I don’t know about anyone else, but I would not know how to write 41 quadrillion in numerals if my life depended on it. Even writing it like this in letters causes the demise of several neurons. You would have to put two laptops side by side to fit in all those noughts. If you wrote it on paper it would be even worse. How many noughts can a page take before it spontaneously bursts into flame? Probably about 41 quadrillion. You’d need a whole exam pad to write that figure down. I think I thought a quadrillion was a made up number, like when you’re telling someone how much you spent at Zara. I wasn’t even aware of the story of Tokyo Sexwale when I was headed for – yes – Zara and got a whatsapp from my best friend who is also my chief source of information on this planet. And what she told me was that the above number of monies had somehow gone missing and it was all the ANC’s fault. Only, this was so many monies. I had to read it a few times to let the number settle.
And what she said next – and she has said this before so I’m starting to believe her – is that this is the last straw and she’s leaving and going to be a maid in Sweden because being a maid in Sweden is better than living someplace where R41 quadrillion can randomly go missing. I have to say, I agree. Also, maids in Sweden are paid very well. We paid our Serbian maid more per day than I’ve ever earned in my life. Not to say she wasn’t worth every penny and is absolutely the reason we are all currently here today with our sanity more or less intact. There were many times my gratitude for her existence was a bottomless well, but the time that really stands out was the winter of the kräksjukdom (pronounced ‘krrrekshwookdom’); or in South African English, the winter vomiting disease.
This is a disease that grips all the children of Sweden at the same time, and also just when their parents’ light deprivation-induced depression is at its bleakest. That is the exact moment when the vomiting of the children begins. Not a word of a lie, it’s a thing. And, grown-ups can catch it. We have many sad and unfortunate occurrences here in South Africa, but children’s winter vomiting disease is thankfully not one of them. On that particular morning (was it morning? Was it night? There is so little sun it’s impossible to tell) I woke up feeling exceedingly vomity, but the worst was yet to come. The worst was that my two very young charges (I think they were one and three at the time) had the vomiting disease even more robustly than I did. Few things are worse when you’re vomity than having other people vomit on you. There was only one thing to do: call Menka.
Serbian Menka, who started off being our cleaning lady but was rapidly promoted to granny and best friend in the world, was already up and about and headed to her morning Swedish class (her and I went to so many Swedish classes, yet only ever communicated in sign language. I think it was a kind of rebellion). Bless her kind, kind heart, if she didn’t do an about-turn right then and there in the snow and come straight to my house where she cleaned up vomit for hours. To my dying day I will be grateful. I still visit her in Sweden in her small flat (where her entire lounge is taken up by a jumping castle for her granddaughter because she is that kind of wonderful) and we eat sataraš and spinach pie and confide in one another other in sign language.
But I digress.
I got the whatsapp from my friend just as I was walking past the Gucci store, and wouldn’t you know – right there in the window was the perfect maid’s outfit. Coiincidence? I think not. And she could probably even afford it, given her Swedish maid’s rate. If you’re going to be a maid in Sweden, you might as well be fabulous while you’re at it. Be a maid amongst maids; a Gucci maid. And then we started exchanging worrying things on whatsapp like how Zondo Commission Cyril was totally lying to that polite and patient judge (I watch those body language videos on YouTube so I know), and I started to seriously ponder the question: would I rather live amongst thieves or Swedes? I love Swedes, don’t get me wrong; I’m slightly Swedish myself, and I really prefer not to get bludgeoned in the night and have people steal so many quadrillions of rands that we have neither trains nor an airport. Well, we have an airport but there’s nowhere to park anymore and also there are no planes. But that winter. It doesn’t surprise in the least that everyone starts vomiting.
Then later that day after I’d been in a froth for hours, my husband (and other, possibly more accurate source of information) whatsapps me from Sweden where he’s waiting to get a massage and tells me to calm down, the money was fake. Fake money? Like Monopoly? How many games would it even take to rack up that kind of number? The mind boggles. But I’m happy we don’t have to emigrate anymore because there’s nowhere left after Covid, and anyway the thought of leaving forever gives me vomiting sickness for real. So I guess it’s back to business as usual.
