Ma, Please Don’t Make Me Go to AfrikaBurn

africa burn pic

I am of the firm and growing conviction that the world is divided into two distinct types of people: those who Burn and those who don’t. And it’s with no small measure of regret that I have to place myself, without question, into the latter group. While there are times when, after enough wine, I get momentarily bamboozled by the enthusiastic superlatives Burners throw out to convince me of how much I’m missing, I think, well, maybe I could do this… maybe I should just give it a try, the second I open my eyes the following morning I know for a fact the very notion is tomfoolery of the most delusional kind.

You see, while I nurture a self-image of being cool and chilled and even a little bit of a hippie, the truth is, over and above some nice wedges and a peasant top or two, I’m probably the least chilled person you’ll ever meet in your life. My super not-chilled-ness is somewhat disguised by my warm, over-share-y personality. But, dig a little deeper by putting me in a lift which looks like it might stop between floors, wake me up in the middle of the night for no good reason or give me bad Wifi when I have low blood sugar and you’ll see the truth emerge.

It’s not that I don’t get the appeal of AfrikaBurn. Art is great, and art installations in the middle of the desert are greater, still. Also, drugs are fun. And drugs, when everyone around you is dressed in sequins and has flashing lights attached to their heads and all the world is a disco, must be the biggest fun ever. The trouble is, morning. Hungover mornings wrapped in your own duvet where you can reach for the Ibuprofen, swallow it with water from a tap, take a long, hot shower and eat bacon on the couch all day are bad enough.

But waking up on stones with dust matting your eyelashes, a stinking long-drop seven kilometers away, wet wipes your only grooming tools and nothing to eat but Chakalaka… The thought alone makes me shudder. How? How do you people do it? When the first thing you see as you venture out your tent of death and squint at the unkind position of the bright sun is a naked couple on a tandem bicycle waving wands and looking happy and fabulous? How do you not crawl out and slap them senseless? How, with a pounding head and a mouth that’s drier than the Tankwa terrain, do you gather yourself sufficiently to get back into your sequined bra and face all that madness?

Do you swallow magic mushrooms with vodka to anaesthetize yourself enough to cope, and if so, isn’t that just a lot of hard work? Wouldn’t it be much easier to go to the National Gallery in the afternoon and then on to Galaxy for a dance? I’m sure nobody would protest if you wore crotchless panties and insisted on handing out free things. That way you could have a nice Banting salad beforehand and be happily tucked into your clean, quiet bed by 2am (or 11, if you’re me).

See, I wasn’t joking when I said I was a Mother Grundy. And yet, so many people love it and take months preparing for it and never want to leave, so clearly there are some important parts I’m just not getting. And I know, I’ll be inundated with comments about the community spirit and how everyone shares and how awesome the installations are… ja ja. But, wet wipes. And the small issue which seems to bother nobody but me of getting no sleep at all for the duration of your stay because apparently the music never stops ever and you can never get far enough away for it to be quiet. To me, it just sounds like so much torture and suffering.

Maybe one day the FOMO will get bad enough that I’ll cough up for a helicopter which can deliver me in my ball gown and overnight bag and I’ll have meaningful conversations with strangers and ride fire-spewing rhinos and dance till the sun comes up and then, just as my hair starts getting unmanageable, pick me up and whisk me away before I have time to get grumpy. I hope so. Because it really looks like something you want to experience once in your life.

A Tale of Two Pretties

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Besties.

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of hanging out with these two extremely glamorous 9-year-olds who sit next to each other at school. They skinny-dipped, assured me that boys are stupid and re-applied their red lipstick with a dedication that would impress Dita Von Teese. But there was something poignant for me as I half-listened to their chatter and the casual way they argued, made up, continued playing. It was so effortless and natural the way they interacted with one another, untainted by the heavy pall of South African history which hangs over my own dealings with people of colour – the way I am conscious of everything I say and do, and my tendency to overcompensate because of way I grew up as a child of apartheid.

And I wondered how long it could continue, this neutral space they inhabit with each other. Because surely it is just a matter of time (if she hasn’t already) that the child on the left will begin to notice that most of the children in her class and her teachers and their doctor and the lady on the billboard are light-skinned, while the security guard and the cleaner and the assistant teacher are dark, like her; that the people who drive the luxury cars look like the girl on the right, while the people in buses and taxis look like her mom and dad. And maybe she’ll start to wonder – like my Facebook friend’s adoptive black daughter did – whether people who look like she does can also own nice cars and live in big houses or whether that privilege is reserved for white people. Because that is certainly how it appears.

The little girl on the right comes from a dual-language household, English and Danish. So does the little girl on the left. Her home languages are English and isiXhosa. But you won’t find people commenting on the blonde child’s enunciation; it’s a given that she’ll speak ‘good English’. For the one on the left, however, she will regularly receive compliments on how ‘well’ she speaks – and the implication, of course, is ‘for a black child.’ The one on the left lives by the sea in a more affluent suburb than the one on the right. Yet, she’ll have people quizzing her on where she comes from; what her parents do, and whether it’s her ‘first time on the beach.’ She’ll be patronised, talked about as if she’s not there and have strangers randomly touching her hair. And it’s hard to imagine that the relentlessness of this othering is not already making an impact; making her question her identity, her belonging, her worth in a society which – if we are to be honest – values all things white and disparages all things black.

In our brief conversation she confessed that a (blonde, popular) little girl in her class had deliberately trampled on her hand and thrown her sandwiches on the floor because they were ‘disgusting.’ Maybe this wasn’t a racial thing, but… it probably was. While the child on the right will benefit from the complex tiers of white privilege, her darker friend will be forced to fight many battles and clear many (often invisible) obstacles if she is to succeed in life. And it is inevitable that at times this bright-eyed, smart and lovely little girl creature is going to be made to feel not good enough for the world. And it makes me feel weary and powerless and sad.

