Riding Out the Storm

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As one grey, Cape winter rolls into another and I drift further and further away from who I used to be I find myself reflecting on the madness of this South Africa and how we got from there to here. Last week we had to go to home affairs to renew a passport. But the guard, who was missing a front tooth, barred our entry through the revolving doors and pointed to a sign which says ADMIT 200 ONLY. He was deeply apologetic as he explained that since 200 people had already gone in that day he couldn’t allow us entry. Only, when you’ve lived in this country your whole life you understand that a no – especially when it’s a black person saying it to a white person – can be turned into a yes with the right amount of smiling and pleading. It’s hard denying a grovelling umlungu.

So, in we went and joined the throngs of ladies with expensive highlights and their children in private school uniforms updating documents to that they can go to Europe for the July holidays and scruffy Cape Flats mothers jiggling screaming babies and replacing stolen IDs and thin umtatomkhulus with walking sticks and shiny shoes. Since the chairs come in rows of three I couldn’t sit beside my family so instead I sat down next to a woman in her sixties with a neat fro and a handbag held securely in her lap. Perhaps the fact that I sat next to her without skipping a seat was a sign that I was amenable to chatting because she immediately began telling me two unrelated stories while I listened with that over-enthusiastic white South African expression that says, I know you are black but I don’t even see your colour. I am talking to you like you and I are no different, can you tell? Can you see how cool I am with this whole race thing?

The first story was about her big toe and how it slowly turned black and began to smell and that’s how she discovered she was diabetic. She had to have it amputated and she’s sorry she can’t wear slip slops in summer anymore. The second was about her son who attends Rondebosch High School on a scholarship and next year he’ll either go to London on a gap year or study Industrial Psychology at UCT. She leant in close and said, ‘All his friends are white! All of them. Even the one from Botswana. But he speaks fluent Sesotho, imagine that! A white boy speaking Sesotho! At the weekend they all come and sleep over in Khayelitsha. He’s so popular, my boy, they love him. The whole time I cook – they want hot breakfast, lunch, supper. Those boys never stop eating.’ And then her number got called and with a cheery wave she was gone, and for the first time I took notice of my surrounds. All the staff now are black except for one, lone white woman. She’s as wide as she is tall and probably about my age. She looks like her name could be Roelene.

Roelene will have gone to school somewhere like I did – a factory for turning impressionable young South Africans into uncritical supporters of the National Party. She – like me – will have been indoctrinated with racist propaganda, told lies about our history and become an unwitting, Die Stem-singing cog in the machine of Afrikaner nationalism. When South Africa transitioned into a democracy, Roelene would have dunked her rusk into her Ricoffy and watched as, one by one, her colleagues resigned or got retrenched from their jobs only to be replaced by smart, ambitious black men and women in crisp white shirts, neat braids and colourful manicures. This would have posed a dilemma for Roelene who – like most of us whites – had never had any dealings with black people who weren’t pruning the hedge or mopping the floor.

Now, she had to sit on a toilet seat still warm from somebody’s black bum; report to a competent black boss and eat at a table beside her co-workers who chatted in isiXhosa as they tucked into last night’s warmed-up stew. We human beings are so resilient and adaptable that few of us even take the time to really reflect on the weirdness of this, and the fact that in the new now none of the old rules apply. After centuries of apartness black and white South Africans were flung together like siblings who’d been adopted out to different families and were now meeting one another for the first time, familiar but at the same time utterly foreign. Now we had to live side-by-side trying to forget the past but also trying to remember it and trying, hardest of all, not to fuck everything up. There was a time I used to dread going to Home Affairs, but now it’s run so efficiently the mind boggles at how these few people with limited resources are able to process so many applications in a single day. When you arrive at 7am the queue stretches so far down Barrack Street you can’t see the end of it. The last few times I’ve been there my passport has been ready for collection within a few days.

