When I moved back to South Africa after spending nearly a decade in northern Europe, it was with no small measure of shock that I realized I had forgotten how to live in this country. It wasn’t just the small things like not knowing where to buy stuff or at what age kids here go to school – it was a culture shock which took me entirely by surprise, having longed and yearned for home during most of my time away. In retrospect, what happened was that I lost my tough outer shell.
During those years of living in a place where egalitarianism is the norm; where nobody goes hungry and almost everybody had a roof over their heads, the thick skin you need to live in South Africa had grown soft. I couldn’t cope with the children begging at the traffic lights and the thin women with babies who knocked on the front door asking for food. Once, in Pick n Pay, I found myself behind a woman with two things in her basket – pilchards and rice. That was obviously all she could afford. Yet, she continued to walk up and down the aisles as if, magically, the contents of her wallet would increase the longer she hung around. I had to leave the shop; I couldn’t bear it.
I gave to everyone who asked me. In those early months I parted with vast sums of money. One morning I gave an old man nearly blind with cataracts R500 so that he wouldn’t be evicted from the room he shared with his son. I would stand behind people in queues and pay for all their groceries. I was in despair, and utterly outraged by the wealth surrounding the poverty and the collective blindness everyone down here seemed to practice. I shook my head at the people waving the children away from their 4X4s – as no doubt my friends shook their heads at me, wondering how I was ever going to survive living back in this country.
Then, slowly, I became immunized like everybody else. I started being more selective about who I helped; stopped taking every sob story at face value. One day a man whose groceries I was paying for asked me to hang on a second and dashed off for five minutes, coming back with wine, salmon pate and imported crackers. I hired somebody to clean and look after the girls. Before I knew it I was attending meetings with her grandson’s school principal; buying stationary for her cousin’s child, bankrolling the entire family and – by the way – being taken for the biggest ride. Slowly I started to realise I was behaving like a total imbecile, and if I couldn’t come to grips with my white guilt and accept South Africa for what it was I would be better off living in Perth.
Eventually, I stopped giving to people on the street. I guess I got tired of it – the constant, relentless need and the tales of woe coming at me each time I walked out my front door. And the gaping black hole no amount of R5 coins will ever fill. At first I was horrified by this callous version of myself. Now I’ve made peace with her. There is no other way. Random acts of kindness just don’t work down here. You need to get over yourself and understand where you’re living. The complexity of our socio-political context is impenetrable to foreigners, and you have to have lived here a long time to get it. It’s everything and nothing to do with race and colour. It’s the wild west where dog eats dog and survival of the fittest is the ethos you have to practice, even while you’re acutely aware of the injustices. It’s brutal, and you have no choice but to be as tough as nails.
You make a decision about how you’re going to give, whether of your time or your money, and then you draw the line. You pay people well, care about their families and behave like a decent human being, but you institute boundaries and you stick to them. And, paradoxically, South Africa remains the warmest, friendliest (dare I say ‘happiest’?) country I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to many. I live in a road with a couple of B&Bs. I’m regularly accosted by tourists who want to tell me how much they love my country and its people – how they’ve never encountered such warmth and generosity of spirit and that they can’t wait to come back. And I have to agree – it’s a crazy place, but it’s beautiful and vibrant and alive. It buzzes with a kind of energy that makes me feel like I can do anything I choose. And what I probably love most of all is the freedom and the open-endedness of life down here; there is something which makes the human spirit sing. A sort of wonder at being alive which Europe – for all its fabulous old buildings – lacks. For reasons I can’t really qualify, it seems to fill people with joy.
So, what I’ve learnt over the past four years is that I can’t save Africa and, frankly, I’ve started to wonder whether it needs my saving. A while back I got a whatsapp from a friend who receives daily words of wisdom and counsel from a sage by the name of Abraham, and it was a message that challenged the way I see this country. It said, what if there is nothing ‘wrong’ with South Africa? What if it simply operates by a different set of standards and norms? What if the ‘problems’ are about us and our perceptions and that there is nothing, in fact, to fix?
Of course I interpret this in my personal paradigm that nothing is random and that this earth realm is the school of hard knocks. We come here for a certain type of experience, and we choose our setting accordingly. No, this doesn’t exempt us from doing the right thing and giving whatever we can, but it does serve as a type of reminder not to take too much to heart; to step back a bit and observe rather than taking everything on as a personal battle. Practice love. Be a good human being. But, it is what it is. It was the a-ha moment I’d been needing all along. You don’t always have to understand things to love them. Sometimes it’s the complexity and the mystery that create the firmest grip on our hearts. We all have different ways of interpreting our truth, but I felt like I ‘got’ it at last. And what a relief to lay down my panga.