How fragile we are.

I have developed a very rude habit: if I meet new people and they show the slightest possibility of becoming a friend, I ask them straight away, “Are you planning to remain in SA?” If they say they may be contemplating leaving I seriously walk away. I cannot lose another friend. It is a bad investment of my time. Done. Koebaai Meraai, I’ll find other friends. Just like you, I have this conversation often where I justify why I am not leaving SA or Joburg, for that matter, so please may I tell you too?

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Yesterday was a landslide of bad news. The day started with a phone call from a friend that was held at gun point in the middle of the day at a traffic light. A post-hip-replacement guest was readmitted to hospital after his hip dislocated. A beloved guest died of pancreatic cancer in the early morning hours. My tenant needs desperate medical intervention as it looks like he has leukemia but as he stopped paying medical aid when he lost his business during COVID, he cannot afford private health care. He also cannot face the government hospitals. Another phone call reveals a friend had an anxiety attack and ended up in ICU after exposure to the reality of what happens in an orphanage she supports. Work is hectic, we are choc-a-block and then I’m burdened by the realisation that the August holidays are almost over and as a working mom, I have yet again spectacularly neglected my kids. I love that the word for Monday in isiZulu is “Umsombuluko”, which means to unravel…. but my unraveling started on Monday and kept on spiraling all the way to Friday, which was just an overwhelming mess. The thought of making it to the Joburg country club for Starlight Classics by four was added pressure in my over full day.

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Getting to Auckland Park on a Friday afternoon is already a mission as the M1 that takes us there from Sandton transforms itself to a bumper-to-bumper LA super highway once a week. Of course, I forgot to order my picnic items on line like an intelligent person and had to physically go to the shop (who does that anymore?). As I walked in to the Superspar I bumped into a patient that stayed with us for 63 days last year. No one thought he would survive, including him, and me. Time stood still while we hugged and cried and reminisced that he defeated the odds after there were no ICU beds left during the second wave and he was treated for the life-threatening clot he got after COVID in a general ward. We remember how it was touch and go for the first four weeks he was with us and how he wanted to die. He was so tired. This encounter was lovely, and it is these miracles that make the losses bearable, but the reality was that when I finished chatting to him I was already supposed to be on said LA highway making my way to the Starlight Classics.

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Tensions were high; husband angry, teenagers rolling their eyes, but off we went to meet our tribe only to pour ourselves and our “pakkarasie” (Afrikaans for your paraphernalia –  it does not sound as good in English) into their car. More traffic, no parking and all the while I am trying to remember what on earth I threw into our picnic basket last minute. I fear my people will be embarrassed. I know from the previous years that the picnics that materialise at this gathering all went to private school. My sad samoosas and tzatziki dip can hardly read and write by comparison.

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We finally collapse on our picnic chairs, but before that we are greeted by security guards with wide smiles showing us where to park even though we are not at the right entrance. The big bottomed ladies scanning our tickets light up when I speak to them in isZulu (I have been learning this language for over a decade, I still have not mastered it, but I am encouraged and helped along daily despite me clearly not having any talent when it comes to languages). The atmosphere is tangible. We are so happy to re-unite under our beautiful African sky again. Oh how I have missed this! I realise once again, this is right, this is tradition, this is where I am supposed to be (on the continent, not necessarily at the fancy JCC). I giggle as many club members squeal in delight to see each other whilst judging one another’s picnics all the time doing the vegetarian shuffle (hot potato in the mouth and carrot up the bottom). I am facetious. I  actually love these women. They might bring a crystal champagne flute to a picnic and eat overpriced platters on the lawn, but they are the girls putting their gardener’s children through school, personally driving their domestic worker to a private hospital when she has a miscarriage and they could have left this country years ago for a safe and tranquil life in Perth, but chose to stay, to make things better. They are my sisters-in-arms.

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We see many people we know and share many hugs (I think a little tighter than usual as we have not been to this event in years). A mutual friend pops over and the picnickers next to us offer him a chair. A two year old from a family we don’t know comes and helps himself to our Simba chips. It’s fine we say, we’ll get some of their biltong later. I see a drummer I know. He is the barista tonight at the event. I see a couple from church who always moan that our music is too loud in the service. I go over and joke that they can complain to Maestro Cock for a change instead of to me if the volume is not right. My daughter holds a baby while her parents pitch a teeny-tiny tent for her to sleep in under this vast orange sky. I battle to understand why these strangers are all so wonderfully familiar with each other, but we just are. This is Joburg. This is how we roll.