But that day we were the last to arrive and so we were the last to leave. Finally, at 4:25pm, we were summoned into the single photo booth and then told to wait for our number at the counter to be called. Only, one by one, people stood up from their desks, put on their jerseys and headed for the door. ‘Ummm, excuse me!’ I called out to the last, departing person but closing time is 4:30pm on the dot and they were not about to miss the early train for these pushy whites. So there we stood in the gloomy, deserted waiting-room clutching our number that was never going to be called and looking at each other in anguished silence. Eventually, a bored-looking female security guard took pity and told us that if we went downstairs we might find someone to help. We did, and they did and then we drove home with the radio announcer warning of a massive cold front approaching with high seas and gale-force winds – us, to our cosy Victorian on the Atlantic Seaboard; Roelene, to her place somewhere in the northern suburbs; the ladies with their manicures to newly-built brick houses in the township. All, in our own ways, riding out the storm.

Fine, I’ll Write About the Damn Marches

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The name alone makes me want to go there every day.

Lately I’ve been much of a mehness, and I realise this whole grieving business takes its own sweet time. But there are moments and hours and even days when things feel pretty good again, and I know these times, in time, become the predominant thing before long but until that happens a memory or a song or a something can knock you for six. Yesterday and this Monday just passed I felt knocked for six, so I whatsapped my mom and said let’s have lunch at the Perseverance Tavern. The Perseverance Tavern is on Buitenkant Street and I think I read somewhere that it’s the oldest pub in South Africa, dating back to 1836 if the date on the facade is to be believed. And when you sit outside on a nice day the sun shines through the pretty, bright leaves of an ancient vine and the more Black Jack draughts you put away the more you think of the throngs of people who, over the past nearly 200 years, must have ordered a beer, like me, to dull the ache of life’s sorrows. And I cheered up somewhat, knowing I was not alone. Because what is life if not a long series of perseverances with different details. And being slightly tipsy is a very excellent way to approach this business of Monday.

But I also though of other things. On the previous Saturday I’d attended the 50th birthday lunch of a writer friend which took place under an ancient pomegranate tree in the garden of a lovely old house in Simonstown. After we’d eaten and drunk and sung and been jolly, the talk took a slightly more serious turn (as it does here in the old RSA) and somebody sitting across from me who reads my blog said, please will you write something positive about the marches? And my first thought was not a chance, are you jas because it’s all very complicated – if you’re white and say something nice about something that happened in South Africa you’re stupid and belong at Woolworths buying organic goat’s yoghurt. So, for good reason, I was hesitant to put my thoughts to paper. But then, as the afternoon wore on and I thought more about what she’d said I have to admit that something about the sneering that happened re that event and the accusations of racism and the determination of some individuals to put a negative spin on a pretty amazing and positive moment in our history made me a little more defiant than usual and even inclined to defend the white people which is something I don’t often do. Because whether it had any political impact or not, that march made a huge difference to the morale of this country.

Nobody can deny that we’ve been so much of fucked over. All of us, not just the black people (if you don’t believe me, go see the movie Johnny is Nie Dood Nie). We lived in a dictatorship where we were forced to fight for a cause we didn’t believe in and if you didn’t play nicely, you went to jail, thank you, koebaai. Now we have Zuma’s ANC making megaai and you can’t say he’s kak because then you hate black people and you can’t say he’s kiff because he so very isn’t. So someone like me who likes to say stuff finds themselves in a bit of a bind. But what I will be voor op die wa enough to say is this: that I refuse to be cynical about what that march signified. And I will not tolerate people telling me I’m crap because I chose to take to the streets with my flag and my placard and yes, Marikana and yes, Fees Must Fall. The black people are right, we should have marched then, we were slow on the uptake. It’s all that goat’s yoghurt. But I fail to understand how I’m more kak for marching than for going to Tasha’s for brunch.

And yes, we totally marched like white people because we are white people. Sorry if we didn’t march ‘right,’ but I can tell you that we marched with humility and love and tentative hope in our broken hearts. We marched holding hands with people we’d never seen before, with strangers on our shoulders, shared bottles of water, sang our little voices hoarse. There are not many moments in life we get to feel relevant. That day, my heart soared when I saw how many people had shown up. Thousands. Thousands of hearts and voices joined by a common purpose. And it happened at a moment when we really, really needed to be reminded of who we are. Not newspaper headlines, not statistics, not barbarians and colonialists and murderers. Just human beings wanting the best for our country and for each other.

