Who is the Africanest of us all?

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When February draws to a close, even while the weather remains hot, something subtle happens to the quality of the light; a nearly imperceptible softening of summer’s white glare. You have to have been here a really long time to notice this tiny shift. My husband has only lived in South Africa for 30 years, so many of its nuances remain lost on him. But hidden somewhere in the strands of our DNA lurks a knowledge that’s been passed on for millenia. It has to do with communing with nature; when the survival of our hunter-gatherer forebears depended on a minute reading of the environment. The days might feel like summer, but autumn is in the air.

Last night I gave myself a sleepless night by reading a Christopher Hope essay on Zimbabwe, in particular about the white people who stayed on after the election. He describes them as somnambulists, daytime sleepers in a country which is, in his words, ‘an eternal afternoon.’ Drugged by sunshine and servants, in a torpor of privilege, they didn’t believe Robert Mugabe when he told them he was going to take away everything they had. They misread the climate, and how much they were loathed. Not happy reading for a white girl living on the Atlantic Seaboard. It’s lazy to draw simple parallels: Zim is Zim and we are here and the countries are not the same. At the same time, one can’t help wonder, as our country is plunged into literal darkness and we reach passively for the candles, are we also sleepwalking into an abyss? And if we are, where the hell will we go? Even if we find ourselves passports, where else would ever be home?

Telling Africans they aren’t African is like telling fifth generation Germans they aren’t really German. ‘You see, there are Germans who are Germaner than you.’ Maybe there are. If genetics is what gives us our identity. I’ve never done that DNA test, but if I did and if I was – for argument’s sake – 80% Khoisan (which is not that far off, actually, as I am one quarter pure Afrikaans, and that lot were vrying with everybody), then would I be African? Or still not? These are the things I think about at 4am. What I do know is that our small colonial hangovers like eating trifle at Christmas do not make us British. For one, we go brown and not pink in the sun and we don’t have vrot teeth. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what makes us who we are. 

I have a friend who is an animal behaviourist. He grew up in the Transkei, on the beach, in the wild. When we go away on holiday he spends the entire day out on the rocks fishing, gathering mussels, being one with his world. He is as much of this earth, of this continent, as the Nguni cattle he has raised, the fynbos he identifies. He is white and the most African person I’ve ever met. Transplant him to Europe and he would wither and die, like a succulent in an English country garden. Transplant me to Europe and I’d love my look in a woollen coat for around 11 seconds before withering and dying, too. I was warned by a healer once that if I stayed in Northern Europe I would get sick. He was 100% right. I was already sick, I just didn’t know it till I got home and could breathe again.

We, who are of this place – who recognise its subtleties and perceive its nuances; who call people sisi and bhuti and understand Kaaps and know exactly how Auntie Washiela from the Bo Kaap sees the world – we don’t transplant easily. A while ago we had family from Denmark stay with us. For two weeks we were tour guides, showing them the dramatic splendour of our coastline, the ridiculous beauty of the wine route. I found myself trying to explain South Africa to them. I got tongue-tied a few times; contradicted myself. It’s a very, very difficult landscape to reduce to simple sentences or, even with time on your hands, adequately explain. I had to simplify everything into soundbites. Sometimes they roared with laughter. Other times they went quiet. Where they come from things are so simple. People are all the same and everyone is fine.

It would be hard to find a more complex mileu with a weirder history than ours. When we’ve been traveling and we arrive at the departures gate at Doha airport for our plane bound for Cape Town I recognise my people immediately. I don’t know what it is that makes us so identifiable, but you can’t miss a room full of South Africans. Badly dressed, chatting to all and sundry, a roomful of mongrels. We are, after all, braks; pavement specials; hybridisations of all that has been. We are the products of centuries of travel to and from this beautiful land; brown faces with blue eyes. White faces with kroes hare. Even my hair minces when it’s humid. Before we were apart we were very much together. The evidence of our togetherness is clear wherever you look. 

We file patiently onto the aircraft. We smile at one another in recognition. Wherever we have been on the planet, now we are here with our tribe ordering the chicken or beef and loving the free drinks. Yussus, check at us larnies. Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sotho, Kaaps.  I’ve tried to identify what it is that makes an Afrikaans face so recognizable. You see it long before you hear the language. I try to separate the features – is it the jawline? The eyes? The nose? Who knows, it just is. Charlize Theron looks like any girl from Durbanville (yes, we are that gorgeous).

The thing is, I don’t think it matters where our distant ancestors came from. What matters is where we are now. The only things we know for sure is that we are mad and fabulous and resilient AF. Nobody is the same and nobody is fine, but that is our normal. Sometimes, when I get freaked out about Eskom or the EFF or the ganglands or the girls getting raped and murdered I think, are we misreading the climate? Are we daytime sleepers on our loungers on Clifton 4th, and is summer drawing to a chilly close? Many insist it is. I say, I don’t know. We’ve been asking ourselves this question for 600 years. So, while we decide, let’s put on a bit of Mandoza and dance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.