Johannesburg, that’s how it is. The city seems to say: this is the way of the world. Go right ahead dig up another scrubby-bushed precinct for your yoga gym or office park. The surroundings are so nondescript anyway, it hardly seems to matter. With two guitars on the back seat, Ted and I are burning north out of the northern suburbs, heading for more suburbs, breasting Sandton City off to the right. It rises like a second CBD, created for all the businesses and banks too scared to venture into town, the real city centre where Andrew owned his longstay hotel, where we all met each Wednesday for lunch at a Portuguese-themed bar, and where I got served a pasta which turned me violently red.
But now we are sailing under the LA billboards with Ted debating how many thousand to invest in an even bigger speaker system for the car. His driving is untrammelled, highly confident, and so I can place this journey at a point in time just after his big promotion, but just before the afternoon when he reversed the silver Gti into Luke’s electric gate. Whatever beautiful, painfully loud music happens to be playing is conferring far too much pathos on the surrounding scene: the traffic waiting on slip roads, the townhouse developments cloning themselves over the broken koppies, the gated casinos, the endless roadside hypermarkets. Sponsored signs bleep out the exchange rate, while a new campaign for some strenuously multiracial coffee franchise declares from above that ‘It’s all about the vibe.’ We pass below with the rest of the Saturday traffic, water under the bridge.
Tired of following the long security facades, blank and boring, your eyes search out the human presence among the off ramps and overpasses. The small band who has made their HQ below a huge billboard for the bank that Barclays bought, and which had now dispatched Luke to Cairo to put the frighteners on the Egyptians. Three struts supporting it, with a triangle of razor wire strung between them halfway up, but people have got in and over.
Ted says he has seen children growing up at the robots. He recognizes the faces of toddlers in those teenagers who now stare down at him from his window. He ramps down the last part of the wide highway, swings precariously into a turning slip and fills in some marketing questionnaire on the hoof while striding into an off-licence. Emerging with a bottle of lime cordial and soda, he snaps a cigarette in half before lighting up, chucking a good portion of the tobacco out the window.
‘I find never want to smoke the whole thing, you know? People do just because it’s there.’
He tells me he is slowly weaning himself off all kinds of things, letting his phone ring unanswered, floating gently to a place below the social radar, just where he likes it. But this is some engagement that he couldn’t cancel, or, I suspect, didn’t want to, on an account of a blonde who has been calling incessantly. She has appeal, certainly, even managing to wear the leg brace from a minor car accident like a high society fashion accessory. But her ex-boyfriend is a close friend of my flatmate and driver, so close that one sentimental, drunken night not long ago he presented Ted with a guitar.
‘You take it china, you play so beautifully. I’ll never use it – take it, please!’
Since Ted already owned a perfectly good steel string acoustic, this new model had passed to me – Made in Korea but with a lovely action – and so I am watching this clandestine north of the northern suburbs courtship with growing consternation.
We arrive at a cluster of duplex townhouses, sign in at the front gate and make small talk two floors up.
‘Ja we like a white squatter camp here,’ says one of the stretched, peroxided girls, sitting out on the tiny balcony in tiny tartan shorts, high heels and sunglasses. The glare, as I looked back towards less the far-flung suburbs, was intense. And it was hard to tell where it was coming from, given all the rain in the past week, and the trees that filled up boom-gated avenues and early summer gardens.
Behind us her boyfriend pitched his big idea: to install vending machines at minibus taxi ranks that would dispense gravy and two slices of bread. Every conversation in Johannesburg, I realised soon after arriving, is a business plan. And of all the business plans and small-time entrepreneurial pitches that I have had to sit through, this was surely the worst.
‘Because you’ve seen them; you know how they like to dip things.’
All I could do was look out across the great African metropolis and wonder what would happen when not just the electricity but also the oil ran out. The first great wave of load-shedding had just begun: electric gates were malfunctioning everywhere, generator sales were through the roof and the government predicted rolling blackouts for at least seven years. Behind me these silly child adults entreated Ted to tell them this story or that one. They needed him, just as the three other suburban barbecues pencilled in for the evening needed him, as a kind of guarantee that their duplex lives weren’t a complete existential embarrassment; that real life existed out there, somewhere, among the jacarandas and grown-over mine dumps.
