Somebody Help Me, I’m Having a Kak Gedagte

So, I have a confession to make: lately I’ve been having a kak gedagte, and this thing started to happen on Tuesday night when Baleka Mbete didn’t even have the decency to fake cry when she announced to the dishonourable members of parliament and the waiting country that uJacob and his thieving, plundering ministers will continue to thieve and plunder till the Nguni cows come home. I suppose I was one of those people hoping against hope that the majority of the ruling party were people of integrity who would do the right thing even if it was hard, but clearly this is not the case. And I suppose I just got demoerin and that feeling hasn’t left me yet. And what I want to know is why must we always draw the short straw when it comes to rulers of this lovely country? Why do we always get saddled (Madiba and Mbeki excluded) with the biggest bladdy mamparras the world has ever seen? I mean, this guy?

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Prime Minister PW Botha. No doubt telling everyone how not a racist he is. Or maybe mansplaining a thing to Elise*

I know that when you’re a white South African it’s haram to have an opinion that extends beyond what you’re going to order from UberEATS, but I would also like to say that at no point did Clarence Poephol in the above pic phone me on my landline and ask my opinion on things. Because I can tell you, for free, that if he had done I would have said in no uncertain terms that I don’t think apartheid is very polite nor any kind of good idea moving forward into the future. Except he didn’t give two Kruger Rands for what I – or most of South Africa – thought, so I had to stand there with a mouth full of teeth singing Oranje Blanje Blou and about crags and creaking wagons while these fools made completely kak decisions which would later, round about now, bite us badly in the bums, thanks for that.

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Old poepoog President Zuma having a lekker laugh at the State of the Nation.

And now, for his sins and those before him, we’ve got Billy Sphincter and his swimming pool to contend with. Maybe we’re being punished because it’s so lekker here. Could that be? I mean, try and beat our winelands and coastline. Maybe it’s some kind of retributive justice by the universe, like here’s a very good Chardonnay for the bargain price of 45 ZAR, only you’re also getting Bathabile Dlamini because you can’t have everything, sozzles. I suppose it sort of balances out Addo and the Kruger National Park when we get the most foolish people who’ve ever been born making decisions for us and our country. Otherwise it would be too good and it wouldn’t be fair on the rest of the world. And now the same ANC that saved our souls has grown more vrot than a skaapboud left out in the sun after Nagmaal. What are we even to do?

And, how mad is our history, actually? So, let’s take the most diverse, vibrant, culturally rich and beautiful place on the planet and put this guy in charge:

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Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. A barrel of laughs, you can tell.

I mean. I don’t think he had a happy day in his entire life. Which might account for why he was hell-bent on making the rest of us miserable. When you’re feeling like a haemorrhoid there’s nothing worse than being surrounded by joyful people. I actually think, had Verwoerd (just the name sounds like you’re making a noise out your bum) and his cronies lived long enough, they would have thoroughly approved of Jacob Zuma’s government. Lord knows they were also robbing us blind during the apartheid years. If old Hendrik was capable of moving those thin lips into a smile, he would have grinned at JZ and slapped him on the back and told him way to go! Censorship of the press, thieving, autocratic governance, corruption… so many parallels between that government and this one. It seems like the ANC learnt well from its predecessors.

So, I’m really hoping my kumbaya mindset returns one of these hours so that I can continue to assure everyone in Perth that it’s all ayoba. People have pointed out that nearly 50% of the ANC opposed Zuma and that that’s a good sign. I suppose they’re right, I’m just impatient. How long will we wait till proper social transformation starts to happen? What is the plan for righting the wrongs? Is there one or will we, the haves, just keep shopping and pretending we live in Europe? When will this wonderful country filled with so much amazingness be rewarded with a proper leader? We have come so far and worked so hard that these setbacks klap a sister.

