Palesa and the Hooker Boots

Palesa

Like most white people born and raised in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, the only interactions I have with people of colour are in supermarkets, Ubers and on Facebook Marketplace (where, lately, I find myself spending unjustifiable amounts of time browsing for items of footwear I do not need nor have the space to store. But, girls and shoes being a thing that defies logic and explanation, we must accept what we are and get on with it). 

And the interactions I have in these spaces are sometimes dull and pedestrian, and sometimes, for a while at least, make me think about the world we live in and the thoughts we have about the people who populate it. For a while I’ve had a pair of thigh-high, lace-up boots bought on a whim and which have always been that level of tight that only stops hurting after a bottle of Chardonnay and several tequilas. And since I am now old as a stick and not inclined to anaesthetise myself with the same gay abandon as I did in my youth, it made sense on several levels to sell them. 

So, for the first time, I placed my own ad on Facebook Marketplace and waited to see what would happen. What happened initially was nothing, and I wondered if I had marked them too high. But then Friday 5pm rolled around and while people crawled home in rush hour traffic and commuters trawled shopping sites to pass the time, my phone started pinging with women urgently needing a pair of thigh-high, lace-up hooker boots. A notion I fully understand. By Saturday morning I had several eager buyers, indicating that I sold them far too cheaply and am utterly useless as a businesswoman. 

Come Sunday morning my phone was still pinging and I was copying and pasting the same message to scores of hopeful shoe lovers scattered around the city. Then a message came through from someone called Palesa. It was riddled with typos, and all my prejudices kicked in. Because she wasn’t white and living in Claremont and because she wrote ‘ur’ for ‘your’ and because I was sick of copying and pasting I almost didn’t bother to respond. But then manners got the better of me. In seven seconds I got a message back from her requesting my phone number. 

Now I felt a twinge of annoyance. Not only was Palesa making me write things, but I had to also say things with my voice. I sent it anyway. Seven seconds later, my phone rang and Palesa – with such excitement her words tumbled over each other – was telling me how she was hopping in the shower that very second and then making her husband drive her from Goodwood to Green Point so she could purchase the hooker boots which were going to make life worth living. She would be there in under an hour and I was not to leave my house nor dare sell them to anyone else. 

My husband, on his way out the door to the airport, warned me about letting her inside. I rolled my eyes at his paranoia, but his comment made me secretly nervous. Because, you know, you never know. At exactly the alloted time, a little green car with a number plate that said PALESA and driven by an exasperated-looking husband type of person pulled up outside my house. She bounced out the car, bounded up my steps and started praying in a loud voice that the boots would fit. It took a bit of pulling and tugging, but she got them on. ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus!’ she announced to the heavens, and embraced me in a tight hug. ‘You are wonderful! Thank you, God bless you!’ she called out to me as she clambered back into the small, green Palesamobile and, waving and blowing kisses, disappeared from sight.

I stayed where I was on the steps of my big house in a good area, all bolted up and enclosed in expensive Victorian-style railings custom made to keep people out and felt a twinge of sadness. About how small and uncontested my world is. About the way I think about people who are different. About how many kind, warm, generous humans exist that I will never have the joy of knowing. It’s weird how we live. In many ways, nothing down here has changed. Now that the apartness is socio-economic it is no less insidious. 

I wish I had the courage to message Palesa and invite her around for dinner. I know our husbands would have loads in common, and I know for certain she would be somebody who would brighten up my day beyond measure. But I won’t because one doesn’t, and eventually I will forget about her and our heart-warming interaction. That evening I got a message thanking me again, and the next day a third message with a photograph of her standing in her office, smiling from here to heaven, rocking those sexy boots.

 

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Why White South Africa Needs a PK*

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

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

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

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

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

*Poes Klap (sorry, Mom)

On Not Being an Arsehole in the World

Last Friday evening I attended the launch of Ruby Wax’s new book, Sane New World. Ruby is a close friend of my neighbour, and I’ve spent a few evenings around a dinner table with her where her openness about her lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety impressed me. We human beings are not big on admitting when we’re in trouble. We’re so terrified of telling the people around us that we’re frightened and not coping that we soldier on until we find ourselves so far gone that the only option is medication. When celebs (who have a lot to lose) come out with their stuff, it really helps the rest of us be brave about our stuff, too.

Anyhow, one thing she said really stuck with me. Due to her own mental health issues, she took it upon herself to get a Masters degree in Mindfulness and Cognitive Psychology at Oxford University, and learn about the human brain and why we do the things we do. And one of the things she explained was that, when we face social rejection, the same area in our brain which responds to physical pain is activated. Which is why, when people are crap to us on social media, our hearts start pounding and our mouths go dry and we experience a surge of adrenalin. Our brains can’t distinguish between a troll on Twitter and a zombie wielding a chainsaw. The threat is perceived to be the same, so even when the snarky comment comes from a complete arb who has no meaning in your life, you practically poo in your pants.

