Riding Out the Storm

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As one grey, Cape winter rolls into another and I drift further and further away from who I used to be I find myself reflecting on the madness of this South Africa and how we got from there to here. Last week we had to go to home affairs to renew a passport. But the guard, who was missing a front tooth, barred our entry through the revolving doors and pointed to a sign which says ADMIT 200 ONLY. He was deeply apologetic as he explained that since 200 people had already gone in that day he couldn’t allow us entry. Only, when you’ve lived in this country your whole life you understand that a no – especially when it’s a black person saying it to a white person – can be turned into a yes with the right amount of smiling and pleading. It’s hard denying a grovelling umlungu.

So, in we went and joined the throngs of ladies with expensive highlights and their children in private school uniforms updating documents to that they can go to Europe for the July holidays and scruffy Cape Flats mothers jiggling screaming babies and replacing stolen IDs and thin umtatomkhulus with walking sticks and shiny shoes. Since the chairs come in rows of three I couldn’t sit beside my family so instead I sat down next to a woman in her sixties with a neat fro and a handbag held securely in her lap. Perhaps the fact that I sat next to her without skipping a seat was a sign that I was amenable to chatting because she immediately began telling me two unrelated stories while I listened with that over-enthusiastic white South African expression that says, I know you are black but I don’t even see your colour. I am talking to you like you and I are no different, can you tell? Can you see how cool I am with this whole race thing?

The first story was about her big toe and how it slowly turned black and began to smell and that’s how she discovered she was diabetic. She had to have it amputated and she’s sorry she can’t wear slip slops in summer anymore. The second was about her son who attends Rondebosch High School on a scholarship and next year he’ll either go to London on a gap year or study Industrial Psychology at UCT. She leant in close and said, ‘All his friends are white! All of them. Even the one from Botswana. But he speaks fluent Sesotho, imagine that! A white boy speaking Sesotho! At the weekend they all come and sleep over in Khayelitsha. He’s so popular, my boy, they love him. The whole time I cook – they want hot breakfast, lunch, supper. Those boys never stop eating.’ And then her number got called and with a cheery wave she was gone, and for the first time I took notice of my surrounds. All the staff now are black except for one, lone white woman. She’s as wide as she is tall and probably about my age. She looks like her name could be Roelene.

Roelene will have gone to school somewhere like I did – a factory for turning impressionable young South Africans into uncritical supporters of the National Party. She – like me – will have been indoctrinated with racist propaganda, told lies about our history and become an unwitting, Die Stem-singing cog in the machine of Afrikaner nationalism. When South Africa transitioned into a democracy, Roelene would have dunked her rusk into her Ricoffy and watched as, one by one, her colleagues resigned or got retrenched from their jobs only to be replaced by smart, ambitious black men and women in crisp white shirts, neat braids and colourful manicures. This would have posed a dilemma for Roelene who – like most of us whites – had never had any dealings with black people who weren’t pruning the hedge or mopping the floor.

Now, she had to sit on a toilet seat still warm from somebody’s black bum; report to a competent black boss and eat at a table beside her co-workers who chatted in isiXhosa as they tucked into last night’s warmed-up stew. We human beings are so resilient and adaptable that few of us even take the time to really reflect on the weirdness of this, and the fact that in the new now none of the old rules apply. After centuries of apartness black and white South Africans were flung together like siblings who’d been adopted out to different families and were now meeting one another for the first time, familiar but at the same time utterly foreign. Now we had to live side-by-side trying to forget the past but also trying to remember it and trying, hardest of all, not to fuck everything up. There was a time I used to dread going to Home Affairs, but now it’s run so efficiently the mind boggles at how these few people with limited resources are able to process so many applications in a single day. When you arrive at 7am the queue stretches so far down Barrack Street you can’t see the end of it. The last few times I’ve been there my passport has been ready for collection within a few days.