When her parents showed up to collect her she gave me a big hug and thanked me politely for inviting her to come and play. And I have to consider the fact that maybe I’m just as bad as the white people I criticise because I can’t help feeling overjoyed that my kids have dark-skinned friends. That they are my proof that I did okay as a parent and managed not to pollute my children with the crazy things I was taught to believe when I was young and impressionable. My wish is that, of the white people consistently saying stupid things to black people, the ones I’ve raised will not be among them. At this point in our crazy history, where so little has changed for so many, that’s probably all I can hope for.

Dear Men of South Africa*

south african man braaing

I love you. I really do. With your PT shorts from matric, your weird relationship with fires and your insistence on drinking brandy and coke because someone told you it’s what real men do, you are my uncles, my cousins, my boyfriends, the first guy I kissed playing Spin the Bottle when I was 11. I know you, and there’s a comforting familiarity in your Boy Speak (‘howzit, bro! My China!’) and the way you view the world. But (you knew that ‘but’ was coming, right?), I feel like the time has come to clear up a few things. In terms of gender stuff, you are just not getting that memo. You know, the one they seem to have sent out in most other parts of the world about it not being the 50s anymore. I know that change is hard and that as human beings we’re inclined to repeat old patterns, but the world is a different place now and it’s time for you guys to catch up. So, I’m going to take the time to explain a few things to you. Like our ostensible leader, a truly South African man says, ‘listen properly now.’

1. We Don’t Like it When You Pay Us Sexual Compliments

We might smile and say thank you but that is because we were brought up to be polite and we don’t want to make you uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean we like it. It is an objectification: what you are telling us, in essence, is that we have no value over and above our physicality. Those well-intentioned ‘compliments’ make us feel demeaned and irrelevant and, frankly, a little bit dirty. Like you’re having thoughts about us we’d rather you didn’t have. We know you mean well, but unless we are in a relationship with you, stop it already.

2. We Can Open Our Own Wine, Thanks

Last weekend at a lunch a man offered to open the bottle of champagne I was holding. When I said, ‘thanks, I’ve got this,’ and started to peel off the foil, he tried to wrestle it out of my hands. Sometimes I just hand the bottle over because I can’t be bothered. This time, I didn’t feel like it and I stood my ground. He looked confused and a bit offended, like I was breaking some unspoken rule. I am certain he was oblivious to the nuances of the situation; what the unconscious message is when men do stuff like this to women. And I’m sure he was perplexed about why I was being so ‘stubborn’. I don’t have the energy to go into the whole thing now, so just take it from me. We can open our own wine.

3. Chivalry is Cool as Long as We can Repay the Compliment

You want to open the door for me? That’s really nice. And in return I will pay for dinner. Or buy you flowers. Or pour your beer. Treating people with consideration and respect is a beautiful thing, but it goes both ways. As women learn very early on in the dating game, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you insist on paying for our evening out, that’s fine, but please don’t think that means I owe you anything. We are equal players in this game.

4. We Are the Same as You, Just with Different Details

So, look us in the eye when you speak to us. Ask us about our lives and listen when we answer. Something I learnt in my years in Scandinavia is that women and men can actually talk to each other at social gatherings without anyone getting antsy or beaten up. There, it’s normal to make conversation with members of the opposite sex. Here, there is total apartheid of the genders, and when I insist on going outside and standing by the fire I get funny looks. I’m not hitting on you, I swear. I’m here with my partner and children. I’m just making conversation. And please – don’t talk exclusively about yourself. I know you find your job in finance fascinating. I’ve been listening politely for an hour. I also have an interesting job. Why don’t you ask me about it? Maybe we could even find a common area of interest. If not, at least we tried.

5. Stop Insisting Your Wife Takes Your Name

You married each other. Why should she become Mrs You? It’s such a weird norm. Two adults get married and the one has to sacrifice her identity because she has a vagina? This country is totally in the dark ages when it comes to that stuff. The amount of times I have had to explain to my bank and Home Affairs people why I have a different surname to my husband is beyond. Again, to use a foreign example – in Denmark and Sweden when two people get married it’s up to them to decide if they’re going to adopt the husband or the wife’s name. The better name wins. It’s equal and democratic and how it should be here too. It’s time we moved on from that patriarchal rubbish.

6. No Woman Ever Needs a ‘Good F?ck.’

Some months ago a man who was driving too fast in a residential area smashed into a parked car outside the home of a friend. When she went outside and pointed out to him he was driving recklessly he told her she needs a ‘good f?ck.’ The violence and misogyny implicit in a statement like that defies belief, and reflects the rape culture that permeates our society. It’s a shame that this young man driving an expensive car grew up without somebody to teach him about what it means to be a man. To show him how to treat and speak to women, and to help him out of the adolescent emotional state he somehow got himself stuck in. He is like those young male elephants which get kicked out of the herd and align themselves with older, bachelor elephants who teach them how to be behave. Only, there is seemingly nobody to teach the lost men of our society. Instead, they get jobs as investors and bankers and are rewarded handsomely with fat salaries and fancy cars. They have no incentive to reflect on their attitudes and behaviour. Any man who says this about a woman is a product of a very sick society.

7. You Are Not the Kings of the World Because of Your Unsurpassed Brilliance

You run the show because, since forever, society has favoured your maleness. You’ve been pushed, promoted and encouraged purely because you have dicks. Time and time again, as the world changes at its snail’s pace, women are proven to be better at many things than their male counterparts (flying planes, doing maths, investing on the stock exchange) but biology – combined with the deeply entrenched patriarchy into which we are born – continues to be a major obstacle to our achieving success on the same levels you do. In many parts of the world we are still denied an education. We get overlooked for promotion because at some point we’ll probably breed. Despite having better qualifications and higher levels of competence than many of the men we will compete against, the Old Boys’ Club otherwise known as the western world still means that the guy who played rugby with the boss will get bumped up the corporate ladder. And it’s a given that we’ll be paid less for doing the same job. Even Scandinavia, with its so-called gender equality, has very few women running its big businesses, never mind running the country. We don’t blame you because it is what it is and we’re ready and willing to fight this system. But don’t be too damn smug about the fact that you live in an expensive apartment and have piles of disposable income. You were given leg ups. That’s all. Be humble, be nice. Promote the women on your team. It’s the very least you can do.

