Johannesburg – City of Contrasts

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Virtually any place in the world can be ‘home’ if you have your loved ones with you. Humans are incredibly adaptable in this regard. This week marks five years since I made the arduous move from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without some observations about my adopted city. Many have asked me whether I prefer Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg. This question always seems impossible to answer. It’s a bit like comparing a good steak to a scrumptious crème brûlée – you know you like both, but for very different reasons. After a baptism of fire involving vehicle theft, separation from family and much confusion, Johannesburg slowly started revealing itself in the months and years which followed. In that time the primary thing which has struck me about the city is that it’s a city of sharp contrasts. Contrasts which seem to be prevalent in all areas of life and living.

The first contrast that strikes one is the weather, which isn’t immune to this theme. Never in my life have I seen a complete 180 in weather conditions in the space of 15 minutes, from torrential downpour to calm sunshine. The short, intense bursts of rain itself is somewhat symbolic of the Johannesburg ethos of firm decisiveness, and getting the job done quickly and efficiently in a bold, no-nonsense approach. The general stillness and beauty of the weather always seems the perfect antidote to the buzzing, bustling and grinding city.

Before you know it, you start noticing other sharp contrasts, primarily economic ones. Nothing demonstrates this more aptly than the neighbouring suburbs Hillbrow and Houghton. A mere couple of blocks separates one of the most affluent, status orientated residential areas from one of the more infamous suburbs on the continent. This always seems a little absurd to me. Drug lords and their subjects living literally a few football fields’ distance away from CEO’s and directors in their mansions.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in Braamfontein, basically an area which is an extension of the old CBD, which has gone through something of an urban renewal over the past few years. I say fortunate, because it’s allowed me to understand this place so much more, and dare I say it, become more cultured in the process. Here the Johannesburg contrasts confront you even more intently. There have been many times when I’ve walked past sleeping bodies on the pavement outside coffee shops where hipsters sip R35 Cappuccinos and where suits and ties discuss profits and bottom lines. R45 craft beers are drunk in sidewalk cafés while beggars roam looking for the next slice of bread or handful of change.

The contrasts go deeper than the surface. I think the loneliest, most isolated moments I’ve ever felt in my life were in the throngs of Joburg people or traffic. I’ve realised that even in the middle of one of the world’s biggest sprawling masses of people, it’s still difficult to find like minded individuals you can relate to. In a city connected to everything, human connection is still elusive. It’s still difficult to find the ‘real’. A bigger city has made people in general even more of a mystery to me. The more I see of society, the less I tend to like it. I see more from people here that I don’t understand, no matter how hard I try. Perhaps big cities aren’t conducive to uncovering humanity’s big questions.

Then there’s the South African question. Nowhere else in the country will you see the good and bad quite this clearly. You see what South Africa is capable of – The Gautrain, the business innovations or the cutting edge architecture of Central Sandton are prime examples. You unfortunately see all the problems with the country, accentuated and more in your face than anywhere else. A great example is when drive on the N3 northbound, at one point you can look to your left and see the towers and brilliance of Sandton glittering on the hill, while closer to you in the foreground are the shacks of Alexandra. More importantly, I’ve seen with my own eyes just how the media and politicians are have distorted and misrepresented the racial moods situation in the country. Johannesburg has shown me that South Africans are generally very good at just getting on with each other and getting on with it. The average Johannesburg person is just here to make a living, support his/her family and live a little. This is such a hotbed of cultures and ethnicities that I think the average Johannesburg person doesn’t even notice ethnicity that much anymore. There are of course unfortunate exceptions.

One thing the Eastern Cape does have firmly in its favour is an ease of access to natural beauty. You can drive for an hour and be as the most picturesque beach or game reserve far away from anything. An hour’s drive in Johannesburg merely gets you to the outskirts of the city. Other than the Parks suburbs of Johannesburg and the Eastern regions of Pretoria, most of the urban area of Gauteng is unattractive, to say the least. The outlying areas of the city are largely industrialised, dusty expanses you just want to get through as quickly as you can. When you combine this with the continual concern over crime that seems to seep under your skin, you sometimes wonder what exactly you’re doing here. Are you part of the problem? But there is a positive to all of this. Things that I might have taken for granted in the past are now a great deal more special. I appreciate life more. Living for today is now far more sacred to me than it was five years ago. Beaches are that much more majestic. Open space and quiet are things of beauty. Mountains are more alluring and mysterious. Wide open vistas are like some form of instant medication. Quiet, open roads are cherished beyond words.

