On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

south africa flag

Yoh, masekinders – even the most patriotic and loved-up among us would have a hard time denying that living in this country can be a bit like living with an abusive parent; you know, those really bemal ones you see in Eminem videos where the children hide in cupboards and then turn out a bit funny. And when you mention the word apartheid to the white people and hear what they say back you realise they have definitely been living in a cupboard for most of their lives. A huge one. More like a walk-in closet with a chandelier and vending machines and a cocktail bar so they’ve never had any reason to step out of it.

And all of us, even the ones who do come out of our metaphorical walk-in closets now and again and go to Shoprite to remind ourselves that we are not, in fact, living in San Fransisco, have turned out a bit funny. And you can’t blame us. It’s mad here. One minute you’re sitting at the Grand on the Beach having a lovely pomegranate daiquiri and some tuna ceviche because #paleo and wondering if that jacket will still be at the Waterfront tomorrow, and next you’ve got a rock coming through your windscreen because somebody is properly annoyed at having to spend another winter in a corrugated iron box and there goes your Woollies handbag and Marc Jacobs sunglasses and your iPhone that still has a picture of your boobs in black and white because #art.

No wonder we’re all bedondered, and that when we hear of another person emigrating to Queensland it makes us reach for the Alzam. Because, what do they know that we don’t? Are we going to be dead in our beds by next Thursday? Sometimes I have delusional episodes where I think to myself, but Europe’s not that grey, and California does look quite nice on Facebook. I have these episodes especially when I read letters to Max du Preez from President Zuma’s son calling him a ‘lier’. At those times I even manage to convince myself that living in Europe was fun, which shows you how hysterical one can get.

But then I pour myself a stiff (Inveroche) gin and come to my senses. Somewhat. As much as one who is a South African is capable of coming to their senses. And I have thoughts like this: nothing really matters, and even the things that do matter don’t matter all that much. And: life is, after all, less a complete thing than a series of moments held together in sequence, so the ‘bigger picture’ must remain remote and always a bit more conceptual than real, if you get my meaning. And for the Queensland situation, I have to say that my moments in South Africa – even given the odd rock episode – are moments that feel more like real life than the ones I’ve spent in other parts of the world. There is more humanity, more connectedness, more something that – even in my darkest hours of uncertainty and fear for the future – won’t allow itself to be ignored.

So many examples scattered over the days and the years, but two that spring to mind as I write this: finding myself at the end of my grocery shop (at Shoprite) with four bags and two hands, and the woman who packed my stuff automatically picking up two of my packets and saying she’ll carry them for me. She has no idea where my car is and doesn’t ask. I could have parked in Roggebaai for all she knows. All she sees is that I need help and that she can provide it. My car battery dying while I’m on the school run and my husband is overseas. Managing to get us all to the service station and telling the mechanic what had happened and that I was grateful to have made it. And him, without thinking, writing his cell phone number down for me and telling me if I ever get stuck again to give him a call, no problem. And I have not a moment’s doubt in my mind that he meant it. I know for sure that these things don’t happen everywhere on the planet.

One day a week I’ve been teaching at a university for bright kids who didn’t get bursaries. I don’t know how to say this without lapsing into cliché, but they’re great people, and the best antidote ever when I’m feeling suicidal after reading the paper is to go to my classroom and hang out with them. Just talk to them, hear what they think, listen to their views. Some of them are poor as hell but they’re switched-on and sharp and determined to change their worlds. And then I drive home in my nice car and think, if they can be positive, what excuse do I have? And I consider the fact that maybe the biggest challenge of all about living in South Africa is accepting the ambiguity; the fact that you’re never going to know for sure what the future, or even tomorrow, holds. This country has been on the verge of disaster for 400 years, if not more, but somehow we still manage to pop a Kaapse Vonkel and get on with life.

It would be nice to be able to navigate the world without the constant fear of that snotklap coming out of nowhere and taking you down just when you least expected it. But that’s not the deal here, and you can’t have everything. Here, you live on your toes. You bop and weave and skei for the gangster and keep your windows locked and tell the car guard he’s getting fuckall because he wasn’t here when you parked and the petrol attendant greets you like you’re his long-lost best friend and you donate your savings to your cleaner’s child so she can go to tech. Then you crap on the guy trying to mug you because does he even actually know how much you just spent on your sushi dinner and he says sorry and slinks away (true story). None of it makes sense; none of it ever will. It’s not America or Australia because it’s better and madder and richer. It’s real and broken and deluded and the only place I’ll ever call home.

