Those Winter Sundays

Screen Shot 2020-04-28 at 2.34.41 PM.png
My grandfather, Richard Radford-Hayden

What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? (Robert Hayden, 1985)

For as long as I have known anything, I have known that my paternal grandfather, Richard Radford-Hayden, lost both of his parents to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Orphaned together with his little brother, Harry, at a very young age, this lethal and mysterious virus brought to our shores by ships and which – for reasons we’ll never understand – targeted the young and healthy, constituted the dark backdrop of my father’s family history. It was the reason why everything went wrong: why my grandpa drank. Why money was scarce. Why he neglected his six children; showed contempt and indifference, at times incomprehensible cruelty towards the people he should have loved. The deep trauma and loss he experienced as a small boy lived in him all his life like a cancer, festering and growing, a black stain which would colour everything he touched. 

It was the reason he could not show affection to his sensitive, intelligent, eldest son, my father. It was why he lashed out, spoke harshly, withheld love and approval. Disappeared, locked himself away, spent money he never had. In an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted on him by this damaged man my dad started writing my grandfather’s story. Teasing out the details of narratives he had heard again and again since boyhood; jotting everything down in his square, cursive hand before methodically typing it out. Therapy where the real thing was not an option for a man of his generation. When my grandpa died of a heart attack at the age of 83 – unceremoniously, in the bathroom of the tiny flat he shared with my granny while she waited in the kitchen for him to come and eat his lunch – my dad went through his affairs and found notes the old man had made for him, ‘for Errol so interested in this.’ 

From these notes and from his own, my dad – so interested in ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ may be – put it all together so that members of the next generation who happened to have an interest in our family history might know who Dick Hayden (so much less grand than the name he was christened with) was before he sat, small and shrunken in his armchair in the corner of the living-room, too old to get himself to the liquor store so he simply stopped drinking. Sometimes recalling the past caused tears to gather in his soulful brown eyes. I had never seen a grown man cry, least of all my father’s father. I would look away, at the profusion of purple violets my granny always had growing on her window-sill no matter where she lived.

 “At any rate,” she would say in her husky, cigarette-voice to break the silence as all the things unsaid hung like smoke in the Sunday air. I was too young to understand the significance of the stories. Today I would listen more closely to how, one moment – his earliest memory of himself at the age of four – he was lying between his parents in their shiny, brass bed before breakfast, his mom with her long, dark hair plaited down her back, and seemingly the next he was in a house filled with sick and dying people. He and his grandfather – being very young and very old, respectively – were immune to the flu, and therefore the only ones well enough to care for the seven family members who had contracted the deadly disease. My grandpa Hayden remembered it like this:

“I lived in Port Elizabeth at the time. I was then aged 11, the eldest of five children. I remember that people dropped dead in the streets, died in trams and trains. All schools were closed, some being used as a form of hospital or soup kitchen, when gallant ladies accepted the job of delivering jugs of soup to many hundreds of homes and the Red Cross did wonderful work. This went on for many weeks until the disease passed on. Undertakers simply could not cope, and (…) the deceased were rolled up in blankets, many (…) left in trenches. Even now I suspect that was the fate of my parents. Our mother died on Sunday the 2nd of November, father the next Tuesday. I am convinced it was Providence that shielded Grandpa and me from that dreaded flu. With the whole family a-bed at the time, numbering seven, only my garlic-smelling Grandpa and I were up and about day and night giving service to the bed-ridden. 

“But perhaps the most difficult job I had at that tender age was to keep my younger brother in his bed. We shared a small bedroom next to the lounge, opposite the women’s large four-bedded room fully occupied, with an old neighbour nurse friend in charge, who had made a quick recovery from the epidemic. I distinctly remember that we had a Dover coal stove. It was my job to light it in the mornings, and on that Sunday Grandpa, who was always up and about early, came through and sat in a chair for a while, and then said, ‘Dickie, I want to talk to you.’ As he led me out to the water tank adjacent to the kitchen window, I picked up the bucket to fill it. He put his arm around my shoulders and his warm tears fell on my upturned face as he said in a low, trembling voice: ‘Your mother is dead, God bless her soul.’ I picked the bucket up and dazedly made for the shed. ‘Where are you going?’ he called, and took the bucket from me. 