‘Triple B, double E?’ said the boyfriend, still smarting after everyone had shot down his pap en sous machine, ‘I’m sceptical, hey?’
I tried to distinguish my scepticism from his, while Ted explained about the new version, Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment. He talked crisply about community centres, micro-financing, the bank that would only lend you money if you had none, 95% paid back on time by committed woman entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. He talked and talked. He talked at such length that he must have made them think – he was a better person than me – but this vocabulary, the blunted tools he was forced to use, the slippage back down the slope of an already slippery reality, was clearly brewing up a mass of simmering, very sober frustration.
One day we go for a run, Ted tracking further and further away from the car, talking team strategy and laughter circles with a fellow creative. Normally he chooses main arterioles for his afternoon jogs, accelerating barechested down the concrete strip separating Empire or nipping across the crowded pavements of Louis Botha. But now, after my entreaties, we move through the late afternoon in Emmarentia Park. It is the day after the World Cup final and there is a sense of national festivity and content in the air. Groups of teenagers fishing with rum and Coke to hand, dog walking families chatting to the men in kerbside security huts, canoeists lifting golden films of water from the big-city lake we are puffing our way around.
‘If I’m teaming with you, we don’t just talk about it. We go to WinWin; we say ‘Give us a space’.’
The chubby guy who has just ventured back after twelve years in Norway is full of ideas. They pour out of him as we pick our way over tree roots, take diagonals across petrol forecourts. The release of endorphins seems to be spurring him on to a place in language which becomes mildly interesting, philosophically, when trying to diagnose just how much reality has evaporated in this million acre business park, decomposed like after-storm ozone in the Highveld air. He rediscovers the wheel with every kilometre of tarmac pounded out, signs and things, concepts and conceptualisations switching places in his overheated brain as we dance our African road dance.
‘So then we put ourselves in places, actually in spaces for the experiential thing, places where we can actually have the experience. Then we report back – hit them with it. Leverage all the senses.’
As we set off the guard dogs one by one, and despite the building stiffness in my legs, the absolute unspeak pouring out in long breathy gasps in front of me engenders a fierce determination to beat this guru back to the vehicle. We end up on either side of the road, and he must have sensed my antipathy or picked up a derisive snort, because he ups the pace too. Car guards and cruisers scatter as we shift gears up to an all-out sprint back to the GTi. I beat him by a good fifty metres, but the ordeal is far from over. Ted has evidently asked him for some advice during the jog; now he sits himself down under a conifer, a team building Buddha, and dispenses some experiential teachings about how to run an impending workshop of middle managers.
‘They’re teaming with Brad, yes? They’ve all shared a common experience? Okay so get them to sit with feet on the floor. And concentrate on your breathing. Belly in, belly out.’
I stalk behind him, making exaggerated gestures about the time, but it’s no use.
‘Now get them to free associate with the story they workshopped, run it over in their heads. Run it backwards if they want, talking about any sensations that come to mind, thoughts, memories –’
‘Emotions?’ ventures Ted.
‘Emotions – let it all come to the surface.’
This high altitude arena, penned in by its distant, buzzing ring roads, pinned under its big, moving clouds. In a moment of angry, post-aerobic clarity, the whole place appeared to me like a particle accelerator for new kinds of corporate behaviour, where new strains of marketing and marketing speak were coming into being like rare quarks, hard to catch neutrinos.
At around this time I read an article in the New York Times about two American physicists who were taking some vast, multi-billion Euro research complex in Switzerland to court. They maintained that, given the unpredictability of the subatomic experiments that were to take place here, there was a chance (admittedly a very slight one) that this enormous, secretive underground simulator would create some kind of dark matter or a DIY-black hole which might just instantly dematerialise the entire planet.
Perhaps here there was a danger of something similar happening in linguistic terms: in some fluorescent-tube lit seminar room, smelling of whiteboard ink and coolant, an intrepid brand researcher (perhaps Ted himself) might teamstorm a concept so radical, so viral, that it would instantly infect all common usage and bring down the entire English language like an overwhelmed mainframe. No doubt it had already happened.