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 one of the most African people I’ve ever met. Transplant him to Europe and he would wither and die, like a succulent in an English country garden. Send me to northern Europe permanently and I would love my look in a cashmere coat for about 11 seconds before withering and dying, too.
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.
As a mother of two I’m going to let you in on a secret closely guarded by the parents of the world: having kids is overrated, and you don’t have to do it. No matter how many women (it’s always the women) accost you at dinner parties demanding to know why your uterus remains a thing of emptiness, I will tell you unequivocally that the motive for their probing is rage around the following things: you – unlike them – look fresh and rested; you – unlike them – will not be going home to pay the babysitter after this dull dinner party but heading straight to somewhere fabulous where you’ll imbibe alcohol and have sexual relations and lastly (and this is a biggie) your vagina is intact. Nothing makes mothers madder than the idea of your intact vagina.
These things about you fill parents of the world with hateful, jealous fury. How dare you sleep in the nighttime and spend your weekends on the beach? Why aren’t you and your partner also having fights in the park at 6:45am and walking up and down the driveway frantically pushing a pram while its contents scream unrelentingly? Or trying to eat a restaurant meal holding a fractious, miniature fembot? No no no no, you look far too contented. Quick! You need to lose that contraceptive device yesterday and also be very fat and very, very tired like them. But really, here’s the thing – and I’ve done it long enough to know – in spite of what people seem hell-bent on telling you there are in fact gazillions of worthwhile ways to spend the days of your life that have nothing to do with bringing children forth into the world.
Off the top of my head I can think of 137 more interesting things than the school run, for example. If I could clock up the hours, months, probably years I’ve spent waiting for someone short in stature to finish ballet/soccer/recorder lessons I’m certain I would keel over and die of dismay. And I’m not saying I don’t like having children. I adore my girls and for me, for whatever reason, mothering was always on the agenda. But I don’t pretend it’s not a job without moments of mind-altering tediousness and that there aren’t days I want to say to my offspring, you know what? You are the two most annoying people I’ve ever met on this planet. I’m off to drink piña coladas somewhere sane like a lunatic asylum. Sayonara, midgets, and good luck working the stove.
But, unlike other job descriptions that looked good on paper, this one you can’t resign from. So instead you hire a babysitter, put on extra concealer and try to convince innocent, child-free people that they don’t know what they’re missing because safety in numbers and all. Many people genuinely love having kids and that’s cool and for (almost) every moment you go what the actual fuck under your breath there are moments that are fun and rewarding. But for those people sitting on the fence or who suspect there might be things that are better and more fun to do with their lives than being parents I say, yes! There are! Don’t believe the hype; don’t listen when they imply it’s your duty and that you’re somehow lesser of a woman/human being if you think it’ll be more interesting running a large, successful company than watching a toddler poo. Or traveling the world and living in different countries and spending your days having adventures with sexy men you don’t have to marry.
Lord knows, there are enough women out there breeding prolifically because they don’t have a choice (and, frankly, are often barking as a result). You don’t have to be one of them. You are fully, totally entitled to do something different and extraordinary with your life. And I commend singletons and couples who have the courage and insight to know parenthood is not for them. It’s not an easy choice to make, but only because the people around them make it hard. People hate it when other people make different choices. They get anxious and confused and start asking themselves questions they would rather not know the answers to. But I say, fuck everyone else and the family car they arrived in. Take your intact vagina and go conquer the world.
I have a friend who lives in Sweden. She is American, has a great job and is upbeat, kind and just really nice – someone you could ask to collect your grandma’s pension and also stop by the pharmacy on the way for incontinence pants size XL. I like her a lot. She is also sporty and lives an admirably healthy lifestyle, so it came as something of a surprise when she announced to her Facebook community that after the election, for the first time since college, she had been consuming alcohol for five days straight. Not that I would hold that against anyone, it’s just more the kind of thing I would do. But that only shows how much the world has tilted off its axis. The most stable, grounded people on the planet are needing to drink to cope with reality.
