It was smack bang in the middle of winter 5 years ago that I embarked on an adventure I will never forget. The funny thing is that what I perceived as an adventure, millions of people experience as everyday life.
It was 4am on a bleak winters morning in the Joburg CBD. The city was already busy with taxis and pedestrians making their way. Unbelievable how noisy the city can be at that time of the morning. The roisterous taxis were hooting and the drivers shouting for passengers to get on board. The smog was hanging low over Eloff street as I made my way to Noord street, the biggest taxi rank in Jozi.
I was nervous. After all, I’m a white dude and as out-of-place as a missile in a bathtub. It seemed as if everyone was looking at me. Staring. Thinking about it now I think they were. But I was keeping my eyes on the dirty sidewalk, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone.
Noord street taxi rank is a huge, sprawling, bustling hive of activity with hundreds, no, maybe thousands of taxis lined up to move passengers around the 600 square miles of metropolitan Joburg. Smog town. It could be the title of a low budget horror movie.
To be a pedestrian here is either to be bold or to be poor.
My adventure was to get a taxi from Noord street to Orlando in Soweto where I would spend the two nights with a friend. The next day I would catch a train from Soweto back to Jozi and walk to Noord street taxi rank to catch a taxi to Sandton.
Why in gods name would any self respecting white dude do this? Because I wanted to experience life as the majority of our population experience it, every day. I know, two days is nothing compared to a lifetime, but this was my opportunity to try and connect with my fellow citizens.
Little did I know how absolutely profound this experience was going to be. Thinking back, this was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. I’d rather do this again than climbing Mount Everest.
I eventually found the correct taxi. It was a mission. Everything is foreign. But for the regular travelers it’s as easy and obvious as us whiteys driving to Woolies in the Prado. Once in the taxi you wait until it’s filled up. And man oh man can they fill it up. I stopped counting at 15 because I was concentrating too hard on trying to breathe. I was convinced that if they squeeze one more person into the taxi it would burst open like a ripe peach.
The taxi drove off, direction Soweto. The first thing I noticed was how happy everyone was. Laughing, joking and chatting as if they were on their way to a family holiday in the Maldives. You pay the taxi fare by handing the cash to the person in front of you. They then pass it forward to the passenger in the front seat who keeps the money for the driver. Incidentally when the front passenger got in the taxi he fastened his seatbelt and the driver said; “You’re not in your mothers car”.
The taxi stopped anywhere. On yellow lines, in front of fire hydrants, in the middle of intersections. Anywhere. I eventually understood that he picks up passengers wherever he could to keep the taxi full. It wasn’t like he was some recidivist anarchist in a Mad Max movie. It was all business.
We arrived in Orlando Soweto and I climbed out. I was in the heart of the largest black city in Africa. Not a white face to be seen. But, nobody cared. I was invisible. The smell of Kota drifted through the air. Kota is basically mince and mash. Think of the kota as an evolving township street food burger. R10 bought me a plate full of divine tastes. I chowed my Kota-looks-like-bunny-chow while watching the people bustle past. I was starting to get into this. Frankly I was surprised that I hadn’t been robbed yet. I was invisible.
The map to my friends place was easy to follow. I was still not comfortable enough not to constantly look over my shoulder, expecting to see a gang of tsotsis following me. No one followed me though. I was walking in Soweto, a white guy. Alone. And I was ok.
After 45 minutes I arrived at the house. It was a pleasant little face brick house opposite a school. Kids were playing on the field. Innocent was waiting for me at the gate. His toothy smile made me feel welcome immediately. “You made it” he said, with a hint of surprise in his voice.
I was introduced to his family. They had all dressed up for the occasion, waiting in the lounge. It was almost formal, like being introduced to the royal household. Nkgono (grandmother) was last. Eight people lived in the same house. A two bedroom house a little bigger than my own bedroom.
I learned that they were the lucky ones. Grandma receives a pension because her husband worked on the the railways for many years before he passed away. At the end of the month everyone put their money together to pay for food and other living expenses. Everything is shared. Millions of others cannot afford a house and they live in shacks made from plastic and corrugated metal sheets. Millions don’t have running water or electricity.
