So the other day this weird but not totally surprising thing happened. There I was at Checkers standing in front of the poultry section trying to find the least sorry-looking chicken breasts to grill in a dry, unappetising way for supper because #fatgirl and also #fatbastard and this woman comes up to me and says, ‘Excuse me… I’m sorry to interrupt, but are you Kendall Jenner?’ And it’s remarkable because even though I’m not actually Kendall Jenner I find that lately the similarity between us is becoming uncanny and something one can’t deny unless one is seriously impaired.
There are just so many things we have in common, Kendall and I. We both drive a black car and also she spends much of her time sadly picking at bits of lettuce in plastic containers and complaining about things like how busy she is and how much the paparazzi is hounding her. Which, if you’ll ask my husband, is very much like the way I spend most of my days except for the paparazzi part. Definitely I will concede that she is possibly more famous than me even though just this morning at the meeting to discuss outfits for the Grade 7 fashion show one of the moms said, ‘maybe you can write about it on your blog ha ha’ indicating to me that she knows of the blog and also that I write it. I know that Kendall gets comments like this all the time. It’s exhausting for famous and semi-famous people.
The actual truth of me is that I pay the DSTV people nearly R800 a month just so that I can watch the Kardashians being on holiday in Maui laughing and having the best time ever until ones pushes the other one overboard on a yacht causing her to lose a ginormous diamond earring the size of a ham hock and yet she manages to be sad for only one episode. They are very zen, those girls, and I admire that about them. If it was me, even though mine are cubic zirconias, I can guarantee that whomever pushed me like that and made one of my favourite earrings fall out would hear about it every day for the rest of their natural life. So it is literally the only show I watch since the cooking shows make me hungry and I can’t follow the news and all those words.
And I watch the show because it inspires me. If Khloe can get that thin in revenge against Lamar Odom (we all know the sorry details of what happened, no need to repeat it here) who am I to whine about having one boiled egg for breakfast? No-one. I am no-one. She is my inspiration, Khloe Kardashian. And their teeth… I think I find their teeth the most inspiring thing of all. With teeth so white and perfect how can you have one bad day in your life? The second I got a summons in the post saying chances are fair to middling that I’ll be going to jail for unpaid parking fines I would just whip out my compact and look long and hard at my teeth. Jail, schmail. Bring it.
Also, and this is incidental but I’ll mention it in passing, Kendall Jenner and I have the same watch. Just look at the pictures closely and you’ll see it’s true. Identical. She was also (like me) asked to wear it and in very laissez faire fashion kept her shirt unbuttoned to her navel. Because whyfor must she waste her time with buttons? She has black cars to drive and salads to eat. So next time you see me purchasing a package of Country Pride and wonder to yourself, is that her? Is that really her? wonder no more.
(If you also want to be mistaken for a celeb at Checkers have a look here. If you choose to purchase one of their seriously gorgeous watches online and put in the code DISCOPANTS (which is me, not Kendall) the Daniel Wellington people will give you a 15% discount up until December. Kendall and I love ours).
Some weeks ago, over lunch at a new Cape Town restaurant everyone is queuing to get into but is actually crap de luxe and the kitchen staff secretly laugh at you for paying R135 for dry chicken in Nola mayonnaise I had a conversation with a friend’s 65-year-old mom who comes from a country the name of which I won’t mention except to say its climate is dodgy, lots of (sorry) South Africans live there and it has more sheep than people. And the conversation was irksome and went like this: *Someone makes a reference to Chinese people living in to Cape Town*
Her: You won’t believe how many Chinese have moved into our neighbourhood. In fact, parts of it don’t even look like Wellington! (oops, I said the place) anymore.
Me: (1,5 glasses of Chenin in and already forgetting my manners. Though lately, being nanoseconds away from The Menopause, it doesn’t take much to make me stroppy): How lucky for you! Must be a great improvement on the local cuisine.
Her: Well… I know what you’re getting at, Xenophobia and everything, but really… it’s just overrun! They’re everywhere!