At around 9 on the morning of 11 November 2016 I had a friend call and ask if she should come over with a bottle of Pinot Grigio. It was a tempting prospect. Then another suggesting we all convene at our favourite bar at lunchtime and get straight into the vodka. And while I didn’t do either of those things, I was pretty unrestrained around the number of G&Ts I allowed myself before, during and after dinner. And it hasn’t really stopped since. As anyone who knows me knows I’m unabashedly enthusiastic about a cold glass of Chardonnay (or Chenin or Sauv Blanc if you have nothing else), but I’m not a particularly big drinker, and almost never drink alone. That was, however, before an orange madman became the leader of the free world. Since then, the staff at Ultra Liquors in Green Point have become ever more pushy about my getting an Ultra card so I can score points for the large purchases of booze I’ve been making of late.
Come 6pm (and sometimes 5:30. Okay, 5) it’s balls to the wall at our house. We pour ourselves tall glasses of whatever’s going and gaze at our sliver of ocean and proceed to get pretty blotto. And it’s jolly and, frankly, the only way we know how to deal with what has happened. Because anyone who is not a complete idiot knows it isn’t good. A lot of brilliant and insightful things have been written about Trump’s win and I don’t presume to have anything of significance to add, but I am chastened by how divisive this election has been, even personally. I generally try hard to understand other people’s views, but when it comes to supporting this man’s take on the world, I have had to take a long and unpleasant look at who I’ve been calling ‘friends’. Because through his politics runs a strain of indecency which is so intrinsic to his character it is beyond rehabilitation, and it runs counter to all the values I nurture and hold dear. I simply cannot respect anybody who supports him.
And while I have no doubt Hillary is capable of ruthless ambition and behaving every bit as unscrupulously as her male predecessors, she still inhabits the world as a woman which means she has a certain sensibility and whatever she would have done in her presidency would not have involved screwing the girls of the world over. Unfortunately we can’t say the same thing for the apricot hell beast (a description I stole from Twitter and hold dear). Yesterday I collected my daughter from soccer practice and we found ourselves behind a bakkie where a man sat holding onto some garden furniture so that it didn’t fall into the road. First I felt sorry for him – what a stupendously kak job – but when he stopped at a stop street we pulled up close and he looked straight at me and proceeded to do lewd things with his tongue. As I sat there in my car with my daughter right beside me. Not even vaguely embarrassed. And sadly, this is the world we live in, and this is the kind of behaviour Trump thinks is cool. It happens so often when you’re a girl you reach a point where you don’t even tell anyone anymore.
And I won’t go into how genuinely frightened my friends in same-sex relationships are and the immigrant thing and the Muslim thing which makes my blood boil and also makes me realise that I’ve been living in a bubble where I thought the world was an okay place and that, give or take the Middle East and Putin and Syria and Zuma, we were pretty much on the right track. But I hate that I have to look at this leering, ominous dinosaur of a creature and know that he has just been given huge amounts of power to make decisions that, one way or another, will affect every human on the planet, especially minorities like my daughters and I. It’s all just a bit barking.
Some years ago I sat at the bar (surprise, surprise) at Trump Towers in New York and the Donald himself came down and scanned the room with his small, watery eyes no doubt looking for a girl to ogle. In those days he was just a rich, hairy joke. The thought of him running for president, never mind winning, was ludicrous. His eyes fell on me and he did one of those up-and-down look things reserved for men who are so arrogant and smug it’s rendered them impervious to the feelings of those around them. I wasn’t pretty enough to hold his gaze for long, but it was enough to make me feel uncomfortable and diminished. I realise that my value, in Trump’s world, will be even more negligible than it was before. And so we sit here asking ourselves how this crazy thing could have happened. Anyhow. What’s done is done and clearly the world is not what I understood it to be. I don’t know whose fault this is, nor on what spectacular level we messed up. But I find, reaching answers to these complex and troubling questions is made easier by leaps and bounds when you’re completely schnockered. So till we can find a better solution I say, bottoms up.
As we had been looking forward to our weekend away at beautiful Schoone Oordt boutique hotel in Swellendam for weeks, and also because we are a real-life family and not a TV show, the first thing we did that happy morning was have a huge fight. Not to mention names nor blame anyone, but the fight was around the fact that one member of our family (hint: it’s a man) decided he absolutely had to go to gym before we left. In his defence, he based his insistence on the truism that when we go away anywhere, even for a day, it takes me about 7,5 hours to pack and get ready. He (rightly) reasoned that since a gym session takes roughly an hour he’d be home with 6,5 hours to throw his clothes in a rucksack and pace while the three girls in the family ran around shrieking like panicked banshees.