8. You Are Not Raising Your Boys Right

So many times I have stood in my kids’ school playground and listened to dads telling their 4-year-old sons to ‘man up’; to not be a ‘girl’, to ‘stop crying like a sissy,’ and I cringe as these tiny children try to be something other than what they are. Something dies in little boys when you don’t allow them to feel. They become dull, blunted men who grow up to say things like the guy who crashed into the car. Your 4-year-old is not a man, he is a baby with feelings and worries and fears. Stop telling him not to have emotions. You, as his primary role model, need to create a safe space for him to be what he is. Only then will he grow up to be healthy, happy man who has good, fulfilling relationships with the people around him. Whatever he is, let him be that thing. He doesn’t like sport? That’s okay, give him books. Let it be good enough for him to be himself. Love him just the way he is, and maybe he’ll grow up to teach you things you didn’t even know.

*Disclaimer:

There are men in my life who are more passionate and eloquent about gender equality and vocal in their promotion of feminism than I dare to be. And there are men who choose not to make a noise about it, but quietly and determinedly love and support the women and girls in their lives. This was not written for you.

On Finding Your True North

shootingstar

Too hot to sleep, I got up in the middle of the night last night and went outside to try and cool down. The stars were unusually bright for where I live in the city, and as I drank in the gentle breeze and the familiar, comforting presence of Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross I thought of a question my daughter had asked me a few days back. She said, ‘Mommy, if you’re lost somewhere can the stars guide you home?’ I replied, ‘yes, they can. Wherever you are in the world, if you look up at the sky the stars can point you to true north.’

And it’s a beautiful thought. I was also worrying that the #PennySparrow thing was going to slip through the cracks of our broken society, and in my head I was composing my letter to Jawitz. I needn’t have worried, nor underestimated the power of social media. At 5:45am I awoke to a storm of outrage, and the conversation that started a while back in response to racism in restaurants had been picked up again and was in full swing.

Reading the comments and tweets and contributing a few of my own I started to think about the fact that when you live in South Africa you are not allowed the luxury of political neutrality. Whatever you say and do comprises a statement. And the complicity inherent in saying and doing nothing when you were born white makes the loudest statement of all. Many people don’t like what I have to say, but they are strangers and their opinions don’t bother me overmuch.

But towards the end of 2015 I lost a friend over my political views and that hurt a lot. I spent many hours thinking about what had happened. I think that for her I posed a problem; created a kind of cognitive dissonance: she liked me personally, but she hated my politics. Her solution, in the email she sent me, was to continue our friendship on the proviso that we ‘agree to disagree.’ Presumably, that we pretend my blog doesn’t exist and she would try to distance  the ‘me’ she liked from my thoughts and opinions.

In a way the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a gift because it forced me to think about what this blog actually means to me and the role it plays in my life. Can I be separate from it? Are my views and I different things? Can I be something other than what I think and write about? And the booming answer was ‘no.’ While I am irreverent sometimes, what I write in this space is the truest essence of who I am in this world. I don’t do this for money or fame or attention; I do it because I am compelled to. For me, there are few things that matter more than figuring out my truth and putting it into words. I guess, in a way, this blog is my ‘true north.’ The thing I am in my soul and what I was put on this planet to do.

One of the reasons I love being 40 and not 20 is because I fit myself so much better. Of course I still want to be liked, but I don’t worry as much that what I am is ‘wrong.’ Anyone who asks me to tone myself down and be less of who I am doesn’t belong on my journey, and neither should do they be on yours. I would like to thank all of you, my engaged, warm, supportive and amazingly loyal readers for walking this road with me. What I wish for myself and all of you in 2016 is that we become less compromising about locating and following our own personal ‘true north.’ Sometimes it’s about being still for a moment and gazing up at the night sky and thinking about the direction we’ve been traveling in and whether it’s really where we want to go. And if it’s not, perhaps considering the possibility of changing course. Happy new year to all of you. Here’s to finding our way home.

5 Things the Township Taught Me

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Countless times since starting this blog I have been accused of being privileged and clueless and white, and when I am told this about myself my only stance ever is to agree with my reader wholeheartedly. I am all of those things. In fact, I would venture to say that I am more privileged even than some people who read me imagine. Last week the hardest decision I was called upon to make was between the salmon and the tuna sashimi. Both looked delicious; it was a tough call.

I have also been told I write exclusively to and for white people, another statement which is 100% on the button. The thing is, I am a white person (if you don’t believe me there’s the flattering About pic my husband took of me one summer when all I’d eaten that month was air) and I suspect that if I were to try writing authoritatively about what it feels like being poor and black I’d ignite even more ire than I already do. So, mostly I stick to what I know which is where to get good sashimi, and sometimes I go out on a limb and try to learn something which is slightly out of bounds of your average white, privileged South African experience. Just sometimes. Other times, I sit on my deck and drink Pinot Noir.

But this particular time – maybe The Grand was full, I can’t remember – I thought it would be good to try Something Completely Different and go for lunch in Dunoon. Dunoon (for clueless white Pinot Noir -drinking people like me) is a township out Tableview way. A lot of people live there, but not many of them are white. In fact, I believe only two are and their names are Howie and Melissa. When you’re a middle class (white) person, living in Dunoon is not something you would really do. You would live in Kenilworth and try hard to slowly edge your way towards the Atlantic Seaboard. Sometimes you will only make it as far as Rondebosch East, but that’s okay, some of the best schools are in that area. So, me being me and the day being open, I thought it would be interesting to go and visit Howie who is a friend of a friend and ask him what it’s like living amongst all those black people.

