During my last week in Cape Town I was able to visit and interview doctors, researchers and students at Grote Schuur hospital. They were taking part in a joint project between three universities in South Africa and three in Europe as part of the Caring Society project (CaSo: https://www.caringsociety.eu/). Some of these students were Experiential experts or patient partners: people who have experience of the medical profession in South Africa as patients and who in turn help to shape the patient experience and train doctors, nurses and health professionals to improve patient care. This applies especially to vulnerable communities of mainly black and mixed race people situated out of the city bowl and people living in poverty. It was fascinating to talk to people involved in this project and hear more about their perspectives on South Africa. Access to health care remains a big problem in South Africa for the majority of the population, who cannot afford private medical insurance.
I could not talk to all the patient partners when I was there so I am over the moon when they plan a study trip to The Netherlands and Belgium. I meet them at Karel de Grote Hogeschool in Antwerp and I set up my recording equipment. I plan to share my story with them about my father and my childhood as a white girl born and living in South Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s and going to boarding school in the UK as a teenager: Inheriting the Empire, which you can listen to on this blog on an earlier post. https://migratingdialogues.org/pilot-01-inheriting-the-empire/
Thats when it hits me. These visitors are actually South African! Shit! I am in a room full of South Africans, black and mixed race women and men in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s who have experienced Apartheid first hand, one other white woman and several young black women in their 20’s who were born after the end of Apartheid. Here I am about to share my story about white privilege in South Africa, under apartheid, including an interview with my dad, news clips, statistics, laws,… to a whole group of South Africans. My legs are jelly as I press play. I sit on my hands at the side of the room, undeniably nervous.
Afterwards there is a long silence. it feels like an eon. People need time to let what they have heard sink in. I try to breathe and fiddle with my tripod. My first questions are fumbling, statements instead of questions or three questions in one,…i cannot seem to find my flow. When it gets going however, the dialogue that ensues encompasses the personal, the political, it spans generations and takes us from the past into the future. People share their own experiences of living under apartheid as a black person: the bureaucracy of trying to get housing, the forced removals to the so called ‘Homelands’, the separation of families. People share their hopes for the future of South Africa, their love of the country as it is and could be.
One story particularly resonates with me as it forms a mirror to my own. A woman was living with her children in a ‘Homeland’ while her husband had to travel to work in the mine across the country. As a black man he alway had to get permissions and passes, this meant he could hardly visit them and she could never visit him, so they were separated for years. This was part of a conscious tactic of mine companies under British colonial rule and later law under apartheid. Black mine workers were kept separated from their families in labour camps near the mine as a constant source of cheap labour. In the audio story I have just shared, my father explains that he chose to work in South Africa in 1970 specifically because, as a white man, he could keep his wife and family near by. The white privilege of my family is mirrored by the oppression and segregation of black families at the same moment in time.
After I turned the recorder off and people were heading to get some lunch, a black woman my age came up to me and began talking about visiting her mother as a child. Her mother was working as a housekeeper for a white family. She told me how she had to sit outside, eat outside, wasn’t allowed in. I saw myself sitting at the breakfast bar in our kitchen in Johannesburg eating papaya or cornflakes. I saw this woman, my contemporary, imagining her sitting outside our kitchen in the yard at the back of our house where our housekeeper lived during the week. Time slowed down as we sat talking to each other. it was an extraordinary moment, to meet her, to talk to her, to exchange stories from childhoods on opposite sides of the Apartheid segregation and to acknowledge each others humanity, without shame (on my part) or anger (on hers), but also without brushing it under the carpet and pretending it is ok. It is not ok, it never will be.
I would like to thank all the Patient Partners, members of staff and students of Grote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, my colleagues at Karel De Grote Hogeschool involved in the CaSo project. Thankyou for your time, interest and participation in Migrating Dialogues.
Photo 2: painting: ‘Mine Shaft’ by Sydney Carter (1874-1945) collection South African National Gallery, taken while visiting.
Photo 3 and 4: performance /video artwork by Lerato Shadi: ‘MMITLWA’ (Mmitlwa meaning thorn in Setswana), collection South African National Gallery, taken while visiting and from artists own website: http://leratoshadi.art/3
Just back from South Africa in May, I spent a month at an artists residency in Campo in Gent. I spread all my material out on the walls, listened to interviews for clues about where to go next. With the results of this proces I headed north, for my next artists residency, further north than I have ever been before. It is quiet up north.