Only, that morning – fueled by a determination to get on the road early and a hefty dose of righteous indignation (something we women get down to a fine art) – I somehow managed to be ready quite quickly, and it was my turn to pace and simmer and still be hotly simmering when he appeared, sweatily, at the front door, pumping with endorphins and properly pleased with himself and the world. Needless to say, the reception he got wasn’t warm. And even though he took his usual 9 seconds to shower, throw on a short pant and get himself behind the wheel, the rest of the family was of a mind to be Still Be Cross and the atmosphere in the car as we took off down the road was like the coldest night ever recorded in Novo Sebirsk.
It took us all the way to the N2 outside Somerset West, with several men trying to shove straw hats and cell phone chargers at us through the window, for anyone to speak to anyone else and also that didn’t go well because the first topic raised was whether or not we were going to stop at the Wimpy for breakfast. For me, and I think most South Africans, the fact that a place serves just about the worst food anyone’s ever eaten is no reason at all not to eat there. I suppose it’s a nostalgia thing, but a road trip is just not right without a portion of factory-cut chips and that very cheap tomato sauce that comes in a squeezy bottle. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t share our enthusiasm and insists his cup of coffee should actually have coffee in it, so, we told him he could have cashew nuts in the car and that we’d see him in half an hour.
Happily for everyone, things started to improve after we’d eaten (there is something undeniably cheery about those red booths), and by the time we hit Sir Lowry’s Pass we were back to our normal selves. Also, every time I go over Sir Lowry’s Pass I remember the day, many years ago, my parents were driving home from Bonnievale and the brakes on my dad’s old Mercedes Benz failed. I imagine the fear he must have felt as he pumped the pedal and the car didn’t slow down but instead gathered momentum on that steep downward turn and the memory makes my eyes prickle because I love that man more than the world. Using the handbrake and carefully gearing down he managed to get them to the bottom safely, both shaky and white as sheets. And I’m grateful when I travel that stretch of road that they were lucky that day.
And this is how life is. One minute you can be safe in your car on a soggy Thursday, overtaking a truck and Johnny Clegg saying goodbye to December African Rain and the next moment everything can change. As we emerged from the clouds and dipped down towards Botrivier, the sun came out and lit up yellow, sheep-studded grasslands. I think only in South Africa are the ribbons of road this long and this desolate. Past the pink, flower-strewn vistas of the Tradouw Pass I remembered another thing: that the last time I traveled this road was in the back of a Volksie bus driven by the boyfriend of my oldest friend. He died of cancer less than a month ago. Road trips make you think about all kinds of things.
As we pulled into the town of Swellendam the rain had started up again. Kind people from the hotel appeared with large umbrellas which they held over our heads as we hurried to our room. That’s the kind of place Schoone Oordt is, big on attention to detail and the sorts of little touches that make everything better. The bathroom floor is heated (which really, really makes a difference), the bath salts have tiny, fragrant rose petals that make you feel like a bathing princess and while you’re having supper in front of a friendly fire some wonderful fairies sneak into your room and place hot water bottles in your bed. It was only the next morning, which opened bright and inviting, that we realised how pretty this old building actually is, its dining area opening onto a lush expanse of lawn which sweeps down to a blue and sparkling pool.
That afternoon, while the spring sun played dodgems, I found a pool lounger which offered just the right amount of shade for reading and rays for warming and was aware of a feeling of deep contentment as my husband and children enjoyed a game of hide-and-seek amongst the guava trees and I dipped in and out of a book which wasn’t good enough to hold my attention. And it was one of those moments in life where all aggravation is temporarily stalled and you can’t remember one annoying thing about the world which, for a time, has become the sound of your children laughing and clouds gathering and dissipating and an awareness that, at that exact moment in time, there is nothing you need and nowhere you would rather be.
