Check out the trailer by Sulaimane Sahmaouie (Soul Productions) & WIPCOOP
This is weird
April 2020: Three facts: I am sensitive to smells, the sun is shining, we are in the middle of a lock down due to a rampant global virus.
Like I said, this is weird. We are in week three of Lock down in Belgium. We are advised (ahem, told, socially pressured, threatened with fines) to stay in our houses as much as possible, except to get exercise, walk, go to the shops or work, if our work cannot be done online, or is saving peoples lives. I am ok with this. I live comfortably in a light and airy co-housing apartment with a garden, space, parks and nature nearby. I can order anything I want online. My jobs can be done online, although I may not be saving lives, I can keep students calm and help them to graduate before the summer. I can continue my own studies. I have an excuse to be anti-social, introverted and read that pile of articles. No excuses not to write those essays, research and grant proposals.
I mean I would rather be in a Finnish forest lying on a carpet of moss right now, but I am not complaining. Life is good. I am healthy, my family and friends are all ok. I can just about ignore the virus and the fear if I do not Google too much, watch the news and keep obsessively washing my hands. I can post culture tips on instagram and enjoy all the passing memes. #Lifeintimesofcorona.
So why am I having these strange olfactory and visual flash backs? Why am I paralysed when trying to leave the house? What is the sun shining brightly on my bare foot together with this specific combination of smells causing my body to remember?
This lock-down is familiar to me. I grew up in this world. I was born in Swaziland and lived in South Africa under the Apartheid regime for a large chunk of my childhood. An expatriate world of separate houses safe from the outside threat, safe from the ‘natives’. British passport, long haul flights, boarding school.
April 2019: I board a plane to Johannesburg in South Africa. I want to experience how it feels as a place, now. I want to move through its air, smell its smells and talk to people who stayed while it changed and didn’t change. I rent a room in a house in Sandton, the same place I lived as a teenager in the late 1980’s. I am in the garden, the smells hit me first, specific plants, sprinkler on earth, cicadas and morning birds chorus. I am feeling bright Highveld sun shining on my bare foot, in a gated housing complex, behind a high wall. I spend more time inside a house than I ever do at home, in Belgium. This is life for privileged people in Johannesburg. The outside world holds some kind of threat, the fear of violence keeps you locked ‘safe’ inside your own home. The Familiar dance William Kentridge often pictures in his work.
April 2020: I am amazed how quickly I adapt to the new rules under the lock down. There are new social codes, a slower pace. almost no traffic. You can hear the birds clearly. There is an utter lack of public life: no bars, cafes, shops, no morning coffee at the station, on the way to work. I worry about a ‘Shock Doctrine’ effect, about basic rights being eroded even more than they already are, the economy being used as a excuse to erode social support structures, about artists being unfunded, forever. I think about refugees and homeless people, people in precarious housing, children in precarious family situations, people in the slums in Johannesburg, all packed into tin shacks with no running water. The virus will kill people because they couldn’t wash their hands and don’t have access to health care. I know I am in utter, utter luxury. I have always been in this position. Privileged segregation/separation: inside and outside, the bubble with gates, walls, digital screens between us and them.
The mixture of bright white sunlight, crisp cold air, fresh washing hanging outside, budding and carefully flowering plants, the smells of cooking. Springtime in Europe, Autumn in South Africa. The smells of domesticity with the outside world at its edges: disinfectant hand gel and fear. My body hesitates to go outside. I need to move, get fresh air. I know I can’t catch this virus by cycling along the river or walking to the shops and yet I am paralysed. My body is trained to stay inside. It is both an expat childhood and a boarding school training. I often have this hesitation, this familiar difficulty getting out the house. I never understood it until this virus locked us in our homes. I grew up locked either in my home or in my boarding school dormitory.
Lock down is strangely familiar to me.
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