Finally they agreed the time for the inspirational brief and we drove off to our flat, South African flags wedged out the windows of tinted land cruisers, flying from trattorias and the Famous Schwarma Co. Was this every day in America, I wondered? Where else could it all be coming from, superimposed over struggling South Africa like Glad Wrap on an open wound?
It was Wednesday again. Grateful to be going in the opposite direction from the priapic little hotel office towers and highway-side stock market screens, Sean and I headed into the city centre, feeling the rush of it as we crossed the Nelson Mandela Bridge between the office blocks wrapped in mobile phone banners, skirting the high-rise hostels of the most densely populated square kilometre in Africa. Of the notorious Ponte building you hear varied reports. One person says that Nigerian drug lords still hold the top three storeys: police don’t venture there and the open shaft that runs down the building is a huge rubbish tip up to the 40th floor. Others say that it is a refuge for African immigrants who don’t feel safe in Alexandria or Soweto. Someone else says the place is being slowly renovated: apartments with extraordinary views being sold like hot cakes, starting at half a million. The unique open plan lets in the Highveld wind and rain from above.
Eventually I got it from someone who had actually been inside, Andrew the photographer turned low-cost hotelier in Braamfontein, someone who knew what he was talking about. He was one of those photographers who had come of age, who were lefties at university and partygoers during the grim 1980s, compelling characters with harrowed faces, but whether from living out impossible historical contradictions or just from sheer substance abuse it was difficult to tell.
‘Hey – check that guy,’ he gestured with his lager to a man tucking into a pint of prawns, ‘Armourer for MK in the 80s, Boksburg area. Hid stuff down mineshafts.’
Andrew said it was a strange mixture in there. A consortium of investment banks had bought the whole structure and were slowly phasing out the tenants, painting the exterior a different shade of grey. Some of the lifts worked, taking you up to the overpriced show suites; some didn’t. He reminisced about being called to do a shoot there by a mysterious client, but arriving to find the man jumping off the roof.
‘Jesus, I’d love to get a bar or a spaza shop in the bottom of there, make a fortune,’ he said as we ate calamari and mussels in Troyeville, looking at Ponte as its hollow grey cylinder merged in and out of disgusting low grey cloud more suited to London. The Springboks had arrived back from Paris and were doing a victory drive from the airport. Thousands of people lined the streets in the pouring rain.
When lunch is over and all our corporate friends go back to their office towers nearby, Sean and I head to the Johannesburg Public Library. But first we have to find parking, ducking and lurching the maroon Toyota in the vicinity of Market Street. The same poised social moment is being played out in this central grid. Some streets are sealed off for film shoots and New York coffee sofas have been lugged out onto the kerbside.
Eventually we gravitate to our least favourite berth, the parking below GAME, even though the security man tells us that it’s slightly flooded. He makes a calliper gesture with two fingers.
We wind down to a scene that would have appealed to J. G. Ballard. The lower basement lots are drowned in a black tide that has absorbed every grit and smog particle on its way filtering down from the city above. We have to wade through slick puddles and climb over pipes while huge extractor fans pump out warm fumes which come, unmistakably, from a fried chicken outlet.
We make it into the library and slip upstairs, past all the schoolchildren who fill up the lower floors and Internet suites to capacity. The enormous, jovial baseball-cap-wearing woman in African studies and I know each other. She is only relieving someone else, she always tells me, makes great comedy of having no clue about the library’s holdings and often summons me to the PC for with application forms for distance learning courses.
‘Ai – Afrikaans is too boring!’ she laughs, but nonetheless checks methodically through the pre-1950 card index for some obscure anthology of Boesman-stories while I suddenly begin to feel very hot in the face.
‘Sean, do I look okay? I don’t feel good.’
‘You’ve gone violently red.’
I try to get a visual in the reflection of the glass fronted book cabinets.
‘And your lips have gone a strange purple colour.’