For the next 48 hours we drank tea, took a walk, dozed, played scrabble, shared bottles of very good wine and had a hard time choosing between the delicious items on Schoone Oordt’s menu. My personal favourite was the rump, tasty and done to perfection, served with stywe pap and a smoky smoor, but the pork loin with sweet cabbage and green beans got a big thumbs up from everyone too. On our second evening we were getting hungry but weren’t quite ready to leave the fireplace or our Scrabble board (and were sipping a mighty fine bottle of red and also I was winning) so we ordered a cheese platter to share. A cheese platter is always a happy moment, but this one was a thing of rare beauty with warm, handmade biscuits and a homemade tomato relish off-setting a generous serving of some seriously delicious Overberg cheeses.
I was a bit bleak about leaving the next day – there is something deeply wonderful about arriving at the pool and within seconds being met with fluffy towels and the offer of a cocktail – but we were due in Barrydale at the Unplugged 62 music festival. Honestly, I was a little trepidatious about attending this event as camping and roughing it are not really for me, but I needn’t have worried because this was glamping at its finest – a comfy double bed with extra pillows, thick blankies to keep out the Karoo chill and – wait for this – while we were stomping in the dust some good and kind people snuck hot water bottles into our beds. This seems to be a tradition around these parts, and it’s a very good one. Also, it’s not quite what you’d expect in a campsite, but the Cherry Glamping people know a thing or two about creature comforts. They also provided bottles of water since the (a-hem) dancing builds up quite a thirst, and early next morning a kind man was up bright and early making tea and coffee and homemade rusks for whomever was in need of sustenance.
The festival turned out to be one of the nicest I’ve attended, probably because it’s smaller than the others and therefore less hectic. You know, for us older people. And the music line-up was impressive. I’d kind of expected a few local farmers with guitars, but my 12-year-old daughter’s eyes were like saucers when one of her favourite bands, Slow Jack, kicked off with their hit single, Love to Dream. It’s the first time we’ve taken our girls to a live music event and it was really fun being there with them, dancing up a storm on the haybales. The vibe was great, with everyone in the mood for letting their hair down and I remembered what I love about music festivals – how happy and chilled-out everyone is, and how many friendly, cool people exist in the world. And there something wonderful and uniquely life-affirming about dancing like lunatics under a star-studded Karoo night sky.
It was way past our usual bedtime when made our way across the dewy veld to our waiting tent, giggling like teenagers as we looked for the zip in the dark and tried not to wake our sleeping kids. The truth about this thing called life is that you discover, at some point or another, that whichever way it unfolds it is seldom the deal you expected, and being a grown-up can be harder at times than you ever imagined possible. Which is why it’s so necessary to grab hold of the moments that retain beauty and magic. None of us knows how much time we’ve been allocated on this planet. As I get older I begin to realise that the here and now is the only thing that really matters. Tomorrow it could all look very different, so we can’t take anything for granted. We must hug our children, appreciate our friends and notice the kindness and abundance that exists all around us if we choose to see it. And most of all, we must dance like lunatics as often as we possibly can.
When you’re told a coffee shop is the best coffee shop in the world and that coffee shop is not in New York or Berlin or Copenhagen but in Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, it’s normal to be a bit sceptical and to think it got that vote because they feel a bit sorry for us with our accents, but I have to say, I’ve been to coffee shops in all of those places and Truth kicks every one of their butts. It’s freaking amazing, and even though I had on my best H&M and blow dried hair I felt decidedly uncool amongst the Afros and metal and sleek, industrial finishings. The menu is as modern and chic as the interior, with things like wild mushrooms and thyme on toast with a perfectly poached egg, English breakfast with hollandaise sauce (because that sauce should actually be served with everything) and what I ordered, the organic three egg omelette with herbs and mascarpone cheese which was delicious. And the service is friendly and the people who wander in and out are interesting to look at, so if you live in Cape Town and haven’t been there, go. It’s really awesome.
The reason I chose that venue that morning is because truth has been on my mind. A while back I hosted a meeting of my discussion group, The Dialogue Thing, and as I sat there in my courtyard while the south-easter died down and a sickle moon appeared over the rooftops, listening to black and white women talk about their lives and their experiences of race and identity I felt gratitude for another opportunity to listen and talk and be heard and – for the love of God – to be acknowledging the big, fat elephant in the room called ‘race’. Because these spaces don’t present themselves in normal life. Instead, we all fok maar voort, in a mass disacknowledgement of our history and our past, and we pretend it’s not an issue anymore because 20 years have gone by, but it is an issue. It is. You can’t have lived like that for so many years – in segregated schools, on whites-only beaches, our minds warped by the twisted ideologies of our elders – and emerge unscathed and go on like nothing ever happened.