Arbetsstugan is an old school for crafts in Muodoslompolo, a tiny village in Northern Sweden, just across the border from Finnish Lapland. It peeps out between the trees, surrounded by lakes and forests, rocks, and not much else. My partner and I were invited by visual artist Maria Huhmarniemi (Patterns collective, Finland) to work in two of the many studios in the old school building her and her British husband are doing up. We worked, dreamed, made visual what wandered through our heads. We swam, walked, listened to the silence, dealt with the inevitable mosquitos, met other artists and many gentle, open people. We fell in love with the North. We will be back.
I left Campo with ideas, direction, but i still needed to kill a lot of darlings, make choices. In Lapland I made those choices. Lapland changes your internal tempo, you look more, see more. I am excited to get to work weaving the many threads of my research in the last few years into one larger performance and/or installation piece. I will do this within the framework of a Masters in directing and scenography at Theatre Academy Maastricht in The Netherlands, starting in September. Inez was painting and drawing in preparation for her up coming course in graphic storytelling/novel at LUCA Brussels. We both have an exciting year ahead. We will keep you posted.
Walls part 2: Forced removals and displacement
Cape Town is colonial and segregated by design. The huge structural inequality between rich and poor is spatially demarcated. A largely white population live in the city centre and up onto the slopes of the mountains, separated form other areas by strips of green nature reserves, botanical gardens or Mountains. (Photo is area where District Six was after being erased from the map and all residents forcibly removed to the Cape Flats). There are pockets of mixed middle income homes with families and UCT students from all over the country. The vast majority of people racialised as black and so called ‘coloured’ people live out in the sticks with a lack of basic services and access to medical care. However, despite self-organised community initiatives being vulnerable and up against tremendous odds, they are many, they are strong and networked through tireless NGO’s such as Slum Dwellers International (SDI). SDI works with the women in a community, setting up collective local savings schemes and helping them to map their own informal settlements and feed the information to policy and research organisations, campaigning for example fo decent sanitation for all dwellings. Social justice in South Africa is an active term. It is a daily struggle.
I interviewed a woman who grew up in the western Cape. She describes it as the one time bread basket of South Africa, with fruit and cattle and rich and plentiful farms. It is now one of the most destitute in South Africa, with high unemployment and poverty levels. Many people living in poor urban areas have either been removed form their rural homestead generations ago by colonial settlers or white farmers, or are bulldozed out of cosmopolitan urban neighbourhoods like District Six or Sophiatown, when they were reclassified ‘White’ areas under apartheid. Others leave looking for work.
In Cape Town, I interview a musician and performer: Simphiwe Mabuya, Stage name SIM-TRB. He writes beautiful rhymes in isiXhosa and English mixed up on a Jazz-Hop beat.* He tells me about the street committees where he grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in a coastal city in the Western Cape. During this period most families live in one room ‘matchbox’ houses. If a family has more children, or more needs, the street committee decides they can move to one of the bigger houses with two rooms. Each according to their needs, The committee tries to make sure everyone is living as comfortably as is possible within the space and means of the community of that street. Everyone looks out for everyone. All these committees are interconnected in a network with representatives informally affiliated. He explains this works in a small scale urban context at that time much as it would in a rural context with extended families living together on a homestead, sharing land, food and labour on a farm. Young people are brought up to respect their elders and keep out of the way when the elders are discussing important things. He talks about his grandmothers as home, as the place where his roots are.
Forced removals and displacement is a huge trauma for generations of people in South Africa. Peoples houses are bulldozed with family members still in them. Walls that contain love, community and history are destroyed to make way for a new ‘White’ area. Black people are moved kilometres out of town onto barren land or floodplains. They lose their livestock and self supporting gardens. These small-scale community networks often do not survive these forced displacements. They are not always easy to sustain when communities are forced apart, when people lose their connection to each other and themselves.
And still people rise, continue to build lives, hope, create, protest and survive!
And still people rise, continue to build lives, hope, create, protest and survive!
And still people rise, continue to build lives, hope, create, protest and survive!
Besieged behind walls.
