by Barry Thorsness -
SGN African Correspondent
The week started off for us, much like usual: We were off to meet some people and no idea where we are going or where we were going to end up. We had arranged with Elton to take us on one of the taxis to meet Molife (a writer for Exit LGBT newspaper) in Sandton. He had studied up the route and was ready to go when we found out that Sharon (whose house we were staying in) had asked a friend, Sean, to come and pick us up and take us to our meeting and around to meet some other friends.
Sean was right out of Absolutely Fabulous - he was Patsy reincarnated in Joburg. He had been a nightclub owner and now was involved in a number of jewelry stores. Need I say more?
Joburg nightspots include upscale clubs, sex clubs, nude clubs, and the shebeens in the townships. Our first stop was to meet Molife and have lunch at the well-known shopping center in Sandton. Molife was from Zimbabwe and has been living in Joburg for a number of years. We chatted about LGBT life in the city and the fact that nightlife (and we agreed it seemed worldwide) had been dying over the last six years. Seems the internet and iPhone apps to link up are really cutting in to nightclub life, even in Africa. This phenomena has not stopped Joburg from having many different nightspots, ranging from the more upscale white bars such as Babylon (where we were last week) to the mostly black Factory, a notoriously well-known sex bar (a la the Mineshaft in N.Y. in the '80s for you older readers), to nude bars where you check your clothes as you come in, and my main interest, the GLBT "shebeen" in the townships.
Johann (not the one from yesterday) arrived to pick us up at 6 p.m. and take us to their home for drinks while we waited for his partner Albert to get home from work. We had heard about their "home," and when we arrived, it was everything everyone had said - and more. It was grand, full of antique furniture and incredible art. Every room a showcase of "opulent living." Johann collects cars and seems to have quite a collection. Hopefully we'll get the chance to enjoy it while we are here.
This is South Africa, and it is winter. It gets down to freezing at night and usually up to around 15 degrees C (62 degrees F) during the day. The houses, even this one, had no heating. We sat next to the portable space heater, with our jackets on.
We went out to dinner in the Sandton shopping area and experienced S.A. fare such as boerewors (sausages) and potjiekos (ox tail stew) and - as it seems is the S.A. way - we drank incredible amounts of fine S.A. red wine.
We talked about the "old" days when Johann worked for SABC (South African Broadcasting Corp) and how the president's wife might call up a producer to force the company to include their daughter in a show. We talked about their choice in cars - if you don't want to get carjacked in Joburg, don't drive a BWM or Mercedes. Their cars were a new Peugeot hardtop/convertible and a very fine new Citroen Saloon, both very nice and both very not available in America.
On Saturday, thanks to our host and wonderful friend Sharon, we were off to Soweto in the back of the "bakkie" ("bucky," or pickup truck) filled with blankets and pillows to keep comfortable and try to keep warm. Our first stop was to pick up Molife (whose friend it was who owned the shebeen) and then off to the shopping center in Soweto to meet two of Sharon's employees who lived in the township and were going to take us around.
Hard to believe - here we are, possibly in one of the most dangerous cities in the world (Soweto's population is over 1 million), and we are waiting for our friends and having an ice cream from McDonald's. The place was packed with well-dressed Sowetans out shopping in the mall that makes anything in Seattle look a little quaint.
We park the bakkie and walk up the hill in Soweto. We watch as the brand-new black Jaguar got washed in the driveway. We have to move over to let the new Aston Martin drive by as we walk up the hill towards where Nelson Mandela used to live. Over to our right, I could see the shantytown and some of the most extreme poverty I had ever seen. It felt weird - I felt a little anger. I asked Linda how he felt seeing the Aston Martin drive up the hill. He looked at me, a great big smile on his face, and basically said, now things have changed, we too can be successful. The car represented change and hope to him.
Simphiwe and Linda take us for a walk up Vilakazi Street in Soweto, past the current home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (for the record, one of my most admired people, and a true icon for LGBT equality in the world) and then farther up the hill to the home of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. This was the home they lived in, which was gasoline bombed twice (seems by the government at the time), the house they spent years in under house arrest, and yes, where Nelson Mandela lived when he was arrested in 1962 by authorities, helped by the CIA, when George Bush was its chief. The State of Michigan apologized - George Bush has never apologized.
A shebeen is a small bar where the locals come to drink and party. In the case of Wandie's, it's a tourist and local destination for food, entertainment, and drinks. M Squared is a home garage, outfitted with chairs, tables, a bar, and a bigscreen TV. Some shebeens may or may not be legal.
We arrived without incident at M Squared. It was still early (around 9) and Molife went in to check what was happening. There were about 10 patrons and we all walked in and ordered a beer. Although we must have looked totally out of place, nobody really paid us much attention and we sat and stood chatting with each other, enjoying our beers. (A beer cost around 11 Rand, or about $1.25.)
Thank goodness I have to write this column, so the voice started saying, "Come on, Barry, go chat with the locals!" It was like a mantra. I started my second beer and worked up my courage to walk over to another table where a couple of guys had made eye contact with me and seemed willing to chat.
The guys in the shebeen seemed to be having a great time, especially if you compared it to any other Gay bar in the world. Most people were laughing, dancing with each other and even a combination of dancing and singing.
I walked over and the guys greeted me with the customary handshake and "thumbclick" which I have yet to master, and we started to chat, laugh, and dance.
I bought them a couple of beers (Louis came running over as, I guess, our friends told him this was a stupid thing to do). I thanked them and said how amazing it was to be in the township drinking beer in a Gay shebeen. (This statement, I found out later, was perhaps stupid, too, but the response was interesting.)
Every guy at the table told me the shebeen was not Gay, and not one of them was Gay, either. They had no problem that I - a Gay "Moffie" or "Mlungu" (white person, and perhaps one of the only whites to have ever been to the shebeen) - was standing, dancing and drinking with them. This only confirmed what I had been led to believe last week: Gay black men in Joburg stay in the closet, even when meeting the Moffie tourist. And these were some of the most friendly, outgoing, and interesting people anywhere.
The shebeen continued to get busier as I continued to table hop, dance, and drink until Sharon signaled me it was time to go home.
We all climbed into the "bakkie" and drove to where we let Simphiwe and Linda off so they could walk home. It was all hugs and an end to an incredible night and week.
In the week to come
We are planning our trip to Botswana on Friday, chatting with GLBT activists in the capitol city Gaberone, and figuring out how we get to one of the world's phenomena, the delta in northern Botswana, by bus.
We love to hear from you. Questions and comments are all welcomed on our blog at http://bthorsness.wordpress.com.
The blog contains every week's column, in case you missed one in the SGN.
picture top: Linda, Louis and Lebo in the Student Uprising Sculpture
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