And I’m white and middle class so I can only speak from a white, middle class perspective, but if it’s hard for me sometimes to relate to black South Africans I can’t even imagine what it feels like for a black woman born in the same year I was and who was denied basically every human right and freedom I took for granted to suddenly be in white spaces and have to be cool about it and fit in and accept us as kin. I mean, it was crazy, the way we lived. Yet, somehow these conversations don’t happen. We’re expected to move forward, en masse, and worse – we’re warned not to bring up ‘the past’ because people get uncomfortable and it makes for awkward dinner party conversations. And what’s so amazing about this group of women is that they march head first into the awkward and talk about really difficult subjects. And they welcome the discomfort because they know it’s the only way we’re going to get to the other side of this thing and relate to one another as normal human beings.
And the stories that come up are always incredible. A statuesque, admirably stylishly woman who works in media told the story of her wedding, and how she had the biggest fight with her mom and aunt at the airport because their ID documents still contained their English names, Victoria and Elizabeth – the names they were given in their youth because their Xhosa names were too difficult for the white people to pronounce. And because they hadn’t changed them, their tickets were booked under the wrong names which caused a problem for airport staff. Another woman whose mom is white and British and whose dad is black and Zimbabwean told us about how she went to the bank a while back and had to endure the humiliation of the Xhosa staff chuckling and calling their friends and passing her ID book around because while she is pale-skinned and has European features, her name is a traditional Ndebele one. As she lives in Cape Town she is constantly mistaken for a Cape Coloured, though she is Zimbabwean born and bred, and is regularly told off for not speaking Afrikaans. And this is how she lives, and the kind of nonsense she has to endure on a daily basis.
Because, given our history, it’s incredibly important to us knowing what everyone’s race is. It’s how we grew up and it defined, in the most basic sense, how comfortable or crap our lives were going to be, and it’s an ingrained thing which affects all of us South Africans, irrespective of where we come from. The woman in media recounted an incident where she assumed the person she was speaking to was Xhosa like her but then they spoke with an Afrikaans accent, and how much that confused her, and she was thinking, ‘are you black? Are you coloured? What are you? I need to know!’ Because when we know we can pigeonhole people, but the impact this categorizing has and the damage it continues to do cannot be overemphasized. And she talked about how hard it is being given a good job and always having to worry about whether she was chosen on the basis of her skin colour, and how she works extra hard for fear of letting herself and her people down. And how, being the first ones of their generation to get a tertiary education, the weight of the responsibility and what their families sacrificed and now expect of them gets so cumbersome they can hardly function at times.
And then we white girls were asked about our experience of being white, and it’s not something one is often asked about because (with good reason) nobody really cares, but it was very liberating to be able to admit how tricky I find my relationships with black South Africans and how, no matter who the person is and how much we have in common I’m constantly monitoring what I say and second-guessing what she says and interpreting everything politically and furtively hoping I’m not saying anything stupid or offensive because, god knows, I have done in the past. And I hate it, and I want to not do that anymore. I want things to feel natural and good, but they don’t. And I think the only way to get beyond (if we ever even can) it is to talk our way through it. We have to keep talking and listening and having ourselves reflected back at us because we still operate from positions of great privilege and, frankly, ignorance, and we don’t even realise, I think, how much space we white folk still take up.
And it’s not about harping on the past, it’s about getting it. Getting where we’ve been, where we are now and how we can really move on instead of just pretending we have. My beautiful and deeply insightful psychologist friend drew a great analogy as the evening drew to an end. She said, it’s like having grown up with very abusive parents who have now gone away and left us to fend for ourselves and we’re expected to just get over it and act like nothing ever happened. And it’s not about laying blame because that’s counter-productive and you give your power away when you assume the victim role. Conversely, it’s about taking our power back by taking cognizance of the hectic stuff we’ve lived through in this country, and truly acknowledging it and how much scar tissue we all still carry around.