“On the day the horse-drawn hearse called to take Mother away, my brother was most restless, wanting to look out of the window when he heard the horses on the roadway outside. Sitting on his bed to keep him down, I assured him it was just the vegetable hawker on his rounds, and he quietly accepted that lying explanation, much to my relief, as I now review the incident but at the time you can imagine my worry and emotion, because it was our mother being taken away and how was I going to account for her absence?”

And so it was. A lifetime of absence begetting absence. A paucity of love and the concomitant shrivelling of the human psyche; a state which seems destined to roll over to the next generation. His dad locking himself in a room with a bottle of brandy. My dad locking his heart away some place I could never find it. But I find it now in the words he carefully recorded. The love and the longing which emanate from these remembered fragments of a small, unremarkable past. A yearning, perhaps, for the wholeness neither men knew; something I find myself searching for in the scant book of typed-out memories I keep in a cupboard together with dad’s collection of LPs. A few months before my dad died – that line still shocks me to write – he told me he was looking forward to seeing his dad again. He said, I want to tell him, I understand, putting emphasis on that word. At the age of 77 he sought to forgive, and in the forgiving, find peace. I look forward to seeing my dad again and telling him the same thing.

 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labour in the weekday weather made

blanked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, 1985 (no relation)

Who is the Africanest of us all?

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 1.34.44 PM.png

When February draws to a close, even while the weather remains hot, something subtle happens to the quality of the light; a nearly imperceptible softening of summer’s white glare. You have to have been here a really long time to notice this tiny shift. My husband has only lived in South Africa for 30 years, so many of its nuances remain lost on him. But hidden somewhere in the strands of our DNA lurks a knowledge that’s been passed on for millenia. It has to do with communing with nature; when the survival of our hunter-gatherer forebears depended on a minute reading of the environment. The days might feel like summer, but autumn is in the air.

Last night I gave myself a sleepless night by reading a Christopher Hope essay on Zimbabwe, in particular about the white people who stayed on after the election. He describes them as somnambulists, daytime sleepers in a country which is, in his words, ‘an eternal afternoon.’ Drugged by sunshine and servants, in a torpor of privilege, they didn’t believe Robert Mugabe when he told them he was going to take away everything they had. They misread the climate, and how much they were loathed. Not happy reading for a white girl living on the Atlantic Seaboard. It’s lazy to draw simple parallels: Zim is Zim and we are here and the countries are not the same. At the same time, one can’t help wonder, as our country is plunged into literal darkness and we reach passively for the candles, are we also sleepwalking into an abyss? And if we are, where the hell will we go? Even if we find ourselves passports, where else would ever be home?

Telling Africans they aren’t African is like telling fifth generation Germans they aren’t really German. ‘You see, there are Germans who are Germaner than you.’ Maybe there are. If genetics is what gives us our identity. I’ve never done that DNA test, but if I did and if I was – for argument’s sake – 80% Khoisan (which is not that far off, actually, as I am one quarter pure Afrikaans, and that lot were vrying with everybody), then would I be African? Or still not? These are the things I think about at 4am. What I do know is that our small colonial hangovers like eating trifle at Christmas do not make us British. For one, we go brown and not pink in the sun and we don’t have vrot teeth. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what makes us who we are. 

I have a friend who is an animal behaviourist. He grew up in the Transkei, on the beach, in the wild. When we go away on holiday he spends the entire day out on the rocks fishing, gathering mussels, being one with his world. He is as much of this earth, of this continent, as the Nguni cattle he has raised, the fynbos he identifies. He is white and the most African person I’ve ever met. Transplant him to Europe and he would wither and die, like a succulent in an English country garden. Transplant me to Europe and I’d love my look in a woollen coat for around 11 seconds before withering and dying, too. I was warned by a healer once that if I stayed in Northern Europe I would get sick. He was 100% right. I was already sick, I just didn’t know it till I got home and could breathe again.

