Why White South Africa Needs a PK*

Yesterday was one of those days where you kind of wish social media hadn’t been invented because, worse by far than the envy someone’s holiday in Prague inspires, it means you get  exposed to a kind of ignorance you’d like to think doesn’t exist. And to top it all, some of the people showing their stupidity to all the world are amongst your so-called friends. I read some of the tweets and status updates regarding #FeesMustFall and the comments that followed and started to respond, but got overcome by a dismay so deep it made me want to adopt the foetal position and rock back and forth with my thumb in my mouth until it all went away. Only, it won’t. So, to maintain my own sanity I’m going to respond, in brief, to the pearls – the ones that make you shake your head in wonderment that these people made it to the age of 50 (or 40 or 30) without falling down a long-drop or setting themselves alight. Here they are, in no particular order:

“They want it handed to them on a silver platter. They don’t understand that to succeed you have to work hard.”
Um. Firstly, who are ‘they’? But that’s a minor stjoepid compared to the rest. If you were the only person in the world who didn’t see the facebook meme that reads, ‘if wealth was about hard work every woman in Africa would be a billionaire,’ let me explain in short. Like wealth, poverty is not a choice. It comes as a result of very specific socio-political determinants that favour a small portion of the population (you) and disfavour the rest (your maid). In short, you didn’t get a job as a manager and your cleaner as a cleaner because of your superior intellect and work ethic. She works longer, harder and dirtier than you ever will for a pittance that barely keeps her kids in school. All these young South Africans want is the chance to not be cleaners. To leave the township, to afford electricity. To have basic human rights. No amount of part-time work in South Africa will cover the cost of their tuition. These students have jobs. It’s not enough. All they are asking is to be allowed an education so that they can be productive members of society. Why is that so hard to understand? I don’t know, but come over here, you need a klap.

“If I want to go overseas but can’t afford the ticket I don’t go to the airport and protest. I work hard and I save.”
These youngsters are not asking to go on overseas holidays, they are asking to be allowed to finish their degrees so that they can become tax-paying citizens like you and I. They are asking for a tiny fraction of the opportunities that we, as white South Africans, take for granted and believe are our god-given right. They aren’t asking for leg ups, they are simply asking that their one opportunity at freeing themselves from the cycle of poverty is not taken away from them. Why aren’t you supporting this effort? Don’t you understand it is for the good of all of us if South Africa lowers its unemployment rate; that if more people enter the workforce and join the middle class it translates to more money and freedom for everyone? Don’t you want this country to have a stable economy? These people are fighting for our future, for our kids’ futures. They are taking to the streets and protesting and getting arrested to save South Africa while you sound off on Facebook about how unfair it all is. No, sis on you. Come here for your klap.

“My brother has studied so hard and he’s trying to write his exams and now he can’t because of these protestors and he’s extremely stressed. If you want your degree, study and write your exams like everyone else. Stop trying to get out of it.”
We are very sorry that your brother has been inconvenienced by the student protests. We are shedding real tears of sadness for him and his friends in Constantia whose Plett holiday now hangs in the balance. I know – why don’t you get in your Mini Coopers and drive to the airport with your dad’s credit card and buy one-way tickets to Perth because you have no role to play in the future of this beautiful, troubled country. In fact, you and your kind are part of the problem. But first, come here. You’re both getting a klap.

“I work 50 hours a week and I study overseas. It is possible, but nobody wants to see it.”
Damn these students for having every opportunity to succeed but still being annoying and asking for more! I have a plan for middle class South Africans across the colour bar. Instead of taking a gap year and waitering in London, the government – like they do with medical graduates – must send you to the township for 12 months. There you must live in a shack, do a menial job, wash your clothes by hand, use a public toilet and survive with no external help for the duration of your time there. If you have to fetch your own water, so much the better. It’s the only way we will ever understand the difference between rich and poor lives; the only way the privileged few are ever going to ‘get it’. It’s dangerous? Correct. Public transport is unreliable? Shame. You have a toothache but can’t afford the dentist? Crying for you. It seems, without this experience, the privileged continue to have no conception of their privilege or the blissful ignorance in which they live their lives. Since it’s unlikely this will ever happen, I’m going to have to settle for your klap.