So, off we went in our tinted-windowed SAAB with pepper spray close at hand and a taser gun in the cubby-hole and the cell phone number of the head of Sea Point police station on speed dial (not really, but the last thing is true. See, I’m white and connected). And when we got there we had some coffee and attended a short church service (Howie is a pastor) and then went to his house to braai, except the braai part didn’t happen due to circumstances beyond our control. But even though we managed to spend no longer than half an hour at Howie’s house, in that short time I managed to ask him a lot of questions and he told me how things roll in that neck of the woods. And it was an interesting conversation which made me question all kinds of things about the way I live, and his words stayed with me for a long time. This is what he said (in my words, because I didn’t have a recording device with me. I was worried it would get stolen).

1. Food Belongs to Anyone Who is Hungry

You know the hunk of cheese in your digs fridge with the Post It that says something along the lines of Touch This and Breathe Your Last Breath? Not so much of a Post It happens in Dunoon. What happens is that the guy who has money buys food and puts it in the fridge. This food is for anyone and everyone who is hungry. In the evening the person who worked that day and has some dosh cooks a single pot of meat and potatoes and vegetables. When it’s just about serving time people from the neighbourhood will drop by. Sometimes 10 people will come. One time there were 20. The food gets divided evenly amongst every human being. If that means the person who bought and cooked the food goes without, so be it. They will wait till the last guest has left and make themselves some porridge. Or not. It’s just the way it is.

2. Whoever Has the Money Pays the Rent

When Howie moved into the house he shares with three other guys he imagined rent would be divided equally each month. When it was explained to him that that’s not the way it works: if someone doesn’t have money the ones who do, pay, he was dismayed as he assumed it would be him coughing up extra each month. In reality, the opposite occurred. One month he simply forgot. Nobody reminded him, his housemates just assumed he was broke and covered the shortfall themselves. I remember when I was a student my housemate (who had plenty of money) split everything in half down to the last 20 cents. It’s a kak way to live.

3. This Loo is My Loo, This Loo is Your Loo

Since toilets are generally a scarcity in a township, you make yours available to whomever might need it. It’s 3am and your neighbour ate a bad smiley? You’ll know all about it. At any time of the day or night if the people in Howie’s road need a widdle they help themselves. So, the bedroom he shares with three other guys doesn’t have a door and everyone is woken up all night long? Welcome to the reality of poverty. Their bathroom doesn’t have plumbing either, by the way, so you make do with a bucket of water and a little cup for rinsing your hair. Long, hot showers to warm you up in winter? Maybe in your next life if you gather up some really good karma.

4. Space is a Luxury Commodity

Howie ‘only’ shares  his modest bedroom with three other guys. They are lucky; they all have jobs. This means the lounge can be used as the lounge – a shared space to hang out, play the guitar, read or entertain guests. But many of these small houses host 10, even 20 people who occupy every square inch. Getting away from the noise and chaos is impossible. There is no privacy; no quiet corner to unwind and re-group. In order to be alone you have to leave, but where do you go? Howie is lucky, he has a car and when it all gets too much he takes himself to the beach, but most people don’t have cars, nor extra money to waste on a taxi fare out of the township. You just deal with it. It’s that, or living on the street. Not much of a choice, huh?

5. Ordinary Things Are Difficult

Think about this: everyone has to be out the house early in order to factor in the +-1,5 hours it takes to get into the city in buses and taxis and on foot to arrive at work on time. This means, in many households, competing with at least 10 people for the loo, for running water to wash and brush your teeth. It’s nothing short of a miracle that people who live like this arrive at their jobs, day after day, smelling nice and wearing clean clothes. The mind boggles at the organisational skills and determination this must require. Imagine trying to get a good night’s sleep so you can write your exam the next day when you’re sleeping on a floor next to nine other people. Imagine, in a wet Cape winter, trying to wash and dry your only suit so you look good at the next day’s job interview. Trying not to get sick and miss work when all your housemates are coughing and sneezing and everything in your house is wet and you haven’t eaten properly and you can’t open a window to let in fresh air because it’s too damn cold and you don’t have electricity or a heater.  The middle classes in this country? We live like kings and queens. When we venture out of our front doors we mustn’t forget this simple truth.

So, that was one home in one township, and implying that that’s the way it works everywhere would be silly. But it is the way it works there and since everyone who lives in the area is poor, more than likely this way of living together is not unique. And when I narrated this story to my student who lives in Langa he thought it was weird that I thought it was weird. For him, it was normal. It made me think a little bit about how selfish I can be and how unthinkingly I accept the luxuries of life as my right. How I can have a cadenza when the loo in the en suite bathroom is blocked and I have to walk to the other side of house. How secretly annoyed I get when the person I’m sharing the sushi platter with helps himself to the last salmon rose. There is a lot to be learnt from putting oneself in unusual places. I highly recommend it. It helps a little bit to cure the stjoepids.

Why White South Africa Needs a PK*

Yesterday was one of those days where you kind of wish social media hadn’t been invented because, worse by far than the envy someone’s holiday in Prague inspires, it means you get  exposed to a kind of ignorance you’d like to think doesn’t exist. And to top it all, some of the people showing their stupidity to all the world are amongst your so-called friends. I read some of the tweets and status updates regarding #FeesMustFall and the comments that followed and started to respond, but got overcome by a dismay so deep it made me want to adopt the foetal position and rock back and forth with my thumb in my mouth until it all went away. Only, it won’t. So, to maintain my own sanity I’m going to respond, in brief, to the pearls – the ones that make you shake your head in wonderment that these people made it to the age of 50 (or 40 or 30) without falling down a long-drop or setting themselves alight. Here they are, in no particular order:

“They want it handed to them on a silver platter. They don’t understand that to succeed you have to work hard.”
Um. Firstly, who are ‘they’? But that’s a minor stjoepid compared to the rest. If you were the only person in the world who didn’t see the facebook meme that reads, ‘if wealth was about hard work every woman in Africa would be a billionaire,’ let me explain in short. Like wealth, poverty is not a choice. It comes as a result of very specific socio-political determinants that favour a small portion of the population (you) and disfavour the rest (your maid). In short, you didn’t get a job as a manager and your cleaner as a cleaner because of your superior intellect and work ethic. She works longer, harder and dirtier than you ever will for a pittance that barely keeps her kids in school. All these young South Africans want is the chance to not be cleaners. To leave the township, to afford electricity. To have basic human rights. No amount of part-time work in South Africa will cover the cost of their tuition. These students have jobs. It’s not enough. All they are asking is to be allowed an education so that they can be productive members of society. Why is that so hard to understand? I don’t know, but come over here, you need a klap.

