A MILLION COLOURS shot for 3 days at the old, abandoned Kempton Park Hospital. If we were in America, I’d call it “Americana” at its best – a relic from another time and place. (Do I say “Africana” here?) It’s a fascinating relic here in Jozi, to say the least.

The hospital was shut down in 1997 and is allegedly haunted. Once a premier hospital in Gauteng province, it’s been sitting alone and abandoned – except for night security and the occasional film shoot – ever since. From the number of broken windows and graffiti on the walls, you can see that this place has been the object of many a ghost hunt. They say the ghosts from the psychiatric ward are the most mischievous. A few of the crew slept over, just to try to catch a glimpse of some crazy ghosts on the prowl. I admit, it was eerie at night, but I never felt my hair raise the way I usually do when ghosts are present (for example at the “Spook Walk” in elementary school). If you’re into this sort of thing, here’s a Facebook Group dedicated to this haunted hospital. You can live vicariously through the 7,957 other Kempton Park Hospital ghost hunters out there.

Ghosts aren’t really my thing, but everything else about this place is. And I mean everything, considering EVERYTHING from the hospital’s operational days is still within its walls, left standing and intact as in a mysterious reverence to days gone by. It’s as if in 1997 all the doctors, nurses and administrative staff put down their scalpels, stethoscopes, and notebooks and just up and walked away. They left behind hundreds of hospital beds; X-rays of teeth, lungs, and bones; rooms full of incubators; cabinets full of medicine, gauze and bandages; stacks of medical records – full handwritten reports (in Afrikaans) of patients’ medical histories, diagnostics and prescriptions; signs for the waiting rooms and newest vaccines; hospital intake and discharge logs; doctors’ ID badges; desks, chairs, stretchers…

Eerie – yeah, ok. Fascinating – most definitely. This is time standing still!


Kudos to the crew whose job it is to keep these onlookers quiet during takes!


15 March 2010

I’ve mentioned before that Sandton, this northern suburb of Johannesburg where we are staying, is often referred to as “Africa’s richest square mile”. There’s money here – big global businesses, malls with all the international brands, luxury cars and spas and hotels, wealthy residential estates with security guards and four BMWs and numerous staff (with their own staff quarters). The lifestyle of the Sandtonista means that I still pay NYC prices for breakfast – mostly because I’m too traffic-avoiding, or hungry, or lazy to drive elsewhere. (Believe me, I’m more than appalled that I just used “lazy” and “drive” in the same sentence, since the cafe where I’m currently breakfasting is about the same distance as the walk I take every day from our NYC apartment to the subway. But I drove here….lazily.)

When in Rome…

Given that I’m rapidly adjusting to the Sandtonista lifestyle (minus any designer outfit), I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked to open the March 2010 issue of South Africa’s Shape Magazine and find this article:

“Looking after your domestic”, the “your” so overtly possessive, so powerful, so white. The picture emphasizing the point – you’re white, your domestic is black.

Yet, here in Sandton, this picture is accurate. Ever since the “white flight” from downtown during and just after the struggle years, a largely white elite has been thriving in the northern suburbs, with the black majority filling the economic stratum of supporting service roles. It’s just the way it is, I suppose one could say. Isn’t the magazine just being relevant? Shouldn’t I just be thankful for all of the employment the sector creates?

The article offered some suggestions on how to be a good employer to your domestics, from health insurance to vacation to pension funds. It reiterated the laws around monthly minimum wage: 1442.86 Rand, which is 7.40 Rand/Hour for domestics working more than 27 hours per week.

Let me put it this way: I’m on my second cappuccino – 18 Rand (each). I had one of the cheaper breakfasts on the menu – 50 Rand. At today’s foreign exchange rates, 7.40 Rand is exactly 1.00 USD. A dollar an hour to wash my dishes, clean my house, make my dinner, look after my children, do my laundry!

I have a Master’s degree in International Business. I know better than to flip out at mere exchange rates. One has to look at the bigger picture, the pricing parity for what 7.40 Rand can buy in the places the domestics return to at the end of the day – the places they call home, where they buy food, pay rent, take their children to school. I assume Diana, who cleans our apartment each weekday, does not pay 18 Rand for a cappuccino in Soweto where she lives with her children. But, honestly, I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how much she makes, or how much she pays in rent, or if she has money to spare.

All I know is that shelling out 100 Rand for breakfast in Sandton while reading about the hourly wages of domestics makes me feel unsettled. It highlights the enormous disparity between the rich and the poor here in South Africa, the former who are still predominantly white, just like the picture in the magazine. And just like me, an accidental Sandtonista. Ugh.

