An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle supplement in November 2011.
“YES, we do have a conscience, and it tells us to get that car.” Of all the things that Khanyi Mbau has said or will say, to Debora Patta or anyone else, it’s probably that line that will get her into the dictionary of South African quotations. We all claimed to be horrified by the brutally simple logic of her devoted worship at the temple of bling, but it’s hard to think of another statement that does a better job of summing up Joburg’s relationship with the car.
“I think we love cars because they are the most powerful and blatant symbols of our instinctive drive and aggression in Joburg.” Gus Silber.
In this city, we love cars to distraction. They define the place and the spaces we live in, and they define us. Our cars are a projection of ourselves, metal and rubber externalizations of our inner fleshly desires. That’s why, in Joburg, when you meet people, they ask you two things:
What do you do? and
What do you drive?
The question makes perfect sense. Find out what somebody drives, and you can suss out everything from how much they earn to what they care about and how they see themselves. When I drove a 1 Series, I was a totally different person from the version I was when I drove a Corolla. Everybody knows that a BMW fanatic is very different from a Merc driver, and both are totally different from the man who chooses the Volvo. A CEO who drives a Subaru Forester tells me how, when he first got the car, someone said to him: “You obviously don’t care what anyone thinks of you.”
“First, they live in the South with their fat, angry wives, and second, they have to sit in traffic to get there.”
“Motorcars in South Africa are a fascinating exercise in branding,” says former motoring journalist David Taylor, “as often cars are purchased purely because of the status and badge on the front.” Taylor is in charge of social media at the Johannesburg International Motor Show, which offers a rare opportunity to observe Joburgers indulging en masse in their favourite obsession. By the time the show comes to an end today, 275,000 people will have passed through the gates to stare, enraptured, at what Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons described as closest thing to something being alive that we will ever create”.
It’s all old style Rainbow Nation in the halls when I visit: South Africans from all walks of life in Springbok branded shirts, carrying plastic cups of Castle Lager and jostling to get a closer look at everything from the new Yaris to the Audi R8 GT, one of seven destined for South Africa (all of them pre-sold). People slide in behind the steering wheel and hold impromptu conversations with strangers sitting on the passenger seat next to them. An assistant wipes the finger marks off the windscreen of the Mini Coupe. “Jissis, check this out,” a boy calls out on seeing the BMW i8 sedan concept. A girl holds up her Blackberry to take a photo of the McLaren MP4-12C (a supercar, though its name sounds like a photocopier on the shelf at Incredible Connection). Before she sends it, she adds the words: “Now this is hot.”
If Nasrec is sticky fingers and cellphones, then the deck at Randlords in Braamfontein is all cool contemplation. There are few better places to see this city and its physical and spiritual geography than from up here. Standing in the cool high air one Friday evening, I watch the glowing lines of red trailing along the M1 to the suburbs to the south of the city. The traffic is barely moving. “They’re doubly screwed,” my companion observes, sipping thoughtfully at his whisky. “First, they live in the South with their fat, angry wives, and second, they have to sit in traffic to get there.”
This is the central irony of our love affair with the car: that Joburg is now officially one of the worst places in the world to be stuck in traffic. The 2011 IBM Global Commuter Pain Study, released in September, ranked Johannesburg the fifth worst city in the world for soul-destroying, stressful commutes, behind Mexico City, Beijing, Shenzen and Nairobi and far ahead of Los Angeles, Paris and London. The number of Joburgers saying that their stress levels had risen thanks to traffic increased dramatically, from 30% in 2010 to 52% this year. It strikes me that our cars might be symbols of the freedom to go anywhere and do anything – when we choose, without having to wait by the side of the road for a bus – but they enslave us too: keeping us stuck in soul-destroying commutes to get to jobs we hate but need to make the payments on the car we use to get to them in the first place.
When we’re on the road, a strange duality of the self shifts into place: we’re out there, our cars are us, and when somebody cuts us off and goes out of turn at a traffic circle, we feel affronted in a very personal way.
No wonder we spend so much time in our cars being angry: fuming at the tjop in the emergency lane, incensed by the taxi that cuts in, raging against the failure of the city to fix the potholes, disgusted by the Metro Police who sit doing nothing, hacked off in communion with Gareth Cliff over something Julius Malema just said. When we’re on the road, a strange duality of the self shifts into place: we’re out there, our cars are us, and when somebody cuts us off and goes out of turn at a traffic circle, we feel affronted in a very personal way. But at the same time, we imagine ourselves to be anonymous in our hermetically sealed German worlds, and so we act as if there are no consequences. Get behind the wheel and even genuinely nice Joburgers turn into total dooses.
Why then are we Joburgers so obsessed with cars, when you consider the price we pay to own them? Perhaps it’s in part because, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the outside of a car is good for the inside of a man. “We…love our cars because they are the most visible and mobile possessions we have”, says Gus Silber, who has spent years observing his fellow denizens of the city of gold. He attributes our mania for the automobile in part to our social and political history, “but on a more basic level, I think we love cars because they are the most powerful and blatant symbols of our instinctive drive and aggression in Joburg.” We are one of the most competitive societies on earth, he says, “and allowing a car to get in front of you, for many people, is tantamount to surrendering your position in the hierarchy at work”.
In the hierarchy of those things we value, cars outrank almost everything else. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I see the question: “What would you give up for a Range Rover Evoque?” The answers are intriguing.“My Golf GTI and girlfriend,” says one man. “My house, I’d live in one,” another suggests. A woman adds: “My marriage.” She looks like she might be one of those fat, angry wives.
Silber reflects, “This whole city is money, and cars are money on the move.” In the end, we know that Khanyi is right. I’ve learned during my years of working in Joburg that everything you need to know about the world, you learn by walking into the parking garage at work; few spaces are as eloquent when it comes to spelling out your place in the greater scheme of things. We all know, even if we say it’s not true, even if we say we don’t care, that we judge others by the cars we drive. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we feel better about life when we’re observing it from behind the wheel of a truly desirable piece of automotive engineering – even if we’re stuck in traffic on the M1 North, heading south.
As Ivan Vladislavic, the preeminent literary chronicler of Joburg, writes in The Exploded View: “Driving, always driving.”