Once upon a time there was a goat called Allen and a girl called Candice. Allen lived in the Karoo which is a sensible place for a goat. Candice lived in Gardens which is a sensible place for a girl. Allen and Candice knew a secret not many South Africans, but several overseas visitors do: that his family of Angoras produce 75% of the entire planet’s mohair, and that this mohair – like most things to come out of the Karoo – is exceptionally beautiful and of an extremely high quality. So beautiful and so high that busloads of Germans and Americans and Brits flock to our shops every year and go suki la la and spend gazillions of monies on items which – compared to other parts of the world – are inexpensive, original and quite incomparably lovely.
And Allen and Candice think it’s a shame that the whole world knows of this thing and walks around Boston and Schleswig-Holstein wearing South African mohair while South Africans wear Foschini (no offence to this chain, but really). And it’s silly that we don’t know about this magnificent product right on our doorstep and support small businesses and the people who devote their lives to putting South Africa and its magic on the map. I met Candice at a dinner party a few years ago and loved two things about her: the fact that she runs marathons for fun and the magnificent, diaphanous scarf that floated about her shoulders like a rain cloud on a koppie. And I was astonished to hear she’d made it herself and that this, in fact, was her business.
Between her and her friend, Allen (and some of his friends), some of the prettiest and most delicate mohair products you’ve ever seen are produced and sold at selected stores around the country and online, and I think we need to familiarise ourselves with who is doing what down here and start making a real effort to support local businesses. It’s not easy competing with the big clothing corporations, and kudos to the ones with the courage to spot a gap in the market, venture out alone and do their own thing. I’ve been coveting Candice’s knitwear since I saw it, and I was excited beyond when she brought me a big box of woven beautifulness in shades of winter and told me to choose what I liked.
Candice’s products are made from kid mohair or baby mohair which is shorn from the fleece of a young Angora goat. Even though it is the softest and finest kind, it is in fact stronger and warmer than wool and will keep you cosy as anything when the weather turns cool. It’s lightweight, comfy, doesn’t itch, is the most durable of all animal fibres and won’t shrink which makes it easy to wash.
My favourites in her range are the ones which incorporate ostrich feathers (oh, another fact: every year South Africa exports a ton of feathers to Rio for the carnival. Just read that again: a ton. Do you know how little a feather weighs? Shem that they can’t even come up with their own). Mohair and ostrich feathers go together, in Candice’s words, ‘like cream and jam’. Clotted cream and gooseberry jam plunked on top of a hot, buttery scone fresh out of Karoo farm oven. There is nothing like a feather to make you feel like Edith Piaf in a Paris nightclub having no regrets, even if it’s just a Monday and you’re headed for the Spur.
So, a shout out to Candice, Edith and all the people in this world who are brave enough to be artists and creators and do something unique and original with their lives. And of course a shout out to Allen who, along with his sexy goat friends, has given us just one more reason to be proudly South African.
For more info on these fabulous things and how to find them look here. The website will help you locate stores in your area and give you info on prices. It was important to Candice, an animal lover, that my readers understand wool from Angora goats is very different to wool from Angora rabbits. While Angora rabbits are plucked, Allen simply gets a haircut. Which, in the Karoo summer, he adores.
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.
Lately I’ve been much of a mehness, and I realise this whole grieving business takes its own sweet time. But there are moments and hours and even days when things feel pretty good again, and I know these times, in time, become the predominant thing before long but until that happens a memory or a song or a something can knock you for six. Yesterday and this Monday just passed I felt knocked for six, so I whatsapped my mom and said let’s have lunch at the Perseverance Tavern. The Perseverance Tavern is on Buitenkant Street and I think I read somewhere that it’s the oldest pub in South Africa, dating back to 1836 if the date on the facade is to be believed. And when you sit outside on a nice day the sun shines through the pretty, bright leaves of an ancient vine and the more Black Jack draughts you put away the more you think of the throngs of people who, over the past nearly 200 years, must have ordered a beer, like me, to dull the ache of life’s sorrows. And I cheered up somewhat, knowing I was not alone. Because what is life if not a long series of perseverances with different details. And being slightly tipsy is a very excellent way to approach this business of Monday.