Sweet and Sour

10 March 2010

Riding in the flatbed of a bakkie (pick-up truck), with the Director, Cinematographer and Stuntmen. Bumping over potholes, on the dark, dusty, unlit street. The hum of the truck and the wind and the village dogs in strange harmony. Lights from the film set fading in the distance as we approach base camp. Where cast and crew will eat “lunch”, at midnight.  Under a near full, orangish-yellow, South African moon.

Yes, this is why I took a sabbatical…so as not to miss these surreal moments. I feel light years away from my tiny cubicle on the 30th floor in Times Square in New York City.

We are in Tembisa township. The homes, made of tin, coils, old billboards and government plaster are strung together like colorful pearls around the neck of Johannesburg, the City of Gold. Electricity is sporadic, when available. There are outhouses, dirt floors, fire pits. Sanitation is nil. Privacy is scarce – community is paramount.

The people of Tembisa gather around to catch a glimpse of the filmmaking perched on the hill, a stage to their settlement. The children find a reason to celebrate and break into song and dance – our floodlights, their spotlights. The adults clamor for the best view and, enamored with their proximity to the action, they revel over beer, cigarettes and hearty jokes. When they tire of “action, cut, reset” the 6-year-olds tie the 1-year-olds to their backs, take an adult’s hand and walk, barefoot, on home to sleep.

At 3am the shoot wraps. We get into our foreign cars and drive to our suburbs. Wave to the security guards and enter our gated communities. Lock the doors. Turn on all the lights. Shower. Rest our heads on soft pillows and curl up in clean white sheets. Sleep.

Something about this sweet and sour juxtaposition makes me feel older, wiser, grateful, responsible. And when I return home, it will travel with me over the light years to my tiny cubicle on the 30th floor in Times Square in New York City.

Pure Glee

8 March 2010

The joy of a child…should you need a reminder. This is pool day at Nokuphila School.

Living the stereotype

1 March 2010

As an American in South Africa I’m often the brunt of snarky anti-American comments. I’m no novice traveler, so I’m well aware of the name Americans have made for themselves abroad…and I’ve even become accustomed to hearing these stereotypes all over the world. But I say, in all of my travels to date, with maybe only England as an exception, blatant anti-American remarks from South Africans have been the most intense.

Friends will introduce me to new friends and say “yeah, she’s a dodgy American, but she’s ok.” (Giggle giggle, nod head, roll eyes.)

Here’s a conversation starter: “So Aubrey, what do you think of South Africa? I mean, Americans don’t know anything about Africa, do they, so this must be new to you.” Ummmm….yeah….where do I even begin with that one. Usually with “Well, from the time I’ve spent in Rwanda and Egypt and Tunisia…and my business in Ghana….and my studies of African culture and economic development….”

I’m not even exaggerating. This stuff is said TO ME: “Well you’re an American so you can afford it.” (Yeah, except that it’s cheaper in New York City.) Or “Oh, you’re on the 11th floor; did you think you’d be living in the African bush when you came here?”

This was really amazing: “Oh wait, so you actually had a passport before you came here?”

Or my personal favorite: “Did you even know there were white people in South Africa?” Wow. Ummm….Yeah…..Did I mention what A MILLION COLOURS is about?

These kinds of conversations come up all the time. I do my best to show that I know a thing or two about the cultural and historical nuances of this place, and I try to disprove any comment that starts with “All Americans.” So when a friend recently said “All Americans think that because we live in Africa, we have elephants and hippos and other wild animals in our backyards,” I just laughed. I mean really. These stereotypes are just getting ridiculous. Or are they?

Well. Let me tell you something. I spent Thursday night on the film set, a location about 45 minutes from Johannesburg. Yes, it wasn’t the city – more of a rural farm area – but it was still not quite the African bush or jungle. There were baboons everywhere!  And yes, it was the “backyard” to more than a few estates.

These baboons were a hyper bunch. You could see them on the hills, maybe 30 in a group, chasing each other and shaking all the trees. You could hear them for miles – a surprisingly high-pitched squeal as opposed to a low guttural noise that might seem more fitting for a creature of their size. They went all “ape” on the set, and it had to be completely rebuilt, then they moved on to the catering. One baboon bandit made off with a huge bag of sugar. Unfortunately for him, he punctured a hole in the bag, leaving a white sugar trail the whole way back to the wood. He probably didn’t have any bit of the tasty treat left by the time he got there.

Baboons are notoriously brutal. I didn’t know that at first. Assuming they’d be cute and maybe even pose for a photo, I went walking down a path in the direction of their squeals. I was spotted by two of the special effects crew, and they immediately came running and yelling at me in Zulu. I understood “Baboons!” and got the hint. I mean, these guys blow stuff up for a living, so if they are telling me to steer clear of a baboon, I will.

Needless-to-say, I don’t have a single photo of a baboon. But I do have this story. May it keep the “Americans think we have wild animals living in our backyards” stereotype alive and well!