And there are no immediate solutions, and maybe things will be different in generations to come. And sometimes they’re different now. On the school run yesterday I drove past a bus stop and there was a real old school Afrikaans farmer, dressed in khaki from head to toe, with a boep and a felt hat, in animated conversation with a middle-aged black woman in heels and long, orange braids, and to anyone not from here this would be, so what? But for me, it was the little reminder I needed that, in small but significant ways, we have become a different nation. Still mad, still schizophrenic, still trying to find its feet, but also embracing new ways and discovering new truths. And this – our ability to learn and change – is what will matter in the end.
A week or so ago I was invited to join a discussion group because the topic they’d picked out for the evening was my controversial blog, TheTrouble with Maids. While every part of me wanted to hide in the cupboard rather than go forth and own my words, I also knew it would be a good (albeit uncomfortable) learning experience to show up and hear what people had to say. It’s by far the most un-PC thing I’ve written, and it’s the one I feel most conflicted about. Because, honestly, while it comes from a heart space of trying to bridge divides and decipher some of the complexity of the relationship between black and white South Africans, I do sound a bit like a whiny, privileged madam and I talk about the fact that she was stealing my perfume and loo paper and sugar without presenting the other side of the story – a big part of it being, of course, that when people are paid decent wages they don’t need to steal sugar.
And it was hard sitting there in the firing line, and afterwards I even wondered whether I should delete the blog entirely because who the hell am I, with my comfortable middle class life, to make judgements about domestic workers who live in shitholes and spend their days eking out a meager existence while the likes of me have cushy jobs and luxury cars and the time, frankly, to write blogs and attend discussion groups. And lately, honestly, I’m feeling like a bit of an arsehole and wondering whether I have the right to these opinions and to write about things like that, or whether I should shut the hell up and be happy for small mercies – like the fact that my house wasn’t torched back in 1994 and that, despite the horrors of apartheid (which we rather like to forget about) we transitioned into a democracy utterly unscathed, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. Really. Did our lives change in the slightest? Mine didn’t.
As I write this, I can hear the char mopping my kitchen floor. Later I’ll drive my eldest daughter to the beach with the aircon on high and nice Kauai smoothies while we wait the hour-and-a-half before her ballet class. She, on the other hand, will wait in queues to take a series of trains and taxies home while she hopes her children, who travel alone, will make it back in one piece. Extra-murals are out of the question. Then they’ll eat something starchy and filling because that’s what they can afford and go to bed very tired and probably pretty stressed out about how the hell they’re going to get through another month. And this is me speculating – I don’t even know the half of it. A while ago I tried to talk to her about her life, but I was met with the kind of resigned and slightly mistrustful reticence I used to get from Nosipho. She is far too polite to be outwardly hostile, but her eyes said, ‘who are you to ask me this? What do you understand about my world?’ And she is absolutely right. Until I’ve walked in her shoes I’ll never get it.
While it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, a lot of important issues came up on that discussion night – like, how intimidating we white people can be just by existing. And it’s something I’ve never considered before, but on reflection it’s so true. Sometimes I find myself assuming a familiarity with black strangers (in shops, whatever) that I wouldn’t use with white people. It’s an arrogance and a sense of entitlement our kind has gotten down to a fine art, and one which we aren’t even aware of. We also talked about how we white people (and it was largely white people night that night – usually the group is racially mixed), when faced with something incomprehensible, are afraid of looking stupid and endorsing the us-them divide and not understanding ‘black culture’, so instead of just asking the questions – (why are you late again? Why do you always come to my child’s birthday party without a gift? Why do you take ALL my fruit with you when you leave?), we put it down to an African thing. When it isn’t, actually.
The first thing my char did the other day when she arrived at work was complain about how all the other parents were late for the school meeting. Normally I would have nodded and thought, ‘well, I guess it’s an African thing.’ But, since it had just come up, I took a deep breath and said: ‘but, I always thought it was a bit of an African thing, and that nobody really minded.’ She said, ‘yes, I mind a lot. It’s very inconvenient.’ And it was such a relief being direct with her and getting a straightforward answer instead of surmising and second-guessing and pretending to understand things I don’t.