But that day we were the last to arrive and so we were the last to leave. Finally, at 4:25pm, we were summoned into the single photo booth and then told to wait for our number at the counter to be called. Only, one by one, people stood up from their desks, put on their jerseys and headed for the door. ‘Ummm, excuse me!’ I called out to the last, departing person but closing time is 4:30pm on the dot and they were not about to miss the early train for these pushy whites. So there we stood in the gloomy, deserted waiting-room clutching our number that was never going to be called and looking at each other in anguished silence. Eventually, a bored-looking female security guard took pity and told us that if we went downstairs we might find someone to help. We did, and they did and then we drove home with the radio announcer warning of a massive cold front approaching with high seas and gale-force winds – us, to our cosy Victorian on the Atlantic Seaboard; Roelene, to her place somewhere in the northern suburbs; the ladies with their manicures to newly-built brick houses in the township. All, in our own ways, riding out the storm.

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A Tale of Two Pretties

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Besties.

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of hanging out with these two extremely glamorous 9-year-olds who sit next to each other at school. They skinny-dipped, assured me that boys are stupid and re-applied their red lipstick with a dedication that would impress Dita Von Teese. But there was something poignant for me as I half-listened to their chatter and the casual way they argued, made up, continued playing. It was so effortless and natural the way they interacted with one another, untainted by the heavy pall of South African history which hangs over my own dealings with people of colour – the way I am conscious of everything I say and do, and my tendency to overcompensate because of way I grew up as a child of apartheid.

And I wondered how long it could continue, this neutral space they inhabit with each other. Because surely it is just a matter of time (if she hasn’t already) that the child on the left will begin to notice that most of the children in her class and her teachers and their doctor and the lady on the billboard are light-skinned, while the security guard and the cleaner and the assistant teacher are dark, like her; that the people who drive the luxury cars look like the girl on the right, while the people in buses and taxis look like her mom and dad. And maybe she’ll start to wonder – like my Facebook friend’s adoptive black daughter did – whether people who look like she does can also own nice cars and live in big houses or whether that privilege is reserved for white people. Because that is certainly how it appears.

The little girl on the right comes from a dual-language household, English and Danish. So does the little girl on the left. Her home languages are English and isiXhosa. But you won’t find people commenting on the blonde child’s enunciation; it’s a given that she’ll speak ‘good English’. For the one on the left, however, she will regularly receive compliments on how ‘well’ she speaks – and the implication, of course, is ‘for a black child.’ The one on the left lives by the sea in a more affluent suburb than the one on the right. Yet, she’ll have people quizzing her on where she comes from; what her parents do, and whether it’s her ‘first time on the beach.’ She’ll be patronised, talked about as if she’s not there and have strangers randomly touching her hair. And it’s hard to imagine that the relentlessness of this othering is not already making an impact; making her question her identity, her belonging, her worth in a society which – if we are to be honest – values all things white and disparages all things black.

In our brief conversation she confessed that a (blonde, popular) little girl in her class had deliberately trampled on her hand and thrown her sandwiches on the floor because they were ‘disgusting.’ Maybe this wasn’t a racial thing, but… it probably was. While the child on the right will benefit from the complex tiers of white privilege, her darker friend will be forced to fight many battles and clear many (often invisible) obstacles if she is to succeed in life. And it is inevitable that at times this bright-eyed, smart and lovely little girl creature is going to be made to feel not good enough for the world. And it makes me feel weary and powerless and sad.

When her parents showed up to collect her she gave me a big hug and thanked me politely for inviting her to come and play. And I have to consider the fact that maybe I’m just as bad as the white people I criticise because I can’t help feeling overjoyed that my kids have dark-skinned friends. That they are my proof that I did okay as a parent and managed not to pollute my children with the crazy things I was taught to believe when I was young and impressionable. My wish is that, of the white people consistently saying stupid things to black people, the ones I’ve raised will not be among them. At this point in our crazy history, where so little has changed for so many, that’s probably all I can hope for.

On Finding Your True North

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Too hot to sleep, I got up in the middle of the night last night and went outside to try and cool down. The stars were unusually bright for where I live in the city, and as I drank in the gentle breeze and the familiar, comforting presence of Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross I thought of a question my daughter had asked me a few days back. She said, ‘Mommy, if you’re lost somewhere can the stars guide you home?’ I replied, ‘yes, they can. Wherever you are in the world, if you look up at the sky the stars can point you to true north.’

And it’s a beautiful thought. I was also worrying that the #PennySparrow thing was going to slip through the cracks of our broken society, and in my head I was composing my letter to Jawitz. I needn’t have worried, nor underestimated the power of social media. At 5:45am I awoke to a storm of outrage, and the conversation that started a while back in response to racism in restaurants had been picked up again and was in full swing.

