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Extract: Your burka makes me feel hot (The Pleasures of Peppermints)

Slices of cosmopolitan Johannesburg

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You must hit the ground running or you will go down. This is Johannesburg and everybody wants a piece of it.

There are 10 million people in Johannesburg metropolitan area. But everyone knows that’s probably without the Zambians, no-one from Angola or Mozambique; no-one from Ghana, their skin is so black it glistens with a blue sheen; no chic French-speaking Congolese. No Malawians, none at all, and definitely no Zimbabweans, not from the north and absolutely no southerners, with their almost flawless Zulu accent and only one clue that they may be illegals – the vaccination mark on the arm; that locals mostly don’t have.

But who’s local? There are almost as many Zulus here as in Kwa-Zulu. There’s a French school, a German school, a Japanese school. Cyrildene is for the Chinese, Bedfordview is for the Portuguese, Houghton is for the rich Muslims and Oaklands is for the Jews. The road that runs between these two suburbs, we joke, is called the Gaza strip. The Shell garage is Muslim. The Caltex garage was Jewish until the owner immigrated to Australia. Now both garages are Muslim – and no prizes for guessing which one is across from the Synagogue. (On Saturday mornings young men stand outside the place of worship, wearing black. They are armed.) All the imported Israeli food has moved from that garage store, it’s stocked now by the Portuguese vegetable shop.

But the women buying their vegetables wear the same colour as the Jewish guards. Sipping espresso, surrounded by old men wearing yamulkas, and balding Israeli mafia types (too many chains, too many big rings), I watch these burkas floating ahead of the (black) men carrying their vegetable boxes to the cars. It’s 30 degrees outside and just looking at them all burka’d up makes me feel hot. There are big questions here – like does this mean we’re done for, is this Muslim subjugation? Jihad? (The women have Jimmy Choo sandals on I can swear it…)

***

It’s not original. Samantha thought it was a grand idea for Smith, we saw it in the movies first. So when a (rich) man thinks it’s cool to try the same trick for his (private) birthday party… why does the media go crazy? Sushi-chick displayed full page, front page. It’s tacky but perhaps some people are jealous? It’s flash but how many of his critics wouldn’t do the same if they had half a chance? Again there’s a serious question – but nobody’s asking –  does sushi taste better eaten off a woman’s body? (Has nobody done the comparison? Here’s a plate, here’s a pelvis…) And isn’t it his business? Like his flash cars and flash houses and the fact that he wears his clothes well-cut and well branded. Should the media trash him for enjoying the fruits of his labour? (Oh, and if the lady was happy to lie there, should we have so much to say about the objectification of women?)

The man has defended himself, basically saying… it’s my money and I’ll play if I want to.

A while ago a couple of middle-aged (rich) men demonstrated some (arguably worse) behaviour, drag-racing their ‘supercars’ through the (public) highways of the Golden City. A miscalculation, one man dead, one beautiful machine destroyed. This news made a small insert on the middle pages of the papers. Of course the Sushi-girl was more photogenic than a burnt out Ultima Spyder or a spoilt Lamborghini. But did the difference in attention have anything at all to do with the fact that the racers where white and the birthday boy is black?

Shouldn’t a black man behave better with his wealth? After all he has the weight of so much history on his shoulders, the subtext almost seems to be he has no right to be (tacky and flash) having fun, he should be out there feeding orphans. Or is that only for the white guys who must never be allowed to escape their history? The sins of the father and all that stuff…

The Chief of Police threatened the criminal fraternity: ‘There’s no New Testament here, boys, you take an eye, we will take one back.’ Mr Gandhi had an answer for that, he said, ‘An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.’ 

***

It’s a domestic project and people are still living here as we build, so less workmen and longer schedules seem to make sense, because this is Johannesburg. The front wall is two metres high. The electric fence is six strands deep. The vehicles that patrol the roads outside are fully armed. The first rule of security is a verifiable history. No-one gets access here without a connection.

“I don’t want a Mozambican,” I warn the contractor. Currently they have a foul reputation for violence. “Nao fas mal.” he replies.

“He must have papers.” I warn the contractor. I don’t want to hire an illegal, you can’t trace them. “Nao fas mal.” he replies.

“I want someone you know well,” I tell the contractor. I must know I can trust the person. “Nao fas mal,” he replies.

Everyday, come the rain, come the wind, bus strikes, police strikes, the man travels across the city, by foot and taxi and foot again, his tight canvas hat pulled down low on his forehead. He is always on time.

He is tall and strongly built and presents a serious face. He is 1- not Mozambican. 2- He has papers. 3- The contractor knows him. He is 1- Zimbabwean. 2- He has papers, they have just expired. 3- The contractor first hired him 2 months ago.

Everything he builds is a bit skew. The window sits a minute degree off vertical, the door frame has a gentle surge in the centre. He didn’t get the levels quite right and so the floor slopes…up. The builder has only one eye.

But he works hard. He cleans up. In short, he’s diligent and we like him. The project expands. The months turn into one year, into two. We become comfortable. The man is entrusted to source his own assistants. “I don’t want a Mozambican,” I warn him. “He must have papers.” I warn him. “I want someone you know well.”

He nods his head, and meets my gaze with one eye.

He has a family back home and he’d love to go home. Political discussions concur: 1-Mugabe is a bad man, 2- Mugabe is a mad man. 3- Zimbabwe is a beautiful country. 4- It would be best if Mugabe would just die.

But we leave the discussion at that because he’s from the south and we both know it’s not that simple. Gukurahundi: the word could not be spoken when Zimbabwe was needed, to be a Western icon of success. Gukurahundi: the genocide could not be acknowledged when Zimbabwe was needed as a Western icon of success. Now Gukurahundi stretches across the country. Rot spreads.

When the time comes more people will decide to hear. When the time comes he asks for help in attending to his papers. He gives the company his passport.

In his photograph, he has both eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

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