Because of my father’s job with Sasol, a South African chemical company, our family could have moved to Johannesburg when I was sixteen. We didn’t, but I think that somewhere I cannot see, we did, and having come here anyway fifteen years later makes it seem as if my life has finally intersected with that splinter. Other coincidences contribute to this sense of inevitability: I fell in love with a South African man in Alabama. I played rugby (briefly, poorly) in college, at the University of the South, which prepared me to love the Springboks, South Africa’s national team. Sasol sponsored the Springboks from 2004 through 2010, and it’s comforting to see a name I associate so closely with my father on so many strangers’ t-shirts.
South Africa itself feels like a parallel universe to the American South where I grew up, though each has taken different paths forward from a hateful history. Directly translated, Mzansi (hum the M) means the cardinal “south” in Xhosa, but it has come to stand for “South Africa and its people.” “Mzansi South,” the title of this series, describes the parallel universe I feel I’ve caught up with.
We went to a fundraiser hosted by Dlala Nje (“just play” in Zulu), a nonprofit after-school program and tour provider based in a fifty-four-story residential building called Ponte City, in the downtown Johannesburg. All I knew of the area, called Hillbrow, was that, as an intimidation tactic, policemen sometimes threaten to lock up drunk drivers there—specifically in Hillbrow—regardless of where the drivers are pulled over. I also knew that such a threat is really just to secure a bribe; Hillbrow is so dangerous that most people would do anything to avoid going there.
On our way to Ponte, I tried hard to see why Hillbrow retains such a reputation: a lack of streetlights, maybe, or how there are more people and potholes in the roads than cars, which could make the latter quite vulnerable. There are a lot of treed spaces, easy for hiding in, jumping out of. But mostly it looks like an urban neighborhood, and I felt ashamed for trying to see it as anything else. Even so, when we got out of the car, I kept my back to the door and zipped my purse closed and stuck my arm through its handles. Anyone would take such precautions, and in any neighborhood—yet I don’t know how to describe my behavior to an American without confirming every stereotype they likely have of South Africa: that it’s third-world and dangerous.
Ponte’s entrance is no more grand than a grocery store’s, though the building itself stretches so high that its top floors are beyond the vanishing point. It is, after all, the tallest residential building in the Southern hemisphere. It’s also hollow, a cylinder raised up around a circle of dirt (once planned to become a ski slope). Ponte’s design lets sunlight penetrate to interior hallways and ensures that every apartment has a panoramic view of the city. But in the face of what downtown Joburg and Ponte itself would become—Ponte has always been a fairly accurate thermometer for the area—the thoughtfulness of its architecture is often forgotten.
When in the 1970s and ’80s downtown was “gray,” meaning a place where people of all races and nationalities lived despite Apartheid’s segregation, people vied for Ponte’s apartments and penthouses. Hillbrow was the heart of South Africa’s early LGBT movements, and Johannesburg’s first hospital was built there. But as Apartheid neared its end and tensions increased, downtown Joburg became the site of protests, and the families who could leave did. Tenant and landlord relationships disintegrated thanks to redlining, because maintenance on such enormous buildings became impossible without the loans that no one would give. Immigrants and those who’d been forced into townships flooded the area hoping to find work, and the resultant overcrowding accelerated downtown’s decline. Ponte reflected it all: water and electricity became intermittent at best, garbage collection ceased, and many residents simply refused to pay rent to landlords who completely ignored them. Without sound infrastructure, gangs infiltrated Ponte, and it became infamous for the murders and suicides committed from its highest interior windows. Residents threw their trash into the building’s hollow core, too, and by the time downtown Johannesburg became the focus of revitalization efforts, the core’s trash pile had reached the fourteenth story.
A group of boys from Dlala Nje’s aftercare program came to fetch us, guided us through the floor-to-ceiling security gate inside, and told us how to reach the fifty-first floor: one bank of elevators goes between floors 1 and 38, the other between 38 and 54, so we’d have to use both. In the elevator, I asked a little girl if she wanted to share her Steer’s kid’s meal with me, and she hid it behind her back and then hid herself behind her mother.
