Monthly Archives: March 2008

Windhoek I

Passing a bank on Independence Avenue, noticing a poster in the window. It is written in red that Fear of the devil is nonsense. Quite. But fear of debt is not, maybe. And a little further, in a doorway into a block of flats between two low-slung greying shops, a couple are huddled together. He crowds his limbs around her body, pressed to the wall. A long white cane hangs from a looped string around her wrist. Her eyelids are loose and hang down over the eye, as if caught in the midst of a stroke, and leave only a small slither of dark space beneath the lashes. Her face is turned to the road, but his eyes are wide and excited. He is fixated by the wad of notes in her hand, which he is counting, with her fingers in his. Ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, seventy… She seems to have given up. Her fingers so loose, her legs so soft. Or is he helping her? I hesitate, almost about to stop, to turn, to step from the sidewalk into their dark doorway, and ask something I’m not sure what. But I’m still thinking about fearing the devil, and still want to turn back to check the poster again, check the words, just make sure I wasn’t reading what I am believing.

Bahnhof Strasse.

Last night, I noticed how the AirNamibia inflight glossy was so full of white faces singing praise of nature, wildlife, opera and ways of being happy. We skimmed down, away from blinding light through thick white cloud into darkness. Lower and lower. Vast streaks of white lightening flashed behind the clouds far off across the skies. We judder and bump towards the international airport, a slim slice of tarmac in the middle of a middle Earth. Miles from nowhere.

Che Guevara is on hats, T-shirts and walls, as branded as Nike. Carol Vorderman is here too, slapped on books and DVDs. She’s dieting, adding and subtracting, and giving Namibians advice on how to be happy. I find her gazing at me in a bookshop that’s bursting with life advice, diets and yoga regimes, just two streets from Robert Mugabe Avenue (where you will find an office for the local Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Redistribution, perhaps someone’s idea of a little joke). This quiet provincial town could be in Germany, I think, or England. I hear people speaking in clicks and whistles I don’t understand, and others exchanging mobile phone conversations in Afrikaans and Portuguese. And I keep bumping into tall Congolese men in steel-tipped cowboy boots who wink at me and flash gold chains between their fingers.

It’s cool, cloudy and ever so mildly depressive. But it’s wonderful to be walking again, walking with a phone and a wallet and not to be watching hands and pockets for knives. But someone told me not to take the peace in the place for granted. Last year, 170,000 firearms were bought by individuals in Namibia. That’s about one weapon each for 10% of the population.

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just one last thing

Easter Sunday. A woman in her late fifties, sunglasses wedged into yellow hair, is wearing tight white jeans and a tight white T-shirt over a thick white bra. She staggers to the silver Mercedes, weighed down by two rustic baskets full of cooked food covered in silver foil and gold Lindt bunny rabbits from the Hyde Park branch of Woolworths. By the passenger door, she turns indignantly, and stares at the back gate through which she has just passed. He appears, shortly, holding a lemon cheesecake in a large fluted china dish for flans. We pass clipped verges and sidewalks transformed into chequerboards of thick white gravel and grey paving stones, where large cactii are placed like pawns. A large woman wearing a red baseball cap and red dungarees with STAR printed in white down one leg is jogging and dashing between polished white saloons, engorged four-wheel drives, and silver soft-tops driven by women with ironed hair. A young man leans between heavy wooden crutches at the bottom of a hill, looking at the cracked pavement infront of his feet. In a passing blink, we exchange hiyas.

Ten minutes later. Up on the rocky open hill. Above the neat cul-de-sacs and criss-crossing lanes. We look out at the houses. Just like Surrey, I say. When I go home, I’ll visit Surrey and I’ll remember this bit of Johannesburg. It’s hot. A steady sweat as we scuffle between orange rock formations. There’s no one here. This is the best bit of Johannesburg, we think. You can see the whole city from up here. Almost. We walk on, further into the original rock, along gravelly paths and high grasses. I hope there isn’t a snake, I shout and clap my hands.

