Who’s afraid of the big, black township? Khayelitsha For Beginners.

One of the best damn coffees in town.
One of the best damn coffees in town.

So, shortly after writing my Ubuntu piece (and how synchronicity works) I met an old friend, Pippa, for lunch who has been working in Khayelitsha for the past 8 years. She talked about how white South Africans (myself included) have no idea of what this place on our doorstep actually is about, or what happens there, and offered to take me in with her one day for some much-needed enlightenment, and today was that day. And it didn’t take me long to realise what a one-dimensional view most of us have of this sprawling suburb, seeing only the rows of shacks which line the n2.

This hospital could be anywhere in Europe.
The new Khayelitsha hospital is so fancy it could be anywhere in Europe.

In truth, Khayelitsha is home to nearly a million people, and while it certainly has its quota of informal dwellings, the suburb itself is divided into suburbs, some every bit as middle class as Kenilworth. It has schools, a mall, a gym, a large college and a brand new, modern hospital. It also has spaza shops, hairdressing salons, panel-beaters and cash stores, and even on an arb Wednesday morning there were women braaing meat, washing clothes, walking babies, chatting to their buddies. There is a cool, laid-back vibrancy about this place and ja, it’s shabby and ja, the soil is of such poor quality very few trees manage to grow, but it has industry, an energy and a sense of community that made me wonder who the poor people in this country really are.

Pre-R's learning a dance for their upcoming graduation ceremony.
Grade R’s learning a dance for their upcoming graduation ceremony.

And I’m not romanticising poverty. The reason why Pippa is there is because she started a project called ‘Home From Home’ (www.homefromhome.org.za) which provides housing to children who have been rescued from circumstances of physical and/or sexual abuse or who, for whatever reason, have lost their parents and their homes. ‘Home From Home’ has 32 houses with six children and a surrogate mother in each. We visited some of these houses which, while they are modest and everything in them is second-hand, are homely, safe spaces which provide these kids with stability, family life, nourishing food, warm beds and place to call home. And the surrogate moms work hard and the kids don’t have a lot but, despite their circumstances, they are happy and thriving and have great hope and plans for their future, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Surrogate mom, Beaulah, with her assistant, Sandile
Surrogate mom, Beaulah (on the right), with her assistant, Sandile

We also visited a very cool place called ‘Learn to Earn’ which teaches its students a variety of skills such as sewing, baking, carpentry and office management which makes them employable and empowers them to start small businesses and support themselves. And the people running this place are so dedicated and passionate it’s humbling to witness. And I thought to myself as I talked to staff how careful we must be of dehumanising these ‘off limits’ zones. Just go visiting on a Friday which is braai day (of course) and when a hard working week ends with a much-deserved cold beer; where Saturday is for kuiering, shopping and getting your hair done, and Sunday the enormous church with its very (very) long service is filled to capacity with singing, dancing worshippers. The ‘other’ is much less other than we imagine.

Where adults of all ages are able to learn a trade.
Where adults of all ages are able to learn a trade.

And sure, it’s sad – there’s a ten-year-old little boy who keeps running away in search of his parents who are missing somewhere in the Eastern Cape and obviously don’t give a hoot about their child but, being little, he still tries to find them. And some of the tiny ones whose faces lit up when we entered the room and gave us huge smiles and waves and thumbs-up ‘sharp-sharp’s – it’s heartbreaking imagining anyone abandoning these gorgeous little creatures. But it’s not depressing, it’s uplifting and encouraging seeing the amazing work being done there. ‘Home From Home’ hires a clever, dedicated young social worker who makes herself completely accessible to these kids and helps them transition and process some of the stuff they’ve had to deal with.

And what a huge wake up call and reminder that we must damn well stop whining already. We live incredible lives in an incredible place and we need to stop blaming and pointing fingers; it’s time to pull up our sleeves and, like Gandhi said, be the change we want to see. It’s not that hard – there are so many opportunities available for reaching out and changing things. Today was proof of that.

A talented graphic art student at 'Learn to Earn.'
A talented graphic art student at ‘Learn to Earn.’