*Poes Klap (sorry, Mom)

On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

sa flag 4
Nobody wants to think of themselves as being a bad person. Bad people are ISIS fighters, child molesters, Shrien Dewani. They do horrible things which are blatant and obvious and talked about in the media. But in the last few months I have found myself in spaces where I’ve had to take a long and careful look at who I am in the world, the attitudes that have formed me and how I conduct myself in certain situations. And to say that it’s been an uncomfortable awakening is an understatement. Because many of you who follow my blog know that I’m relatively outspoken about race issues in this country. I have strong feelings about the socio-economic disparities and the white attitudes that feed them, and while I sit behind my computer screen in my nice study on the Atlantic Seaboard it’s easy to wax lyrical about egalitarianism and the way things ‘should’ be in SA. When I write these words, which I wholeheartedly mean, I can nonetheless distance myself a little bit from the ‘racists’ out there; convince myself that I am better than they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Getting off Facebook and Talking to the Petrol Attendant Guy

While apartheid ostensibly ended two decades ago, you’d have to be in all kinds of denial not to see how apartly (made-up word) black and white people still live, and it’s a phenomenon I alternately accept with a kind of soul-weary resignation and then sometimes regale against with all my heart because the fact that we don’t talk to each other lies at the very heart of this country’s ongoing problems. But because of this reality – my age, where I live, where my kids go to school – the only black people I encounter on a day-to-day basis are the ones at the supermarket checkout, the one bringing me my Americano and the guy filling my car up with unleaded. So, when I’m not feeling that I-can-t-make-a-fucking-difference-here-so-I’m-not-even-going-to-try feeling (usually brought on by reading the paper), I’m trying a new thing which is talking to every black person I get a chance to talk to.

Sometimes it will be the woman with the great weave at Sea Point Pick n Pay (there’s this drop dead gorgeous woman who sits there all day ringing up groceries and every day she is so glamorous and perfectly groomed she makes me feel like the bag lady); sometimes it will be the parking attendant – though, less often him, because I’m usually rushing somewhere – and often it’s the petrol attendant guy because he’s standing around, anyway, and you’re sitting there waiting will a few minutes to kill, and what I’ve discovered since doing that is that these micro conversations have probably changed the way I understand how people are feeling in this country.

The first time I did it was when Madiba was very sick and it felt like nobody was telling us the truth about what was going on and for weeks I was distressed and vaguely ill-at-ease. In the context of that shared tragedy it felt less weird to engage a complete stranger, and I put my skaamness about being white and in a fancy Swedish car aside and asked the guy what he thought of the whole thing. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember him telling me his family was from around the Qunu area and, as a young boy, he knew of the Mandela clan and was going there in the next while to pay his respects. Just hearing that was comforting. We shook hands awkwardly – me doing the formal thing, him doing that hand-clasp thing I’ve never quite grasped – but that part didn’t matter. We were just two grieving South Africans.

This week the guy I spoke to works in Green Point and, it as it transpires, he is from East London where I was born and my parents both grew up which means it’s a special part of the world for me and with anyone who comes from the Eastern Cape I feel an instant kinship. His name was Dumisani, and this is how our conversation went:

Me: Oh, wow, I haven’t been back to East London for many years, but I want to go soon. I want to take my mom and dad back.

Him: You’ll be surprised at what you find. It’s not like it used to be. I go back to visit my sister and when you come from Cape Town it’s like arriving in a different country.

Me: Ja, I hear that.

Him: I can’t understand, when people see how badly an area is being governed, they’ll still vote ANC. Look at what the DA does for Cape Town.

Me: Ja, but we’re still in transition. This stuff takes time. People vote for a party, not an individual. You can’t expect black people to vote for a white party.

Him: No. It’s been twenty years now. People need to wake up. The time of thinking like that is over. Who is serving you? Who is making your life better? These are the only issues that matter. I struggle. I do. But I’m providing for my kids, and they won’t struggle like I do. Their lives will be different. I’m teaching them to ask questions. When they vote it won’t be about what’s black and what’s white, it will be about what’s good and what’s right.

