BOY FROM THE SUBURBS
Opinion: East of Edenvale
It was just the sort of pinprick a prejudiced, semi-naturalised northern suburbs boy like me needed. A trip to the East. Not the Far East. Not the Middle East. Not even the Near East. Just east enough of centre to make me squirm in my hairshirt.
My wife is convinced that our social life needs a shot of nitroglycerine. We see the same people in an ever-diminishing circle of friends. We need to meet new people, explore brave new worlds and seek out civilizations that don’t use the Northgate Dome as a landmark.
OK, I say, but on the East Rand?
A Saturday night braai in early April anywhere in South Africa is a generic enough national experience; the only variable is the company one keeps. I was filled with trepidation, fear and loathing. Not only did I not look forward to the pearls of wisdom which might emanate from the mouths of tow-truck drivers, builders and boilermaker millionaires around a boerewors-fat-drenched fire, but the only familiar company would be two of my wife’s friends who knew more about changing a cambelt than any self-respecting Wits graduate should.
A showreel of South African working class stereotypes playing off in my agitated imagination condensed the 35km journey towards the heart of darkness into the length of a short and particularly nasty nightmare. Was my stomach churning because of nerves? Or was it the thought of the vast quantities of screwtop- and box-wine being consumed by the female contingent at the party?
Perhaps it was my fear of being inducted into the Boksburg, Benoni and Brakpan brotherhood around the Weber where, no doubt, allegiance would be sworn to the unholy trinity of the one litre Coke, the two litre brandy and the three litre Ford.
Would my natural reticence and reserve goad my new-found friends into thinking that my silence equalled snobbery which might incite and unite them into an initially casual assault of the "uitlander" and then finally degenerate into ritual slaughter which involves spatchcocking the uppity little shit on a bonfire as the sound of the ‘Die Stem’ and BZN’s greatest hits drowns out any token protests from the womenfolk.
Anyway, back to reality. We take the Bedfordview turn-off. Whew! Mild-mannered, decent folk lived there, I knew. Never mind the speech impediment that made conversations with the locals nearly impossible. In a rare visit to Eastgate, I once heard someone say "Aw flu tu Doobaah een Djoolaah en Aw laahrked tit." Mmm… was that a snippet from an Anglo-Arabic porn movie or was someone telling me that they enjoyed their winter holiday in a Gulf state?
By now the premonition of physical danger had subsided, but I felt convinced that tonight was going to suck for many other reasons, not least of which was my fear that at some point we’d have to participate in a game of "car part" Pictionary once the convivial dinner chatter had petered out.
We are the first to arrive, and my sweat glands had just begun to resume normal service when the idea that I was almost in ‘Deliverance’ country is unsubtly (I thought) reinforced. No, it was not his banjo collection hung out to dry.
If this man’s home was his castle, then his driveway was, surely, his moat. Any would-be infidel from the northern environs would surely crumble under the display of the full might of his automotive transport collection in his driveway: a grubby 4×4 bakkie that had definitely seen off-road duty, a custom-kit built sports car, several motorbikes and a shipwrecked speedboat.
The fear had returned. Would they at least have the decency to marinade me before martyring me? On which page of the East Rand News would my obituary appear?
My wife, almost oblivious to my discomfort, embraces the host and hostess and charmed her way into the inner circle as the evening progresses. We are introduced to a succession of arbitrary white South African braai-loving types, none of whom appear to be wearing overalls, security guard uniforms or tell-tale motor vehicle grease stains.
I manage to banish the suspicion that they might all be in civvies just to relax my guard and I step into the laager around the fire.
I strain my ears to catch as many fragments of conversation as possible. Almost all of these people can read, write and calculate the square root of 25 without a calculator. Most of them have even been to university and so my warm, fuzzy side allows a sense of kinship to develop (imaginary, of course, because no-one really gives a toss who I am).
My personal sense of superiority is also given a debilitating kick to the kneecaps as people start discussing their investments, share options and corporate snakes and ladders that no teacher-peasant worth his salt could understand.
Even the drum majorette-turned-air hostess and her flight technician/building contractor husband have made savvy money market and business moves which means that they can retire early to a French "chateau" on the South Coast.
I’m comfortably out of my depth now and I wait for a topic to arise to which I can nod my head with conviction.
My mind on the drive home is almost a blank slate. Aaah. My preconceptions rest in a smug narcosis. I’m just a bit player in the compass sprawl of the South African way of life, which is replicated wherever two or three are gathered around a braai on any given Saturday.
Tomorrow I’ll wake up to the fading scent of braaismoke on my clothes, casually draped over the easy chair. All 203 bones in my body will be approximately where they’ve been for the last 35 years. And I’ll still only have two friends and neither of them will be from Bedfordview.