Who is the Africanest of us all?

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When February draws to a close, even while the weather remains hot, something subtle happens to the quality of the light; a nearly imperceptible softening of summer’s white glare. You have to have been here a really long time to notice this tiny shift. My husband has only lived in South Africa for 30 years, so many of its nuances remain lost on him. But hidden somewhere in the strands of our DNA lurks a knowledge that’s been passed on for millenia. It has to do with communing with nature; when the survival of our hunter-gatherer forebears depended on a minute reading of the environment. The days might feel like summer, but autumn is in the air.

Last night I gave myself a sleepless night by reading a Christopher Hope essay on Zimbabwe, in particular about the white people who stayed on after the election. He describes them as somnambulists, daytime sleepers in a country which is, in his words, ‘an eternal afternoon.’ Drugged by sunshine and servants, in a torpor of privilege, they didn’t believe Robert Mugabe when he told them he was going to take away everything they had. They misread the climate, and how much they were loathed. Not happy reading for a white girl living on the Atlantic Seaboard. It’s lazy to draw simple parallels: Zim is Zim and we are here and the countries are not the same. At the same time, one can’t help wonder, as our country is plunged into literal darkness and we reach passively for the candles, are we also sleepwalking into an abyss? And if we are, where the hell will we go? Even if we find ourselves passports, where else would ever be home?

Telling Africans they aren’t African is like telling fifth generation Germans they aren’t really German. ‘You see, there are Germans who are Germaner than you.’ Maybe there are. If genetics is what gives us our identity. I’ve never done that DNA test, but if I did and if I was – for argument’s sake – 80% Khoisan (which is not that far off, actually, as I am one quarter pure Afrikaans, and that lot were vrying with everybody), then would I be African? Or still not? These are the things I think about at 4am. What I do know is that our small colonial hangovers like eating trifle at Christmas do not make us British. For one, we go brown and not pink in the sun and we have good teeth. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what makes us who we are. 

I have a friend who is an animal behaviourist. He grew up in the Transkei, on the beach, in the wild. When we go away on holiday he spends the entire day out on the rocks fishing, gathering mussels, being one with his world. He is as much of this earth, of this continent, as the Nguni cattle he has raised, the fynbos he identifies. He is white and the most African person I’ve ever met. Transplant him to Europe and he would wither and die, like a succulent in an English country garden. Transplant me to Europe and I’d love my look in a woollen coat for around 11 seconds before withering and dying, too. I was warned by a healer once that if I stayed in Northern Europe I would get sick. He was 100% right. I was already sick, I just didn’t know it till I got home and could breathe again.

We, who are of this place – who recognise its subtleties and perceive its nuances; who call people sisi and bhuti and understand Kaaps and know exactly how Auntie Washiela from the Bo Kaap sees the world – we don’t transplant easily. A while ago we had family from Denmark stay with us. For two weeks we were tour guides, showing them the dramatic splendour of our coastline, the ridiculous beauty of the wine route. I found myself trying to explain South Africa to them. I got tongue-tied a few times; contradicted myself. It’s a very, very difficult landscape to reduce to simple sentences or, even with time on your hands, adequately explain. I had to simplify everything into soundbites. Sometimes they roared with laughter. Other times they went quiet. Where they come from things are so simple. People are all the same and everyone is fine.

It would be hard to find a more complex mileu with a weirder history than ours. When we’ve been traveling and we arrive at the departures gate at Doha airport for our plane bound for Cape Town I recognise my people immediately. I don’t know what it is that makes us so identifiable, but you can’t miss a room full of South Africans. Badly dressed, chatting to all and sundry, a roomful of mongrels. We are, after all, braks; pavement specials; hybridisations of all that has been. We are the products of centuries of travel to and from this beautiful land; brown faces with blue eyes. White faces with kroes hare. Even my hair minces when it’s humid. Before we were apart we were very much together. The evidence of our togetherness is clear wherever you look. 

We file patiently onto the aircraft. We smile at one another in recognition. Wherever we have been on the planet, now we are here with our tribe ordering the chicken or beef and loving the free drinks. Yussus, check at us larnies. Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sotho, Kaaps.  I’ve tried to identify what it is that makes an Afrikaans face so recognizable. You see it long before you hear the language. I try to separate the features – is it the jawline? The eyes? The nose? Who knows, it just is. Charlize Theron looks like any girl from Durbanville (yes, we are that gorgeous).

