Roadside Retail Therapy

17 Nov

Every morning on the way to work, I pass one of those informal roadside stalls that dot the sidewalks of South Africa. Every morning, a woman brings a shopping trolley full of Nik-Naks and bananas and chocolate biscuits, carefully divided into plastic sandwich bags, and places them out on a plastic folding table.

And, lately, every morning I wave at her. I should have started doing it a long time ago, because we see one another most days. Every morning, she sees me reverse awkwardly out of our gate, wait at the stop street, and then drive past.

I never stop, and it struck me that maybe I should. Maybe, instead of stocking up on lunch at the supermarket, I should buy from her stall. Do something for a local entrepreneur who’s there rain or shine, winter and summer, except for the week’s leave she took a couple of months ago. The pavement across the road felt strangely empty without her there, and I was relieved when I saw her back at her post.

This afternoon, I finally got around to going to talk to her. To make up for all the times I haven’t bought lunch, I took a hundred Rand note along with me when I went for a walk around the suburb where we live.

The trigger was the usual one: I’d had an exceptionally bad day, spent some of it sobbing in a toilet cubicle at the office, excused myself from a meeting because it was too obvious that I had been crying and fled home, snot en trane all the way.

What do I do to cope in situations like these? Self-medicate of course, and since my usual choice – wine – is not an option, I went for the next best thing: giving money away. (I first became addicted to giving money away nearly three years ago, when I got my pension payout after quitting my job. Instant dopamine rush.)

I weighed up whether to buy R100 worth of snacks in advance for myself or lunch for others, and eventually settled on buying lunch for others on the grounds that it was logistically more feasible. I nearly abandoned the idea when I saw that the hawker was not alone, but with a group of friends under a tree. The thought of talking to a group of people who would probably wonder what this crazy mlungu wanted was appalling, but I gritted my teeth and went through with it.

“Are you the lady who runs the stall?” I asked. One of the women stood up and headed across the street. I followed her, explaining, “I wave at you every morning when I drive past.”

“What’s your name?”

“Gugu” Her voice was barely audible.

“I’m Sarah. Nice to meet you.”

I showed her the R100. “I want to buy R100 worth of stock,” I said. “To pay for other people’s lunches.” I was explaining it badly. “So they don’t have to pay when they come to buy from you.” She smiled uncertainly. “Will you do that?”

She nodded, took the money and headed back across the street, while I walked on.

I don’t know whether she’ll give her Nik-Naks and chocolate biscuits away to others who ask for them, or whether she’ll pocket the money, and it doesn’t really matter. I feel a strange obligation to her, to her consistent presence. She has a hard life, and I get to drive past and leave her in my wake every morning and every evening. In this sense, the payment was necessary.

This, then, is roadside retail therapy. I get to exchange money for the chance to feel better. Whether I’m purchasing the temporary amelioration of guilt or the illusion of bringing happiness to another – I’m not entirely sure which, and possibly it’s both – at least somebody else gets to benefit.

Let’s face it, I really don’t need any more pairs of shoes.



A day in Braamfontein

26 Apr

Go anywhere in Joburg on a Saturday and I’d predict that the most buzz will be found in… Braamfontein. It’s even busier than Sandton City (and parking is as hard to find). I have mixed feelings about this, but overall it’s a good thing. Two years ago, when I held my first exhibition at Velo at 85 Juta Street, Neighbourgoods across the road was already popular, but the streets weren’t pulsing with people.

Braamies vibe

Now, as you drive down Jan Smuts and take the slip road to the left just before the Nelson Mandela Bridge, the change is immediately apparent. There’s street art, the pavements are jampacked, and every few steps is another coffee shop or restaurant. As for Neighbourgoods, you need to wear a suit of armour to survive the scrums of Joburgers grasping at paella and Nutella pancakes. It’s all very Tim Noakes unfriendly and quite terrifying.


I met friends there and we didn’t even try to find a place to sit – we ate standing up on the staircase (and I have no doubt that several forkfuls of beetroot galette ended up in my laptop bag).

Bubbly at Neighbourgoods

Back at Velo, I met Vernon Joyce, a young photographer persuaded by my friend (and newly appointed art coordinator) Juan Coetzee to take pictures. A band played for patrons gathered at The Grove while later we were treated to a traditional Zulu dance.

Juan and Andre

(One thing that hasn’t changed: the breakdancers who gather at The Grove to practice their moves.)


Having taken full advantage of the wine available at Neighbourgoods, Juan persuaded me to get a drumming lesson from the buskers, who by then wanted to go home, but who humoured me nonetheless.

Beating the drum

If you’re in Joburg next Saturday, come through – I’ll be at Velo to give personalised tours of the Firepool exhibition and there will be plenty else to see and do.

Lines of lights

15 Mar

Tonight, as I drove home from dinner, a fine mist of rain settled on the windscreen of the car I use to get around.

The wipers, instead of clearing the rain, left a complex pattern of concentric circles on the glass. The moisture captured the light and extruded it into long shimmering trails like lasers. It was like being in a club, or with aliens. Or perhaps on drugs, although I can only guess.

City Lights 2

Every time I turned the corner and the windscreen went mercifully dark, there would be more like in front of me, stretching out instantly toward me and tugging at me as I drove past, as if it could not bear to let me go.

It was beautiful, and it also made driving home tricky, because I could barely see where I was going.  I’ve captured the effect in a quiet road, and I like to imagine that the light reaches out to us, and holds on, and guides us on our way home in the dark.

City Lights

My car isn’t mine, and it isn’t me

28 Feb

Do you match your car? Does it express, externally, what you are?