Reading the comments and tweets and contributing a few of my own I started to think about the fact that when you live in South Africa you are not allowed the luxury of political neutrality. Whatever you say and do comprises a statement. And the complicity inherent in saying and doing nothing when you were born white makes the loudest statement of all. Many people don’t like what I have to say, but they are strangers and their opinions don’t bother me overmuch.

But towards the end of 2015 I lost a friend over my political views and that hurt a lot. I spent many hours thinking about what had happened. I think that for her I posed a problem; created a kind of cognitive dissonance: she liked me personally, but she hated my politics. Her solution, in the email she sent me, was to continue our friendship on the proviso that we ‘agree to disagree.’ Presumably, that we pretend my blog doesn’t exist and she would try to distance  the ‘me’ she liked from my thoughts and opinions.

In a way the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a gift because it forced me to think about what this blog actually means to me and the role it plays in my life. Can I be separate from it? Are my views and I different things? Can I be something other than what I think and write about? And the booming answer was ‘no.’ While I am irreverent sometimes, what I write in this space is the truest essence of who I am in this world. I don’t do this for money or fame or attention; I do it because I am compelled to. For me, there are few things that matter more than figuring out my truth and putting it into words. I guess, in a way, this blog is my ‘true north.’ The thing I am in my soul and what I was put on this planet to do.

One of the reasons I love being 40 and not 20 is because I fit myself so much better. Of course I still want to be liked, but I don’t worry as much that what I am is ‘wrong.’ Anyone who asks me to tone myself down and be less of who I am doesn’t belong on my journey, and neither should do they be on yours. I would like to thank all of you, my engaged, warm, supportive and amazingly loyal readers for walking this road with me. What I wish for myself and all of you in 2016 is that we become less compromising about locating and following our own personal ‘true north.’ Sometimes it’s about being still for a moment and gazing up at the night sky and thinking about the direction we’ve been traveling in and whether it’s really where we want to go. And if it’s not, perhaps considering the possibility of changing course. Happy new year to all of you. Here’s to finding our way home.

On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

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Nobody wants to think of themselves as being a bad person. Bad people are ISIS fighters, child molesters, Shrien Dewani. They do horrible things which are blatant and obvious and talked about in the media. But in the last few months I have found myself in spaces where I’ve had to take a long and careful look at who I am in the world, the attitudes that have formed me and how I conduct myself in certain situations. And to say that it’s been an uncomfortable awakening is an understatement. Because many of you who follow my blog know that I’m relatively outspoken about race issues in this country. I have strong feelings about the socio-economic disparities and the white attitudes that feed them, and while I sit behind my computer screen in my nice study on the Atlantic Seaboard it’s easy to wax lyrical about egalitarianism and the way things ‘should’ be in SA. When I write these words, which I wholeheartedly mean, I can nonetheless distance myself a little bit from the ‘racists’ out there; convince myself that I am better than they are.

But the truth is I’m not. I am as guilty as the man who went up to my neighbour’s friend who was recently walking in a supermarket with his newly adopted baby and said, ‘oh look, a special little kaffir.’ The other man who asked a couple who have adopted two HIV positive children of four and six why they are ‘wasting their time.’ The inhabitants of the shop in the town of Oudtshoorn who openly snubbed our white friends because they walked in with their black baby daughter. I could go on and go – there are so many incidents of this kind of thing that happen all the time in this country. But there’s another thing too, and it’s this that I’m guilty of. The white arrogance and sense of entitlement that follows us wherever we go and is so ingrained we aren’t even aware of it. It’s the tone we adopt when the black teller is taking too long to ring up our goods (my ‘madam’ voice). It’s the secret panic when the pilot is black. It’s the us-and-them way we were taught, from the youngest age, to divide the world. This stuff is in our DNA, and the more we deny it, the less chance we have of making it go away.

