Henry Rollins: There Is No American Equivalent to South Africa's Grinding Poverty

Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins
Heidi May

I am in Cape Town, South Africa. This will be my fifth time through. The country's history needs no introduction. I have one show here and another in Johannesburg.

Today was a day off. I arrived yesterday. It was a long sit. Australia to Singapore to Johannesburg and, finally, here.

The second time I came here, in 2008, I was working on a performance/documentary piece for the Independent Film Channel. The topic was HIV/AIDS. We spent several hours at the Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay, outside of Cape Town. Our guide was an amazing man named Afrika Monie. He and I became friends immediately. He is a passionate advocate for young people and the welfare of the residents of the township. Whenever I am here, I pay a visit to Imizamo Yethu and spend some time with Mr. Monie. I went to the township earlier today.

Like times before, our conversation happened as we walked the winding streets and improvised paths that cut through tin-sided shacks to more elaborate structures. Cars and trucks, with barely enough room to pass, move through at high speed. You have to be perpetually on guard. Afrika's young daughter has been hit twice and walks with a permanent limp.

One of our regular stops is to visit a man named Kenny, who has more personality than any three other people. When Kenny sees me, he goes into performance mode, dancing and acting out. "Henry Rollins! Help me be in movies!"

Kenny is HIV-positive. When he first became infected, he refused antiretroviral therapy, which is not uncommon. It was Afrika who instructed him to get on an ARV regimen and stay alive. Kenny once said, "Afrika Monie saved my life! I am alive, as you can see!"

Today, I had several hundred rand to give Kenny to help keep him going. I asked Afrika if we could visit him. But since I was here last, Kenny had passed away.

For many people in South Africa, an early death comes easily. Daily life can be extremely and unrelentingly physical.

Imizamo Yethu's population is exploding. Apparently, a lot of people from Congo and Malawi have moved in and set up camp above the township on government land not allotted for use. Wires crisscross chaotically above thrown-together shelters, which look as if they were constructed to perfectly define catastrophic fire hazard. People walk up steep, narrow paths with buckets of water and disappear into their dwellings. Recently, there was an E. coli breakout.

The place is bustling with life, but there is hard-set grimness and resigned misery on many of the faces of the people I pass. Children run up to hug my legs and hold my hand. They ask my name and laugh hysterically when I tell them.

To my knowledge, there is no American equivalent to this depth of grinding poverty. Not even close.

Two days later, I am in Johannesburg. My shows here are done. Both were well-attended with enthusiastic audiences.

Again, I am staying at the Melrose Arch Hotel, which is inside of a massive, upper-class, gated community. It's like staying on Wilshire right in the middle of Beverly Hills. This location is more of a convenience for the agent who brings me here. Once inside, I am safe from the real Johannesburg on the other side of the wire.

Last night, after the show, I opened the window of my hotel room to take in the night air, which had a smell that has become familiar to me, to the point that it engenders an emotional reaction. It takes me back to Afghanistan, Vietnam, Tunis and countless other places. It is the smell of every kind of garbage being burned at once.

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I leave for USA in a few hours. It will be two 10-plus-hour flights. I always have mixed feelings when I do shows in South Africa. It is easy to point out awful examples of this country's history, but coming from USA, it's a little much to claim any moral high ground. My audience here is great. More bands are starting to come to South Africa. I think this could lead to good things. Seeing Ramones shirts on people here is a version of globalization I can get with. I have disabused myself of the idea that governments are capable of facilitating change for the better. My optimism is in the individual and in gatherings centered around music.

0720 hrs. Frankfurt, Germany. A 10½-hour flight got me here. It will be hours before the next leg starts. I wish I had time in the schedule so I could stay here today. Great city, excellent record stores. However, I don't. I will be in Los Angeles for approximately 44 hours and then gone again to start the next leg. About 60 shows later, I will stagger back to L.A. for eight straight nights at Largo.

I am 77 shows into the year, tired but not exhausted. I don't know what it is, but I sincerely look forward to a show a night, even after 36 years and around 3,500 shows. I would like to think I've still got a few more laps around the track left in me. Looking out of the window at all the planes lined up, the kn ow I am in the right place.

I have been thinking of Kenny a lot. One more flight to go.

2342 hrs. Los Angeles. That last flight, clocking in at 10 hrs. 57 mins., felt much longer. Upon returning, there is something about the ride up Fairfax into Hollywood that erases all the time I have spent away. It's a familiarity that overrides memory and swallows me whole.

Back at the house, the only thing that reminds me I have been out of the country for weeks are receipts, piles of mail and a complete body ache. Never easy, always worth it.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier


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