On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

south africa flag

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Six Mad South African Stories

Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hon!). One of those lost-in-translation moments.
Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hom!). One of those quintessentially South African, impossible-to-translate moments.

With this trial going on and on and the awful Nkandla scandal and that book that’s just come out about the crisis our education system is in it’s easy to get a bit despondent and start thinking, fokkit, Hermanus, what’s to become of us, and when that happens it’s good to be reminded that, while we live in a country where the future is every part of uncertain, the flipside of this is that hardly a day goes by without something mad/funny/ridiculous happening that makes you laugh out loud or shake your head in dismay or be warmed to the bone with the kindness and resilience of human beings. And, after all, we are not here to experience perfection; we came to experience love and humanness in all of its manifestations. Here are some true stories gathered over the past twelve months.

The Blind Beggar and the Lotto Tickets

My mom told me this story over chicken curry a few nights back. She was standing in the queue at Shoprite to buy her weekly lotto ticket (‘if you don’t buy, you can’t win’, as my dad always says), and ahead of her was a well-dressed, blind beggar – really smart in a suit and hat, being led around by a young woman who helped him empty the contents of a plastic packet onto the counter. The cashier looked horrified and like she was about to protest but changed her mind and proceeded to count out R72 entirely in brown coins. There was not a single piece of silver in the mix. With the entire R72 the two of them bought lotto tickets. That’s called faith. Or something. I hope they got at least a few numbers right.

The Naked Rastafarian in the Garden

We don’t have a fence around our property, and a while back my kids called me and told me there was somebody in the garden. I went out to have a look, and there, washing himself at the outside tap, was a young Rastafarian homeless guy in his late twenties or so. He had Tresemme shampoo and a loofah. I went over to where he was squatting and said, listen, dude, I don’t mind if you need to wash, but don’t let the tap run for so long, you make everything waterlogged. He stood up and faced me, naked as the day he was born, and nodded that he understood, but the next day he was back, and then he was coming twice a day and it started to get on my nerves. My polite requests that he didn’t come quite so often fell on deaf ears, and eventually, after a couple of weeks, I told him not to come anymore, but there he was, twice a day, and I live alone half the time and the whole situation started to get a bit problematic so we took matters into our own hands and replaced the tap with one that has a removable top. You can’t turn it unless you have the top bit, and we put the top bit inside. The next time he came he stood staring at the tap in bewilderment. Then he climbed up the steps to our deck where there is a working tap, but where all of Green Point would be able to see him washing his bum, so he just stood there for a while not really knowing what to do. I felt a bit bad and went outside and said, sorry, man, but really, it was getting uncool. He shrugged and went off on his way and I haven’t seen him since. Shame. He just wanted to be clean.

The Lady at Fruit and Veg City

All this cancer everywhere really freaks me out, so I’m trying to feed us all healthy food, and the kids and I have a little game where we each have to make sure we get 7 servings of veggies and fruit a day, and it’s quite fun, actually, seeing how many greens you can squeeze into a sauce or a soup. Or, before supper, I give them a ‘starter’ now which is cut up apple and blueberries and cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks and the kids think it’s great, and I feel like a less crap parent. Anyhow, Fruit and Veg have nice stuff lately – fancy mushrooms and tiny baby carrots and fresh, interesting salads so I try and go there more, and as the cashier was ringing up my stuff and I was looking over her shoulder thinking of something or other, she suddenly stopped dead, looked me in the eye and said, ‘where are my manners? Hello. How are you, and did you have a nice weekend?’ I was surprised, but also not, because you do get that kind of thing happening down here. I told her I missed my husband but that I have good friends who kept me busy. She patted me kindly on the arm and said, ‘it won’t be long now.’ And I walked out of a budget supermarket feeling like the world is a kind and gentle place.

The Day my Mom Got Mugged

Arriving home at about 6pm one winter’s evening, suddenly a young man with a knife appeared at my 68-year-old mom’s side and demanded she give him her bag. She said, ‘I’m not giving you my bag. There is nothing in it of value, but it is of value to me.’ He started to argue so she ordered him to sit down where she proceeded to show him her near-empty wallet, her old, worthless cell-phone and the punnet of mushrooms she’d just bought at the Spar. She said, ‘I’ll give you R100 but you are not getting anything else.’ He agreed and went on his way. When she told me the story a few days later I didn’t know whether to be proud or horrified. I still don’t know.