Me *moving my leg so my husband can’t kick it anymore*: I don’t know why everyone is so nervous of the Chinese. What’s wrong with Chinese people? I mean, look at Chinatown in Milnerton. Chinatown in Milnerton has saved my bacon many times when I needed cheap things in a hurry and pretend soccer shoes for my 9-year-old and also did you know you can buy toilet paper for a fraction, a fraction of what Kak n Pay charges for the same thing. So I think we need to all stop being so weird about people who don’t look exactly like we do. Also, they make dumplings(this was the clincher, in my opinion).
Her: * Awkward pause* Well, I think you’re missing the point of what I’m trying to say, I’m not saying I don’t like Chinese people, I’m just saying, Wellington blah blah blah…
And yes, I’m probably missing the point, but it aggravates me when people say things like that and assume you’ll agree because personally and speaking for myself, I have less than no problem with Chinese people living in ‘my’ city (or even better, ‘my’ neighbourhood, then I don’t have to travel so far for dumplings) and to anyone who does I have two words to say to you: Peking Duck. Anyone who has ever tried to make Peking Duck will immediately have the deepest, most abiding respect for the people of China. Recently I decided to celebrate my new stove and its fancy rotisserie function by attempting to make Peking Duck.
I purchased a frozen duck (since I don’t live in China) from a trendy, overpriced butchery and also enough Chinese 5 Spice to season all of Yingdong and Fangshan and Poongking combined and followed the recipe to a tee. Significant was my excitement around my own cleverness because who on this planet doesn’t adore Peking Duck? (yes, yes, the vegans, but never mind them for now). Well. The fact that that duck had to leave its pond of murky happiness to end up a leathery grey thing on my sad dinner table fills me with shame and regret.
I will say emphatically that Peking duck is not a dish for non-Chinese people to attempt. Neither, for that matter, is Szechuan Spicy Boiled Fish. Which I haven’t tried to make but after the last thing won’t even bother. So, if for no other reason than the plethora of places in this (and every) city you can visit and order delicious dishes for a lot less than R135, let’s try not to say crappy things about the ‘foreigners’ who arrive on our shores. Because unless you actually did that swab test at Home Affairs and are 100% Khoi San you are also a foreigner, FYI.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Chinese have a reputation for being insular and are often not the friendliest folk you’ll encounter when you’re out shopping (although there are huge, massive exceptions to this generalisation, like my friend Lucy in the above pic who is basically sunshine on speed). But, in instances where we feel inclined to put people in boxes, it’s very good to stop for a minute and consider the reason why some people may behave in a certain way. Generally speaking, I’d say that living in a dictatorship on the brink of abject poverty (this is turning, but it will take a while) in a country where full-term girl babies were routinely aborted and where you work your fingers to the bone seven days a week for a wage below the breadline and never see your children is enough to make anyone a little taciturn.
Add to that the fact that basically everyone in the world hates you (last time I checked there wasn’t a notable lack of space in New Zealand) and you’re going to turn inwards and stick with your own kind. A few centuries ago, when everyone and their brother was arriving on South African shores in the hope of finding diamonds and living a better life (don’t we all hope for diamonds and a better life?), a large contingency of Chinese people arrived as slaves of the Dutch East India Company. And you can imagine that being a slave in the household of one Gerhardus Poephol van Schipol wouldn’t exactly have been a barrel of laughs.
Then, to add insult to injury, between 1904 and 1910 over 64 000 Chinese were ‘imported’ to colonial South Africa (love the euphemism) as indentured labourers to work on the gold mines. So they basically helped build our country. And while most of these Chinese were returned to China (thanks for that, and good luck not dying on the ship), the Chinese population that exists in South Africa today are, for the most part, the great-great-great-grandchildren of independent migrants who trickled in in small numbers from Guangdong province as early as the 1870s. I would say that if your people have been living here for 150 years you pretty much qualify as a local.