We, who are of this place – who recognise its subtleties and perceive its nuances; who call people sisi and bhuti and understand Kaaps and know exactly how Auntie Washiela from the Bo Kaap sees the world – we don’t transplant easily. A while ago we had family from Denmark stay with us. For two weeks we were tour guides, showing them the dramatic splendour of our coastline, the ridiculous beauty of the wine route. I found myself trying to explain South Africa to them. I got tongue-tied a few times; contradicted myself. It’s a very, very difficult landscape to reduce to simple sentences or, even with time on your hands, adequately explain. I had to simplify everything into soundbites. Sometimes they roared with laughter. Other times they went quiet. Where they come from things are so simple. People are all the same and everyone is fine.

It would be hard to find a more complex mileu with a weirder history than ours. When we’ve been traveling and we arrive at the departures gate at Doha airport for our plane bound for Cape Town I recognise my people immediately. I don’t know what it is that makes us so identifiable, but you can’t miss a room full of South Africans. Badly dressed, chatting to all and sundry, a roomful of mongrels. We are, after all, braks; pavement specials; hybridisations of all that has been. We are the products of centuries of travel to and from this beautiful land; brown faces with blue eyes. White faces with kroes hare. Even my hair minces when it’s humid. Before we were apart we were very much together. The evidence of our togetherness is clear wherever you look. 

We file patiently onto the aircraft. We smile at one another in recognition. Wherever we have been on the planet, now we are here with our tribe ordering the chicken or beef and loving the free drinks. Yussus, check at us larnies. Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sotho, Kaaps.  I’ve tried to identify what it is that makes an Afrikaans face so recognizable. You see it long before you hear the language. I try to separate the features – is it the jawline? The eyes? The nose? Who knows, it just is. Charlize Theron looks like any girl from Durbanville (yes, we are that gorgeous).

The thing is, I don’t think it matters where our distant ancestors came from. What matters is where we are now. The only things we know for sure is that we are mad and fabulous and resilient AF. Nobody is the same and nobody is fine, but that is our normal. Sometimes, when I get freaked out about Eskom or the EFF or the ganglands or the girls getting raped and murdered I think, are we misreading the climate? Are we daytime sleepers on our loungers on Clifton 4th, and is summer drawing to a chilly close? Many insist it is. I say, I don’t know. We’ve been asking ourselves this question for 600 years. So, while we decide, let’s put on a bit of Mandoza and dance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Kak has to Stop

Uyinene Mrwetyana, everybody’s daughter.

These are very dark days for us in South Africa, and it pains me to admit that I have nothing reassuring or funny or uplifting to offer. There is nothing funny or uplifting about femicide and the rape and murder statistics in this country. But I feel the need to say something, anyway, as it’s weighing very heavily on me. It was our 12-year-old daughter, on her phone at breakfast, who told us that Nene’s killer had been identified. As a family gathered around the kitchen counter on an ordinary Tuesday morning we learned the circumstances of her murder. Along with all of South Africa, the details of her disappearance had been a topic of discussion for days. Where could she be? What could have happened? 

On our way to watch The Lion King on Friday evening, my daughter and her best friend ventured their opinions. ‘Maybe she’s just hanging at her boyfriend’s house,’ one of them offered hopefully. ‘Maybe,’ I agreed, trying to assuage their fears, but knowing – as these things go – that the chances of her being found alive were slim to non-existent. And then the truth, the shocking, devastating details of her attack, were announced. I think I couldn’t process the horror right away. I paid bills, bought a bed, did some washing, cooked bobotie, added extravagant amounts of butter and sugar to the yellow rice. 

On Facebook I read the reactions of friends, all reeling, all petrified, many wanting to leave the country. It was in a state of high anxiety that I walked the 500 metres to my yoga class this morning, leaving my phone behind (just in case I was mugged on the way, or worse) and constantly looking over my shoulder. At one point a man with a briefcase walked a few steps ahead of me, and I glared at the back of his head, daring him to turn around, to try anything, just try. The magic of yoga lies less in the softening and strengthening of the limbs than the softening and strengthening of the heart; the remembering of how deeply connected we all are as human beings. It took just a few moments of hearing the soft, mellifluous sounds of my Hindi instructor’s voice guiding us through the Asanas to make big, splashy tears drop down on my mat. Nene was everybody’s daughter. The pain of her rape and death is not relegated to her family and the ones who personally knew her. 

