/ 13 November 2012

Street View: A dog diptych

From a multi-storey compound to the buzzing streets of Jo'burg
From a multi-storey compound to the buzzing streets of Jo'burg

"The dog in most ancient African societies enjoyed a slippery and highly ambiguous cultural status. Neither a human being nor a wild animal, it was nevertheless admitted into the domestic sphere where it was recognised as man's best friend. Loyal to a fault, it was committed to its master to the point of helping him hunt wild animals." – Achille Mbembe.

There is a blind white man in Johannesburg who, between the hours of eight and nine in the morning, walks westwards towards the old Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

He has a constant companion, a calm white Labrador with a leather harness that tugs ahead of him, making sure he isn't run over by taxi drivers careering down the delirious Sauer Street.

The first time I saw him was on Kerk Street, in the morning, when everyone walks around with a glint in their eye and a bounce in their step. It's unlike in the evening when most people seem to be quietly choking and drunk from the fumes; that time of the day when everyone would rather be far from the city, home, at the outer edges of the vortex of madness.

Kerk Street is one of a very few streets in Johannesburg on which cars are not allowed on certain sections. A schizophrenic thoroughfare, if ever there was one: part cobbled, part tarred; part disappeared. On Harrison Street it simply vanishes into the loins of the monumental FNB Bank City only to re-emerge as it bisects Sauer Street.

The second time I saw him, was on a Thursday morning, as I trudged upstream on Jeppe Street, against the viscous flow of traffic. At that time of the morning, there is a train of taxis, one after the other, sticking out imaginary tongues to lick the greasy, smoky arses of the one just ahead of it.

I was standing on Sauer Street at that point where Diagonal Street begins its half-hearted, asymmetrical journey across the city. It's a journey that ends before it has really begun, an adventure that starts at that geometrically indeterminate point where Sauer and Jeppe streets meet and ends a few blocks away on Market Street.

Although rather short, Diagonal Street is not a thoroughfare to be scoffed at. It has the old JSE complex on one side and the new FNB offices on the other. This is before it crosses Pritchard Street, where it nods at the imposing, architecturally dexterous glass building in the shape of a diamond.  

Ah, Diagonal Street: the street whose name says what it is really about …

On that day as I walked up Jeppe, the man was on the opposite side of Sauer Street as we waited for the traffic to ease. When the robots turned red to stop the progress of the taxis, I walked, looking at him and his canine buddy every second of the way. After crossing the street, I turned to look at him as he walked away assuredly, disappearing into the crowd.

The third time I saw him was at around 5pm as the man was getting onto a Gautrain bus. Briefly missing the steps to the entrance, he was guided up the steps by a helpful woman …

All of a sudden, I am a teenager once more, hanging around a friend's workplace. It's those stifling and nervous summer months in which we waited for our high school results. Did I pass? Will I make it to university?

I doubt my friend was troubled by such concerns. He already had a job as an accounts clerk. Although not quite 20, he had oversight over a bakery, a gold mine and a few other ventures. He presided over this small empire from a dark cave of an office on behalf of a man, of Somali origin, who lived 70km away.

A cave in which sat a huge solid wood desk, a telephone — not just an ordinary one, but one of those huge, heavy, handcrafted receivers. His office was part of a large, maze of a compound with a sprawling multistorey edifice that housed a bakery and residential quarters, bordered by high walls.

The compound was watched over by a dog, a German Shepherd. It had an intimate, which is to say telepathic, relationship with its absent owner.

It's possible this dog ran the empire. My friend, still rash and immature, hadn't adjusted to being a man of authority. He took extended lunch breaks and sometimes invited me to his office, where a Malawian cook fed us the most delicious fish dishes.

The owner of the empire never knew this or so we thought. But one day, as if sharing a confidence, my friend told me that when The Man was 10km away, the dog would start barking; this is how he knew that the big man was about to arrive.

I dismissed it as mindless superstition until one day when I happened to be at the compound. The dog, as if night had suddenly fallen and a big, white moon had appeared, started howling. "He is on his way," my friend said, "another 30 minutes you will see him here."

When The Man was two minutes away, the German Shepherd howled some more, as if the moon was dangling from an invisible hoist from where it was being alternately lowered and raised from its wet nose.

Soon there was hooting at the gate; The Man had arrived …

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street Views to meet the characters he encounters.