The first in a string of columns on the heart of the bewildering metropolis, downtown Jo’burg, I explore my relationship with the city, its changing faces and spaces, through a tavern called The New South Africa.
“Here, we are together,” booms Morris. “We have Indians, Vendas, Xhosas, Tshwanas and Zulus.” He gestures towards the men sitting around a huddle of Hansa, Castle, Black Label, Fanta and Klipdrift bottles. They form a burial society that meets at The Tavern With No Name in Jo’burg every Sunday.
The “Indians” are actually a father and son from Pakistan who run a store down Ntemi Piliso Street. The father – a face heavy with wrinkles, black hair turning grey – leans to a woman on the next chair, his lips moving from her neck to her bulging cleavage.
“It’s better when there’s music,” says Boss, also a member of the society. Normally, R2 buys two songs, but the table agrees there must be a problem with the wiring to the speakers. From the street, there’s no sign of a tavern, but if you walk down Anderson, you’ll hear RnB, hip hop, maskandi or house music bouncing off the walls of a neigbouring apartment block.
If the windows weren’t barred and glazed, you could see Anglo American’s corporate offices. On 44 Main, the mining company’s freestone building with coloured glass windows and carved tributes to modern technology has stood since 1939. The statue of impalas the Oppenheimer family gave to the city now sits outside the Anglo headquarters. The mining giants took it back from Oppenheimer Park in the nineties after someone lopped off parts of the impalas to sell for scrap metal.
Further down the tree-lined Main Street are more mining houses, banks and cafes. The single-lane road opens into the expanse of Gandhi Square, where stores, restaurants, offices and bars have replaced the decay of the nineties and commuters flow through like tides.
Nestled between these symbols of regeneration and the Westgate Bus Terminal, which itself is getting a facelift, is The Tavern With No Name. You enter through an eatery and climb a worn-out staircase into an open room where everything is wooden and nothing polished, as though half-renovated or half-demolished. Across the far side of the room are two benches where men sit and drink. A hallway leads to the bar. The drinking hall is large. The blue and white walls are dirty, with so many holes they look like a decorating feature. Plastic tables have plastic tablecloths hanging over plastic chairs.
Sweat and raised voices make The Tavern With No Name intimidating (especially without music). The day before, I was at another bar in Jeppe visiting my friend Victor. His job is to check patrons for weapons and intervene if there’s a fight. There, the benches are closely packed and drinkers are subdued by the TV or blaring music. Victor, who lives in Jeppe’s notorious men’s hotel, is going home to KZN this week to pay lobola. He dismisses President Zuma, linking the economy to his ability to buy six cows.
The Tavern With No Name is more menacing. Every time I walk to the toilet, a member of our table follows to protect me. A short, skinny man with a sinewy body tells my new friends to watch out. “Jack,” they use my nickname, “You all right?” It’s obligatory to give two thumbs up.
When the fight almost comes, it comes from an unlikely member of the group. While playing pool, the younger Pakistani, who has been filling half-glasses of Klipdrift with a dash of Fanta, accidentally knocks over someone’s beer. An argument ensues about whether he should replace it. He returns to the table and slams his fists, spilling drinks.
“We’re not friends,” he looks at Boss, a seemingly random target.
“This one and this one are my friends. They are good guys,” he says, pointing at me and one of his employees. We hadn’t spoken. The table goes quiet, eyes looking down.
“This one’s brave. Look at this one,” the son points at me again. “Me, him, and him,” now he points to himself, his father and me. “We’re the ones different here. He’s the only white in the whole place.”
Drat, I laugh to myself, I was hoping no one had noticed.
Downtown, it’s easy to feel out of place and at the same time feel that nothing could ever be out of place here – there’s nothing the city hasn’t seen. I was on an unexpected side of the race and class fault lines that have defined this city into poor and rich, black and white. We drank in a grimy tavern beside the heart of corporate wealth, replete with its monuments to mining’s pioneers.
Jo’burg puts migrants from across the country and the world into a shared space. The development downtown puts my apartment between taverns, derelict buildings, taxi ranks, cafes and big corporates, all influenced by the division created by a violent history, and thrown together like puzzle pieces that will one day define what we mean by Johannesburg, maybe even what’s meant by South Africa.
While I’m thinking, the situation at the table has calmed down. The gents from the burial society buy me another beer, but I want to know more about the tavern.
“What’s this place called? Does it have a name?” The guys are puzzled, ask another table.
“The New South Africa,” finally someone responds. I’m thinking: either these guys have wit or this is too perfect.
“No, it’s Marikana,” someone else claims.
“Marikana’s too dangerous,” the first speaker shoots back. “It’s called The New South Africa.”
The guys nod and I laugh, unsure of whether it really is The New South Africa, but happy to be here, talking football, work, politics, with a beer in hand. DM
Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.