A young man ahead approaches, off the paths, across the open rock. When we passed earlier and said hello, he barely responded. Hi, he muttered under his breath, resentful of company in the seclusion of nature. But now he’s coming straight towards us. A hand in a pocket. I imagine a knife there, and wonder where to turn. As he comes level, he starts to speak:

I wouldn’t go that way. A couple of kaffirs just got me. Got my camera, my wallet with ten Rand, and my mobile phone. I wouldn’t go there. One of them had a revolver. And they had a knife. They told me to walk in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t go that way. These blacks here. I’m from Pretoria, and the blacks there are harmless. Here, they’re dangerous. Racists. They hate us. They’re racists.

(We turn and begin to follow him.)

Has everyone heard of apartheid? Has the whole world heard of apartheid? Have they? I suppose they have. Has the whole world heard of apartheid?

Well, yes, I answer, like the whole world has heard of Israel and Palestine.

But you know what they don’t know? You know what they don’t know? More blacks were killed by other blacks under apartheid than by whites. You know that? You know that? Now we’ve got a group of thugs running the country. A group of thugs. Blacks running the country.

I say: But weren’t the apartheid governments just a group of thugs? Aren’t all governments groups of thugs, on one level? Look at George Bush?

Agh, George Bush is ok. Here, you’re not safe. We’re not safe. I go to RAU, I’m a student at RAU. Rand Afrikaans University.

I interject: You mean, Johannesburg university? The name changed.

Whatever. I’m at RAU. I’m just here in Johannesburg for a bit. The blacks here are dangerous. When they rob someone, they torture them. They’re racists. If they just want to rob and kill quick, that’s different. But they kill them slow and torture them. All the farmers, the Afrikaner farmers, they’re having to leave the land. But we feed them. We provide food for them. And they try to kill us. My father was a farmer. I’m related to one of the most important Afrikaners in history, a leading Voortrekker, who tried to negotiate with the blacks. And they killed him. You know they think they should have the whole continent to themselves!

Didn’t the Afrikaners just want South Africa for themselves too? I ask.

We came here because there wasn’t enough land in Europe. That’s why the Voortrekkers came. But the blacks want it all to themselves. We came here and helped them. The land was empty. We set up farms and produced food. We’ve got to teach them, the blacks, how to farm. But we’re feeding them all, and even feeding the illegal immigrants. And they want to destroy our rugby. It’s always been a white man’s sport, but now they want a piece of that too. They’re destroying our rugby. It is for white men. And you know, the Americans were much worse. What they did to the native Americans! Much worse. The Afrikaners weren’t like that. That video, you know the video at Bloemfontein. You know I saw it. I understand those guys, I come from the same kind of culture. But it was bad what they did. They’re bad. But bits of it were funny you know. But it was bad. But the whole world goes crazy when a group of boys make a video – and no one says anything when a white is murdered in his own farm, or a woman like you gets raped. That happens all the time and no one says anything. The world is interested in a video. The video was bad, but they didn’t murder someone did they. They didn’t kill.

So, I ask, will you stay here?

I don’t care about the people. I care about the land. I’ll go to Australia. They’re looking for men like me with my qualifications. I’m going there. My parents, well they’ll stay. It’s hard for them. What would they do if they left? But I’m going. If Zuma comes in, I’m going.

*

Back on the main road. Nothing to say. We all shake hands. I feel sorry for him, deeply sorry. He looks scared, maybe even petrified, and terribly bitter and lonely. We say goodbye. He walks north, towards the garage, but I’m not at all sure that’s the way he really needs to go. He’s just walking trying to find purpose, trying to create purpose, trying to be sure, to be confident that he’s doing the right thing, making the right decisions. But he’s totally lost.

