Archive for October, 2007

Fit to print

October 30, 2007

The NY Times has a fun story today about how tough it is to get a driver’s license here. I think it exaggerates just how bad South African drivers are. People here like to boast about the legendary recklessness of the nation’s drivers, especially the minicabs, but aside from the occasional short stop and constant honking I’m not convinced. And minicab drivers have a financial incentive to drive fast and pick up as many people as possible.

A much bigger problem is highlighted on page four of today’s Sowetan (Motto: The Soul Truth). The headline is ‘We will win taxi war.’ It says two people died Sunday after rival taxi companies got down to gunplay over who would operate out of the Clearwater Mall in Roodepoort. Taxi drivers’ willingness to get violent is commonly cited as a reason why this city has nothing approaching adequate public transportation.

Oooooh now that I’ve picked up the tab I can’t put it down. Select passages from today’s paper:

–Department of Home Affairs officials at Orlando in Soweto were still on edge yesterday after they escaped being set alight by an enraged Malawian man whose permanent residence permit was not processed.

–‘Hubby beating’ mayor must resign

–‘Mother and sons kill daughter, 14- police

–Pregnant wife fakes abduction’

–Two ATMs blown up


The good life

October 28, 2007

I was sitting in a café when a blonde approached and handed me a black invitation on a silver platter. As far as corporate promotions go, this was a good one. The deeply wrong, but very nice, woman had picked me as someone who should be driving a Mercedes. Three friends and I had won an evening of chauffeur service in a sleek new model.

Well, the mighty White Night needed a jump, so I called up the Mercedes people. They were ever so nice and drove me and some friends to a few Halloween parties starting with a punk concert in a sketchy part of town. As I’ve described before, when people go out in this town they make the effort. Bless them, they didn’t just pencil in a stitched scar when there was room for a bloody, pus-y (?) festering, suppurating wound. One zombie in attendance could have passed for a leper. Even the sexily costumed couldn’t resist pouring it on. A murdered socialite displayed not only a realistic bullet hole on her forehead but streaks of blood down her face. Overkill, as it were. We called the driver and rocketed off to a better party.

“Exuding confidence and effortless superiority the new C-class bears testimony to the success of the owner,” beamed the Mercedes flyer. According to the driver, too many grannies were driving Mercs and they wanted to put some younger people in them. You could have fooled me. For a while I’ve been meaning to post about the extreme brand loyalty of South Africans. Nowhere is that more true than with cars. Everyone I’ve met, black and white, young and old, who does well or wants you to think he does, drives a fancy German car. The rule is so absolute they should chisel it in block letters on the side of Table Mountain.

This extends to so many aspects of life. The three major supermarket chains are as ubiquitous and stratified as a caste system. South Africa has relatively few retail companies so all of the malls have virtually the same stores. As everywhere, people here get excited by small differences. Down the street the Hyde Park Mall is flashy and restaurants set up “al fresco” areas in the hallways. The Rosebank Mall, where I’m typing this, is the bohemian mall. The upscale shops are very similar but it boasts a few outdoor tables and an African crafts fair on Sundays. The difference between the customers is as tiny/profound as between readers of New York and the New York Observer.


October 27, 2007

Usually when out reporting I take pictures. I withhold most reporting from this blog because the idea is for it to find a more remunerative home. Likewise I withhold most of the photos because they take so damn long to upload. Did you know there is only one high speed Internet cable linked to the entire African continent?

Anyway, I’ve posted a few photos on a flickr page. I hope they aren’t too onerous. No more than one of any non-human species. To narrow it down to this point I had to waddle through thousands of shots of penguins and warthogs.

You can find them at


The tangram divide

October 25, 2007

Yesterday I stopped by the sprawling former children’s hospital now converted into a mall of NGOs catering to childrens’ needs: street kids, poor kids, abused kids, kids with HIV. In South Africa I spend quite a bit of time chatting with business people but their scope is limited to providing things someone is willing to buy. Kids can buy nothing. Hence, the toy library.