A young black woman came over to me and asked if we could be in a picture holding hands. My Jewish friend ending a conversation with some Muslim ladies walking by with ‘Zuma will fall, inshallah!’ Some guys danced by shouting ‘Amandla!’ and the mixed crowd answered with ‘Awethu!’ And I know, know, know that for the most part white people live the life of Riley and black people struggle on, I’m not denying or excusing that for a second and I’ve talked about it lots in other blogs. What I want to call attention to here is that when you take the politics away and put South Africans side by side in a different kind of context it’s not racism you see among us. All day long I encounter white and black and brown people living, working, playing, interacting. We don’t have a problem with each other. I’m not sure we ever did. That’s why they invented apartheid in the first place. Our government fucked it up for us and they’re fucking it up still.

The thing is, you can choose to see hypocrisy in just about every aspect of human behaviour. We’re complicated creatures and we’re fundamentally self-centred. When stuff doesn’t feel relevant to us we give it a skip. But its an oversimplification and, frankly, ignorant to say that we don’t care about the people we live amongst. If we could wave a magic wand and eradicate the poverty and the suffering and the deep injustices of our society we’d do it in a heartbeat. I think we don’t have a clue how to go about this. But what we can do is show up in support and solidarity to the people who really get klapped when our economy goes tits up. Not us so much; the middle classes have the buffer of their relative wealth. It’s the poor people, always, who get shafted.

I’m no political analyst and I can’t begin to predict where all of this will end. But what I know for sure is that there are huge amounts of love, solidarity and goodwill among us, even given the terrible, brutal history we share. This aspect of our country is not covered by the media or mentioned by our politicians because it’s not what they want us to believe. But we need to know better and keep fighting the good fight and showing up wherever we can, whether it’s outside parliament or paying to put someone’s child through school. Which happens more than is talked about, by the way. Deep down I think we know the truth of who we are and we need to hang onto that, not be distracted by the nonsense we’re fed about each other. And when it all gets too much take ourselves to the Perseverance Tavern – or somewhere like it – and be reminded that pain is perennial and life goes on and you’re not the first person, by a long margin, to cry into your beer. Amandla awethu. We’ve survived worse and we will prevail.

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The Time I Became a Jehovah’s Witness

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I know that for some of you reading the header you’ve already decided in your minds that what I’m about to tell you is a pack of stinking lies, but I swear every word is true. And I don’t write of this event to diss anyone’s religion – I like religions (maybe not the Catholics so much); for example, I believe that I would have made a pretty fabulous Jewish wife if the Jewish boy I dated for a short, yet memorable period in my life had deemed me respectable enough to attend Friday night supper at his folks. But he didn’t, and you know that if you’re not cracking the nod for the challah you’re definitely not cracking it for the chuppah.

And I don’t even know what that was about because I would have magayered quicker than you can say shemsach (a new word I learnt from my friend Candice Cohen to describe the amount of cheese Woolworths puts on their burgers). I would have been there like a bear, buying cakes from Denise’s Delights and chopped herring from Checkers. I still go there, though, to Checkers and loiter at the Kosher counter on a Friday afternoon, pretending I’m shopping for Shabbos. I’m sad like that. And while I look back with fondness and nostalgia on that short, memorable period in my life when I nurtured the fantasy of becoming Jewish (and it was truly a fantasy because we actually only went on about two dates and argued the entire time. He’s a Capricorn, say no more) I don’t think the same thing applies to him because I heard, through the grapevine, that he ended up becoming a rabbi. Which is a pretty Capricorn thing to become, now that I think of it. They’re all bossy as hell.

I can only imagine that his dark past cavorting with a shiksa is something he doesn’t talk about much and would rather forget. (Luckily he’ll never read this because he doesn’t have the internet. That’s how rabbi-like he is). But anyway, this is not about that, though it does give you some insight into my character. So, when I was 15 I developed this enormous crush on a tall, blonde surfer boy I’ll call Troy (because I suspect, unlike my rabbi ex fiancee, he does have the internet). Only thing was, Troy was a Jehovah’s Witness, and they also have strict rules about whom you can and cannot hook up with.