I didn’t really have much to say after that, but I thought about our conversation and I repeated it to my parents that evening over supper. Because we all still maintain this myth that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and all the time, when I can be bothered to pay attention, I’m reminded that there is just an ‘us.’ If this ship goes down, it’s the under-classes who drown first. We whiteys can still weasel a passport to New Zealand. Dumisani? Not so much. I don’t know this man from Adam, but I can tell you that he’s smart and hard-working and doing everything in his power to make a better South Africa for his family. Unfortunately, his ceiling of opportunity was low and standing around all day washing people’s windscreens was one of the few jobs he was able to get. But he does it with pride and enthusiasm and he has a plan and a purpose and I drove away humbled and with great admiration for that kind of can-do attitude. Because, god knows, we in our nice cars like to whinge.

So, the point, I guess, is that all around us all time are these little windows of opportunity for us to engage and get to know one another a little bit better. It’s just about putting your phone down and taking them. They’re there. And the thing is it’s me who drives away feeling better, feeling more connected and more hopeful about the future. Less of a stranger in my own country. I’m going to try to do it more often.

The Unbearable Lightness of Sweden

pic of sweden sea

One of the more interesting lessons I learned about living abroad is that, no matter what your experience of the country in question, it claims a portion of your soul and becomes a part of who you are so that, when I don’t make it back to northern Europe for a few years, I start longing for things I never knew I loved – the smell of snow moments before its dry flakes appear in the sky; a sun that’s too lazy to move from the horizon but instead waits distractedly for clouds to hide its face; forests so thickly green they retain centuries of rain. And as we cross the Öresund Bridge from Denmark into Southern Sweden it doesn’t feel like coming home, exactly, but the feeling is one of warmth and familiarity; kind of like putting on a favourite sweater or a thick, comfortable pair of socks. And driving through familiar suburbs I remember days and moments and feelings and a time where I was lost and had to look for myself in foreign-sounding parks and on streets and squares where my feet clocked endless miles as I walked in search of direction and meaning in a city I’d never heard of until, by chance, I found myself living there with a man who had somehow become my husband and children who – bizarrely – belonged to me.

And on this recent trip to midsummer Malmö I was made aware of something else, too – how lightly people live in this stylish, wealthy part of the planet. In a place where everybody has everything one is allowed the luxury of believing human beings to be inherently kind and inherently good. The world up there is gentle, and while it’s not without its problems, life makes sense and justice – for the most part – is a concrete, dependable concept. Behind triple-glazed windows its citizens are shielded from some of the harsher realities of the world; facts of life we South Africans are not at liberty to ignore because they knock on the windows of our cars while we wait for the lights to change and huddle under blankets in doorways through the wet Cape winter. And – especially as I grow older, less certain and more acutely aware of the contingency of life and how, at any moment, everything I love could be taken from me – I understand the seductiveness and the temptation of leaving this school of hard knocks with its illogicality and relentless sunshine to merge, instead, with the soft greyness of Europe or elsewhere; to live in a place which cares for its people; where you aren’t looking over your shoulder all the time and it’s not always a pleasant surprise that your car is where you left it.

I understand in a way I didn’t before why people make this choice, and in a way I envy their ability to leave and put Africa behind them because, God knows, there are places to spend your days that are easier on the psyche. Where not everything is political; where at any given moment you are not wondering when the house of cards will come crashing down; justifying your (obviously sado-masochistic) decision to return when you could have left for good. And as I swam in Sweden’s warm, clean ocean where the scariest thing I might encounter is a pair of beautifully groomed swans and cycled through greenly manicured parks where the flowers are changed along with the season I wondered to myself why I couldn’t find peace in the wonderful peacefulness of this place; why – like so many others have done – I couldn’t surrender to its beauty and grace but had to fight so hard to return to a country I have no right to love as much as I do, nor will ever love me back.