But I also though of other things. On the previous Saturday I’d attended the 50th birthday lunch of a writer friend which took place under an ancient pomegranate tree in the garden of a lovely old house in Simonstown. After we’d eaten and drunk and sung and been jolly, the talk took a slightly more serious turn (as it does here in the old RSA) and somebody sitting across from me who reads my blog said, please will you write something positive about the marches? And my first thought was not a chance, are you jas because it’s all very complicated – if you’re white and say something nice about something that happened in South Africa you’re stupid and belong at Woolworths buying organic goat’s yoghurt. So, for good reason, I was hesitant to put my thoughts to paper. But then, as the afternoon wore on and I thought more about what she’d said I have to admit that something about the sneering that happened re that event and the accusations of racism and the determination of some individuals to put a negative spin on a pretty amazing and positive moment in our history made me a little more defiant than usual and even inclined to defend the white people which is something I don’t often do. Because whether it had any political impact or not, that march made a huge difference to the morale of this country.
Nobody can deny that we’ve been so much of fucked over. All of us, not just the black people (if you don’t believe me, go see the movie Johnny is Nie Dood Nie). We lived in a dictatorship where we were forced to fight for a cause we didn’t believe in and if you didn’t play nicely, you went to jail, thank you, koebaai. Now we have Zuma’s ANC making megaai and you can’t say he’s kak because then you hate black people and you can’t say he’s kiff because he so very isn’t. So someone like me who likes to say stuff finds themselves in a bit of a bind. But what I will be voor op die wa enough to say is this: that I refuse to be cynical about what that march signified. And I will not tolerate people telling me I’m crap because I chose to take to the streets with my flag and my placard and yes, Marikana and yes, Fees Must Fall. The black people are right, we should have marched then, we were slow on the uptake. It’s all that goat’s yoghurt. But I fail to understand how I’m more kak for marching than for going to Tasha’s for brunch.
And yes, we totally marched like white people because we are white people. Sorry if we didn’t march ‘right,’ but I can tell you that we marched with humility and love and tentative hope in our broken hearts. We marched holding hands with people we’d never seen before, with strangers on our shoulders, shared bottles of water, sang our little voices hoarse. There are not many moments in life we get to feel relevant. That day, my heart soared when I saw how many people had shown up. Thousands. Thousands of hearts and voices joined by a common purpose. And it happened at a moment when we really, really needed to be reminded of who we are. Not newspaper headlines, not statistics, not barbarians and colonialists and murderers. Just human beings wanting the best for our country and for each other.
A young black woman came over to me and asked if we could be in a picture holding hands. My Jewish friend ending a conversation with some Muslim ladies walking by with ‘Zuma will fall, inshallah!’ Some guys danced by shouting ‘Amandla!’ and the mixed crowd answered with ‘Awethu!’ And I know, know, know that for the most part white people live the life of Riley and black people struggle on, I’m not denying or excusing that for a second and I’ve talked about it lots in other blogs. What I want to call attention to here is that when you take the politics away and put South Africans side by side in a different kind of context it’s not racism you see among us. All day long I encounter white and black and brown people living, working, playing, interacting. We don’t have a problem with each other. I’m not sure we ever did. That’s why they invented apartheid in the first place. Our government fucked it up for us and they’re fucking it up still.
The thing is, you can choose to see hypocrisy in just about every aspect of human behaviour. We’re complicated creatures and we’re fundamentally self-centred. When stuff doesn’t feel relevant to us we give it a skip. But its an oversimplification and, frankly, ignorant to say that we don’t care about the people we live amongst. If we could wave a magic wand and eradicate the poverty and the suffering and the deep injustices of our society we’d do it in a heartbeat. I think we don’t have a clue how to go about this. But what we can do is show up in support and solidarity to the people who really get klapped when our economy goes tits up. Not us so much; the middle classes have the buffer of their relative wealth. It’s the poor people, always, who get shafted.
I’m no political analyst and I can’t begin to predict where all of this will end. But what I know for sure is that there are huge amounts of love, solidarity and goodwill among us, even given the terrible, brutal history we share. This aspect of our country is not covered by the media or mentioned by our politicians because it’s not what they want us to believe. But we need to know better and keep fighting the good fight and showing up wherever we can, whether it’s outside parliament or paying to put someone’s child through school. Which happens more than is talked about, by the way. Deep down I think we know the truth of who we are and we need to hang onto that, not be distracted by the nonsense we’re fed about each other. And when it all gets too much take ourselves to the Perseverance Tavern – or somewhere like it – and be reminded that pain is perennial and life goes on and you’re not the first person, by a long margin, to cry into your beer. Amandla awethu. We’ve survived worse and we will prevail.
