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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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