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The Whitest Man in Town

Best of 2012 | The Whitest Man in Town

by Hagen Engler / Images by Marc Shoul / 26.12.2012

Originally published 23 April 2012

As a salaried employee, you can hide from reality for a while, pretend you’re better than the rest of the workforce, kid yourself that the rules of society don’t apply to you so much. But the fact is, they do. And sooner or later, you’re going to have to pop your own little culture bubble and get down with the people. Face facts that you’re a South African citizen. You might have to go to court, you might just have to transfer ownership of your motor vehicle. Maybe you have to go to a police station to ask them to investigate something. Visit someone in hospital. We all get our chance to engage with the South African civil service. In my case, I had to go to the CCMA.

Why is another story, but the experience of physically going there is instructive. Arms of the government seldom locate their offices in Sandhurst. The CCMA ones are in downtown Jozi, corner of Fox and Eloff, just down from the Carlton Centre.

Now, that’s not exactly the ghetto, but you can walk there from there. I know, because that’s exactly what I did. Suburban, paranoid ponce that I am, I planned my approach meticulously. Google Maps told me I should come in on the M2, take Joe Slovo and then the Anderson St offramp. I did that, then turned into Kruis street and took the first parking that I saw.

By my calculations I’m three blocks from the CCMA, and I don’t want to get into a parking spiral. The walk to the offices goes without incident, if you don’t count me nervously clinging to my iPhone like a comfort blanket, and checking the thing every ten metres.

Service at my destination is quick and efficient, and I emerge sooner than expected, allowing me time to take some snaps of the architecture for my Instagram profile and do a bit of music shopping at Reliable. I get a Mutabaruka, DJ Sbu and Toots & The Maytals.

Then, all chuffed with myself I merrily march off to find my car and head back to the safety of Sandown. In completely the wrong direction.

Looking back at it now, I make a crucial wrong turn on Main. From there, already noticing that something’s a bit off, I carry on, expecting to see something familiar. How I thought that I’ll never know. I grew up in the suburbs of Port Elizabeth.

You also don’t want to look like a lost tourist downtown. So you try look determined and march on. Now I’m in a suburb called Marshalltown, heading East. I’m still on Main Street, but Main Street’s not actually that main, if you know what I mean. The high rises cast a gloomy shadow over a few crumbling inner-city blocks. On Frederick Street, some lots have been demolished and cleared completely, overgrown now with weeds. Loafers survey the passing parade. Now I know I’m lost, and by Christ I’m not feeling very main either.

I’m not the only white person in town, but I’m the only one I’ve seen.

A group of locals heads across the vacant lot on Delvers street towards some flats on the far side. I insinuate myself into the back of their group, so I don’t look too isolated. I can feel the fear rising in my throat. I’m heading deeper into unknown territory. I’m going to have to head back too.

On Delvers I find a spaza shop and I dive inside to consult Google Maps. I’m four blocks East of my car. I buy two bananas – R1,50 each – and begin my return journey through the land of my own fear.

Gnawing on my bananas, clutching my little Reliable shopping bag, I try to affect nonchalance, try to look as much like a local as possible. I’m helped by my scruffy attire, my jeans a size too big and my road-runners’ tan.

A week ago I ran a night race through these very streets. That was fun, novel, and you felt you had some special dispensation. Not so much this time.

Image source – Google Earth.

I pass a bearded cardboard collector remonstrating with a couple of street hipsters while lying on the pavement. On Albert Street there’s a panel beater’s workshop, a place offering “Cash For Scrap” and a darkened shop called Amandla Distributors, which sells “a mixture of life products”. A man in a beanie and a blue overall slumps broken on the kerb, head on his arms.

There’s a pile of trash on the pavement where a couple of guys chill by a kip-kip stand. I march on towards Kruis, where if my calculations are correct… Yip there it is! Civilisation! Two traffic cops ticketing a parked car. On the same block, my Aveo is right where I left it.

In fact there is a pay-and-display system in place and I’ve not even noticed the parking attendant, so focused was I on my mission. I’m next in line for a ticket, though, so I hop on board and drive out of there, into Marshall Street, then north onto Joe Slovo.

I’m sweating like a beast and rushing on adrenaline. Sheepishly embarrassed at having almost shat down my leg with fear at getting lost. At having been so far out of my environment in my own city.