“If I want to go overseas but can’t afford the ticket I don’t go to the airport and protest. I work hard and I save.”
These youngsters are not asking to go on overseas holidays, they are asking to be allowed to finish their degrees so that they can become tax-paying citizens like you and I. They are asking for a tiny fraction of the opportunities that we, as white South Africans, take for granted and believe are our god-given right. They aren’t asking for leg ups, they are simply asking that their one opportunity at freeing themselves from the cycle of poverty is not taken away from them. Why aren’t you supporting this effort? Don’t you understand it is for the good of all of us if South Africa lowers its unemployment rate; that if more people enter the workforce and join the middle class it translates to more money and freedom for everyone? Don’t you want this country to have a stable economy? These people are fighting for our future, for our kids’ futures. They are taking to the streets and protesting and getting arrested to save South Africa while you sound off on Facebook about how unfair it all is. No, sis on you. Come here for your klap.

“My brother has studied so hard and he’s trying to write his exams and now he can’t because of these protestors and he’s extremely stressed. If you want your degree, study and write your exams like everyone else. Stop trying to get out of it.”
We are very sorry that your brother has been inconvenienced by the student protests. We are shedding real tears of sadness for him and his friends in Constantia whose Plett holiday now hangs in the balance. I know – why don’t you get in your Mini Coopers and drive to the airport with your dad’s credit card and buy one-way tickets to Perth because you have no role to play in the future of this beautiful, troubled country. In fact, you and your kind are part of the problem. But first, come here. You’re both getting a klap.

“I work 50 hours a week and I study overseas. It is possible, but nobody wants to see it.”
Damn these students for having every opportunity to succeed but still being annoying and asking for more! I have a plan for middle class South Africans across the colour bar. Instead of taking a gap year and waitering in London, the government – like they do with medical graduates – must send you to the township for 12 months. There you must live in a shack, do a menial job, wash your clothes by hand, use a public toilet and survive with no external help for the duration of your time there. If you have to fetch your own water, so much the better. It’s the only way we will ever understand the difference between rich and poor lives; the only way the privileged few are ever going to ‘get it’. It’s dangerous? Correct. Public transport is unreliable? Shame. You have a toothache but can’t afford the dentist? Crying for you. It seems, without this experience, the privileged continue to have no conception of their privilege or the blissful ignorance in which they live their lives. Since it’s unlikely this will ever happen, I’m going to have to settle for your klap.

*Poes Klap (sorry, Mom)

Cullin Skink, the Most Delicious Fish Soup in the Whole Entire World

The Loch Ness Lodge Hotel and a cleaner's bum.
The Loch Ness Lodge Hotel and a cleaner’s bum.

If you ever happen to find yourself in the Scottish village of Drumnadrochit (population 813), I can tell you with authority that there is something better than catching a glimpse of Old Nessie, and that thing is getting yourself a bowl of Cullin Skink or smoked fish soup. For this serving of heaven you will have to make your way to the maddest, most eccentric hotel you will likely ever stay in in your days called – naturally – the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. Being situated on the loch, and all. If you’re looking for a deeply, madly Scottish experience you won’t be disappointed. This hotel was surely decorated by leprechauns on speed and it’s completely fantastic (I know, leprechauns are Irish, but these ones were contracted in). What you get when you walk in is floor-to-ceiling tartan, 24/7 bagpipes and bedroom décor straight out of Alice in Wonderland. You also get door handles perfectly positioned for one of those leprechauns. In fact, we had to get on our knees to unlock the door. Needless to say, we were sold.

Unlocking the door to our hotel room.
Unlocking the door to our hotel room.

We had no idea what a Cullin Skink was when it was at home in tartan pyjamas, but being pretty adventurous diners (we ate haggis and black pudding every day. Promise. Both are delicious) we wanted to eat the things we can’t get in Cape Town, and Cullin Skink certainly seemed to be that. What we didn’t know was that we would be struck silent by the mind-boggling deliciousness of this relatively unknown dish, talk about it for days and try to replicate it when we got home. What it is (said Google) is a soup consisting of smoked fish (any kind, but the Scottish version favours haddock), potatoes, leeks, dill, cream and butter. Just writing these words makes me drool. Imagine it’s really cold out (it wasn’t, but imagine it was), you’ve been Loch Nessing all day with barely an oat cake for sustenance (we’d been eating Pringles the whole drive down, sadly, but who knew that was on the menu?) you stumble inside and order a wee dram or three. You’re so hungry your bum’s nibbling the (tartan) seat and before you, like an angel, a waiter (who looks just like Spud from Trainspotting) brings you a bowl of this piping hot soup. It’s creamy, it’s smoky and it’s tasty as hell. I mean, a guy could sing an aria for the joy of it.

Very, very much tartan.
So much tartan of an afternoon.

So once we had scraped the last small droplet of remaining soup up with our fingers and gathered ourselves enough to speak we decided, then and there, that our mission in life would be to recreate this marvelous dish. Un-dyed Finnan haddock is not as easy to get in Green Point as it is in Drumnadrochit, but luckily the recipe assured us that any smoked white fish would do. So, off to the Waterfront City Market we went and bought this…

Smoked Angelfish from the Waterfront City Market because we're fancy like that, but any smoked white fish would do.
Smoked Angelfish from the Waterfront City Market because we like to pretend we’re fancy, but any smoked white fish will do.

