Common sense: Impressions of South Africa

The visit begins with snow in Johannesburg. It’s the first time, they tell us, in thirty years, and people are gathering outside the African craft market near Rosebank shopping mall to watch it fall. We’ve come from temperatures in Italy in the mid-30s and the snow has a manna-like quality; we want to gather it in our hands and let it melt. But it doesn’t stick. Within minutes the dusting of white on the yellowwood trees and the rows of metal guinea fowls outside the market has disappeared as we walk towards the mall. A mall is a mall is a mall, insists Wayne, our host, but that’s only partly true. Woolworths went bust in the UK some years ago, for example, but here it still is, or something like it, shifted up-market, filled with clothes that remind me of Gap, with a food hall tucked away in the back that could happily compete with M&S. (I find out later that Woolworths SA is quite distinct from its UK namesake.) In M&S branches in some parts of England, the Midlands, say, it’s easy to forget the large black population outside the walls of the store; you need to go to Asda or Primark to be reminded. But here in Johannesburg, in this unexpectedly elegant mall, the customers are black and white in roughly equal numbers; I’m surprised by this and distrust my surprise, and this mixture of discordant emotions, with its underpinning niggle of guilt, will accompany me for much of my stay in South Africa. I buy myself an ochre-coloured padded canvas bomber jacket in the Woolworths sale, to shield me from the unanticipated cold.  Later, after a seafood lunch at Ocean Basket, we drink perfect Illy espressos in a bar with hi-tech troughs of shimmering fire along one wall. Outside, the snow continues to fall.

The next day, driving downtown through half-deserted suburban streets, we hear that hundreds of people have stayed at home because it’s too cold to go to work and I wonder how that would play in, say, Finland. But South Africa isn’t Finland. Besides, not everyone is scared of the weather. The area we drive to, the CBD or Central Business District, is filled with people selling number-plates and fruit in the lengthening shadows of often abandoned skyscrapers. There’s a shop selling Italian fashion wear designed by St. Thomas Moore. Everywhere we look, flyers attached to lampposts offer penis enlargement and pain-free abortions. We’re looking for the Johannesburg Art Gallery, but we can’t find it; it isn’t where it ought to be, beside a park the guidebooks advise us to avoid. Wayne, who’s driving, tells us to keep our windows closed, just in case, and we do what he says. I sit and take photographs, encased in this curious, over-heated bubble, excited, a little scared. No one seems to notice us, or, if they notice, care.

Passport control. In Italy, some bored man with his shirt-sleeves rolled up will take a sideward glance at your passport and, assuming you’re European, wave you through. In the UK, default mode is disbelief. My cheery hello is ignored as a sour-faced official holds the document face-down on the reader and stares at the screen. At O.R. Tambo (già Jan Smuts) International Airport, Johannesburg, a young woman takes my passport and asks me how I am, using my name to do so. I’m well, I say and, as she continues to look at me, despite my better judgement, I add, And how are you? I’m good, she replies, and smiles. Like everyone else in authority here, as far as I can see, she’s black. Welcome to South Africa. When I leave by the same airport two weeks later and the guy at security offers me his hand before checking my belt, I’m used to it, this ceaseless welcome, this affability. But to be used to something is not to take it for granted. I’m sorry to be going, I say, and he nods. Have a good trip, he says. He doesn’t want me to leave, it seems, and neither do I.

One of the issues that most strikes me about South Africa is the friendliness we’re met by on every occasion, in shops and restaurants, service stations and hotels, museums and bars, all the places in which we connect with people in a fleeting, superficial way, each meeting bound up as it is with commerce and provision. Although issue isn’t the word; the real issue might be what the right word actually is to describe this constant assault of charm and non-invasive interest, this greeting that seems formulaic and yet, somehow, isn’t, that demonstrates a warmth I initially feel I have no right to, and feel myself resisting, and to which I then succumb. To say it’s genuine, a genuine pleasure in serving our passing needs, sounds sentimental, and maybe – in this specific, socio-economic post-apartheid context, where 90 percent of those offering such warmth are black – even worse; it sounds paternalistic, racist, an anachronism. Just listen to yourself. Labour’s cheap round here, after all. Someone else will be more than ready to do the job with a smile if they don’t. They don’t really mean it. But the alternative is that what we’re witnessing is the service industry at its most blatant and self-interested, because there is also the issue – that word again – of semi-obligatory tipping here, ten percent to be added to every bill, which arrives with ballpoint pen provided. And that rings just as false somehow, like nothing so much as simple cynicism, the flip-side of sentimentality, the doing-dirt on life, as Lawrence put it. You have to trust your feelings in the end. You take the hand, and the smile, and you ask this person in front of you how she is, or he is, and you listen to the answer as they have listened to you. It might be brief, and seem to lead nowhere, but surely that’s less important than the fact that such an exchange has taken place, and touched you.

