Sandtonista

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.

When I first arrived, I decided to drive the route that I had planned on running – just to double check that there was a wide enough shoulder, if not a sidewalk, and confirm that it truly made the loop it appeared to on the map. It’s short – not more than 2 miles and makes a perfect loop through the wealthy, gated community estates of Sandton. Most of the estates have black guards at the entrance, black lawn workers in the yards and a generally busy atmosphere of black staff attending to the grounds. It was clear that I would be the only white person running (or doing anything, for that matter, on the street – and I’ve since, when running, never seen another white person outside of his or her car). But I figured, with such a buzz of estate staff around, it would safe to run.

Let me pause here. I mention that the estate staff are black only because it’s observable. This is not to say that black men and women do not hold C-suite and other professional positions here in South Africa, nor that they are not the wealthy owners of several of the said estates – they most certainly do and are. Since the apartheid regime came to an end, Black Economic Empowerment (essentially Affirmative Action) has been enforced in an effort to undo the oppressive set-backs that stem from years of segregated, white minority rule. When you consider that approximately 80% of South Africa’s population is non-white (Black, Coloured, Asian) the socio-economics begin to make sense, especially here in Sandton, this suburb deemed “Africa’s richest square mile.” People of European decent have had a head-start – for like a century – with the support of political, economic, and social structures to uphold their well being. Obviously, even with the enforcement of Black Economic Empowerment, the non-white majority population will need some time to catch up. Until then, I suppose non-whites will continue to fill the labor pool of domestics, grounds-keepers, residential and commercial staff and other related services. That said, this is the racial make-up surrounding the streets of my runs.

Just one more aside: Plenty of people equate South Africa with crime. While that has rapidly changed, even in the past two years, in preparation for the World Cup this June, crime has sadly been an identifying reality for this country. (INVICTUS touched upon the crime and violence that were paramount in the early 90s. A MILLION COLOURS does the same.) But, I get unnerved with generalizations, even when they’re based in truth, and had made it a priority to prove that in 2010, South Africa is just as safe as any city anywhere. However, upon arrival, when all of our local colleagues and friends took me aside to give me the “safety talk”, and one even handed me pepper spray, I decided I don’t need to single-handedly change the world’s perception about crime in South Africa…and I’ll keep my guard up just enough to be safe and not sorry.

So back to my story. If you recall, I was driving my potential running route.

I rounded a bend and saw down the road a silver car, stopped rather crookedly on the curb. As I approached the car, I noticed a man, white, casually but nicely dressed, maybe mid 30s, waving me down. His hood was not up, his fourways weren’t on and I could see no damage to the car. My initial instinct was to stop and see what he needed…poor guy, I thought, maybe he’s lost, maybe he’s out of gas and needs a lift. But as I scanned the street I realized that for the moment, there was not one other person in sight – not in a car, not walking on the sidewalks, not working estate grounds. Then my heart began pounding and a second instinct replaced the first. The cautionary words from a recent “safety talk” rang loud and clear in my head: “Don’t trust anyone here. Pink, purple, black, white – I don’t care. You don’t trust anyone.”

So I drove by. The man gave me a pleading wave right in front of my window and he and I made eye-contact. I mouthed “I’m sorry” and shook my head with an apologetic expression as if to say “you must understand why I just can’t stop to help you”.

I actually think he probably understood…and I’ll never know if he was going to hijack me. I imagine most people here, even hijackers, embrace the “don’t trust anyone” motto, regardless of any of their remaining stereotypes – racial or otherwise. But the angst I felt from casting aside my good samaritan instinct was new. One never wants to be so self-protective that she’s cold to others. But how do you know when a simple act of good samaritanship might lead to danger…in a place where crime once ruled the day? Feeling like I’m not in Kansas anymore.