…along with a large block of butter, cream and dill. We forgot the leeks, but decided large spring onions would have to do because the loser of paper-rock-scissors reneged on the deal (a-hem). The recipe said to simmer the fish in water with bay leaves till it was ‘cooked.’ A small discussion ensued around whether or not smoked fish qualifies as uncooked since it is, technically, cooked by the smoking. The loser of paper-rock-scissors lost that argument, too. Then, there was a discussion around when it was best to add the cream because some people in this house, even when they have never made a thing, feel that they still know more than the people who wrote the recipe. It went in at the end which I think was the right time. But enough about that.

Here is what you’ll need:

Ingredients:
Smoked white fish
A large yellow onion
Leeks (or overgrown spring onions)
Dill
A large carrot, finely chopped
2 Sticks of celery, finely chopped
5 Medium-sized potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
Butter
A litre of full cream milk
A swirl of cream
Bay leaves
Fish stock or fish sauce or both

Method:
In a frying pan, cover the fish with the milk and two bay leaves and let it simmer gently for 10 minutes. In a large saucepan, sauté your onion in butter. Add your carrots, celery, potatoes and ‘leeks’ and schmoonk them around till they’re covered in butter. You might want to add more butter. Remove the fish from the milk and put the fish aside. Add the fishy milk to your saucepan together with a handful of dill and a splash of fish stock. Let it simmer until your potatoes are cooked. While they are cooking break the fish up into bite-sized pieces and remove any skin or bones. Let the soup thicken. Add a drizzle of cream and the fish. Let the flavours make friends for a few minutes and then add salt and pepper to taste. Serve very hot with bread and if you’re impressing people, parsley.

Cullin Skink. Ta da!
Cullin Skink. Ta da!

I feared making this dish at home would be a bit like Swedish herring which tastes amazing at a midsummer party with a maypole and schnapps but kind of wrong when eaten in Cape Town, but this soup was actually almost better than the one we had in Scotland. And super easy and super quick. You use a lot of butter so it’s pretty rich. I put the smallest amount of cream in because boiling the milk had made it separate slightly, but it’s not really necessary. Traditional recipes don’t include the celery and carrot, but I like my soup to have a bit of sweetness and I thought their inclusion improved the flavour. Lastly, I added a Knorr fish stock sachet thing. I couldn’t really taste it so I added a bit of fish sauce. I think it depends on how smoky your fish is. Have a spoonful and decide for yourself.

The hauntingly beautiful highlands.
The hauntingly beautiful Highlands. If you’re able to get there in this lifetime, do. If not, just make the soup.

On Affairs and How They Don’t Have to Mean the End of the World

My mom and dad at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.
My mom and dad with me at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.

During a wintry season in my parents’ nearly 50-year-old marriage, my dad took it upon himself to have an affair. As a man incapable of telling a lie, it was conducted very openly with a pony-tailed, bottle-blonde ‘friend’ of the family, and while I was protected from knowing the details of what was going on, my memory is of him coming home from work, showering and leaving again, and of his uneaten plate of dinner which my mother would leave, covered in foil, on the Formica kitchen counter. When I was both old and young enough to adopt an attitude of protective indignation, I was angry at what I perceived to be the spinelessness of my beautiful, green-eyed, flawless-skinned mother. Why did she allow this to happen? Why did she meekly, weakly stand by while he came and went as he pleased?

It took me being married myself to appreciate the courage and strength it must have taken her to watch her husband’s car reverse out the driveway and hold it together enough that her young daughter remained oblivious to her pain, even while the scent of his Old Spice lingered in the hallway. And also to understand enough about the frustration and quiet dismay which is the flip side of the image we’re presented about marriage not to presume to judge him. And what she did, which I understand now, was also extremely clever. She didn’t make a scene and throw his clothes out the front door or show up where they were, demanding justice. She simply waited it out. In typically pragmatic Capricorn-style, she understood – like most affairs – that this one would more than likely run its course, and that by creating a fuss she would only make his mistress more appealing.

So, she left his plate of supper ready for him when he got home and carried on as normal. She also told his entire (large) family, who have always adored her, exactly where he was and what he was up to when they phoned for him. They were horrified and furious, and froze him out one by one. It was due to her single-minded determination not to lose her husband, the love of her life, that he came back before long and their marriage resumed as if none of it had ever happened. But it could have gone a different way. She did what she needed to do to hold on in that moment, and ultimately she got what she wanted. And the reason all of this has been on my mind is because I had a dream a month or so ago, while on holiday in Sweden, that my husband was having an affair and I remember, even through the deep emotional pain, having a distinct dream-thought: if you want him you can have him, you just have to wait this out. And the immediate follow-up question: but, do I have what it takes to do that?

Do I possess the emotional wherewithal; the purpose of mind, the mettle to stand by and watch and wait? When I was younger I believed I was a one-strike-and-you’re-out kind of girl. Now, 15 years into my relationship, I see the world as a much greyer kind of place. I know what marriage is and what it can do. That, while it’s wonderful and fulfilling on all the levels they promise, it also has the propensity for a loneliness more vast than any amount of singledom can match. That sometimes it’s unkind and deeply disappointing. That there’ll be moments where you’ll reel at the horrified realisation of what you got yourself into and how impossibly difficult it will be to get yourself out. And this is the kind of marriage where friends say, ‘how do you guys manage to stay so happy?’ And we are, very. Not a day goes by where I’m not grateful that I chose him as my life partner because he’s so many kinds of amazing. But that is the nature of the beast.

And it’s why I think I’ve amended my position on affairs. I don’t know that I would leave. I’m not convinced, anymore, that these moments of desperate connection with another human being are not entirely understandable, given our deep desire to be heard and seen and how much gets in the way of married people doing that for each other. Would some relatively meaningless dalliance on his part be sufficient reason for me to break up our children’s home? To put us all through the mind-boggling suffering and turmoil that comes with divorce? Is my ego really that big?

