“So, how’s London?” I asked her.
It was late; the lights were off and the room was dark, save for an apricot orange lamp that hung over the center of the dinner table. Her cat lay curled up, facing away, on the armchair against the wall. Above and to the left of the chair, we looked into our reflections in the glass door and watched as the scene we spoke the lines of unfolded — like a screenplay that had already been written:
The scene begins at the dinner table. It is Dec. 17, 2022. Parkview, Johannesburg, South Africa. Four friends, after some time away, are back together again. One was in Cambridge, Massachusetts; one was in London; another in Berlin (and God knows where else); and one had stayed in Johannesburg. One of two things might be true: (1) each of them struggles to reconcile themselves to the improbability of their all being in one place at the same time again, or (2) they had each blown so much air into the balloon of their anticipation that it teetered frighteningly on the brink of bursting. Or both. An uneasy silence snuggles into the space of all the words they don’t say.
There is no more than a bottle of wine, three glasses, and a ceramic bowl filled with cigarette butts on the table. It is a table better fit for the Last Supper, really; they sit with too much distance from one another. The parents of the home offer tea, or dinner, or anything at all, but they decline. Just the wine is alright.
“I really love London,” she replied. “It’s strange, I guess I can only understand the cities I experience through Joburg and what growing up here was like. We grew up always thinking about where we were, and more so where we weren’t. How our lives looked so differently – out the backseat windows of our Range Rovers — to the rest of the country’s.”
She spoke around the facts. She always did. We always did. But I knew exactly what she meant. Where we were was the gated avenues and green-grassed gardens of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs; where we weren’t was South Africa. We took the flag of our rainbow nation and waived it everywhere we went. We knew, though, that it was an illusion. We spoke South Africa’s name and left the shame behind.
“In London, though, everywhere feels like I can go there; I walk around and each place feels like one I can enter. I have a sense that the city’s mine, and that it’s everyone else’s too.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say next. I thought for some time, and before arranging the words in my head I asked,
“Do you think you’d change the way we grew up?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think we can know. Maybe I’d change the things that made it so that such different lives were even possible in the first place. You know, grocery shopping on Monday, invent another world on Tuesday. It’s been interesting being away, but it’s so good being home. And I’d rather have good than interesting. This city means a lot to me. I know it does to you too.”
The Johannesburg I know is not the one my parents know. Ever since the city was young — ever since it saw gold — Johannesburg has had big ambitions. So it lured the young and ambitious, my parents among them. They and their generation flocked to see, from the peak of Hillbrow Tower, all of Africa; they came to tell the triumphant tale of how Johannesburg became the New York of Africa; they came to rub shoulders with the obscenely rich in the suburb of Sandton, which greets you with a sign: ‘THE RICHEST SQUARE MILE IN AFRICA.’
As much as the city may dream of American excess, it is England that shaped this place. Peer into an aerial photograph of Johannesburg and something will strike you as out of place. Not quite a sore thumb but something along those lines. A Tudor rose in the weeds perhaps. Nudged between the high rises and the dingy apartment buildings are the Victorian buildings and green cricket fields of the school I went to for most of my life.
A new city with an old past, they said at Johannesburg’s unveiling. But part of the old endures. One could guess by its facade that my school was founded in 1898, and perhaps extrapolate that it is an all-boys Anglican day and boarding private school. Right next to it is the one my friend now in London went to, the all-girls equivalent founded in 1903. It wasn’t unfamiliar for us to hear our schools described as ‘Little England on the Veld.’
We grew up, for the most part, unbothered and undisturbed by the urban decay that the electric fences and private security-guarded gates made sure to keep away from us. When we left our little England, we traveled in hired buses, joining the tourists who were told not to leave without seeing “the real South Africa.” We were told always to keep our belongings out of sight and make a mental note of who was behind and in front of us.
And so whenever I was asked in my first semester at Harvard to describe what Johannesburg was like, the answer I knew to be true but was always too proud to say was that I didn’t really know. I’d never known. Places I recommended were places I’d never been. The photos I have look like the negatives of some 18th-century Victorian catalog. There I am, smiling in my khaki shorts and shirt and knee-high socks, the crest on my blazer pocket bearing Latin inscriptions. There I am again, three minutes before the grand bell tower in the back chimes three times to mark the passage of another quarter hour.
The sun set on that illusion in July 2021. It was the July Unrest. All we knew then was that the myth of a rainbow nation existing in harmony cracked like the store windows in the streets. Shops were looted, citizens killed by the hundreds, and the truths of our childhoods turned to fantasy.
We could always say that we lived in the world’s most unequal country, but there was never any indication that that might change. At school, we would scream “Fuck the middle class,” and then drive home in our Mercedes-Benzses to our two-story houses. We couldn’t anymore though, at least not without a degree of shame. In history class, Marx told us that society’s classes are defined always in opposition to one another. We couldn’t read that without seeing the page as a mirror, without seeing our reflections in his bourgeoisie. So, when theory turned to practice and Johannesburg went up in smoke, we turned away.
Over time, the dissonance between my city and me rang in my ears like one of those high-frequency whistles. I decided in my last year of high school that whatever came next, I wanted nothing to do with Johannesburg. Whether it was Cape Town or Cambridge, it would be better, freer. I wanted roads I didn’t know — maybe it was postcode envy. We thought too much in Johannesburg, about Johannesburg. I wanted quiet.
“And how’s Cambridge?” she asked back, equal parts courtesy and intrigue.
“Cambridge is okay.”
“Well, I guess it’s sweet.”
“You don’t hear cities being called sweet.”
I’d meant the people were sweet. I’d meant it as a pleasantry. She’s always had a way of seeing through those.
“There’s this guy, John Guare. He wrote a play called ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ Someone asked the kid in it, ‘How’s Harvard?’ The kid replies, ‘Well, fine. It’s just there. Everyone’s in a constant state of luxurious despair and constant discovery and paralysis.’ I guess that.”
“But that’s Harvard, not Cambridge.”
“Yeah, and I think that’s it. My world had a radius of 2 kilometers. I guess it’s the same thing we’ve always been talking about.”
She let out a sigh, less of pity than of a kind of understanding.
“It’s like the King Krule line,” I said with a smile, waiting to see if she’d take what I was about to say seriously. “I don’t deserve history repeating itself.”
“Ahh, of course.”
She refilled her wine glass. We both wore smirks on our faces as a gentle silence hung.
She looked back at me. “And the second question?”
“What second question?”
“Would you change the way we grew up?”
“I mean, you know I’m gonna say what you said, so that’s a little unfair. But, um … I don’t know. I guess we’re here now. I feel like a little kid, don’t you?” Driving home with my mom yesterday from the airport, I asked her if the city had always been this green. I’ve been telling my friends from school that Joburg has better weather than anywhere in the world, that there are no prettier beaches than Cape Town’s. All of a sudden I speak in these hyperbolic terms about everything.
“All the superlatives,” she said, again through a smirk.
“Haha, yeah. I’d say it’s just the novelty, but we’ve been here for 19 years. On the other hand, there really is an entire other city to see. It’s all there.”
“Well, we better see some of it.”
— Magazine writer Sazi T. Bongwe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sazibongwe_.