And – truth be told – I didn’t want to go back to South Africa this time. I loved the summer sun, hotter than I’ve ever felt it; not like the burning spear sun of Africa, but like a thick, warm blanket, both delicious and a little too heavy; I reveled in the long, sultry, champagne and salmon-filled evenings and the sophistication of the supermarkets and the cleanliness and how courteously people drive and how you can cycle everywhere and how good the water tastes and that soon it’ll be time for the annual round of crayfish parties and for picking mushrooms in the forest and the trees in the parks will be set alight with the colours of autumn. And yet I continued to experience a sense of mutedness; like swimming underwater or walking through thick fog. A feeling – for better or worse – of being somehow removed from reality. Like the ‘real’ world was happening elsewhere, on some other part of the globe. High Level Road as you drive towards Sea Point. And I suppose this is why – as much as those climes charm me – as I gazed out of the aeroplane window and saw the blue of the African sky and the ugly façade of Cape Town International Airport I felt unexpected tears prickling my eyes and, from nowhere, a sob rising in my chest. And for this reason, I guess, I am destined to stay here on this ship as it veers, off-course, into scarily unchartered waters and hope, like the rest of my kind, that somebody, somewhere will save us.

Six Mad South African Stories

Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hon!). One of those lost-in-translation moments.
Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hom!). One of those quintessentially South African, impossible-to-translate moments.

With this trial going on and on and the awful Nkandla scandal and that book that’s just come out about the crisis our education system is in it’s easy to get a bit despondent and start thinking, fokkit, Hermanus, what’s to become of us, and when that happens it’s good to be reminded that, while we live in a country where the future is every part of uncertain, the flipside of this is that hardly a day goes by without something mad/funny/ridiculous happening that makes you laugh out loud or shake your head in dismay or be warmed to the bone with the kindness and resilience of human beings. And, after all, we are not here to experience perfection; we came to experience love and humanness in all of its manifestations. Here are some true stories gathered over the past twelve months.

The Blind Beggar and the Lotto Tickets

My mom told me this story over chicken curry a few nights back. She was standing in the queue at Shoprite to buy her weekly lotto ticket (‘if you don’t buy, you can’t win’, as my dad always says), and ahead of her was a well-dressed, blind beggar – really smart in a suit and hat, being led around by a young woman who helped him empty the contents of a plastic packet onto the counter. The cashier looked horrified and like she was about to protest but changed her mind and proceeded to count out R72 entirely in brown coins. There was not a single piece of silver in the mix. With the entire R72 the two of them bought lotto tickets. That’s called faith. Or something. I hope they got at least a few numbers right.

The Naked Rastafarian in the Garden

We don’t have a fence around our property, and a while back my kids called me and told me there was somebody in the garden. I went out to have a look, and there, washing himself at the outside tap, was a young Rastafarian homeless guy in his late twenties or so. He had Tresemme shampoo and a loofah. I went over to where he was squatting and said, listen, dude, I don’t mind if you need to wash, but don’t let the tap run for so long, you make everything waterlogged. He stood up and faced me, naked as the day he was born, and nodded that he understood, but the next day he was back, and then he was coming twice a day and it started to get on my nerves. My polite requests that he didn’t come quite so often fell on deaf ears, and eventually, after a couple of weeks, I told him not to come anymore, but there he was, twice a day, and I live alone half the time and the whole situation started to get a bit problematic so we took matters into our own hands and replaced the tap with one that has a removable top. You can’t turn it unless you have the top bit, and we put the top bit inside. The next time he came he stood staring at the tap in bewilderment. Then he climbed up the steps to our deck where there is a working tap, but where all of Green Point would be able to see him washing his bum, so he just stood there for a while not really knowing what to do. I felt a bit bad and went outside and said, sorry, man, but really, it was getting uncool. He shrugged and went off on his way and I haven’t seen him since. Shame. He just wanted to be clean.

The Lady at Fruit and Veg City

All this cancer everywhere really freaks me out, so I’m trying to feed us all healthy food, and the kids and I have a little game where we each have to make sure we get 7 servings of veggies and fruit a day, and it’s quite fun, actually, seeing how many greens you can squeeze into a sauce or a soup. Or, before supper, I give them a ‘starter’ now which is cut up apple and blueberries and cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks and the kids think it’s great, and I feel like a less crap parent. Anyhow, Fruit and Veg have nice stuff lately – fancy mushrooms and tiny baby carrots and fresh, interesting salads so I try and go there more, and as the cashier was ringing up my stuff and I was looking over her shoulder thinking of something or other, she suddenly stopped dead, looked me in the eye and said, ‘where are my manners? Hello. How are you, and did you have a nice weekend?’ I was surprised, but also not, because you do get that kind of thing happening down here. I told her I missed my husband but that I have good friends who kept me busy. She patted me kindly on the arm and said, ‘it won’t be long now.’ And I walked out of a budget supermarket feeling like the world is a kind and gentle place.