I don’t know the answer and, mercifully, I’ve not been put in that position. While I don’t think I could be the wife who covers a plate of savoury mince with foil, tucks her young daughter in bed and then waits by the window for his headlights to swing into view (unfortunately for my husband I suspect I’m more the throwing-the-clothes, stalking, psycho kind), what I realise now is that my mom is made of some strong stuff and that, ultimately, we are not all that different. I’m grateful she made the choice she did, and I’m sure my dad is, too. 30 years later they are happier and more in love than they’ve ever been, and my sister and I enjoyed the privilege of growing up in an unbroken home. I hope, if this ship ever veers off course, that one of us will be brave enough to grab the wheel and hold on tight till we’ve steered ourselves back to safety.

How Hard it is to Truly Be Okay with Yourself

Me in Montagu. 43 years old, no makeup, no highlights, sun damage and laugh lines. It's okay. It's me in Montagu.
Me in Montagu. 43 years old, no makeup, no highlights, sun damage and laugh lines. It’s okay. It’s me in Montagu.

Some months ago we spent a few days in one of my favourite places in the world, a house high in the mountains outside the Karoo town of Montagu. I love it there because there is nothing to do but swim in the dam, go for walks, read, eat and sleep. I can’t get agitated on social media because there’s no signal and my partner, removed from email, can’t worry about work. So we drink wine and make fires and sit long under the stars and our children are happy and it’s heaven. On our first evening there we came back from a late-afternoon dip and, as the shadows of the pines starting getting long and it was time for that first glass of wine I put on a sweater, went into the bathroom and automatically reached for my lip-liner. Because we were going to have drinks and snacks and chat and admire the view. Because I had been in the water and my makeup had washed off. Because… I’m a girl and if I don’t look pretty? Well, that’s a problem. I saw my reflection in the mirror, a woman of 43 with two children and a career and opinions and a brain and I looked away, out the window, at the trees and the big, blue mountain and I thought what the fuck am I doing?

Here I am in a remote holiday house with my husband and two daughters – the people who know and love and get me better than anyone in all the world – and I’m putting on makeup? It was a strange and sad moment where all the terrible, messed up messages I have internalised during my years on this earth hit me in my gut. I put the lip-liner back and went outside and looked out over the beautiful valley and tried to remember the incidences in my life that had led me to believe so doggedly in my own unworthiness. And how, in this world, I was going to save my daughters from the same fate. I remembered the earliest message where, compared to my cousin of the same age, I was labelled by family members as the ‘clever one.’ And, as any girl will know, you don’t want to be the clever one.

I remembered, many years later, a boy I was desperately in love with telling my best friend at the time he didn’t like me anymore because I was ‘fat’. I was 15 at the time and while I was never skinny, when I look at pictures of myself at that age I was definitely not fat. Still – I was mortified and ashamed, and it was the first time I have a clear memory of declaring war on my body – reading up on diets; taking small green slimming pills that made my heart race; sprinkling artificial sweetener on my All Bran Flakes and weighing myself every day. The idea that there was something wrong with me had taken root in my unconscious mind, and this belief would become more pronounced as time went by.

And, while I have learnt a lot in my time on earth, this is one thing I don’t really know how to change. How do you unlearn the negative messages that have been reinforced your whole life long? How do you decide you’ve had enough of this nonsense and you’re going to accept yourself just as you are – if not for yourself than for the amazing, clever girl children you’re preparing to send into the world? I read something once that posed the simple question: ‘when will you be thin enough?’ and I wept. A while back a girlfriend said something to me that was very scary and very true. She said, ‘your children don’t watch you with their eyes; they watch you with their whole being.’ I can tell my daughters what I think – propagate feminist values; go on about women’s rights; insist that no matter what they look like they are important and they have value, but when they see me unhappy because my jeans are tight; when they watch me eat salad while everyone else has pasta – all the words amount to nothing.

Last week my 8-year-old brought her school photos home. I could see she was unhappy. She sat beside me on the couch in silence and I let her be until I saw the big tears running down her cheeks. It took a while for her to admit that she was crying because one of her school friends had said she was fat and now that she looked at the photos of herself, she knew that it was true. I turned the TV off and I asked her sister to give us a few minutes alone. I didn’t really know what to say, to be honest. It was one of those parenting moments when you want to go, ‘hey, you know that manual? Now would be a good time.’

I opened the iPad and showed her pictures of herself taken at a recent ballet eisteddfod. I asked her what she thought of that little girl in the pictures. We found more pics, holiday snaps taken on the beach. I asked her if she agreed with what her friend had said. My daughter is little; there is no fat on her body. She had to concede that what had been said to her might not, after all, have been true. And then we talked about the fact that everybody is different. Some people are shorter, others are tall, some have dark hair and some are blonde, and some people will be heavier while others are lighter, and that the way you look has no bearing on who you are. I reminded her of the importance of always being kind and remembering that the outside of people says nothing about the inside. And she cheered up and started smiling again and we went and made hot chocolate, but it was a sobering moment which made me wonder, in spite of my best efforts, if I have failed miserably at my job.

Because the truth is, while I’ll order the Hunga Busta burger, throw back beer like the best of them and roll my eyes at women who succumb to cosmetic surgery, that’s only part of me. There’s another part, and one I’m not proud of, that looks at herself in a bikini and feels dismay. That has to beat down the guilt of devouring an XL portion of fish and chips on a Sunday in Kalk Bay. That secretly, while planning a holiday, determines to lose 3kgs so I can wear all the clothes I like. And who is very much a product of her environment. And what if it’s that version my daughters really see? How do I project an image of okayness when it’s not something I always feel?

But then, more than projecting a Stepford Wives-type image of perfection (which I could never achieve anyway) I’ve always been a firm believer in leveling with your kids and being honest no matter what. I mean, they see through your lies anyway. Could it be that there is room for ambiguity and contradiction in this ongoing conversation? After all, little about life is simple. Maybe if we keep talking and I ask them the right questions their (really awesome and strong) sense of themselves will be their lifeline when society tells that them the way they are is wrong. And maybe – this is my hope, anyway – because of the way they’ve been raised, they’ll be better equipped than I was to bounce back from the blows their self-esteem will suffer. For me, all I can do is put the makeup bag down, take a deep breath and go hang with the people who love me.