And for these people, life on the whole has not been a thing of joy. Discrimination and racist legislation prevented them from obtaining individual mining licenses (pretty ironic, that). The ugly laws that governed South Africa at that time denied citizenship, prohibited land ownership and restricted trade for the Chinese. Classed as non-white and barred from entering the formal sector, most Chinese had to go under the radar to support their families, playing Mah Jong for money in the townships, getting arrested by the apartheid police and eking out an existence by running small businesses. Nobody wanted Chinese tenants or neighbours. To be eligible for a rental property you had to get written permission from every person living in the street that they didn’t mind you moving in there. Can you really blame them for being a bit poesbedroef**?
When you drive through dusty little towns like Vanrhynsdorp and Pitsonderwater and see the inevitable Chinese shop in the middle of nowhere selling everything from cheap clothing to fly swatters you’ve got to wonder at the lives of its owners. If this isolated, lonely existence miles from home and anything familiar is better than where you came from… wow. So, I say from our places of white, middle class privilege let’s try and keep the arrogance in check. You’d be hard pressed to find a race who work harder, longer and are tougher and more resilient than these.
Also, rather than going to cool establishments that serve Nola mayonnaise and don’t need your custom, support small businesses in off-the-beaten-track places run by people who work insanely long hours and try really hard to serve consistently good food. Many of them are supporting entire families back home in China. You don’t find a lot of Chinese people hanging out at Clifton and going for drinks at Caprice. They understand the value of money and what it takes to survive. Plus, there’s no reason on god’s green earth to make your own Peking Duck.
*South African for ‘watch out!’
** South African for ‘very sad.’
(If you want to also cry like a girl and go back the next night, Hot and Spicy Szechuan Food can be found about 500m up Bosmansdam Road if you’re coming from Koeberg and is tucked behind an establishment called Sables Bar and Bistro. I don’t think they have a phone and nobody speaks English. Go hungry and point at things).
I know that for some of you reading the header you’ve already decided in your minds that what I’m about to tell you is a pack of stinking lies, but I swear every word is true. And I don’t write of this event to diss anyone’s religion – I like religions (maybe not the Catholics so much); for example, I believe that I would have made a pretty fabulous Jewish wife if the Jewish boy I dated for a short, yet memorable period in my life had deemed me respectable enough to attend Friday night supper at his folks. But he didn’t, and you know that if you’re not cracking the nod for the challah you’re definitely not cracking it for the chuppah.
And I don’t even know what that was about because I would have magayered quicker than you can say shemsach (a new word I learnt from my friend Candice Cohen to describe the amount of cheese Woolworths puts on their burgers). I would have been there like a bear, buying cakes from Denise’s Delights and chopped herring from Checkers. I still go there, though, to Checkers and loiter at the Kosher counter on a Friday afternoon, pretending I’m shopping for Shabbos. I’m sad like that. And while I look back with fondness and nostalgia on that short, memorable period in my life when I nurtured the fantasy of becoming Jewish (and it was truly a fantasy because we actually only went on about two dates and argued the entire time. He’s a Capricorn, say no more) I don’t think the same thing applies to him because I heard, through the grapevine, that he ended up becoming a rabbi. Which is a pretty Capricorn thing to become, now that I think of it. They’re all bossy as hell.
I can only imagine that his dark past cavorting with a shiksa is something he doesn’t talk about much and would rather forget. (Luckily he’ll never read this because he doesn’t have the internet. That’s how rabbi-like he is). But anyway, this is not about that, though it does give you some insight into my character. So, when I was 15 I developed this enormous crush on a tall, blonde surfer boy I’ll call Troy (because I suspect, unlike my rabbi ex fiancee, he does have the internet). Only thing was, Troy was a Jehovah’s Witness, and they also have strict rules about whom you can and cannot hook up with.
In those days the movie ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ had not been made so it didn’t occur to me that his religion might just have been an excuse. I took it at face value when he told someone to tell me he could only date within the faith. So, for me it was a no-brainer. I became a Jehovah’s Witness. Admittedly, not for long enough that I got to walk around on weekday evenings knocking on people’s doors, but if Troy had said, ‘listen, babe, if you’re free Wednesday we’re hitting Westridge’ I would have out-knocked and out-pamphleted the lot of them just for the chance to hang out with him. But I don’t think they fully trusted me to spread the word right, either. This might have had something to do with the fact that at that stage of my life I put a lot of time and effort into trying to look like Madonna.