The thing is, I don’t think it matters where our distant ancestors came from. What matters is where we are now. The only things we know for sure is that we are mad and fabulous and resilient AF. Nobody is the same and nobody is fine, but that is our normal. Sometimes, when I get freaked out about Eskom or the EFF or the ganglands or the girls getting raped and murdered I think, are we misreading the climate? Are we daytime sleepers on our loungers on Clifton 4th, and is summer drawing to a chilly close? Many insist it is. I say, I don’t know. We’ve been asking ourselves this question for 600 years. So, while we decide, let’s put on a bit of Mandoza and dance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding Out the Storm

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As one grey, Cape winter rolls into another and I drift further and further away from who I used to be I find myself reflecting on the madness of this South Africa and how we got from there to here. Last week we had to go to home affairs to renew a passport. But the guard, who was missing a front tooth, barred our entry through the revolving doors and pointed to a sign which says ADMIT 200 ONLY. He was deeply apologetic as he explained that since 200 people had already gone in that day he couldn’t allow us entry. Only, when you’ve lived in this country your whole life you understand that a no – especially when it’s a black person saying it to a white person – can be turned into a yes with the right amount of smiling and pleading. It’s hard denying a grovelling umlungu.

So, in we went and joined the throngs of ladies with expensive highlights and their children in private school uniforms updating documents to that they can go to Europe for the July holidays and scruffy Cape Flats mothers jiggling screaming babies and replacing stolen IDs and thin umtatomkhulus with walking sticks and shiny shoes. Since the chairs come in rows of three I couldn’t sit beside my family so instead I sat down next to a woman in her sixties with a neat fro and a handbag held securely in her lap. Perhaps the fact that I sat next to her without skipping a seat was a sign that I was amenable to chatting because she immediately began telling me two unrelated stories while I listened with that over-enthusiastic white South African expression that says, I know you are black but I don’t even see your colour. I am talking to you like you and I are no different, can you tell? Can you see how cool I am with this whole race thing?

The first story was about her big toe and how it slowly turned black and began to smell and that’s how she discovered she was diabetic. She had to have it amputated and she’s sorry she can’t wear slip slops in summer anymore. The second was about her son who attends Rondebosch High School on a scholarship and next year he’ll either go to London on a gap year or study Industrial Psychology at UCT. She leant in close and said, ‘All his friends are white! All of them. Even the one from Botswana. But he speaks fluent Sesotho, imagine that! A white boy speaking Sesotho! At the weekend they all come and sleep over in Khayelitsha. He’s so popular, my boy, they love him. The whole time I cook – they want hot breakfast, lunch, supper. Those boys never stop eating.’ And then her number got called and with a cheery wave she was gone, and for the first time I took notice of my surrounds. All the staff now are black except for one, lone white woman. She’s as wide as she is tall and probably about my age. She looks like her name could be Roelene.

Roelene will have gone to school somewhere like I did – a factory for turning impressionable young South Africans into uncritical supporters of the National Party. She – like me – will have been indoctrinated with racist propaganda, told lies about our history and become an unwitting, Die Stem-singing cog in the machine of Afrikaner nationalism. When South Africa transitioned into a democracy, Roelene would have dunked her rusk into her Ricoffy and watched as, one by one, her colleagues resigned or got retrenched from their jobs only to be replaced by smart, ambitious black men and women in crisp white shirts, neat braids and colourful manicures. This would have posed a dilemma for Roelene who – like most of us whites – had never had any dealings with black people who weren’t pruning the hedge or mopping the floor.

Now, she had to sit on a toilet seat still warm from somebody’s black bum; report to a competent black boss and eat at a table beside her co-workers who chatted in isiXhosa as they tucked into last night’s warmed-up stew. We human beings are so resilient and adaptable that few of us even take the time to really reflect on the weirdness of this, and the fact that in the new now none of the old rules apply. After centuries of apartness black and white South Africans were flung together like siblings who’d been adopted out to different families and were now meeting one another for the first time, familiar but at the same time utterly foreign. Now we had to live side-by-side trying to forget the past but also trying to remember it and trying, hardest of all, not to fuck everything up. There was a time I used to dread going to Home Affairs, but now it’s run so efficiently the mind boggles at how these few people with limited resources are able to process so many applications in a single day. When you arrive at 7am the queue stretches so far down Barrack Street you can’t see the end of it. The last few times I’ve been there my passport has been ready for collection within a few days.

But that day we were the last to arrive and so we were the last to leave. Finally, at 4:25pm, we were summoned into the single photo booth and then told to wait for our number at the counter to be called. Only, one by one, people stood up from their desks, put on their jerseys and headed for the door. ‘Ummm, excuse me!’ I called out to the last, departing person but closing time is 4:30pm on the dot and they were not about to miss the early train for these pushy whites. So there we stood in the gloomy, deserted waiting-room clutching our number that was never going to be called and looking at each other in anguished silence. Eventually, a bored-looking female security guard took pity and told us that if we went downstairs we might find someone to help. We did, and they did and then we drove home with the radio announcer warning of a massive cold front approaching with high seas and gale-force winds – us, to our cosy Victorian on the Atlantic Seaboard; Roelene, to her place somewhere in the northern suburbs; the ladies with their manicures to newly-built brick houses in the township. All, in our own ways, riding out the storm.

5 Things the Township Taught Me

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

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

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

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

1. Food Belongs to Anyone Who is Hungry

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

2. Whoever Has the Money Pays the Rent

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

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

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

4. Space is a Luxury Commodity

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

5. Ordinary Things Are Difficult

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

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

On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

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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.