In those days the movie ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ had not been made so it didn’t occur to me that his religion might just have been an excuse. I took it at face value when he told someone to tell me he could only date within the faith. So, for me it was a no-brainer. I became a Jehovah’s Witness. Admittedly, not for long enough that I got to walk around on weekday evenings knocking on people’s doors, but if Troy had said, ‘listen, babe, if you’re free Wednesday we’re hitting Westridge’ I would have out-knocked and out-pamphleted the lot of them just for the chance to hang out with him. But I don’t think they fully trusted me to spread the word right, either. This might have had something to do with the fact that at that stage of my life I put a lot of time and effort into trying to look like Madonna.

Since I only had the clothes I had and my mom wasn’t keen on dropping a bunch of money to make her teenage daughter look like a street-walker, I had to improvise. No corset? No problem, I just wore my bra over my shirt. I saw it on a music video. Also, for some bizarre reason the fashion look of the day was long johns, so I stole a pair out of my dad’s cupboard and tie-dyed them purple. These items, together with the hot pink glitter gel I used liberally to slick back the sides of my permed mullet, well… hot as I thought I was, in retrospect the look wasn’t a win.

But there I would sit, Saturday after Saturday in my Madonna outfit for two hours (two hours, friends!) while the pastor called on brother this and sister that (that’s how you address people in the Kingdom Hall) to read from the scripture or reiterate why celebrating your birthday is satanic while my eyes bored into the back of Brother Troy’s head, willing him to turn around and notice my underwear-as-outerwear. And there wasn’t even Instagram to distract you in those days, so you had to pay attention. It was really all a complete waste of time because, bar the one time we kissed in my friend’s jacuzzi (okay, I kissed him and he couldn’t get out even though he tried several times. I’m surprisingly strong for a girl), he had zero interest in me and my glitter gel.

And the reason why I’m remembering all this is because yesterday he sent me a friend request. Out of the blue. Not that I hadn’t stalked him fairly recently and seen he’s still a member of that church but has a lovely wife and family and while he looks the same and I’m sure is a delightful human being, what possessed me to feel that degree of adoration and behave like a crazy person I’ll never know. Though I’m happy to report I’m not crazy now at all. At all. Ask my husband.

5 Things I Learnt From My Dad’s Death 

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1. People Die

Even dads. With clear eyes and strong voices saying lucid, dad-like things. In retrospect, what’s really crazy is that we didn’t see it. Or saw it but refused to believe it. In truth, my dad had been dying for a long time, his chronic arteriosclerosis making walking increasingly difficult as the years went by. We saw him grow pale. We watched him get tired and lose interest in food and TV and just about everything, but he was my dad and therefore immortal. The power of denial is immense. Even when he told us, a few days before he passed, about the white feather that landed out of nowhere at his feet, we refused to listen to what he was saying and accept the inevitable – that he was old and sick and his body was finished. And because we pretend to ourselves and each other that we’re all going to live forever, when that doesn’t happen it comes as quite a shock. And I realise, as I speak to people around me, that making it all the way to 45 without having suffered a big loss makes me pretty lucky. Because people die all the time, every day, every minute. So we must love our people a lot.

2. There is No Such Thing as Death

I always kind of knew this, but the ways in which my dad has made his presence known to us and how, in the early days, he never left my mom’s side have banished my last remaining doubt, and my feeling around this whole issue is that it takes a very determined type of closed-mindedness to believe that what we see in front of us – this table, that cup of coffee – is all there is. It’s not my job to preach or judge or to convert anybody, but I can say emphatically that when people leave their bodies they do not cease to be. You hear this time and again, and I’ll say it once more for emphasis. When you look at the deceased body of a loved one it is not them you’re seeing. It might have been his face and his feet and his familiar white beard, but the body lying lifeless on that hospital bed was not Errol Hayden. The spark, the energy, the individuality that makes up the human spirit had left. This was the vessel that had housed his soul during his 77 years on earth and now it was empty and ready to be disposed of. Without question my dad was in that room that day, but he was standing beside us with his arms around us.

