Many years ago, when the world was young, your agent was in Berlin and ran into a young South African architect. He was witty and irreverent, while terribly respectable, and we hit it off. I was the jockey of a Vespa, the cheeky Vespa scooter, and he rode a Lambretta, the muscular Milan competitor, and we used to spend endless hours doing damage to each another in East Berlin bars debating the merits of each. Some months later, by accident we bumped into each other—to our mutual delight—in a youth hostel in the south of France. We decided to hook up, wheeling around the mountain passes for an undetermined time. One day, in Marseilles, one of us ran an orange light, the other circling the block for hours, and we lost each other. It was an unfortunate parting. Several years later, your blushing scribe walked into a flat in London to pick up a date and there—wooing her roommate—was my old buddy. It is indeed a small world, the oldest cliché of all and the truest.
We are now into 1972 and this intrepid reporter is in South Africa, looking up his onetime two-wheeled companion—mainly on account of how we want to determine who has lost the most hair and acquired the most waistline. He is understandably depressed, contemplating emigration to Canada or Australia, knowing that the goofy government policy of apartheid is never going to work and that the future is doomed for bright young professionals like himself. I try to give him comparable salary rates for architects his age in Vancouver, thinking as he does that his beautiful, outdoorsy country has no future and mass bloodshed lies ahead, whatever year. I write about his circumstances, think about including his name, think again and don’t.
So it is now 1990, with the world turning on its head, South Africa following Eastern Europe and Gorby into inconceivable quiet revolution, and we were sitting on Tony Slaven’s patio looking out past his dogs to his five acres of blissful gardens. He knows, as well as I know, without ever stating it, that he in the end made the right decision. Stick with your
clan. It is the glue that holds you together.
Johannesburg, never the most beautiful of cities, is unrecognizable from the place of the early 1970s when a black face was never seen—never allowed to be seen—on the streets after 5 o’clock. Black women can still be seen on downtown streets during the day with sheets of glass and burdens of groceries gracefully balanced on their heads. But in the Quarterdeck Bar of the Carlton Towers Hotel, once the sundowner haunt of the city’s white Establishment, there are three laughing expensive black hookers—the split skirt of one revealing a white garter belt. JoBurg moves on.
For someone like Tony Slaven, who had the patience to wait, the wait was worthwhile now that the governing National Party has shucked off its Boer heritage and is vaulting into the 1990s as fast as the Czechs and Romanians are attempting. He has designed his own beautiful home, with clear influences of Frank Lloyd
Wright, a low-slung brick complex that could be comfortable in Arizona, relaxing on a grassy slope that gazes off into greenery.
The city has always suffered from comparison with Cape Town, its elderly rival down on the coast that ranks with Hong Kong, Vancouver, Rio, San Francisco and Sydney as one of the she most beautiful cities on the globe. It is more than 300 years old and displays its sophistication, showing up the brash and rough goldmining town of JoBurg that has nothing going for it but the fact it is now the financial and industrial capital of the country. It is rather Montreal vs. Toronto.
Tony and Joy Slaven have five children, all now fled from the nest, one refusing the compulsory military draft to serve such a government (this was before Mandela’s release) and is now in, of all places, Colombia. The bleeding of its young talents eventually convinced the remnants of the Boers in the Pretoria government that they had to switch course. That, and the growing realization that South Africans were being regarded as pariahs, lepers, when abroad.
Tony and Joy Slaven are travelling in the United States, standing on a street comer in Boston, puzzling over a map. A kindly gentleman asks if he can help. Sensing their confusion, he offers to guide them to their destination, takes a halfhour out of his time to steer the foreigners to their directed path. Intrigued by their accent (the South African accent can only be described as Aussie bastardized by the Dutch), he asked where they were from. Tony and Joy, dreading the response, replied, “South Africa.” The classy gentleman said, “Oh,” and turned discreetly on his heel. Replying to the inquiry of two American ladies as to their locale, and told, they heard, “We will pray for you.”
South Africa, the last white-ruled country on the Dark Continent, is a land as always of contrasts. Tony, with an architectural firm of only two men, is so far out on the edge of high tech that he wins major contracts in downtown JoBurg because of computer projections. He can work it all out at his desk, and then farm it out. The man who tends his gardens is from Zimbabwe. Most of the best gardeners come down from Zimbabwe, where they established a more reasonable relationship with their British governors in what was then Southern Rhodesia. He is paid the equivalent of $200 a month, most of which he smuggles back home in a Surf soapbox. Tony is told, because his medically inclined children have been informed of what doctor friends have seen in the emergency wards, that he should seriously consider installing a security alarm system.
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