The Day my Mom Got Mugged

Arriving home at about 6pm one winter’s evening, suddenly a young man with a knife appeared at my 68-year-old mom’s side and demanded she give him her bag. She said, ‘I’m not giving you my bag. There is nothing in it of value, but it is of value to me.’ He started to argue so she ordered him to sit down where she proceeded to show him her near-empty wallet, her old, worthless cell-phone and the punnet of mushrooms she’d just bought at the Spar. She said, ‘I’ll give you R100 but you are not getting anything else.’ He agreed and went on his way. When she told me the story a few days later I didn’t know whether to be proud or horrified. I still don’t know.

The Honest Granadilla Lolly Guy

Those guys on the beach are so freaking annoying with their cooler-boxes of ice lollies (a lolly to make you jolly?) when you’re trying to read your Heat magazine in peace, but a few months ago I took the kids to the beach and, just as we’d settled, I spotted a friend 50 metres away. Too lazy to go all the way over there, I phoned her and told her to join us, which she duly did. About ten minutes later, one of the ice lolly guys approached us again, this time with a fancy new Samsung smart phone in his hand, and asked us if it belonged to one of us. In the process of gathering her things, my friend had dropped her R8000 phone in the sand, he had spotted it and was doing the rounds. She gave him R50. He probably lives in a cardboard box.

The Jolly Christmas Bergie

On High Level Road about around Christmas time I was on my way to work and a bit stressed and grumpy because when you have young kids trying to get everyone fed and dressed and out of the house on time requires great reserves of patience which is not my strong point, and as the traffic slowed down there, just to my right, was a bergie going through a bin, and while there is nothing unusual about this, what was unusual was that he was wearing one of those red, felt pointed hats with the flashing lights and he had the lights going full tilt while he sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ at the top of his lungs. While you might be sifting through the trash for your next meal and Christmas will probably be a bottle of something cheap and lethal, aint no reason to be a misery guts. Big lesson to us all.

Gaaning Aan About Xhosa Again

A few weeks ago I went to the Baxter theatre to see a play someone who reads my blog urged me to go and see called Death of a Colonialist. It’s about a white history teacher in Grahamstown who gets a little obsessed with the Xhosas and the frontier wars and whose teaching methods, as a result, get more and more unconventional until he’s removing his shirt and covering his face and torso with red ochre like the warriors used to do before going into battle and – to the bemusement of his pupils – emulating battle scenes in the classroom. And the play is multilayered and has many themes – white voices and their relevance in the present day, the role power plays in our recordings of ‘history’, the deep love for a country which isn’t, by rights, ours and the emigration of young South Africa people. And it’s a very apt piece of theatre as it addresses so many issues we’re dealing with right now, and I related to many of the demons the protagonist was battling.

As we entered the auditorium this music was playing, Xhosa songs sung by men with deep voices, a magical sound resonant of the earth and the red sand and green fields and rivers and the overarching African sky. It was a sound less like people and more like ancient and forever, and again I started to think of this language issue because – like we saw in the case of Afrikaans and how this new, malleable language was modified and used as a weapon of power and oppression – the words we speak and the way we speak them are what ultimately constructs our reality and defines our world. And what I don’t get is why, in 2014, 20 years of democracy later, my daughter in Grade Four is instructed in Afrikaans three times a week and in isiXhosa, one. And I love that she’s learning Afrikaans, but one isiXhosa lesson a week is just not going to cut it. She’s not going to master this language beyond the sad, inadequate molos and usaphilas I was taught at my apartheid regime school back in the year dot.

And I don’t understand this decision by the Education Department because – if you’re going to call South Africa your home – isn’t that language actually the most important one to know? Because can we ever really attain equality with people when they are consistently having to compromise and speak to us in broken, accented English while ours is all proper and hootah hooh when the least we could do is meet them half way and speak crappy isiXhosa back? Implicit in these interactions we conduct in our mother tongue while the people we’re speaking to have to struggle and use bad grammar are assumptions and something very much like arrogance. And if we were all – and I include myself totally – were that committed to change in this country, to integration, to real egalitarianism, wouldn’t learning Xhosa be the very least we could do?

