Monday, January 27, 2014

Vereeniging and beyond: Venda Sun 2

Mrisi, Risenga, Giya and Risenga's mother at the end
of the continent, January 1995
Venda Sun Part 2
Vereeniging and beyond

The first time Risenga's mother met her two English grandchildren she was too afraid for us to stay at her home in the township of Orange Farm so most of the time we were with a white family near Vereeniging.

During my four visits I've only felt really afraid on South Africa's roads, particularly in the countryside when cars loom out of the darkness without lights. On my last trip with Giya and Risenga in 2012 a vast coach pulling an overloaded trailer suddenly appeared in my rear view mirror as we were leaving the north - one headlight on, the other off - a solid, terrifying mass that stayed inches from the bumper until it could overtake.

Lodged in my memory too is my uncle Pat's death. I never met him, but he worked in the mines in South Africa. The son of a poor Irish immigrant in Britain, Pat left England as soon as he could. My mother was still very young and missed him terribly. When she tracked him down again, he'd decided to come back to England, had found a house and was in South Africa sorting out the last details. He was killed by a drunk driver. Apparently, he'd written on the walls of the new house something like, "I was here but I wasn't here."

So in 1994, we only stayed a night in Orange Farm and during that first trip, drove from Johannesburg to Cape Town, taking Risenga's mother with us. She'd never seen the sea.

The family house in Soweto has now been sold but after that trip, we built Risenga's mother a brick house and eventually by 2012, she had a flushing inside loo, the sink was plumbed.

South Africa marked many firsts for me. The first time I'd stayed in a house with a maid. The first time I'd witnessed such intense poverty. The first time I'd seen a cobra and eaten mango fresh off the tree.

20 December 1994
This is a massive place. A big triangle of roof pitching steeply, tall beamed ceilings, like a church. We have a room with our own bathroom and loo. The window fills one wall and looks out onto the garden. It’s a house built for summer, loads of space for kids to play and run. But windows have discreet bars on, ornamental ironwork over anything that opens. There’s a small cottage/brieze block house in the garden where the gardener lives and another room where M the ‘maid’ lives.

22 December
I borrowed G’s car and went to town to meet Risenga and Mrisi. They’d been to Soweto to see Risenga’s uncle. Bought some fabrics, he bought some records. Most houses in Soweto are one storey, built of a dirty brown brick but added to this is the cardboard city. Risenga’s uncle is relatively well off and the house has been extended. They have a phone, tv and video but 10 people live there. Giya cried a lot, was hot and freaked out at being passed from person to person. Mrisi spent a lot of time asleep.

23 December
Risenga told me he was attacked with stones by two boys when he was running yesterday morning and he saved an old white woman from being mugged. A local kid let the dogs out.  G and H don’t seem to have any African friends. E, the husband of M the maid was stabbed in the neck by a couple of white guys in a Merc. He crawled to a field to hide and they came looking for him. They pushed him off his new bike and stole it out of spite. Everywhere has dogs and security gates.

We went to Yeoville where Risenga used to live. Rocky Street – trendy lefties, shops like Brighton. Mrisi played in a park with local kids. I hated seeing a white couple wash their dog in a swimming pool for kids. Afterwards we took a taxi into town. Risenga met a friend of his called F, sitting in the shade at a building site waiting for work by the Mega Music warehouse. The whole area is scheduled for development as an arts complex. F called me Madam, which was weird.

24 December
H wouldn’t come out last night because he didn’t want the house left empty. We went with G to see Mahtlatini and Muzwake at the Mega Music warehouse near the Market Theatre. Brilliant venue, air conditioned, cheap (20 r a ticket), smallish and intimate. Outside the box office Risenga saw a friend, Simba, who was playing. He did a spot with the band later.

Today we were getting ready to go to Risenga’s mums. I felt incredibly tired. We started off at a country market, buying veg and gourds from rural Africaaners, an enormous bag of carrots, spinach and two massive cabbages. People were selling strange collections of old possessions – it was a flea market with livestock: pigs, goats, cows and ducks, chickens, guinea fowl. 

Later I write:  'Deliverance' is what our hosts call the market. In among the contents of attics or back rooms, bulk-bought polyester pyjamas and second rate washing up liquid, we stare, they stare. This is worse than the city. In Vereeniging, changing travellers’ cheques, the local AWB try to sign up our host. 

Risenga bought a chicken for 25 rand. It went into a faint in the car but woke up again at home and was put in M’s kitchen.

I felt tense and cried as we left. Risenga took it as fear at going to Orange Farm. Was it? I thought it was exhaustion. Mrisi and Giya were crying all morning in the heat and Mrisi was fighting with N. Anyway, eventually we arrived. G had lent us her car although I sensed H was nervous. H told me a joke the other day – the bad news was that whites were going to have to live in Soweto, the good news was they’d get their VCRs back.