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moving moving forward and back

blog-journey.jpg

Going on a long journey, with a sack of clothes and books, hair-pieces and medicines, a map and a list of names and numbers. The odd appearance here might occur, but expect three months of peace and quiet from unstrung. Looking forward to your saudades, and a spirit so full there will be great advances felt on the return. Looking forward to leaving here. Thoughts on South Africa seem never to advance beyond the gloomy or cynical: that the times when I laugh from my belly are either in bed, or when I’m talking to people who earn little, own little and don’t have much power; that a lot of those people known here as Anglo-Saxons make promises they never keep, and smile whenever they make them (it’s like seeing England stare back at me all the time – the worst aspects of my own culture have come here and remain firmly intact); that Afrikaners are friendly and frank, and I now understand why a lot of Blacks say they seem to prefer them to the Anglo-Saxons because you never know where you stand with the latter; that my difficulties trying to understand my fellow white man are similar to the difficulties of black Africans who come here and struggle to understand their fellow black man; that the newspapers are disappointing – you know things are really going downhill when the Mail & Guardian run a poor piece of writing about Converse shoes on the main OpEd page; that there is even more nepotism and luvvy incest here than there is in the UK, which is really saying something; that it’s wrong to pinpoint white farmers only as the reactionary right; that a significant number of white people and a small number of black people here own far too much and still want more; that if I tell you that Ronald Suresh Roberts is not nearly as bad as the newspapers, academies and lawyers here would have it, I will become instantly unpopular and disrespected (but I say it all the same: he’s not nearly as bad as they insist and a lot of what he says about this country is in my foreign-British-inexperienced-foolish-female-anti-theover- riding liberal opinion accurate); that I can see why white people here feel unwanted and are confused and disturbed and disappointed by that; that the whites, as Pallo Jordan said the other day, are leaving irrespective of whether they are encouraged or not – they just want to go; that wealth and consumption seem to be the overriding concerns of the elite here, just like the elite everywhere else; that the amount of money spent on social security here leaves Cuba and Venezuela ailing, and yet I still feel negative about the place; that the Rainbow Nation is called the Rainbow Nation for a good reason – it’s a fairy tale, and fairy tales are fantasies that don’t come true. But worst of all, this place has produced in me cliché after cliché. I seem unable to see much beauty here, much goodness, much to make me happy. This place has produced in me a failure to plough energy into it, a refusal to give to it, and for that I feel deeply ashamed. Maybe the spirit of shame that is so omnipresent here has somehow seeped inside me, under my skin and into my skin, and I have become part of the white shame. Has my whiteness found itself here? Is that it? Something masochistic in the air here. Maybe. It’s good I’m getting away. I’m so glad to be getting away. Until the return, good bye.

P.S. All those interested in Naipaul ought to read this, as suggested some time ago by johng, himself a regular commentator over at Lenin’s Tomb.

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god help us

‘Hello, I want to book a ticket for a night of bliss with Pastor Chris.’

‘Oh yes. How many?’

‘Just me and one friend. How much are the tickets?’

‘How much? They are free. You don’t preach the gospel for a fee. It’s free.’

‘How many tickets are left?’

‘We have sold 100,000. I personally have 250 left.’

‘Will there be lots of different types of people?’

‘Everyone dear. We have Afrikaners like me, immigrants, Blacks, Coloureds, everyone. You will be welcome. Everyone comes to be healed.’

‘So it really is a night of bliss?’

‘Absolutely. Hundred percent. From six til dawn.’

Pastor Chris’ followers came to campus in a black Hummer. They drew up outside The Matrix shopping and food mall, turned the engine off, opened the doors, turned up the pop music, and sold the night of bliss. Large white male students shouted abuse:

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‘Hypocrite!’ ‘How can you preach God when you drive a car like that?’ ‘You’re here to make money!’ ‘Load of shit!’ ‘I feel sorry for you, man!’

It was a strange moment. Large white male students yelling furiously at two skinny black students in baseball caps with Pastor Chris sewn across the front, above the peak. Who felt more threatened? Is a Hummer worse really much than a BMW, the car that I have seen more than a handful of students (of all colours) driving home from here? What if you also have a pool, regular holidays abroad, and long trips to your farm that’s three hours drive from Joburg? Who’s doing more damage? Mutterings mutterings… not enough time…

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chatting in the mall

‘But he is a good, kind man. We come from the same town, so I know him. You know, whenever there’s a funeral he organises a bus for the township people because the graveyard is far from the township. And once a year, or more than once a year, he buys a whole cow and we cook it and eat it together.’