We travel to Stellenbosch, and then Stanford. Stellenbosch is a white town in every sense, not only historically. The buildings – small-town, stately, colonial style affairs – are gleaming limewash in the sunlight, the sky fresh blue after rain; they’re arranged around an extended village green, their roofs made of thatch or grey-green corrugated iron. The arsenal, with its bell-tower and bellied roof, has the homely air of a rural church. There’s a botanical garden with bonsais and a pizzeria called Col Cacchio, which makes us laugh, and the university, behind the main street and surrounded by the type of bar universities throughout the world attract. But what makes the place so luminous this winter morning is the contrast between the light we see and the darkness behind it, without which it would not be visible. It’s a comfortably-off, artistic sort of place, like Heidelberg or Cheltenham. Among the works of art that decorate the streets is the statue of a naked man, possibly black, an Anthony Gormley-style life-sized figure fashioned out of what seems to be compressed earth, mud and straw. As a material, it’s both elemental and derogatory. It’s the first man, modelled from the stuff of the world, but it’s also waiting for the arrival of spirit, some vital urge that will move it, and make it fully human. Down a side street there are lines of what look like washing strung from one side to the other, which turn out to be an installation entitled Coloured Prayers, the work of the artist Jacques Coetzer, using clothes from Cloetesville, a settlement outside Cape Town. In both cases, the work doesn’t quite live up to the challenge it sets itself. Stanford, our next stop, is a windswept St Ives-like colony, a smallish grid of one-story buildings beneath an immense inverted bowl of striated cloud and sky. It has an ugly church and strings of arts and crafts shops, and three black boys walking with purpose along an otherwise empty street. I buy a basket woven in Madagascar from the wife of an artist in a shop that blends into a gallery-cum-house, then talk to an upholsterer who lived in London for decades and has made an extraordinary sofa with the silhouette of Table Mountain, for the pleasure of it. He misses London.

We’re driven out to Soweto by Booysie, a man who was born there and who still lives in the city with his wife, a teacher, and daughter. He’s a lovely man, my age to within a few months, happy to talk about politics, life in general, happy to answer the most foolish, ingenuous questions. I talk about how, for people of my generation in the UK, South Africa was our Vietnam, our big source of guilt and space for redemption, and he nods, perhaps aware, as I am, that this telling now is also a sort of apology that still, somehow, needs to be made. What he says to me in reply is that he – and everyone else in Soweto, and every other township, in every farm and mine – had no idea that anyone outside the borders of the country even cared. This should have been obvious – the first act of any totalitarian state is to close off or distort information. That’s why we have Ministries of Truth, to make sure none of it gets through. But it’s odd, and painful, to think of just how effective that closure was; those fragile bonds of hope and solidarity we imagined we were forging between the freedom of our own hemisphere and the slavery of theirs intercepted, filed away in some office. Booysie tells me that, nonetheless, what we did – our optimistic, pathetically ineffectual protest – made a difference, was not ineffectual, and he’s probably right. It’s good to think so. He’s a friend of Desmond Tutu, and there’s a quality of forgiveness in him which can’t have been hurt by that. Talking to him about what’s happened, and how he sees the future, is a lesson on how reconciliation might have worked. Eighteen years ago he might not have looked me in the eyes. But I can’t believe that. He’s my contemporary. On the drive back, two middle-aged men in the same rocking boat, we talk about the pros and cons of working freelance.

Our last visit in Soweto is to Kliptown. We’ve seen the richer part of the city, where people are building new houses on old plots, villas and haciendas and shrunken castles alongside the kind of open-plan houses one might expect to see in the suburbs of a city like Phoenix. Booysie apologises for the poor state of the rugby pitch at the local school. We tell him British schools are selling off their playing fields, that Italian schoolchildren have to provide their own toilet paper, but I’m not sure that he believes us. We visit the home of a smiling mother and daughter and their families, two pebble-dashed rooms at the heart of a cluster of immaculate bedrooms, clinging to the core of the house like feeding pups. We admire a cast-iron stove, the kind we’re looking for in Italy, we say, and they laugh at the idea of it. We pose together for photographs in the yard behind the house. When I ask Booysie if an offer of money of some kind would be appropriate, he squeezes my arm. It would be much appreciated, he says. Later, we eat in the sun outside a restaurant offering a buffet lunch. Tripe, lamb stew, a spicy bean salad, English trifle, all of it good. The restaurant is halfway between the homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the only road in the world to have housed two Nobel laureates, Booysie reminds us, and I think – irreverently – of the two vast painted cooling towers on the Soweto skyline and the bungee-jumping platform suspended between them. As we’re leaving, an Italian woman asks us if we can recommend a bed and breakfast place in the area, and Booysie makes a couple of phone calls, and finds her a room. A hundred metres up the road, where Hector Pieterson was murdered at the age of 13, is the Hector Pieterson Museum. Outside the museum, I see the photograph of the dying boy being carried by a man who never knew him, Hector’s sister beside them both, and remember it as vividly as I remember other photos like it, of suffering children, and wonder how I’d ever managed to forget it. When Booysie tells me the man who picked Hector up went into hiding and has never been seen again, I’m lost for words. And then we go to Kliptown.

