A wry smile played on her face as she looked at his passport. He knew something was going through her mind. It had to be a mixture of admiration and pity, he thought. He suspected he had become part of that aggregate now accused of deserting their country when it needed them. Although he convinced himself this was not the case, he winced thinking that could very well have been a possibility. Was he in denial? Did he really have to leave? He smiled back at her as she politely handed him back his travel documents and made his way through the security gates.
He realised he was going to miss this place. Not many places would people at work suddenly jump to their feet at the sound of a familiar song. He had been to many airports and found the businesslike attitude of the workers, from the airline staff to the cleaners too serious. It is they who made traveling such a chore. But this airport was different. Staffers laughed and danced. Cleaners smiled at you and said hello. The thought of giving up these made him feel his decision was perhaps the wrong one.
The familiar brings comfort however fleeting. This country had treated him well even if it treated others harshly. It was a place he could call home even though it was not. It is here that he learnt that despite the valorisation of the much celebrated notion of ubuntu, it was in fact social status that afforded you comfort or distress. Ubuntu was in many ways an artificiality that perhaps made us feel different and special in the face of a world that increasingly privileged the individual. Blackness he had learnt, was only shared when we were all victims. When we all became victors, we suddenly realised our difference. Suddenly, you became brown or black or really black in this part of the world, the irony of its history notwithstanding. In victory, there had to be a loser. It was a simple logic that had made him think seriously about home and homeliness. This country had given him a sense of homeliness yet when he reflected on some of these issues, he realised it was not home. Yet home and homeliness were not supposed to be mutually exclusive. As he sat down to have a cup of coffee, reflecting on the paradox of belonging and alienation, he picked up a copy of the Mail & Guardian, a paper he had read over the years and written his MA dissertation on. He had seen his favourite paper slowly conform to the realities of a new media market. A market in which the mainstream was so powerful it decidedly defined what you published. Here, ideological politics was becoming ever more paper thin. Every second day, the lead story was a piece on crime and the suspects were always without exception, foreigners. That narrative defined them all. It became part of their existence, an inconvenience they all had to learn to live with.
As they took to the skies, he recognised the blue corporate Vodafone lights that shone across the landmark tower of a neighbourhood now very much a mark of the past and present, Hillbrow. Strangely, it also seemed to mark his own moment in life. After five years in a city both loathed and loved in equal measure, he was leaving it all behind. he had been to that tower, a place dreaded even by its fondest residents. It had provided sets to movies, crafted narratives about the country, consumed the innocent and punished the guilty. Hilbrow had been immortalised in books and yet there are those who would have wished it gone. He had lost a friend on its streets, shot in the head for refusing to surrender his possessions. He had shared good moments with Simon, a man to whom success remained elusive but kept trying. Simon always seemed to think he was running out of time. Already in his forties, he was privately disillusioned, perhaps even bitter but only joked about ‘these makwerekwere taking over our jobs’. He knew he did’nt mean it, but he also knew he was getting frustrated with having to struggle to eke out a living. He owned an old camera and made his money attending university parties and taking photographs. For Simon, the digitital camera was a terrible irritation for it denied him the chance to put food on the table. But there was another reason. Simon always kept pictures of the prettiest girls and always reminded his friend that beauty had a permanent home in this part of the world. Good pictures also meant he would be invited for tea or coffee and indeed to take more pictures. He was a lovely man. Easygoing, kind and full of life.
On that fateful day, Simon had just been to one of the many university parties when on his way home, he passed by the infamous tower. A group of men stopped him with the usual brotherly salutation. ‘Eta bru?’ they greeted him with ironic sociality before demanding his camera. Whether out of fear, stupidity or intransigence, he politely refused to let go of his only means to a livelihood. Four days later, his girlfriend of five years, unable to explain his whereabouts, went to the police to report that the good Simon was missing. They always had fights and it was not unusual for him to ‘disappear’ for a day or two. But not seeing him after three days, the girlfriend got worried. At the police station, which was barely a mile from the notorious tower, the girl was told that a man who fitted Simon’s profile had been found shot in the head four days earlier. The girlfriend, unable to live with the grief, hanged herself a few months later. Life here was fickle. But deep down he also knew there was a rationality to the madness that consumed this neighbourhood and its people. But then how do you explain the irrational rationally? That was the challenge if you ever wanted to understand why those blue lights still shone bright, cruelly reminding those who had lost loved ones that this place was still alive, perhaps even ready to claim the lives of many more. He felt a tear run down his cheek, thinking about his good friend Simon. Life was cruel here. Maybe, just maybe it wasn’t too bad to leave after all. And so he said goodbye bafana as they left the blue lights behind.