I was fixing to write some lengthy essay about Google… the search for information on just about anything engine. I found myself sitting at a candle lit table at ANTs quite surprisingly as if I had been sleep walking from my bed to the restaurant maybe I was. So Google will have to wait until some other time while I tell you about this little nook of love called Ants Café on 7th street in Melville, Johannesburg. It’s somewhat of an institution in this popular artist/media village. It is 19 years old this year – as old as our democracy.
When I walked in alone and heavily draped in my Lufthansa airline blanket, jacket and long dress the host showed me to a table by the fire-place. The exact same table I sat at for the first time at ANT almost 13 years ago with my friends, Maceik, Allan and Tom. We were there to eat our last meal pizza – together to wish Tom well on his trip to Argentina South America where he now runs a backpackers with his partner. Maceik now lives in Poland with his grandmother, while he writes, makes films and teaches. Allan the musician is now as we speak currently enjoying the summer in the UK and has been there for close to ten years. I realized for the first time that of the four friends who sat animated and chatting about the future – I was the only one left at the table – literally. I have travelled a lot since then and have lived in another country, but still I find myself so many years later once again at ANT on a date with Jedi.
Being there made me feel so nostalgic of all the friendships and happy moments I shared with so many. I felt nostalgic about what ANT has meant for me over the past decade living in Melville. Almost everyone I have ever loved – and loved – deeply has shared a meal with me under the warm dim light of candles at ANT. It somehow brought love back to me. Because you see I always went or invited people I love to Ant. There is something about rustiness of the place that says ‘home’ to me in so many ways. I have always felt safe at ANT to open up and be my authentic self in a public restaurant. It has none of that pretence – it’s a place you go to talk to the one you love, to tell truth about you somehow. Ant has been a sacred place for me, a hideaway. A love-filled kitchen I couldn’t provide for my many friends, many of whom were in various stages of transit and many of whom have since left the country or chapters in my life. Ant was a place where I could have conversations about love – all kinds of love – and leave feeling happy and secure. ANT is famous for its thin base pizzas… and they are all quite good and until recently you could only pay in cash for the food and service. A trait which added to the restaurants quirkiness. I remembered bringing my younger sister Didi to ANT for the first time to get to know my new partner. I remember countless nights sipping red wine with Gina, who is now a lawyer living in Canada, or stolen lunches from with Adel who is now an award-winning journalist and mother of one, sipping whiskey, it was a place where I went to if I didn’t want my conversation to be interrupted. The many nights with Ms Walker, Jane and countless other friends. Because on Melville 7th street nothing was sacred. I chose ANT to celebrate my 30th birthday three years ago, entering a new phase of my life with old and new friends. There was no other place that could hold my heart as gently as this restaurant did.
Three years later I found myself at Ant sitting across from someone I have always loved, unexpectedly consoling them about a love they’ve been chasing for almost ten years since we last met. It’s a place of untold beauty because of the people and characters I shared this place with. So as I was sitting at his table thinking about my next adventure I read a story about ANT that I never knew before in all the years that I have walked in each time with renewed hope for new beginnings. The story – which I image now in hindsight represents some of the struggles that we spoke about in this very same place about belonging, identity and life. It’s a piece of Johannesburg history with a surprisingly positive ending or should I say beginning
“The story behind the ANT café is as fascinating as its décor. Ronnie van Der Walt (owner) moved to Melville in 1979 and began a studio and art gallery called “things Ceramic”. With the change in government in 1991, however, he decided that in order to survive and prosper in the new South Africa he’s need to go into either tourism or security. Having chosen the security option, the opened a locksmith shop, selling remote controls and security keys to various hijack and mugging victims. After a while though, he found himself becoming increasingly aggressive and paranoid and started thinking of alternatives. It was a friend’s comment that he’s make money without selling a thing if he simply made his own coffee instead of ordering it every day from the house of coffees that convinced Ronnie to kick-in the security business and turn it to something more fulfilling. Work begun at the shop almost immediately. The security business was gradually phased out as renovation began and in a little more than five weeks the locksmith had been transformed into the ANT Café. Short of mixing the concrete and pushing the wheelbarrow – Ronnie did all the renovations himself. Upon entering the café one immediate impression is that of a rustic farm kitchen – wholesome and comfortable. Dried bunches of flowers hang from the ceiling. The compelling smell of brewing coffee all combine to create a homely and appealing sunny ambiance. Colours are earthy and rich, with wooden tables, homemade iron chairs and wall have been plastered with pigments.”
Then it dawned on me, again, that the pursuit of happiness is not as selfish as it may appear; to seek joy in your life, to seek to do what makes you happy is to seek to give joy to others too. Because I have found untold joy at ANT and all because Ronnie decided to do something that would make him joyful that was fulfilling. Through his labour of love he has brought joy to thousands of travellers and locals who have walked through its glass doors. Because, how can you hope to share joy with others if you don’t have joy within yourself. Or love for that matter? ANT was not Ronnie’s first choice, he tried two business before he found one that was just right for him, and it has stayed open in Melville longer than almost all the restaurants and bars on the street today – it’s almost two decades old and still provides that warm homely feeling, same welcoming atmosphere, service and food that stole my heart the first day I walked in. It’s as if when you enter… time stands still just for a moment.
And that’s a beautiful thing.