Published May 01, 2000Johannesburg, Johannesburg, my ass still aches when I hear that word (to paraphrase Stompin’ Tom Connors). Third world hustlers are definitely amongst the most enthusiastic you might find, providing more bang for the buck than those in less crowded marketplaces, and I have the piles to prove it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Johannesburg is more crazy and dangerous than Cape Town, so I am sequestered even deeper in a wealthy white district called Sandton. My suite is once again quite large, this time with a private patio replete with retractable sun roof. I won’t be using it, however, since that harridan La Nina has been responsible for record rainfalls in the region causing catastrophic flooding in South Africa and Mozambique. I can see my tan fading before my eyes as I reminisce about my previous ten days in Cape Town, where I had spent a good part of my time lolling around in the sun drinking beers and anticipating the arrival later in the evening of my sexy refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I was introduced to William by one of the film festival people at a gay bar called The Bronx, and we hit it off immediately. He used to work in a printing house in the DCR, formerly Zaire, until the political situation got a little too hairy; the unstable country’s dictator, Kabila, has been in the news daily for various economic gaffes and human rights violations. William is quite the stud, and it seems that white guys pay him for sexual favours, although he’s 34 and not conventionally handsome. I spend my nights shuffling him in and out of the hotel, raising eyebrows at the front desk when they call me at one a.m. to announce his arrival and I instruct them cheerily to send him on up. Considering how entrenched the ethnic divisions still are in South Africa, it’s almost unavoidable to feel as if I’m fucking the help. But then again, as a former impoverished farm boy, I always feel like I am the help.
When the phone lines go dead for almost 12 hours one day, I find myself half hoping that it’s owing to some sort of quasi-Marxist insurgency, that I and the rest of the hotel guests will be rounded up and placed in some horrifically hot holding pen surrounded by barbed wire (as my hotel and almost all wealthy white enclaves are here), our pathetic pale skin defenceless against the merciless African sun, our cries for sun block met with genetically superior contempt from our black captors. I, of course, will be immediately recognised as a Marxist sympathiser and released post-haste.
I certainly sympathise with my Marxist. William is a solid man with sensuous lips and a thick meaty cock that seems to be perpetually rock hard. I don’t have to pay him, but I have been giving him cab fare when he leaves, since my hotel is like an isolated compound at the edge of the city. He doesn’t talk much, but maybe that’s because French, not English, is his second language. (South Africa, I discover, has something like 17 official languages.) I do get a few things out of him, like the fact that he has an eight-year-old son from a former girlfriend back in the DCR. I have a feeling there are some horrors involved in his escape that he doesn’t want to talk about because of the way he tells me he wants to get out of Africa altogether. He thinks I’m much younger than I am, which is one thing I like about black guys. They can’t tell how old whitey is.
The whole white/coloured/black thing here is so complicated. I can’t quite get used to the seemingly throwback term “coloureds,” which refers to people of a mixed racial origin resulting from the interbreeding of blacks with Asian explorers and traders landing on the southern tip of Africa. These aborigines are called the Khoi, but there has also been miscegenation between the Afrikaners, who started the Dutch East Indian Trading Company in Cape Town, and the indigenous Africans. During apartheid, the coloureds apparently attempted to distance themselves from black Africans in order to gain more rights and privileges, and today still seem somewhat more economically advantaged, which must cause a certain amount of friction between the oppressed masses.
I strike up a friendship with the arts editor for The Mail and Guardian, the leftist weekly here, who’s doing a story on me. He’s a journalist and writer of fiction who is incredibly well educated, particularly about African history. One of the prejudices I brought with me to Africa was the assumption that all whites here are colonial interlopers with only a material investment in the country. Amongst the white South Africans I meet, nothing could be further from the truth. Many of them are extremely knowledgeable about the complex political topography of the continent, and have strong feelings about their identities as African citizens and the issues of race that it necessarily entails. Having said that, I feel a little strange when my white middle class writer friend, whose long-time male companion is an art director, shows me their spacious, upscale house, including the cramped room adjacent to the garage where a family of black servants lives.
My writer friend agrees to help me negotiate off the beaten track, so one night he magnanimously drives me up and down the ethnically democratic hustler strip. The beautiful young black man I choose is wary of getting into a car with two white “Moffies” (pejorative slang for homosexuals), but after some coaxing he hops in. After our driver drops us off, I breeze past the night porter with my purchase and lead him to my suite where he commences to roll mad huge Cheech and Chong spliffs in the daily newspaper. He’ll spend the night of almost continuous sex for the equivalent of 30 dollars, although I give him twice that to cover his cab fare home plus incidentals.
Sadly I have to send him away at eight a.m. as I have a live radio interview at nine with South Africa’s most famous film critic, for which I am completely stoned. He’s a large, Roger Ebert-like queen with a Victor Buono aspect who swoons over his previous guests as I stumble into the studio three bodybuilders with whom, presumably, he has been discussing the specifics of the new Dogme 95 workout video. I manage to get through my lengthy interview without slurring my words or falling out of my chair, although I can’t remember for the life of me what was said. It’s my sixth radio interview since I’ve been in South Africa, so I imagine I’m pretty much on auto-pilot. I have a great face for radio, as the saying goes, so these types of interviews are my favourite.
At the opening of the film festival, a skinny white Leigh Bowery-style drag queen in a mask who looks like a burn victim in the Follies Bergere gets up on a small platform and proceeds to pull Ben Wa balls out of his ass, then evacuates a brown liquid from the same source into a glass decanter and drinks it. He’s followed directly by the Assistant Minister of Defence, a handsome young black man who presents what amounts to a recruiting speech to the gay crowd. The juxtaposition of the two presenters wrecks my beads, but no one else seems to bat an eye.
I’m dreading that a tour of Soweto the South West Townships that sprawl in their squalid beauty below Johannesburg, arranged by the festival will be exploitative and patronising, but fortunately our guide, Nelson (obligatory jokes about his famous namesake ensue), a jolly black chap who was born and raised in the townships, provides us with an experience that’s political, uplifting and heartbreaking all at the same time. During his non-stop routine, for example, he defends Winnie Mandela as a hero of the struggle against apartheid, but admits she’s a bit “hectic” (a popular Johannesburg word, and for good reason). The stories I hear about her feud with a former close friend, a gay Methodist priest, over a 14-year-old black boy named Stompie (slang for cigarette butt so named for the smoking that supposedly stunted his growth, making him look only ten years old) would tend to verify her identity as the Imelda Marcos of South Africa. After she denounced the priest for molesting the boy, and identified homosexuality in general as an evil import, Stompie (who, along with her “football squad” had been living under her roof rumours circulated about her sexual escapades with them while her husband was in jail) ended up murdered, reputedly for being a police informant, leaving much conjecture about her involvement, but no clear answers. In a country where police corruption is easily as common as crime, such scenarios remain hopelessly murky.
Nelson and I hit it off, so a few nights later he invites me to join him and his girlfriend for a night on the town. He shows me the night life in Yeoville and Hillbrow, two predominantly black neighbourhoods, particularly the bars on Rocky Street, where I’m the only honky face in a sea of black African hipness. After parking the car and leaving it under the watchful eye of a paid pedestrian, we hit a few clubs that feature deep African rhythms and smoke some potent pot. When we returned to the car, Nelson discovers his back window has been smashed in and his CD player stolen. He’s slightly embarrassed, as he has been trying to downplay to me the incidence of “black crime” in Johannesburg. I try to joke about it with him, but somehow the irony is a little too deeply felt.