We failed you, Nene. Our beautiful, innocent child. We also failed Meghan Cremer, Hannah Cornelius, the 14-year-old girl whose body was found in a backyard in Heinz Park a few days ago. So many victims; too many to mention by name. According to recent stats, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. Every 3 hours, people. We are failing as a nation. The ANC’s P.R. team issuing a facile, generalised statement making everyone wonder, where is our leader? If ever there was a time we needed comfort and reassurance; to be told that this isn’t okay, that there is a plan in place; that addressing the rampant and growing levels of femicide in this country is high on our government’s agenda, that time is now. Where is uCyril? Playing Candy Crush in the bath?

We are a fatherless nation. But if nothing else I have learned that if you’re going to wait for a man to pour your wine or give you permission to speak you’re going to be mute and mightily thirsty. So, what I can offer is this: there is power and strength in numbers. A short while back we believed ousting Zuma was a lost cause but we showed up to toyi toyi anyway, and what do you know? The old doos went. Before we give up and move en masse to Portugal (they eat a lot of sardines, I’m just saying), let’s find every march we can and show up and shout and scream and make our collective outrage known. 

On 9 August 1956, 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against the Pass Laws. It was the biggest march by women this country had ever seen. The women stood silently for 30 minutes and then started singing a protest song, Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (‘Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock’). We cannot sit in silence. We can’t live like this, constantly afraid and looking over our shoulders. Petrified to send our daughters out into the world. Always on the alert, in our minds fending off attack. All of you based in SA, find out where the marches are happening in your area and show up. Sing, shout, do whatever it takes to be heard. We learned long ago that ain’t no man gon’ save us. It’s time to make a noise and take matters into our own hands. Let’s make history and make this the biggest gathering of women our country as seen. We owe it to Nene, to Meghan, to our daughters. Not only that, our lives depend on it.

Oysters and Tsotsis

Grand Constance. Napoleon loved this stuff a lot and we totally understand why.

A few months back we went next door to our neighbour, Stu, for dinner. Stu is a dashing, 70-year-old confirmed bachelor with a mop of red hair and a racy red Porsche. His best friend is another handsome bachelor called Mauro, and when Mauro has volunteered to cook and we are lucky enough to crack the nod we are happy folk indeed. Because Mauro is an Italian man like they made them in the old days. He hunts kudu on his farm in Robertson, felling the animal with one expert shot and hanging it for ten days in its own skin. This, he explains in his accented English, makes all the difference to the meat. The kudu fillet he serves off the coals, rare, with a side of hand-rolled gnocchi and a smokey Shiraz melts in your mouth, and has none of that metallic, gamey taste you find in store-bought venison. But wait, there’s more.

Single parent Simon van der Stel looking pretty over it.

Mauro had also made kudu biltong which he traded for crayfish with a guy at the gym and then he’d gone to Atlas trading in Bo Kaap and asked the owner to mix him up the perfect blend of spices for a crayfish curry. If anyone knows how to make the perfect blend of spices for a crayfish curry it’s the owner of Atlas trading. While we threw back delicous wine and partook of this feast, one of the dinner guests entertained us with an extraordinary tale of how, being the wrong colour for the time, he had fled South Africa in the sixties at the age of 15 and sailed alone on a ship to Paris. With barely a penny to his name, some kindly working women took him in and for a time he lived in a brothel, though, in his youthful innocence, he had no idea that the nice ladies who fed and housed him were prostitutes. He assumed all French women wore bright red lipstick and walked around in their underwear.

We thank the Dutch tremendously for bringing WINE to the Cape.

Around 11pm, tummies full and spirits high, we went back home to our children and climbed into our cosy beds and fell asleep with the November south-easterly wind roaring about the city. The wind made such a ruccus that night that we didn’t hear the man in the grey hoodie break open our sliding door with a crowbar and for the next half hour move around inside our home stealing whatever he could find. We slept through it all. We were unharmed. But the what if scenarios as we sat on the couch early next morning looking at each other in disbelief wouldn’t stop running through our minds. We know very well what could have happened. Our children were sleeping metres away from where he prowled around. 

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 4.47.11 PM.png
Given the choice, I would take this over perpetual rain and a cross wife in the Netherlands any day.