Some weeks ago, over lunch at a new Cape Town restaurant everyone is queuing to get into but is actually crap de luxe and the kitchen staff secretly laugh at you for paying R135 for dry chicken in Nola mayonnaise I had a conversation with a friend’s 65-year-old mom who comes from a country the name of which I won’t mention except to say its climate is dodgy, lots of (sorry) South Africans live there and it has more sheep than people. And the conversation was irksome and went like this: *Someone makes a reference to Chinese people living in to Cape Town*
Her: You won’t believe how many Chinese have moved into our neighbourhood. In fact, parts of it don’t even look like Wellington! (oops, I said the place) anymore.
Me: (1,5 glasses of Chenin in and already forgetting my manners. Though lately, being nanoseconds away from The Menopause, it doesn’t take much to make me stroppy): How lucky for you! Must be a great improvement on the local cuisine.
Her: Well… I know what you’re getting at, Xenophobia and everything, but really… it’s just overrun! They’re everywhere!
Me *moving my leg so my husband can’t kick it anymore*: I don’t know why everyone is so nervous of the Chinese. What’s wrong with Chinese people? I mean, look at Chinatown in Milnerton. Chinatown in Milnerton has saved my bacon many times when I needed cheap things in a hurry and pretend soccer shoes for my 9-year-old and also did you know you can buy toilet paper for a fraction, a fraction of what Kak n Pay charges for the same thing. So I think we need to all stop being so weird about people who don’t look exactly like we do. Also, they make dumplings(this was the clincher, in my opinion).
Her: * Awkward pause* Well, I think you’re missing the point of what I’m trying to say, I’m not saying I don’t like Chinese people, I’m just saying, Wellington blah blah blah…
And yes, I’m probably missing the point, but it aggravates me when people say things like that and assume you’ll agree because personally and speaking for myself, I have less than no problem with Chinese people living in ‘my’ city (or even better, ‘my’ neighbourhood, then I don’t have to travel so far for dumplings) and to anyone who does I have two words to say to you: Peking Duck. Anyone who has ever tried to make Peking Duck will immediately have the deepest, most abiding respect for the people of China. Recently I decided to celebrate my new stove and its fancy rotisserie function by attempting to make Peking Duck.
I purchased a frozen duck (since I don’t live in China) from a trendy, overpriced butchery and also enough Chinese 5 Spice to season all of Yingdong and Fangshan and Poongking combined and followed the recipe to a tee. Significant was my excitement around my own cleverness because who on this planet doesn’t adore Peking Duck? (yes, yes, the vegans, but never mind them for now). Well. The fact that that duck had to leave its pond of murky happiness to end up a leathery grey thing on my sad dinner table fills me with shame and regret.
I will say emphatically that Peking duck is not a dish for non-Chinese people to attempt. Neither, for that matter, is Szechuan Spicy Boiled Fish. Which I haven’t tried to make but after the last thing won’t even bother. So, if for no other reason than the plethora of places in this (and every) city you can visit and order delicious dishes for a lot less than R135, let’s try not to say crappy things about the ‘foreigners’ who arrive on our shores. Because unless you actually did that swab test at Home Affairs and are 100% Khoi San you are also a foreigner, FYI.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Chinese have a reputation for being insular and are often not the friendliest folk you’ll encounter when you’re out shopping (although there are huge, massive exceptions to this generalisation, like my friend Lucy in the above pic who is basically sunshine on speed). But, in instances where we feel inclined to put people in boxes, it’s very good to stop for a minute and consider the reason why some people may behave in a certain way. Generally speaking, I’d say that living in a dictatorship on the brink of abject poverty (this is turning, but it will take a while) in a country where full-term girl babies were routinely aborted and where you work your fingers to the bone seven days a week for a wage below the breadline and never see your children is enough to make anyone a little taciturn.
Add to that the fact that basically everyone in the world hates you (last time I checked there wasn’t a notable lack of space in New Zealand) and you’re going to turn inwards and stick with your own kind. A few centuries ago, when everyone and their brother was arriving on South African shores in the hope of finding diamonds and living a better life (don’t we all hope for diamonds and a better life?), a large contingency of Chinese people arrived as slaves of the Dutch East India Company. And you can imagine that being a slave in the household of one Gerhardus Poephol van Schipol wouldn’t exactly have been a barrel of laughs.