It is an old human instinct to build fences, walls, moats,..to protect ourselves, locking ourselves in to keep our families and valuables safe from rampaging hordes, real or imagined. We are territorial creatures, we need our nest. The crime, break-in and murder rates in Johannesburg are some of the highest in the world. I tell myself walls are in our heads, it is fear in our hearts. I refuse to stay hiding behind walls while I am in South Africa, you can’t live your life in fear, right?
Then the unhinged, inherited anxiety kicks in. I need to plan. Where I am going? What do I need to take with me? How will I get from A to B? Is my under-boob moneybelt visible through my t-shirt and would someone actually grab me and try to rip it off from under my boob? I do not carry a rucksack or a camera or wave my mobile phone around. I pretend I know where I am going, even if I don’t. I pop into a shop, a hotel lobby or a library to look at my google maps. I am on heightened alert most of my time in Johannesburg. It’s not just me, everyone keeps their car doors locked while driving and no Uber driver completely stops at a red light after dark, they just kind of slow down, look around and quickly drive on.
Safe in my guarded, gated, apartment with barred windows, I can breathe a sigh of relief, have a cup of tea and sit in the garden undisturbed. Is locking and bolting all the doors and setting the alarm in desperation and fear, a special kind of self delusion reserved for (white?) people who feel they have everything to lose? Cape Town (the Mother City) is not really an African city. Its zero tolerance shiny tourist centre is strangely European. I can walk around on my own in Cape Town. But even there my host says: if some one knocks on the gate, don’t answer. Go inside, slide the metal burglar grill locked, close the windows and turn the lights off. Its safer that way!
Throw open the windows and the doors.
It is, also a human instinct to open the doors and windows, to let the breeze in and the fresh spring air blow into every nook and cranny. It is our instinct to hold goods and resources in common, to share what we have with those around us and open up our homes in hospitality. People everywhere I have been in South Africa have invited me into their homes. I am made to feel welcome, people share stories, laughter and great food. The more you visit people in different communities, in their houses and eat at local restaurants, the more you see life. A delicious South Indian restaurant in Fordsburg, popping in to visit someone in a residential street in Crosby, small shops in Mellville, the creative hub of Maboneng, the OK bazaar out in Alberton,… The inbetween zones, where things are changing, where middle class people of all cultures are mixing, are small, but show the potential for economic and social change in South Africa.
People can live where ever they want to now, in theory, but the inequality in access to formal housing and employment is still staggering after 25 years. In the settlements and ex-townships complex socio-economic factors work together to create cycles of poverty. The people most effected by these factors are still mainly black people or people of colour. There is high unemployment, some good schools, but a lack of good teachers. The legacy of apartheid has left scars, generational trauma’s. There are gangs, drugs and violence and people not directly involved in gang culture are still (in)directly effected. The failure of the present government to tackle social justice head on, is rousing people’s anger. I am here in the run up to the 2019 general elections and people are striking for basic services, shutting down roads, blocking inroads to the city, or access to local council offices.
Despite all of this, many many people are just trying to get on with their lives, commuting into the cities to work, making sure their kids are fed and educated, going to church, trying as best they can to build a life for themselves and their extended community. There are unfunded arts centres and music projects, there are murals and sports clubs, there is singing, there is joy, community organising and solidarity. People have their own businesses, from hairdressers, fruit stalls and small shops to restaurants, hostels and tour guides.
I am not trying to romanticise poverty or avoid the reality of living in these areas at all. There is crime. There are indeed gang and drug related murders with people enmeshed in a complex network of poverty and survival. But people on the ground have a strong sense of struggle and community solidarity and it is visually clear that no one is hiding behind huge walls in Soweto, Alexandra, Kathlehong, Khayelitsha, Langa, or Bonteheuwel.
I give the last word to respected and loved South African Poet: Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali:
a great builder –
The Berlin Wall!
The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem –
The Great Wall of China
but the wall
has a moat
flowing with fright
around his heart.
for the spirit
to breeze through.
without a door
for love to walk in.
By Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali from the collection “Sounds of a Cowhide Drum”, 1971.
8 May 2019. Today is election day in South Africa.
It will not be a straightforward choice for many people. There are 48 parties to choose from, ranging from the old favorite the ANC, to whom many people are still loyal despite the disappointments and anger at their reign as government, despite the electricity load shedding and the strikes for basic services, despite the extreme socio-economic rift between rich and poor, despite the corruption,…Maybe billionaire businessman Cyril Ramaphosa can turn things around. There is the official opposition the Democratic Alliance (DA), who’s campaign seems mainly to attack the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) dressed in red. Then you have the Freedom Front+(FF+) who want Afrikaans speaking people to ‘Slaan Terug’ or fight back. There are christian parties of all denominations, some of whom want to bring back the death penalty and the old movements of the Pan African Congress(PAC), the United Democratic Party(UDP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party(IFP),..the list goes on.
