Fun Times in Joburg

Posted by tobymuresianu on Feb 26, 2014 in Stories |

In 2011 I performed at a club in Johannesburg for two weeks.

I was drinking with the staff after a show when Celine, a waitresses from Zimbabwe, asked if I wanted to go to a different bar. I wanted to see more of the city, so I agreed.

I thought a few of the staff were coming, but it was just the two of us. We squeezed into a minibus and I started to get a little nervous because I assumed it’d be close, but we were in the van for ~40 minutes and I had a flight the next morning.

A little past midnight we got off in Hillbrow, which Wikipedia notes is the subject of a BBC documentary on “the state of complete abandon and lawlessness in some parts of [Johannesburg]”. Celine told me “I want to show you how black people live,” which was something I was totally open to but probably would have picked a different time for.

She took me to her apartment to drop off my things. We went through a floor-to-ceiling metal turnstile and down crumbling hallways to a tiny studio apartment. There were insects crawling all over the walls and 5-6 people living in it, as well as a Playstation 3 and Ikea furniture.

I guess that’s globalization, but it’s still a little surprising to see a cockroach, a crucifix on the wall, and then the dresser you had sophomore year.

I introduced myself to the other folks – mostly in their 20s plus a child or two, all very nice – then dropped off my stuff and we left for the nightclub. As I put down my phone I noticed a text from the comedy club manager who heard where I was going and told me to be “extremely careful”. Celine said that as long as I stayed with her I’d be safe. She was about 5’3″ but seemed pretty confident.

The club entrance was through another floor-to-ceiling turnstile set into what looked like an abandoned department store. People were crowding to be let in, but we skipped the line – I think Celine convinced them I was a celebrity based on being the only white person for miles and wearing the only slim-fit purple H&M shirt for miles after that.

Once we got in it was less full. The first floor looked like the hospital the guy wakes up in in 28 days later, so we went downstairs to a bare, open space with thumping music and maybe 150-200 people clustered around the front of the dance floor.

As I waded through the crowd, to say I stood out would be an understatement – heads turned, drunks reached out and touched my face, and I slapped away hands going through my pockets. We finally got to the VIP area, which was really the DJ booth fenced off with a welded screen door.

Inside I met the DJ (from the Philippines) and had a beer while hanging out with the waitress, producer and one or two other girls. They asked me to dance and insisted I’d be good over my protests that I wasn’t. As soon as I started, though, they stopped and stared at me in confusion and began trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, which was amazing before that moment I didn’t think it would be possible to feel more conscious of my whiteness.

I was in the middle of failing my third dance lesson when we heard a bottle smash, then another, and yelling. A few fights had broken out, but most people just carried on dancing like nothing had happened. I checked my watch; it was 3am. I told her I had to go to catch my flight.

We went back to her building to get my stuff, two very large, rough-looking guys confronted us. Celine argued with them heatedly for several minutes. I stood there, nervous but numb, feeling like I was flipping to the appropriate page in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel with no idea what my fate would be. After a few minutes she motioned me to come with her through the turnstile. As we walked through she rolled her eyes, sighing “Pff, those guys, they just want to rob *everybody*”.

I grabbed my stuff from the apartment, and we got into a cab, where she negotiated a fare of about a third of the price of any cab I’d taken in South Africa to that point. Two hours later I was asleep on a plane.

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