R’s mum has a garden with African marigolds, iris and two small trees, a lawn and standpipe. The front is very neat and the steps are painted green. She has decorative ironwork over the windows and doors. The rest of the yard is earth, deep russet red that turns to dust in the heat and a henna like mud in the rain. I slept after we arrived, exhausted, Giya had been feeding a lot. Inside she has an Aga and two rooms – kitchen and bedroom. The kitchen’s neat and clean, there’s no running water in the house but she has electricity. Everything’s covered in a layer of red dust.

Mrisi 1994
Then came the storm. Mrisi was asleep in the bedroom. It battered on the roof like machine gun fire, the wind whipped down the street raising the dust. The shack over the road lost its roof, the rain soaked down onto one side of the bed, dripping down an electric flex from a hole in the roof.

We had spaghetti on bread for supper in front of the tv watching Dead Poets Society and a Xmas concert with a few local kids, mostly thin and malnourished. It’s just quarter of an hour from the farm but like stepping through a mirror. Acres of zozos with the occasional brick house built with 15,000 rand of savings. There are no tar roads, coal’s delivered by horse and cart. 

Everything’s so low level it’s part of the landscape, disguised, the tin, corrugated iron just another layer of earth and the people too are so covered in dust it seems impossible for anyone to stay clean, but they do, dusting and washing all the time. 

Later I write:

We sleep end to end like the wax family in the museum. We raid Mrisi’s stocking for the children next door. Children come to share presents of Body Shop soap we’ve brought for R’s mother. High street scents mixed with brai meat and yeasty African beer.

Mrisi called to the chicken: ‘little red hen, little red hen’. Driving here, its clucks were all that interrupted our silence. We hoist Mrisi onto the coalman’s cart, African beer ferments in a bowl.

Orange Farm December 1994

25 December
We went to Risenga’s brother’s grave. We woke at about 6, the smoke already rising over Orange Farm, a lemon light, still cool, still fresh from the storm. We are going to the cemetery, walk from the road along a path through a small bog, amazing long-tailed black birds and another yellow one. Butterflies.

We have been through Palm Springs, a new development of bungalows built by private companies on private land, mostly rented. Some are very smart but in Orange Farm people say they still prefer a zozo because they can own their own home and land.

Across the road from the cemetery you can see Sebokeng, where the atrocities took place during the height of the pre-election violence. But it’s quiet now. People talk about freedom and are sick of violence. Now they want equal pay, but not the bosses unions. Petrus earns 2000R a month as a security guard, the white guys doing the same job earn more, have company cars.

Risenga’s mother couldn’t find the grave. The cemetery has four rows of 20 graves already dug ready to be filled after Xmas. There are lots newly filled already.

Many of the graves are surrounded by an iron fence like bedsteads, some with names on. There are personal things, a mug, ornament, plastic flowers. She’s put plates and bowl with plastic flowers on Aubrey’s. Many have jam jars full of water so the dead person can drink. She has brought snuff and African beer to introduce Mrisi and Giya to Aubrey. We kneel while she performs the ceremony. It’s hot now. The ants are going underground, the sun’s beating down on my sunburned neck. There’s a bird that sounds like a telephone.

We walk back, we’re the centre of attention everywhere. Some guys shout to Risenga  - where did you get the white woman? I don’t see any other white people. It’s weird, feels stressful, I feel uptight, anxious, excited.

We get back and start cooking. Risenga’s brother Petrus is there with his girlfriend. There are two electric rings and a stove. People have started gathering. A group of men are smoking and drinking beer. Petrus has a stash of brandy he’s tucking into. They cook the meat and the men eat it. I’m angry. No-one has waited for me, us, the others or the kids. Risenga tells his mum why I’m cross and I’m pissed off he’s done that because suddenly I’m the spoilt white woman again.

Things are smoothed over. The chicken was killed last night when I was asleep. Earlier, Mrisi had been feeding it bread under the table.  The chicken seemed quite a character. Robust. Risenga said it had to be killed for the ancestors.

There are 14 kids to feed and adults. We eat in at least two sittings. Everyone’s come because of the food. Jo has arrived. We see two circumcision processions – one for men, the other for women. People are daubed in white, wearing just bras and skirts. The men preceded by a group of people dancing and singing. Others bring up the rear. They wear red.

It’s hot. As the day wears on there’s a wedding dance for us – I have to take part. They circle around me as I sit on Mani’s lawn. Then draw me in. It’s great. Risenga has told them they can’t play records, he’s got everyone singing and dancing. I’m exhausted by 5.

R’s mum takes the fence down again. Everyone’s drifted off anyway. Back to H and G. I feel a terrible culture shock. The affluence of the whites, us included....

26 December

Lunch with friends of H and G. The little girl shits in the pool house and I pick it up before anyone notices. H's so called joke yesterday about us having to steal a car to replace the one we borrowed doesn’t wear well. It pissed me off. To Soweto again to meet Chief.

*Vereeniging is south of Johannesburg, an industrial centre in Gauteng province, near Sharpeville. Orange Farm is described as 'one of the largest informal settlements' in South Africa. It's about 42 kilometres from the centre of Johannesburg.