Thick Afrikaans blurts through a loud-speaker six floors down, on Jorissen Street. Men in blue and men in lime yellow tops move orange cones between the three lanes of this, one of Johannesburg’s main arteries. It feels sinister, hearing the police in this country, but I’m told it might just mean a dignitary is coming to the university for the day. As for myself, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to shy and flinch from men who are reaching into their pockets. A knife, is what I think, but it’s probably some change or a mobile phone they’re fiddling for. Perhaps they’re just readjusting tackle. But the knife is the first image to enter my mind. I’m starting to see how people here retreat to their cars, to their shopping malls & behind their electric fences. My initial gut instinct – South Africans are cowards, especially the whites – is changing. This country is weird, it’s dangerous, it’s curiously distressing. I’m damned if I’m going to become paranoid like the rest of them. I’m determined not to go that way. But I have to acknowledge my own behaviour. I’ve started checking people out. I watch kids nearby, I look out for agitation, for shifting pupils, for torn clothes & hands in pockets. I’ve started to walk in the middle of the road, a habit here which allows a few vital seconds to clock the boys about to leap out of the hedge. I’ve started double-checking the back door, the garage door, the front door, the windows. I’ve started talking about how much I love dogs & wouldn’t it be nice to have one. But I’m fighting, I’m fighting. I ain’t going that way. Why? That’s what I’m grappling with. It’s a cliché, but I’ll say it. I’ve been in wars, real wars, with guns & bombs & landmines. I’ve been shot at, chased & bombed – and I’ve missed ambushes that have blown up whole coaches by seconds. But it’s only here in Johannesburg that I’ve become suspicious of strangers, that I’ve started closing down, backing off and avoiding contact. I see the sunshine, I see the huge acacias, I see the jacaranda, the yellow birds, the vast green spaces, the black rubbery lizards, the giant purple fan flowers, & I see many gentle friendly faces. But I’ve started looking for the cracks between.
Meanwhile, from Kenya, I hear, The whole country is in a depression. UN thinking of evacuating all staff, murder, mayhem the order of the day. The fucking politicians need to all resign. In the throes of a nervous breakdown.
Meanwhile, from Somalia, I hear, Somali National News Agency reporter Hassan Kafi Hared died in a landmine explosion and subsequent gunfire in Siyad Village in the southwestern port town of Kismayo.
Meanwhile, I hear from London, There is a real chance that the BNP [but for the uninformed, you should also look here] could get above the 5% vote needed to get a seat on the London Assembly in the elections this coming May. I think that would be terrible.
I think of Hackney, my Hackney, where I’ve had knives held under my nose, & I’ve watched a 16-year-old girl attempting to mug a terrified Eastern European illegal immigrant, who didn’t want the police involved. A few doors down, on my first Christmas, a man was bludgeoned to death in his bedroom. Police came knocking, door-to-door, and I hadn’t heard a thing. Not a thud, a scream or a gasp for air. We have shootings, stabbings, rapings and gangs – even little kid-gangs – but I never get nervous in Hackney. I never get nervous in London, and I know that city’s back allies north, east, south, west like the palm of my hand. Nothing frightens me. So what’s this Johannesburg got that London lacks? I think it’s something about communication, and nerves: years of dictatorship left the dictators as terrified as the dictated. It’s like everyone’s scared of everyone else, of themselves even. Everyone’s expecting a fight. A dispute. A row. It’s just not good…
Which is why I love the person who turned these international road signs in my (Johannesburg) neighbourhood into a political and social demand:
Oh, so necessary. But not as much as this: