Fine, I’ll Write About the Damn Marches

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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.

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Chips*, Here Come the Chinese!

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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**?

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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).

Road trips and Remembered Things

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Schoone Oordt boutique hotel in Swellendam. The grandest old lady in the Overberg.

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.

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We’d probably have been less grumpy with each other if we’d known that at this hotel fairies come into your room and light a fire while you’re having supper. Then again, maybe not.

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.

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The rugged mountains of the magnificent Tradouw Pass (‘Women’s Path’ in Khoi)  which joins the towns of Swellendam and Barrydale.

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 Tradouw 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.

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Our daughters were partial to the miniature dressing-gowns (a very thoughtful touch) and quickly discovered a taste for Malawian mocktails by the 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.

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Breakfast in the sunny dining-room is a deeply civilised affair. That morning, a spiced poached pear with Greek yoghurt and homemade granola was the precursor to a splendid stack of black mushrooms, crispy bacon and perfectly poached eggs.

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.

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The kind of ‘camping’ I like to do. Please note the Nguni rug and the extra blankies and water. There were also comfy camping chairs set up outside and little lamps to guide us home.

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.

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Karoo cocktails and happiness.

Somebody Help Me, I Have No Heritage

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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.

On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

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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.

 

 

 

Ma, Please Don’t Make Me Go to AfrikaBurn

africa burn pic

I am of the firm and growing conviction that the world is divided into two distinct types of people: those who Burn and those who don’t. And it’s with no small measure of regret that I have to place myself, without question, into the latter group. While there are times when, after enough wine, I get momentarily bamboozled by the enthusiastic superlatives Burners throw out to convince me of how much I’m missing, I think, well, maybe I could do this… maybe I should just give it a try, the second I open my eyes the following morning I know for a fact the very notion is tomfoolery of the most delusional kind.

You see, while I nurture a self-image of being cool and chilled and even a little bit of a hippie, the truth is, over and above some nice wedges and a peasant top or two, I’m probably the least chilled person you’ll ever meet in your life. My super not-chilled-ness is somewhat disguised by my warm, over-share-y personality. But, dig a little deeper by putting me in a lift which looks like it might stop between floors, wake me up in the middle of the night for no good reason or give me bad Wifi when I have low blood sugar and you’ll see the truth emerge.

It’s not that I don’t get the appeal of AfrikaBurn. Art is great, and art installations in the middle of the desert are greater, still. Also, drugs are fun. And drugs, when everyone around you is dressed in sequins and has flashing lights attached to their heads and all the world is a disco, must be the biggest fun ever. The trouble is, morning. Hungover mornings wrapped in your own duvet where you can reach for the Ibuprofen, swallow it with water from a tap, take a long, hot shower and eat bacon on the couch all day are bad enough.

But waking up on stones with dust matting your eyelashes, a stinking long-drop seven kilometers away, wet wipes your only grooming tools and nothing to eat but Chakalaka… The thought alone makes me shudder. How? How do you people do it? When the first thing you see as you venture out your tent of death and squint at the unkind position of the bright sun is a naked couple on a tandem bicycle waving wands and looking happy and fabulous? How do you not crawl out and slap them senseless? How, with a pounding head and a mouth that’s drier than the Tankwa terrain, do you gather yourself sufficiently to get back into your sequined bra and face all that madness?

Do you swallow magic mushrooms with vodka to anaesthetize yourself enough to cope, and if so, isn’t that just a lot of hard work? Wouldn’t it be much easier to go to the National Gallery in the afternoon and then on to Galaxy for a dance? I’m sure nobody would protest if you wore crotchless panties and insisted on handing out free things. That way you could have a nice Banting salad beforehand and be happily tucked into your clean, quiet bed by 2am (or 11, if you’re me).

See, I wasn’t joking when I said I was a Mother Grundy. And yet, so many people love it and take months preparing for it and never want to leave, so clearly there are some important parts I’m just not getting. And I know, I’ll be inundated with comments about the community spirit and how everyone shares and how awesome the installations are… ja ja. But, wet wipes. And the small issue which seems to bother nobody but me of getting no sleep at all for the duration of your stay because apparently the music never stops ever and you can never get far enough away for it to be quiet. To me, it just sounds like so much torture and suffering.

Maybe one day the FOMO will get bad enough that I’ll cough up for a helicopter which can deliver me in my ball gown and overnight bag and I’ll have meaningful conversations with strangers and ride fire-spewing rhinos and dance till the sun comes up and then, just as my hair starts getting unmanageable, pick me up and whisk me away before I have time to get grumpy. I hope so. Because it really looks like something you want to experience once in your life.