What Johannesburg unquestionably makes you feel is this sense of being in the midst what’s happening and at the centre of a melting pot. Even if you’re not concert-going or shopping at retail flagships every weekend, you do get the feeling that you’re connected to the essence of SA society. But linked to this, there’s an evil ugliness bubbling under the surface of this city, and I’m not referring to crime. I’m referring to the ugly side of normal people. One example of this is people’s conduct in traffic. You didn’t think I’d write a post about Johannesburg without going into traffic, did you? Traffic has become an ongoing social observation for me. I’ve learned that in the hours of big city traffic boredom (and moments of panic), so much can be explained about human nature. On the one hand, when simple traffic rules are ignored with gay abandon, what does it say about that society? When laws are broken and lives are put at risk in order to get ahead of some cars and save a minute, what does that say about people’s attitude to law and order? What does that say about our attitudes to each other? For me, this is a small, but significant symptom of a society going morally bankrupt.

More perplexing is the irresponsible recklessness that I observe. This element I see on the roads cannot be explained in simple terms. If I do approach it too simply I come to the quick conclusion that people are stupid, which although partly true, isn’t the answer. Henry Thoreau once said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. This quote explains what I see in traffic perfectly. What I see are people so highly strung, wired and filled with tension from pursuing career, status and money, often with their backs to the wall. They’ve learned how to make money and grow their career. They’ve learned how to ‘hustle’. But they haven’t learned to reflect, switch off or let out energy. The result is that all the anger, rage and pent up frustration is forced out when behind the wheel of a car, whether it’s reckless speeding or screaming and shouting, this is their only channel for that energy release, but they don’t know this. In amongst all this you can’t help but confront your own ugliness, question your own views and face your own demons, and while humanity continues to mystify me, the past five years have given me a far greater understanding and acceptance of myself. I also tend to think there’s something about the anonymity of a big city and the sheer volumes of people that leads one to care so much less about what others think of you. I’m far less bothered about how others perceive me than I was five years ago, to the point of indifference. That’s a big city effect.

The contrasts you witness aren’t constrained to within Johannesburg itself. In the times that I’ve traveled out of Johannesburg across the country over the past five years, I’ve taken particular interest in small towns and their surroundings.  What I notice more than anything is this sense of decay and abandonment. While Johannesburg is endlessly filled with construction, building, upgrading  or renovating, the small towns by contrast are blatantly being neglected and deserted.   Driving over the endless plains of the Free State and Eastern Cape Karoo recently gave me the feeling that a great deal of careless disregard had been taking place here, as was evident from what was visible from the road. Countless farmhouses gone to decay, old outbuildings which hadn’t been lived in for years, overgrown football fields with the goals missing and small towns where, other than a couple establishments newly maintained, were generally going to rust and ruin. An image still sticks in my mind from a drive to PE in April this year. About 60km north of Uitenhage, on the outskirts of a small village, I spotted a broken swing, lopsidedly hanging by one rope attached to a rusted structure that was leaning miserably to one side. A symbol of hopelessness and decay – something that was once new and once brought joy.

All of this makes me wonder, does progress and success require the ugly urban sprawl and all the contrasts that go with it? As we move further into the 21st century, will we see more and more of this urbanisation, as rural communities move further and further behind, losing their sense of place, purpose and value? This seems inevitable. Since 2011 Gauteng has seen an influx of about 1,2 million people. To put that into perspective, that’s 240 000 people per year making their way into the urban mass. That’s 20 000 new people every month. According to the United Nations (UN), 54% of the world’s population currently live in urban areas, a statistic set to increase to 66% by 2050.

Perhaps what doesn’t need to be as inevitable is this disregard of simplicity of life. When out of Johannesburg I’ve also found myself marveling at times at the homes and lives of small town or rural dwellers. As I drive past houses where chickens run around vegetable patches in yards free from high walls and electric fences, I think Have we got it all wrong? Was there a more pure way of living that we’re forgetting? Maybe. Have we come to measure individual progress as solely money and career related, at the expense of quality of life? The complex seems to have triumphed over the simple.

So while Johannesburg remains my home for the foreseeable future, my love-hate relationship with it will undoubtedly remain. I’m sure the city will continue to serve me with conflicting visions and ideas. I have no doubt that all contrasts around and within me are a good thing. How else do we come to understand the world, and ourselves?

But I don’t think of you

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One of the most profound lines I’ve come across in literature is a remarkably simple one – “But I don’t think of you.”

About half way through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, our ‘hero’ and antagonist, by chance, eventually come face to face for the first time outside a building at night.

Ellsworth Toohey, the antagonist we’ve come to distrust immensely by this point, is a scheming media personality who’s developed fame and a large, positive reputation through his writings and teachings of selflessness, brotherhood and altruism. He teaches that happiness can only be found in serving others, and seems hell bent on control over people. He goes to great lengths to destroy individuals and professionals who think differently or show real ability against the grain. He is ultimately a bully whose goal is dominance, yet is loved by all as some sort of saintly figure of virtue.