As I ran up and down the stairs of the library, trying to make myself sick in some of the most oversubscribed toilets imaginable, I thought I would soon be cresting a wave of terrible food poisoning. Although quite what it could be was a mystery. I wasn’t affected by seafood as far as I knew; everyone else was fine, and I had kept mainly vegetarian during lunch. A trace element brushed in with a sauce somewhere? Some kind of industrial cleanant? Or perhaps just a generalised allergy to just about the most corporate place on earth.
American children were choking on their peanut butter; every London kid picked up in the 4×4 school run was asthmatic. Toxicity was rising everywhere and this pollution swamped garage that we swiftly returned to seemed like its ground zero. Driving back on Empire Road, though, the hot flush vanished as fast as it had come on.
After another week or so of our respective day jobs, Sean and I had to escape again, withstand the grim northern arterioles once more. In between the freelance adventures which he mounted – riding with amphetamine-fuelled truckers to the Congo and back, tracing the impact crater of an ancient meteorite just dimly visible as a ring of eroded hills around Johannesburg – he was forced to write copy to pay the bills. This week had entailed grappling with pre-populated web forms.
‘Pre-populated – it’s a good phrase,’ I said, ‘What is it exactly?’
‘It allows users to opt in to, or opt out of specific vehicles,’ he read from his brief, before chucking it out the window, ‘Which contribute towards content optimisation.’
For each assignment, he tried to include one suggestion which was patently outrageous. I recognized it as a modified version of the game that my ambitious law student friends used to play at university, challenging each other to drop ever more ridiculous phrases – ‘Copacabana,’ ‘McDonald’s Happy Meal’ – in the course of serious-minded tutorials. The difference was that in this context, there was no possibility of being found out. In the last week he had been working on names for a marketing website detailing events in the marketing calendar and award ceremonies hosted by marketing companies for instances of excellence in the marketing world. At the end of the list of sensible, creative suggestions, he added in his wildcard before clicking send. The man responsible for signing things off got back to him soon:
‘Sean, hi. Love Bullhorn Trumpet. Going with Bullhorn Trumpet. Nice.’
Whether they liked it or not, my talented friends were, I realised, working at the unfurling edge, the breaking wave of a globalised South. One in Cairo, one in Bangalore, tweaking its technologies, refining things. The law students were now tax experts in London, going to the most exhaustive subclause, to the nth degree to ensure that immensely rich people didn’t lose so much as a cent. But here, it was all about delivery, an immense all African rollout.
The wave was breaking all around us, where townhouse complexes spread in such earnestness on the road to Muldersdrift that whole shallow valleys are bathed in the pastel orange of faux Tuscan roof tiles. Polished granite kitchen surfaces wait at the side of the highway, ready to be taken off by some customer exercising his right to customise according to the articles of incorporation. Autoparts warehouses, smashing and junk yards with hubcaps lining the fences, long chains of them shining in the sun; car wrecks strung up either side of the entry gates. Mediaeval districts where the city is growing but eating itself at the same time, reassembling and stealing itself away again across the non-rural paddocks separating these fringe industries. There were the taxi ranks with their bubbling vats of gravy; the hard shoulders of the road bitten off by the ferrous red dust. The city is spreading and spreading over farms and hills that may be unhistoric but are definitely prehistoric.
‘Soon the Cradle of Humankind,’ said Sean, ‘Is going to be just another part of the suburbs.’
From The Encyclopedia of South African Brands and Branding:
But in fact, Cuba leveraged all five of my senses. The idea of Cuba opened up a multi-dimensional desire incorporating a complete sensory approach… This was not just a destination, it was a unique sensory experience that differentiated the country from any of the other 243 countries in the world. Almost by accident, Brand Cuba has stumbled upon the very processes that point the way toward the next generation of brand building. Amazingly, this Communist country that has vilified capitalism and consumerism for decades has managed to:
– maintain a single message
– promulgated by senior management consistently
– bought up and lived by all the citizens
– been bundled into an alluring brand essence
– and disseminated through sensory cues that cover touch, taste, smell, sight and sound
And all this happened by chance. Can you imagine if it had been strategically thought out?