Sunday, January 26, 2014

A gilded cage.

I arrived back in South Africa on the 15th of January and am staying in the heart of Johannesburg for the second half of my fellowship with the LRC. A friend of a LRC colleague was interested in taking on a short-term roommate in a converted bank building located at 87 Commissioner Street. It is one of those classic bank buildings; lots of marble and huge brass doors on all the floors. I am amazed the interior and its fixtures survived. Many of the downtown buildings were long ago stripped of anything of value. 

The underground bank vault is now parking for the residents.The slope of the entrance ramp rivals that of many ski slopes. A quick look at the scraps and banged-up mirrors on the resident's cars is a testament to the value of secure parking in downtown Johannesburg. No matter how steep the slope, how sharp the turn, or how narrow the space, it is off-street secured parking and I will get my car into my assigned space.

This is my home for the short term; that is one third of the 9th floor with a wonderful rooftop deck.  

Second floor of apartment.

The two-storey loft apartment is lovely, airy, cool, and filled with lots of African art. So much art, that one gets nonchalant.  This is a picture of just one of the many window shutters my roommate has rescued.

My roommate is a fabulous cook and gardener (we eat herbs, greens, and veggies from her garden), great conversationalist, and a world traveler.  She is also incredibly generous with her drinks cabinet.

The outdoor pool is supposed to be back in working order sometime in February. Operational elevators are unlikely. Yes, I walk up and down nine flights of stairs each time I go in or out. I admit it is a little trying if I have been to the market and am hauling groceries; but I’d rather walk up the stairs than be in one of the elevators when it decides to stop working.  I am sure these pictures will convince you that the rooftop garden and the little storm room more than make up for any elevator issues.

I walk to work, much to the concern and shock of my LRC co-workers. It is about a 10-block walk and takes about 12-15 minutes; 10 minutes if I have forgotten my umbrella and am racing an incoming storm.  

The key to walking about here is to eliminate any interest in you as a target. I stride along, pay attention, and don’t carry more than the equivalent of $10 US. Nor do I carry any technology – my camera, laptop, and iPad don’t get to go on any walk abouts. It is just me, my umbrella, and my cute little WestlawNext lunch box. My phone is discreetly carried in my pocket – or in my sleeve. The street scene shots below are taken with my phone, hence the rather poor quality of the photographs. There is no dilly dallying to get a shot in focus or properly framed!

You get a better sense of things when you travel this close to the ground. I smile, engage in conversation, and generally try and look like I belong even though I am often the ONLY white person on the street. This is not an exaggeration. I noticed it on the second day and have been testing my theory during my daily commute. I am typically in the office by 8:00 and leave at 5:00. This puts me on the street from 7:45 to 5:30ish; which is a bit outside of the normal rush hour. Most of my co-workers arrive closer to 9:00 and leave by 4:30. This could account for my unique status on the streets of Johannesburg.

The other upside to walking is that I get to stop in and buy a latte at Cramers. I haven't exactly grown to appreciate the instant coffee at the LRC office. Cramers' coffee and its presentation rival Starbucks and more importantly, it is within my budget. R 29 buys a very large skinny latte with two shots and a lovely design in the foam. Plus I get to vote on the question of the day!

Here are a few pictures of my daily walk. Quality varies depending on how safe it felt to have my phone flashing about.

My walk starts at the corner of Harrison and Commissioner Streets. The historic building the Victory House recently sold. It is one of the oldest buildings in the area known as Marshall Town. Hopefully the new owners will be able to save it!

The ANC party headquarters (Walter Sisulu House) is across the street from my building and next to the Victory House. In addition to all the unticketed, unauthorized parking in the bus lanes there are often gentlemen with strategic bulges under their shirts and jackets.

There is a school across the street. It doesn't matter where one is; the antics of children waiting for school to start always bring a smile.

Harrison Street is the taxi queue. The taxi trade union is very powerful. As evidenced by the union's ability to negotiate an exemption from the e-tolls for the taxis and its ability to cripple the expansion of the metro bus service. 