The director is a believer in the need to stimulate children. Educational toys, she said, boost quantitative thinking, spacial perception and vocabulary. I mostly buy it. Without the ability to distinguish between similar shapes, kids can’t read. (It can’t be good for their future driving either.)

Imposing Baby Einstein and overstuffed nursery school schedules, the doting parents in my old Brooklyn neighborhood certainly don’t trust their progeny to teach themselves. So, how could kids in orphanages and other limited environments not benefit? Even if educational toys don’t goose cognition, the toy library has programs for disabled kids, kids at the anti-retroviral clinic and nervous kids waiting to see the dentist. At the Toy Library they find “educational” toys but also dolls, crayons, dress-up clothes and foosball. The toy library is just one of thousands of underfunded NGOs here, each caulking its own little crack in civil society. It’s tough to quibble with most of them.

SA dreamed a dream

October 21, 2007

Last night the Springboks conquered the English in the Rugby World Cup final. They are world champs, those bruisers. I watched the game with a Dutch journalist and an actress who played Fontine in Les Mis on Broadway. The pub was excruciatingly loud (I’ve become more sensitive to noise in my dotage) but if there was much driving around afterward, honking horns and waving flags in the international fashion, I didn’t catch it.

After this triumph the future of rugby in SA is in flux. Rugby is the sport of Afrikaners and the most retrograde parts of the country are known for producing top players. Before the final, SA president Mbeki called for a more integrated team—the champs have, I believe, two non-white players on the squad.

SA last won the quadrennial tournament in 1995. Hosted here as the country returned to the global sporting community, the final has become an iconic moment in the nation’s consciousness, probably the single historical event I’ve heard referred to most often. SA won the game in the last minute with a dramatic drop goal and in a winning act of reconciliation Nelson Mandela attended wearing a green Springboks jersey. In terms of national pride it was akin to the moon walk. Nothing so dramatic happened last night. Undoubtedly more blacks cheer on the Springboks now. Even so, some of the black papers actively rooted against them.


More talk about food

October 19, 2007

Yesterday I was out in a township on the edge of Gauteng, Jo’Burg’s province. The homes are either very small or shacks pieced together from flats of metal. Still the people look healthy, the ones out on the street anyway, and are dressed in stylish clothes that fit. The day boosted my mood. In the clear dry air the sunshine was marvelous, just a little too hot, and the jacarandas were in bloom. I had to keep reminding myself of the endemic problems—AIDS, crime, insolvency, lack of education etc. etc. If this sounds flip it’s because I’m remembering a small village in Cambodia on the edge of a river. There the shacks blended into the trash which covered the banks to the water’s edge. Kids played in garbage and swam in the oily water deposited by an old rusty ferry. Flies buzzed in everyone’s faces and the humidity carried the smell of garbage and acrid fish paste. Four years later I can still smell it. Adult men wore second hand t-shirts with the overstretched collars hanging halfway down their chests. A bunny chow, described by my guide as a township hamburger, reminded how tough life is in the townships. It was a hollowed out loaf of white bread stuffed with French fries, mango chutney, polony (nuclear pink bologna) and a hot dog. It cost 75 cents and weighed about a pound. I’ve had worse sandwiches but it’s hard to reconcile that brick of food with a population on the make. Starches have always been crucial to the food here. A biography of Shaka Zulu I’m reading describes the diet as “boiled maize-grains, toasted maize cobs, sour clotted milk, boiled sweet potatoes, a mash of pumpkins, fermented sorghum porridge or some other of their forty-odd varied dishes.”