A Tale of Two Pretties

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Besties.

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Men of South Africa*

south african man braaing

I love you. I really do. With your PT shorts from matric, your weird relationship with fires and your insistence on drinking brandy and coke because someone told you it’s what real men do, you are my uncles, my cousins, my boyfriends, the first guy I kissed playing Spin the Bottle when I was 11. I know you, and there’s a comforting familiarity in your Boy Speak (‘howzit, bro! My China!’) and the way you view the world. But (you knew that ‘but’ was coming, right?), I feel like the time has come to clear up a few things. In terms of gender stuff, you are just not getting that memo. You know, the one they seem to have sent out in most other parts of the world about it not being the 50s anymore. I know that change is hard and that as human beings we’re inclined to repeat old patterns, but the world is a different place now and it’s time for you guys to catch up. So, I’m going to take the time to explain a few things to you. Like our ostensible leader, a truly South African man says, ‘listen properly now.’

1. We Don’t Like it When You Pay Us Sexual Compliments

We might smile and say thank you but that is because we were brought up to be polite and we don’t want to make you uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean we like it. It is an objectification: what you are telling us, in essence, is that we have no value over and above our physicality. Those well-intentioned ‘compliments’ make us feel demeaned and irrelevant and, frankly, a little bit dirty. Like you’re having thoughts about us we’d rather you didn’t have. We know you mean well, but unless we are in a relationship with you, stop it already.

2. We Can Open Our Own Wine, Thanks

Last weekend at a lunch a man offered to open the bottle of champagne I was holding. When I said, ‘thanks, I’ve got this,’ and started to peel off the foil, he tried to wrestle it out of my hands. Sometimes I just hand the bottle over because I can’t be bothered. This time, I didn’t feel like it and I stood my ground. He looked confused and a bit offended, like I was breaking some unspoken rule. I am certain he was oblivious to the nuances of the situation; what the unconscious message is when men do stuff like this to women. And I’m sure he was perplexed about why I was being so ‘stubborn’. I don’t have the energy to go into the whole thing now, so just take it from me. We can open our own wine.

3. Chivalry is Cool as Long as We can Repay the Compliment

You want to open the door for me? That’s really nice. And in return I will pay for dinner. Or buy you flowers. Or pour your beer. Treating people with consideration and respect is a beautiful thing, but it goes both ways. As women learn very early on in the dating game, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you insist on paying for our evening out, that’s fine, but please don’t think that means I owe you anything. We are equal players in this game.

4. We Are the Same as You, Just with Different Details

So, look us in the eye when you speak to us. Ask us about our lives and listen when we answer. Something I learnt in my years in Scandinavia is that women and men can actually talk to each other at social gatherings without anyone getting antsy or beaten up. There, it’s normal to make conversation with members of the opposite sex. Here, there is total apartheid of the genders, and when I insist on going outside and standing by the fire I get funny looks. I’m not hitting on you, I swear. I’m here with my partner and children. I’m just making conversation. And please – don’t talk exclusively about yourself. I know you find your job in finance fascinating. I’ve been listening politely for an hour. I also have an interesting job. Why don’t you ask me about it? Maybe we could even find a common area of interest. If not, at least we tried.

5. Stop Insisting Your Wife Takes Your Name

You married each other. Why should she become Mrs You? It’s such a weird norm. Two adults get married and the one has to sacrifice her identity because she has a vagina? This country is totally in the dark ages when it comes to that stuff. The amount of times I have had to explain to my bank and Home Affairs people why I have a different surname to my husband is beyond. Again, to use a foreign example – in Denmark and Sweden when two people get married it’s up to them to decide if they’re going to adopt the husband or the wife’s name. The better name wins. It’s equal and democratic and how it should be here too. It’s time we moved on from that patriarchal rubbish.

6. No Woman Ever Needs a ‘Good F?ck.’

Some months ago a man who was driving too fast in a residential area smashed into a parked car outside the home of a friend. When she went outside and pointed out to him he was driving recklessly he told her she needs a ‘good f?ck.’ The violence and misogyny implicit in a statement like that defies belief, and reflects the rape culture that permeates our society. It’s a shame that this young man driving an expensive car grew up without somebody to teach him about what it means to be a man. To show him how to treat and speak to women, and to help him out of the adolescent emotional state he somehow got himself stuck in. He is like those young male elephants which get kicked out of the herd and align themselves with older, bachelor elephants who teach them how to be behave. Only, there is seemingly nobody to teach the lost men of our society. Instead, they get jobs as investors and bankers and are rewarded handsomely with fat salaries and fancy cars. They have no incentive to reflect on their attitudes and behaviour. Any man who says this about a woman is a product of a very sick society.