We’ve been living back in South Africa for seven years now. In that time I’ve lost a measure of naiveté, gone mad with frustration, gained hope in humankind and felt more warmth and love than I know how to quantify. I have never, for a second, looked back; just been affirmed that we made the right choice. Maybe the harsh circumstances with which life presents itself here brings out the kindness in people, but there is something inside me that opens up. It makes me want to be nicer and  more switched on to the world around me. It elicits something gentle and good which I didn’t find in myself much when I lived overseas and never had to be anything but white and middle class. It’s hard to explain, but there is a part of me that becomes more of who I am here amidst the craziness of this struggling country. Unforgivably sentimental, but also true and real.

At my local Spar I’m regularly assisted by a cashier called Moreblessings. Her name is engraved on a piece of plastic pinned to her lapel. It makes me happy every time I see it, maybe because it sums up what I feel about life in SA. It will never follow the rules of logic. It will always feel wild and slightly out of control, but also beautiful and authentic and extraordinary and free. Like life is supposed to be. And I walk back to my car thinking, where else in the world are you going to find a cashier called Moreblessings? Nowhere, folks. Just, nowhere. And I thank my lucky stars.

 

 

 

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Putu, Wors and Chakalaka

chakalaka and pap As South African as Bafana Bafana, Lion matches and Leon Schuster.

Now that I know I’m actually Khoi San I’ve become more interested in traditional dishes, and nothing on this planet can be more traditionally South African than putu, wors and chakalaka. Bizarrely, the first time I ever ate putu, or krummelpap as it’s called in Afrikaans, was in Copenhagen at a meeting of the South African Social Club. Talk about losing your roots. But it’s delicious, and for some reason (probably my blackness) I’ve been craving it lately. For non-South Africans, putu is a type of dry porridge made from maize or corn meal which is kept crumbly by cooking it in very little water. I guess my ancestors couldn’t be arsed to keep trudging back to the river so they adapted their dishes accordingly.

In Gauteng, it’s usually eaten as a savoury side at a braai with a spicy tomato and onion sauce known as chakalaka and boerewors, a local sausage. Here in the Western Cape it’s more commonly eaten at breakfast time with milk and sugar. Though (as my facebook friends will testify) I’m breaking with tradition and this morning I had the leftovers with scrambled egg and sausage. Man, it was good. Never having cooked it before, I had no idea there were so many varieties, and I had to ask a shelf-packer at Pick n Pay which kind was best. Once he’d stopped giggling enough to speak (I guess blonde chicks in biker jackets don’t usually go around cooking putu), he told me they were all the same.

pap in pot pic See how nice and crumbly? My grandpa Botha would have been proud.

Luckily, two sensible elderly women came to my rescue, and after a long debate between them about which brand was less inclined to burn, White Star got the thumbs up. I was mightily excited to cook this new thing, and a little apprehensive as I had invited a friend around for supper. Luckily, she is a good enough friend that if it all turned out to be a disaster we’d just laugh and drink more wine. But, it came out pretty nicely, and we all had second helpings. Well, except for my six-year-old who murdered hers with tomato sauce and then still refused to touch it. She’ll learn sense eventually. Strangely, there are no cooking instructions on the packet, but I found them on Google, followed them exactly and it turned out fine. I think the hardest part is not letting it burn, so just keep an eye and it’s kind of imperative that you use a heavy-bottomed pot. Otherwise it’s going to stick a lot and washing up will be a pain. Thank god we don’t still walk to the river for that stuff, right?

Here’s how you do it. And don’t even think about not eating it with chakalaka. That stuff is the best thing I’ve discovered, and I plan to eat it with everything, always. A heads-up: the mild version is pretty damn spicy. Only buy the hot one if you’re a sirryus chilli junky.

Ingredients
• 2½ cups (600 ml) boiling water
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
• 2½ cups (400 gram) Maize Meal
• A knob of butter

Method
1. Pour boiling water and salt into saucepan with a thick base and a lid. Bring to boil.
2. Add the maize meal to the boiling water and half a teaspoon of salt.
3. Close the lid, without stirring.
4. Reduce heat. Simmer gently for 5 minutes.
5. Remove lid and stir well with a wooden spoon. At this point it takes on its crumbly texture.
6. Replace lid, reduce heat and steam for about half an hour, until done, but be careful not to burn it.
7. Fluff with a fork a few times during cooking. Or don’t. I forgot this part and it didn’t matter.
8. Add a knob of butter to the pap shortly before fluffing it for the last time. Because butter makes everything better.

Okay, I know it doesn't look sexy, but it tasted damn good.
Okay, I know it doesn’t look sexy, but it tasted damn good.