I suppose it’s no different, really, to what we’ve been dealing with since the Nats ran the show. We hated our government then, we hate our government now. Not a lot has changed. Actually, it’s probably not stretching the truth to say not a lot has changed since the 1600s when the first white ships arrived on our coastline and starting making megaai. So, I’m going to try and cheer up: Zuma’s days are numbered and when he goes, chances are excellent we’ll be awarded an even bigger mamparra because the more things change, the more they stay the same. And there is something quite comforting about that. Plus, we have R45 wine and a good excuse to drink it.

*Elise Botha, his wife.

Riding Out the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine, I’ll Write About the Damn Marches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

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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.

On Getting off Facebook and Talking to the Petrol Attendant Guy

While apartheid ostensibly ended two decades ago, you’d have to be in all kinds of denial not to see how apartly (made-up word) black and white people still live, and it’s a phenomenon I alternately accept with a kind of soul-weary resignation and then sometimes regale against with all my heart because the fact that we don’t talk to each other lies at the very heart of this country’s ongoing problems. But because of this reality – my age, where I live, where my kids go to school – the only black people I encounter on a day-to-day basis are the ones at the supermarket checkout, the one bringing me my Americano and the guy filling my car up with unleaded. So, when I’m not feeling that I-can-t-make-a-fucking-difference-here-so-I’m-not-even-going-to-try feeling (usually brought on by reading the paper), I’m trying a new thing which is talking to every black person I get a chance to talk to.

Sometimes it will be the woman with the great weave at Sea Point Pick n Pay (there’s this drop dead gorgeous woman who sits there all day ringing up groceries and every day she is so glamorous and perfectly groomed she makes me feel like the bag lady); sometimes it will be the parking attendant – though, less often him, because I’m usually rushing somewhere – and often it’s the petrol attendant guy because he’s standing around, anyway, and you’re sitting there waiting will a few minutes to kill, and what I’ve discovered since doing that is that these micro conversations have probably changed the way I understand how people are feeling in this country.

The first time I did it was when Madiba was very sick and it felt like nobody was telling us the truth about what was going on and for weeks I was distressed and vaguely ill-at-ease. In the context of that shared tragedy it felt less weird to engage a complete stranger, and I put my skaamness about being white and in a fancy Swedish car aside and asked the guy what he thought of the whole thing. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember him telling me his family was from around the Qunu area and, as a young boy, he knew of the Mandela clan and was going there in the next while to pay his respects. Just hearing that was comforting. We shook hands awkwardly – me doing the formal thing, him doing that hand-clasp thing I’ve never quite grasped – but that part didn’t matter. We were just two grieving South Africans.

This week the guy I spoke to works in Green Point and, it as it transpires, he is from East London where I was born and my parents both grew up which means it’s a special part of the world for me and with anyone who comes from the Eastern Cape I feel an instant kinship. His name was Dumisani, and this is how our conversation went:

Me: Oh, wow, I haven’t been back to East London for many years, but I want to go soon. I want to take my mom and dad back.

Him: You’ll be surprised at what you find. It’s not like it used to be. I go back to visit my sister and when you come from Cape Town it’s like arriving in a different country.

Me: Ja, I hear that.

Him: I can’t understand, when people see how badly an area is being governed, they’ll still vote ANC. Look at what the DA does for Cape Town.

Me: Ja, but we’re still in transition. This stuff takes time. People vote for a party, not an individual. You can’t expect black people to vote for a white party.

Him: No. It’s been twenty years now. People need to wake up. The time of thinking like that is over. Who is serving you? Who is making your life better? These are the only issues that matter. I struggle. I do. But I’m providing for my kids, and they won’t struggle like I do. Their lives will be different. I’m teaching them to ask questions. When they vote it won’t be about what’s black and what’s white, it will be about what’s good and what’s right.