And this is everyone’s greatest fear. Exactly this. Because in that moment you are utterly defenceless. Worse, you can’t protect your family. You are at the mercy of someone who would likely kill you for a cigarette. I looked out the window and accepted, for the first time, that our security situation was pretty lacking. We didn’t like the idea of electric fencing and the large, custom-made Trellidor we needed was going to be expensive. But I made a few calls, and in true South African style, within 24 hours we were electrified and Trellidoored to within an inch of our lives. Welcome to South Africa. 

It’s very delightful that the folk of Groot Constantia went to such extraordinary lengths to replicate Grand Constance exactly as it was drunk in Napoleon’s day. It’s actually rude not to try it.

The next day I was due to attend the launch of Grand Constance, the wine Groot Constantia made for Napoleon when he was living on St Helena. We both felt a bit weird and shell-shocked after what had happened, but we gathered ourselves and went anyway. Groot Constantia wine estate is breathtakingly beautiful, its undulating vineyards and gentle vistas making you feel like you’ve arrived in another century. In a way, you have. There is something comfortingly timeless about these old manor houses scattered about the Western Cape. The grand rooms resonate with the history of this country. If you listen hard you can almost hear ghostly voices echoing through their corridors, and you feel the traces of a bygone era held fast in the thick, cold walls. 

IMG_6693.jpg
Champagne and oysters, tsotsis and guns. SA is a package deal.

We ate oysters and drank champagne under ancient oak trees before being take on a tour of the homestead. I learned that Emperors and Kings such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and King Louis Phillipe of France bought ‘Constantia Wyn’ at auctions across Europe, so marvelous was the stuff we produced. And continue to. Visit any wine shop in Scandinavia, for example, and South African wines dominate the shelves. This country’s oldest wine farm is so renowned that it appears in Jane Austin’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as a cure for a broken heart and is drunk to lift the character’s spirit in Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ 

Napoleon setting off on his cat to find more Grand Constance.

In truth, we were rather broken hearted that day. As I sipped on the amber, honeycomb-flavoured deliciousness of the 2007 Grand Constance (if it’s good enough for Napoleon…), I pondered the situation of being in love with a country that doesn’t love me back. It’s not that unrequited love is a foreign notion for me. I’ve known it since Sub A when my heart was crushed by a 6-year-old boy called Matthew who spurned my timid advances. It’s just that, well, one can’t help feeling rather down in the dumps nonetheless. 

Still, after a fair amount of ‘tasting’ (I noticed I was the only one quaffing it down, oh dear), my spirits did lift and I felt rather grateful to old Simon Van Der Stel for leaving Holland in 1679 with his knowledge of viticulture and starting this whole business. It can’t have been easy, with 3000 children in tow and no wife because she’d basically kicked him out and sent him to the farthest place on earth from Holland at that time, that being the Cape. But clearly he pulled himself towards himself, and I’m sure having all that wine and brandy at his disposal would have helped enormously when someone took off in the night with some of his favourite things. I think we would have understood one another, Simon and I. Not many people know that Governor Simon van der Stel’s mother was the daughter of a freed slave which means that, according to the apartheid government, he would have been called a ‘Coloured’ and relocated to Grassy Park. And lord knows what that would have meant for our current wine situation.

The gorgeous Anna de Koningh trying to decide if the apple is worth the calories.

I also learnt that in 1714 Groot Constantia was owned by a woman of colour, the daughter of a freed slave, Anna de Koningh. Anna was an extremely wealthy woman and fantastically beautiful, to boot. History narrates that she swanned about that homestead in a marvelous array of jewellery and kept no less than 27 slaves, clearly feeling feathers for social reform. Why should a girl iron her own pantaloons? A German traveller by the name of Peter Kolbe wrote a book where he recalls the time Anna saved the life of her friend, Maria de Haese, who tried to drown herself by jumping in the fountain behind the house. The reason for her death wish was the bitter lament that her life had become ‘one of terror on account of the many scandalous acts she daily had to hear and witness.’ Which does rather remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Keeping our spirits up while understanding the lady who jumped in the fountain.