7. You Are Not the Kings of the World Because of Your Unsurpassed Brilliance

You run the show because, since forever, society has favoured your maleness. You’ve been pushed, promoted and encouraged purely because you have dicks. Time and time again, as the world changes at its snail’s pace, women are proven to be better at many things than their male counterparts (flying planes, doing maths, investing on the stock exchange) but biology – combined with the deeply entrenched patriarchy into which we are born – continues to be a major obstacle to our achieving success on the same levels you do. In many parts of the world we are still denied an education. We get overlooked for promotion because at some point we’ll probably breed. Despite having better qualifications and higher levels of competence than many of the men we will compete against, the Old Boys’ Club otherwise known as the western world still means that the guy who played rugby with the boss will get bumped up the corporate ladder. And it’s a given that we’ll be paid less for doing the same job. Even Scandinavia, with its so-called gender equality, has very few women running its big businesses, never mind running the country. We don’t blame you because it is what it is and we’re ready and willing to fight this system. But don’t be too damn smug about the fact that you live in an expensive apartment and have piles of disposable income. You were given leg ups. That’s all. Be humble, be nice. Promote the women on your team. It’s the very least you can do.

8. You Are Not Raising Your Boys Right

So many times I have stood in my kids’ school playground and listened to dads telling their 4-year-old sons to ‘man up’; to not be a ‘girl’, to ‘stop crying like a sissy,’ and I cringe as these tiny children try to be something other than what they are. Something dies in little boys when you don’t allow them to feel. They become dull, blunted men who grow up to say things like the guy who crashed into the car. Your 4-year-old is not a man, he is a baby with feelings and worries and fears. Stop telling him not to have emotions. You, as his primary role model, need to create a safe space for him to be what he is. Only then will he grow up to be healthy, happy man who has good, fulfilling relationships with the people around him. Whatever he is, let him be that thing. He doesn’t like sport? That’s okay, give him books. Let it be good enough for him to be himself. Love him just the way he is, and maybe he’ll grow up to teach you things you didn’t even know.

*Disclaimer:

There are men in my life who are more passionate and eloquent about gender equality and vocal in their promotion of feminism than I dare to be. And there are men who choose not to make a noise about it, but quietly and determinedly love and support the women and girls in their lives. This was not written for you.

On Finding Your True North

shootingstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things the Township Taught Me

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Countless times since starting this blog I have been accused of being privileged and clueless and white, and when I am told this about myself my only stance ever is to agree with my reader wholeheartedly. I am all of those things. In fact, I would venture to say that I am more privileged even than some people who read me imagine. Last week the hardest decision I was called upon to make was between the salmon and the tuna sashimi. Both looked delicious; it was a tough call.

I have also been told I write exclusively to and for white people, another statement which is 100% on the button. The thing is, I am a white person (if you don’t believe me there’s the flattering About pic my husband took of me one summer when all I’d eaten that month was air) and I suspect that if I were to try writing authoritatively about what it feels like being poor and black I’d ignite even more ire than I already do. So, mostly I stick to what I know which is where to get good sashimi, and sometimes I go out on a limb and try to learn something which is slightly out of bounds of your average white, privileged South African experience. Just sometimes. Other times, I sit on my deck and drink Pinot Noir.

But this particular time – maybe The Grand was full, I can’t remember – I thought it would be good to try Something Completely Different and go for lunch in Dunoon. Dunoon (for clueless white Pinot Noir -drinking people like me) is a township out Tableview way. A lot of people live there, but not many of them are white. In fact, I believe only two are and their names are Howie and Melissa. When you’re a middle class (white) person, living in Dunoon is not something you would really do. You would live in Kenilworth and try hard to slowly edge your way towards the Atlantic Seaboard. Sometimes you will only make it as far as Rondebosch East, but that’s okay, some of the best schools are in that area. So, me being me and the day being open, I thought it would be interesting to go and visit Howie who is a friend of a friend and ask him what it’s like living amongst all those black people.