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And then, the show starts. The sense of wonder and awe when a full orchestra starts playing in one accord is not something one can express in a language. You feel it in your gut, dare I say your soul? I have heard the Viennese philharmonic orchestra play in the Wiener Musikverein (or as the proletariat calls, it the Golden Hall) and make no mistake, they are mesmerizing, but they are not my people. They are all terribly pale, seldom smile and  focus on playing the music from their music sheets. On Friday night, the musicians under that Joburg sky  played from their hearts. It is a bit of a cliché to mention AGAIN that all musicians hardly survived Covid and that it is a damn disgrace how our government did not protect the Arts, but here they were: back and generously pouring their talent over us, and can there be a more charming, brilliant and competent leader to guide them than Richard Cock? (Yes, all the teenagers at our table giggled at his surname, they might be from my loins but I take no responsibility at their lack of culture). He mentions often that he is from the Eastern Cape, but I have not seen a birth certificate and will, as this is my blog, claim him as our own.

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I loved that RMB, who has been hosting this highlight of the year’s calendar for over two decades, has a new incoming CEO. She is a young kick-ass blonde who, when she welcomed the crowd, was humble and had the decency to shake a bit and stumble over a few words every now and again. I cannot remember what she said, but I loved what she represented. You no longer have to be a bald, bombastic, super confident white oke to take the reigns of a leading investment bank. Watch this space, Emri Brown is going to do great things.

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Pavarotti cleverly made opera popular when he sang the odd song with  hot blonde pop stars like Bryan Adams and Sting, so when the Mzansi tenors rocked that stage we knew their songs and I laughed as we all merrily sang along in Italian. (We’ve been faking Nkosi Sikelele’s real words for years, so making up the words for Panis Angelicus is easy).  When soprano Vuvu Mphofu walked onto that stage, she owned it… every bit of it. Her euphonic voice was smooth and skilled. Her surname means poor in isiZulu but believe me, there is nothing but wealth in that voice. I closed my eyes while she sang and did not want her to stop.

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Afro-soul is not my vibe. I lack the rhythm and we all know white people can’t dance (black people can’t swim, and non-saffers can’t laugh at this reference), but I knew something big was about to happen when Vusi Nova strutted onto the stage and almost as one, all the black peeps jumped up from their chairs and started to groove along with him.

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I burst into tears when Pendo Masote, sexiest violinist on the face of the earth’s father, came on to the stage and conducted him. It is third generation of pure genius. I do not know their story but just imagine it? The music and precision of Europe meets the rhythm, passion and spontaneity of Africa, all embodied in a man with dreads and milk chocolate skin wearing zebra tuxedo tails. He was a feast for every sense (I bet you he also smelled good).

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The evening kept on building: the sound, the lights, the voices. There was dancers, choirs, Belinda Davids, Magical Phoenix Co orchestra and Carmen Pretorius. We were exposed to world class talent sitting in the historic garden of the JCC under African stars. We all jumped up with our lit candles and belted out Sister Sledge’s “we are family” because we are, and then, Katy Perry’s “Roar”, because despite the fact that there are no real tigers here, we do a hell of a lot of roaring in this city of gold. This is the best of Jozi: standing together, swaying our dangerously lit candles, loving the moment, living in the now.

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We might hide behind very high walls, but show me a group of people more willing to embrace you without hesitation, share their wine at a picnic and tell you a joke in the queue at Woolies. We rage and scream in the traffic, our emotions raw and easily accessible, but maybe because of that, we are able to show all feelings, not just the rage. We are totally aware that we need each other, that we cannot navigate this crime ridden, no-service-delivery riddled city without each other. TERS let us down, Eskom keeps switching the lights off, COJ has not produced an invoice that is correct in a decade, we’ve not listened to a politician since the last family meeting because we know we need to do it ourselves if we want to get it done.

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I am frayed. Being exposed to so much emotion on a daily basis tends to remind you that this life is not guaranteed. We celebrate incredible medical victories, but we see the same amount of defeats, when age, illness, trauma prevents us from getting the outcomes we want. My Joburg people share this awareness I think, because we live on the edge all the time. We get it. Maybe because of that, we are making allowances for our roots to sink in deep and we have each other’s backs. We are in this for the long run. I am staying, and after Friday night, more proud of this choice and commitment than ever before.

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And so here we are. I believe, we are planted here for a reason. They sang Sting’s How fragile we are. Maestro Cock said something profound which I cannot quote verbatim, but he said something along the lines of “Aren’t we terribly fragile here in Africa, but also everywhere? Our infrastructure is dodgy at best, we are falling apart, but we are falling apart together….. and so is the rest of the world.” I’d rather be in this messy 2022 with my Jozi tribe than with anyone else.

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The music, the African stars, the Jozi fellowship on Friday night provided that enchantment, that meaning, that emotion which we so desperately lack when we are not where we need to be.

This is where we need to be: right here in Sunninghill, in Joh’burg, building a business, caring for our patients, empowering our staff, serving our community.

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