I wasn’t going to write about Madiba

I wasn’t going to write about Madiba because, really, it has all been said, and in cleverer, more eloquent ways than I know how, but I was so moved – no, moved doesn’t even describe it – by the feeling at last night’s Mandela memorial at the Green Point Stadium that today I can’t think of anything else. So, I’m going to keep it short and not overly sentimental (if that’s possible for me) and just say this: it is in times of stress that a person’s true character emerges, and over the past week, as we have reeled in shock, felt blown open by grief and mourned, I think, in a more personal capacity than even we expected to do – I mean, it’s not like we actually knew the man – it has been through the pain and the sadness and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen now that the true character of our country has emerged. And in the wake of this loss, what we really are has been revealed to us in a way that is quite astonishing.

Speaking personally, I have been a little jaded of late. Nkandla and kids not getting text books for a year will do that to you. I love this country more than the sky, but there have been moments when I’ve watched our president in action and thought, yussus, guys. We’re up shit creek without a paddle here. And then Mandela died, and the way this country responded has made me realise how much unbelievable goodwill is out there for the taking; how much love, hope, acceptance and respect exists amongst our people, and how minor and insignificant our differences are. It was when a local radio station played Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika on the morning after we learned of Tata’s death and people, on their commute, pulled their cars over to the side of the road, got out and stood with their hands on their hearts. It was the picture of a young white South African man outside Mandela’s house holding an old black woman in a tight embrace as she wept for our leader. It was the woman in a domestic worker’s uniform and the old lady in a mad fur coat standing side by side on the pavement with their fingers interlaced like old lovers.

It was Helen Zille taking the podium last night and belting out Xhosa struggle songs in the strong, brave, unwavering voice of the warrior that she is; Johnny Clegg delivering an impassioned speech in Zulu before singing the song he wrote for Mandela; the black tenors singing in Afrikaans, and Freshlyground doing a spine-chilling version of Bright Blue’s ‘Weeping.’ But it wasn’t just that. It was the feeling in the air. Sitting in the stadium, I kept looking around and behind me because I was so mesmerized by the sense of love and unity that abounded in that place. Whenever you caught somebody’s eye a smile of solidarity was exchanged. We danced together and we sang together, and I’ve never known such a sense of being one people. Some young black guys laid a South African flag on the floor, and they danced around it, having a celebration of their own. A growing group of toyi-toyiing, flag and poster-wielders danced around the inside of the stadium – first this way, then that way. A white girl holding a huge flag ran to join them lest she miss out on one second of the fun.

A mottled sky began to turn pastel pink, and for about 10 seconds the clouds around the moon made a face. A few evening stars came out, and the air was soft and warm. Our girls started getting sleepy but we didn’t want to leave. There was some kind of magic in the air. As we finally made our way out of the stadium to the sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo starting their set I kept looking behind me, wanting to capture it all; wanting to put it in a bottle so that I could have it, always. And I will, in a way. Whatever happens to us in the future, that evening will always be stored somewhere in my heart. Because that – that love – is what South Africa really is.

The song that finally made me do the ugly cry. RIP, our Tata Mandela.

Steal His Photograph!

You know you have your finger on the pulse of the city not at all when it takes a Danish friend who has been in town for all of five minutes to tell you about one of the coolest endeavours Cape Town has ever been involved with. Creative Mornings (http://creativemornings.com) is part of a programme happening across the globe where a bunch of interesting cities from Berlin to Melbourne to San Francisco host a morning talk on the same day, in the same time slot covering a range of design/innovation/art/living in the world-related topics.

Last month’s theme, for example, was bravery, and the speaker was a young guy who decided to raise money by travelling alone through the Amazon jungle and ended up getting shot and surviving through the kindness of strangers. While not too many of us will kayak through a jungle, the point of the talk was human efficacy – how we must remember to be mindful; to ask questions; to think for ourselves; to say no when we don’t agree with what we’re being told.

Because bravery and courage are resources we need every day in a world which can be pretty hostile and more than a little bit scary. And, we tend to forget that one human being can, in fact, make a pretty big difference if we put our minds to it. It was a cool talk, and it’s especially applicable to anyone who has decided to take a path slightly less travelled, and use their skills and gifts and creativity to forge their own way in the world. Which isn’t always easy.

After the talk a bunch of us went up the road to a coffee shop in Rose Street, including a Finnish guy called Lukas Renlund who is totally going out on a limb by doing something incredibly interesting with social media. Lukas is a very successful fashion photographer (though that title doesn’t do his art justice) in Copenhagen who wanted to find ways of getting his work noticed by a wider audience. So, he decided to start a project called ‘Steal My Photograph’ where he travels to cities like London and Barcelona and encourages people to literally steal his art in exchange for the person in question taking a pic of where the artwork is hanging in their homes and posting it on his Facebook page.

And while it might seem mad – giving art away – this is how social media has changed the way we think, act and market ourselves. It’s not about thinking out of the box – there is simply no box anymore. Anyway, his work is amazing, and I loved the energy and enthusiasm with which he approaches his craft – and life. The world is wide open and, particularly here where the creative and entrepreneurial spirit is so strong, anything is possible.