The main candidates have cast their votes, how many other people will come out today, 25 years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, to choose a new government? All the people I talked to want change. They want a new and hopeful future for this beautiful, complex country. Many people want and need the absolute basics to survive. Everyone wants to be able to build a life, keep their children safe and thrive.
I am keeping everything crossed that this election can let in the positive wind of change in South Africa for the future.
I nearly fall off my chair when I get an upbeat response from Georgina, the church secretary telling me: Yes, it Is her and Yes, she is still alive, Yes, I phoned her and she is sitting next to me as I write this mail. Aunty Martha dictates, “I’m as fit as a fiddle, with a few untuned strings”. Georgina writes that Marthe’s knees give her trouble, but other than that she is fine. She has no e-mail address and only an old mobile phone, so we communicate via Georgina and via text message over the next four months. Her text messages are hilarious, full of strange characters I later find out are cats. She insists the gremlins and ET’s eat her words, she means the spell checker and technology in general. She has her own very special language. I think I might like this godmother of mine.
We make arrangements to meet. She sends me a text message saying. “Am getting anxious to meet u but there’s no way I can speed up time to make our meeting come round sooner. We meet at St Francis Church at 9am and part at 4pm so I can miss the heavy traffic flow to check on miss Molly.” I check google street view and look at the church building. I want to be able to tell the Uber driver where to drop me off. Even then he is reluctant to let me get out of the car at the empty church carpark and drives me to the guardhouse of the Maeyersdael estate. Who should be standing chatting to the guard? Aunty Marthe. Black hair turned to White, bent over with the effort of walking and still wearing jeans and a white turtleneck. I recognise her immediately.
St Francis of Assisi is in Alberton, southern Jo’burg. The church is on the edge of a modest gated estate full of middle sized, well kept houses. This is not like Sandton, but again there are women walking towards the houses with baskets, wearing house coats and berets. There are men wearing blue overals doing maintenance and a pick up truck with a trailer carrying the slogan ‘Mshume’s bin cleaning service’. I see a man roll out two wheelie bins from behind a gate, load them into his trailer, hose them down and scrub them clean. Things in the new south Africa have definitely changed in the last twenty five years, but it remains black people working in white peoples houses, with a few exceptions. The divide in the new South Africa is largely economic and runs along class lines, but everything here is racialised.
We sit in the church garden and have a cup of tea. I listen to her tell stories about her life and about me as a baby. She gives me palm crosses she made herself, a prayer cycle she wrote for the Easter service and little beaded guardian angels for all the women in my life. She says, ‘I am not trying to convert you, I just want to remind you that you will be in my prayers from now on. Give these things to your mum will you? From me’. I give her Belgian chocolates. After tea we drive to the OK Bazaar and she buys me lunch. My Godmother and I sit and eat with our hands in her car, parked on a grass verge in the park behind the church. She is 80, I am 46, we haven’t seen each other for 40 years.
Her car is full of stuff, cool bags, a walking stick, a jumper she bought in 1994. The dashboard has wooden crosses stuck on it with blue tack: ‘God is love’ & ‘Angels watch over you’. There are CDs of vaguely Celtic sounding music over which we establish quickly that she loves the sound of bagpipes and I hate it. We are a similar type of people of Scottish descent, neither of us born there, neither of us live there, but both of us are brought up to feel vaguely Scottish. There are little trinkets and glasses cases in every cubby hole and glove compartment: “Thats my spare pair. That’s my other spare pair, that’s my spare, spare pair”.
The Very Reverend Aunty M., my Godmother, is the first female Anglican priest to be ordained in the Johannesburg diocese. This is something she is very proud of. Before this she has a long career as a primary school teacher. For 30 years, Aunty Martha is a single live-in teacher at the hostel for boys and girls sent by Johannesburg district court to come to school in Bethal. The children are either in trouble, their parents are in trouble or they are orphaned. These kids love her. She fixes all their toys and takes them out to play sport at weekends. She never married. People with nothing better to do would call her a spinster or an old maid. She was also the school librarian. Everyone I speak to from Bethal remembers her. Gerjen, a man now in his 50’s, tells me: “She hid me in the library once, from the older boys. They were going to beat me up. She wasn’t afraid of anybody.” Charlotte says “she sneezed so loudly it made me jump and always three times, never just once”.