Pippa told us how often she gets warned by white South Africans that she shouldn’t go into Khayelitsha; that it’s not safe for a woman. And these are sentiments a lot of us have been led to believe (I think it was that Amy Biehl story nobody can get over) but, in reality, it’s just a place like any other. Everybody we encountered was friendly and approachable. I left my leather jacket in the car when we went inside homes, and I didn’t feel frightened or wary for a second. We stopped at a coffee shop which did fabulous muffins and a latte that would put Vida E to shame. Nearby an old woman running a stall was dancing away to some music that only she could hear. The wind blew, and a young woman held onto her skirt. We drank our coffees and headed back towards the mountain, and it was a day which gave a lot of food for thought.

The ethos of Home From Home.
The ethos of ‘Home From Home’.

On Having No Black Friends

Many years ago when I was living in Sweden, an African American friend asked me if I had any black friends back home in South Africa and I had to answer, honestly, no. And while he let me off the hook by saying, ‘I suppose, during apartheid, you didn’t know any black people, really,’ it bothered me enough that I still think about that exchange to this day. And while, yes, I was born in the seventies and went to school and university during the height of apartheid when having black friends meant you could be arrested, apartheid ended a long, long time ago, and the people I count as my besties are still white as the driven snow. And I’m not alone in this. I have one friend who works in the arts and has a number of black friends but, for the vast majority of friends and acquaintances in my age group, we just don’t socialise with black people.

In fact, the first black South African friend I had was when I lived in Sweden. He was my age exactly which meant, compared to me, he had a really rough deal growing up, and we spent some very memorable hours drinking strong coffee together in a little café down the road from my apartment and talking about our respective histories and the country we loved and were so far away from. And even though our experiences growing up there were very different – him in a shack in Soweto where, if he ate breakfast it meant there wouldn’t be food enough for his siblings, me in a house with a swimming pool in Somerset West – he felt like home to me as I hope I did to him. We had so much more in common than we had dividing us – two Africans freezing to death in northern Europe and talking about Steers and sunshine and Bafana Bafana.

And if this is the case – that we have so much more in common than we do dividing us – why do we still live in our silos and keep to our ‘own kind’, whatever we perceive that to be? And I don’t think this is about racism per se as much as circumstance and the fact that, growing up, the only black people we knew were working for our parents. What I learnt living away from South Africa (and with no small measure of shock, having believed that South Africans were the only racists in the world) is that most people are a little bit racist. In fact, some of the most blatant racists I’ve ever met would be labelled ‘black’ – a woman I knew from the Caribbean whose family was light-skinned and therefore ‘superior’, frequently said shocking things about people of a darker hue. Somebody else of mixed race whom I used to work with told me once how upset her father was when she brought a black guy home. Her dad had been hoping she would marry ‘up’ – somebody light, like her, or even white. Black friends of mine have been denied access to clubs in so-called colour-blind Denmark. There was suddenly a ‘members-only’ rule. We fear and mistrust what is ‘other’ and we have all internalized that crap to some extent, and we need to recognize this for what it is rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

When I hear people announce that they are ‘not racist’ (I have a South African friend in London who does this) immediately a red light goes on for me. You cannot have lived through apartheid without being tainted by some of its ideologies. Yes, we move on – yes, we learnt to think critically and understand the brainwashing for what it was – but, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to be extra mindful about the kinds of things we say and do. While our system of institutionalized racism did a horrific injustice to black South Africans (and which we might not even recover from, entirely) it was also an injustice to us whiteys – we were deprived of so much that is wonderful and colourful and interesting about South Africa. We were kept in these narrow, sterile boxes and prevented from learning important things about the different people who make up this country. And now a lot of us find ourselves wanting to reach out and make things different, but not really knowing how.

A few mornings ago I had coffee with a friend who recently met a young black parliamentarian online and they’ve become besties. And he was recounting stories that had me guffawing into my flat white. For example, his friend’s mother is hooked on the TV show ‘Generations,’ where there’s this black guy and white girl who have fallen in love. And when they kiss on screen his mother says, ‘Hayibo! What would Verwoerd say if he could see this?!’ What, indeed. The guy in question loves my blog, especially the Ubuntu piece, and it makes me realize that we’re speaking exactly the same language, and we should be talking more.

