Free at last

An end of year acknowledgement of work well done takes us to a place in a different area and offers up a surprising experience. The contrasts we consistently encounter call up a long held dream.

The end of the year brings with it many opportunities to celebrate, time to acknowledge a year of effort and success (hopefully) as well as recognise those that put in the work. For the group of young adults who formed the first cohort of peer coaches that we trained earlier this year, it was an opportunity to meet again as a group, reflect on the year and get insights into what to keep, change and adjust for next year’s peer coaching efforts.

The venue was chosen for its close proximity to where the young people lived in Alexandra. Kim, the one half of Sizanani, the organisation that contracted us to do the coach training, found, organised and booked the restaurant: Riverpark Cafe.

We set off from our treed and tarred streets of Linden following the online map’s directions east. When the road suddenly lost half of its tar exposing enormous gaping sections of hard ground with tyre ripping edges we knew we were close to our destination. As we manoeuvred our way around these car traps, garbage skittered across the road from informal dumping areas in between informal tin shanties squeezed into and on top of any available space between more formal dwellings built of brick and mortar.

These ramshackle structures that lean precariously against each other, look like those in many impoverished areas around the world. It is almost impossible to believe that people live in these thrown-together spaces when up the hill reclines the “richest square mile in Africa”. But they do. People live there. Families live there.


Sides and dumpling delicious

Up a hill, around a corner, and suddenly we were there. Welcomed by car jammed pavements and a dainty green Riverpark Café sign hanging at the front steps of the verandah, already occupied by couples and fours. We entered and sat at the booked table with others that had arrived on time.

It was migraine hot outside, inside was cooled by an oversized fan. The menu, hand written on a blackboard, consisted of lamb curry, lamb chops, chicken, beef stew, oxtail, and steak with a choice of rice or dumplings. We are vegetarian. We had been forewarned so we ordered some cold drinks and settled back while the others chose their meal.

The food arrived plated in large shallow white bowls, accompanied by soft creamy butternut and what is known as chakalaka, a mix of onions, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beans and spices, served cold.

Fat juicy steamed bread dumplings called dombolo, came on their own plate to be finger broken and used to dip in the gravy or smeared with butternut and layered with chakalaka. It looked and smelled very tasty, even for us non-meat eaters. Matthew, mouth watering, ordered a plate of the vegetable sides with dumplings. It was delicious. Deeelicious!


Celebrating the first fantastic cohort of peer coaches, proudly showcasing their certificates, a testament to their dedication to providing peerless support and stellar service.

Honest food and friendly service

Once lunch was over, reflections, feedback and acknowledgements done, Matthew went to introduce himself to Joyce, the owner.

“We loved your veggies and dumplings,” he told her, “We’d be back for them any day.”

Joyce was warm and convivial, happy that we had managed to eat something.

“Yes, please do come again,” she responded, smiling broadly and then she walked us to our car, past a bright yellow Porsche blocking the entrance to our very ordinary SUV teetering on a rocky pavement around the corner.

When last did a restaurant owner walk you to your car?

As we drove home on the highway, waved on by an increasing spread of apartment complexes, we reflected on our experience. We are not new to Alex but do find it a bit of a shock to our quiet suburban selves each time we go. Our excursion had taken us out of our conventional comfort zone and challenged our expectations.

A simple cafe with honest food, friendly service and homely concern was not on the top of our list of what we thought we were going to encounter. We felt more at home there than in any one of the fancier restaurants in the fancier areas that we have visited recently.


Our homemade strawberry hanging boxes. Strawberries are technically not true berries and they've been an important source of Vitamin C since their cultivation began in the 14th century, culminating in the creation of the modern garden variety in the 1750s.

Experience new and different

Being pushed to experience new and different things can be anxiety provoking but the stretch and challenge invariably ends up being worth the discomfort. Sometimes, as a white, middle aged couple we find ourselves becoming largely irrelevant in this African city. It is our home and we risk suffocating ourselves in the mundanity of safe suburbia if we don’t explore and expose ourselves to these places, faces and fellow citizens.

We love Johannesburg because it is so diverse, so untidy, loud and tough. It is not pretty, but it is real. It is not a sanitised Europe by the sea version of South Africa. There is a hustle and a bustle, a rawness and an edge to it. We also love it because it is incredibly warm and friendly too. Here, we are part frown, part broad smile; part dismissive, part welcoming and helpful.

Would we like it different?

Would we like it to be more measured? Maybe. Would we like it to be more calm and less abrasive? Sure. Would we like it to be more equal, with more opportunities and diverse employment possibilities? Absolutely! Would we prefer consistent service delivery, maintenance of infrastructure and a stable grid? You bet.

But we have got what we have got. Part of the pain lies in the reflection on what role we have played in getting to this place. For we all have some responsibility for where we find ourselves. Accepting that, with the discomfort it brings, while being more gentle in our engagements and interactions, more tolerant and aware, is something that we intend for ourselves.

While we sit in this country of enormous disparities brought about by failures of State and citizenry, we also hold an awareness of a world ravaged by conflict. Places where deep rage fuels hate that levels buildings and strips human beings of their humanity. Coming to terms with this status quo does not prevent us from having a dream. A dream held by so many great icons like Nelson Mandela and before him, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr who gave us this from that speech made decades ago:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

And ending with:

“When we allow freedom to ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”*

That is our dream. That we will all realise that we can be free at last.

Until next time.

Yours in feeling,
Matthew & Chantal

*The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright © 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. © renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King.

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