And I was relieved to hear that I’m not alone. Because when I get a criticized on Facebook or my blog for something I’ve written (though it’s really only happened a very few times) it bothers me a lot. I mull over it for days, wondering if I was wrong or if I should have expressed myself differently. (I am actually far too thin-skinned to be this opinionated about stuff). When I see a new comment has come in, I hold my iPad at arm’s length and read it with one eye shut for fear it’s someone telling me I suck. It’s pathetic, but that’s how I am. I have a few friends whose comments I dread getting. Because, while they are nice enough people, they’re not that good at thinking through the things they say, and I regularly get stung by their words. And I guess this is why we still have wars – we have a hard time thinking beyond our own noses and appreciating that other people have different thoughts and different experiences from ours.

And this whole thing has been quite a challenge for me, because when you’re writing for magazines and newspapers, you know on some conceptual level that you have an audience, but barring the odd email you might get, your readers remain largely anonymous. When you’re blogging, on the other hand, your audience is right there, a click away. You get responses immediately, and you have to deal with them. Lots of responses from lots of people living lives and in circumstances that are different from yours. And while most are really, really nice a few can be less so, and the knee-jerk reaction is to defend your position, and even be a tiny bit not nice back. Because their comment has hurt your feelings. But then you start a war.

So, what I’ve been doing instead is only being nice. I put my thoughts out there, and they get interpreted in different ways, but I elect not to defend my position or explain what I actually meant or point out things they might have misunderstood. It is not my job to convince them that my view is right. They are, after all, as ‘right’ as I am, they’ve just had different experiences. And an interesting thing happens when you consciously operate from a place of tolerance and acceptance (and it’s not always bloody easy): the fight goes away. There is no fight, just human beings sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Yet somehow we’re raised to believe we need to make ourselves heard and stand our ground and fight for our place in the world. And I’m not saying there is no reason to push back, ever, but we’re very quick to draw our guns and go onto the defensive. I have a few people in my life whose entire ethos revolves around their egos and pushing their opinions and being the ‘rightest’ in the world, and they’re tiring and make me wonder who they’re trying to convince. And the thing is, if you can take a step back and not engage you do yourself the biggest favour. Because when people are shouting and being bullies and mean to those around them, more often than not it comes from a place of sadness and confusion. Individuals who feel loved and affirmed don’t need to sound off all the time.

And what I’m learning in the biggest, biggest way is that what you put out you get back. Give that injured inner child of yours a hug, and make a decision to err on the side of niceness. It’s easy making fires and shouting the house down, but contrary to what we’ve been taught, what takes the most strength and the most courage is being kind to the people who might not have been kind to you. And when you do that – are large and gracious – it’s astonishing, the bounty and grace you attract. And I can only imagine that the opposite holds true – be angry and aggressive, and that’s what’s you’re going to experience.

So, forgive me for sounding like the Dalai fucking Lama, but this has been a major a-ha moment for me. There are a lot of people in a lot of pain, and this makes them do (and say) really weird things. And, like Ruby says, if we could learn to be mindful about this stuff instead of going into battle at the drop of a hat, we’d all suffer less in our lives. And that’s what we human beings have in common, really, isn’t it? The quest to be happy and to avoid pain. And I’ll get it wrong and probably be annoyed before I’m done posting this blog, but it’s a step in the right direction. If we all made a decision right now that, for the rest of the day, we’ll be nice to every single person who crosses our paths – even when we feel they’re buffoons from hell – our worlds would become easier to navigate. Because, really, every one of us is crazy and a bit lost and fighting some or other kind of battle. So let’s try and remember that before we throw our word grenades.

If Real Life Was Like Facebook

Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing ever if real life was like Facebook? As in, people could only see you from a certain angle – your best – the one from which 98% of your pics are taken (we all know the other 2% were snapped by friends who didn’t know you had an angle rule and when it ended up on your timeline you felt too petty to untag yourself). That would be so awesome because everybody knows good-looking better get better jobs, have happier relationships and live more productive lives. You would SO get head-hunted, like, immediately, and meet Mr Right tomorrow.

And not only that. Imagine when people’s voices were making you bored, you could just choose a drop-box and remove them from your Timeline. One minute your boss is droning on about emerging markets, the next, there’s just an empty chair in the boardroom. Gone until further notice, buddy! And best you up your game, or I’ll never listen to your boring voice again. Or, better still, you could replace him with people you find interesting. Like your best girlfriends and that cute guy you picked up at Caprice and friended over the weekend. Suddenly, Monday’s strategy meeting just got way more fun.