South African taxis come in a variety of death traps. Most can carry up to 14 or 15 passengers. The government appears to have abandoned all efforts to regulate the maintenance and quality of taxi vehicles. In my short time in South Africa there have been a number of horrific taxi accidents resulting in many deaths. Similar to tragedies elsewhere in the world there is a huge outpouring of anger and demand for change every time there is an accident. Yet nothing changes. There is also no guarantee that you will reach your destination--in short, you pay your money and take your chances! 

I turn right at Cramer’s and walk for a few blocks down “Main Street” which has been converted into a pseudo-pedestrian mall with coffee shops, banks, and my Woolies! 

Mugg & Bean, a chain store.

I go to the "Shop Around the Corner" when I need my illy fix!
My leafy pedestrian way ends at Gandhi Square; a major metro bus station.


Gandhi Square is also home to storefronts for the major tele-communications companies (Vodacom and MTN), banks, a 24-hour McDonalds, liquor store, SPAR grocer, butcher, and other miscellaneous shops and fast food outlets. 

24-hour McDonalds (can't imagine a need for these hours)
4:30 pm bus queue
Definitely not the traveler's high-light that “The Lonely Planet” guide makes it out to be!

If the traffic lights are not working, I turn south onto Rissik Street and cross at a less busy intersection.

Rissik Street: Looking back toward Gandhi Square.
At least in the US we can pay our taxes online. Here the line outside the South Africa Revenue Service (SARS) snakes down the street most days. 

If the traffic lights are working, I stroll across Gandhi Square and catch Eloff Street to walk south.
Corner of Eloff Street and Gandhi Square

Eloff Street
I noticed this little bit of left over Christmas in the Kodak store on Friday. 

Christmas isn't Christmas without snow.
In any event, I end up on Albert Street.

I work in the Bram Fischer building at 20 Albert Street. My office is in the building on the corner (orange stripe). There are building security guards for most of the buildings along the last two blocks of my walk. 

In addition, there is the informal car park security system. If you park on the street you pay a small amount each day to the "guy" and he supposedly guards your car from theft and damage. Since many of them look old and ill I am not sure how much protection your money buys.

These are two of my favorite signs along the walk.

The two necessities in life!
Particularly funny in a country where you could buy a black market copy of the movie
Long Walk to Freedom before it was released in the theatres.
As with most things in Johannesburg, the ends of the spectrum bump up against each other. I live in secured luxury (absent the elevator issue). To get into the building you have to have the correct fingerprint or the key code; the elevator when working requires a key; to pass above the fourth floor you have to have a key to open an iron gate; and yet another key to pass through another iron gate to get from the 9th floor foyer to the apartment wing. Yet my neighbors wash their dishes and their clothes by hand on the roof of their building. 

The list goes on. There are visible rats in the just sold Victory House across the street from my apartment and the huge office building one block down on Commissioner Street stands empty and with no plans for renovation in the works.

There are endless signs of extreme poverty everywhere on my walks. I see this woman walking her children to school in the mornings. The two little boys hold hands and she carries a baby on her back. She is taking two large bags of recycling that she has collected from trash bins to sell.

That is my daily work week to and fro to the office. I hope it gives you a glimpse into life here in South Africa. 

One simply does not go wondering about here in the evenings and on the weekends. This is a street shot of Commissioner Street at 5:00 pm on a Saturday afternoon. As you can see, it is deserted. 

To combat feeling caged, I decided to further educate myself on some issues in which I’m interested. I signed up for two MOOC classes. One is a International Women’s Health and Human Rights course offered by Stanford University, and the other is on digital certification and offered by Indiana University. I am also simply interested in how others are producing and delivering online education.

I realize that this post is long and long overdue but solving South African internet connectivity issues, like the workings of the building's elevators, proceeds at its own pace. I have been purchasing 1 Gigabyte 3G data bundles at an exorbitant rate of R 149 (or $15 US). Given the expense, I assigned priority to keeping up with my work for the McKinney Law School, AALL Spectrum, and the two MOOC classes I am taking. But I will be back regularly on the blog. 

Enjoying life here in Jo'berg and hoping the internet issue will be resolved by the end of January.