Aunty Martha goes to Germiston Girls High and then trains as a Physical Education teacher in Johannesburg in the 1950’s. She wants to be independent, no one telling her what to do, least of all a man. When her brother asks her to wash his shirt, she doesn’t. When her mother asks why she didn’t wash his shirt, she says, ‘he didn’t say please’. Her brother keeps asking when she is getting married. She tells him, if he asks her one more time, she’ll wallop him with a cricket bat. He never asks again. The headmaster at H.M. Swart is afraid to ask her to change jobs because one of the male staff says, “Sy sal jou donner!”, She will punch your lights out. ‘I don’t know where they get that idea about me’, she says. ‘I will not put up with any nonsense from men, not then, not now. I never understood why men got paid more than me for doing the same job and I worked much harder than they ever did. Did you know their wives used to mark their students work, while they were off playing golf or rugby all day. I wasn’t afraid to say what I thought about that, but I have never hit anyone!’ A woman in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, oh, lets be honest, its still the case, who stands up for herself, isn’t interested in men, doesn’t even notice them till they get in her way, is obviously aggressive. If you are not submissive, you are aggressive. ‘I have no time for relationships’, she says, ‘I just wants to get on with my life, do my work well and read a book undisturbed, thats not too much to ask, is it’?
When I say she is a feminist, she says, ‘oh no, most of them are more left wing than the government’. I’m not sure what to do with that. I ask her about the current government, What does she think about how things are going in South Africa? ‘I listen to the news’, she says, ‘I read the papers and its all going to the dogs, ‘they’ don’t know how to run a country, this lot. ‘They’ give jobs to their friends and family, its pure corruption. You know about Zuma and the Gupta’s? Zuma built a huge house, you know, for all his wives. With government money! And there is no electricity! Escom sell all the good coal to the Chinese and bung up our own power stations with 3rd grade coal. Its a bloody mess!’ She is not the first person who has said this to me. Both black and white South Africans are highly critical of the ANC government. But it is her use of ‘They’ and ‘Them’ that jumps out. She talks about ‘the blacks’ and how they are ‘different’ from ‘us’. She thinks, as many people do, in racialised categories. It is mainly the white people I talk to who still use racialised terms from the Apartheid era such as ‘The Coloureds’ or ‘The Blacks’. Black people I talk to move words around, renaming and reframing power-dynamics, for example, ‘the So-called coloureds’ or ‘people from the Western Cape who speak isiXhosa’. She says: “a Zulu will never work under a Sotho or a Xhosa. They will always want to be the BossBoy”. I literally cringe at the word ‘BossBoy’. I think of grown men being called ‘boy’ and that feeling arises again. That feeling I am trying to put into words. That feeling of being part of a system and a group of people who have been and still are so sure of our ‘natural’ superiority that we see and name everyone else as inferior pieces in our self made puzzle. She says: “I have always had respect for ‘Them’. As long as we have respect for each other, its fine. We can all get along in the new south Africa”.
I spend two whole days hanging out with my Godmother in Alberton. When I get home after day one, I write her a letter about the things we may not agree on, about who I am and whats important to me. On day two I want to do more than smile, listen and ask questions. I want her to get to know me and maybe I want to differentiate myself from her ideas, even if she is a product of her time and the system she grew up in. I also wonder how much of my reaction is rooted in my own shame at having lived here during Apartheid as a child. These are questions I want to get to the bottom of. I want to understand and I do not want to judge. When I ask her about the Apartheid era, she says ‘It wasn’t all bad, the roads were in good condition and the rubbish got picked up on time’. While I am still thinking, hang on a minute, You cant say that, It WAS all bad, it was ALL BAD…she jumps to a new subject: Cats!