When I was working for a magazine not that long ago the office was filled with young, funky black chicks who, with their cleverness and way with words, are leading our country into the future and forging new ways of thinking and being, and I wish, when I was that age, that I had been exposed to women like this and we could have been friends without it feeling forced. I get so worried, when I meet black women whom I admire and relate to, that they’re going to think I only want to be friends with them because they’re black. And it is a factor – we can’t deny that we have issues around colour. But maybe if we could put that out there and be open about it we could finally move beyond it and just be human beings.

And it’s with joy and relief that I find the young black South Africans I meet through work are much less precious than we old school whites are. They take the piss out of race and stereotypes; they laugh at us and at themselves which gives us permission to do the same, and feels really healthy and progressive. My nine-year-old daughter’s best friend is black, and it hasn’t occurred to either of them that they are supposed to be ‘different.’ In fact, Sophie doesn’t even know the word ‘black’ in relation to people (and why should she? We are shades of pink and brown). When she tells me about a new person in her class she’ll say, ‘they look a bit more like me.’ Or, ‘they look a bit more like Kukhanya.’ There is no value attributed to either skin tone. Without a doubt our children are growing up in a different South Africa than we did, and the ease with which these kids of different races and from different socio-economic places mingle and make friends makes me so happy I can dance. I just wish I could share that experience.

South Africa explained in one short video clip

So, this morning I found myself tripping over my words and racking my brain trying to answer the probing, insightful questions posed to me by a friend who lives in Denmark in response to my story about white people and Ubuntu. She is British, has a Jamaican mom and a Scottish dad, and is married to an African American, and understandably struggles to understand this place I live in and blog about. I used words like culture and tradition and segregation and poverty, but none of them managed to encapsulate the layers of living that happen here – the energy or the feeling or the zeitgeist, if you will.

And it struck me what an immensely complicated place this is to encapsulate in words – how many levels of experience, ways of being and how much diversity there actually is, and while you can theorise and explain our sad, fractured history, none of these descriptions really do the country justice. Because, while it sounds hideous in black and white (and it was every part of that), somehow we rise above it. Then, as synchronicity works, my friend Faldelah sent me a video on Facebook, and once I had recovered from doing the ugly cry I thought, yes. This is it. This is South Africa in a nutshell, and the reason why so many of us can never, ever leave. Only watch this clip if (unlike me) you’re wearing waterproof mascara.


On Stupid White People and Ubuntu

So, last night at the Spur (two burgers for the price of one, and all) my husband and I are in the middle of an enthralling married people conversation about what screens to put up on the sides of our new deck when a good-looking young black guy in an expensive shirt comes over and sits down at our table. We look up in surprise and say hello and he says hello back. ‘How are you doing?’ I ask him. He says, ‘I’ve seen better days.’ I think (being a stupid white South African with no conception of Ubuntu) ‘oh no – here it comes. He lost his job and his wallet was stolen and he just needs R20 to get home. Or worse – he ordered the full size portion of ribs and now he wants us to pay.’ I wait. He says, ‘my friends are late.’ I say (with no small measure of relief), ‘ja, that’s Capetonians for you.’ He laughs, takes out his new Samsung and checks his facebook updates, while we self-consciously resume our conversation until it’s time to go.

And it was one of those weird South African moments which illustrate how little understanding we have of one another’s cultures and ways. For we whiteys, joining someone else’s table would be unthinkable unless it was preceded by an explanation: ‘my friends are late and there aren’t any empty tables. Would you mind if I joined you for a while?’ Clearly, for him, such an explanation was unnecessary. Of course he can join us. He is a human being and we are human beings. And I was mortified with shame at having assumed what I did. But that’s how little we ‘get’ each other. And it reminded me of an incident a few years back when our nanny and cleaner (yes, the now infamous Nosipho) invited us to attend her birthday party on a Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha. While we white folk know very well where Khayelitsha is because we drive past it en route to the winelands (irony intended) I honestly couldn’t think of one single white person who had ever been there.