White People Can Eat Gatsbys, Too

A steak Gatsby (she assured me you don't have to have the polony for it to be real).
Zulfa and our steak Gatsby (she assured me you don’t have to have the polony for it to be real).

A few nights back I started reading a Rayda Jacobs novel where she keeps referring to Gatsbys and I realised I’ve never eaten a Gatsby and it’s about time I did so I know what Rayda is talking about. So, I asked on Facebook where I can find the best Gatsby in Cape Town and some American friends of mine joined in the conversation and apparently in France it’s called an Americano and it’s made with burger patties instead of polony or steak or curry. But what was interesting was when I tried to explain how come I’ve never eaten this quintessentially Cape Town sandwich before, loving all things local as I do. And I kept starting and then deleting my comment because I didn’t know how to say it: that Gatsbys are coloured food and white people just don’t eat them. It’s funny trying to explain your country to foreigners and realising, anew, how mad it all sounds (how mad it all is).

But, that’s the gospel truth, isn’t it? They’re poor food; working class fair. We mlungus might go into a café that sells them, but we’ll buy a samoosa or a chicken pie and a can of diet coke. Not a Gatsby. And I started thinking about that and how, a while ago, I had to attend a conference in Bridgetown and we white people looked at each other in bemusement. There’s a Bridgetown in Cape Town? Who knew? Well, a lot of people, it turns out. The people who eat Gatsbys. Bridgetown is in Athlone, and while all the coloured people in the world will know where Camps Bay is even if they’ve never been there, the vast majority of white Capetonians will never go to Athlone. Unless they got drunk at Forries and made a wrong turn off Klipfontein Road and pooped themselves when they realised.

And it’s interesting how the apartness a lot of us grew up with is reflected in our food. Black people eat samp and pap; white people eat fish and salad. When I lived overseas people would ask me what South African cuisine was, and it’s an impossible question to answer unless you précis it with a summary of the socio-political history of our country. Because there is no ‘South Africa’ in the sense they were meaning. There are pockets of disparate people whose lives are vastly different in terms of what they can expect to achieve; the dreams they dare to aspire to, and the food they can afford to eat.

Strangely enough, the thing that helped me understand the Swedes I was living amongst was when I started cooking Swedish food. The food of a nation says a lot about their passions and preferences and who, quintessentially, they are. Northern Europeans might appear cold on the outside, but bite into a warm-from-the-oven saffron bun on a frigid December morning and you know, underneath their chilly façade, beats the warmest of hearts. And when we break bread with one another we also break through barriers. Which is, I think, one of the reasons I insist on serving chakalaka at braais. It’s my private little rebellion against the repressive norms of my apartheid childhood. (And also because it’s delicious).

And, I guess, what propels me to put my 68-year-old mother in a car and drive us to Miriam’s on Adderley Street on a Tuesday morning in search of the perfect Gatsby in lieu of our regular coffee. And I guess it’s about needing to step out of my own little pocket; trying not to be so precious and white all the time. And I don’t assume for a moment that ordering a chip roll will change the world; I just mean we must try and be mindful of where we come from and the assumptions we make, and that there are worlds of experiences out there and a wealth of lessons at our fingertips if we can remember to open our minds and our hearts to them. It’s like, if you take the courage to break through the boundaries of what you order for lunch, maybe some other boundaries will be broken down too in the process. I don’t know.

I invited my friend Zulfa along as she’d joined in the Facebook conversation and seemed to be a bit of a Gatsby expert, and every time I see her she reminds me of the time I went to visit her at her home in Athlone and, being the type who can’t find her way out of Cavendish square, naturally I got hopelessly lost. With a dead cell-phone and driving around aimlessly with two children in an area which (to my mind) could only be teeming with murderers and rapists, my anxiety increased about a hundred-fold when I realised I was being followed by a strange man in a car. Not only followed, but he was making hand gestures and seemingly trying to pull me over. While I tried my best to get away from him, my Toyota Tazz didn’t have enough power and for endless, excruciating minutes, I had to watch this man wave his arms as he threatened to bludgeon us all to death.

When, by some miracle, I finally found the right house, I was surprised to see the scary man from the car sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of tea. It was none other than Zulfa’s sweet, docile husband, Moegamat, who’d ventured out in a quest to rescue what could only be the lost and hysterical blonde chick. Shame. This is how mad this country makes us. I still cringe when I see him. But, back to the Gatsby: It was bigger and spicier and more delicious than even greedy-guts, curry-loving me had expected. And while I tried to eat it with my hands – never mind one hand as is the Muslim way – within three bites I knew if I didn’t resort to my knife and fork it was going to become a soggy mess. The steak was tender and flavourful, the chips were crisp and spicy and the sautéed onion tied it all together perfectly. It might not be the healthiest of meals, but some food is soul food and, when eaten while laughing and sharing life stories with people you love it becomes some of the best medicine in the world.

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.