And the other pretty important thing that came up was the issue of whether we are even entitled to an opinion. For me, I have these opposing views – one is that we white folk need to stop sounding off and let other people speak for once; that, over the years we’ve written the history books, colonized everything we could and made all the rules, and it’s time we stepped back and let other people take the podium; tell their stories; use the voices that have been silenced for so long to present another side to the story of this divided country. And then there’s the part of me that thinks, I didn’t invent apartheid; I was also a victim, in a sense; why should I suffer and be silent for the rest of my days for the stupid mistakes a bunch of horrible, hoary old men made before I was born?
It’s a complicated topic, and I don’t begin to know the answer, but I do think that unless we raise these issues for discussion and listen to what others have to say and how they feel we’re never going to reach any kind of understanding of one another, or of ourselves and why we do and think the things we do. And it’s one thing keeping quiet out of respect for other opinions, and another thing keeping quiet out of inertia and ignorance and an unwillingness to engage with issues that makes us uncomfortable. Because we all like to think of ourselves as basically nice people. But, are we when daily, consciously, we turn a collective blind eye to the gross inequalities which beset this country we live in? Are we really better than those who instituted segregationist politics back in the day when the system is one we still largely accept and support?
Apartheid might not exist in our legislation, but it’s alive and well nonetheless. And while we pretend it isn’t nothing is going to change. And I’m as guilty as anyone. I haven’t made up my mind about the blog yet, but since it sparked a lot of dialogue maybe I should let it be. What I have made my mind up about is that I will attend that discussion group for as long as I am welcome because just by talking I’ve seen how much potential there is for learning, and it’s never too late to challenge yourself and change the way you think. And if you’re going to live in South Africa this stuff is really important.
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.
***Update, August 1: In response to the thousands of people who, after reading this entire post, decided to harp on one single phrase (“I’m no feminist”), I wrote this. If you want to know how I can say all the things I say here, yet still reject “feminism,” click the link and I’ll explain. Otherwise, carry on. Thanks for stopping by.
Our country dangles on the precipice of starting a third World War. We are on the verge of a completely unnecessary conflict where the United States will fight along side Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This, in another day and age, might earn the crown as the Most Controversial Story of the Week. But we’re in the year 2013, and this is America, so a young pop star’s dance moves on an MTV awards show have predictably overshadowed the prospect of global chaos and bloodshed. I wrote…
I get that there are people who don’t like Facebook, like there are people who don’t like wine and chocolate and small, furry animals. But don’t bring them to my house. Because Facebook is, frankly, one of the best things god ever invented. People will say of other people – okay, me- she’s on Facebook a LOT. Like she’s on crack cocaine a LOT, or slapping her children a LOT when what ‘she’ is actually doing a lot is interacting with the world. Yes, the world.
There is no greater source of useful information than Facebook, topping google by a prettttty long margin because while google can tell me about stuff I know nothing about, Facebook fills in the gaps of the things I do. Like that seventies song, it colours my world. An example: while I know my ex-boyfriend married a model from Estonia, the best google can do is tell me where Estonia is. Facebook, on the other hand, is the true friend that tells me her ears are quite sticky-outy. And a girl needs to know these things.
I mean, isn’t it a beautiful thing seeing the nerdy guy from high school who no girl would touch with a barge pole go on to head the plastic surgery division of a major university hospital (bet he’s laughing now), or the beautiful girl who was shitty to everyone develop thighs the size of a church door? Maybe I’m unnaturally curious about people and their lives, but it’s immensely interesting to me that someone I once worked with married a gazonkazillionaire and is on honeymoon in St Barts; my next-door-neighbour from childhood has four beautiful daughters and a guy I once kissed at a party is running an ashram in North India.
And I fail to understand how social media could possibly make us antisocial. I’m in contact with waaaaay more people than I would normally be on a daily basis. I engage with people all over the continent, from different walks of life, and the overriding sense is of our sameness; our commonalities. I don’t go on Facebook instead of going out. No-one stays home from parties to post status updates. You post a pic of your drink, and then you go and talk to real people. Maybe some people are content to interact only with the three people in their immediate vicinity; can’t be arsed to take pictures of their dinner and think all this nattering about nothing is a big old waste of time. But frankly I think they’re pretty boring.