‘We are not allowed cats in our block of flats.’ She tells me. ‘But, if Linky Plinky creeps under my chair and sits there all day or jumps into my bed at night, I cant do anything about it, can I?. She loves me, what can I say’. She cat-sits for an ex-colleague of hers when he and his wife go off on safari. She and Miss Molly are the best of friends. She loves Miss Molly and Miss Molly loves her. I can see why Linky Plinky and Miss Molly love this near Octogenarian. She has this wicked twinkel in her eyes. An intelligent, naughty curiosity and a sparkle for life. When I ask her what makes her happy, she says: ‘Being alive’, followed by, ‘I’m nearly 80 you know!’
When she gets up she takes a deep breath, counts to three a few times and sings herself up onto her feet. Walking is difficult, she’s waiting for a knee operation. She wants to know all about me and keeps saying: “to think I missed out on so much of your life and you missed out on all those Christmas and birthday presents”. This makes me laugh. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but she is my present. The one and only, twinkly eyed, short haired, cat lover in sensible shoes. Even without knowing it, she has been a guardian angel in my life. Thankyou Aunty M.
Aunty M. is my Godmother. lets call her Martha. My Mum met Aunty Martha in the 1970’s. They are colleagues, teaching at H.M. Swart primary school in Bethal. as two of the three english medium teachers in a majority Afrikaans primary school in a majority Afrikaans mining town. Bethal is in what is now called Mpumalanga. Pre 1994, on the old map of South Africa, it is known as the Transvaal. The NG Kerk Bethel Oos (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Church, East Bethel) still refer to the area as the ‘Ou Transvaal’ on their website and in their hearts. The headmaster doesn’t speak much english and my mum doesn’t speak much Afrikaans so when there is an announcement on the Tannoy, Martha or Jenny run in from the classroom next door and translate.
I grow up seeing the usual old photo’s of me as a baby; on a changing mat, in a christening gown, bum shuffling on a woven rug, wearing an orange floral dress and an orange floral floppy sun hat with my gran and my mum also wearing floppy floral sun hats. There are big red knobbly mountains stretching out in a wide ark behind us. My first question is always: Where is this? Where are we living when this picture is taken? How old am I? I am still trying to get a sense of my own movements as a child. I want to trace the dotted red lines of my own migrations on a map. In many of these photo’s; baby in a cloth nappy, feeding time in a plastic high chair, wobbly wanderings in the garden, there is a tall, strong-boned woman with short black hair and some variation of trousers and a white turtleneck. This is Aunty Martha, My Godmother. Apparently, she takes me out on Saturdays to give mum and dad a rest. I go with her to the hostel where she lives. The old Afrikaans Aunties in the hostel kitchen feed me milk pudding and rusks. We have the ‘Just in case case’ with us, a small orange suitcase with spare pants in it, in case of emergencies. The ‘Just in case case’ is legendary in our family.
My parents lose touch with Aunty Martha in the late 1980’s. At the time I had other things on my mind, like puberty, but now I want to know who this woman is in these old photo’s. I want to know who this person is beyond the stories. Who is my phantom godmother? The post office isn’t so reliable in South Africa and we keep moving every two years so many of my parents Christmas card, catch up with the family once a year, contacts have been lost along the way. My parents don’t have email addresses for many people either. So, Where should I start looking?
Social media, where else? I look online for some of the names my parents mention from Bethal: Elsie & Hein and their daughter Charlotte, who must be about my age. I find Elsie easily on that social media site we won’t mention where people are all best buddies. She is an active poster of motivational messages and pictures of people playing golf. I send her a friends request and PM (Personal Message) her with an explanation about who I am, that I am coming to visit and that I’m looking for my Godmother, Martha. I scroll through all her friends looking for family members I might know. I examine and compare faces on family photo’s and Bingo!
Elsie’s daughter Charlotte has a new surname, but I recognise her face from an old photo of us in the 80’s at Bethal dam. In the photo we are all dolled up to go to a disco, Charlotte is wearing a purple and blue faux-leather two piece: bustier and miniskirt. She made it herself. I am wearing what appears to be a large baggy T-shirt with a white belt. We must be 14, both wearing make up and staring into the camera. She looks ready, I look dazed. These days she is a shop owning, married mother of two boys in Jo’burg. I PM her too. She replies. So does her mum. Of course they remember me and the family…“I must give their love to my parents, how can they contact them? such a shame we lost touch…” Elsie and Hein still live in the same house in Bethal that we visit regularly as children in the 1970s. We chat online and e-mail. I tell them I am looking for Aunty Martha. They remember her well, but don’t know where she lives now. Both mention that she was active in the Anglican church in Bethal and that she moved back to Jo’burg and they’d heard she may have become a priest. A priest? I hadn’t seen that coming.