Because language isn’t just about words – it’s about concepts and ideas and ways of interpreting the world. In many ways it holds the key to who people are inside. Language unlocks belief systems and unveils truths about how reality is perceived. As those of us who speak Afrikaans know, it’s impossible translating this language into English, especially in its orginal Kaaps form. It just won’t bend the right way. While you could spit on Denmark from Sweden, the different way Danish and Swedish have developed tells you a lot about the people you’re dealing with. In Denmark, for example, the fact that there is no word for ‘please’ is an important clue that these folk are direct, no-nonsense types who like to call a spade a spade.

When you speak to a Swede, by contrast, not only will they say please (‘snälla’) and thank you very much (tack så mycket) a lot, their sentences are peppered with the word ‘käns’ (pronounced shence) which means ‘feel’. Being generally more sensitive than their cousins across the ocean, for Swedes feelings are paramount, and you’ll hear a lot of ‘I feel…’ or ‘how did that feel?’ in conversation, whereas in Danish the equivalent word doesn’t exist. In that language, instead of a ‘käns’ there are words for ‘I think’ and words for ‘I believe’ – which tells you they’re less interested in the emotional aspect of things.

And – like most of us lazy, swak white South Africans – I don’t know isiXhosa so I can’t use examples from that language, but by the way many Xhosa people speak English and Afrikaans you can hear there are vast differences and from that infer that a lot is getting lost in translation. And while I love the sound of this language and have a read a little bit about how complex and nuanced it is, and sometimes when I drive I practice the different clicks to myself and think it’s big fun to say, ‘hayi suga wena’ and ‘jonga!’, I don’t google Xhosa lessons in Cape Town and go and sign up and learn how to speak it like I should. And I don’t know why I don’t. Laziness and intertia, I suppose. But I think it really would make a difference.

I couldn’t find the exact song on YouTube (it’s called ‘Nontokasi’), but this has a similar sound.

Dance – you’re Afrikaans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Carnivals and Gardens

The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and home to Cape Town.
The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and back home to Cape Town.

When you live in a country like South Africa, which has experienced – and continues to experience – change on a massive scale and where the disaster zones of many other African countries ruled by liberation governments hang over us like a panga ready to strike us into economic oblivion, conversations about where it’s good to live versus where it’s not so good to live become commonplace. And even more so for those of us who are thinking about leaving or thinking about coming home or have come home already or never want to see South Africa and Mrs Balls chutney again. And these debates go back and forth led by words like ‘lifestyle’ and ‘crime states’ and ‘education’ and ‘future’, and they are discussions which can go on endlessly without ever reaching conclusion because fundamentally they are personal and emotional, and more often than not our decisions are based on instinct and circumstance and what feels right for us versus what doesn’t.

But something I have been thinking about lately, and which is not often taken into account in these conversations – but which I believe to be true – is that different places/countries have a different energy (to be a bit shoo-wow and tie-dyed of a morning) which either resonates with ours or doesn’t. And we’ll insist on being practical and citing ‘facts’ as to why we live here versus there or there versus here but I think it boils down to something else. Like we pick partners and friends who ‘click’ with us, we choose the place we call home in much the same way. I have only lived in South Africa and Sweden, but since it would be hard to find two countries more diametrically opposed, I think they’re pretty good examples to use. I’m negative about Sweden sometimes because I was unhappy there, but I also love the country and larger Scandinavia in the way one does when a place has been your home. You can’t live somewhere for a long time and not have it become a part of you.

And I’m also more critical of it than is fair – out of defensiveness – because so many people are aghast that I left a place where everything is ‘perfect.’ And it is kind of perfect in a lot of important ways, but it wasn’t perfect for me. To employ a metaphor, Sweden is like a magnificently manicured garden full of beautiful flowers. There are water fountains, comfortable places to sit and good things to eat. People speak politely in muted tones and the air smells of freshly brewed coffee. You’ll never get lost because there are clearly demarcated paths, and the garden is ringed with stylishly decorated, very high walls that you’d never be able to scale. You are safe and you are secure. You are also walled in. For some people, the walls are a small price to pay for all that comfort. Why would you need to leave when everything is right there at your fingertips? It’s very nice there; very nice indeed.