I didn’t really have much to say after that, but I thought about our conversation and I repeated it to my parents that evening over supper. Because we all still maintain this myth that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and all the time, when I can be bothered to pay attention, I’m reminded that there is just an ‘us.’ If this ship goes down, it’s the under-classes who drown first. We whiteys can still weasel a passport to New Zealand. Dumisani? Not so much. I don’t know this man from Adam, but I can tell you that he’s smart and hard-working and doing everything in his power to make a better South Africa for his family. Unfortunately, his ceiling of opportunity was low and standing around all day washing people’s windscreens was one of the few jobs he was able to get. But he does it with pride and enthusiasm and he has a plan and a purpose and I drove away humbled and with great admiration for that kind of can-do attitude. Because, god knows, we in our nice cars like to whinge.

So, the point, I guess, is that all around us all time are these little windows of opportunity for us to engage and get to know one another a little bit better. It’s just about putting your phone down and taking them. They’re there. And the thing is it’s me who drives away feeling better, feeling more connected and more hopeful about the future. Less of a stranger in my own country. I’m going to try to do it more often.

White People Can Eat Gatsbys, Too

A steak Gatsby (she assured me you don't have to have the polony for it to be real).
Zulfa and our steak Gatsby (she assured me you don’t have to have the polony for it to be real).

A few nights back I started reading a Rayda Jacobs novel where she keeps referring to Gatsbys and I realised I’ve never eaten a Gatsby and it’s about time I did so I know what Rayda is talking about. So, I asked on Facebook where I can find the best Gatsby in Cape Town and some American friends of mine joined in the conversation and apparently in France it’s called an Americano and it’s made with burger patties instead of polony or steak or curry. But what was interesting was when I tried to explain how come I’ve never eaten this quintessentially Cape Town sandwich before, loving all things local as I do. And I kept starting and then deleting my comment because I didn’t know how to say it: that Gatsbys are coloured food and white people just don’t eat them. It’s funny trying to explain your country to foreigners and realising, anew, how mad it all sounds (how mad it all is).

But, that’s the gospel truth, isn’t it? They’re poor food; working class fair. We mlungus might go into a café that sells them, but we’ll buy a samoosa or a chicken pie and a can of diet coke. Not a Gatsby. And I started thinking about that and how, a while ago, I had to attend a conference in Bridgetown and we white people looked at each other in bemusement. There’s a Bridgetown in Cape Town? Who knew? Well, a lot of people, it turns out. The people who eat Gatsbys. Bridgetown is in Athlone, and while all the coloured people in the world will know where Camps Bay is even if they’ve never been there, the vast majority of white Capetonians will never go to Athlone. Unless they got drunk at Forries and made a wrong turn off Klipfontein Road and pooped themselves when they realised.

And it’s interesting how the apartness a lot of us grew up with is reflected in our food. Black people eat samp and pap; white people eat fish and salad. When I lived overseas people would ask me what South African cuisine was, and it’s an impossible question to answer unless you précis it with a summary of the socio-political history of our country. Because there is no ‘South Africa’ in the sense they were meaning. There are pockets of disparate people whose lives are vastly different in terms of what they can expect to achieve; the dreams they dare to aspire to, and the food they can afford to eat.

Strangely enough, the thing that helped me understand the Swedes I was living amongst was when I started cooking Swedish food. The food of a nation says a lot about their passions and preferences and who, quintessentially, they are. Northern Europeans might appear cold on the outside, but bite into a warm-from-the-oven saffron bun on a frigid December morning and you know, underneath their chilly façade, beats the warmest of hearts. And when we break bread with one another we also break through barriers. Which is, I think, one of the reasons I insist on serving chakalaka at braais. It’s my private little rebellion against the repressive norms of my apartheid childhood. (And also because it’s delicious).

And, I guess, what propels me to put my 68-year-old mother in a car and drive us to Miriam’s on Adderley Street on a Tuesday morning in search of the perfect Gatsby in lieu of our regular coffee. And I guess it’s about needing to step out of my own little pocket; trying not to be so precious and white all the time. And I don’t assume for a moment that ordering a chip roll will change the world; I just mean we must try and be mindful of where we come from and the assumptions we make, and that there are worlds of experiences out there and a wealth of lessons at our fingertips if we can remember to open our minds and our hearts to them. It’s like, if you take the courage to break through the boundaries of what you order for lunch, maybe some other boundaries will be broken down too in the process. I don’t know.