We spent the evening eating and talking and grandma made a pot of tea. It was a delightful evening and I completely forgot that I was in the middle of a black township. While laying in bed I thought of the last time I was there. It was in 1983. The riots were everywhere and I was deployed to Soweto for a short stint in June 1983. I was a young policeman intent on defending the nation against the “rooi gevaar” (Communist invasion). Those were dark days. I was swept up in the almost religious like fevor of nationalism. Just like everyone else. I was fiercely patriotic and I genuinely though I was doing the right thing.
While laying in bed, listening to the sounds of Soweto, I remembered.
The next morning at 4am Innocent woke me up. Breakfast was ready. We ate quickly because it was a long trek to the train station. I was going back to Joburg and I was going to travel by train. Innocent and I left for the station and had to break into a slow jog because we were running late. We arrived at the station and bought my ticket. We said our goodbyes and I climbed the stairs to platform number 2. What a sight. There were literally thousands of people on the platform waiting for the train. I have never seen such a mass of people at a train station.
There was shouting and singing and selling and it was just totally overwhelming. For a typical Afrikaner boytjie like me, this was mind numbing. All of a sudden everyone started running to the other side of the platform. I didn’t know why and only later realised it’s because they never know on which railway line the train is going to arrive. So when they see the train arriving they have to move to the correct line. I ran with them. The train pulled in. There were people peeling out of the doors, people on the roof and in between the carriages. It was surreal. I was standing back, waiting to see what was going to happen because there was a huge crowd in front of the one door. The doors opened and the crowd pushed forward like a wave as bodies pushed up against each other.
I had no idea how all these people were going to get on the train. Impossible I thought, but most of them did. They squeezed and pushed and pushed some more. Eventually I was in the middle of the thriving thong of bodies pushing and I was pushed into the train. Many couldn’t get on but they helped to push the others in.
In the train I was standing with my hands pinned to my sides, chest to chest and face to face with a crowd of people. Squashed together like jalapenos in a jar. It was difficult to breathe. I tried to look around but couldn’t move my neck more than 90 degrees. I immediately noticed how relaxed everyone was. I was the only one freaking out. They did this every day. It was kak hot in that train and I was sweating like a pig.
The train started to move and I really didn’t think I was going to survive the trip. I was either going to die of asphyxiation or I was going to fall down and trampled to death. I imagined that no-one would ever find my body. Destined to travel from Soweto to Joburg and back for eternity.
Then the singing started. It was incredible and took my mind off my desperate thoughts. If you’re claustrophobic don’t ever try this. The singing grew louder and the sides of the train were used as impromptu drums. The beat was hypnotic. The singing was out of this world. I noticed then that all the people in the carriage were Zulu. I found out later that Zulus and Xhosas don’t travel in the same carriages. There is intense tribal and cultural conflict between them and they stick to themselves. They just don’t mingle.
The food vendors were moving around the carriage, under people and sometimes climbing over them. They travel these trains every day and all day selling cigarettes, sandwiches and sweets.
Then the smell hit me. Joints were being passed around and everyone was smoking dagga (cannabis).The smoke spread thought the carriage until I couldn’t see a thing. The singing became louder and louder and the drums kept the rhythm. I was in a daze. It was an incredible experience. I don’t have the skill to communicate the sensory experience of standing in that train, stuffed full of people, singing with one voice.
We arrived in Park Station and climbed off the train. I think I breathed properly for the first time since the start of the journey and stood on the platform for at least ten minutes trying to focus my mind. The crowds rushed past me while I tried to make sense of the past hour.
It was then that I realized that the cultural gap between white people and black people is enormous. In fact it’s a chasm so wide that it will be nearly impossible to cross. The differences between us are fundamental and very deeply rooted in long and colorful, divergent histories.
It was there, at Park Station that I realized that I could truly appreciate another culture but that I am what I am. I am not black. I am not an African. No matter that this is the country of my birth, I am nothing but an immigrant. I will never be an African and I will never be accepted as an African, by the indigenous Africans.
The white people that think that because their ancestors came to Africa a few hundred years ago that makes them Africans are delusional. We are Europeans living in Africa. It’s really as simple as that. We can live here and contribute here and we can even make a difference here, but we are not from here.
Once you make that mind shift it becomes easier to understand. Stop trying to turn black people into Europeans. They are not. Stop measuring them against your own expectations. Our genetics are European. That is where we belong.
I am not African. I am a European living in Africa.