So, I asked around: ‘have you ever been to Khayelitsha, and is it okay for four blonde chicks to go visiting a friend on a Sunday?’ The resounding response from white people was no, and don’t be mad, while black people ummed and aahed and said it’s probably okay if you know where you’re going, but don’t get lost. Don’t get lost? I get lost in the city bowl. Anyhow. I knew that it meant the world to Nosipho that we showed up on her special day and that she had already told all her buddies we’d be coming, so on that given Sunday I piled myself, my mom and my two little girls into our Toyota Tazz and off we went. You can imagine what we looked like with our deer-in-the-headlight eyes crawling along narrow, dusty roads with not a street sign in sight behind groups of (what I imagined to be) tsotsis who turned around slowly and watched us as we passed. In my mind we were already newspaper headlines when we pulled up at a Spaza shop and phoned Nosipho to come rescue us.

We were actually closer than we thought, and her grandson appeared and showed us the way to her house. It was already full to capacity with friends and neighbours, some of whom had come to see the crazy madams for themselves. It was an extraordinary afternoon, and one I will never forget. As Nosipho was a hardened feminist and had less than no time for the men of the world, the house was filled with women of all ages, dressed to the nines for the party of the year. Not being Xhosa speakers, we were handicapped and could only contribute so much to the conversations, but we were received with grace, respect and wholehearted acceptance as we joined the table and partook of a feast of fried chicken and stewed meat and salads and drinks followed by every dessert imaginable.

And the women sang, song after song, their voices rising up in perfect harmony – proud women, poor women who had seen heartache and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. They sang their pain, their tragedies and their hope while we sat there, stupefied, trying to fight back our tears. Being Women’s Day, the 9th of August, that place we found ourselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon somewhere in a South African township couldn’t have been more fitting. And another thing that amazed us was the gifts. Some of these women hadn’t worked for a long time and relied on the handouts of neighbours for their survival, yet the generosity of what they gave to Nosipho – Woolworths vouchers worth R500, expensive towels and linen, imported beauty products – made us feel ashamed of the relative cheapness of what we, the rich ones, had bought for her.

And then, as the afternoon started to wind down, we were taken on a tour of the neighbourhood. Her friends wanted to show us the homes of which they were so proud. There must have been thirty people, at least, forming a procession up the road being followed by children, curious hangers-on and stray dogs. And then, once we had seen the houses of her guests, we started on the other houses. Nosipho didn’t even knock, just marched straight in, followed by her entourage. People were cooking, watching soccer, taking a nap, and they all got up, said their greetings and offered us something to drink or eat. Nobody seemed annoyed or put out in the slightest. And I thought to myself, imagine this in Clifton or Camps Bay – a troop of people letting themselves into other people’s homes and being received warmly and offered tea.

It was an amazing day and it taught me a thing or two and I wish we did stuff like that more – moved out of our comfort zones and tried to understand the different people who make up this country. Because until we do we’re going to be stuck and never move on from the past. As we drove home towards Table Mountain with the sun in our eyes I felt nothing but gratitude for that experience, and for the gift of being a South African and the opportunities for growth and learning that this astonishing country presents. If only we would be better at taking them.

A Day in the Life of a South African Maid

“I wake up at 4:30am because Catherine and Stuart (not their real names) like me to serve them their tea in bed in the morning, and it takes a long time to get from Khayelitsha to Camps Bay. The first thing I do when I wake up is take a bath and get dressed. Then, I get my older children up, make them oats for breakfast and get them dressed. My son, who is 11, takes the baby, who is one-and-a-half to crèche by taxi in the morning. My other daughter helps me feed and dress her before she walks to school with her friend. I have to leave my house at 5:30am to make sure I am at work by 7:30am when they wake up. Sometimes there is traffic or strikes or the trains aren’t running properly, and I get late. I have been late twice already, and if I’m late a third time Catherine is going to give me a written warning.

When I get to work I change out of my clothes and into my uniform. The first thing I do is wash my hands, put the kettle on and get the tea tray ready. Once they have their tea and rusks in bed, I go and wake the boy. I look after two kids, a boy of three and girl who is six months. The baby will be with the night nurse. Then the night nurse goes home. I get the boy up and make him breakfast. He likes French toast and rooibos tea in the morning. He is a good boy. I give the baby porridge and dress her. Stuart goes to work and Catherine goes to the gym. While she is gone I make her bed, pick up her clothes and shoes from the floor (she is messy, that one) and put everything away. I put the baby on my back when I clean the house. Sometimes it’s hard because the boy wants me to play with him, but if the house isn’t tidy when Catherine comes home she gets cross. I am not allowed to put TV on for him because she wants me to only play with him. So that is difficult.