‘A cow for who?’

‘For the people in the township. For the blacks.’

‘So you are saying, he is a good man?’

‘A very good man. You know the only thing I would say is, don’t get him on to politics. Talk politics with him and he goes really funny. He gets angry. He gets mad.’

‘But you think he’s not a racist then?’

‘Agh! He doesn’t like having a black president, that’s all. Never mention Nelson Mandela around him. That makes him angry. But he’s a good kind man. He has black girlfriends, you know that?’

‘Really?’

‘Oh yes. Several.’

‘So does he have mixed-race kids then?’

‘No. I don’t say that. I say he has black girlfriends. He’s had several. He likes black people. He’s got nothing against us. It’s just politics. And look, I know he was in prison for a bit, because he beat a man up. But you know what they say in our town, in Ventersdorp?’

‘No.’

‘The man was trying to break into his house, trying to steal. So he beat him up. And then he was sent to prison, for a long time, for doing that. And now he can hardly walk, he’s like a cripple, all bent over and limping.’

‘Who? The man who broke into the house, or Terre’Blanche?’*

‘The thief! Yes, he beat him up very bad.’

‘And that hasn’t made you dislike him?’

‘No! As I told you, he is good to us, to the township people. He pays for our buses, and buys us whole cows to eat. He’s a kind man. We have no problem with him. He is like my next-door neighbour. I grew up next to him. My mother named me after one of her Afrikaner bosses, a lady, that’s why my name is Afrikaans. But you can see I’m completely black. And she killed herself.’

‘Who?’

‘The boss. She went to the bridge with her dog, and jumped off it. So I got her name. But there are white racists here. Sometimes people come into the shop and they won’t talk to me. A woman came in the other day, with her grand-daughter, an old Jewish lady. And the grand-daughter looked at me and said, Don’t say hello to my nana – she doesn’t speak to blacks. I was so upset, my blood was boiling, my ears were bumping, I couldn’t say anything. She said it twice. And then they left the shop.’

‘But it’s getting better here, isn’t it?’

‘In South Africa? No!’ she laughs. ‘People are more racist now I swear. You can tell the really racist ones easily because they always talk about it, they always talk about how they like black people. My boss always talks about how she likes black people and how, in her old job, her old career, she only mixed with black people. That’s how I know she’s a racist. And when I ask her about that video, the one in Bloemfontein, she tells me what her brother thinks, not what she thinks. So I can tell she’s a racist.’

* Eugene Terre’Blanche is, note, a poet, and – I’ve been reliably told – a playwright.

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oh christ

Here we go again. This, as Binyavinga Wainaina wrote famously for Granta a couple of years ago, is the way to write about Africa.

1. Find a (non) governmental organisation.*

2. Ensure support from the British/French/North American etc government ministry which is interested in awful suffering of poor darker people.

3. Focus your thoughts on what we all love to call global poverty – and highlight it.

4. Find a mainstream British/French/North American newspaper that displays its interest in Africa by hiring only one correspondent to cover (up) the entire continent (sometimes, yes, there are two: one in Nairobi as well as Johannesburg, or occasionally Cairo), and adds to that in-depth reportage with the help of numbers 1. and 2. above, or Bono & Bob (although Bob now works for the competition – the BBC – as their continental correspondent… so I hear from insiders).

5. Make sure you are interested in international development. International development.

Then get on a plane and travel with numbers 1. and 2. and tell the world what you’ve er-hum, discovered, about the deep dark continent.

What are you waiting for? Off you go!

*We should scrap the NGO and just go for GO. We all know that most NGOs are GOs. So let’s start being honest about it.