South Africa is more like a huge, gaudy amusement park where nobody has checked the safely standards of the equipment in a long time. People climb on the rollercoaster and they feel the sun and the wind on their faces and it fills them with a delicious kind of joy, knowing that an any given moment the little car they’re strapped into could careen off the tracks and go sailing into the ether, taking them with it. But, damn that ride is fun. And it seems to go on forever. And everyone is smiling as they go around and around, and life is uncontained and open-ended and there are no barriers and the possibilities are endless. The amusement park smells of dust and oil and boerie rolls and beer, and clowns fall off barrels and people laugh and it’s colourful and in-your-face and totally unpredictable.

And I can understand why people choose the manicured garden. It’s a great garden, as gardens go. But the amusement park has a wildness which can be quite irresistible. Because you might fall off, but you also might not, and in the interim you are having such a damn good time. And objectively, it’s impossible to say which place is ‘better’. South Africa is awesome for some things, and other places are awesome for others. It’s just about what works for you, and where you feel comfortable and ‘right’. Once, about half a year before we moved back to South Africa, I was given a voucher for my birthday to visit an astrologer/healer. He was an African-American who must have been close to 80, and he’d been living in Sweden for most of his life. From his small, warm apartment in the suburbs he read to me my chart, and then out of the blue (not knowing I was leaving) he said something interesting and surprising. He said, ‘I have to tell you something – if you stay in Sweden you’re going to get sick.’ And I knew exactly what he meant. The country’s energy and I were not a good match.

Now when I go back on holiday I’ve learnt to wear one of those ‘balancing’ bracelets (whether they work or not is anyone’s guess) because, even though I’m really happy to be back and seeing good friends and swimming in the warm sea and enjoying the long days of summer, I experience odd physical symptoms – dizziness, disorientation and a vague sense of not getting enough air. I never feel this way in South Africa. And maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I think it’s something else. It’s the walls and the safety and the lack of spontaneity and madness. I’m just more a clowns and rollercoasters kind of person. And we’re all different like that. And sometimes I envy the garden folk their sense of belonging and wish I shared it because all that tinny carnival music can get noisy when you’re feeling tired, and you’re so busy dodging coloured balls there isn’t much time for reflection. But mostly I love the chaos and the freedom it affords. And that, if the mood takes you, you can fly right up to the sky.

A Moment

The first time I saw him he was standing on Jammie steps with his back to me, broad against the sunlight. He was dressed like Jim Morrisson in a white pirate shirt and a series of leather necklaces. He laughed, and shook out his hair – lustrous long, brown curls that fell well past his angular shoulders. He was rangy in the way only 22-year-old men can be, and it took me some time before I realised he was something of a legend on that campus. He hung out with a posse of impossibly beautiful black girls. Rich, skinny girls with flawless skin and expensive sneakers and straight, white teeth. I’d watch him with them – the easy way they touched him like he wasn’t Jesus, just some guy studying anthropology.

I found out his name was Ben, and that he was foreign and a member of the Mountain Club. And someone told me where he lived and after a while I got a vague sense of his routines so that I knew, more or less, when he’d come sauntering by in his faded jeans and 6 foot 2-ness. And then he’d be gone again, somewhere else, and I was not cool at all nor pretty enough to compensate for my lack of street cred and there was no reason in the world why a guy like him would ever even think of a girl like me. And I didn’t question the order of the world for a second. Even though it seemed like that same order was about to change in a big way. Because, all around us, things were starting to give. In the words of Chinua Achebe, the centre could no longer hold; things were beginning to fall apart.

Sitting in my psychology class one morning beside an Indian girl who wore a different pair of Levis every day (you couldn’t buy them in South Africa due to sanctions against us so you had to go to London or send a friend) and behind a black guy in his thirties who worked the night shift as a petrol attendant and came straight to class in the morning, still wearing his uniform, suddenly we heard a noise and loud voices coming closer. My lecturer stopped lecturing and listened, looking worried. Then, without saying a word, went over to the door of the lecture hall, closed it and locked it.