In the morning we go to the park. Catherine likes us to get out so that she can have some peace and quiet. I pack some food for the kids. There is a park close by, and we play there. I have a friend who goes to the same park, so we meet each other. Sometimes I worry about my girl. She doesn’t like the crèche, she misses me. She cries in the night and wants me. It’s a long day for her to be without her mother. I took her there when she was one month old because I had to go back to work. I couldn’t breastfeed her anymore. She was always sick and I think it is because I couldn’t breastfeed her. It is a long time for a baby to be without her mother, but I must work. My husband earns R3500 a month. It is not enough for us to live.

When we get home Catherine likes me to make her a salad. She won’t eat bread because she’s on a diet. Only fish and chicken every day, but she is too, too thin. Then I make lunch for the kids and we sit together in the garden and eat. In the afternoon when I put the boy down for his sleep I put the baby on my back so she can sleep and I do the ironing. Then I start with supper. I used to work in a restaurant so I know how to cook. Stuart wants to eat meat every night. I make steak or a stew or I cook chicken and vegetables. I bath the kids at 5pm. At 5:30pm I must leave to catch my bus, but sometimes Catherine asks me to iron the dress she wants to wear if she is going out. Then I get home very late. It takes me two hours to get home. My kids are already home. I leave the key with the neighbour and they let themselves into the house and do their homework. My son fetches the baby at crèche after he finishes school. I cook supper and I am very tired.

My husband comes home at 7 o clock. At the end of the month the money is finished. Then we only eat pap and vegetables. Together we earn R7000, but most of that is for school fees and food and transport. Transport is very expensive, I must give my son R20 a day and my bus costs R150 per week. My husband works on a Saturday too, so Sundays we are all together. We go to church in the morning and then we eat meat for lunch. We only eat meat on a Sunday. I am lucky for my job, and my husband is lucky. There are lots of people who are not working. Then I try to do everything right. I tidy the cupboards and I wash the curtains. Catherine gives me old toys and clothes. We are also lucky that we have our own house, but in the winter the roof leaks and the kids get sick because it is always wet. There is water on the floor and our shoes and clothes are wet. It is very cold in our house in the winter. I am looking for an old washing machine because it is difficult washing all the clothes by hand. When I get home from work I wash. It is difficult to make the clothes get dry in the winter.

I have good kids, but my girl struggles at school. Her teacher wants her to have extra lessons, but it costs money and we don’t have money. If my kids are sick it is a problem because if I don’t go to work Catherine gets very cross. If the baby has a fever she is not allowed to go to crèche. Then my son must stay home from school and take care of her. I am worried then because he is only a boy of 11. It is not so easy, no. I have a good job. They give me paid leave at Christmas, two weeks. My family is in the Eastern Cape. It is very expensive to take the whole family so every three years we take the bus to see my parents for Christmas. They are old now. I don’t know if I will see my parents again before they die.”

As told to me by Florence, 36.

The Trouble with Maids

There can be no relationship in the world that is trickier to navigate than that between a white South African and her black maid*. Without a doubt it is our comeuppance for apartheid, and if for one second we’d like to forget about those bad old days of segregated park benches, Precious, with her Pick n Pay overalls, is there to remind us that the past is not quite as far away as we’d like to pretend. After years alone in Sweden a large, non-self-cleaning apartment with an infant and a toddler and no family anywhere near while my husband clocked ten hour days at work, the thought of moving back to South Africa and having hired help was a joy the headiness of which I could barely fathom. Things like going to the supermarket without negotiating a huge, double pram through a blizzard and then dealing with two hot, furious children in snowsuits in the 25-degree celcius store – never mind being able to work uninterrupted and squeeze in the odd yoga class – sounded like luxuries beyond comprehension.