The car I am driving at the moment matches me very well, and that terrifies me. It isn’t mine (it belongs to my grandmother, who is no longer able to drive). And I want to say it isn’t me – but it is. For a woman of my age, living in Sandton, it makes perfect sense.

“It makes you invisible,” a friend observed, and he is right. I am pretty sure that when clients and suppliers see me in it they assume that I have money, and have had money for a while, which must mean I am successful, and credible. I am comfortable without being spectacularly wealthy, and they feel reassured about dealing with me.

This is what a Mercedes C-Class 180 says about you. Continue reading

Things you think about when sitting at Tasha’s

18 Jan

It is decided. Tasha’s in Morningside is the best place in Joburg for people-watching, better even than Tasha’s Rosebank, Tasha’s Melrose Arch, or Tasha’s Hyde Park.

I met a friend there this afternoon to brief her on a freelance writing job and eat cake, and we were so entranced by the people around us that we almost didn’t notice that Patience the waitress seemed to require ours.

It’s all very LSM 10 rainbow nation shallow magnificence. Everyone hangs out at Tasha’s Morningside: black and white, Jew and Muslim, gay and straight, celebrity and ordinary mortal, pensioner and primary school kid. In many settings in South Africa, people hang out at the same venues, but the groups sitting at tables are fairly homogenous. At Morningside, there were plenty of mixed tables too. (Yes, this is 2014 and yes, we still have a way to go.)

Tashas table

The new generation of kugels is here and it’s fabulous. They’re in their 20s, they all wear huge sunglasses and fabulous weaves and staggeringly high heels. They do seem to be allowed the option of tiny tiny shorts or very very skinny jeans.

Also, we need a name for them. Kugels is too 80s Style Magazine. Nugels maybe? Twugels? (All kugels are glued to their phones, so I’m leaning towards this one.)

Trips to the loo are an opportunity for Twugels to Be Seen. Heading off to powder your nose is a major expedition requiring as much sashaying and strutting between the tables as possible. “Did you see The Strut?” the woman in pink shorts at the table next to us (pictured above) asked her friends when her friend (picture below) headed into the corner. They were both tall and skinny and gorgeous, and could well be sisters. They were also very aware of how much attention they attracted. I’m pretty sure they knew my friend and I were skinnering about them – we were repeatedly given the knowing side-eye – and they enjoyed the attention.

Tashas Strut

Nobody wants to be the chunky girl with the hot friends. If my friend and I had friends who looked like this, we’d be the chunky one. This is why we only hang out with ordinary women who need to spend more time at the gym. Just like us.

Handbag carrying techniques are something that should be explored. Crook of arm with limp wrist? The shoulder hunch? The firmly gripped dangle? Surveys must be done. (I’m a shoulder-huncher myself.)

Here is an example of the grip-dangle:

Tashas handbag grip

I would also like to explore a new theory. Is BMI correlated with the recency of wealth acquisition? I ask because Sandton people are generally slim and fabulous. It is rare to see very overweight women  in this town because everyone is so obsessed with paleo and CrossFit and Sweat1000 and Tim Noakes andandand. So when I do see very overweight people who clearly have money, I wonder how long they’ve been living here.

People are still showing off in sports cars. This guy showed up in a Porsche and alley docked in his parking space for maximum impact. Apparently one of these guys is hip hop star Da LES:

Tashas Da Les

The buff guy/ skinny girl stereotype holds. I once had a massive row with someone on Twitter over a tweet about the Tasha’s stereotype. It wasn’t that obvious here – most of the tables were either families or friend sof the same sex – but buff guys and skinny girls were everywhere.

Everyone wears giant sunglasses. 

And yes, it’s mildly surreal. Alex isn’t so far away from here, but this is a different world. Any overseas journo wanting to write a story about the Juxtaposition Between Rich and Poor should probably start here. My friend is under sequestration and I live with family, so the fact that they allowed us in the door was remarkable. But we could pay for our freezochinos and our shared red velvet cake, and in Joburg, all that matters is that you have the money when they ask for it.

Filming an interview when you don’t have an office

17 Jan

Carte Blanche interview 2

I don’t have, shall we say, a conventional work set up. This is part of the challenge of being a portfolio careerist. Yes, I’m a partner in an agency that has actual clients and is making money, but we’re keeping our overheads as low as possible. While we sort out a solution for offices, I work the way I have for the last two years: out of my parents’ home (they have wifi) or out of coffee shops.

So when people want to interview me as a social media expert (rather than an artist or an author) finding a suitably businessy location is a challenge.

My options include:

Continue reading

Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street

13 Jan

Jordan Belfort is the subject of the critically acclaimed new Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street. I interviewed him in October 2010; this piece was published in the now defunct site Newstime. 

Jordan Belfort tells good stories. The best one is about how he sunk his 170 foot yacht in the Mediterranean while high on drugs. The man who had everything and then lost everything is in South Africa to give motivational talks and sales training, and as his talk draws to a close, he ends it on a high note.

He’s standing in front of an audience of around 300 high-powered businesspeople at Summer Place. There’s plenty of money here, based on what’s parked outside. John Vlismas, the MC, chuckles about the obvious: how appropriate it is that Belfort is speaking here, in a venue that once belong to a man known for his rather cavalier attitude to ethical business practices.

Ghosts of other great South African swindlers linger in the collective memory: Brett Kebble, J Arthur Brown, Adriaan Niewoudt, the brains behind the Kubus scam. There’s Greg Blank, who did his time and is back leading his racehorses into the winner’s circle. Barry Tannenbaum, who is all the way on the other side of the world, on the Gold Coast, holding tight as he escapes justice. I’m reminded of Tannenbaum when I watch YouTube videos of Belfort presenting to Virgin Australia. South African white-collar criminals seem to like it in Australia; so many of them go there. Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: