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Paranoia and precautions

It may seem odd to be shooting an ad for French wine in South Africa, but such is the way of the modern world. It’s no stranger than arriving at OR Tambo International Airport to be confronted with a huge Investec-sponsored wall emblazoned with the images of Aaron Lennon, Rafael van der Vaart and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, welcoming Spurs to South Africa (they flew in today).

My base throughout the stay has been the Southern Sun Hotel in Hyde Park, Sandton; one of Johannesburg’s more affluent suburbs. Attached to the hotel is an upmarket shopping mall filled with exactly the same chi-chi boutiques as you might find in London, Paris or New York: all sparsely stocked with dull, unattractive clothes or overpriced handbags, and invariably empty. Not exactly an authentic African experience, though. And that’s partly the problem with Jo’burg…how does one get a taste of the true city when advised by a leaflet in the hotel room “not to walk alone on streets, especially after dark”? If you’re without a car, and taxis are off-limits too, your options are somewhat limited.

My host for the trip has been photographer Huw Morris, the man behind the iconic ‘Heels’ ad and our choice to execute the latest episode in the campaign. Huw lived in England for a few years but felt compelled to return to the country of his birth. With free rein to bring up his family wherever he wanted,  Huw chose Jo’burg. He describes it as one of the friendliest cities on earth, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the ten feet high walls that surround every home and business, the ubiquitous electric fences that sit atop each wall resembling low-level electricity pylons, and the garish ADT Armed Response badges scattered across those same walls like blue and yellow exit wounds.

‘Security’ guards patrol each car park, train station and hotel corridor (I use inverted commas because many of them look like they’re pre-occupied solely with trying to stay awake), and the overwhelming feeling as we drive from one place to another is of being inside a sunlit prison; beautifully appointed maybe, but a prison nonetheless.

However, there is some truth in Huw’s observation about the friendliness of the city. Despite the paranoia and the precautions, I have been met exclusively with friendliness and smiles. Those narcoleptic security folk offer a genuine ‘Good day’ when you pass them; the hotel staff appear to want to find out how my day has been out of a sense of curiosity rather than because they’re observing a corporate diktat, and those people I have been involved with while working out here have been talented, friendly and professional.

I won’t go into too much detail about our shoot; suffice to say that it was a long but hopefully rewarding day. I’ll see the final results tomorrow. There was drama (a fainting extra); tension (we shot until 1.30am), and heartening teamwork: the usual ingredients. A late night on Tuesday meant a lazy Wednesday, while Thursday began with a trip to the editors to brief in the work. That done, Huw manoeuvred some time in his schedule to fulfill a promise he’d made to me at the start of the week; to show me some of the real Johannesburg.

Nowadays, Soweto is on the tourist trail – but only for those tourists with a degree of daring. Nelson Mandela may well be the world’s most beloved human being, but taking a trip to the streets on which he was raised remains, however you want to dress it up, something of a risk. And I am not a risk taker. Put it this way: until today, the furthest I have ever travelled out of my comfort zone was attending the Notting Hill Carnival. And I hated every minute of that.

Even though the township is now on the tourist map, there were only a handful of white faces on display: as we drove along a couple of streets past boys lighting small fires in the scrub and wandering casually into the road, we were stared at.  As Huw drives a Honda Jazz I doubt it was his wheels attracting the attention. I can’t help the fact that I am a cowardly tourist; that my idea of travel broadening the mind is to watch lots of baseball in the States and learn all the players’ names. It’s just the way I am; or the way I have allowed myself to be. So I don’t mind admitting that I was a tiny bit nervous, but also very excited about my first foray out of the first world. I don’t think I have ever left it before. Prior to this trip, the only country where I have encountered rudimentary sanitation is France.

And that’s why today was an eye-opener. As we entered Soweto, Huw asked if I was interested in going to meet some friends of his. I was thrilled: I was going to meet some real slum-dwellers living in a real slum! Way-to-go for my tourist credibility – forty-one years of posh hotels, upmarket villas and exclusive beach resorts negated at a stroke! For the first time I felt I understood the compunction of the poverty-tourist to chalk up another ghetto in the passport. Did I ever mention that I can be a bit of a cynic?

The cure for my cynicism was just around a corner. It’s called the Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre, and it’s a place where Huw has done a little to help out. You’ll find out more about it here: http://www.nkanyezi.com

If I were reading this piece, and not writing it, I might raise a suspicious eyebrow when I read that most of the children, aged between 4 and 8 and nearly all of whom suffer from cerebral palsy, either smiled or waved at me as I walked into their centre. I could easily imagine myself erecting a barrier of dispassion as I learned that Prisca, the woman who started this centre from scratch when her son, Nkanyezi, died of CP, often has to go out and beg for equipment as the centre is regularly broken into and plundered. I might scorn a passage in which I read that the children hugged me, exchanged fist bumps with me and looked at me with expressions of curiosity, affection and puzzlement: quite what they had done to receive a visit from two weird white guys with ginger beards they will never guess.

But those are the facts.

Morrissey once sang, “If the day came when I felt a natural emotion, I’d get such a shock I’d probably jump in the ocean”. That day came for me today. It hasn’t changed my life forever; it’s reminded me that everywhere in this world, there is pain, suffering and unfairness; that this poverty and deprivation are omnipresent and that our charity is just a temporary sticking plaster. It’s also reminded me that I am lucky: lucky in ways that these children will never know. The question is, what am I going to do about it?

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Huw
    July 15, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Nice one Neil! Lurking beneath the inconspicuous bonnet of the Honda Jazz is a souped up V8…

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