There can’t be a South African alive who hasn’t, at some point, wanted to drown themselves by jumping in a fountain. I get the impression that the early inhabitants of that magnificent estate would have agreed that life round these parts can be very wonderful and very terrible. I suppose it’s difficult to have one without the other. Maybe it’s a sort of a package deal: champagne and oysters, tsotsis and guns. We moved back because we love it: the beauty, the lifestyle, the friendliness, the contrasts. The good food, the good wine, the way the light hits Signal Hill at certain times of the afternoon. The noon gun, the call to prayer, Sea Point Main Road in all its grubby glory. And, of course, sitting under the ancient oaks at Jonkershuis contemplating all of life and the choices one makes and then lives with. There’s no such thing as a perfect deal. You find the place your soul has peace and you live with it, good and bad. For all the fountain-drowning moments I’ve never seriously contemplated leaving. Many do, and I get it. But for me… I dunno. It’s just where my heart resides. 

 

Naturally Skinny Women are Boknaaiers

Dinner is served.

Please understand that I use the word ‘boknaaier’ to describe Naturally Skinny Women (NSW from here on) with the greatest affection. My very best friend in the world is an NSW. If she wants to lose weight she’ll cut her daily beer consumption down very slightly and be emaciated by the end of the week. If so much as the froth of somebody’s draught is blown my way by the south-easterly wind and it happens to land somewhere near my person it is guaranteed that I will gain 4kgs instantaneously and have to change my pants. This is simply the way of my genes, and it is vexing in the extreme.

It is unfortunately also the way of my genes that I am perpetually starving. If (god forbid) 10am rolls around and by some extremely unusual series of circumstances I have not eaten breakfast, small children standing close to me are in grave danger. Also, I think exercising is very, very poofy. I do it because if I didn’t I would be extremely fat, but I don’t like it one iota and I skive off every opportunity I get. And yet, knowing all of this about myself, I remain in the deepest denial around what I know I can get away with eating (one tomato hold the basil), and even though I really, really do know better, I still to this day manage to convince myself that ludicrous eating plans which insist they have discovered the dieting truth and light continue to lure me with their lies and false promises.

Just last month I was eating eggs with my butter and telling my long-suffering husband how finally I had found the answer. All you need is fat. Even though I have followed this eating plan five times (five, people) without success, hope springs eternal in my damaged little heart. For 6 weeks I fried the chicken in lard, snacked on streaky bacon, and ate cake-sized wedges of cheese and then, heart in throat, tentatively got on my scale. To discover I had gained weight. No problem, Butter Bob on YouTube insisted; you’re retaining water. Wait for the ‘keto whoosh’ (a state where, Keto converts insist, your body ‘lets go’ of the water it’s been retaining and you wee a million times and be thin). I’m still waiting for the whoosh. Aint no whoosh comin’ this girl’s way.

To cut a long and sad story short, cutting carbs didn’t work for me. Nor did filling up on fat ‘so that would become my fuel’. Nor did rawism, veganism, juicism (invented word) or starving. Well, starving might have worked if I could have kept it up for longer than half an hour. And all those theories about not producing insulin and starving your body of carbs so you burn your own fat and and… I don’t deny that they work for some lucky souls, but for me? Not in the slightest. And people say, but did you do it right? Did you follow the rules? YES. For once in my life I really, really did follow the rules. Because I desperately wanted to have found the answer; to eat delicious food and STILL LOSE WEIGHT. Unfortunately, my body doesn’t like all that fat. Or, it likes it so much it stores it for the next fast. Which, now that we have uber eats, unfortunately never comes.

So, I’m back to square one – dry Ryvitas and Marmite and enough chicken breasts to make me start squawking. And finally, slowly, I’m losing a bit of the fat I gained from my bacon bonanza. Is it delicious? Not in the slightest. Would I rather be eating racks of ribs with my hands? Certainly. But best I suck it up because this is the way it is. And I’m vain and want to wear what I want to wear. And it’s a choice I make, and maybe it’s un-PC and if I were a better feminist I wouldn’t care. But I know when I feel my best, and unfortunately it’s not at my heaviest weight. So, onwards and upwards and we’ll get there in the end. Or not. But NSWs are boknaaiers, and that’s my final word on the matter.

Palesa and the Hooker Boots

Palesa

Like most white people born and raised in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, the only interactions I have with people of colour are in supermarkets, Ubers and on Facebook Marketplace (where, lately, I find myself spending unjustifiable amounts of time browsing for items of footwear I do not need nor have the space to store. But, girls and shoes being a thing that defies logic and explanation, we must accept what we are and get on with it). 