I regularly hear white South Africans say the most outlandish things: ‘It’s just a pity when it’s the blacks turning on the blacks’. Blacks who? What homogenous entity are we referring to? My char? The heart surgeon at Grootte Schuur? Oprah? What does the council guy who comes to my door asking for R5 for his daughter’s netball tournament have in common with President Zuma? I can tell you: fucking nothing. I have more in common with Zuma than he does. We are both middle class South Africans with a big, fat sense of entitlement. Or, they say: ‘I’m not interested in politics and race relations.’ Oh, you aren’t? Could that be because you have a big house with a lawn and two cars and eat out a few times a week and go to Bali for Christmas? How lovely for you that you’re privileged enough to be apolitical. And for me. And for all of us who live lives of charm and delight, tweeting about SONA over a second bottle of Beaumont Shiraz because fuck sakes, this country is surely going up in flames in five minutes. Please pass the dip.

I don’t mean to be unfair and beat up on white people. Some of my best friends are white. We are all just human beings doing our best in a political situation which scares us to the very marrow. We love this country and – with good reason – are terrified of what the ANC is getting away with; what this recent malarkey means in terms of our constitution and our future. But we all need to do a big, fat audit of our attitudes and the racism we hide even from ourselves. We need to remind ourselves, daily, that our disappointment in our government has nothing to do with the countless black people in South Africa just trying to get by in a country where the structures of apartheid make basic survival a daily struggle. The legislative bit of apartheid might have ended 20 years ago, but it is not white people living in cardboard boxes beside the highway. For those countless people, apartheid is alive and well – only they have no hope of anything ever changing. For them, the cycle of poverty is as entrenched and ongoing as it’s ever been.

Let us make a point of remembering how incredibly privileged and lucky we are to live the lives we do in this extraordinarily beautiful part of the planet. Let’s stop sitting by passively and moaning to each other over skinny lattes about how messed up everything is. We – the ones who enjoy economic power as a birthright – must start speaking up for those who have no voice. And it starts with admitting our racism to ourselves and becoming acutely aware of how it plays out in the day-to-day; how, on subtle levels, it keeps the status quo in place because thoughts lead to words which lead to actions. Truth be told, we can be a stupid, obtuse tribe of people. The other day a young woman who belongs to the Neighbourhood Watch group I had to leave because of comments like hers said, ‘This whole black issue is such a crock.’ I mulled over her comment for days, and in the end I didn’t have enough words for that level of ignorance and myopia. And the saddest thing of all was that everyone agreed.

So, I propose this for each one of us who grew up during apartheid or at any point in this socially and economically segregated society and has been rendered a little bit mad as a result: we need to stand in front of a mirror, look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘I am a racist.’ Then we need to make a daily decision that we are going to challenge these stupid, retrogressive views which are based on nothing but ignorance and fear. In whatever small capacity we can we need to counter our arseholedom by doing selfless things, spreading goodwill and taking the hand of friendship black South Africa – against all odds and to my ongoing astonishment – holds out to us, its arrogant oppressors. Because we have the power to do so much good if we can look up from our iPads long enough.

The morning after the State of the Nation address I went to Clicks Pharmacy to buy Panados for the red wine I’d gulped down when the sound went off for the seventh time. I asked the (black) woman who was ringing up my things if she had watched the madness the previous night. She had. She started telling me how angry and disappointed she was in our government. Her colleague joined in the conversation. Their voices grew so loud a small crowd gathered to hear what they were saying, and they were much more radical in their condemnation of the ANC than I dare to be. They went on for such a long time I almost regretted asking, but it was a very important reminder for me – and I suspect for all the white people who stood there, listening – that we are on the same side. We all want fairness and accountability by the government and a president who is a leader and not a crook. We all want to live in a country where our children’s futures are secure. Let’s do what we can to stop the divisiveness that’s growing in our society like a cancer, and the first step towards achieving that is taking a long, hard look at ourselves.

On Having No Black Friends

Many years ago when I was living in Sweden, an African American friend asked me if I had any black friends back home in South Africa and I had to answer, honestly, no. And while he let me off the hook by saying, ‘I suppose, during apartheid, you didn’t know any black people, really,’ it bothered me enough that I still think about that exchange to this day. And while, yes, I was born in the seventies and went to school and university during the height of apartheid when having black friends meant you could be arrested, apartheid ended a long, long time ago, and the people I count as my besties are still white as the driven snow. And I’m not alone in this. I have one friend who works in the arts and has a number of black friends but, for the vast majority of friends and acquaintances in my age group, we just don’t socialise with black people.