3. Grief is a Lonely Journey

I understood, in those first weeks, why couples who lose a child often end up divorcing. You would think grief, especially shared, would be a unifying experience which ultimately cements your bond. In reality, it is a road you walk alone. The path is different for everyone, and maybe this is why it’s impossible to explain what you’re going through and truly share it with the people who love you. Sometimes you get impatient with their well-intentioned probing. Sometimes you can’t believe the level of insensitivity. But it’s not their fault; they aren’t mind-readers. At times I would be fine and making spaghetti and then, out of nowhere, I’d be hit with the reality that I no longer had a dad and barely managing to hold it together and my husband would choose that exact second to ask if we had ice. And I’d want to say, DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW FEW FUCKS I GIVE ABOUT ICE AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME? Instead I would just cry and he’d apologise and put his arms around me and I’d apologise back and that’s the nature of this beast. For a while living is profoundly kak and nothing can make it better.

4. We Don’t Know How to Mourn

My parents are (and I speak in the present tense because my dad is more alive and well than he’s been in years) deeply spiritual but not religious people, so the idea of having a funeral in a strange church and someone who didn’t know my dad talking about him felt wrong. So we opted for cremation and a memorial of some sort. The cremation has happened but the memorial hasn’t, and I don’t really know why. Maybe we just aren’t ready. But I was made aware of the fact that having no ritual for death makes things difficult. You simply don’t know what to do, and no-one else does, either. In despair, I googled rituals of mourning in Judaism. I’ve always had Jewish envy, but now it’s really a thing. They have such beautiful, humane guidelines about what to do during this time. It’s discouraged for the mourner to leave his or her house, for example. Loved ones and members of the community are welcome to visit, but it is stressed that the mourner cannot be expected to play host and it is unthinkable that they would go out into the world and behave like nothing has happened. People bring food, they enter and leave the house quietly and pay their respects in the gentlest, most practical way possible. I found – other than a handful of dear friends who did everything right – I was having to make people feel better about my loss. I was expected to ‘get on’ with things long before I was ready. I’m still not ready. We are all different, but for me – and this holds true 6 weeks later – I want to be left alone. Don’t call me, don’t try to make arrangements, don’t ask me why I haven’t answered your messages. Just leave me under my rock.

5. The Sadness Never Ends

It is early days, but I think I can say with certainty that I’ll never ‘get over’ my dad’s death. For the rest of my life I will hear songs, taste food, see things that remind me of him and feel the deepest sadness that I’ll never see his face, hear his voice or feel his hugs again in the way one does with the humans of this earth. I know we’ll be together at some point down the line but it will be in a long time and in a different way. For now, I must adapt to the strange, new reality of not having a father. I don’t have a choice. I worry that my mom will be okay, alone for the first time in 54 years. I worry about what I’ll do when I lose her, too. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him in words. It all happened so quickly. We thought we’d be bringing him home to watch the cricket. I thought I’d have lots of time to say what I needed to say – that nothing in the past matters, that he was a wonderful man, that I felt his love even when he didn’t know how to show it to me. A while back I said all of these things to my friend Emily and she answered with four simple words that have brought me great comfort: he knew your heart. He did. Bye for now, Dad.

It’s Hard Being a Buddhist When You’ve Had Four Bottles of Tiny Aeroplane Wine

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Recently I flew to Sweden unaccompanied. I’m not a nervous flyer. In fact, by the time I’ve found my seat and am safely buckled in and people start handing out little lemon-scented serviettes is when I start relaxing because I know I am where I’m supposed to be and from here on it’s all in the capable hands of Captain van Breda. It’s the hours leading up to that part that take years off my life. I’m racked by two irrational fears: one, that somehow the backpack which is tightly fastened to my body and also the handbag containing the 34 bits of paper you apparently still need to fly anywhere will somehow cease to be and I’ll be standing in Terminal 3 with no documentation, destined to eat at McDonalds for the rest of my life like Tom Hanks.

And the other is that I’ll bide my time in a long queue and then arrive at my gate and the man who holds your boarding pass under that machine thing will say no, you can’t get on. This is not your plane. This plane flies to Cambodia. Your Cape Town home plane to your bed and your children took off 20 minutes ago from a terminal 10km away, so even if you had rollerblades you’d still be stuffed. So I walk around clutching my backpack which (as I pointed out) is quite unnecessary since it is attached to me by straps and gripping my handbag tightly to my chest while I compulsively check the TV monitor to make sure I’m really, really in the right place. Then when I find my gate I position myself inches away from another monitor showing my flight details and I remain glued to it, now and again averting my eyes to nervously accost strangers and random airport staff and ask them if this plane is, indeed, bound for my destination.

