A Tale of Two Pretties

Lisa, Elisabeth TWO.jpg
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.

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Dance – you’re Afrikaans!

Johannes Jacobus Botha as a young man of 26.
My grandpa, Jan Jacobus Botha, as a young man of 26.

I think the two most surprising things I experienced travelling and living ‘overseas’ was that everything was not, in fact, cooler/better/more fabulous than it was in SA (we Saffers suffer from a terrible inferiority complex in that regard), but also how deeply, madly and uncompromisingly South African I became. Before I left the country I had a tenuous, undefined and vaguely apologetic sense of my own heritage. But – and I guess this is identity politics 101 – put me amongst a clan of white-blonde, herring-marinating, super-stylish Scandinavians, and I was one step away from wearing a lion skin to the Vårdcentral and throwing bones for people as my party trick. Since I didn’t own a lion skin, what I did instead was join a South African book group and learn to bake rusks and source a boerewors maker in Copenhagen and phone my mom just to weep when I heard Alicia say, ‘molo, Sisi! Kunjani?’

And the other thing I did, after not doing this thing for many years, was start to speak Afrikaans. Afrikaans – the language of my country, of my childhood, of my history with its uncompromising ‘r’s and it’s guttural ‘g’s that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself. Its verkleiningsvorm that adds ‘tjie’ to small things so that they shrink before your very ears, and its words which are so unique and descriptive that they refuse to be moulded into the clipped, uptight and inflexible rigours of English. Nothing is as crawly as a ‘gogga’; nothing says you’ve hurt yourself like ‘eina!’, and that’s not even touching on the assortment of swear words and abuses which are so colourful they verge on psychedelic.

And, of course, the more ‘Kaaps’ you get, the more evocative and descriptive Afrikaans becomes. And it’s a shame it got associated with all that bad stuff. That a language so vibrant and defiant and home-grown became branded and white-washed and sterilized so that it served the purposes of a few power-hungry old men who loved this country but not its people, and, in the way language constructs reality, was used as a very effective tool of oppression. Which, given its origins – a ‘secret’ language developed by slaves so that they wouldn’t be understood by their tyrannical masters, and also a rebellion against speaking the language of their oppressors – is deeply ironic. Another thing I only discovered recently is that ‘kombuis’ in Dutch signifies a ship’s galley. Which implies that it might not be ‘kitchen Dutch’ as we have always understood, but ‘ship galley Dutch’, which carries its own insidious connotations. And its hybrid of Dutch, Portuguese, Khoi and Malay (with some Xhosa and Zulu influence along the way) makes it magnificently unique and special as languages go.

And while I wasn’t nearly conscious enough at school to understand that Afrikaans was a tool of apartheid, the overt preference the Afrikaans kids got in my dual-medium Somerset West school was enough to distance me from it and all it represented. We English-speaking kids were largely regarded as wayward and traitorous and, despite being as South African as they come, in this country of divisions and apartness, our affiliations were somehow believed to be British. Because Afrikaans was not our home language, we were not ‘true’ South Africans, and I have vivid memories of teachers comparing us negatively to the Afrikaans kids, a censure which hurt me at the time, being a diligent, conscientious student who loved my school and was very proud of my good grades.

Because I suppose, even though we were children and clueless, the Anglo-Boer war with its concentration camps and brutal treatment of the Boers was still fresh in a lot of minds. So that when my maternal grandfather, Jan Jacobus Botha, who grew up poor on a farm in the Eastern Cape, went to school barefoot on horseback and spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa but not one word of English, met and fell in love with Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley who spoke no Afrikaans, their families were none too pleased. And when, in a real Romeo and Juliet-style saga they married anyway, his family, who lived literally down the road from their home in East London, would sit on their stoep and refuse to greet my granny when she walked past.

The beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilly.
My beloved granny, the beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley, shortly before she married.

Unfortunately, in those days, Afrikaans was – and still is in some quarters – considered a lesser language, and my granny made it a condition of their marriage that their children would be raised English-speaking. So, while both my parents are bilingual, my accent is bad, and I wish the language hadn’t been allowed to slip away over the generations as it has. But, with growing up, I’ve learnt to love it again and appreciate it and consciously embrace it as an integral part of my heritage. In a strange way I feel like my Afrikaans roots bind me to the soil of this country, and legitimize my living here. Because the Afrikaners were, really, South Africa’s white tribe. I wish I’d been older when my grandpa was alive so that I could have asked him questions about his life back then. And I wish I’d been awake enough to tell him not to speak his accented English to me, but to talk to me in his mother tongue, using the words of his own childhood to paint pictures of the world.

