Sunday read: A place to call home

Table Mountain panorama. Image credit Damien du Toit via Flickr.

I recently traveled to Cape Town, where I was born. On this trip, I spent most of my time hunting for a place of my own when I eventually retire. I will most likely end up living one of those neighborhoods that were declared “white group areas” during apartheid.

On this trip, I decided to stay in three different Airbnbs in the city center. My last Airbnb was an apartment in Sea Point, a seaside neighborhood on the edge of downtown. My host was a “friendly” white woman who exchanged carefully probing pleasantries with me in an attempt to assess my brief tenancy in her apartment. She asked where I worked and whether I knew Sea Point. When I responded that I spend my childhood in Sea Point, with my mother in the back room of an apartment block like hers, she looked at me with a hint of alarm as if I had just told her “No, I don’t want chicken, I want land!” But I had a good stay, and after three Airbnb experiences I will certainly book through them again.

How many times, growing up, had I looked with intense longing and yearning to live in one of those big homes that were reserved for white people? One of my earliest memories is playing quietly on the back stairs of the flat where my mother and I were staying as live-in help. It was in the then whites-only, mostly Jewish, Sea Point. My mother worked for, what seemed to me, an ancient white Jewish woman, who would endlessly call her name in a whining voice for yet another errand of fetching, or carrying or complaining. “Katy! Why do you leave me alone? Can’t that brat of yours see that I need you?” By that time I had learned to be quiet, play quiet, act quiet, become a little shadow, because that live-in job was the only thing that stood between us and being homeless and destitute.

We called my mother’s employer ou merrem (old madam), and to me she seemed like the oldest, loneliest women in the world. No one visited. But, she still got fully dressed every day as if she was expecting company. She would line her tired, wrinkly eyes with eyeliner and mascara, her lips a brilliant slash of red lipstick that bled into the many wrinkles around her mouth. Her thinning hair was coaxed into a little grey helmet by a hairdresser once a week, and her face was caked with a powder that made her look like the movie version of Ms. Havisham. She insisted on having toast with marmalade every morning, and long after my mother left her employ, my mother would still ask me to buy her marmalade for her own toast. My guess is that she probably sneaked marmalade for her own bread during that time, and acquired a taste for it. I tried marmalade myself much later, but its sweet bitterness made me gag. I equated it with a constant ssshhh from my mother, who wanted me to swallow my laughter and my tears in case it disturbed ou merrem. It tasted like mouth-without-tongue. I still cannot stand marmalade.

One thing I did learn from watching and living silently as a shadow close to ou merrem, was compassion for a lonely old women. She was abandoned by her own family, and spent her last days with a women who served her loyally, but with a reluctance borne out of living on the racial margins of an apartheid South Africa.

Many years later, I chaired a panel of gender activists from South Africa at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts where I had a visiting research fellowship. One of the panel members, a white women, recalled her own childhood relationship with her black nanny by remarking that she was raised “on the back of a black women’s pain.” She sensed the resentful duty of her nanny who had to leave her own children in the blacks-only homelands to raise a white women’s child. That unexpected disclosure in that polite gathering of American academia caused a zebra reaction in the room: the white academics self-conscious with embarrassed memory, and the black women conflicted about this disclosure in a space where they were used to keeping the personal at a dispassionate academic distance.

That brings me back to the last two weeks in Cape Town and my house hunting. Like other black South Africans with post-apartheid gains, armed with options, I decided to cast my net wide in search for a house. This meant considering previously whites-only areas. Of course, my search was happening in circumstances other than I had imagined as an activist in apartheid South Africa. Our “revolution” was televised, but it happened around a negotiating table, and so, our present is quite different to how I had imagined the future then.

Back then, my dream house was picked out in the previously whites only area, perched against the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain with the ocean lapping at its feet. I imagined I would live out my days in a space that I chose freely, in a non-racial South Africa where race and class were not a determinant of where and how you could live.

Today however, history, work, activism and study have provided me with experiences and competencies that privileges me in a context of inequality. This context remains our biggest challenge as a nation.

How strange it has become to go into the homes of white folks and find, behind all of that history and its evidence of the gains of exclusion, that they were, so… well, ordinary. Yes, there were kitchens and living and eating spaces on a different scale than I had known growing up. However, instead of candles, they had light switches with dimmers. Instead of Primus stoves, a Smeg oven. Instead of a pot to boil water for coffee, a Nespresso machine. They had all of the mundane, sometimes banal items we use in our homes — the same function, different form. I don’t know what I had expected, when all I could catch during the apartheid years was glimpses of white lives. The contours of our homes were the same, and shaped by the same basic needs: shelter, security, rest, sustenance. And yet.

One of the towns the estate agent took me to was in beautiful Hout Bay, on the southern edge of the city. Do towns have a personality? If so, Hout Bay always seemed to me as if it was enveloped in a little bubble of smug complacency. Of white privilege existing alongside the black margins of exclusion. I recall some years ago, most of Hout Bay’s inhabitants drove around with stickers that proudly proclaimed, “Republic of Houtbay.” Those of us, who lived in the impoverished townships of the Cape Flats and the poor black communities of Imizamo Yethu (Hout Bay’s resident squatter camp), were not amused. There was talk that they would eventually introduce visas for outsiders who wanted to visit. The stark inequality between rich and poor remains cleaved around race. Months after a devastating fire destroyed homes in Imizamo Yethu, families are still living in a sprawling refugee camp-like community of flimsy zinc structures. Many of the houses that I was taken to looked out over this camp where families have to contend with the cold Cape Town winter and its many storms. It is our very own Tale of Two Cities.

What astonished me was that so many of the homeowners that I met spoke with great disparagement and angry resentment about the service delivery protests raging against the City of Cape Town. At the same time these same people have the largest collections of art depicting quaint scenes of “township life” on their walls: women carrying water on their heads white chatting and smiling, children (piccaninnies?) playing with each other, African masks, framed posters of Tin Tin in Africa in boys’ bedrooms and Mandela busts. Is this what is meant by bringing the outside inside? All that was still needed was a rendition of “The Lion Sleeps tonight.” I just couldn’t understand the disjuncture between Africa as aesthetic and an expressed sensibility that was distinctly, well — let’s just say unsympathetic. I can’t whitewash this attitude, one quite frankly dismissive of the destitute plight of their black neighbors. I felt as if I had entered a parallel universe.

If change truly fixes the past, while transformation creates the future, then how do we reduce the lived reality of black lives only into art on a wall? What happens when change becomes symbolism “framed” through art and objects, instead of a frame breaking through transformation? I love Hout Bay, and some of the homes were truly spectacular, but I couldn’t stand Hout Bay’s ingrained culture of white privilege and white entitlement; its smug air of complacency. And I love, love that area. If and when art and life collides, what is a girl to do who is looking for a quiet scenic place to retire to and write for the remainder of her days? We all want ‘n plekkie in die son (a place in the sun), for all of us, not just for some of us.

And yes, these are ice cream problems. Middle class problems, but I think I’m going to keep searching. I want to find my village and my tribe, and I want them to be non-racial, non-sexist and non-discriminatory. I need to find my own plekkie, but not in a way or a space that creates shadows for others. So I guess I won’t be packing up just yet.

As for Cape Town, it stills feels as if it’s a place where race remains far more important than class. So best to stop trying to reach an invisible, unattainable benchmark that shifts from the right brand of clothes or car to area to live, and just do you. Live in a democracy, not a self-declared republic. And if you do live there, do your bit. Break the frame.

Robina Marks

Robina Marks is South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and also accredited to Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. She writes in her personal capacity.

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