So, off we went in our tinted-windowed SAAB with pepper spray close at hand and a taser gun in the cubby-hole and the cell phone number of the head of Sea Point police station on speed dial (not really, but the last thing is true. See, I’m white and connected). And when we got there we had some coffee and attended a short church service (Howie is a pastor) and then went to his house to braai, except the braai part didn’t happen due to circumstances beyond our control. But even though we managed to spend no longer than half an hour at Howie’s house, in that short time I managed to ask him a lot of questions and he told me how things roll in that neck of the woods. And it was an interesting conversation which made me question all kinds of things about the way I live, and his words stayed with me for a long time. This is what he said (in my words, because I didn’t have a recording device with me. I was worried it would get stolen).

1. Food Belongs to Anyone Who is Hungry

You know the hunk of cheese in your digs fridge with the Post It that says something along the lines of Touch This and Breathe Your Last Breath? Not so much of a Post It happens in Dunoon. What happens is that the guy who has money buys food and puts it in the fridge. This food is for anyone and everyone who is hungry. In the evening the person who worked that day and has some dosh cooks a single pot of meat and potatoes and vegetables. When it’s just about serving time people from the neighbourhood will drop by. Sometimes 10 people will come. One time there were 20. The food gets divided evenly amongst every human being. If that means the person who bought and cooked the food goes without, so be it. They will wait till the last guest has left and make themselves some porridge. Or not. It’s just the way it is.

2. Whoever Has the Money Pays the Rent

When Howie moved into the house he shares with three other guys he imagined rent would be divided equally each month. When it was explained to him that that’s not the way it works: if someone doesn’t have money the ones who do, pay, he was dismayed as he assumed it would be him coughing up extra each month. In reality, the opposite occurred. One month he simply forgot. Nobody reminded him, his housemates just assumed he was broke and covered the shortfall themselves. I remember when I was a student my housemate (who had plenty of money) split everything in half down to the last 20 cents. It’s a kak way to live.

3. This Loo is My Loo, This Loo is Your Loo

Since toilets are generally a scarcity in a township, you make yours available to whomever might need it. It’s 3am and your neighbour ate a bad smiley? You’ll know all about it. At any time of the day or night if the people in Howie’s road need a widdle they help themselves. So, the bedroom he shares with three other guys doesn’t have a door and everyone is woken up all night long? Welcome to the reality of poverty. Their bathroom doesn’t have plumbing either, by the way, so you make do with a bucket of water and a little cup for rinsing your hair. Long, hot showers to warm you up in winter? Maybe in your next life if you gather up some really good karma.

4. Space is a Luxury Commodity

Howie ‘only’ shares  his modest bedroom with three other guys. They are lucky; they all have jobs. This means the lounge can be used as the lounge – a shared space to hang out, play the guitar, read or entertain guests. But many of these small houses host 10, even 20 people who occupy every square inch. Getting away from the noise and chaos is impossible. There is no privacy; no quiet corner to unwind and re-group. In order to be alone you have to leave, but where do you go? Howie is lucky, he has a car and when it all gets too much he takes himself to the beach, but most people don’t have cars, nor extra money to waste on a taxi fare out of the township. You just deal with it. It’s that, or living on the street. Not much of a choice, huh?

5. Ordinary Things Are Difficult

Think about this: everyone has to be out the house early in order to factor in the +-1,5 hours it takes to get into the city in buses and taxis and on foot to arrive at work on time. This means, in many households, competing with at least 10 people for the loo, for running water to wash and brush your teeth. It’s nothing short of a miracle that people who live like this arrive at their jobs, day after day, smelling nice and wearing clean clothes. The mind boggles at the organisational skills and determination this must require. Imagine trying to get a good night’s sleep so you can write your exam the next day when you’re sleeping on a floor next to nine other people. Imagine, in a wet Cape winter, trying to wash and dry your only suit so you look good at the next day’s job interview. Trying not to get sick and miss work when all your housemates are coughing and sneezing and everything in your house is wet and you haven’t eaten properly and you can’t open a window to let in fresh air because it’s too damn cold and you don’t have electricity or a heater.  The middle classes in this country? We live like kings and queens. When we venture out of our front doors we mustn’t forget this simple truth.

So, that was one home in one township, and implying that that’s the way it works everywhere would be silly. But it is the way it works there and since everyone who lives in the area is poor, more than likely this way of living together is not unique. And when I narrated this story to my student who lives in Langa he thought it was weird that I thought it was weird. For him, it was normal. It made me think a little bit about how selfish I can be and how unthinkingly I accept the luxuries of life as my right. How I can have a cadenza when the loo in the en suite bathroom is blocked and I have to walk to the other side of house. How secretly annoyed I get when the person I’m sharing the sushi platter with helps himself to the last salmon rose. There is a lot to be learnt from putting oneself in unusual places. I highly recommend it. It helps a little bit to cure the stjoepids.