Now I rely on my mother’s memory to keep my ancestors alive, while in my own mind I’ve reclaimed the culture for myself. For me, it has nothing to do with those cross men and their brylcreem who didn’t smile one time in their lives and conjured a political system madder than your wildest imaginings. It’s a connection to this corner of Africa; my soul’s dompas, if you will. The blood of those people who fought and suffered to live freely in this country runs through my veins, too. And to the ones who say I don’t belong here, I answer in my best, accented Afrikaans, ‘fok jou! Gaan vlieg in jou ouma se klein kwassie!’ And I defy anyone to translate that.

I think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s by the late Koos du Plessis, and it was used in a TV series when I was growing up, but I don’t remember which one.

On Getting the Crap Mother of the Year Prize – Again

One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.
One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.

So, today two hideous things happened to me today before 8am. The first one was being woken up, pre-alarm on a Monday morning by my six-year-old reminding me that today is Chef’s Day at her school. Chef’s Day is a weekly fund-raising initiative whereby each child has the chance to be the hero by bringing a snack to school (scones, muffins, fruit kebabs) which the other kids have to pay R5 for and the money goes towards school stuff. And the reason why Chef’s Day is happening on a Monday instead of a Friday, as normal, is because this particular mother was so involved in her work and fighting with the traffic department and getting lambasted by internet trolls and making it to boot camp and choosing doors for the new deck that she forgot. Which meant that the other kids were so disappointed they wouldn’t play with her at break time. Ouch. Wow.

So, I put on my gown and rushed blearily to the kitchen frantically thinking of how I could miraculously transform the sad contents of my empty post-weekend fridge and kitchen cupboard into thirty tasty, inventive treats. I had a box of Nomu instant chocolate brownies, but it requires a bunch of eggs and I ate the last two with chakalaka for breakfast yesterday. I bought popcorn at the 7-11 last night, but we’re clean out of sandwich bags. My husband is the pancake pro but again, we are eggless wonders. So, at a loss for inspiration, I apologized profusely to my little girl and promised her that the following day she would take the best Chef’s Day treats ever in the history of Chef’s Day to school, and that I was sure her friends would let her play with them today – while she cried quietly into her Cheerios and I died a thousand deaths.

But wait, that’s not all. The second we walked through the school gates I was accosted by her little friends who wanted to know why we didn’t show up at the fabulously fun birthday party in Camps Bay on Sunday which was just so much fun! The one I had diligently punched into my phone calendar with an alert and everything but obviously had forgotten to save. So just kill me now, why don’t you? And I don’t know how other mothers seem to be so on top of things. It’s not like I sit in an office from nine to five. I work from home which gives me wonderful flexibility, and the time to drive around for an hour on a Tuesday looking for the green felt they need to make a dinosaur habitat/find Monster High Doll costumes/buy eggs. But I struggle. I had no idea of the amount of time, energy and dedication schools require of parents.

I’ll get an urgent SMS on a Wednesday at 5pm to send wool and sequins and feathers to school the next morning because they’re making puppets. Wool? You can still buy wool? I live in Green Point. The birds left centuries ago. Cue: a worried child and a mother having a panic attack. And I wonder if life was so crazy for the previous generation of mothers and we were just too busy being kids and self-involved to notice. My mother-in-law (who I think is secretly a saint parading as a human being) had five children in six years in a small apartment in Denmark with no washing machine, disposable nappies or Mr Delivery. The mind boggles. Then again, she didn’t work outside the home, there was no Shimmy’s Beach Bar and they went on holiday exactly once a year to their little house by the sea. While she can only have worked unbelievably hard and deserves every medal going for getting four boys and a girl through toddlerhood and teenagehood without anyone dying, life must have been somewhat simpler.

I heard an interesting saying the other day which sums up this age pretty well – ‘I’m busy therefore I am.’ How true. I know that if I don’t have something to do for five minutes, I go into a panic and start planning a dinner party for twelve. My father-in-law frequently shakes his head at us and asks why we always have to be going somewhere. Good question. Where are we going? Sometimes I actually catch myself running between my office and the loo. And I’m not bursting, and there’s no fire. It just seems like there isn’t a second in the day to waste. There are too many dinosaur nests and deadlines and party invitations and Chef’s Days to deal with. For me, anyway. In order to do this right sometimes I think you’d have to make it your full-time job. Anyhow. I have promised my daughter that tomorrow she will be taking the yummiest, blingiest, most outrageously fabulous Chef’s Day treats with her to school, and again I will endeavour to get my sh?t together, actually press ‘save’ when I enter dates into my phone and be the kind of mother I want to be. On top of stuff and perfect and not guilty quite so often. I can only try.