Thursday, December 15, 2005

Scenes From the Devon Arms Bar and Piano Lounge

I'm pretty certain that in hell's anteroom the loudspeakers will be playing a shuffle loop of Bette Midler, Phil Collins, Billy Joel and Bryan Adams. And yet last night, when the pianist at the Devon Arms Bar and Piano Lounge in my hotel tickled the ivories with a succession of songs by the grating members on that list, interspersing them with Christmas songs, it was not only tolerable, it was enjoyable. The pianist was a youngish African guy who was enthusiastic about his music. he played it well, and seemed utterly unphased when a woman went up to the piano and started atonally massacring the lyrics to some of the songs.

In fact that is one thing I have discovered in South Africa -- people will just sing. They will sing for joy. Or to party. Or out of devotion. They will sing to hail Mandela. they will sing to praise God. And in this case, they will sing some semblance of "Another day in Paradise" just because they can.

The hotel staff at the Devonshire is honoring the Christmas holiday by wearing santa hats with matching vests, except the hats are blue and the trim yellow. They look like Santa's elves. Except today it is supposed to be 82 in Joburg.

While some folks protest globalization by attacking police, I should point out that South Africa is a testament to a quirkily global world. How else to explain sitting in the bar and hearing as an African man's mobile ring tone the "Mexican Hat Dance" (or, for Tom's edification, the King's Cup song)? Global capitalism also leads to some bizarre and interesting knockoffs. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon came in 1997 in Grahamstown when I saw a Michael Jordan jersey. It was a Bulls jersey with the familiar #23. But it was Carolina blue. Someone in the knockoff design department did not quite get it right. I wish I had a copy of that jersey now. I saw a similar example of bootlegging last night. A man was wearing a blue hat with the Major League Baseball Logo on the back. It was the same shade of blue that the Red Sox use, so of course I wanted to see if it was a Sox hat. Peculiarly enough, the front said "50 Cent." I'm not certain if MLB, or Fitty, for that matter, authorized this hybrid. I suspect not.

Not surprisingly one of the issues I am trying to observe is the nature of race relations in South Africa right now. Perhaps apropos of nothing, but it struck me as interesting to see the an enormously corpulent African man squeezed into a Springbok jersey. Obviously the prime example of this phenomenon came in 1995 when South Africa won the rugby World Cup and Mandela donned a Springbok jersey, as ripe a sign of apartheid and Afrikaner racism as any, during the celebrations at Ellis Park. Most Africans still have a tenuous relationship with die Springbokke (or, in Zulu "amabokko bokko," "our Springboks.")

But more telling than African man boobs in a Springbok jersey was the composition of the bar last night. I sat in a comfy chair in a lounge area for three or so hours. During that time I was the only white person in the bar. This seemed of little interest to anyone. People were friendly, of course, but most simply paid me no heed. I cannot help but think that the Devon Arms in, say, 1985, was not going to look anything like it did last night. despite all of the Afro-pessimism that is popular among academics and journalists, it seems telling that under the new dispensation the transition could have happened as it did. i reject the idea of the South African "Miracle," and I am well aware that race is still a problem in South Africa, and that the situation last night shows a small slice of South African life -- and a largely upper-middle class one at that. Still, the bar last night was a marvelous example of what South Africa perhaps always should have been, and what it could yet be.

On the issue of race, I'll never forget the time at a bar in Grahamstown in early 1997 when I ordered a Castle Milk Stout, an underappreciated stout made by South African breweries, which in the past few years joined with Miller to become the world's second largest brewery. Someone at the bar next to me sneered "Milk Stout -- ag, that's a kaffir beer." Of course a stout bears little resemblance to sorghum beer or any of the other traditional beers Africans brew. But it was telling that the very fact of ordering milk stout was somehow seen as a political and racial act. South Africans love lager, and castle is the beer of choice. But i maintain that of the mass produced beers, castle Milk Stout is a fine beer -- it is heavy, with a chocolate-y finish.

South African politics is as vibrant as can be right now. The Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, has been forced to step aside (for the time being anyway) because he has been accused of raping a young woman. he claims they did have sex but it was consensual. This has, of course, fueled the succession debate, because Zuma was the presumptive inheritor of Mbeki's position. Meanwhile Zimbabwe continues its descent, and the vantage point from here is far more immediate than from my perch in texas. Zim is, after all, right over the border.

I always enjoy the strength of the dollar vis a vis the rand, but I make note of inflation over the last 9 years or so. each time I come back prices have climbed a bit more. The Mail and Guardian now costs R12.50 (it was something like R5 when I first came). My beer last night cost R9.80. then again, that is still well less than $2, and I had a passable piece of steak last night, with mushroms, salad, and chips (fries, with vinegar -- sublime) for R30, or about $5.

I also hit the ground running with work yesterday, and within minutes had hit the motherlode. Not only does the University of the Witwatersrand have several relevant paper collections -- it also has clippings files that will prove invaluable as I reconstruct the Alexandra Bus Boycott of 1957.

In any case, my time is running out, and I need to get back to Wits. I hope all is well back in the US.

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