But, having been away from the country long enough to forget that there is a system in place and that things work a certain way I was completely unprepared for the reality of hiring someone who is, essentially, a serf with a bad attitude (wait – hear me out), and how the slave/madam relationship works down here. Enter Nosipho (yes, she of the samp-and-beans). Nosipho was amazing with my kids – amazing – as in, she would host tea parties on top of the jungle gym and build forts out of blankets in the garden, make fires in winter, fry vetkoek and, within a month (Leo that she was) she was besties with all the maids in the neighbourhood, and her and the girls had a rip-roaring social life. She was clever and ambitious and, despite unimaginable disadvantages, had done pretty well for herself.

But, Nosipho was pissed off. For good reason – her mother was a sangoma who was more interested in pursuing her career than caring for her young daughter, and as a result she was placed in compromising situations. Despite being a strict mother her eldest daughter succumbed to tik addiction and lived on the street, abandoning her baby son with Nosipho who was left to raise him. For this proud woman who, on a miniscule salary, had managed to buy her own house and furnish it very nicely, her daughter was a terrible embarrassment. But, strictly speaking, none of this was my problem. She had a good deal with me – short working hours; a generous wage (well – in South African terms); time off when she needed it and lots of extras, like a big grocery shop of treats for her and her family on a Friday. I was always buying stationary for a relative; taking somebody to the optometrist; fetching and carrying a cousin’s child who had missed the transport home from school. She needed a couch, she got it; her geyser blew, we had it fixed. Her brother died – we paid for the funeral. It was never-ending.

But, there was the small issue of my ancestors having destroyed the lives of her ancestors, and none of this made either of us feel any better. In fact, it made things worse. You know the psychology of charity? The recipients get resentful as hell, and this happened with us. She’d come into work in a filthy mood and throw her bag down on the chair. I’d tip-toe around her and try to stay out of her way (not easy when you work from home). Of course, as an employer, what I should have done was say, ‘listen, lady, whatever’s bugging you – leave it at home. You’re here to work; get on with it or get out.’ Instead, I’d make us a pot of tea and fetch a plate of Melissa’s rusks and invite her to sit down at the table and tell me what the problem was. Was it something I had done? Was she upset about something work-related? She’d dunk her rusks and glower at me while I shivered in fear and thanked her profusely for the great job she was doing, never mentioning the fact that she left work every day reeking of my Prada perfume and with three loo rolls and all the sugar siphoned in a jar in her leopard print bag.

See, while we sat in awkward silence, me obsequious and her, vengeful, invisible assegais flew over our heads; Verwoerd in his droning voice assured everyone that blacks would be ‘separate but equal’; my school fees were free while her mother had to find the money to pay. The weight of our shared history was too extreme be lifted by the elaborate lunches I would prepare for the four of us to sit down together and eat until I realized why she was always ‘cleaning the bathroom’ when the food was ready. She didn’t want to sit and eat with me, but she didn’t know how to tell me. It just wasn’t the way things were done down here.

Eventually when she let me down severely by not coming back from her Christmas holiday on the allotted day and ignored her phone and my thirteen messages which meant I couldn’t show up at my job I put on my big girl panties and told her she’d better be back by the next day or that was that. She didn’t show up the next day; instead she went to the CCMA and reported me for unfair dismissal. She didn’t have a case so nothing came of that, and I was happy not to have that bad energy in my house, but it was a big shock and a learning experience for me. I was devastated, and mourned the end of our relationship for a long time. I had made the fatal mistake of thinking, because we were in each other’s company all day and talked often and were involved with one another’s families, that we were friends. We were not friends. I was her boss and, because of my own issues, I managed our working relationship poorly. And I take full responsibility for that. But it’s not easy either, given the status quo.

This past Friday night we shrieked with laughter as my gay friends, Bruce and Nicolaas, told stories of their maid, Dorothy**, who is very religious and hates Nicolaas so much she won’t even say hello when she shows up for work. She also leaves them rude, demanding notes and conducts her faith healing business during work hours from their phone account. Another friend of mine comes home to find her bathroom smelling of bubble-bath and her bed, warm. Apparently when Xoliswa is done with the ironing she enjoys a hot soak and a small nap. And, honestly, she probably deserves it. A colleague’s maid, Mavis, comes into work in the morning, makes herself tea and six slices of toast and watches Judge Judy for an hour before she starts with the vacuuming.

