8 October 2006

Another Ten Years

After apartheid

In August, three months after Judge Willem van der Merwe’s ruling, Cape Town was still experiencing Zuma trial fallout. The judge’s name is amusing, because a proverbial Van der Merwe is South Africa’s Polish person, the chronic butt of jokes that lampoon Afrikaner stupidity. (How do you confuse Van der Merwe? Put him in a rondavel and tell him to stand in the corner.)

The High Court has been kind to Jacob Zuma, poster boy of Zulu pride. Cleared of corruption charges in 2005, the former Deputy President and head of the National AIDS Council was acquitted of rape this May. There was not enough evidence to determine whether the sex was consensual; Zuma himself admitted it was unprotected. His accuser, an HIV-positive AIDS activist, had a raft of past rape claims; she also wore a skirt above the knee. In expiation, Zuma cited binding tribal roles (“In the Zulu culture you don’t just leave a woman in [a state of arousal], because if you do then she will … say that you are a rapist.”) and effective last-ditch measures (a shower afterwards). The case channeled the country’s every major insecurity—cronyism, sexual violence, defiant tribalism, infectious disease—and South African constituents were riled, polarized, made intemperate with rage. Zuma showcased the government’s incompetence, proved the ANC was a blery sham; or else he was a scapegoat, the girl a liar and a whore, and who was to say she had HIV anyway? (I wondered if he had HIV already.) Protesters outside the courtroom called for her to be stoned.

Meanwhile actual stonings were occurring on the major motorways—the N1, the N2, the N7, the R300. A Kuilsriver man had died. Skittish drivers ran red lights and looked heavenward as they approached overpasses: bricks sometimes fell from the bridges. They talked about the menace in line at Pick & Pay: “It’s township kids playing Kill Whitey. Urchins with rocks while you wait at a traffic light—but not your typical smash-and-grab.” Usually someone took out a window to snatch the briefcase or handbag left on the front seat. But in the recent cases there was no theft. The point was the shattered glass, the existential brand of unrest. The police put up emergency phone booths along the N2 route, but it turned out the phones didn’t work.

Savvy South Africans don’t rely on landlines because they all have pay-as-you-go mobiles. My grandmother’s maid used hers to call in, one Thursday, to say she wouldn’t be coming to work: her granddaughter had died in the night. Nomisa has worked for my grandmother for the past 30 years. When I was a fussy child visiting in the summers from America, Nomisa remembered the ways in which I was particular; she would leave out the sliced tomatoes from my salad or sandwiches because I hated the stray seeds. (This kindness embarrasses me when I think of it today.) I wrote a story for my sixth-grade teacher describing exotic Nomisa, with her Xhosa intonation, strong forearms, smell of yellow soap, stiff housedresses in pastel colors: salmon, sea-foam, powder blue. Her housedresses are unchanged, although she’s put on weight in her hips and middle. She still has strong forearms, but does not smell of yellow soap—I think I stole that detail from Carol Ryrie Brink. And now she calls my grandmother “Gran” rather than “medem.”

Nomisa’s 21-year-old son, Nikosana, showed great promise—good looks, good marks in school—and had gone on to an IT college. (As is fairly common practice, my grandmother pays his tuition and so has an investment in his success; her letters to me usually contain some news about him.) Nomisa didn’t approve of his girlfriend, a township girl, extremely pretty but unemployed. The girlfriend got pregnant and my gran said pessimistically, “There goes Niko’s future.” But when the baby was born, and all three were living with Nomisa in her tiny, tidy, government-issued house, everything felt different. They named her Buhle, which means beauty.

In the days, Buhle stayed with her maternal grandmother, who decided early that week that she seemed unwell and took her to the township sangoma. He threw the bones and administered herbs. Buhle writhed through the night; in the morning, she had stopped breathing. Nomisa thought the muti‘s toxicity killed the child; her other grandmother claimed she was sick and would have died anyway. The nurses at the local clinic said it was impossible to determine cause of death. They swaddled her and turned her over to Nomisa, who had funerary rites to arrange and pay for. In this age of AIDS, funerals are the subject of black humor among blacks (coffin-makers and undertakers are the only ones making a profit these days) and the source of complaints among whites (employers gripe that their domestic servants attend too many). When Zuma was exonerated, his supporters staged a mock funeral for Thabo Mbeki, with a paper cutout of the President’s head affixed to a child-sized coffin.

That week was also Women’s Week. The newspapers issued lists of outstanding South African women—Antjie Krog, who wrote so memorably about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission six years ago; human rights activist Fatima Hassan; Minister of Environmental Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi—against outrageous statistics of rape and domestic violence. Only in South Africa would a gentle-looking lady named Sonette patent a device called Rapex, a female condom fitted with tiny barbs. Myths abound about HIV: condoms spread the disease, but if you sleep with x many virgins you might get rid of it. Hence the spate of baby rapes, unthinkable yet easily explained.

In any case, South African women can’t sit around fretting about assault. They have jobs to do. Or so conveyed my cab driver, a Cape Coloured woman named Ilene who was, excitingly, a finalist in an OK! Magazine competition modeled on the American television show/atrocity The Swan. One lucky entrant would win a free array of plastic surgery. “It wasn’t a beauty contest,” Ilene elaborated, but rather “an ugliness contest. I know I am fat, but they want you worse than just fat. The ones they chose, they were so ugly they gave you a skrik. And all of them said they hated their noses. The OK! judges want you to hate your nose. Your nose must spread out to your ears. My nose is fine and sits neatly on my face.” I confirmed this. “So they didn’t choose me: there wasn’t enough to cut.”

