The bustling traffic, beautiful architecture, countless job opportunities, sophisticated minds, access to world class shopping malls, bright lights, vibrant night life and multiple venues of entertainment and so on. This is the bright life. This is the better life; pregnant with success and all that comes with it. It is like a mine that is waiting to be exploited.
That is more or less the picture that is painted for the ordinary mortals that exist in the far-flung, backward rural areas scattered around the country. ‘This is the city life’, they are told. They have never been to the city, so this is how they imagine it. They have never been to the city, how can they disagree? They have never been to the city; what choice do they have but to believe. It is a flawless picture that they are presented with; the Utopian life of Samuel More.
Ever since the discovery of gold in the late 1880s in the then Transvaal, Johannesburg has come to occupy that image of the better life in the minds of millions of South Africans and their fellow Africans in the Southern Africa region. Although Johannesburg is still seen as the city that offers more opportunities in South Africa, if not the entire continent, the advent of a democratic dispensation in 1994 opened doors for many South Africans to explore other cities like Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and etc.
So each year hordes of rural folk say goodbye to their loved ones – family and friends – to seek a better life in the city; leaving behind hectares of fertile land and large numbers of healthy livestock to discover their own gold. Someone might say in passing: ‘Watch out for the city lights. I hear they can be quite strong and distracting.’ The metaphor will be dismissed with an innocent laughter; for the ears that it was meant for understood the statement literally. And maybe even the messenger meant it as joke not to be taken seriously. Unfortunately very soon the message will reach home.
Someone might think that these rural migrants headed for the city are stupid to be so gullible. No, they are not. They are just a people curious to explore places they have never seen before. They are explorers; it is a pity for majority of these rural folk, the adventure will end tragically. Their migration to the city might be for different reasons but they are united in their goal; to seek the greener pastures; the better life.
Some are going to further their education at universities, some are going to find jobs as workers in the big factories, some will try their luck in the entertainment industry while some are merely taking the journey to literally see the lights that are said to be so ‘strong and distracting’. The latter are most likely the first to find out the underlying meaning behind that adage.
On arrival the city will bear testimony to some of its beautiful physical attributes, settling the fears of those who were doubtful and further sending the more ‘gullible’ into a state of delusion. In their honeymoon they will experience the bustling traffic, teeming with luxurious German automobiles making ups and downs on modern highways; the night life feeding off the enormous amounts of energy from the bright lights and the variety of people. And while exploring multiple venues of entertainment, they will encounter sophisticated minds that will most probably poke fun at their bucolic background and immaculate mannerism before proceeding to define the city’s life and culture as: vibrant, lively and absolutely amazing.
But they will not hear of the sordid and murky stories about the city. They are rarely told. ‘Life is perfect here. It is not like in the country where you have to slaughter a cow before you can braai or physically milk a cow prior to drinking coffee. No, this is the city. Life is easy here. You simply walk into a butchery if you want meat and Shoprite, Pick n Pay and so on will be more than happy to assist you with a pint of milk. It is that simple.’
One has to work hard for this easy life. One has to earn a living to live this easy life. Reality is beginning to rear its head in. The tale about countless job opportunities was just that, a tale. Even those seen making ups and downs on the modern highways with their posh German cars, feigning comfort and happiness, are scared for their lives. They could lose their cushy jobs any day. This will be followed by banks coming to repossess their homes and cars. Every day they wear that makeup of joy and satisfaction on their faces while they suffer in the inside. This is the city. They can never tell anyone of their misfortunes. Nobody has the luxury of time. Everybody is busy trying to survive. Yet one never hears of this melancholic tales. They are seldom told.
The city is painting its own picture. It is revealing its true image to these rural migrants. Some have begun to be swallowed by this beast. They have fallen prey to the colourful temptations of the city. Back at home in the far-flung homesteads, as they were once known, loved ones are concerned for they no longer receive calls or messages of how advanced and beautiful the city is; unaware that pride has made way for shame and hope has been replaced by despondence in the city.
To keep up with the high pace of the city some – men and women alike – solicit their bodies to the rich and the powerful; and failing to contend with the harshness of reality, scornful eyes of society and finally being unable to live with the humiliation they will find solace in the psychedelia of alcohol and drugs. But no one ever talks about these things. They are kept secret.
Finally, after days, weeks, months or years of suffering, nostalgia sets in; the longing for home back in the far-flung hinterlands where everyone knows one another by their clan name, a place where your pain is the community’s pain; but it is probably too late. The news will reach home; the loved ones will hear of the tales that are seldom told in the city: Mr and Mrs Zwane, your child has become another victim of that horrible disease that we are so ashamed to talk about let alone call it with its name. Malome Tebatso, your nephew has been arrested. He was charged with murder, rape and robbery. Mrs Majeng, I am sorry to be the bearer of such news; but your husband was in a shebeen quarrel and a knife stab reunited him with his Creator. Mandla and Mandlakazi, I am brought here by bad news. Your cousin in the city has unfortunately departed this world. She took a drug overdose. Nkoko Mmampho, I am grieving. Tshepo has taken his own life. It seems the life in the city was just too much for him.
Next year multitudes of rural folks will again set for the city, and like many before them they will hear this metaphor: ‘Watch out for the city lights. I hear they can be quite strong and distracting.’ Again the meaning will be lost in a joke. Kgotsong!