I invited my friend Zulfa along as she’d joined in the Facebook conversation and seemed to be a bit of a Gatsby expert, and every time I see her she reminds me of the time I went to visit her at her home in Athlone and, being the type who can’t find her way out of Cavendish square, naturally I got hopelessly lost. With a dead cell-phone and driving around aimlessly with two children in an area which (to my mind) could only be teeming with murderers and rapists, my anxiety increased about a hundred-fold when I realised I was being followed by a strange man in a car. Not only followed, but he was making hand gestures and seemingly trying to pull me over. While I tried my best to get away from him, my Toyota Tazz didn’t have enough power and for endless, excruciating minutes, I had to watch this man wave his arms as he threatened to bludgeon us all to death.

When, by some miracle, I finally found the right house, I was surprised to see the scary man from the car sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of tea. It was none other than Zulfa’s sweet, docile husband, Moegamat, who’d ventured out in a quest to rescue what could only be the lost and hysterical blonde chick. Shame. This is how mad this country makes us. I still cringe when I see him. But, back to the Gatsby: It was bigger and spicier and more delicious than even greedy-guts, curry-loving me had expected. And while I tried to eat it with my hands – never mind one hand as is the Muslim way – within three bites I knew if I didn’t resort to my knife and fork it was going to become a soggy mess. The steak was tender and flavourful, the chips were crisp and spicy and the sautéed onion tied it all together perfectly. It might not be the healthiest of meals, but some food is soul food and, when eaten while laughing and sharing life stories with people you love it becomes some of the best medicine in the world.

Dance – you’re Afrikaans!

Johannes Jacobus Botha as a young man of 26.
My grandpa, Jan Jacobus Botha, as a young man of 26.

I think the two most surprising things I experienced travelling and living ‘overseas’ was that everything was not, in fact, cooler/better/more fabulous than it was in SA (we Saffers suffer from a terrible inferiority complex in that regard), but also how deeply, madly and uncompromisingly South African I became. Before I left the country I had a tenuous, undefined and vaguely apologetic sense of my own heritage. But – and I guess this is identity politics 101 – put me amongst a clan of white-blonde, herring-marinating, super-stylish Scandinavians, and I was one step away from wearing a lion skin to the Vårdcentral and throwing bones for people as my party trick. Since I didn’t own a lion skin, what I did instead was join a South African book group and learn to bake rusks and source a boerewors maker in Copenhagen and phone my mom just to weep when I heard Alicia say, ‘molo, Sisi! Kunjani?’

And the other thing I did, after not doing this thing for many years, was start to speak Afrikaans. Afrikaans – the language of my country, of my childhood, of my history with its uncompromising ‘r’s and it’s guttural ‘g’s that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself. Its verkleiningsvorm that adds ‘tjie’ to small things so that they shrink before your very ears, and its words which are so unique and descriptive that they refuse to be moulded into the clipped, uptight and inflexible rigours of English. Nothing is as crawly as a ‘gogga’; nothing says you’ve hurt yourself like ‘eina!’, and that’s not even touching on the assortment of swear words and abuses which are so colourful they verge on psychedelic.

And, of course, the more ‘Kaaps’ you get, the more evocative and descriptive Afrikaans becomes. And it’s a shame it got associated with all that bad stuff. That a language so vibrant and defiant and home-grown became branded and white-washed and sterilized so that it served the purposes of a few power-hungry old men who loved this country but not its people, and, in the way language constructs reality, was used as a very effective tool of oppression. Which, given its origins – a ‘secret’ language developed by slaves so that they wouldn’t be understood by their tyrannical masters, and also a rebellion against speaking the language of their oppressors – is deeply ironic. Another thing I only discovered recently is that ‘kombuis’ in Dutch signifies a ship’s galley. Which implies that it might not be ‘kitchen Dutch’ as we have always understood, but ‘ship galley Dutch’, which carries its own insidious connotations. And its hybrid of Dutch, Portuguese, Khoi and Malay (with some Xhosa and Zulu influence along the way) makes it magnificently unique and special as languages go.