Since I only had the clothes I had and my mom wasn’t keen on dropping a bunch of money to make her teenage daughter look like a street-walker, I had to improvise. No corset? No problem, I just wore my bra over my shirt. I saw it on a music video. Also, for some bizarre reason the fashion look of the day was long johns, so I stole a pair out of my dad’s cupboard and tie-dyed them purple. These items, together with the hot pink glitter gel I used liberally to slick back the sides of my permed mullet, well… hot as I thought I was, in retrospect the look wasn’t a win.
But there I would sit, Saturday after Saturday in my Madonna outfit for two hours (two hours, friends!) while the pastor called on brother this and sister that (that’s how you address people in the Kingdom Hall) to read from the scripture or reiterate why celebrating your birthday is satanic while my eyes bored into the back of Brother Troy’s head, willing him to turn around and notice my underwear-as-outerwear. And there wasn’t even Instagram to distract you in those days, so you had to pay attention. It was really all a complete waste of time because, bar the one time we kissed in my friend’s jacuzzi (okay, I kissed him and he couldn’t get out even though he tried several times. I’m surprisingly strong for a girl), he had zero interest in me and my glitter gel.
And the reason why I’m remembering all this is because yesterday he sent me a friend request. Out of the blue. Not that I hadn’t stalked him fairly recently and seen he’s still a member of that church but has a lovely wife and family and while he looks the same and I’m sure is a delightful human being, what possessed me to feel that degree of adoration and behave like a crazy person I’ll never know. Though I’m happy to report I’m not crazy now at all. At all. Ask my husband.
As a mother of two I’m going to let you in on a secret closely guarded by the parents of the world: having kids is overrated, and you don’t have to do it. No matter how many women (it’s always the women) accost you at dinner parties demanding to know why your uterus remains a thing of emptiness, I will tell you unequivocally that the motive for their probing is rage around the following things: you – unlike them – look fresh and rested; you – unlike them – will not be going home to pay the babysitter after this dull dinner party but heading straight to somewhere fabulous where you’ll imbibe alcohol and have sexual relations and lastly (and this is a biggie) your vagina is intact. Nothing makes mothers madder than the idea of your intact vagina.
These things about you fill parents of the world with hateful, jealous fury. How dare you sleep in the nighttime and spend your weekends on the beach? Why aren’t you and your partner also having fights in the park at 6:45am and walking up and down the driveway frantically pushing a pram while its contents scream unrelentingly? Or trying to eat a restaurant meal holding a fractious, miniature fembot? No no no no, you look far too contented. Quick! You need to lose that contraceptive device yesterday and also be very fat and very, very tired like them. But really, here’s the thing – and I’ve done it long enough to know – in spite of what people seem hell-bent on telling you there are in fact gazillions of worthwhile ways to spend the days of your life that have nothing to do with bringing children forth into the world.
Off the top of my head I can think of 137 more interesting things than the school run, for example. If I could clock up the hours, months, probably years I’ve spent waiting for someone short in stature to finish ballet/soccer/recorder lessons I’m certain I would keel over and die of dismay. And I’m not saying I don’t like having children. I adore my girls and for me, for whatever reason, mothering was always on the agenda. But I don’t pretend it’s not a job without moments of mind-altering tediousness and that there aren’t days I want to say to my offspring, you know what? You are the two most annoying people I’ve ever met on this planet. I’m off to drink piña coladas somewhere sane like a lunatic asylum. Sayonara, midgets, and good luck working the stove.
But, unlike other job descriptions that looked good on paper, this one you can’t resign from. So instead you hire a babysitter, put on extra concealer and try to convince innocent, child-free people that they don’t know what they’re missing because safety in numbers and all. Many people genuinely love having kids and that’s cool and for (almost) every moment you go what the actual fuck under your breath there are moments that are fun and rewarding. But for those people sitting on the fence or who suspect there might be things that are better and more fun to do with their lives than being parents I say, yes! There are! Don’t believe the hype; don’t listen when they imply it’s your duty and that you’re somehow lesser of a woman/human being if you think it’ll be more interesting running a large, successful company than watching a toddler poo. Or traveling the world and living in different countries and spending your days having adventures with sexy men you don’t have to marry.
