drink I’m afraid, I ‘m pregnant. Didn’t Xolani tell you?”
“Yes we heard all about that,” I said “but surely you can have just a glass.”
“No I can’t. My boyfriend will kill me. He’ll smell it. I can’t have alcohol, smoke or anything with caffeine. He’s worried about the baby,” she said.
“But surely just a glass. You don’t have to let him know, you could suck on some mints after.”
“Well, it is good for the baby anyway. I would like some water or juice though.”
And so there you go; you may have to take orders from your boyfriend or live behind a high security fence, but ultimately life will be safe in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.