And while I wasn’t nearly conscious enough at school to understand that Afrikaans was a tool of apartheid, the overt preference the Afrikaans kids got in my dual-medium Somerset West school was enough to distance me from it and all it represented. We English-speaking kids were largely regarded as wayward and traitorous and, despite being as South African as they come, in this country of divisions and apartness, our affiliations were somehow believed to be British. Because Afrikaans was not our home language, we were not ‘true’ South Africans, and I have vivid memories of teachers comparing us negatively to the Afrikaans kids, a censure which hurt me at the time, being a diligent, conscientious student who loved my school and was very proud of my good grades.

Because I suppose, even though we were children and clueless, the Anglo-Boer war with its concentration camps and brutal treatment of the Boers was still fresh in a lot of minds. So that when my maternal grandfather, Jan Jacobus Botha, who grew up poor on a farm in the Eastern Cape, went to school barefoot on horseback and spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa but not one word of English, met and fell in love with Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley who spoke no Afrikaans, their families were none too pleased. And when, in a real Romeo and Juliet-style saga they married anyway, his family, who lived literally down the road from their home in East London, would sit on their stoep and refuse to greet my granny when she walked past.

The beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilly.
My beloved granny, the beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley, shortly before she married.

Unfortunately, in those days, Afrikaans was – and still is in some quarters – considered a lesser language, and my granny made it a condition of their marriage that their children would be raised English-speaking. So, while both my parents are bilingual, my accent is bad, and I wish the language hadn’t been allowed to slip away over the generations as it has. But, with growing up, I’ve learnt to love it again and appreciate it and consciously embrace it as an integral part of my heritage. In a strange way I feel like my Afrikaans roots bind me to the soil of this country, and legitimize my living here. Because the Afrikaners were, really, South Africa’s white tribe. I wish I’d been older when my grandpa was alive so that I could have asked him questions about his life back then. And I wish I’d been awake enough to tell him not to speak his accented English to me, but to talk to me in his mother tongue, using the words of his own childhood to paint pictures of the world.

Now I rely on my mother’s memory to keep my ancestors alive, while in my own mind I’ve reclaimed the culture for myself. For me, it has nothing to do with those cross men and their brylcreem who didn’t smile one time in their lives and conjured a political system madder than your wildest imaginings. It’s a connection to this corner of Africa; my soul’s dompas, if you will. The blood of those people who fought and suffered to live freely in this country runs through my veins, too. And to the ones who say I don’t belong here, I answer in my best, accented Afrikaans, ‘fok jou! Gaan vlieg in jou ouma se klein kwassie!’ And I defy anyone to translate that.

I think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s by the late Koos du Plessis, and it was used in a TV series when I was growing up, but I don’t remember which one.

A Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Having No Black Friends

Many years ago when I was living in Sweden, an African American friend asked me if I had any black friends back home in South Africa and I had to answer, honestly, no. And while he let me off the hook by saying, ‘I suppose, during apartheid, you didn’t know any black people, really,’ it bothered me enough that I still think about that exchange to this day. And while, yes, I was born in the seventies and went to school and university during the height of apartheid when having black friends meant you could be arrested, apartheid ended a long, long time ago, and the people I count as my besties are still white as the driven snow. And I’m not alone in this. I have one friend who works in the arts and has a number of black friends but, for the vast majority of friends and acquaintances in my age group, we just don’t socialise with black people.

