The road out of Johannesburg spins into oblivion. There are more billboards than people. Silent interrogators, they grill passers-by: “Where are you going?” “What are you doing?”“Why do you think this journey will save you?”
We did not know the answers to these questions. Graduates of South Africa’s school of inexperience, we were there to learn.
To grow up in Johannesburg is to grow up in a thought experiment. A childhood in a city conceived as a temporary town is a childhood defined by chaos and confusion. New-Democracy-themed birthday parties. Party-politics-themed democracy. To grow up in Johannesburg is to not grow up at all.
There is no order, nor consistency, no plan. The city built itself up and down and up and down around the generation it calls “born-frees.” Forced to piece together Johannesburg’s identity before we had ones of our own, we were born responsible. Surrounded by skyscraper ideas and monumental buildings, life was all-consuming and claustrophobic. Life turned us into many people.
There were the sanguine, whom I knew of but would never know. There were the ignorant, who did not know of themselves. And there were the disillusioned. It was the 28th graduating class’ disillusioned who left their caps, gowns, and burdens behind in late June. Joseph said drive. Tiya asked where. Joseph said it didn’t matter. Tiya knew this was true, so they climbed into the front. I slouched into the back. We made our way onto the road. We had to escape. The spinning began.
To come out of Johannesburg is to begin a journey into nothing. Lone trees serve as minute hands on a clock that would be deemed broken were it not for their presence. Moments drag on. Landscapes blend into each other. Dirt becomes grass becomes hill becomes mineshaft.
Squeezing the road from four lanes to two, two lanes to one, this part of the R51 is a money sandwich. Mineshafts as bread; road as filling. You’ve never liked sandwiches, but you eat them for sustenance; you’re told that you have to. For as long as natural ground has been natural profit, we’ve had to stomach the money sandwich. Along it, miners would stop for work. Their pay was little, their joy was plentiful.
“My Dear Patricia,
For five weeks I have longed for your warm embrace. There is no light underground. There is no end in sight. There is no joy in the middle. Old Rooibek says that we are lucky to be here, that we are the chosen few. I wish they had picked somebody else. I know the where, have found the what, but have lost the who, and forgotten the why. I am tired.
With love and honesty,
Their joy was plentiful.
Their lodgings were underwhelming but as best they could do. Clusters of small towns litter the money sandwich. Towns built before privacy and peace. Towns where the mayor knew the baker because they were married, were always going to be married, would always be married. Towns where things were the way they were. We drove past the homes that “once belonged to people like Patrik and now belong to people like Panjo’s owners,” Tiya remarked.
“Panjo?” I asked. Joseph pulled into the slow lane.
Tiya began: “Panjo’s a tiger: orange fur, black stripes, intrusive thoughts. An actual tiger. But in 2012 or maybe ‘11 or maybe ‘13, Panjo began to dream. He was in the back of a pickup truck, on this very road.”
“It’s complicated. It’s important. It’s irrelevant. It’s blurry, but most things are. As far as I can remember, as far as it matters, Panjo wasn’t the tiger he once was. He used to roll and roar, but it’d been days since his owner had seen that gnashing smile of his, and a gloomy tiger doesn’t bring in the big bucks. So they left for the vet with a broken tiger in the back and arrived there with his broken chains.”
“Yeah, he was gone. And it was this big thing, man. His owner was distraught. She phoned a radio station and was like, ‘Panjo’s gone, my poor sweet Panjo,’ and the host was like, ‘who?’ And when she’d gotten the details out, everyone wanted to help find him – to dedicate themselves to something, even fleetingly. And they did, after two days they found the little guy. He was on a farm just up this road. I’ll take you guys there. I swear it’s real. They found him on this farm, alone, roaring, free, and they took him back into the city. The media were restless:. ‘Panjo is home!’, ‘Panjo is depressed.’, ‘Panjo finds love.’, ‘Panjo grows old.’ What does Panjo care? He was happy out here. And they took that from him.”
Tiya stopped the car. A single sign separated fact from fiction, the fickle from the farm. It read “Panjo was was likely was probably may have could have been here!” We got out and stepped onto hallowed ground. Panjo found purpose here. We found two windmills and a train track. Walking along the track, we made an unspoken agreement to reflect on his loss. Panjo wasn’t the tiger he once was. We would soon leave him behind.
“This track could take you to the end of our world and the beginning of the next one,” said Joseph, “but no one uses it anymore.”
Back in the car, as the mid-afternoon light streaked through the window, I looked out and counted cows. Joseph pointed to a building on the horizon that looked as out of place as us. Soon after, we arrived at Carnival City.
People come from far and wide to gamble in Vegas because Vegas is a gambling city. Brakpan, halfway between Johannesburg and Mpumalanga, was not built this way. It is a city of illusion. It was built with money on the mind. The outskirts are sparse because the center glistens. The price of water doubles by the mile. Carnival City, Brakpan’s main attraction, is no city at all. People do not come from far and wide. They come from very close and they stay for very long. Carnival City is a casino. It belongs to the road.
The first thing one notices about the City is its lack of reality. If mineshafts rewinded time, this building froze it. There were no windows, no clocks, no mirrors. There were food courts, showers, and overnight rooms. One could live and die in Carnival City without ever wondering if there was more world outside.It is defined by its shiny wheels and desperate crowds, its rigged games and lost souls. Ready to live, we each forked over R50 and tried to take our first steps.
R50 won’t buy you more than a sandwich, but as children of a cynical nation, it was what we were willing to stake. R25 was lost to the slot machines. R50 was lost to Texas Holdem. Disheveled and disappointed, we found ourselves at the Black Jack table, looking for a way to break even.
“Black Jack’s a simple game,” an unkempt gambler told us. “It’s us versus the dealer. I win. We all win. You lose. We all lose. He wins…” he sighed and thought a thought we would never know. “Play behind me,” he whispered, “that’s all you need to do.”
And so we did. For what felt like minutes, but could have been hours, we hedged our bets against the institution and bet on one another. We watched a group of gamblers drink their troubles away. Gazing through the cigarette smoke and past the inscrutability, one might declare that this was a family, if only for a moment.
“Look at that thing go,” a member of our makeshift audience said, “I could watch it spin forever.”
When we stepped back into our world, we were R150 richer, the sky was many shades darker. The sun fell into the horizon. We drove into it. We could challenge the sun, waiting for our wings to burn. We could never stop. And yet, soon we would turn around. Soon, we would go back home.
We would drive by the petrol stations where they once prayed for Panjo, back to the petrol stations where they prayed for lower fuel prices. We would drive past the tracks and into the new abyss. It called our names. It was a road away, physically close but obscured by the histories between us.
A cow becomes a cow becomes a cow becomes a cow. A thought becomes a thought becomes a thought. The road stays the road. It’s oblivion out. It’s oblivion in. There’s no meaning on the road. But the road raised us.