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against the clock

With cold sweats breaking out for lack of daily mainlined Barbara Campbell dose, deadlines are now self-imposed. Thirty-three minutes before the 1400 (local South African time) power cut slices into action, sweeping the East Campus of Wits into some sort of darkness (they say). The neighbourhood where I live (Melville) is on the same timetable, so no point going there. Thirty-one minutes.

I was reading this…

Ciak was created in 2001. A small capsule safely locked by an innovative, exclusive and patented closure. Thirty minutes. Ciak is the true friend of one’s daily adventures in life. Every human being has single moments of times which are worth capturing and hidden away [sic]. Ciak is a strong box for those moments but when needed, can be unleasehd simply by unbinding the embrace of the elastic. Twenty nine minutes.

… when a large young man, with tobacco breath and sweat, walked into my office. ‘I’m from the bank. I’ve got the money.’ Ah, I said, I was expecting a suited-helmeted figure with a gun. The man – suited with a thick leather satchel hanging from a shoulder – laughed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘just me, like this.’ He looked down at his body, blushing. ‘It makes me less likely to be targeted. It’s only when I’m carrying more than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars that they give me a security guard.’ I asked him how he got here. ‘In a non-identified vehicle. It’s actually safer like that. But the people who organise the hits on people like me are normally former employees who have done the job. They know the form.’ I asked him if he was scared. ‘I’m a family man,’ he said, ‘I need to put bread on the table.’ He handed me a large wad of dollars. ‘You’d better count it.’ He showed me how to check the authenticity of the notes.

Twenty-four minutes.

He told me which job he’d really like to do, and how much money he’d really like to earn. He is keen to get out of his current job as soon as possible because of the risks attached.

Twenty-three minutes.

An email in my inbox, sent from a friend and titled ‘advice for new arrivals’ warns:

Visitors and residents are advised of ongoing criminal activity involving organized crime gangs targeting individuals at shopping centers and in particular at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. Once a victim has been identified, he/she is followed back to his/her residence and robbed, usually at gunpoint, although the use of force is generally reserved for those offering some form of resistance. These gangs tend to target more “affluent” individuals, including people driving expensive cars, wearing eye-catching jewelry, flashing large amounts of cash, and/or making high-value purchases. Criminals also gravitate towards “soft” targets – people who appear preoccupied and do not pay attention to their immediate surroundings. Tourists are being targeted in a similar fashion at the airport. It appears some airport personnel may be involved in the activity, apparently tipping off criminals waiting outside the airport once tourists have declared valuables and cash. http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1008.html

Twenty minutes.

We talk a bit about my trip. Where I’m going. He says he’s never been outside South Africa, ever, ‘apart from Lesotho and Swaziland’. He says he’d love to see Angola. I show him a photo of a truck, half of which has disappeared into a pothole in Luanda. I carry on counting the money. He warns me to put it somewhere safe. And to lock my door incase someone comes to steal it.

Nineteen minutes.

Before he leaves, I squash something thick and papery into his hand. ‘We’re not supposed to accept that,’ he says. But I remind him he has risked his life for me. They should protect you properly, I say. The act makes me feel seedy and exploitative, I think.

Eighteen minutes. He leaves.

Then, as desired, it can be closed again with the sharp release of the elastic on the cover producing the sound that gave this journal its name… Ciak. Young and sexy, Ciak slips quickly into peoples’ pockets and bags everyday. It is the status symbol of today’s writer and traveller and has no age discrimination. Sixteen minutes. Thanks to trendy colours and materials, stylish paper, and to its innovative closure, Ciak has become the journal of modern artists who love its touch and its feel and its versatility for sketching. It has become the journal of students who find it perfect for teenage secrets and dreams. It has become the journal of professionals who have found a concise structure to its pages and an intelligence in its size. It has become the journal for businesspeople who find it a sleek and compact file for all those complicated notes. It simply has become the journal for home and for office, for work and for play,

Twelve minutes

for good times and for bad. What people find in Ciak is a book, a diary, an address book or a journal, but they also find a friend for every moment and every situation in life.

Power will be cut in seven minutes.

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