This is the only lead I have. Mum says she must be about ten years older than her and that her parents used to live in Germiston in Jo’burg. That would make her about eighty. Is she still alive? I wonder, briefly. I scour google and end up on ‘My Anglican.org’. This is the website of the Anglican church in South Africa, that lists all the churches and all the priests and their email addresses. Handy! I go through the listings for every single church in the diocese of Johannesburg. I find a church in the District of Kathlehong, which means ‘place of succes’ and is also the second biggest informal settlement or ex-township in the city after Soweto. The church is called St Francis of Assisi Anglican church. Two retired priests names are listed, both with the right and the same surname. A Martha and a Mary. How biblical. Could this be her? Could she have a sister who is also a priest?
There is an email address, so I send a mail to the church secretary, Georgina, with some of those old photos: ‘She is the tall one on the left, and I am the toddler’. I feel a bit foolish mailing a total stranger with old family photo’s. It is a long shot, but what have I got to lose? I expect nothing will ever come of it.
Call me out of touch, but i never use Uber till i arrive in Johannesburg. Now i am Uber Queen! I meet drivers from Durban, Zimbabwe, Limpopo, Ethiopia but not from Johannesburg (Jozi). It seems that no one driving an Uber comes from this city of Gold in Gauteng. People come for a few years to make money, and go home to set up their own business. People have been coming to Jozi for hundreds of years to make money and try their luck since the Witwatersrand goldrush in 1886. Not that everyone was free to travel and own land or a business then. Now it is everyones big dream: business. Not an easy game in South Africa. Many people are struggling to survive. The cost of living is getting higher, and a vast majority of the population doesn’t have decent housing, water or electricity and have to travel miles to get to work if they are lucky enough to have it.
I’m staying in Sandton, one of the wealthiest residential and increasingly business areas in Johannesburg, and the area my parents used to live in in the 1980’s. I’m staying in a complex of small houses and apartments behind a double electric gate with a guard on duty 24/7. Inhabitants are a multiracial, Middle class bunch but it is only black people working at the gate and in the complex as gardeners, maintenance men and housekeepers. As I step out of the taxi from the Gautrain, I have to pinch myself. Has nothing changed?
I walk to The Shopping centre down the main road. I am the only white person walking. In Woolworths I can buy rolled oats and avocado’s and black seed, lemon sprinkled locally sourced bran muffins. The shopping crowd is mixed, well off, middle-class, black and white people dressed for the office or the gym. Even though the rand is low and i can travel far with my euros, i check the prices, careful what I buy. In the OK Bazaar in Alberton on the other side of the city, I can buy a whole meal for two and a bag of mixed nuts for 100 rand (£5,48/ 6,33€). The clientele are black families speaking isiZulu, seSotho and English all mixed together and one very fat white man in shorts, a checked shirt and a pick up truck.
Running the gauntlet and getting out from behind those damn security gates does you the world of good, as does getting back safely and breathing out. You book that Uber, watch the little car on your phone moving around, will he take the ride? (they have 60 seconds to decide), then you stand around looking out for the specific car, number plate and name of your driver. Hello, How are you? Sawubona, Unjani? You’ve been to the airport already 3 times today? Uber takes how much? 25%?! the petrol hike, the cost of roaming data, the taxi wars, who to vote for in the upcoming elections,…(“we chose our politicians by who shouts most loudly, you don’t have to be qualified”). And you’re off. Constant radio traffic flow rapports, service provision strikes shutting down roads, full minibus taxis swerving between lanes and stopping suddenly in front of you, people walking along the side of the highway and crossing in the middle of the road, street vendors at junctions, police sirens, not stopping at red lights at night due to hijacking risk and what a great city this is, and what a tiring city this is. One thing is for sure it is never ever boring. This constantly moving flow of traffic, people and money is the blood in the veins of the city of gold.
Back at boarding school I listened to John Denver on my walkman: ‘i’m leaving on a jet plane’ and ‘Take me home, country road’. I was 13, it was the 80’s and my taste in music was still developing.
I’m off on the same journey I took at the end of every term, home, to my parents. This is not my first trip to South Africa. This time is different though.