Human parking meters

October 17, 2007

In Jo’Burg people drive to the walkable areas, inner suburban neighborhoods looking (deceptively) college town cozy. At night men in reflective vests wait on the corners and ask for small tips when you park or pull out. The assumption is they work for themselves, their yellow tops just a clever costume . I tip them, of course, without knowing what they do. If they watched the car you’d want to tip them beforehand. Same story if what they do is not tell more ambitious friends about the cars on offer. But as far as I can tell one tips before or after. If you don’t tip them upon leaving they get aggrieved, might even steal your car; but skilled car thieves, I imagine, needn’t bother dressing in a silly vests and hustling passerby for baksheesh.

A friend resents the men in jackets because he gives them money but ignores the fistless beggar he passes everyday. Fair point. The human parking meters know they are selling a false sense of security. Because it’s false, it’s irrelevant if you pay them when you park or leave and, if anything, they’re undercharging. Unfortunately for the fistless man he doesn’t have anything so valuable to sell.


October 16, 2007

Jo’Burg was originally a mining town and people still endure phenomenal difficulties to live here and make their fortune. I’ve had a cushy time of it but as a kind of fortune seeker I sometimes have to try and get things done. Life’s been like that for a few days and I won’t bore you with it.


South Africa is undefeated in the Rugby World Cup. This weekend the Springboks play defending champion England in the final. I last mentioned rugby when the two teams played during the tournament’s round robin stage. South Africa won 36-0. For the final England will play a star player who sat out the last match with an injury. Just to restate this is a sport mad country. At a fancy restaurant not long ago, an SA rugby match cleared out the dining area as fifty people or so watched on a 13-inch screen in the bar.


Top level rugby is a great game played by very tough men but even after a few games I haven’t grown to like it all that much. The players are always crashing like hell into each other so when a penalty gets called I never understand what they did wrong. It’s messy; the ovoid ball often tilts erratically on the pitch waiting for someone to pick it up. No whistle or anything. Life is chaotic. Why do games have to be? No matter what the game, I like the buzz of a cheering nation. So I’ll be out there watching.

The veteran- part 2

October 13, 2007

Journalism doesn’t sound so hard. If you were reading this in The Atlantic or something, that damn chef would have talked tough language, poetic in its simplicity, about how some kid threw a Molotov cocktail at him and he retaliated with a rubber bullet to the gut. The bullet ruptured the kid’s spleen and he died without reaching the excellent hospital in the white part of town. The evils of apartheid, which he’d never really thought about before, crystallized.

Kudos to the fictitious Atlantic reporter. This chef didn’t pretend to have seen much combat and what happened next is probably far more likely when you’re talking to veterans on the wrong side of history. When I mentioned Iraq he said “You know there are a lot of conspiracy theories about that war. There’s George Bush senior and the oil.” Maybe he was still with me? “And the new world order, the Rasnakrutions (sp.), the Illuminati and the Free Masons.” Staring at my raised eyebrows he seemed embarrassed but couldn’t stop. He went on for twenty minutes leaving no bullshit behind. Reincarnation, Roswell, Alien abduction. I steered him back to boasting about his successful guesthouse and got a few restaurant tips before we said good-bye.

The veteran- part 1

October 13, 2007

As my father tells it he walked out of the Munich train station sometime in the late fifties or early sixties saw Dachauer Strasse and wondered who was a Nazi. In South Africa everyone over twenty five has an Apartheid era story. And the unspoken question with every middle aged white person is  ‘Where were you in 1987?’ It’s not an ingratiating question. I rarely ask.

Last night there was an opening. A guy, a chef with short cropped hair on his ruddy head and an earring in each ear, volunteered that he was a South African soldier during the late eighties in Southwest Africa (Namibia) and briefly Angola. When rioting broke out in his native city of Durban they sent him back. “They needed people who knew the city.” He described patrolling the townships in an armored vehicle “with a bottle of Sambuca in the back.”

I asked but he didn’t say whether he had been a believer. He described himself as a rebellious kid with no options. I tried to learn more about what he was thinking by bringing up American teenagers in Iraq. Some of them were rebellious kids too.