This is weirdly familiar

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.

Thorny dialogues with experts

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: 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.

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:


Heading North: Artists residency in Lapland

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: Displacement and dreams

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! 

*Listen to Simphiwe’s music and feel his poetry soar on Bandcamp or on the hip hop publication SlikourOnLife.

Walls part 1: They must fall & we must rise

Besieged behind walls.

It is an old human instinct to build fences, walls, moats, 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:


Man is
a great builder –
The Berlin Wall!
The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem –
The Great Wall of China
but the wall
most impregnable
has a moat
flowing with fright
around his heart.

A wall
without windows
for the spirit
to breeze through.

A wall
without a door
for love to walk in.

By Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali from the collection “Sounds of a Cowhide Drum”,  1971.

Elections: a photo report in placards

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.