johannesburg south africa --The woman at the South African Airlines check-in counter at Heathrow was convinced there must have been some mistake with my ticket. Surely I wasn't flying into Johannesburg without a connecting flight to somewhere else, anywhere else. Perhaps my travel agent had forgotten to include the final leg, maybe to cosmopolitan Cape Town? Poor Jo'burg. Apartheid has been torn down, the sanctions have long been shelved, and South Africa is the darling of international travel. Just not Jo'burg, the country's fledgling financial centre.
I've arranged a four-day stopover in Gangster's Paradise, as the whites in the suburbs like to call their city. Too bad I can't get close to downtown. Instead, for a brief moment, I live the life of white suburban bliss, trapped inside a gated compound where the residents are too afraid of the black man to step outside and too blinded by history to see the cost of their own privilege.
My sister, an expat living in neighbouring Namibia, has lined up some extraordinary digs for us. We're guests in an exquisite Malibu-like home perched on one of the many rolling hills in one of the many armoured suburbs.
Jo'burg's abandoned office towers are visible in the comfortable distance, but no obvious signs of urban decay penetrate the barbed wire and concrete walls that wrap around each house.
Our hosts, a lovely Afrikaner couple whose daughter is a friend and colleague of my sister's, couldn't be more gracious. The matriarch pours the never-ending supply of wine and her husband, a retired businessman, grills the steaks to specifications. The black maid, who lives in a basement suite, is available to do our laundry (and dishes). The garden "boy" is happy to get the pool ready if we want to brave South Africa's winter sun.
Of course, these "perks" -- a normal part of family life -- are tempered by the sheer terror in which they live. There are really no mere break-ins here; they're more like home invasions, where rapes, beatings or shooting deaths are common outcomes.
Our hosts warn us that just a week before our arrival, two machine-gun-wielding men terrorized their elderly neighbours while three accomplices scoured their mansion, stealing anything of value. All this in the middle of the day, while the couple's tennis court and pool sat empty. We're told it was an inside job -- the rumour is that the garden "boy" poisoned the guard dogs.
Imagine what it's like outside these penetrable armed fortresses called homes. If we insist on stepping out, walk nowhere, they tell us. The only option is a car trip to the mall. But listen carefully: when you leave, close the automatic gate at the end of driveway as quickly as you can; keep your car doors locked and windows rolled up; roll through stop signs; and if you have to stop at a red light, make sure you have an exit route -- just in case a black guy approaches the car.
I stumble through this white world as awkwardly as expected for a "judgmental foreigner who just doesn't understand what life is like here," as my sister, living in post-apartheid Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa, repeatedly describes me.
Do I grin a little too widely when the deferential maid hands me my clean, perfectly ironed clothes, and chit-chat a little too long with the congenial garden "boy" before he resumes his work, sweeping around my feet while I enjoy a drink on the deck?
Or, when we drive to a neighbouring suburb on Sunday morning to pick up some African crafts at the market, do I barter less aggressively with the impoverished craftsman than the ugly American next to me? Or do I tip more generously the young black man who makes a meagre living watching over whites' parked cars so other young black men won't steal them?
It's a feeling South African author and journalist Rian Malan captures in his 1990 memoir, My Traitor's Heart. What do you say to blacks? "That I think apartheid is stupid and vicious? I do. That I'm sorry? I am, I am. That I'm not like the rest of them?"
Malan, a Boer who fled the country in the late 70s rather than fight for the apartheid state, discovered that it wasn't so easy being a liberal. "I ran away because I hated Afrikaners and loved blacks. I ran away because I was an Afrikaner and feared blacks. You could say, I suppose, that I ran away from the paradox."
What should you expect but this, to live in a terrified state where money and privilege, accumulated through decades of institutional racism, can't protect you. In fact, they're the very source of both your terror and, paradoxically, your comfort. Why clean your own house, do your own laundry, and mow your own lawn when there's an endless supply of people eager to earn a quarter an hour to do your shitwork? But it's a costly trade-off,.
Trapped inside this dysfunctional world, I can't help but think of something an old friend of mine told me before I left Canada. We grew up in the city, but she's since fled to the suburbs with her young family. I try to drag her downtown every now and then, but she insists she's finished with urban lunch dates -- too many "weirdos" and "homeless people," she tells me.
Malan writes about the "eerie isolation of white suburbia." Think affluent Oakville, multiply it by 100, then add the toxic mix of apartheid's legacy. In the end, you might get something like Jo'burg. Of course, Malan didn't learn about the South African paradox in the sterile suburbs in which he grew up, but during his days as a crime reporter, a job that brought him to parts of South Africa his compatriots have never seen. "Whites seemed to draw fearfully into themselves, closing their hearts to Africa, blinding themselves to the suffering out there on the salt flats," he writes.
Call it wilful blindness or blind faith, but our hosts and their children and their children's children would rather not connect the dots. We insist on visiting Soweto, the sprawling township just outside Johannesburg, home of the historic 1976 uprising against the apartheid state.
"I can't think of a worse way to spend a day," the matriarch says when we return. Of course, she's never been, nor have the members of her clan. Nor have they ever visited Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, despite countless trips to picturesque Cape Town.
They only have one piece of the puzzle they call terror.