I pop in the DJ Sbu and the beats kick in. I turn up the aircon to nurse away the chill of fear. The sun shines on my face and DJ Sbu soothes my terror with some beats. Sound Revival Vol 1. That’s my homie.

*Opening Image: © Marc Shoul Market and Small Street Mall Crossing, Johannesburg Central 2006. From the Flatlands series.

**Check out Hagen Engler’s blog here.

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  1. schoolboy says:

    i still give mahala the benefit of the doubt and come have a look from time to time, but this will be the last time.

    mahala fell offfffffffff

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  2. Andy says:

    aah v’tsek

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  3. […] The Whitest Man in Town | Mahala I grew up in the suburbs of Port Elizabeth. You also don't want to look like a lost tourist downtown. So you try look determined and march on. Now I'm in a suburb called Marshalltown, heading East. I'm still on Main Street, but Main Street's not … http://www.mahala.co.za/ — Sun, 22 Apr 2012 23:47:51 -0700 […]

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  4. Roger says:

    That can’t be Marshaltown, Marshaltown is Standard Bank HQ/Anglo Plat side.. Western CBD… No street traders.
    Cool read anyway.

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  5. Thato Tsotetsi says:

    I was thinking the same thing as Roger, you can’t have been heading East because Marshaltown is West of the Carlton Centre…but I’m lost here…the point was…? Good narrative though.

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  6. schoolgirl says:

    I’m in agreement with schoolboy. This website has gone down the gutter. Where’s Edmonds, Young, Barashenkov? All the cool people have left. Mahala has become an embarrassment and a failure.

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  7. Andy says:

    Schoolgirl, that’s just, like, your opinion.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Hell, I’ll add to that list, schoolgirl. Where’s Lindokuhle? Where’s Chetty? Where’s Sean O’ Toole, Stupart and Dawson? Where’s Danni Diana? RIP Mahala. You are a shadow of your former self. From KIF to KAK.

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  9. Criticalifornia says:

    Hagen Engler is the editor of FHM? But judging from this piece and his other ones on this site, he can’t write worth a shit! Oh, wait. Oh, okay, I understand.

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  10. Tom says:

    “Yip there it is! Civilisation!”… What bull crap is this? Having a car and not being an inner- city dweller makes you ‘civilised’?… It’s a damn shame that your car was not jacked!

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  11. spoken tunarist says:

    Andy, that’s just, like, why you have a comments space – for opinion. And if you check comments for Engler’s previous pieces you’ll find that they haven’t changed much.

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  12. Criticalifornia says:

    Interesting that the “More by this Author” bar leaves out his two lame forays into vernacular, both available on this site. Hagen Engler is the perfect example with what’s wrong with the media in this country. He’s an idiot who can’t write worth a damn in a position of editorial power. And so he gets gatekeeping rights for all the losers who buy FHM. Brilliant.

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  13. Anonymous says:

    Mahala has become a total waste of time. I’m sad to even waste my time commenting this. Andy, time to stop this bs?

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  14. Bill says:

    Yeah Andy time to end the BS. Shut down the comments and keep up the good work.

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  15. Andy says:

    look schoolgirl, criticalifornia and anonymous, you’re the same person posting from the same IP to try and give your perspective more credence. Which really just makes you look like you’ve got an axe to grind.

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  16. Cocoman says:

    Loved this. Hagen is the king of the written word.

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  17. Roger Young says:

    Andy, stop checking people’s I.P’s. It makes it look like you care.

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  18. Andy says:

    Roger, you of all people know, i can’t help myself.

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  19. SK says:

    I think it offers as honest an expression of the schisms in our supposed united society as can be expected…i dont think Engler is correct to feel the way he does (is there any correct way to feel?), i dont think he thinks he is, but it’s his reality and a reality for a lot of people white or not – and we deny ourselves this reality because we dont like it, or we’re taught that we shouldn’t. I salute him for airing it, but I hope we continue to converse about, and to break down, these feelings in the public domain. That we start talking openly and frankly about our realities so we can start to break down the false constructs that they’re built on.

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  20. dedfrog says:

    Can’t figure out if this is honest or cringeworthy. It did made me cringe. *confused feelings*

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