As Johannesburg slid deeper into recession, I put in a bid for a rundown property in the suburb of Emmarentia. The ad said, ‘Bargain of the year! Two houses for the price of one!’ My offer was accepted and here I am, new owner of a rambling commune with seven toilets, six tenants and five dogs between us. All my neighbours are Muslim, exquisitely discreet and rarely seen. They glide down Muirfield Road in large silent cars. Automated gates slide open as they near and close behind them. Dead silence descends. What are they doing in there, behind those perpetually closed curtains? The women don’t even come out on Fridays, when the mosque around the corner sends out a discreet SMS, calling the faithful to prayer.
It seemed good form to call on my new neighbours, so I rang their doorbell this morning. I saw curtains twitching in a window, but no answer came. The women are presumably in purdah, but it could also be that they take a dim view of the goings-on here at number 13, where my tenants are party-bent twenty-somethings who often hold drinking parties, desecrating the night with sinful music and raucous cries. This no doubt alienates Muslims, but I like my tenants. They all seem to have bongos and guitars in their rooms, and most are committed Greens. We are planning to turn the lawn into a vegetable garden, and the swimming pool into a fish farm. Wednesday night — I chain-smoke and stare at a blank screen. This has been going on for weeks now. I’m supposed to be writing the foreword for a collection of my scribblings. I simply can’t think of anything to say. Outside, the night is freezing. Five dogs peer at me through the French windows, begging to be let in. I eventually relent and in they come. I turn out the lights and fall asleep in a cheerful cacophony of dog farts and obscene scratchings and lickings. In the morning, the windows are fogged up and all five dogs are in bed with me. Are the Muslims watching? They’d be horrified by this close communion with unclean beasts.
Grocery shopping at the nearest Checkers. Two years ago, £40 would have bought an entire shopping cart loaded with steaks and similar delicacies. Today I emerge with two measly plastic bags containing one bottle of wine, some rice and beans, two packs of fags and a kilogram of cheap stewing beef — all I can afford these days. Food prices are killing me, and I’m middle class. God knows how the poor survive.
The headline in Saturday’s Weekender says, ‘Nothing to halt public servants’ frenzy of corruption’. About a year ago, our Auditor General concluded an investigation that fingered close to 3,000 senior government officials for awarding tenders to corporate entities in which they or family members held shares. This week, parliament demanded to know what action had been taken. The answer was none. Here and there, an individual had been suspended, but nobody had been charged or fired. Elsewhere in the world, a scandal of this magnitude would tear the country apart, topple the government and alter our destiny forever. Here, it means almost nothing. It will linger for a week or two and then fade into oblivion, blown off the front pages by the next outrage. There was a time when this caused me psychic upheavals, but I have stopped worrying. These days, I prefer to fiddle while Rome burns.
Saturday night and here I am, strumming the strings at the Rand Club, a magnificent relic of Johannesburg’s Edwardian heyday. The carpets are deep, the ceilings cathedral, the walls covered with portraits of great British imperialists. In the imposing Rhodes Room the lawyer, Pieter Steyn, is hosting a black-tie dinner to mark his 40th birthday. Liveried waiters glide through the candlelit gloom, bearing bottles of a most excellent red from the club’s ancient cellar. My little ensemble sits in a far corner, playing sad tangos from long ago. Outside, the streets are dark and menacing, but here in the Rhodes Room I am overcome with nostalgia, especially when they break out the cigars and cognac and a famous actress starts dancing to one of our ravishing gypsy fandangos. We’re having such fun that we stay on to get pissed and play uncouth Boer music from the era when women and the lesser races were barred from these hallowed premises. We were hoping to irk the club’s ghosts, or at least get a rise out of our posh audience. Alas, they seemed to like it.
Back in the real world, I’m chain-smoking in front of the same blank screen when salvation presents itself in the form of an anecdote about the novelist Michael Ventura, who quit journalism in his thirties on the grounds that nobody can write fast enough to tell a true story. In America, this was an artsy verdict on the limitations of the form. In South Africa, it’s like a law of nature: there’s no such thing as a true story here. The facts might be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Ventura has inadvertently provided me with the perfect opening for a collection of South African journalism. I square my shoulders and start typing: ‘We live in a country where mutually annihilating truths co-exist entirely amiably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backwards,’ and so on. Dogs scratch at the French windows. Muslims stir behind curtains. It’s been another great week in Africa’s most interesting city.