And the interactions I have in these spaces are sometimes dull and pedestrian, and sometimes, for a while at least, make me think about the world we live in and the thoughts we have about the people who populate it. For a while I’ve had a pair of thigh-high, lace-up boots bought on a whim and which have always been that level of tight that only stops hurting after a bottle of Chardonnay and several tequilas. And since I am now old as a stick and not inclined to anaesthetise myself with the same gay abandon as I did in my youth, it made sense on several levels to sell them. 

So, for the first time, I placed my own ad on Facebook Marketplace and waited to see what would happen. What happened initially was nothing, and I wondered if I had marked them too high. But then Friday 5pm rolled around and while people crawled home in rush hour traffic and commuters trawled shopping sites to pass the time, my phone started pinging with women urgently needing a pair of thigh-high, lace-up hooker boots. A notion I fully understand. By Saturday morning I had several eager buyers, indicating that I sold them far too cheaply and am utterly useless as a businesswoman. 

Come Sunday morning my phone was still pinging and I was copying and pasting the same message to scores of hopeful shoe lovers scattered around the city. Then a message came through from someone called Palesa. It was riddled with typos, and all my prejudices kicked in. Because she wasn’t white and living in Claremont and because she wrote ‘ur’ for ‘your’ and because I was sick of copying and pasting I almost didn’t bother to respond. But then manners got the better of me. In seven seconds I got a message back from her requesting my phone number. 

Now I felt a twinge of annoyance. Not only was Palesa making me write things, but I had to also say things with my voice. I sent it anyway. Seven seconds later, my phone rang and Palesa – with such excitement her words tumbled over each other – was telling me how she was hopping in the shower that very second and then making her husband drive her from Goodwood to Green Point so she could purchase the hooker boots which were going to make life worth living. She would be there in under an hour and I was not to leave my house nor dare sell them to anyone else. 

My husband, on his way out the door to the airport, warned me about letting her inside. I rolled my eyes at his paranoia, but his comment made me secretly nervous. Because, you know, you never know. At exactly the alloted time, a little green car with a number plate that said PALESA and driven by an exasperated-looking husband type of person pulled up outside my house. She bounced out the car, bounded up my steps and started praying in a loud voice that the boots would fit. It took a bit of pulling and tugging, but she got them on. ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus!’ she announced to the heavens, and embraced me in a tight hug. ‘You are wonderful! Thank you, God bless you!’ she called out to me as she clambered back into the small, green Palesamobile and, waving and blowing kisses, disappeared from sight.

I stayed where I was on the steps of my big house in a good area, all bolted up and enclosed in expensive Victorian-style railings custom made to keep people out and felt a twinge of sadness. About how small and uncontested my world is. About the way I think about people who are different. About how many kind, warm, generous humans exist that I will never have the joy of knowing. It’s weird how we live. In many ways, nothing down here has changed. Now that the apartness is socio-economic it is no less insidious. 

I wish I had the courage to message Palesa and invite her around for dinner. I know our husbands would have loads in common, and I know for certain she would be somebody who would brighten up my day beyond measure. But I won’t because one doesn’t, and eventually I will forget about her and our heart-warming interaction. That evening I got a message thanking me again, and the next day a third message with a photograph of her standing in her office, smiling from here to heaven, rocking those sexy boots.

 

Tsek, Tsotsi!

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 11.50.30 AM
Did you hear the one about the president who wouldn’t resign?

 

Isn’t it so typical of how things work down here: one minute it’s business as usual and you’re going to bed gatvol because President Zuma is hanging on with the tenacity of a gazonkelnut and whyfor must he resign just because eleventy zillion South Africans are up to here, and next thing it’s morning and you’ve barely bitten into your Bovril toast when you see there’s a party happening on Facebook that you didn’t even know about. And then Cyril is hugging the rabbi’s wife on Sea Point promenade and everyone’s high-fiving everyone at the Spar and the people who’ve just emigrated to Australia are feeling deeply conflicted.

