Evan picks me up at the Johannesburg airport. I’ve got seven hours until my flight leaves for London and he’s decided to drive me to Pretoria, the place where he and Karin went to teacher’s college. Pretoria is one of the nation’s three capitals – Cape Town and Bloemfontein round out the trio. “I would have taken you to Soweto,” he says, “but with traffic I wasn’t sure we’d have time. It’s across town.” Sure enough, we leave the airport parking lot and are immediately immersed in a Joburg traffic jam. Pretoria it is, then.
The drive gives us time to talk, which is less awkward than you might think given that Evan and I have only known each other for an afternoon. Aside from really enjoying his company, I find him to be very interesting for two reasons: first, he comes from a conservative Afrikaans family but is not so himself; second, he is one of three South Africans I met (Mike and David being the other two) who have recently chosen to return after living elsewhere for a significant period of time.
I remember being quiet the day I met Evan, so totally overwhelmed by everything that I just watched and listened, trying to take it all in. There’s no trace of that now, and the little hatchback brims with spirited exclamations and observations. Our sentences are like puppies, snapping and squirming over one another in an excited pile. Evan is animated, almost tweaking in eagerness to speak about class and race, apartheid and politics. He tells me about his past few weeks which sound a lot like mine: endless political discussions and negotiations punctuated by moments of suffocating frustration and consuming intensity. We marvel at how the issue of skin colour is, itself, a skin over every interaction.
I ask him about his return to South Africa. I am so curious about this trend of repatriation. Evan is thoughtful, and tells me that after 8 years in London he felt he wanted to be in a more challenging place. Was his life good there? It was: he had a fulfilling job and a flat by himself on the banks of the Thames. “But I was dying of contentment,” he explains, and I swoon over his most excellent phrasing. Interestingly, his response is different from the two others I asked about it. In Mike’s case, it was this persuasive and persistent argument from his parents: you left for political reasons which have now changed; come back and participate (and vote) in your country. David’s reasons were more personal – his entire family is here. In all cases, the decision to return was the result of much consideration. There are no accidental arrivals.
We pull into the parking lot of the Blue Crane, a restaurant located in a bird sanctuary. “The food here is very good.” Evan leads me to the door. “But I must warn you – the place is staunchly Afrikaans.” It seems like everywhere else to me: black workers serve white patrons. We take a seat on the patio overlooking a small lake and I watch the last of my African sunsets. I will miss these vast, explosive bedtime stories.
It falls dark and we hit the road. My last image of Africa is of the soft hills smouldering in the darkness. Summer burning has begun.