If you could organize your office like you do your facebook community, you’d always be surrounded by people in sexy shoes holding cocktails, and your view of the back of the photocopier would immediately transform into a vista of Lion’s Head at sunset or a wintry beach or an adorable puppy. Bit sleepy from staying up to watch Scandinavian TV series all night? No problem: type your manager’s name in the ‘custom’ button under your status update and everybody but her will be able to see you’ve curled up under your desk for a nice little nap. And if the sarmie you made last night starts looking a bit sad, you could just instagram it. With the right filter you can make anything look gourmet.

Immediately, in your Facebook World, everything dull and miserable would cease to exist and your days would become endless forays into the winelands, meals with truffle foam and being surrounded by all your friends all the time as you smiled your way happily through life. What’s more, people would have to mind their ‘p’s and ‘q’s or your just wouldn’t ‘like’ them. And everyone knows how crap it is not getting any ‘likes.’ You’ll never have to break up with anybody because you can just press ‘unfriend.’ What’s more, if you report them to the Facebook Police they’ll never be allowed to talk to you ever again. No more end-of-relationship post-mortems – hurrah! By the same token, if you were tired of being single, you could just change your relationship status. Want to be engaged to Caprice boy? Done!

So, there’d be a button for when people bug you; a little air emoticon to warn folks when you’re crabby, and if you were feeling lazy you could just share somebody else’s clever, original post. Wouldn’t that be cool? To your boss: ‘what do I think? Didn’t you see my SHARE? Duh.’ Mark Zuckerberg is a genius, no doubt about that – I’m sure he’ll be up for the challenge.

I get that there are people who don’t like Facebook, but don’t bring them to my house.

I get that there are people who don’t like Facebook, like there are people who don’t like wine and chocolate and small, furry animals. But don’t bring them to my house. Because Facebook is, frankly, one of the best things god ever invented. People will say of other people – okay, me- she’s on Facebook a LOT. Like she’s on crack cocaine a LOT, or slapping her children a LOT when what ‘she’ is actually doing a lot is interacting with the world. Yes, the world.

There is no greater source of useful information than Facebook, topping google by a prettttty long margin because while google can tell me about stuff I know nothing about, Facebook fills in the gaps of the things I do. Like that seventies song, it colours my world. An example: while I know my ex-boyfriend married a model from Estonia, the best google can do is tell me where Estonia is. Facebook, on the other hand, is the true friend that tells me her ears are quite sticky-outy. And a girl needs to know these things.

I mean, isn’t it a beautiful thing seeing the nerdy guy from high school who no girl would touch with a barge pole go on to head the plastic surgery division of a major university hospital (bet he’s laughing now), or the beautiful girl who was shitty to everyone develop thighs the size of a church door? Maybe I’m unnaturally curious about people and their lives, but it’s immensely interesting to me that someone I once worked with married a gazonkazillionaire and is on honeymoon in St Barts; my next-door-neighbour from childhood has four beautiful daughters and a guy I once kissed at a party is running an ashram in North India.

And I fail to understand how social media could possibly make us antisocial. I’m in contact with waaaaay more people than I would normally be on a daily basis. I engage with people all over the continent, from different walks of life, and the overriding sense is of our sameness; our commonalities. I don’t go on Facebook instead of going out. No-one stays home from parties to post status updates. You post a pic of your drink, and then you go and talk to real people. Maybe some people are content to interact only with the three people in their immediate vicinity; can’t be arsed to take pictures of their dinner and think all this nattering about nothing is a big old waste of time. But frankly I think they’re pretty boring.

On that deplorable breed of person, the Facebook spy

Sometimes I’ll bump into someone I haven’t seen for a bajilllion years and they’ll say, oh, so how was that seminar/restaurant/school function you attended drunk and I’ll be completely puzzled as to how they can know these details of my life… Until the penny drops. They are spies.

They are that deplorable breed of person who friends you on Facebook and then says nothing ever again so that you completely forget they exist and you post away, assuming your updates are being read by the nice people who can be bothered to lift a finger and comment and share their own stuff, helping you not feel like the only person in the world whose life is an endless play by Beckett.

Oh no – why would they give you that satisfaction? While everyone and their mother is privy to the intimate details of your life, all they’ll give you by means of sharing is a photograph of their cat. It’s just not cool. Facebook is a two-way street, folks. You want to know about other people’s dirty laundry, you need to show some of your own. Shy? Tough titties. Don’t have time? Close your account. Because, for realzies, you’re not playing fair.

I’m not saying everyone has to overshare to the extent of some people (a-hem), but please, for god’s sake, post one picture of yourself taken within the last ten years. You have other people’s entire lives at your disposal – there is not a single holiday snap or dinner event you can’t look at any time you want. And all you’ll give us is a photo of Snowy? Well, we don’t want to see fucking Snowy.

So, go take a long-armed picture of yourself right this very minute and for every tenth update you read, post a freaking comment. It’s the right thing to do.