Shem. I’m not going to tell them I told you so because they’re sad enough as it is. And then, the cherry on the cake, there’s the pilot refusing to fly that skelm Atul Gupta out of Lanseria airport and he’s sitting lekker sipping his Vida E, flipping through the in flight magazine wondering why it’s taking so long to take off and did they lose the keys to the plane, only the truth of the matter is he’s going nowhere but onto a poster put up by the Hawks saying Fugitive on the Run. As we speak he’s hiding in his cousin’s cupboard in Lenasia because Jacob is too busy trying to keep Duduzane out of Pollsmoor to answer him on WhatsApp. Yoh, how things can change in a day.

And yet you still have the lady at the gym putting on lotion and watching the news in the changing room at 10am finding something negative to say about South Africa. And I want to take her straightening iron out of her bag and actually just bliksem her with it because yussus, people – this is a good day for us! Can you not see how astonishingly well things have turned out? It’s better than we dared even to dream. Also, by the way, you’re at gym at 10 in the morning, and not because you’re cleaning the toilets. How about a bit of perspective for the amazingness of your life?

A classic South African moment happened a few weeks ago at that same gym when we asked one of the managers if they no longer get the paper delivered in the morning. Because it’s quite nice to distract yourself from the fact you’re drinking coffee instead of doing interval training. And he shrugged apologetically and said, ‘No, I’m afraid not. It’s the government.’ Now, the government can be blamed for many things. Many. But, hard as I’ve thought this through, the fact that there isn’t a Cape Argus for the white people to read while they eat their eggs and avo I cannot trace back to the inefficiency of the ANC. But that’s the manager’s story and he’s sticking to it.

So here’s a thought. Since things are looking pretty peachy for us right now (we even have Thuli back on neighbourhood watch), and – try as some people may – it’s quite hard to put a negative spin on recent political events in South Africa, let’s do a little personal inventory on ourselves and what really motivates the gratuitous grumbling about our country. It doesn’t take a psych degree to work out that much of what we attribute to our environment is a projection of what’s happening in our inner lives. Except honestly assessing why you’re depressed is a lot harder than posting vitriol on social media.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the knee-jerk way many of us respond when things aren’t going our way. When someone in government does something kak, you hear about it all day. When someone in government does something good, it’s crickets and we post pics of our kids. How about we try to be more fair and a little more balanced in the way we assess what’s going on politically? Jacob Zuma’s governance was a bad time for us. Hendrik Verwoerd’s governance was worse. But we survived both – the former, due in no small part to our robust and extremely hard-working democracy.

We didn’t sit back and wait for things to change, we took to the streets and protested. Many people with placards were scorned and ridiculed for being white and entitled; they showed up anyway. There was more uniformity, more mutual respect and affection at those events than I’ve ever seen anywhere before. Nobody gave a hoot what anybody else looked like or where they came from. We were South Africans – mixed, mad, purposeful, indignant. How dare they try and steal our country from us again? How dare they let us down now after all we have been through as a nation?

Our courts, our journalists, our opposition parties, our whole judicial system worked hard and determinedly to fight the corruption and to prevent the state capture that would have been a tragic ending to a beautiful beginning. We did it. He’s gone. But we can’t rest on our laurels because there is still much to be done. It’s early days. Let’s be positive and generous in the thoughts and intentions we send out into the world. Let’s not wait for this magical government to bring the Argus to the gym. There is only so much one man can do. Now we have seen our strength and exercised our might. Let’s use it in this new era: make friends with ones who are different. Greet people in their own language. Be kind, generous, tolerant, and in your own capacity do whatever you can to make South Africa the kind of place where you want to live.

Right now our house is a building site because we are lucky enough to be able to afford to renovate. There’s a Zulu and a porta loo on our stoep and it’s noisy as hell all day. What the builders don’t know is that we hear almost everything they say. They speak mostly Kaaps. It’s hot as hades up there in the roof and they’re covered in dust and grime. They work really, really hard. Also, they tease each other and laugh a lot. Sometimes I stop and just listen. What they say I can’t even begin to translate into English, but it’s fricking hilarious. The banging drives me mad but the banter makes my day. And I guess that’s a bit of a metaphor for South Africa. Cheers to that, and to us, and to watching SONA this evening with pride instead of dismay. It’s been an extraordinary few days.