Then, to add insult to injury, between 1904 and 1910 over 64 000 Chinese were ‘imported’ to colonial South Africa (love the euphemism) as indentured labourers to work on the gold mines. So they basically helped build our country. And while most of these Chinese were returned to China (thanks for that, and good luck not dying on the ship), the Chinese population that exists in South Africa today are, for the most part, the great-great-great-grandchildren of independent migrants who trickled in in small numbers from Guangdong province as early as the 1870s. I would say that if your people have been living here for 150 years you pretty much qualify as a local.
And for these people, life on the whole has not been a thing of joy. Discrimination and racist legislation prevented them from obtaining individual mining licenses (pretty ironic, that). The ugly laws that governed South Africa at that time denied citizenship, prohibited land ownership and restricted trade for the Chinese. Classed as non-white and barred from entering the formal sector, most Chinese had to go under the radar to support their families, playing Mah Jong for money in the townships, getting arrested by the apartheid police and eking out an existence by running small businesses. Nobody wanted Chinese tenants or neighbours. To be eligible for a rental property you had to get written permission from every person living in the street that they didn’t mind you moving in there. Can you really blame them for being a bit poesbedroef**?
When you drive through dusty little towns like Vanrhynsdorp and Pitsonderwater and see the inevitable Chinese shop in the middle of nowhere selling everything from cheap clothing to fly swatters you’ve got to wonder at the lives of its owners. If this isolated, lonely existence miles from home and anything familiar is better than where you came from… wow. So, I say from our places of white, middle class privilege let’s try and keep the arrogance in check. You’d be hard pressed to find a race who work harder, longer and are tougher and more resilient than these.
Also, rather than going to cool establishments that serve Nola mayonnaise and don’t need your custom, support small businesses in off-the-beaten-track places run by people who work insanely long hours and try really hard to serve consistently good food. Many of them are supporting entire families back home in China. You don’t find a lot of Chinese people hanging out at Clifton and going for drinks at Caprice. They understand the value of money and what it takes to survive. Plus, there’s no reason on god’s green earth to make your own Peking Duck.
*South African for ‘watch out!’
** South African for ‘very sad.’
(If you want to also cry like a girl and go back the next night, Hot and Spicy Szechuan Food can be found about 500m up Bosmansdam Road if you’re coming from Koeberg and is tucked behind an establishment called Sables Bar and Bistro. I don’t think they have a phone and nobody speaks English. Go hungry and point at things).
As we had been looking forward to our weekend away at beautiful Schoone Oordt boutique hotel in Swellendam for weeks, and also because we are a real-life family and not a TV show, the first thing we did that happy morning was have a huge fight. Not to mention names nor blame anyone, but the fight was around the fact that one member of our family (hint: it’s a man) decided he absolutely had to go to gym before we left. In his defence, he based his insistence on the truism that when we go away anywhere, even for a day, it takes me about 7,5 hours to pack and get ready. He (rightly) reasoned that since a gym session takes roughly an hour he’d be home with 6,5 hours to throw his clothes in a rucksack and pace while the three girls in the family ran around shrieking like panicked banshees.
Only, that morning – fueled by a determination to get on the road early and a hefty dose of righteous indignation (something we women get down to a fine art) – I somehow managed to be ready quite quickly, and it was my turn to pace and simmer and still be hotly simmering when he appeared, sweatily, at the front door, pumping with endorphins and properly pleased with himself and the world. Needless to say, the reception he got wasn’t warm. And even though he took his usual 9 seconds to shower, throw on a short pant and get himself behind the wheel, the rest of the family was of a mind to be Still Be Cross and the atmosphere in the car as we took off down the road was like the coldest night ever recorded in Novo Sebirsk.
It took us all the way to the N2 outside Somerset West, with several men trying to shove straw hats and cell phone chargers at us through the window, for anyone to speak to anyone else and also that didn’t go well because the first topic raised was whether or not we were going to stop at the Wimpy for breakfast. For me, and I think most South Africans, the fact that a place serves just about the worst food anyone’s ever eaten is no reason at all not to eat there. I suppose it’s a nostalgia thing, but a road trip is just not right without a portion of factory-cut chips and that very cheap tomato sauce that comes in a squeezy bottle. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t share our enthusiasm and insists his cup of coffee should actually have coffee in it, so, we told him he could have cashew nuts in the car and that we’d see him in half an hour.