The Honest Granadilla Lolly Guy

Those guys on the beach are so freaking annoying with their cooler-boxes of ice lollies (a lolly to make you jolly?) when you’re trying to read your Heat magazine in peace, but a few months ago I took the kids to the beach and, just as we’d settled, I spotted a friend 50 metres away. Too lazy to go all the way over there, I phoned her and told her to join us, which she duly did. About ten minutes later, one of the ice lolly guys approached us again, this time with a fancy new Samsung smart phone in his hand, and asked us if it belonged to one of us. In the process of gathering her things, my friend had dropped her R8000 phone in the sand, he had spotted it and was doing the rounds. She gave him R50. He probably lives in a cardboard box.

The Jolly Christmas Bergie

On High Level Road about around Christmas time I was on my way to work and a bit stressed and grumpy because when you have young kids trying to get everyone fed and dressed and out of the house on time requires great reserves of patience which is not my strong point, and as the traffic slowed down there, just to my right, was a bergie going through a bin, and while there is nothing unusual about this, what was unusual was that he was wearing one of those red, felt pointed hats with the flashing lights and he had the lights going full tilt while he sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ at the top of his lungs. While you might be sifting through the trash for your next meal and Christmas will probably be a bottle of something cheap and lethal, aint no reason to be a misery guts. Big lesson to us all.

On Carnivals and Gardens

The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and home to Cape Town.
The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and back home to Cape Town.

When you live in a country like South Africa, which has experienced – and continues to experience – change on a massive scale and where the disaster zones of many other African countries ruled by liberation governments hang over us like a panga ready to strike us into economic oblivion, conversations about where it’s good to live versus where it’s not so good to live become commonplace. And even more so for those of us who are thinking about leaving or thinking about coming home or have come home already or never want to see South Africa and Mrs Balls chutney again. And these debates go back and forth led by words like ‘lifestyle’ and ‘crime states’ and ‘education’ and ‘future’, and they are discussions which can go on endlessly without ever reaching conclusion because fundamentally they are personal and emotional, and more often than not our decisions are based on instinct and circumstance and what feels right for us versus what doesn’t.

But something I have been thinking about lately, and which is not often taken into account in these conversations – but which I believe to be true – is that different places/countries have a different energy (to be a bit shoo-wow and tie-dyed of a morning) which either resonates with ours or doesn’t. And we’ll insist on being practical and citing ‘facts’ as to why we live here versus there or there versus here but I think it boils down to something else. Like we pick partners and friends who ‘click’ with us, we choose the place we call home in much the same way. I have only lived in South Africa and Sweden, but since it would be hard to find two countries more diametrically opposed, I think they’re pretty good examples to use. I’m negative about Sweden sometimes because I was unhappy there, but I also love the country and larger Scandinavia in the way one does when a place has been your home. You can’t live somewhere for a long time and not have it become a part of you.

And I’m also more critical of it than is fair – out of defensiveness – because so many people are aghast that I left a place where everything is ‘perfect.’ And it is kind of perfect in a lot of important ways, but it wasn’t perfect for me. To employ a metaphor, Sweden is like a magnificently manicured garden full of beautiful flowers. There are water fountains, comfortable places to sit and good things to eat. People speak politely in muted tones and the air smells of freshly brewed coffee. You’ll never get lost because there are clearly demarcated paths, and the garden is ringed with stylishly decorated, very high walls that you’d never be able to scale. You are safe and you are secure. You are also walled in. For some people, the walls are a small price to pay for all that comfort. Why would you need to leave when everything is right there at your fingertips? It’s very nice there; very nice indeed.

South Africa is more like a huge, gaudy amusement park where nobody has checked the safely standards of the equipment in a long time. People climb on the rollercoaster and they feel the sun and the wind on their faces and it fills them with a delicious kind of joy, knowing that an any given moment the little car they’re strapped into could careen off the tracks and go sailing into the ether, taking them with it. But, damn that ride is fun. And it seems to go on forever. And everyone is smiling as they go around and around, and life is uncontained and open-ended and there are no barriers and the possibilities are endless. The amusement park smells of dust and oil and boerie rolls and beer, and clowns fall off barrels and people laugh and it’s colourful and in-your-face and totally unpredictable.