None of this is an exaggeration, you can ask my husband. So it’s a happiness when I find myself, shoes off and backpack safely stowed in the overhead locker, with nothing left to worry about but the announcements interrupting my movie and that there won’t be enough food. When I fly with my children the latter part is sorted. Both get bad motion sickness and spend the entire flight dry-heaving into a bag like that scene from Dumb and Dumber, leaving me with the chicken, beef and vegetarian pasta and all the tiny cheeses and crackers and salad dressings and it’s like an aeroplane party for one. When I fly alone I have nothing but what they give me and even when I eat all the condiments including the salt and pepper I’m still hungry.

On this particular flight I sat next to a waifish Japanese woman (is there any other kind?) who could have been 17 or 40. Like other Japanese travellers I’ve observed, she seemed to have a low opinion of Western food and (unlike me) zero interest in anything the nice Emirates ladies conjured from the happy recesses of their mobile kitchens. Instead, she took out her own box which contained an array of things chopped into microscopic morsels. These, with the help of tiny toothpick chopsticks, she dipped into a thimbleful of soy sauce and ate daintily before settling down for a snooze, leaving her hot little box of lamb Rogan Josh wastefully unattended. I eyed it greedily while licking the last, remaining grains of basmati rice from my tin-foil lid and while I wanted it desperately I knew that stealing it from under her nose would be risky and that she’d probably notice. Her bread roll, on the other hand, was another story and mere inches from my hand. Plus, I still had butter left. This theft, I figured (four bottles of aeroplane Chenin in) I could get away with. I watched her closely. Her eyes were tightly shut, her breathing even and a tiny trickle of soy-scented spit hovered at the corner of her mouth.

Eyeing my prey, and with the stealth of a ninja, I leant over three inches and quietly helped myself to the small, cold, cellophane-wrapped package. Only, my enemy move seemed to stir some latent Samurai survival instincts and instantly her eyes snapped open and she snatched her roll back and glared at me in understandable outrage. To say that I felt ashamed would be putting it mildly. She proceeded to re-organise her little tray so that the roll was as far away from me as possible while I apologised profusely and did that pray bow thing and said konichiwa several times in the most remorseful tone I could muster, but she wasn’t having any of it. To hide my deep humiliation at the whole of row 57 knowing I was nothing but a common thief I took out my phone and pretended to have a long, casual conversation even though everyone knows you can’t even do that on planes.

And I was very relieved when at last the captain announced that we were descending into Dubai airport and I could slink away and never see these people again and be left alone in my shame and the thermal pyjamas which seemed a good idea at the time but here in the desert were itchy and hot as the hinges of hell. Also, the water the red-lipped ladies neglected to bring me even though I  pressed my little bell like I had Tourettes syndrome (they probably heard I was a criminal and were warned to stay away) was becoming a thing of increasing urgency as the many plastic cups of wine I’d merrily imbued began to make themselves felt in my temples. Only you can’t drink the water in Dubai because it’s wee and what South African carries a Euro – certainly not this one – so I couldn’t even purchase a Voss to wash down my Gen-Payne.

I learnt some valuable lessons on this journey: just because the booze is free does not mean you have to turn your tray table into a mini wine bar; it’s not right to steal from people even when it feels justified in the moment; and lastly, that I need to spend less time watching My 600 Pound Life and more listening to Sogyal Rinpoche reminding me not to act like a crazy person every minute of every day.

Somebody Help Me, I Have No Heritage

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So, to celebrate National Heritage Day which happens tomorrow whatever date that is because my watch is consistently wrong, our kids get to go to school dressed in clothes which honour their heritage. Lovely in theory, let’s celebrate a thing, less lovely when it’s 7:20am and you have to leave in 3 minutes and everyone is still in their pyjamas having back-to-back panic attacks because nobody knows what the hell our heritage is. Well, we sort of do, but as white South Africans sending our 9-year-old to school dressed as a colonising rapist and plunderer feels a little wrong.