Lord knows, there are enough women out there breeding prolifically because they don’t have a choice (and, frankly, are often barking as a result). You don’t have to be one of them. You are fully, totally entitled to do something different and extraordinary with your life. And I commend singletons and couples who have the courage and insight to know parenthood is not for them. It’s not an easy choice to make, but only because the people around them make it hard. People hate it when other people make different choices. They get anxious and confused and start asking themselves questions they would rather not know the answers to. But I say, fuck everyone else and the family car they arrived in. Take your intact vagina and go conquer the world.
So, to celebrate National Heritage Day which happens tomorrow whatever date that is because my watch is consistently wrong, our kids get to go to school dressed in clothes which honour their heritage. Lovely in theory, let’s celebrate a thing, less lovely when it’s 7:20am and you have to leave in 3 minutes and everyone is still in their pyjamas having back-to-back panic attacks because nobody knows what the hell our heritage is. Well, we sort of do, but as white South Africans sending our 9-year-old to school dressed as a colonising rapist and plunderer feels a little wrong.
Also, being white South Africans, chances are excellent that a sizable portion of our gene pool is Khoi San and while I’m much prouder of sharing ancestry with indigenous Africans than whatever skollie relatives managed to escape the doldrums of England and Germany and survive the voyage across the Atlantic with vrot teeth and dirty underwear, and I even have a leopard skin in the cupboard (don’t ask and also don’t skel, it’s ancient and inherited) and a knobkierie which would make a nice outfit for one of the girls there’s the thing of the #blackface so that’s not even an option. And as we stood there in growing dismay I was reminded of the strangeness of being a non-African African and I realised that that is why the white people call it National Braai Day – because we don’t know what the hell else to do, but God knows we understand a marinade.
And the thing about us white people, even those like me whose relatives haven’t seen a sniff of Europe in 300 years, we have to be extremely cautious about claiming an African heritage because, as we know, this matter goes much further than what a swab of saliva might reveal. Africanness is about a lived experience, a history and a past that I will never be a part of. Worse, my kind added significantly to the kakness of black lives in South Africa which pretty much precludes me from laying claim to common ground. At the same time, the first time I put foot on British soil, late into my twenties, while the place was vaguely familiar by virtue of Kathy and Mark books from Sub A and Fawlty Towers, it was still deeply foreign and I felt no sense of belonging at all. They talk funny and still have vrot teeth.
And while I am pale and blonde and look Scandinavian, that is where the similarity ends. I lived in Sweden for a long time and loved much about it, but those were not and never will be my people. But the rainy Saturday morning I walked through the town square and encountered a group of gumboot dancers who were visiting Malmö for some or other reason… well, my husband had to hold me quite firmly by the arm to stop me from rushing over to the nearest person and flinging my arms around him. Instead I looked on quietly and cried. Because, right or wrong and shared experience or not, these were my people. And the fact that every Marc Lottering skit and every Nandos ad made me howl told me that I needed to go home. And I did. And I live here now observing the daily madnesses and sadnesses and beautifulnesses of this country.
Like, a few hours ago in front of me in the queue at Checkers was what you’d call an old school Xhosa umakhulu, a granny. Someone just like her worked in our home, invisible as a ghost. She was bent and her hands were arthritic and no question she had seen her share of suffering in this lifetime. She was buying two small kerosene lamps, probably to save on the cost of electricity. I was buying a range of overpriced things from the kosher deli because it’s Friday and I can’t be bothered to cook. Just before that I’d been for a wax. I’ve become quite friendly with the woman who keeps my legs smooth. She is recently married and they are trying for a baby. She said, ‘The only thing is, my husband is dark-skinned and looks very black, whereas I’m nice and light. I really don’t want my children to get his dark skin.’
I thought about all of this as I drove home. So many layers of wrong, so much history behind it. But still I want to think that the intensity with which I love this country and how home-home-home it is and will always be for me means I’m not just a visitor and a coloniser. Even though I have no idea what to do tomorrow to celebrate my history but braai. Happy Heritage Day, everyone. We’ve come a long way and we have a long, long way to go.