On the fifty-first floor, as on every floor, trash bins filled the lobby with the honest smell of coffee grounds and meat and vegetables on the verge of rotting. Looking down through the glass walls, all I could see were the other glass walls that formed Ponte’s core. Up above, the electric Vodacom sign flashed through its paces of red and white, red and white, tingeing everything with pink light and unnatural shadows. It was strange to be in a place that looked so dystopian but that smelled like something as domestic as kitchen trash.
Flat 5101, Dlala Nje’s event space, was once part of a three-story penthouse, and if I understand correctly, most of it had been a bathroom. Now it is painted white with a polished concrete floor and a staircase whose five steps end in a wall. Our friend Amy, who works for Dlala Nje, explained that their offices are on the ground floor, along with the aftercare program, while 5101 is essentially a bar—a shebeen, in local parlance—and also a breakout point for the organization’s tours and corporate experiences, the latter of which are designed to challenge workplace prejudices by creating discomfort. The proceeds fund Dlala Nje’s aftercare program.
When I looked out Flat 5101’s windows, I saw any place I’d ever been in the city or outside of it. I could see where my husband and I had once driven an hour to hike, and I could see our neighborhood, and my brother-in-law’s neighborhood eleven miles north of that. I could see buildings I’d say were tall if I weren’t on a fifty-first floor, and I could see grassy green vacant lots with pyramids of trash piled high in their corners, as if everyone who’d dumped refuse there tried to keep it as much out of the way as possible. I could see taxis stopping and red lights turning and cars that were likely to run those red lights. It occurred to me that our concept of God is of some power above because in human understanding omniscience depends on a height from which to see everything—to be so high above everything looks the same as reading the future.
We left only when we’d emptied the bar of its beer and wine. The elevators were slow, and some of us took the stairs all the way down. I wondered what regulations allowed for such a narrow staircase to accommodate thousands of people, especially during an emergency. A teenage couple sat on the steps outside the fortieth floor talking, and there was gum on the ground and trash stuffed into cracks in the wall. One of my friends, who is also North American, was with me, and she worried that we were vulnerable on our own, especially because we’d been drinking. But inside Ponte, I didn’t know if she was being sensible or dramatic. I tried to weigh it for myself: I thought of keeping my purse close outside, and a sign in the elevator lobby had warned against children playing downstairs unsupervised, because one had almost been pulled into a car recently. And yet we were the interlopers here: it was our names in the security log and we were the ones who’d come to a party in a working-class residential building. My friend worried for our safety and yet, for every group of people we’d passed, there’d been a child among them, many in pajamas, which made it difficult for me to share in her concern. It was like standing between two mirrors: each reflects an opposite side and the images go back and forth forever, never to be reconciled.
In the underground garage, which harbors cars abandoned forty years ago, six of us crammed into Amy’s Polo and set off for her apartment in a bordering neighborhood. She’d only had two drinks in a five-hour period, so apart from overloading the vehicle, nothing was wrong.
Policemen had set up a checkpoint at the N1 exit we took, and the two of us sitting on laps in the backseat bent at the waist to hide ourselves. Amy blew a .07; the legal limit in South Africa is .05. The officer asked her to step out of the car and then if she wanted to blow again. She said she did and this time blew a .08. She apologized and there was a resigned-sounding exchange in Zulu between her and the officer, while another officer shined her flashlight through the back windows. I wondered when would be the most natural moment to sit up and reveal myself; perhaps we’d be in less trouble if we weren’t caught out. I thought about how the closest police station was probably the notorious Hillbrow precinct.
Then Amy got back in the car, and I could hear the first officer’s voice close by, stern as he made her promise she was going straight home.
“Do you know why I’m letting her go?” he asked. “I’m letting her go because she is kind.”
“Siyabonga,” one of us said, we thank you, and it wasn’t enough—it couldn’t be, because we had avoided what we deserved.
“Mzansi South” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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