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

The Unbearable Lightness of Sweden

pic of sweden sea

One of the more interesting lessons I learned about living abroad is that, no matter what your experience of the country in question, it claims a portion of your soul and becomes a part of who you are so that, when I don’t make it back to northern Europe for a few years, I start longing for things I never knew I loved – the smell of snow moments before its dry flakes appear in the sky; a sun that’s too lazy to move from the horizon but instead waits distractedly for clouds to hide its face; forests so thickly green they retain centuries of rain. And as we cross the Öresund Bridge from Denmark into Southern Sweden it doesn’t feel like coming home, exactly, but the feeling is one of warmth and familiarity; kind of like putting on a favourite sweater or a thick, comfortable pair of socks. And driving through familiar suburbs I remember days and moments and feelings and a time where I was lost and had to look for myself in foreign-sounding parks and on streets and squares where my feet clocked endless miles as I walked in search of direction and meaning in a city I’d never heard of until, by chance, I found myself living there with a man who had somehow become my husband and children who – bizarrely – belonged to me.

And on this recent trip to midsummer Malmö I was made aware of something else, too – how lightly people live in this stylish, wealthy part of the planet. In a place where everybody has everything one is allowed the luxury of believing human beings to be inherently kind and inherently good. The world up there is gentle, and while it’s not without its problems, life makes sense and justice – for the most part – is a concrete, dependable concept. Behind triple-glazed windows its citizens are shielded from some of the harsher realities of the world; facts of life we South Africans are not at liberty to ignore because they knock on the windows of our cars while we wait for the lights to change and huddle under blankets in doorways through the wet Cape winter. And – especially as I grow older, less certain and more acutely aware of the contingency of life and how, at any moment, everything I love could be taken from me – I understand the seductiveness and the temptation of leaving this school of hard knocks with its illogicality and relentless sunshine to merge, instead, with the soft greyness of Europe or elsewhere; to live in a place which cares for its people; where you aren’t looking over your shoulder all the time and it’s not always a pleasant surprise that your car is where you left it.

I understand in a way I didn’t before why people make this choice, and in a way I envy their ability to leave and put Africa behind them because, God knows, there are places to spend your days that are easier on the psyche. Where not everything is political; where at any given moment you are not wondering when the house of cards will come crashing down; justifying your (obviously sado-masochistic) decision to return when you could have left for good. And as I swam in Sweden’s warm, clean ocean where the scariest thing I might encounter is a pair of beautifully groomed swans and cycled through greenly manicured parks where the flowers are changed along with the season I wondered to myself why I couldn’t find peace in the wonderful peacefulness of this place; why – like so many others have done – I couldn’t surrender to its beauty and grace but had to fight so hard to return to a country I have no right to love as much as I do, nor will ever love me back.

And – truth be told – I didn’t want to go back to South Africa this time. I loved the summer sun, hotter than I’ve ever felt it; not like the burning spear sun of Africa, but like a thick, warm blanket, both delicious and a little too heavy; I reveled in the long, sultry, champagne and salmon-filled evenings and the sophistication of the supermarkets and the cleanliness and how courteously people drive and how you can cycle everywhere and how good the water tastes and that soon it’ll be time for the annual round of crayfish parties and for picking mushrooms in the forest and the trees in the parks will be set alight with the colours of autumn. And yet I continued to experience a sense of mutedness; like swimming underwater or walking through thick fog. A feeling – for better or worse – of being somehow removed from reality. Like the ‘real’ world was happening elsewhere, on some other part of the globe. High Level Road as you drive towards Sea Point. And I suppose this is why – as much as those climes charm me – as I gazed out of the aeroplane window and saw the blue of the African sky and the ugly façade of Cape Town International Airport I felt unexpected tears prickling my eyes and, from nowhere, a sob rising in my chest. And for this reason, I guess, I am destined to stay here on this ship as it veers, off-course, into scarily unchartered waters and hope, like the rest of my kind, that somebody, somewhere will save us.