In fact, the first black South African friend I had was when I lived in Sweden. He was my age exactly which meant, compared to me, he had a really rough deal growing up, and we spent some very memorable hours drinking strong coffee together in a little café down the road from my apartment and talking about our respective histories and the country we loved and were so far away from. And even though our experiences growing up there were very different – him in a shack in Soweto where, if he ate breakfast it meant there wouldn’t be food enough for his siblings, me in a house with a swimming pool in Somerset West – he felt like home to me as I hope I did to him. We had so much more in common than we had dividing us – two Africans freezing to death in northern Europe and talking about Steers and sunshine and Bafana Bafana.

And if this is the case – that we have so much more in common than we do dividing us – why do we still live in our silos and keep to our ‘own kind’, whatever we perceive that to be? And I don’t think this is about racism per se as much as circumstance and the fact that, growing up, the only black people we knew were working for our parents. What I learnt living away from South Africa (and with no small measure of shock, having believed that South Africans were the only racists in the world) is that most people are a little bit racist. In fact, some of the most blatant racists I’ve ever met would be labelled ‘black’ – a woman I knew from the Caribbean whose family was light-skinned and therefore ‘superior’, frequently said shocking things about people of a darker hue. Somebody else of mixed race whom I used to work with told me once how upset her father was when she brought a black guy home. Her dad had been hoping she would marry ‘up’ – somebody light, like her, or even white. Black friends of mine have been denied access to clubs in so-called colour-blind Denmark. There was suddenly a ‘members-only’ rule. We fear and mistrust what is ‘other’ and we have all internalized that crap to some extent, and we need to recognize this for what it is rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

When I hear people announce that they are ‘not racist’ (I have a South African friend in London who does this) immediately a red light goes on for me. You cannot have lived through apartheid without being tainted by some of its ideologies. Yes, we move on – yes, we learnt to think critically and understand the brainwashing for what it was – but, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to be extra mindful about the kinds of things we say and do. While our system of institutionalized racism did a horrific injustice to black South Africans (and which we might not even recover from, entirely) it was also an injustice to us whiteys – we were deprived of so much that is wonderful and colourful and interesting about South Africa. We were kept in these narrow, sterile boxes and prevented from learning important things about the different people who make up this country. And now a lot of us find ourselves wanting to reach out and make things different, but not really knowing how.

A few mornings ago I had coffee with a friend who recently met a young black parliamentarian online and they’ve become besties. And he was recounting stories that had me guffawing into my flat white. For example, his friend’s mother is hooked on the TV show ‘Generations,’ where there’s this black guy and white girl who have fallen in love. And when they kiss on screen his mother says, ‘Hayibo! What would Verwoerd say if he could see this?!’ What, indeed. The guy in question loves my blog, especially the Ubuntu piece, and it makes me realize that we’re speaking exactly the same language, and we should be talking more.

When I was working for a magazine not that long ago the office was filled with young, funky black chicks who, with their cleverness and way with words, are leading our country into the future and forging new ways of thinking and being, and I wish, when I was that age, that I had been exposed to women like this and we could have been friends without it feeling forced. I get so worried, when I meet black women whom I admire and relate to, that they’re going to think I only want to be friends with them because they’re black. And it is a factor – we can’t deny that we have issues around colour. But maybe if we could put that out there and be open about it we could finally move beyond it and just be human beings.

And it’s with joy and relief that I find the young black South Africans I meet through work are much less precious than we old school whites are. They take the piss out of race and stereotypes; they laugh at us and at themselves which gives us permission to do the same, and feels really healthy and progressive. My nine-year-old daughter’s best friend is black, and it hasn’t occurred to either of them that they are supposed to be ‘different.’ In fact, Sophie doesn’t even know the word ‘black’ in relation to people (and why should she? We are shades of pink and brown). When she tells me about a new person in her class she’ll say, ‘they look a bit more like me.’ Or, ‘they look a bit more like Kukhanya.’ There is no value attributed to either skin tone. Without a doubt our children are growing up in a different South Africa than we did, and the ease with which these kids of different races and from different socio-economic places mingle and make friends makes me so happy I can dance. I just wish I could share that experience.