Howard Roarke, the protagonist of the novel is a contrast to Toohey.  Roarke is an achiever who finds meaning and fulfilment in his work and doing what he loves. His happiness is found in serving his own purpose first and foremost. He’s utterly uninterested in any negative public opinion of him. A man who refuses to bow down to what was popular or the fashion of the time. He isn’t afraid to be different and never compromises on his own values. He lives his life and crafts his work the way he sees fit, not by the demands of society.

When they eventually come across each other and exchange words, Toohey finally asks Roark “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

Roark replies “But I don’t think of you.”

And so the conversation ends. I stand corrected, but I recall it being the only conversation between the two in the book.

I’m fairly familiar with the essential themes of the philosophies of Stoicism, Zen and Objectivity. All three have very useful lessons and ideas to incorporate into modern life. Of course, they all differ from each other and none of the three are perfect. Yet in this single short response – But I don’t think about you – Roarke had, in my opinion, expressed the best aspect of all three philosophies and successfully found the sweet spot where all three meet.

At the cornerstone of these philosophies is this idea that your happiness can be derived from no other place than within yourself. They just express this a little differently. In simple layman’s terms:

Stoicism – control what you can control – don’t stress about the rest

Zen – be mindful of the current moment and what you are doing and feeling now – nothing else matters

Objectivism – pursue your own happiness as your highest purpose and moral aim

Toohey had slandered Roarke in the press and actively worked against him for years, yet Roarke found no reason to waste time thinking about him. Roarke was too busy pursuing his own goals and devoting himself to the things he loved. How many of us look for happiness from external influences rather from within ourselves? How many of us spend ages thinking about people we don’t like – even enjoying the feelings of anger, jealousy or bitterness that arise? And what good does it do? How much time and thought do we devote to things that are not essential to our happiness or the achievement of our purposes in life?

I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to falling into these traps of the mind, and I’m still figuring life and living out as I go. I’ve made a habit of continually asking myself the simple question “Is this worth my time and thought?” You’ll be surprised at how often my answer is “No” and how much clutter I can throw out of my life and mind. I’m still learning.

Maybe one day I too can stand in front of everything I oppose and say “But I don’t think of you.”

 

Human Truth Dancing Before Your Eyes

I’ve stumbled on a major human truth in the last year or so.

Anyone who’s had children will know that long before the children start talking they’re able to dance and move to a beat. My own child was no different. Long before uttering her first words she was bobbing her body to music. Before coherent sentences she was dancing with utter delight, stamping her feet and waving her arms.

Each time I observed this I found it particularly profound. Before even communicating properly and coherently, us humans are able to dance, express enjoyment and respond to spontaneously to music we find appealing. We know how to live before we know how to talk.

The human truth is this – the idea that most important aspect of life is the simple enjoyment of it. If you fall into my trap, you spend so much time thinking about the meaning of life and finding fulfillment that you end up forgetting to live. For so many of us, life eventually trains the living out of you.

If you want to dance, dance

If you want to crank up the ACDC and sing along as loud as you can, do it

If you want to live, live

What Fatherhood Teaches You

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It’s been said by many smarter than myself that two of the strongest human emotions are fear and love. Nothing makes this more relevant than being a parent. I think the late great Christopher Hitchens hit the nail on the head when he said “To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase ‘terrible beauty.’ Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened.” The love of a child is something I don’t need to elaborate on. Any parent would agree with me that it’s the strongest love in the world and a potentially life changing level of love. But it unfortunately makes sense that to balance all that love out, our human nature dictates that there also needs to be life changing levels of fear you carry with you.

Of course we all fear the loss of a husband or wife. But while that fear sits comfortably in the depths of our unconscious mind, rising every now and then, the fear of losing your child is a constant presence – sitting there like a spider in the corner of the room, always within eyesight. You wonder whether having a child and allowing yourself to have this constant fear is a good or bad thing. But of course it’s a good thing. For a selfish Ayn Rand disciple like myself, having a child is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me. Suddenly there’s something greater than yourself in the world. Something to serve, to give you real purpose. Your efforts to be successful at life and in your career become things you reflect on more because you’re no longer in it for yourself. You’re the leader of something so much more than a work department – you’re leading your child’s life.

There’s also this overwhelming sense of compassion that bursts into the realm of your emotions and makes you wonder where it was all your life. I now find myself sitting at traffic lights looking at little children standing alongside their begging mothers in the hot sun with a crushing sense of pity for the small child and what it has to endure. It’s a sobering reminder that we can never choose the lives we are born into, which leads you to consider how many children around the world are born into lives of destitution, hunger and suffering. It’s one of the tragedies of our time that there’s a trend of poverty stricken families generally having more children than middle class ones.