And the reason why nobody complains and our relationships get confused is because we know very well what a good deal we are getting. We have people do all our dirty work all day and pay them barely enough to survive. And because everyone else does it we pretend it’s okay. We say things to each other like, ‘R4000 a month is a lot for them. They live on very little.’ Really? Do ‘they’ have any choice? Last time I checked groceries and school fees and petrol cost the same for everybody, irrespective of their race or job or socio-economic position (and this is not a white-people-being-bad-to-black-people thing, the wage for domestic help is the same, whatever racial group happens to be hiring).

Anyhow. I don’t hire anybody full-time anymore. You can’t have a heart and not get personally involved with the people who are virtually living in your home, and it’s just too hard and complicated. I don’t have the mettle to draw boundaries and be tough with individuals whose lives are insurmountably difficult while mine is one long exercise in privilege. I have a char once a week, and the rest of the time I do my own dirty work. And maybe I’m denying somebody deserving a job, but at least this way my sanity remains intact. Eish, it’s a helluva thing.

*I know this term is not politically correct, but I’m going to use it anyway because ‘domestic worker’ just doesn’t work and ‘housekeeper’ is pretentious.

** Since this article was written Dorothy fired Bruce and Nicolaas. If anyone needs faith healing, drop me a line and I’ll get you her number.

On National Braai Day

The guy on the right is a photo bomber. It was Oupa Bekker, on the left, whom I was surreptitiously trying to capture.
The guy on the right is a photo bomber. It was Oupa Bekker, on the left, whom I was surreptitiously trying to capture.

There are a number of things a city slicker can learn at a potjiekos competition smack in the middle of the small Karoo – that ‘Suurings’ (those little yellow flowers with the sour stems we used to eat as kids) go very nicely in a waterblommetjie bredie; that creamy, cheesy, bacon pasta is outrageously good done over the coals, and Oupa Bekker, whom Herman Charles Bosman immortalized in his famous short stories, is alive and well and living somewhere near Montagu. Not only Oupa Bekker, but Gysbert van Tonder, At Naude and a whole host of beloved Groot Marico farmers showed up at the Makiti Montagu Heritage Potjiekos competition and put away scary amounts of Klippies and coke while they sat in the sun, stoked their fires and made pots of succulent springbok (shot by themselves, naturally) cooked with locally dried peaches; chicken and smoked pork, and seafood stew packed with perlemoen to be eaten with bread baked on the coals. There’s not a lot you can tell these men about cooking meat over a fire.

This was the first year the town of Montagu hosted the event, and I don’t remember when last I had so much fun. For R50 you got a very nice (read: large) wine glass, a packet of olives and entry into the tasting tent where wine makers and their reps were only too happy to fill your glass three times with your tipple of choice (mine was the caramel-liest Chenin Blanc I’ve ever tasted) while you swanned around the food tables helping yourself to hunks of ciabatta dunked in olive oil and dukkah, chilli and mint haloumi fresh off the grill, and olives flavoured, chopped and prepared every way you can imagine. While a lady from Brackenfell with very red hair sang eighties covers, we wandered around the marquees, wine bottles in hand, offering cooking tips to the beefy, good-natured farmer-chefs who have no doubt been preparing kudu and making potjie since before we were born.

What’s more, once the judges had announced the winner (the waterblommetjie bredie with Suurings), we took the liberty of traipsing around with our plates, tasting some of the amazing dishes that were rustled up that afternoon, and in the warmth and friendliness that was evinced between competitors and their families in the heat and dust of a Sunday afternoon somewhere in the semi-dessert I felt some sort of pang of something; a nostalgia and a sadness around what was and what will never be. You take one look at these oversized men with their enormous limbs and sunburnt faces from years of outdoor toil and you know that they are what they are. Alone on their vast tracts of land under a huge blue sky, our not-so-new South Africa has little bearing on their lives. Whether I agree with their views or not, I understand how they think. Like the real Oupa Bekker, they are relics of another time and place.

