Johannesburg – Notes from a Mother City

Mother City?!? What is a Mother City?

We arrived at the Tambo airport, waiting to be received by the taxi driver. The taxi driver, also the initiator of the taxi services company led us from the arrival hall into the parking lot. He was an old, white man, with a completely white beard. He looked a bit like Santa Claus. Upon reaching the car, he opened the door to the boot and started lifting our heavy bags, one by one, to load into the boot. I said I would lift my bag myself (because somewhere inside my conscience, it seemed incorrect for an elderly person, my grandfather’s age, to lift my bags and put into the boot). He looked up and said,

In this country, we are all slaves. Let me do this.

I was somewhat taken aback, completely not sure how to interpret this statement.

After the loading of the bags into the boot, we got into the cab. I told him I would sit next to him so that he could point to landmarks on the way. As he drove out of the parking lot, he paid for the parking ticket and said to the African man managing the collections of parking fees,

How many cars did you steal today?

The man at the counter laughed and said,

None today.

Our cab driver laughed. As he drove out, I asked him why he made that statement to the African man collecting the parking fees.

Did you say that to him because cars are being stolen from the parking lot?

Yes. And usually, it is these people managing the collection of the fees who are in cahoots with thieves. They know which car to break open and how because they have the parking tickets.

I was taken aback somewhat more, wondering what was going on.

On the way, I decided to ask our driver about the transportation department in Johannesburg and how easy or difficult it was to get licenses, who managed the system and how the system could be worked around. I was thinking of all my conversations with the auto drivers in Delhi who had explained to me how getting driving licenses and permits for the autos was an expensive affair in Delhi and which levers had to be moved around for obtaining licenses. The driver roughly explained the system to me and mentioned how with aging, it becomes necessary to renew driving licenses at more frequent intervals. At just about that time, a kambi was passing by in the next lane. It was full of people, not full to the extent of people pouring out of the vehicle, but full to the seating capacity. A kambi is one of the most popular and relatively cheaper modes of transport in Johannesburg. It is a mini bus like vehicle with 12-15 people’s seating capacity. However, it is usually filled with more people, at times nearly double and more of what is the official limit. Noticing the kambi, the driver remarked to me,

Now look at that. These vehicles (the kambis) are old and some of them need change in their tyres and spares. They cannot take more than 12-15 people, but they will always contain more numbers than that. The drivers are not trained properly. And here, I spend so much in training and yet, I have to pay the same amount for the license as them. And in my car, you are fully insured because I pay a good premium on my insurance. Whereas in the kambis, there is no insurance. They drive recklessly. They are inefficient and they are not well trained.

I thought over what the driver had just said – inefficient because they are not trained properly, drive recklessly and they don’t follow rules (and most of the kambi drivers are usually Africans). I laughed at myself as I began to make sense of these utterances and the meanings and histories attached to them. All along my time in South Africa, I had only heard about racism and discrimination. Today, I began to decode it. Today, I began to understand how it works, in its most subtle and explicit forms. I laughed at myself because all along, I could not empathize with someone who faced racial discrimination. Today, I knew what the experience can be like and how racial discrimination operates.

Welcome to Johannesburg, a city I call my Mother City. Why Mother City? Because Mother Cities are cruel when they start to open themselves to you. They are most cruel, cruel to the extent that you wonder what you did to them that you are made to go through such blatant, in-your-face, brute experiences. But that is what Mother Cities are! They will reveal themselves to you through their cruelty because they want to test what waters you can stand and endure. And if they know you can stand and you can endure, that you have the dil, the heart, it is then that they gradually begin to embrace you, take you in their fold and perhaps, some day, make you one of their inhabitant children. I feel Johannesburg has been such a Mother City to me. Before I came to Johannesburg, I read in a book that Jo’burg is not a city for the weak. It is a city for people who are aggressive, who have the graft, who are enterprising and are willing to take the risks. During my first few days in Jo’burg, I was not sure whether I’d be able to endure, whether I had the brave heart in the first place. But it was through my vulnerabilities that I drew up the courage for what else is courage but the capacity to accept what is and to act despite what is …

The subsequent posts are about this Mother City, rather, My Mother City – Johannesburg, the queen, the fantastic, the terrifying, the fear provoking, the beautiful, the aggressive, the vibrant by the day and fearsome after dark – all of those and much, much more!!!

2 thoughts on “Johannesburg – Notes from a Mother City”

  1. Remember being in Jo’burg days after Mama Africa- Miriam Makeba had passed away. The sorrow and the public collective catharsis on some streets with people singing her songs and imprints of her and her music everywhere. SPeaking of Mamas, the queens and racism… sigh…

  2. zainab,

    considering your house hunting post that i read today…i wonder how has been your experience in south africa…does being a muslim or for that matter belonging to any other religion matters that much there…
    both india and south africa (the rainbow nation) are said to be diverse…just wondering how accomodating they are…are racial prejudices still deep…or have they evolved…


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