I don’t think anything gives you a sense of the speed of life and your own ageing and mortality than seeing a baby go from one milestone to the next in the blink of an eye. To see a life move this fast gives you a sobering sense that as adults we might not see it in the mirror, but we’re growing older every day, as if we needed reminding. If you’re breathing you’re living, and you start questioning whether you’re making the most of that living while you’re here. And I’m not talking about partying it up or living each day recklessly like it’s your last. Watching your child teaches you that there is wonder in the ordinary, joy in the simple pleasures, nothing beyond the here and now, and that to live is to feel. Some people spend their entire lives in a search for meaning, when I myself have found more meaning in simple moments of playful games making my child laugh than any philosopher could provide.

Indeed, your own death suddenly seems both infinitely more terrifying but much more acceptable at the same time, as strange as that sounds. You suddenly place a far greater importance on your own life, in the primal need for survival and to be there for your young one. If you had to ask me two years ago about death I would have probably told you I could die with the sense of gratitude that I’d lived over 30 good years in relative luxury to the majority of humans we share this planet with. I didn’t really fear death. If it came for me, I think my dying attitude would have been So Be It. But now it’s different. There’s a sense of desperation to be able to be part of our children’s lives and to see them grow into whatever it is they become. A simple drive to Nelspruit and back, for example, leads to an irrational fear as you say to yourself I need to make it back alive. My God, what if I don’t? Perhaps there’s a small element of selfishness in this, because you desperately want to be remembered by your child.

But at the same time it feels like one can now face one’s own mortality with a sense of peace. When you look at your child you realise that nothing you’ve done before and nothing you do in later years will be a greater achievement than this. You’ve perhaps ensured some sort of everlasting life for yourself by ensuring a future generation will be there with your blood in their veins and your heartbeat, no matter what happens to you.

I mentioned selfishness – and in all of this, even child rearing, one can’t escape that desire to find elements of your own self in your child. Was that expression similar to mine? Do I see my forehead shape in hers? In some moments you find yourself hoping she resembles you when she grows up, or even better, that she takes on your personality type. This of course is all wrong – selfish whims that I suspect with many parents grow into obsessions as children get older – this need to ensure the child exhibits exactly the behaviours that we want them to. Why are we so eager to mould things in our own image and so desperate for affirmations on our own beliefs? I’m sure that having a child will, in later year, ensure that I experience a great deal of this inner struggle between the Need to Let Go and the Need to Control – or more pertinently, what to Let Go and what to Control.

Then there is home. Home is no longer just the place you settle into and live. When couple becomes family, home takes on a somewhat different, more important meaning. I think this is where the animal instinct really kicks in. Home becomes your nest, your shelter, your burrow, your den. Your refuge – where your family is kept safe. Home is where your daughter laughs, eats, plays, goes to bed. It’s her world. . . . and yours. It’s troubling when you’re not there, as I suspect a male wolf feels while leaving the cubs to go hunt.

When it comes to your wife, I also don’t think you get a true sense of the term ‘life partner’ until you have a child together. Before a child she’s the woman you love. After a child she’s the woman you can’t live without. My appreciation levels skyrocketed. Of course, couples react to having children differently. With some it doesn’t quite work well. But the ones who make it work, I suspect, are the ones who treat is as teamwork and are comfortable in their roles. That’s where the term ‘life partner’ becomes so prevalent. You’re two partners in a team with this massive task, and if you don’t work with and support each other, the team fails. Walking through a mall and seeing a child holding the hand of a mother also fills me with more emotion than it did before, and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because you never really come close to understanding the bond between mother and child until you see if for yourself in your own life. Maybe because it’s that childhood innocence and vulnerability and how important the parent is to the child, and it makes you think of your own. Everything comes back to your own child. Always.

At 14 months my daughter is becoming increasingly adept at copying what you do. Whether it’s brushing her hair with my comb, wanting to brush her teeth when I do mine, using the same hand movements or trying to imitate me clicking my fingers, it always amazes me how these things are picked up – immediately. But what’s more interesting to me is this willingness to imitate. The funny side is doing silly things with your hands and seeing if she responds, but it makes me realise that as an authority figure to a young one, how your own behaviour will always be more important than the lectures, lessons and books you give your children to read. They’re watching you. They’re learning from you. Mine may be 14 months but soon enough I know she’ll be learning from how I deal with people, how I handle frustration and disappointment, how I speak to and treat my wife, or how I act when happy or angry. And I know she’ll learn more from this than what I tell her. Is that scary or re-assuring? I don’t know, but again – my child leads to more self-reflection, and long may that continue.