Daydreams While Balancing Atop a Narrow Fence

Once upon a time, South Africa was tainted by the concept of apartheid. It had a name, a whole set of legislation, and an ideology to go with it. Even the street names were about the values propagated by bigotry, racism and sociological violence. Then the world put the screws on South Africa and applied sanctions and other grim solutions and it worked: Nelson Mandela was released and the whole thing came tumbling down. And now we’re a happy little place where everyone is cool, cheerfully operating in a cross-cultural paradigm.

Unfortunately this kind of simplistic notion of the mechanisms that made apartheid happen and those that took it away are sheer fantasy, and it takes a relative staunch pinch of salt (or p’haps something a tad stronger?) to make sense of all of the contradictions and multiple identities that makes those of us in South Africa the interesting body of culture that we are. And I use the term “interesting” advisedly.

I use it against the background of a story that I came to hear of from a clerk in a medical aid office, and against the background of the kind of art exhibitions that my city seems to be heir to at the moment.

Leandra is an ordinary gal. She’s a part of a group of people whose historical roots were about the cross-pollination of cultures that came about when colonialist white skinned chaps “discovered” the African continent. And they discovered the black skinned women on its shores. Pejoratively, the offspring resulting from the union resulting in this “discovery” have come to be called “Coloured”, a term often slipping through comfortable categorising, because these so-called discovered are “too black” to be white, and simultaneously “too white” to be considered black. And by default, these people became a cultural anomaly in their country; viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by both those at opposite ends of the spectrum.

One night, Leandra and her friends went out. They found themselves running quickly out of petrol in a so-called “white” area. But, given that apartheid was history, this was not a problem. The petrol attendant filled up their car, but put in more petrol than they’d asked for. A simple misunderstanding, which they thought would be simply cleared with the owner of the garage. But this was not to be. Suddenly, under the cover of all these seemingly good, newly established post-apartheid manners, racism was back. The said owner of the establishment happened to be a burly white Afrikaner, with all his bigotry at the surface, and Leandra and her friends were accused of every kind of crookery in the book and everything was coloured with a racist tone and curse. They were shot at, as they drove off in terror. And the gunman’s aim was true: he hit each of their tires, and they were forced to limp home on the rims of their wheels.

It’s a scenario which I struggle to get my head around, not because I believe that everyone is good and free of racism at heart, but because people seem to be so close to the boil. If you’re of that aforementioned offspring, just ask the wrong man the wrong question, and he will take out a gun to kill you. Look at a man wrongly, and he will call you “kaffir” — the most vehement racial slur — with no hesitation at all. I ponder: If my Jewish identity was more easily recognisable, and I took a slightly faulty step in social protocols, would I also be fleeing on shot-out tires?

The University of Stellenbosch, in the Cape, once the bastion of education for apartheid leaders, cast itself in a new veneer over the last few years; Stellenbosch began encouraging black students to enroll together with their white counterparts. A couple of weeks ago, there was near neo-Nazi crisis on the campus, and event that was overtly and publicly anti-black/gay/Jewish. The hostile movement was quenched quickly by the security police, but it makes me wonder about maturity of socially attuned groups. And the University’s sincerity of commitment to a political ideal.

Recently, there was a big court case in Pretoria, where a group of men under the name “Boeremag” (“Farmers Force”) were accused of treason. They were plotting to assassinate Mandela and overthrow the country. These villains are appropriately behind bars, but in our new South Africa, I don’t understand where they are coming from.

It’s confusing because on the one hand, the new culture that is burgeoning here is refreshing and viable. It is coloured by a culture that springs from both western and African sources. It’s something that is having teething problems inevitably, but it is so profoundly African that it wipes away the need to emulate Paris or Berlin. This is Johannesburg, and no apologieapologists are necessary.

Spending the day perambulating through so-called notorious areas in Johannesburg today, I rethought all this stuff and struggled some more: I visited the Women’s Gaol, one of the apartheid relics. The Gaol is terrifying for the ghosts and ugliness contained in its solidly built structures. I visited the Johannesburg Art Gallery, a magnificent century-old colonial structure, situated in the heart of a inner city park where, incidentally, a lot of probably unemployed black South Africans like to shmooze. This is a plpleaseace of opportunistic crime; you have to walk the walk here, and be always conscious of your liftable possessions.

That said, it is in this space that can enjoy dish of “morogo“, a traditional dish of spinach and beetroot tops. It is in this space, where criminals and artists mingle, that I can eat traditionally cooked chicken feet or mopane worms —a delicacy in African culture — and it is in this space, where I am unreservedly given a sense of welcome.

I steeled myself to visit the synagogue in central Johannesburg, which has become transformed into an economic mega-mall complete with a pub called “The Voice”. This area is a mecca where hawkers peddle their wares, pay their rent, and earn their livings and their dignity. The big dog guarding the premises made me a tad nervous; he was the biggest, furriest Alsatian I’d ever seen and for a moment I worried who would find me in this exotic, frenetic zone, after he’d ripped out my throat . . .

But when I crossed this barrier, I was struck by the hospitality with which I was welcomed into the space. It’s an venue for gigs and church meetings. I was given the cook’s tour of the space, and a free drink. There’s a sense of such overwhelming pride and almost incredulity in that whole notion of coming into one’s own, that it overrides a sense of paranoia which is, after all, a product of white culture.

Perhaps I stick my neck out where it is not warranted. But then again, this is another day in Africa, where I see both sides of the fence. Both sides attract me for their colourful charm, and both sides enthrall me because of how they are using the South African identity that has just celebrated its ninth birthday.

On the one hand, I see African culture coming into its own; on the other, I see bitterness and pain. One one side of the fence the one picture is refreshing and magnificent, even though it is manifest in a world troubled by economic and housing issues, AIDS, crime and unemployment. On the other side of the fence, the picture is bitter as gall. Money is not scarce on this side of Africa. There are no white Afrikaans squatters here — not, at least ones affiliated with the anti-democratic front. AIDS is not a factor, for the most part, for these people. Still, it is on this side of the fence that invidious plans of latent destruction take root.

I stand balanced between these two worlds and ponder my fairy tale in progress. With all my heart I hope that the ending is happy, but the dark twists in this story confound me: are they about redressing imbalances, or are they merely childish — yet viscious — recalcitrance?