In fact, the first black South African friend I had was when I lived in Sweden. He was my age exactly which meant, compared to me, he had a really rough deal growing up, and we spent some very memorable hours drinking strong coffee together in a little café down the road from my apartment and talking about our respective histories and the country we loved and were so far away from. And even though our experiences growing up there were very different – him in a shack in Soweto where, if he ate breakfast it meant there wouldn’t be food enough for his siblings, me in a house with a swimming pool in Somerset West – he felt like home to me as I hope I did to him. We had so much more in common than we had dividing us – two Africans freezing to death in northern Europe and talking about Steers and sunshine and Bafana Bafana.

And if this is the case – that we have so much more in common than we do dividing us – why do we still live in our silos and keep to our ‘own kind’, whatever we perceive that to be? And I don’t think this is about racism per se as much as circumstance and the fact that, growing up, the only black people we knew were working for our parents. What I learnt living away from South Africa (and with no small measure of shock, having believed that South Africans were the only racists in the world) is that most people are a little bit racist. In fact, some of the most blatant racists I’ve ever met would be labelled ‘black’ – a woman I knew from the Caribbean whose family was light-skinned and therefore ‘superior’, frequently said shocking things about people of a darker hue. Somebody else of mixed race whom I used to work with told me once how upset her father was when she brought a black guy home. Her dad had been hoping she would marry ‘up’ – somebody light, like her, or even white. Black friends of mine have been denied access to clubs in so-called colour-blind Denmark. There was suddenly a ‘members-only’ rule. We fear and mistrust what is ‘other’ and we have all internalized that crap to some extent, and we need to recognize this for what it is rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

When I hear people announce that they are ‘not racist’ (I have a South African friend in London who does this) immediately a red light goes on for me. You cannot have lived through apartheid without being tainted by some of its ideologies. Yes, we move on – yes, we learnt to think critically and understand the brainwashing for what it was – but, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to be extra mindful about the kinds of things we say and do. While our system of institutionalized racism did a horrific injustice to black South Africans (and which we might not even recover from, entirely) it was also an injustice to us whiteys – we were deprived of so much that is wonderful and colourful and interesting about South Africa. We were kept in these narrow, sterile boxes and prevented from learning important things about the different people who make up this country. And now a lot of us find ourselves wanting to reach out and make things different, but not really knowing how.

A few mornings ago I had coffee with a friend who recently met a young black parliamentarian online and they’ve become besties. And he was recounting stories that had me guffawing into my flat white. For example, his friend’s mother is hooked on the TV show ‘Generations,’ where there’s this black guy and white girl who have fallen in love. And when they kiss on screen his mother says, ‘Hayibo! What would Verwoerd say if he could see this?!’ What, indeed. The guy in question loves my blog, especially the Ubuntu piece, and it makes me realize that we’re speaking exactly the same language, and we should be talking more.

When I was working for a magazine not that long ago the office was filled with young, funky black chicks who, with their cleverness and way with words, are leading our country into the future and forging new ways of thinking and being, and I wish, when I was that age, that I had been exposed to women like this and we could have been friends without it feeling forced. I get so worried, when I meet black women whom I admire and relate to, that they’re going to think I only want to be friends with them because they’re black. And it is a factor – we can’t deny that we have issues around colour. But maybe if we could put that out there and be open about it we could finally move beyond it and just be human beings.

And it’s with joy and relief that I find the young black South Africans I meet through work are much less precious than we old school whites are. They take the piss out of race and stereotypes; they laugh at us and at themselves which gives us permission to do the same, and feels really healthy and progressive. My nine-year-old daughter’s best friend is black, and it hasn’t occurred to either of them that they are supposed to be ‘different.’ In fact, Sophie doesn’t even know the word ‘black’ in relation to people (and why should she? We are shades of pink and brown). When she tells me about a new person in her class she’ll say, ‘they look a bit more like me.’ Or, ‘they look a bit more like Kukhanya.’ There is no value attributed to either skin tone. Without a doubt our children are growing up in a different South Africa than we did, and the ease with which these kids of different races and from different socio-economic places mingle and make friends makes me so happy I can dance. I just wish I could share that experience.