And I can understand why people choose the manicured garden. It’s a great garden, as gardens go. But the amusement park has a wildness which can be quite irresistible. Because you might fall off, but you also might not, and in the interim you are having such a damn good time. And objectively, it’s impossible to say which place is ‘better’. South Africa is awesome for some things, and other places are awesome for others. It’s just about what works for you, and where you feel comfortable and ‘right’. Once, about half a year before we moved back to South Africa, I was given a voucher for my birthday to visit an astrologer/healer. He was an African-American who must have been close to 80, and he’d been living in Sweden for most of his life. From his small, warm apartment in the suburbs he read to me my chart, and then out of the blue (not knowing I was leaving) he said something interesting and surprising. He said, ‘I have to tell you something – if you stay in Sweden you’re going to get sick.’ And I knew exactly what he meant. The country’s energy and I were not a good match.

Now when I go back on holiday I’ve learnt to wear one of those ‘balancing’ bracelets (whether they work or not is anyone’s guess) because, even though I’m really happy to be back and seeing good friends and swimming in the warm sea and enjoying the long days of summer, I experience odd physical symptoms – dizziness, disorientation and a vague sense of not getting enough air. I never feel this way in South Africa. And maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I think it’s something else. It’s the walls and the safety and the lack of spontaneity and madness. I’m just more a clowns and rollercoasters kind of person. And we’re all different like that. And sometimes I envy the garden folk their sense of belonging and wish I shared it because all that tinny carnival music can get noisy when you’re feeling tired, and you’re so busy dodging coloured balls there isn’t much time for reflection. But mostly I love the chaos and the freedom it affords. And that, if the mood takes you, you can fly right up to the sky.

Letter to Myself at Age 10

window hearts

Dear Susan

Your nose is not as big as you think. While you’ll never be wild about the sight of yourself in profile, you’ll grow into your face and even learn to like it a little, hard as this may be to believe. The next 30 years are going to go quickly, and you’ll look back and be amazed that you could get this old. But don’t fear the passing of time. Life gets easier the longer you’re around, even though you don’t learn as much as you’d expect. This is because, as you grow up, things somehow become more vague; less black-and-white as you begin to grasp the contingency of life, and the fact that most things are actually beyond our control. But with this uncertainty comes a kind of humility which often makes us nicer human beings.

Your parents are raising you to have a healthy disdain for authority. While that is a good thing in principal, your rebellious nature is going to get you into trouble, and you need to learn when it’s time to shut up. Not everybody wants to hear your opinion, and as much as you pretend not to care, the harsh words directed at you will end up hurting you deeply. So, try to be less outspoken and a little more cooperative. In a few years time you’re going to start neglecting your school work and your gymnastics and your dancing in favour of chasing boys. This is a really stupid thing to do. Unfortunately, it will take you many years and a lot of wasted energy to figure this out for yourself.

When you’re 40 you’re going to make jokes about not understanding numbers, but actually having a grounding in maths is pretty important. I know you find it difficult, so work harder at it. There’s going to come a time you’re not going to know how to work out a percentage, and it’s going to be embarassing. Stop taking the easy way out. And stop being so frightened all the time. You’re clever, and you’re going to make good choices. As much as you want this right now, you’re not going to live in Hollywood and be famous or rich. But you’ll do work that you love and your talents will be rewarded and that counts for a whole lot more.

You’re going to have your heart broken, and you’re going to suffer a little. Okay, a lot. You’re also going to break some hearts along the way, though through the inherent self-centredness of human beings, you won’t be aware till much later of the impact you’ve had on some people. Be kind to the ones who love you. They deserve it. High School really is the school of hard knocks. Those cool people who won’t let you be in their crowd and make you feel ugly and unworthy? Let me tell you a secret: they didn’t amount to anything. Their lives are small places, and things didn’t turn out so well for them in the end. So, stop going home after school and crying on your bed. They aren’t worth your tears.

Things are going to go good for you, so try to relax a little. Think carefully about every decision you make because they really do count in the end. Life is long movie with a short storyline, and you don’t want to be left high and dry. And don’t, for the love of god, go to that hairdresser in Somerset West and ask for a Lady Di haircut. Someone should have pointed out to you that she didn’t wake up in the morning with all those glorious flicks, and it’s going to take you a lot of years to grow out that particular mistake. You’ve got good hair; don’t mess with it.

Yours lovingly,
Susan