On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

sa flag 4
Nobody wants to think of themselves as being a bad person. Bad people are ISIS fighters, child molesters, Shrien Dewani. They do horrible things which are blatant and obvious and talked about in the media. But in the last few months I have found myself in spaces where I’ve had to take a long and careful look at who I am in the world, the attitudes that have formed me and how I conduct myself in certain situations. And to say that it’s been an uncomfortable awakening is an understatement. Because many of you who follow my blog know that I’m relatively outspoken about race issues in this country. I have strong feelings about the socio-economic disparities and the white attitudes that feed them, and while I sit behind my computer screen in my nice study on the Atlantic Seaboard it’s easy to wax lyrical about egalitarianism and the way things ‘should’ be in SA. When I write these words, which I wholeheartedly mean, I can nonetheless distance myself a little bit from the ‘racists’ out there; convince myself that I am better than they are.

But the truth is I’m not. I am as guilty as the man who went up to my neighbour’s friend who was recently walking in a supermarket with his newly adopted baby and said, ‘oh look, a special little kaffir.’ The other man who asked a couple who have adopted two HIV positive children of four and six why they are ‘wasting their time.’ The inhabitants of the shop in the town of Oudtshoorn who openly snubbed our white friends because they walked in with their black baby daughter. I could go on and go – there are so many incidents of this kind of thing that happen all the time in this country. But there’s another thing too, and it’s this that I’m guilty of. The white arrogance and sense of entitlement that follows us wherever we go and is so ingrained we aren’t even aware of it. It’s the tone we adopt when the black teller is taking too long to ring up our goods (my ‘madam’ voice). It’s the secret panic when the pilot is black. It’s the us-and-them way we were taught, from the youngest age, to divide the world. This stuff is in our DNA, and the more we deny it, the less chance we have of making it go away.

I regularly hear white South Africans say the most outlandish things: ‘It’s just a pity when it’s the blacks turning on the blacks’. Blacks who? What homogenous entity are we referring to? My char? The heart surgeon at Grootte Schuur? Oprah? What does the council guy who comes to my door asking for R5 for his daughter’s netball tournament have in common with President Zuma? I can tell you: fucking nothing. I have more in common with Zuma than he does. We are both middle class South Africans with a big, fat sense of entitlement. Or, they say: ‘I’m not interested in politics and race relations.’ Oh, you aren’t? Could that be because you have a big house with a lawn and two cars and eat out a few times a week and go to Bali for Christmas? How lovely for you that you’re privileged enough to be apolitical. And for me. And for all of us who live lives of charm and delight, tweeting about SONA over a second bottle of Beaumont Shiraz because fuck sakes, this country is surely going up in flames in five minutes. Please pass the dip.

I don’t mean to be unfair and beat up on white people. Some of my best friends are white. We are all just human beings doing our best in a political situation which scares us to the very marrow. We love this country and – with good reason – are terrified of what the ANC is getting away with; what this recent malarkey means in terms of our constitution and our future. But we all need to do a big, fat audit of our attitudes and the racism we hide even from ourselves. We need to remind ourselves, daily, that our disappointment in our government has nothing to do with the countless black people in South Africa just trying to get by in a country where the structures of apartheid make basic survival a daily struggle. The legislative bit of apartheid might have ended 20 years ago, but it is not white people living in cardboard boxes beside the highway. For those countless people, apartheid is alive and well – only they have no hope of anything ever changing. For them, the cycle of poverty is as entrenched and ongoing as it’s ever been.

Let us make a point of remembering how incredibly privileged and lucky we are to live the lives we do in this extraordinarily beautiful part of the planet. Let’s stop sitting by passively and moaning to each other over skinny lattes about how messed up everything is. We – the ones who enjoy economic power as a birthright – must start speaking up for those who have no voice. And it starts with admitting our racism to ourselves and becoming acutely aware of how it plays out in the day-to-day; how, on subtle levels, it keeps the status quo in place because thoughts lead to words which lead to actions. Truth be told, we can be a stupid, obtuse tribe of people. The other day a young woman who belongs to the Neighbourhood Watch group I had to leave because of comments like hers said, ‘This whole black issue is such a crock.’ I mulled over her comment for days, and in the end I didn’t have enough words for that level of ignorance and myopia. And the saddest thing of all was that everyone agreed.

So, I propose this for each one of us who grew up during apartheid or at any point in this socially and economically segregated society and has been rendered a little bit mad as a result: we need to stand in front of a mirror, look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘I am a racist.’ Then we need to make a daily decision that we are going to challenge these stupid, retrogressive views which are based on nothing but ignorance and fear. In whatever small capacity we can we need to counter our arseholedom by doing selfless things, spreading goodwill and taking the hand of friendship black South Africa – against all odds and to my ongoing astonishment – holds out to us, its arrogant oppressors. Because we have the power to do so much good if we can look up from our iPads long enough.

The morning after the State of the Nation address I went to Clicks Pharmacy to buy Panados for the red wine I’d gulped down when the sound went off for the seventh time. I asked the (black) woman who was ringing up my things if she had watched the madness the previous night. She had. She started telling me how angry and disappointed she was in our government. Her colleague joined in the conversation. Their voices grew so loud a small crowd gathered to hear what they were saying, and they were much more radical in their condemnation of the ANC than I dare to be. They went on for such a long time I almost regretted asking, but it was a very important reminder for me – and I suspect for all the white people who stood there, listening – that we are on the same side. We all want fairness and accountability by the government and a president who is a leader and not a crook. We all want to live in a country where our children’s futures are secure. Let’s do what we can to stop the divisiveness that’s growing in our society like a cancer, and the first step towards achieving that is taking a long, hard look at ourselves.