By Nkateko Masinga
Author: Flow Wellington
Year published: 2018
Genre: Poetry, Prose
Publisher: Poetree Publications (Pty) Ltd
This way I salute you:
My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket
Or into my inner jacket pocket
For my pass, my life,
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach groans a friendly smile to hunger,
My stomach also devours coppers and papers
Don’t you know?
Jo’burg City, I salute you;
When I run out, or roar in a bus to you,
I leave behind me, my love,
My comic houses and people, my dongas and my ever whirling dust,
That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye.
— An excerpt from “City Johannesburg” by Mongane Wally Serote
When I started reading Flow Wellington’s Gau-Trained, I was taken back to the first time I read Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg” in high school. The poem was included in an anthology titled Love Poem for My Country: A Poetry Anthology for Grade 12 (Maskew Miller Longman, 2008). Although the anthology took its title from Sandile Dikeni’s poem of the same name, almost every poem in the book seemed to me like a love letter to South Africa and by default, to me. I fell in love with Serote’s “City Johannesburg” because it described so eloquently a struggle my own father had told me about, of black people being made to carry a “dompas” (literally meaning “the dumb pass”) to enter cities like Johannesburg in order to work. The passes were the Apartheid government’s way of controlling the number of black Africans in “white” areas of South Africa. I recently wrote an essay about the woes of traveling the world on a South African passport (the essay is titled “The Subjective Freedom of Traveling While Black and Coming of Age in Post-Apartheid South Africa” and is published in The Kalahari Review) and I was brought to tears by the fact that decades before I could imagine the idea of traveling anywhere, my forefathers were bound by an oppressive and dehumanizing internal passport system, merely because of their blackness.
The poems and stories in Flow Wellington’s Gau-Trained show us that although brown and black people now have access to the City of Gold, not much else has changed. The writer painstakingly (and painfully) describes the struggle of leaving behind a familiar environment to pursue greener (or golder) pastures in Johannesburg.
In the poem titled “Borders”, Wellington writes,
“I want to tell my father I’ve made it:
Off the farmlands;
Out of the streets;
Across the border to this City of Gold.
I want him to know that I’ve followed in his footsteps
Come to make a better life —
Come to make Mama proud;
Come to find him and show him I am a man!
I want to ask my father if his travels went smoothly;
I want to ask him if it was all the magic he told us kids about?
Did he find a good job; did he make his fortune;
Did he remember us?”
The last two lines of the poem are heart-wrenching:
“I wonder if crossing the border
Was everything my father had hoped it would be?”
The speaker in “Borders” is expressing the desire and hope to “make it” in a city that is infamous for its magic tricks: making men disappear, never to be seen or heard from again by the families they left behind. This reminds me of a poem called “Two” by Lebohang ‘Nova’ Masango, where she says,
That I prefer my men brown-bodied, borrowed
And tired. Well-wrung by the strains of Joburg.”
In Gau-Trained we learn that the strains of Johannesburg leave women well-wrung and tired too. Throughout Gau-Trained, we come across stories of people doing everything they can in order to survive. In “Sex & The City (Pt 1)”, a young girl is inducted into her mother’s world of sex work and injury:
“When I live in the grey building I will get new, clean clothes
And new hair…and Mama will show me how to count
The paper money into piles of 200.
I’ll have my own room, with my own bed and
Lots of visitors – Mama says I’m one of the pretty ones;
And it won’t all be bad: sometimes it will be nice
Because some of the men smell nice and talk nice —
I must practice being nice, too.
But I am not yet 15; only Mama can go to the grey building.
Each night I sit in the corner, on the floor, and count the men
Who go into Mama’s room: 10;
And how many nurses I’ve met at the clinic every time Mama
Has to get stitches or other stuff: 5, just like me.”
Gau-Trained is an ingenious title: the Gautrain is the fastest mode of transportation across Johannesburg and “Gauteng” itself is a stunning example of synecdoche, where a whole is mentioned to refer to one of its parts (or vice versa). “Gauteng” means “place of gold/where the gold is” and is derived from the SeSotho word “gauta” which means “gold.” However, the “gold” (actual gold mined in the region but also a reference to fast money) is concentrated in one part of the Gauteng province: Johannesburg, also known as “The City of Gold.”
Throughout Gau-Trained, we meet people all navigating the streets (and strains) of Johannesburg in the best way they know how. The book is a testament not only of the author’s journey and experiences since her arrival in the city but of the resilience of others also navigating a place they were previously not allowed access to. It is a tribute to their individual and collective stories and an unmistakable echo of Mongane Wally Serote’s refrain: “Jo’burg City, I salute you.”