Tsek, Tsotsi!

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 11.50.30 AM
Did you hear the one about the president who wouldn’t resign?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Shap Shap Shanana

cape town pic

I love Cape Town this time of year. Spend enough Decembers and Januaries in the soggy greyness of Europe and you’ll stop moaning about the south-easter and the Vaalies (well, maybe not the Vaalies) and feel a deep, abiding gratitude for the fact that when the table cloth stops tumbling over the mountain and a still and clear blue morning awakens, get there early and you have the whole beach to yourself. And as you wade into the water it dawns on you that the summer is yours, all yours. In fact, the whole place is. Cape Town is the kind of city you own if you’re a local. I used to walk around the icy streets of Malmö, already dark at 3:30pm, dreaming of Clifton 4th. I knew what was going on there: that the sun was not even close to setting yet. That people were navigating the cold, clean waves on SUPs. That a granadilla lolly would, indeed, make you jolly.

And as the sunbathing crowd marches up the steps to wherever it is they came from, the picnic crowd would be marching down with white wine and blankets and things from Giovannis. And the knowledge that all this was happening on the other side of the planet while I pushed a double baby pram through slush was almost more than I could bear. And I’ll never take it for granted again: the girl crossing Buitengracht street yesterday in a strappy sundress and converse high tops, holding her skirt so it didn’t blow up around her head. She was just so Cape Town. The guy in the airport parking lot a few mornings ago who, to pass the time while he waited for his load of tourists, had opened all the doors, put his favourite song on loud and was dancing like nobody was watching. The bergies on High Level road wearing Christmas hats with flashing lights. iKapa.

It’s too hot inside the restaurants so patrons spill outside into courtyards festooned with fairy lights. Summer nights black as ink, balmy, alcohol-steeped, humming with the energy of the season. Midnight in a swimming pool underneath a blanket of stars. Carols by candlelight. Sunrise walks up the mountain. A friend recently arrived, coming home from Australia where he tried to emigrate but nearly died of dismay. He calls it ‘a dusty rock where souls go to die.’ Sometimes I sit on a bench at the Waterfront and watch the tourists go by. It’s easy to tell who is who. Nobody on the planet is as pasty as the Brits. Nobody wears uglier shoes than the Germans, and even though the Swedes have only been here for half an hour, they’ve already managed to turn themselves a deep shade of mahogany. But, come! Come! Spend your Kronor and your Euros. Heaven knows we locals can’t afford the seafood platter.

The thing is, you’d be hard-pressed to find worse whiners than we Saffers. Here we are actually living in the city the whole world rushes to in the summer and we still find things to complain about. Cape Town – like the whole of the country – is not without its problems. But actually it’s pretty amazing, as places go. And, as I’ve said many times in the past, sometimes I wonder if it really needs to be ‘fixed’. Like life, South Africa is messy, unpredictable and full of contradictions. Some days you’ll be frustrated, others you’ll be delighted. It’s the human experience presented in sharp technicolour. It’s like all the bad and all the good you can ever imagine has been crammed into this one little corner of the globe. Pour yourself a rooibos gin and enjoy the ride.

This year, despite the drought, hotels have been fully booked since July. Restaurants are crowded, main roads crawling. I know some folks get grumpy about actually having to plan in advance and make dinner reservations (the horror!) but I love it – the bustle, the vibe, the money pouring in which keeps the machine oiled and the wheels turning. And there’s a reason why everyone on the planet wants to be here. This city really does have everything. Last week a friend made an appointment over the phone. As they settled the details and she was about to hang up, the person she was talking to clinched the deal with, ‘shap shap, shanana.’ She was so amused she told me about it on Whatsapp. We both posted ‘laugh-till-you-cry faces. ‘You should write a blog about that,’ she suggested. So, here it is.

Happy 2018 to all my readers. Thank you for engaging with my ramblings over the past year. The past 12 months were a tough journey for many of us, but I think 2018 is going to be shap shap shanana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somebody Help Me, I’m Having a Kak Gedagte

So, I have a confession to make: lately I’ve been having a kak gedagte, and this thing started to happen on Tuesday night when Baleka Mbete didn’t even have the decency to fake cry when she announced to the dishonourable members of parliament and the waiting country that uJacob and his thieving, plundering ministers will continue to thieve and plunder till the Nguni cows come home. I suppose I was one of those people hoping against hope that the majority of the ruling party were people of integrity who would do the right thing even if it was hard, but clearly this is not the case. And I suppose I just got demoerin and that feeling hasn’t left me yet. And what I want to know is why must we always draw the short straw when it comes to rulers of this lovely country? Why do we always get saddled (Madiba and Mbeki excluded) with the biggest bladdy mamparras the world has ever seen? I mean, this guy?

