One used to be able to identify the Bohemian intelligentsia by their crumpled Che berets and tie-dye T-shirts, their NGO filo-faxes and copies of the thinking man and woman’s guide to the universe, the Mail & Guardian (ahem), under their arms.
They used to hang around in restaurants all day, getting steadily plastered and talking about the world and how to save it. In the old days, in art deco blocks in Yeoville (before the nasties moved in) and Troyeville, they’d invite each other over for poetry readings, Karl Marx birthday commemorations and to scrawl slogans on posters for whatever march was to take place the next day.
They lived close to the breadline, could quote Steve Biko by heart, and wrote for the educated public.
They sneered at the idea of a nice job as a columnist or a professor of something.
But if you’ve begun to think the closest you’ll come to intellectuals is a bunch of grey suits and scones at the South African Institute for International Affairs, think again. You haven’t been looking in the right places. There are still places where one can locate this elusive species.
It’s Tuesday night at the cigar bar upstairs of that Bohemian hang-out of yore, Times Square in Yeoville. Downstairs in the restaurant and bar, manager Albert Henn is rubbing his hands in glee. Another night, more booming business. The crowd comprises mainly locals who’ve been coming here for six or seven years. At one table, a well-known kwaito star wearing a fedora is settling in next to an 18-year-old with impressive cleavage. Raucous laughter drowns out the corny refrains of the Beatles.
Upstairs, the guys in Florsheims, the chicks with dreadlocks and their fellow Yeovillite intelligentsia, as they call themselves, are scribbling in their notepads. Every Tuesday a regular crowd meets here to recite poetry relating to their experiences as Africans, as the disaffected — hell, anything goes. Actor and former radio personality Eric Miyeni is a regular here. ‘Anyone can talk, people must talk” is the only rule. Ivan Abrahamse, the MC for the evening, starts with a warm-up. ‘We’re in transition, people, and most of us don’t know when it will end.” Many nod their heads in agreement. They, at least, know what he’s talking about.
The dashingly handsome Abrahamse coaxes wannabe poets to the stage: ‘We all have voices, we all have something to say.” Indeed they do. On just one evening, subjects range from the Aids pandemic to tribalism within the African National Congress. Anthony Milne, an anguished soul in a Yucatan-style jacket and veldskoens, has been coming here since the poetry evenings started. His poem starts with a discussion about how the government’s arts funds squeeze is killing struggling artists like himself. The expletives fly. Milne, like the others who come here, says this is one of the few platforms where opinions about current issues can be articulated and debated. Everyone gets a chance to speak their mind and nobody interrupts anyone else.
On the other side of town is Spiro’s, a trendy Melville restaurant fast becoming known as ‘the place to be” if you want to find the intelligentsia. Here, heated talk on topical issues rises like the steam above the lamb chops and sautéed veggies. At one table, an oldish white man with a foreign accent is discussing the Bulelani Ngcuka spy saga with Philemon Lukhela, the Wits students’ representative council president and a quiet guy who does not want to be named, but says he heads the ANC Youth League at Wits.
‘For me, it’s more about the decent crowd that comes here,” says Lukhela, brushing off suggestions that this is the place to network or see and be seen. He acknowledges that many ‘comrades” hang out at Spiro’s, but says it’s just coincidence. Lukhela says if you really want to hobnob with provincial ministers and take part in serious debate, the place to be is the Sunday jazz session at Newtown’s Horror Café.
The start of the weekend is usually the best time to catch the Bohemian whiff, particularly Friday afternoons. This is when you see bulging filo-faxes, and struggle T-shirts, hear soliloquies on the state of the nation. ‘For the incisive wit,” says development consultant Cuan Opperman, when asked why he comes to Spiro’s every week. ‘There are no sacred cows around this table,” says Mpho Kettledas, another regular who alternates between Spiro’s and the equally trendy Xai-Xai Lounge across the road — ‘depending on the sun”, he adds with a grin.
At one table, former SABC journalist Audrey Brown is engaged in a heated discussion with lunch companions about English as an African lingua franca. At another, a woman with beaded hair is quietly paging through the M&G. A group of well-known lefties from the Anti-Privatisation Forum sit down nearby. ‘If Chris Hani had lived, do you think he would still be with the South African Communist Party?” one earnest voice pipes up from another table.
Nearly all the tables are racially mixed. A prominent human rights lawyer takes his regular seat. At another table, a pair sporting Loxion Kulcha gear are talking about the arms deal. ‘The young, black and up-and-coming,” says one waiter when asked who the regulars are.
Dehma, a ‘politically, socially and sexually disgruntled” NGO activist, has a somewhat jaded perspective of the Spiro’s crowd. He hails from Yeoville, traditionally regarded as the place where the real Bohemian intellectuals hung out. Spiro’s, he says, is a comfort zone for those who want to preach to the converted. ‘They’re here for convenience’s sake — fear of the masses is a big issue. The masses mug, the masses maim, they smell,” he says. ‘But as far as petty bourgeois sensibilities go,” he volunteers, ‘this isn’t a bad place at all.”