Booysie drives down a dirt road with a railway line running along one side of it and a row of large vans parked along the other. They belong to a production company; someone is making a film here. He turns right into a courtyard surrounded by brightly-coloured one-story buildings. We leave the car and are greeted by a young man called Thabo, wearing calf-length cargo pants and a sky-blue tee-shirt with the words New York and a pre-9/11 view of the Manhattan skyline. Thabo’s our guide. He takes us away from the lilac and green and shocking pink of the courtyard into the cluster of houses beyond it. They’re brutally inadequate, sheets of corrugated iron nailed roughly together, unpainted. He tells us we can take photos if we want, but none of us does. There are chickens, some men are bundling faggots of wood with wire. There is a furrow of dank water along the middle of the track. We stop by a tap and Thabo tells us all about the tap and what it does, how it isn’t just the only source of water for all the houses around it. How it offers a forum for discussion, and news, and gossip. How people who meet here help one another, and fight, and fall in love. How without the tap there would be no sharing, and without sharing there would be no community. All the time he’s saying this he’s smiling. He says that he likes us because he sees no pity in our eyes, but that’s just another sign of the generosity of his spirit. In any case, I’m wearing sunglasses that hide my tears. On the way back to the courtyard he talks about SKY, the Soweto Kliptown Youth Programme, and Bob, the man who founded it, in 1986, under apartheid. He tells us they’re filming Mandela’s autobiography down the road, and that some of the SKY kids are working on the production. It’s all good news. Thabo will be 21 in five days’ time.

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is an appropriately harsh-looking, brutal building, between the city centre and Soweto. The tickets we buy to enter the museum all look the same until we turn them over and discover we’ve been classified, assigned the status of Whites or Non-Whites. One White (me). Two Non-Whites (them). It’s as arbitrary as that. Well, of course it is; it always has been. We enter the museum through separate turnstiles and find ourselves in parallel corridors, separated by a deep metallic grid containing blown-up facsimiles of the identity cards people carried under apartheid. We look at the cards that define these people, some of whom will be dead by now, some of whom may have died long before these cards were no longer needed, defined until their final day in this vile capricious way, like steer for marketing. But when I say we, I mean something else. Because I’m here and they’re over there, my husband and our friend, and what they’re seeing is the same as what I’m seeing and yet not the same. It’s extraordinary how simple it is to create unease. I’m walking along my corridor, and I can see them walking along theirs. We can talk, but we can’t touch, not quite. And we don’t know how long this will go on, whether our paths will be allowed to meet later or not. I’m worried we’ll experience the museum differently, to such an extent that what we talk about later will make no common sense. We’ll have seen the same place but won’t know that, or be sure of that, or what we have seen will have no shared qualities at all, and we won’t know that either; all we’ll have is half of what should be ours. We’ll have lived half-lives, all of us, in one way or another. When we turn the corner after maybe twenty yards and our paths are reunited, we’re still anxious, still not entirely convinced we won’t be divided again. It takes this little to tell us something we thought we knew, but didn’t, not really. Just as what we know now can never be what those people whose identity cards formed part of the wall between us knew intimately, every waking hour and day of their lives.

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10 Responses to Common sense: Impressions of South Africa

  1. Tyla Tingle says:

    An impression from a true traveler, not a tourist. XO

  2. Maria van der Bent says:

    A very moving account of your trip to South Africa. Thanks.

  3. Shana says:

    Hi there, I loved reading your artical and reminiscing about my time in Kliptown. I volunteered at SKY for 3 months a couple of years ago and loved every moment… Taken in and loved like a daughter or sister. Thabo is such an amazing person and an inspiration for the younger children at SKY a real credit to himself, had many struggles but still turned out to be one of the most loving people I have ever met. And his smile, it’s always there come rain or shine. Love and blessings from the UK…

    • It must have been a wonderful experience, Shana; I envy you. Thank you so much for commenting. I hope Thabo reads this and understands (as I’m sure he does) the value of everything he does there – and everything they all do there at SKY, including you when you were volunteering. The world’s a better place for you all.

  4. Hey Charles, I enjoyed this very much and will tweet your post once I have had dinner! NASIM

  5. phyllida white says:

    Lovely Charles. Rings so many bells, and confirms so many of my feelings. By coincidence saw Invictus on the telly last night – have you seen it?

  6. Pingback: Two weeks in Portugal | CHARLES LAMBERT

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