And for better or for worse, this afternoon of potjiekos and boeremusiek is what Heritage Day means for a lot of people living in South Africa. For others, it means a well-deserved day off work, and a bus ride to a stadium where there will be beer and braaied meat and speeches and songs and vuvuzelas. Muslim families will take their soft drinks and home-made samoosas and pies and daaltjies to the Green Point park where they will rest and chat and absorb the sun while their children climb on the jungle-gyms and run across the grassy expanses. We, white liberal(ish) intellectuals will gather on a deck in a trendy part of town and enjoy good wine and fancy salads and expensive cuts of meat. And that’s how this country is. In my hugely sentimental and highly unlikely fantasy version of South Africa, where there was no segregation – legislated or otherwise – we South Africans would be a bunch of brown people who spoke a combined Xhosa-Afrikaans-English dialect and shared a unique, hybridized culture which consisted of elements of all of us, and race would be irrelevant and assets shared.

Instead, we have our ‘pockets’ and our clans and our ways, and there is about as much chance of the vuvuzela folk showing up to make a skaapboud potjie as there is of the Karoo farmers heading to a stadium to dance and toyi toyi and sing. And I don’t imagine this will be changing anytime soon. Which is why most of us distance ourselves from the word ‘Heritage’ and any notion of oneness that this might connote and re-name it National Braai Day, as some folks suggested we do a few years back. Because in spite of centuries of living separately and having no national culture to speak of, what we can agree on in no uncertain terms is that we South Africans are partial to meat cooked outdoors over the coals. And maybe, for now, that will have to do.

Belia's brother-in-law, Ben, pushed the boundaries with this chicken, smoked pork and chorizo extravaganza. It didn't win, but it should have.
Our friend, Ben, pushed the boundaries with his chicken, smoked pork and chorizo extravaganza. It didn’t win, but it should have. Here, Belia and I pretending to have made it ourselves.

Nosipho’s Fancy Samp and Beans

Nosipho Samela
Nosipho Samela

Samp and beans is something that would happen in my home on weekends in winter while rain lashed at the window-panes, the paraffin heater glowed in its corner of the lounge and my mom and dad would be sitting watching the rugby. The smell of it cooking always takes me back to those days. The way my mom made it was with separate grains, a bit like rice, and she served it like my granny Doris did, with a bit of vinegar and a dollop of butter. But one day my girls’ nanny, Nosipho, made it for us for supper and it was so creamy and rich and delicious with a texture like risotto, I made her show me how she did it, and since then I’ve never made it any other way. Sometimes we eat it as it is, but when I make it for supper I like to serve it with a hearty lamb stew. It’s healthier than rice and so much tastier. Here’s how Nosipho made it:

A packet of samp and beans
A cube of chicken or veggie stock
An onion, a carrot and a clove of garlic
Fresh or dried herbs (I like basil, oreganum and thyme)
Olive and/or cooking oil

Boil the samp and beans according to the cooking instructions on the packet. When they’re about half-way done (they’ll be softer, but still chewy), add your stock cube plus a finely chopped onion, a finely chopped carrot, your herbs, a chopped clove of garlic and two tablespoons of oil. Using the right amount of water can be tricky – you don’t want it to dry out and burn, or to be too runny. Err on the side of too much liquid, you can always cook it away. But it’ll probably stick to the bottom of the pot a bit anyway. This is normal. Let it all boil up together and the flavours infuse. It’s cooked when the samp is no longer chewy and has the creamy texture of a risotto. Season generously with salt and pepper, and serve with a drizzle of olive oil. Nourishing and delicious.

A South African staple.
A South African staple. White people can eat it, too.

A Beach in Winter

Sophie milnerton beach

The incredible thing about Cape Town winters is days like today when the temperature sails up to 24, 25 degrees, and beaches where the south-easter howls in summer, like the ones around Milnerton, become perfection itself. We found ourselves there by accident after we discovered the Milnerton market was closing up for the day. People were surfing, swimming, looking for mussels or, like us, just chilling and admiring the view of Table Mountain.

Susan Milnerton beach

Sophie and I dozed and watched the water, and Per and Elisabeth wandered off to find shells.

After an hour or so we walked up to Maestros for cold beer and garlic pizzas. On the way home 5fm played cool music and we turned it up loudly and drove with the windows open and the air was warm and the world felt good. And the thing is, this is where we live – not in crime stats or newspaper articles or doomsday predictions about the future, but in days.

Per, Elisabeth milnerton