Tsek, Tsotsi!

 

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Did you hear the one about the president who wouldn’t resign?

 

Isn’t it so typical of how things work down here: one minute it’s business as usual and you’re going to bed gatvol because President Zuma is hanging on with the tenacity of a gazonkelnut and whyfor must he resign just because eleventy zillion South Africans are up to here, and next thing it’s morning and you’ve barely bitten into your Bovril toast when you see there’s a party happening on Facebook that you didn’t even know about. And then Cyril is hugging the rabbi’s wife on Sea Point promenade and everyone’s high-fiving everyone at the Spar and the people who’ve just emigrated to Australia are feeling deeply conflicted.

Shem. I’m not going to tell them I told you so because they’re sad enough as it is. And then, the cherry on the cake, there’s the pilot refusing to fly that skelm Atul Gupta out of Lanseria airport and he’s sitting lekker sipping his Vida E, flipping through the in flight magazine wondering why it’s taking so long to take off and did they lose the keys to the plane, only the truth of the matter is he’s going nowhere but onto a poster put up by the Hawks saying Fugitive on the Run. As we speak he’s hiding in his cousin’s cupboard in Lenasia because Jacob is too busy trying to keep Duduzane out of Pollsmoor to answer him on WhatsApp. Yoh, how things can change in a day.

And yet you still have the lady at the gym putting on lotion and watching the news in the changing room at 10am finding something negative to say about South Africa. And I want to take her straightening iron out of her bag and actually just bliksem her with it because yussus, people – this is a good day for us! Can you not see how astonishingly well things have turned out? It’s better than we dared even to dream. Also, by the way, you’re at gym at 10 in the morning, and not because you’re cleaning the toilets. How about a bit of perspective for the amazingness of your life?

A classic South African moment happened a few weeks ago at that same gym when we asked one of the managers if they no longer get the paper delivered in the morning. Because it’s quite nice to distract yourself from the fact you’re drinking coffee instead of doing interval training. And he shrugged apologetically and said, ‘No, I’m afraid not. It’s the government.’ Now, the government can be blamed for many things. Many. But, hard as I’ve thought this through, the fact that there isn’t a Cape Argus for the white people to read while they eat their eggs and avo I cannot trace back to the inefficiency of the ANC. But that’s the manager’s story and he’s sticking to it.

So here’s a thought. Since things are looking pretty peachy for us right now (we even have Thuli back on neighbourhood watch), and – try as some people may – it’s quite hard to put a negative spin on recent political events in South Africa, let’s do a little personal inventory on ourselves and what really motivates the gratuitous grumbling about our country. It doesn’t take a psych degree to work out that much of what we attribute to our environment is a projection of what’s happening in our inner lives. Except honestly assessing why you’re depressed is a lot harder than posting vitriol on social media.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the knee-jerk way many of us respond when things aren’t going our way. When someone in government does something kak, you hear about it all day. When someone in government does something good, it’s crickets and we post pics of our kids. How about we try to be more fair and a little more balanced in the way we assess what’s going on politically? Jacob Zuma’s governance was a bad time for us. Hendrik Verwoerd’s governance was worse. But we survived both – the former, due in no small part to our robust and extremely hard-working democracy.

We didn’t sit back and wait for things to change, we took to the streets and protested. Many people with placards were scorned and ridiculed for being white and entitled; they showed up anyway. There was more uniformity, more mutual respect and affection at those events than I’ve ever seen anywhere before. Nobody gave a hoot what anybody else looked like or where they came from. We were South Africans – mixed, mad, purposeful, indignant. How dare they try and steal our country from us again? How dare they let us down now after all we have been through as a nation?

Our courts, our journalists, our opposition parties, our whole judicial system worked hard and determinedly to fight the corruption and to prevent the state capture that would have been a tragic ending to a beautiful beginning. We did it. He’s gone. But we can’t rest on our laurels because there is still much to be done. It’s early days. Let’s be positive and generous in the thoughts and intentions we send out into the world. Let’s not wait for this magical government to bring the Argus to the gym. There is only so much one man can do. Now we have seen our strength and exercised our might. Let’s use it in this new era: make friends with ones who are different. Greet people in their own language. Be kind, generous, tolerant, and in your own capacity do whatever you can to make South Africa the kind of place where you want to live.

Right now our house is a building site because we are lucky enough to be able to afford to renovate. There’s a Zulu and a porta loo on our stoep and it’s noisy as hell all day. What the builders don’t know is that we hear almost everything they say. They speak mostly Kaaps. It’s hot as hades up there in the roof and they’re covered in dust and grime. They work really, really hard. Also, they tease each other and laugh a lot. Sometimes I stop and just listen. What they say I can’t even begin to translate into English, but it’s fricking hilarious. The banging drives me mad but the banter makes my day. And I guess that’s a bit of a metaphor for South Africa. Cheers to that, and to us, and to watching SONA this evening with pride instead of dismay. It’s been an extraordinary few days.

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On Getting off Facebook and Talking to the Petrol Attendant Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Ja, I hear that.

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

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

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

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

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