PW Botha pic
Prime Minister PW Botha. No doubt telling everyone how not a racist he is. Or maybe mansplaining a thing to Elise*

I know that when you’re a white South African it’s haram to have an opinion that extends beyond what you’re going to order from UberEATS, but I would also like to say that at no point did Clarence Poephol in the above pic phone me on my landline and ask my opinion on things. Because I can tell you, for free, that if he had done I would have said in no uncertain terms that I don’t think apartheid is very polite nor any kind of good idea moving forward into the future. Except he didn’t give two Kruger Rands for what I – or most of South Africa – thought, so I had to stand there with a mouth full of teeth singing Oranje Blanje Blou and about crags and creaking wagons while these fools made completely kak decisions which would later, round about now, bite us badly in the bums, thanks for that.

ZumaSonaResponse.jpg
Old poepoog President Zuma having a lekker laugh at the State of the Nation.

And now, for his sins and those before him, we’ve got Billy Sphincter and his swimming pool to contend with. Maybe we’re being punished because it’s so lekker here. Could that be? I mean, try and beat our winelands and coastline. Maybe it’s some kind of retributive justice by the universe, like here’s a very good Chardonnay for the bargain price of 45 ZAR, only you’re also getting Bathabile Dlamini because you can’t have everything, sozzles. I suppose it sort of balances out Addo and the Kruger National Park when we get the most foolish people who’ve ever been born making decisions for us and our country. Otherwise it would be too good and it wouldn’t be fair on the rest of the world. And now the same ANC that saved our souls has grown more vrot than a skaapboud left out in the sun after Nagmaal. What are we even to do?

And, how mad is our history, actually? So, let’s take the most diverse, vibrant, culturally rich and beautiful place on the planet and put this guy in charge:

Hendrik_Verwoerd_700.jpg
Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. A barrel of laughs, you can tell.

I mean. I don’t think he had a happy day in his entire life. Which might account for why he was hell-bent on making the rest of us miserable. When you’re feeling like a haemorrhoid there’s nothing worse than being surrounded by joyful people. I actually think, had Verwoerd (just the name sounds like you’re making a noise out your bum) and his cronies lived long enough, they would have thoroughly approved of Jacob Zuma’s government. Lord knows they were also robbing us blind during the apartheid years. If old Hendrik was capable of moving those thin lips into a smile, he would have grinned at JZ and slapped him on the back and told him way to go! Censorship of the press, thieving, autocratic governance, corruption… so many parallels between that government and this one. It seems like the ANC learnt well from its predecessors.

So, I’m really hoping my kumbaya mindset returns one of these hours so that I can continue to assure everyone in Perth that it’s all ayoba. People have pointed out that nearly 50% of the ANC opposed Zuma and that that’s a good sign. I suppose they’re right, I’m just impatient. How long will we wait till proper social transformation starts to happen? What is the plan for righting the wrongs? Is there one or will we, the haves, just keep shopping and pretending we live in Europe? When will this wonderful country filled with so much amazingness be rewarded with a proper leader? We have come so far and worked so hard that these setbacks klap a sister.

I suppose it’s no different, really, to what we’ve been dealing with since the Nats ran the show. We hated our government then, we hate our government now. Not a lot has changed. Actually, it’s probably not stretching the truth to say not a lot has changed since the 1600s when the first white ships arrived on our coastline and starting making megaai. So, I’m going to try and cheer up: Zuma’s days are numbered and when he goes, chances are excellent we’ll be awarded an even bigger mamparra because the more things change, the more they stay the same. And there is something quite comforting about that. Plus, we have R45 wine and a good excuse to drink it.

*Elise Botha, his wife.

Miss Knitwear and a Goat Called Allen

grey shawl better pic
My favourite item in the Miss Knitwear range, the grey shawl with feathers.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 2.03.12 PM
Allen (right).

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 2.04.38 PM
Candice Johnson, runner of marathons and founder of Miss Knitwear.

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.

miss_Knitwear_Zebra_Reversible_Scarf_8
The reversible animal print scarves look amazing with jeans and/or a leather jacket.

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.

Grey_Ladder-Lace_Shawl_feathers_11
Totally how you should go to 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.

Charcoal_Feather_Lace_Shawl
The charcoal shawl with feathers. How, just, gorgeous.

Riding Out the Storm

Stormy pic.jpg

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.

Fine, I’ll Write About the Damn Marches

percies.jpg
The name alone makes me want to go there every day.

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.

Black-white-hands-heart.jpg

Chips*, Here Come the Chinese!

me and lucy pic
Me and my friend, Lucy, who owns Hot and Spicy Szechuan Food in Milnerton This is easily the best Szechuan restaurant in Cape Town but you’ve probably never heard of it because it’s not on Bree Street.

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…

dumplings pic.jpg
Dumplings. Is there even anything to discuss?

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.

szechuan beef dish.jpg
Szechuan Spicy Boiled Fish. Yes, those are chillies and yes, you will cry like a little girl and then come back the next night for more.

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.

guv 2
Gerhardus Poephol van Schipol not looking thrilled about how the poffertjies turned out.

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**?

china mall pic.jpg
China Mall, Johannesburg

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).