Also, being white South Africans, chances are excellent that a sizable portion of our gene pool is Khoi San and while I’m much prouder of sharing ancestry with indigenous Africans than whatever skollie relatives managed to escape the doldrums of England and Germany and survive the voyage across the Atlantic with vrot teeth and dirty underwear, and I even have a leopard skin in the cupboard (don’t ask and also don’t skel, it’s ancient and inherited) and a knobkierie which would make a nice outfit for one of the girls there’s the thing of the #blackface so that’s not even an option. And as we stood there in growing dismay I was reminded of the strangeness of being a non-African African and I realised that that is why the white people call it National Braai Day – because we don’t know what the hell else to do, but God knows we understand a marinade.

And the thing about us white people, even those like me whose relatives haven’t seen a sniff of Europe in 300 years, we have to be extremely cautious about claiming an African heritage because, as we know, this matter goes much further than what a swab of saliva might reveal. Africanness is about a lived experience, a history and a past that I will never be a part of. Worse, my kind added significantly to the kakness of black lives in South Africa which pretty much precludes me from laying claim to common ground. At the same time, the first time I put foot on British soil, late into my twenties, while the place was vaguely familiar by virtue of Kathy and Mark books from Sub A and Fawlty Towers, it was still deeply foreign and I felt no sense of belonging at all. They talk funny and still have vrot teeth.

And while I am pale and blonde and look Scandinavian, that is where the similarity ends. I lived in Sweden for a long time and loved much about it, but those were not and never will be my people. But the rainy Saturday morning I walked through the town square and encountered a group of gumboot dancers who were visiting Malmö for some or other reason… well, my husband had to hold me quite firmly by the arm to stop me from rushing over to the nearest person and flinging my arms around him. Instead I looked on quietly and cried. Because, right or wrong and shared experience or not, these were my people. And the fact that every Marc Lottering skit and every Nandos ad made me howl told me that I needed to go home. And I did. And I live here now observing the daily madnesses and sadnesses and beautifulnesses of this country.

Like, a few hours ago in front of me in the queue at Checkers was what you’d call an old school Xhosa umakhulu, a granny. Someone just like her worked in our home, invisible as a ghost. She was bent and her hands were arthritic and no question she had seen her share of suffering in this lifetime. She was buying two small kerosene lamps, probably to save on the cost of electricity. I was buying a range of overpriced things from the kosher deli because it’s Friday and I can’t be bothered to cook. Just before that I’d been for a wax. I’ve become quite friendly with the woman who keeps my legs smooth. She is recently married and they are trying for a baby. She said, ‘The only thing is, my husband is dark-skinned and looks very black, whereas I’m nice and light. I really don’t want my children to get his dark skin.’

I thought about all of this as I drove home. So many layers of wrong, so much history behind it. But still I want to think that the intensity with which I love this country and how home-home-home it is and will always be for me means I’m not just a visitor and a coloniser. Even though I have no idea what to do tomorrow to celebrate my history but braai. Happy Heritage Day, everyone. We’ve come a long way and we have a long, long way to go.

On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

south africa flag

Yoh, masekinders – even the most patriotic and loved-up among us would have a hard time denying that living in this country can be a bit like living with an abusive parent; you know, those really bemal ones you see in Eminem videos where the children hide in cupboards and then turn out a bit funny. And when you mention the word apartheid to the white people and hear what they say back you realise they have definitely been living in a cupboard for most of their lives. A huge one. More like a walk-in closet with a chandelier and vending machines and a cocktail bar so they’ve never had any reason to step out of it.

And all of us, even the ones who do come out of our metaphorical walk-in closets now and again and go to Shoprite to remind ourselves that we are not, in fact, living in San Fransisco, have turned out a bit funny. And you can’t blame us. It’s mad here. One minute you’re sitting at the Grand on the Beach having a lovely pomegranate daiquiri and some tuna ceviche because #paleo and wondering if that jacket will still be at the Waterfront tomorrow, and next you’ve got a rock coming through your windscreen because somebody is properly annoyed at having to spend another winter in a corrugated iron box and there goes your Woollies handbag and Marc Jacobs sunglasses and your iPhone that still has a picture of your boobs in black and white because #art.

No wonder we’re all bedondered, and that when we hear of another person emigrating to Queensland it makes us reach for the Alzam. Because, what do they know that we don’t? Are we going to be dead in our beds by next Thursday? Sometimes I have delusional episodes where I think to myself, but Europe’s not that grey, and California does look quite nice on Facebook. I have these episodes especially when I read letters to Max du Preez from President Zuma’s son calling him a ‘lier’. At those times I even manage to convince myself that living in Europe was fun, which shows you how hysterical one can get.