Happily for everyone, things started to improve after we’d eaten (there is something undeniably cheery about those red booths), and by the time we hit Sir Lowry’s Pass we were back to our normal selves. Also, every time I go over Sir Lowry’s Pass I remember the day, many years ago, my parents were driving home from Bonnievale and the brakes on my dad’s old Mercedes Benz failed. I imagine the fear he must have felt as he pumped the pedal and the car didn’t slow down but instead gathered momentum on that steep downward turn and the memory makes my eyes prickle because I love that man more than the world. Using the handbrake and carefully gearing down he managed to get them to the bottom safely, both shaky and white as sheets. And I’m grateful when I travel that stretch of road that they were lucky that day.
And this is how life is. One minute you can be safe in your car on a soggy Thursday, overtaking a truck and Johnny Clegg saying goodbye to December African Rain and the next moment everything can change. As we emerged from the clouds and dipped down towards Botrivier, the sun came out and lit up yellow, sheep-studded grasslands. I think only in South Africa are the ribbons of road this long and this desolate. Past the pink, flower-strewn vistas of the Tradauw Pass I remembered another thing: that the last time I traveled this road was in the back of a Volksie bus driven by the boyfriend of my oldest friend. He died of cancer less than a month ago. Road trips make you think about all kinds of things.
As we pulled into the town of Swellendam the rain had started up again. Kind people from the hotel appeared with large umbrellas which they held over our heads as we hurried to our room. That’s the kind of place Schoone Oordt is, big on attention to detail and the sorts of little touches that make everything better. The bathroom floor is heated (which really, really makes a difference), the bath salts have tiny, fragrant rose petals that make you feel like a bathing princess and while you’re having supper in front of a friendly fire some wonderful fairies sneak into your room and place hot water bottles in your bed. It was only the next morning, which opened bright and inviting, that we realised how pretty this old building actually is, its dining area opening onto a lush expanse of lawn which sweeps down to a blue and sparkling pool.
That afternoon, while the spring sun played dodgems, I found a pool lounger which offered just the right amount of shade for reading and rays for warming and was aware of a feeling of deep contentment as my husband and children enjoyed a game of hide-and-seek amongst the guava trees and I dipped in and out of a book which wasn’t good enough to hold my attention. And it was one of those moments in life where all aggravation is temporarily stalled and you can’t remember one annoying thing about the world which, for a time, has become the sound of your children laughing and clouds gathering and dissipating and an awareness that, at that exact moment in time, there is nothing you need and nowhere you would rather be.
For the next 48 hours we drank tea, took a walk, dozed, played scrabble, shared bottles of very good wine and had a hard time choosing between the delicious items on Schoone Oordt’s menu. My personal favourite was the rump, tasty and done to perfection, served with stywe pap and a smoky smoor, but the pork loin with sweet cabbage and green beans got a big thumbs up from everyone too. On our second evening we were getting hungry but weren’t quite ready to leave the fireplace or our Scrabble board (and were sipping a mighty fine bottle of red and also I was winning) so we ordered a cheese platter to share. A cheese platter is always a happy moment, but this one was a thing of rare beauty with warm, handmade biscuits and a homemade tomato relish off-setting a generous serving of some seriously delicious Overberg cheeses.
I was a bit bleak about leaving the next day – there is something deeply wonderful about arriving at the pool and within seconds being met with fluffy towels and the offer of a cocktail – but we were due in Barrydale at the Unplugged 62 music festival. Honestly, I was a little trepidatious about attending this event as camping and roughing it are not really for me, but I needn’t have worried because this was glamping at its finest – a comfy double bed with extra pillows, thick blankies to keep out the Karoo chill and – wait for this – while we were stomping in the dust some good and kind people snuck hot water bottles into our beds. This seems to be a tradition around these parts, and it’s a very good one. Also, it’s not quite what you’d expect in a campsite, but the Cherry Glamping people know a thing or two about creature comforts. They also provided bottles of water since the (a-hem) dancing builds up quite a thirst, and early next morning a kind man was up bright and early making tea and coffee and homemade rusks for whomever was in need of sustenance.
The festival turned out to be one of the nicest I’ve attended, probably because it’s smaller than the others and therefore less hectic. You know, for us older people. And the music line-up was impressive. I’d kind of expected a few local farmers with guitars, but my 12-year-old daughter’s eyes were like saucers when one of her favourite bands, Slow Jack, kicked off with their hit single, Love to Dream. It’s the first time we’ve taken our girls to a live music event and it was really fun being there with them, dancing up a storm on the haybales. The vibe was great, with everyone in the mood for letting their hair down and I remembered what I love about music festivals – how happy and chilled-out everyone is, and how many friendly, cool people exist in the world. And there something wonderful and uniquely life-affirming about dancing like lunatics under a star-studded Karoo night sky.