We all sat very still. The noise increased – it was chanting, and things were being broken. It was the early nineties and the country, so long in apartheid’s stranglehold, was starting to break itself free. A crowd of people appeared. They held pangas and they danced. They smashed windows and kicked in doors. They set parked cars alight. We watched them out the window. Nobody spoke. The riot passed, and the noise died down. Still we waited. Silence. The door was unlocked, and we packed up our notebooks and left the building, the affected boredom we normally took such joy in practicing replaced by a sense of fearful anticipation. We walked past the rows of police vehicles, glancing nervously at the smouldering fires. A policeman waved us along, muttering under his breath.

Everything was happening, yet nothing was happening. We sat up late at night writing overdue papers and lived on popcorn and toast. I struggled to pass Stats. I flew through my English exams. I lugged The Riverside Chaucer up and down steep hills, found out I was a feminist and used the word ‘existential’ as often as I could. It was Cape Town, it was summer and there were parties to go to. And then, one night, there he was. It was a social at the Baxter, and we arrived late after most people had already left. The guy I was with knew him, and before I could even gather myself, he was introducing us and Ben was shaking my hand and smiling and saying hello.

And then, as if on cue, the opening bars of one of my all-time favourite songs, Juluka’s December African Rain started playing. And even then it was an old song, but there is some kind of magic in that music – the drums and the deep voices that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself, and how this Jewish boy from Joburg loved Zulus so much he became one, and back in those days, that was quite a thing. And by doing that, making that stand, he freed us more than we understood at the time. It was almost like everything we had not been allowed to love about Africa was being given back to us. Through his music we became impis; we were warriors; we were children of the land, united against a system so barbaric it made us sick to our stomachs. We were the new generation, and freedom was on its way.

I smiled at him and he smiled at me and we started dancing, me, my friends, the beautiful black girls and him. And then the party was over, so we left to go somewhere else. He got in the front seat of the car and I sat in the back, behind him, my mind reeling at his proximity to me, that he was really right here in the flesh, so impossibly close. And then, as we sped through the dark city streets, young people looking to have fun, the impossible happened. I felt his hand reach behind the seat and look for mine, find it, and enclose it in his long, brown fingers.

And I was so young and naive and taken aback by this gesture, what did I do? I giggled and pulled my hand away. I pulled my hand away. And then I sat in the darkness of the car feeling the heat creep up into my face; thinking, you idiot! You idiot! What did you do that for? And I prayed to the god of stupid young girls that he would just give me second chance. Just reach for my hand again. This time, I promise I won’t pull away. Because I have been in love with you for three years and never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine you’d even give me the time of day. And I didn’t mean it, I didn’t! I was just taken by surprise. And as we drove on and the seconds ticked by, he sat very still, looking ahead of him – nobody else in the car even aware of this monumental thing that had just failed to happen. And with every streetlight we passed I knew with increasing certainly that I had missed my moment.

We never spoke again after that night. He’d give me a vague hello when we passed each other in the halls, and then I saw him less and less as he moved to another compass. His flat used to be on Rondebosch Main Road, just as you came off the freeway, its big windows facing the flyover. I drive past it once in a while when I’m going that way and I still think of him and that one night and how he’ll never know.

One Small, Happy Story

Here comes the sun, too doo doo doo. Here comes the sun.

So, every Monday late morning I collect Elisabeth from school and take her up the road for her swimming lesson, and today I happened to sit beside one of the dads and we started chatting, and he told me about how he and his partner adopted their little son. Born very early and weighing only 1,6kgs this newborn baby boy was found abandoned in a township and taken to the nearest hospital. Because he was so premature he suffered from cerebral palsy and the verdict was that he would never walk. While many people would balk at the idea of adopting a physically handicapped child, this couple readily took the teeny-tiny baby home and he became the light of their lives and the centre of their universe.

Now he lives in a beautiful house with two extremely devoted parents, speaks Dutch and English and goes to Europe once a year on holiday, and – what’s more – he walks just fine. He is so robust and healthy-looking you would never guess he was once hanging onto life by a thread. It’s hard to imagine what his life would have been like if he had not been adopted but, like his dad says, he probably wouldn’t have walked. And there’s not really any point to this story other than that it’s an example of how liberal and awesome our constitution in South Africa is – that a gay couple is allowed to adopt and love a child. And, it’s testimony to the kind of good, selfless people there are among us. And this one small, happy story has made me feel good about the world all day.