This was all terribly different from the Cape Town I played in just three years ago, which at Christmastime was a city of beachy insouciance. I skirted surfers and bluebottles in the sea at Muizenberg, drove through the lush vineyards of Franschhoek and Paarl, did shots of Amarula liqueur on the strong dollar. My American friend Nick was on study-abroad at UCT that year, and he hiked Table Mountain on acid, which, given the mountain’s sheer Nursery Ravine and the hairpin twists of its trail, now seems to me an act of particular stupidity. On New Year’s Eve, I went with my trendiest cousin to a club called Eclipse in Heritage Square, where we paid a 700 rand entrance fee to enter a torch-lit space full of people with very few clothes on. There were eight or ten extremely beautiful black South Africans and eighty or 100 slightly less beautiful white ones. The music, House beats and richly texturized strings, thrummed up through our calves. Soon I was drunk, and a blue-eyed man with a creased face stopped me to talk. Did I know that I was an Indigo Child, the harbinger of everything beautiful in the next world? Had I heard of synchronicity? He offered me a tab of Ecstasy. Meanwhile the club’s performers, every one of them black, balanced exquisitely above us, dressed in spangled spandex and navigating the tightrope with their strong toes.

Crime has spiked in Cape Town in the last six months, which has made people skittish and sad. My grandmother would not allow me to walk six blocks to return a rented DVD, nor to unlock the car by myself: “You don’t know how to look around.” No one wants to feel disillusioned, yet “it’s been ten years.”

Still, ten years isn’t such a long time. There’s evidence of satisfying new wealth: black couples, young and ultra-coiffed, tip valets along the Waterfront. BEE, the government’s Black Economic Empowerment initiative, has inverted the hierarchy of the workplace by demanding that bosses and big earners be black (even as naysayers grumble that they don’t have the know-how: Hy kan nie bokkem braai nie, literally, One can’t fry a dried and salted mullet). There is electricity and clean water in the townships. And the nonspecific buoyancy one feels here, which comes from the height of the sun, the unrushed rigmarole of greeting a stranger, the things sold at the side of the highway (boxes of hyper-pigmented fruit; intricate toy cars woven from telephone wire), is still intact. Kwaito blasts from battered combis and taxi vans, and the schoolchildren inside, immaculate in ironed uniforms, bounce in their seats to its snug rhythms.

In her book A Human Being Died That Night, psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela spends several months interviewing Eugene de Kock, the architect of apartheid’s secret police force and an executioner responsible for thousands of clandestine murders. Inside his cell at Pretoria Central Prison, she is Clarice Starling, at turns charmed, repulsed, drawn in. Something de Kock says makes her want to comfort him, and she reaches out and touches his “clenched, cold, and rigid” hand, then immediately wonders if she has “crossed a moral line from compassion, which allows one to maintain a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock.” Later, he informs her that it was “‘my trigger hand you touched.’” She notes how he splits himself into sections, corralling his bad acts into a discrete part of his body, and concludes that she must do the same: “It was through ‘splitting’ that I too … had managed to separate the evil deeds from the doer … [to] embrace the side of de Kock that showed some of the positive elements of being human.”

This splitting mechanism has its roots in apartheid, what Gobodo-Madikizela calls “the compartmentalization of South African thinking. There were two South Africas: white and black. Similarly, there was the public world and the private world, the open and the covert. And they were rigidly separate … White South African bystanders were able to live with the brutality against blacks because it was being carried out in relative secret, in that ‘other world.’ Everyone engaged in an ‘apartheid of the mind,’ in psychological splitting.”

One wants, post-apartheid, to be able to frame South Africa more cohesively. But what exists now doesn’t feel diverse, it feels schizophrenic. The sweep of the view from Silvermine; famous farm-stall fig preserves; a man left for dead on the shoulder of the road, having been robbed of his prosthetic leg; it won’t, it cannot, cohere. The splitting going on now is not so much about race or public disclosure as it is about time: the newness of this democracy vs. the welter of memory, and its bitterness, fueling what V. S. Naipaul called “the depth of that African rage.” Mandela deferred this schism for a while. He acted as a stopgap, a magical hybrid, his promises of a gorgeous future sound because of his ancient face. His national nomens, Madiba and Mkhulu, remind everyone of what he has weathered: Madiba is the title conferred on honorary elders of his clan, and Mkhulu means grandfather.

In his novels, J. M. Coetzee returns, over and over, to the problem of forming a national identity in the midst of a crippling allegory, a prewritten, prefigured narrative borne from the rape of the past. (He now lives in self-exile in Australia.) If the new South Africa first needed a grandfather, now it needs veritable Indigo Children—or at least, a generation of young people who believe in transparency even as they behave creatively, as risk-takers and iconoclasts. Give them (another) ten years. Things change, says a Sesotho proverb. Matsatsi a loyana: Days are not the same.


Image: srippon, Advertising on the hospital, February 10, 2007, Creative Commons


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