'I am Makwerekwere'

When I first heard the word makwerekwere, I thought I was mistaken for somebody whose name was Makwerekwere.

I was having a breakfast on the sunny terrace of Time Square café, a microcosm of the Makwerekwereland that Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow have become.

A man sitting at the next table looked at me and said: “Good morning Makwerekwere.” He was smiling broadly. I responded to his warm greeting and told him that my name is Alois and that I don’t know Makwerekwere. Later that morning, people started flocking in to Time Square.
Almost all nationalities of the African continent were represented.

Algerians split tables between Berbers and Arabs. The Ethiopians sat with the Oromos’ tables separated from those of the Amharas and Tigrinyas. The Congolese, always the most animated group, wear the most fashionable outfits. Fortunately, the boundaries of these invisible territories are permeable and cohabitation is the order of the day. It makes Time Square café a very attractive place.

Later that evening I was chatting to a Cameroonian friend, and I told him how some names could sound funny: “Imagine somebody called Makwerekwere. One guy in Time Square mistook me for his friend called Makwerekwere.”

Instead of the laughter I was expecting from him I got a concerned look and this answer: “Actually, Makwerekwere is you.” “Me?” I asked. “You, me, all foreigners … no, well, all black foreigners,” he replied, surprised at my naivety.

“The next time you hear this word, you must run away from the place,” my friend warned. The next time somebody called me by my new name, I felt like running, but I didn’t stand a chance because the bulky guy facing me was pointing a gun at me, urging me to get closer to him: “Come on, makwerekwere, come over here.”

He then asked me if I had a cellphone and if it could be his. The cellphone and money from my shirt changed hands and the guy, satisfied with my docility, told me: “Hamba”. I did. Towards the next police station, in Hillbrow, to report the theft.

The first policeman I talked to asked me if I was a South African. I said: “No, I am Makwerekwere.” He burst into a loud laughter and went to call some colleagues, whom he discreetly asked to put the same question to me. They got the same answer and laughed uncontrollably. Thanks to the good mood, I got my affidavit quite quickly.

When I was out I heard a mirthful “goodbye Makwerekwere” echoing from inside. So did a policeman who was standing outside the building and who was not part of the hilarious team inside. He came up to me and asked if he could have a look at my documents. They were up to date, he handed them back and said: “Do you have a cold drink for me?”

The price for my “makwerekwereness” was not so high. Some coins were left in my trouser pocket, enough for a cold drink. I paid and left hurriedly.

A very good friend of mine, a South African, enjoys laughing and teasing me about these stories. He is the one who explained to me the negative connotation of the word “makwerekwere”.

Georgie, the friend, lived in exile and only came back to South Africa some years back. He adores le rouge (red wine) and camembert, smokes only Gauloises, terribly misses the Latin Quarter, doesn’t find the Protea flower particularly beautiful, despises mogodu and keeps away from staple food in general. Local is not so lekker for him.

One morning, my phone rang and it was Georgie laughing at the other end. “Good morning, makwerekwere,” he said. I then asked him who, between the two of us, was more makwerekwere than the other and whether it really mattered?

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