But then I pour myself a stiff (Inveroche) gin and come to my senses. Somewhat. As much as one who is a South African is capable of coming to their senses. And I have thoughts like this: nothing really matters, and even the things that do matter don’t matter all that much. And: life is, after all, less a complete thing than a series of moments held together in sequence, so the ‘bigger picture’ must remain remote and always a bit more conceptual than real, if you get my meaning. And for the Queensland situation, I have to say that my moments in South Africa – even given the odd rock episode – are moments that feel more like real life than the ones I’ve spent in other parts of the world. There is more humanity, more connectedness, more something that – even in my darkest hours of uncertainty and fear for the future – won’t allow itself to be ignored.

So many examples scattered over the days and the years, but two that spring to mind as I write this: finding myself at the end of my grocery shop (at Shoprite) with four bags and two hands, and the woman who packed my stuff automatically picking up two of my packets and saying she’ll carry them for me. She has no idea where my car is and doesn’t ask. I could have parked in Roggebaai for all she knows. All she sees is that I need help and that she can provide it. My car battery dying while I’m on the school run and my husband is overseas. Managing to get us all to the service station and telling the mechanic what had happened and that I was grateful to have made it. And him, without thinking, writing his cell phone number down for me and telling me if I ever get stuck again to give him a call, no problem. And I have not a moment’s doubt in my mind that he meant it. I know for sure that these things don’t happen everywhere on the planet.

One day a week I’ve been teaching at a university for bright kids who didn’t get bursaries. I don’t know how to say this without lapsing into cliché, but they’re great people, and the best antidote ever when I’m feeling suicidal after reading the paper is to go to my classroom and hang out with them. Just talk to them, hear what they think, listen to their views. Some of them are poor as hell but they’re switched-on and sharp and determined to change their worlds. And then I drive home in my nice car and think, if they can be positive, what excuse do I have? And I consider the fact that maybe the biggest challenge of all about living in South Africa is accepting the ambiguity; the fact that you’re never going to know for sure what the future, or even tomorrow, holds. This country has been on the verge of disaster for 400 years, if not more, but somehow we still manage to pop a Kaapse Vonkel and get on with life.

It would be nice to be able to navigate the world without the constant fear of that snotklap coming out of nowhere and taking you down just when you least expected it. But that’s not the deal here, and you can’t have everything. Here, you live on your toes. You bop and weave and skei for the gangster and keep your windows locked and tell the car guard he’s getting fuckall because he wasn’t here when you parked and the petrol attendant greets you like you’re his long-lost best friend and you donate your savings to your cleaner’s child so she can go to tech. Then you crap on the guy trying to mug you because does he even actually know how much you just spent on your sushi dinner and he says sorry and slinks away (true story). None of it makes sense; none of it ever will. It’s not America or Australia because it’s better and madder and richer. It’s real and broken and deluded and the only place I’ll ever call home.

We’ve been living back in South Africa for seven years now. In that time I’ve lost a measure of naiveté, gone mad with frustration, gained hope in humankind and felt more warmth and love than I know how to quantify. I have never, for a second, looked back; just been affirmed that we made the right choice. Maybe the harsh circumstances with which life presents itself here brings out the kindness in people, but there is something inside me that opens up. It makes me want to be nicer and  more switched on to the world around me. It elicits something gentle and good which I didn’t find in myself much when I lived overseas and never had to be anything but white and middle class. It’s hard to explain, but there is a part of me that becomes more of who I am here amidst the craziness of this struggling country. Unforgivably sentimental, but also true and real.

At my local Spar I’m regularly assisted by a cashier called Moreblessings. Her name is engraved on a piece of plastic pinned to her lapel. It makes me happy every time I see it, maybe because it sums up what I feel about life in SA. It will never follow the rules of logic. It will always feel wild and slightly out of control, but also beautiful and authentic and extraordinary and free. Like life is supposed to be. And I walk back to my car thinking, where else in the world are you going to find a cashier called Moreblessings? Nowhere, folks. Just, nowhere. And I thank my lucky stars.