As everyone in my family knows, I’m somewhat of a cheat. I believe cheating wherever possible is an intelligent way of getting where you need to be with a minimum of hassle and stress. I cheat at things like boule and Monopoly and now and again I forget to tell MyFitnessPal about the chocolate croissant I inhaled on the school run because anyway food that isn’t eaten on a plate doesn’t count. The thing is, if I didn’t cheat I would regularly lose at things which would negatively impact my self-esteem, and since I’m so kak at games of all descriptions, it’s a survival mechanism I’ve had no choice but to hone over the years.
Like this past July in Copenhagen when we went for Sunday lunch at some friends who were spending the summer in a fancy house by the sea where the rich people of Denmark live. After a wonderful lunch of steak and fried potatoes (our hostess was French where they not only eat carbs but fry them and yet remain as thin as mist), we did what rich Danish and ordinary French people do and went out onto the lawn to play boule. I’m not great at boule, and while I’m not a bad loser as such it just gets embarrassing when you’re competing against a wafer-thin French girl who wears silk lingerie and not beige broeks like me (I know this because I snooped around and found a clothes horse hung with tiny, diaphanous items of underwear, like Barbie had one hell of a night) and you’re coming totally stone last, being beaten even by young children.
So, when the players ahead of me were distracted and talking about the various merits of a la-la-Pinot Noir I would subtly use my foot to get the ball into a more favourable position, significantly hoisting myself up in the rankings. The fact that I’d had several glasses of the above-mentioned Pinot Noir which impacted my balance somewhat and made me fall over once or twice alerting everyone to my tricks we don’t really need to go into, but they were polite enough to let me pretend I really came fourth.
Also when we play Monopoly, even when I try really hard to save and make sound financial decisions and not be like I am in real life somehow I end up alternately in jail or on Regent Street at the doorstep of the hotel my husband has yet again unkindly purchased and keeps laughing meanly when I land there round after round. So you can’t really blame me for taking advantage of the times my fellow players are momentarily distracted by the loud gwang of a hadeda landing on the roof and everyone gets up to look out the window to see if it’s a baddie come to kill us and I pilfer the money of the other players and hide it under the board so the theft is not immediately apparent. Because this is the only way I’m not bankrupt and out of the game within 15 minutes. And I know it’s not ideal that the people I’m stealing from are my own children, but on the other hand they need to learn that the world is full of robbers and swindlers and nobody should be trusted, least of all their own kin. But enough about that.
This French dish (which possibly isn’t even really, but it goes with the cheating theme and it does contain French tarragonois) is so ridiculously easy and yet appears quite fancy and sophisticated when you serve it to guests, so naturally it’s a hit with the likes of me. There are one or two things you can’t cheat with, though. It has very few ingredients, so you must buy good things. Pay more for your chicken and don’t even think about buying Chorizo from a poofy shop. It’s going to ruin everything and nobody will think you’re Nigella anymore which defeats the whole object of cooking for anybody ever. This is what you’ll need.
Several chicken pieces
2 tins of butter beans
2 tins of tomatoes
dried French tarragonois
a bay leaf
Fry your chicken in olive (or any damn) oil and season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with flour if you feel like it. Remove browned chicken pieces from the pot and in the lovely, chickeny fat fry your bacon, then add your onion, garlic and chorizo not whole but sliced, obvs. When you’ve fried that for a while add your tomatoes, a tablespoon of tarragonois, chicken stock, fresh rosemary, 2 tins of butter beans and the chicken. Put the lid on the pot and let it simmer gently for a couple of hours. Serve with rice and/or crusty bread and a nice bottle of white. It’s very tasty and your friends will be impressed with your cooking skills. Also, the amazing thing about this dish is that halfway through cooking it you’ll find that you are thinner and also able to speak fluent French even if you didn’t speak a word of that language before. That surprised me quite a lot, but then life is full of surprises. Bon appetit!
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.
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.
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.
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.