It was way past our usual bedtime when made our way across the dewy veld to our waiting tent, giggling like teenagers as we looked for the zip in the dark and tried not to wake our sleeping kids. The truth about this thing called life is that you discover, at some point or another, that whichever way it unfolds it is seldom the deal you expected, and being a grown-up can be harder at times than you ever imagined possible. Which is why it’s so necessary to grab hold of the moments that retain beauty and magic. None of us knows how much time we’ve been allocated on this planet. As I get older I begin to realise that the here and now is the only thing that really matters. Tomorrow it could all look very different, so we can’t take anything for granted. We must hug our children, appreciate our friends and notice the kindness and abundance that exists all around us if we choose to see it. And most of all, we must dance like lunatics as often as we possibly can.
So, to celebrate National Heritage Day which happens tomorrow whatever date that is because my watch is consistently wrong, our kids get to go to school dressed in clothes which honour their heritage. Lovely in theory, let’s celebrate a thing, less lovely when it’s 7:20am and you have to leave in 3 minutes and everyone is still in their pyjamas having back-to-back panic attacks because nobody knows what the hell our heritage is. Well, we sort of do, but as white South Africans sending our 9-year-old to school dressed as a colonising rapist and plunderer feels a little wrong.
Also, being white South Africans, chances are excellent that a sizable portion of our gene pool is Khoi San and while I’m much prouder of sharing ancestry with indigenous Africans than whatever skollie relatives managed to escape the doldrums of England and Germany and survive the voyage across the Atlantic with vrot teeth and dirty underwear, and I even have a leopard skin in the cupboard (don’t ask and also don’t skel, it’s ancient and inherited) and a knobkierie which would make a nice outfit for one of the girls there’s the thing of the #blackface so that’s not even an option. And as we stood there in growing dismay I was reminded of the strangeness of being a non-African African and I realised that that is why the white people call it National Braai Day – because we don’t know what the hell else to do, but God knows we understand a marinade.
And the thing about us white people, even those like me whose relatives haven’t seen a sniff of Europe in 300 years, we have to be extremely cautious about claiming an African heritage because, as we know, this matter goes much further than what a swab of saliva might reveal. Africanness is about a lived experience, a history and a past that I will never be a part of. Worse, my kind added significantly to the kakness of black lives in South Africa which pretty much precludes me from laying claim to common ground. At the same time, the first time I put foot on British soil, late into my twenties, while the place was vaguely familiar by virtue of Kathy and Mark books from Sub A and Fawlty Towers, it was still deeply foreign and I felt no sense of belonging at all. They talk funny and still have vrot teeth.
And while I am pale and blonde and look Scandinavian, that is where the similarity ends. I lived in Sweden for a long time and loved much about it, but those were not and never will be my people. But the rainy Saturday morning I walked through the town square and encountered a group of gumboot dancers who were visiting Malmö for some or other reason… well, my husband had to hold me quite firmly by the arm to stop me from rushing over to the nearest person and flinging my arms around him. Instead I looked on quietly and cried. Because, right or wrong and shared experience or not, these were my people. And the fact that every Marc Lottering skit and every Nandos ad made me howl told me that I needed to go home. And I did. And I live here now observing the daily madnesses and sadnesses and beautifulnesses of this country.
Like, a few hours ago in front of me in the queue at Checkers was what you’d call an old school Xhosa umakhulu, a granny. Someone just like her worked in our home, invisible as a ghost. She was bent and her hands were arthritic and no question she had seen her share of suffering in this lifetime. She was buying two small kerosene lamps, probably to save on the cost of electricity. I was buying a range of overpriced things from the kosher deli because it’s Friday and I can’t be bothered to cook. Just before that I’d been for a wax. I’ve become quite friendly with the woman who keeps my legs smooth. She is recently married and they are trying for a baby. She said, ‘The only thing is, my husband is dark-skinned and looks very black, whereas I’m nice and light. I really don’t want my children to get his dark skin.’
I thought about all of this as I drove home. So many layers of wrong, so much history behind it. But still I want to think that the intensity with which I love this country and how home-home-home it is and will always be for me means I’m not just a visitor and a coloniser. Even though I have no idea what to do tomorrow to celebrate my history but braai. Happy Heritage Day, everyone. We’ve come a long way and we have a long, long way to go.
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.