Updated: Dec 17, 2020
I wonder if there has been a moment in my life when everything changed? Not because of circumstance but because of a thought or an experience. A big bright, lightning moment when my brain lit up and I went, “Aha”. There it is!
Or rather, has my life been a series of slow realizations, quietly accumulating like rain clouds on a distant horizon, moving in slowly over an ever-darkening sky and opening up to gentle rain, and possibly, sunshine. A soft yellow ray of sunshine that spills through the tumble of blue and grey and turns the world into a dreamy petrichor of newness.
My story is about neither rain nor thunderstorms, although I love them both, but not equally.
I love rain as a necessity, and tolerate the greyness with a grim resilience, hunching into jackets and boots to step into the day.
Thunderstorms, however, are spectacular. Find yourself a high vantage point on a hot summer night, anywhere in the highveld of South Africa and you will be treated to the most spectacular sound and light show that nature can produce. I watched such a spectacle shortly after moving to Johannesburg in the early ’80s. I was a small town girl and afraid of the city and the future ahead. I was invited to dinner with friends in Troyeville, a rocky ridge that stretches out above Ellis Park. We squeezed onto the tiny balcony of the apartment and watched in awe as lightning split the sky from heaven to earth. An endless expanse of city expanding at our feet, stretching north. A jungle of a city. A relentless, restless city.
It is said that everyone in Jo’burg walks with a spring in their step: they can feel the gold under their soles, driving them forward. Driving them onward. Driving them to yearn, and crave and want more. Driving crime and violence as much as it drives joy and laughter, and music, theatre and colour and art. As much as it drives warm friendships, constant house parties and multifarious business deals. Jo’burg has an undeniable pulse that is bewitching and seductive.
I have a love-hate relationship with Johannesburg. Today, arriving in the city churns my stomach, and I brace myself for its harsh brilliance.
And, so it was, that a little over two decades since a younger, naive me first moved to Johannesburg and watched an electric thunderstorm with friends in Troyeville, I would be back in Johannesburg, dressed in a tailored jacket with matching skirt, wearing heels. It was thunderstorm season. The air was stifling. As was the room. This is the story.
Comrade Staff Violet stared me down. The year was post-apartheid, 2004. The impossible had happened. Ten years earlier South Africans had voted in the first democratic elections ever held in the country's history. Things were changing at breathtaking speed. People scrambled to jump ship or stay one step ahead of the turmoil. *Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) was the name of the business game. The apartheid Nationalists were in-bed with the African National Congress (ANC). Strange bedfellows. As a result, my clients were an unlikely couple: a sturdy and stern African woman and a gangly, chain-smoking Afrikaaner called Robert, who worked for a national broadcaster.
We were in round three of the judging process of the annual national film competition I produced for my client, all carefully monitored by Price Waterhouse. It was the last and final round.
Years of apartheid had unfairly biased the education of South Africans in favour of white students, leaving generations of black people without the skills to step up into coveted white-collar jobs, including the top creative jobs of the film and advertising industry. However, the previous year, to the unexpected delight of my client’s top brass executives and their government guests, a young black man, with a smile like sunshine, had taken top honours at the gala award ceremony. An upcoming director, he had directed a PSA as sweet and authentic as his joy in winning the Best Professional Director award. An award that was merit-based!
Here we were again, a year later, preparing for the gala award ceremony “Looking at the finalists, we are not going to have any black winners this year,” I preemptively told my clients. Silence. What little air remained in the room dissipated in seconds.. “I have been thinking about it, and I know you are disappointed, so I have a suggestion. We can create a new award, with a scholarship attached, for a young disadvantaged black newcomer entrant.”
I had already had the discussion with ADFA, the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance and the school had agreed to accept the winner — even with a minimum of a standard 4 (grade 6) schooling — into a ten-week filmmaking course.
“It will be a fantastic opportunity “, I continued, “and will most certainly give the winner of this award a springboard into the film industry.”
But Staff was unmoved. She wanted another black winner, triumphant in the professional filmmakers’ category. “We need to caucus the judges,” she responded. “We need to skew the marks in favour of black entrants! Who are the judges? I will talk to the black judges,” she commanded. “And you, Julie. You can talk to your white friends”. She looked at me with contempt, “or maybe they don’t need to know,” she concluded.
The judging panel, none of whom I knew personally, was due to meet the next day.
Robert and I took a back corridor that led to a fire door onto the roof of the head office. Storm clouds gathered above us as he puffed at his clandestine Peter Stuyvesant. “What will we do?” I asked. “We can’t cheat.” He looked at me with guarded eyes and flicked his cigarette butt across the roof. My heart was doing that uncomfortable dive from its regular hidey-hole in my chest to some troubled sea at the bottom of my stomach. We stepped back inside as the clouds burst and heavy rain hit the asphalt.
I drove slowly back to my B&B that night. The rain was heavy on my windshield and my windscreen wipers swished furiously in a futile attempt to keep my vision clear. Large raindrops were caught in chaotic headlights and suspended momentarily in beams of light, before crashing and exploding on inky-black tar. Traffic lights fractured red, yellow, green and the sound of impatient hooters could be dimly heard through the torrent of water all around me. Tomorrow the roads would be purple with Jacaranda flowers ripped from the trees.
And then, the quiet of my room. The heat of the day steamed into the blackness outside, and a ceiling fan gentle hushed the mosquitoes away. It was nearly midnight.
It had been a long day of politics. I phoned home and a sleepy Rene answered the phone. “What will I do?” I asked again. “Jules,” said my husband and business partner, “Walk away! We’ve survived before, and we will survive again.”
My moral compass was steady. I would walk away. Nothing, not even the dark legacy of apartheid, the overriding drive to turn the tide, to make things right, would propel me to do what I believed to be wrong. And, the man who loved me, had my back. I closed my eyes that night knowing, that if I went home the next day, the account with my flagship client, the anchor of our small business, shredded and in tatters, there would be something more valuable at stake. My heart would beat with clarity. I would not agree to cheat.
In the morning, I made a phone call. I spoke to Comrade Staff Violet's boss. A woman I trusted. A woman with impeccable credentials, and as honest as the day is long in midsummer in Alaska.
A young man by the name of Fanny won the scholarship award. Shortly after his ten weeks film course at AFDA he started work at a production company in Johannesburg. My clients got excess inches of ink from the story, and puffed in pride. The best director won the best director award, as did the best everything else, all selected on merit.
Two years and many meetings later, the Department of Arts and Culture sponsored a mentorship program for young black entrants who had not had the opportunity to go to film school or university. Ten productions houses around the country received a grant to mentor ten young aspiring black filmmakers. Although a project I had steered to fruition, I did not get the business to run the mentorship program. But, I walked away with integrity and left a legacy that continued to playout for the ten more years that the competition ran after I had left South Africa. I had touched lives and created opportunities for more than a few South Africans.
I lost touch with Fanny, and many other wonderful filmmakers that I met along the way. I hope that Fanny stepped up when he was handed his opportunities. But we all know that life isn’t a straight line.
The sunshine is catching the autumn leaves outside my window as I write this. Yesterday, I ran through the streets of North Vancouver. It was an unusually windy day for Vancouver, dark clouds gathered over the North Shore Mountains. Leaves whipped around my ankles. The traffic was patient. There is no gold under the streets of Vancouver. The legacy of the city’s history is kept discreetly wrapped in beige cloth, tied in a neat string bow. There are seldom thunderstorms. But the rain is incessant. I beat the rain home.
Photo Credit: Derrich Gardner