It was really cool to hear all these Scandinavians raving about how innovative South Africans are; how cutting-edge our design is and how impressed they are by the way we think. Who knew? If you’re in town and you can, get to Creative Mornings. It’s a very worthwhile way of spending a few hours on a Friday. You’ll learn stuff, be inspired and are sure to make at least one interesting connection over coffee afterwards. Here are the videos Lukas made of ‘Steal My Photograph’ in Barcelona and Copenhagen. He has the good sense to be staying in Cape Town for a while. Check out his Facebook page for info on how to steal his photograph: https://www.facebook.com/Lukas.Renlund.Photographer

A Moment

The first time I saw him he was standing on Jammie steps with his back to me, broad against the sunlight. He was dressed like Jim Morrisson in a white pirate shirt and a series of leather necklaces. He laughed, and shook out his hair – lustrous long, brown curls that fell well past his angular shoulders. He was rangy in the way only 22-year-old men can be, and it took me some time before I realised he was something of a legend on that campus. He hung out with a posse of impossibly beautiful black girls. Rich, skinny girls with flawless skin and expensive sneakers and straight, white teeth. I’d watch him with them – the easy way they touched him like he wasn’t Jesus, just some guy studying anthropology.

I found out his name was Ben, and that he was foreign and a member of the Mountain Club. And someone told me where he lived and after a while I got a vague sense of his routines so that I knew, more or less, when he’d come sauntering by in his faded jeans and 6 foot 2-ness. And then he’d be gone again, somewhere else, and I was not cool at all nor pretty enough to compensate for my lack of street cred and there was no reason in the world why a guy like him would ever even think of a girl like me. And I didn’t question the order of the world for a second. Even though it seemed like that same order was about to change in a big way. Because, all around us, things were starting to give. In the words of Chinua Achebe, the centre could no longer hold; things were beginning to fall apart.

Sitting in my psychology class one morning beside an Indian girl who wore a different pair of Levis every day (you couldn’t buy them in South Africa due to sanctions against us so you had to go to London or send a friend) and behind a black guy in his thirties who worked the night shift as a petrol attendant and came straight to class in the morning, still wearing his uniform, suddenly we heard a noise and loud voices coming closer. My lecturer stopped lecturing and listened, looking worried. Then, without saying a word, went over to the door of the lecture hall, closed it and locked it.

We all sat very still. The noise increased – it was chanting, and things were being broken. It was the early nineties and the country, so long in apartheid’s stranglehold, was starting to break itself free. A crowd of people appeared. They held pangas and they danced. They smashed windows and kicked in doors. They set parked cars alight. We watched them out the window. Nobody spoke. The riot passed, and the noise died down. Still we waited. Silence. The door was unlocked, and we packed up our notebooks and left the building, the affected boredom we normally took such joy in practicing replaced by a sense of fearful anticipation. We walked past the rows of police vehicles, glancing nervously at the smouldering fires. A policeman waved us along, muttering under his breath.

Everything was happening, yet nothing was happening. We sat up late at night writing overdue papers and lived on popcorn and toast. I struggled to pass Stats. I flew through my English exams. I lugged The Riverside Chaucer up and down steep hills, found out I was a feminist and used the word ‘existential’ as often as I could. It was Cape Town, it was summer and there were parties to go to. And then, one night, there he was. It was a social at the Baxter, and we arrived late after most people had already left. The guy I was with knew him, and before I could even gather myself, he was introducing us and Ben was shaking my hand and smiling and saying hello.

And then, as if on cue, the opening bars of one of my all-time favourite songs, Juluka’s December African Rain started playing. And even then it was an old song, but there is some kind of magic in that music – the drums and the deep voices that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself, and how this Jewish boy from Joburg loved Zulus so much he became one, and back in those days, that was quite a thing. And by doing that, making that stand, he freed us more than we understood at the time. It was almost like everything we had not been allowed to love about Africa was being given back to us. Through his music we became impis; we were warriors; we were children of the land, united against a system so barbaric it made us sick to our stomachs. We were the new generation, and freedom was on its way.

I smiled at him and he smiled at me and we started dancing, me, my friends, the beautiful black girls and him. And then the party was over, so we left to go somewhere else. He got in the front seat of the car and I sat in the back, behind him, my mind reeling at his proximity to me, that he was really right here in the flesh, so impossibly close. And then, as we sped through the dark city streets, young people looking to have fun, the impossible happened. I felt his hand reach behind the seat and look for mine, find it, and enclose it in his long, brown fingers.

And I was so young and naive and taken aback by this gesture, what did I do? I giggled and pulled my hand away. I pulled my hand away. And then I sat in the darkness of the car feeling the heat creep up into my face; thinking, you idiot! You idiot! What did you do that for? And I prayed to the god of stupid young girls that he would just give me second chance. Just reach for my hand again. This time, I promise I won’t pull away. Because I have been in love with you for three years and never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine you’d even give me the time of day. And I didn’t mean it, I didn’t! I was just taken by surprise. And as we drove on and the seconds ticked by, he sat very still, looking ahead of him – nobody else in the car even aware of this monumental thing that had just failed to happen. And with every streetlight we passed I knew with increasing certainly that I had missed my moment.

We never spoke again after that night. He’d give me a vague hello when we passed each other in the halls, and then I saw him less and less as he moved to another compass. His flat used to be on Rondebosch Main Road, just as you came off the freeway, its big windows facing the flyover. I drive past it once in a while when I’m going that way and I still think of him and that one night and how he’ll never know.