Monday, February 10, 2014

Where separation was an art: Venda Sun 4

Summer 1995 in Brighton
Venda Sun 4

Back to Gauteng

My memory of the journey back is patchy. But the sea and Cape Town relaxed us to prepare for it. We avoided being refused a place to stay by getting the number of someone who could help but she wasn't there.

By this time I imagine I was even more exhausted. I know that the gastro enteritis came back and Giya carried on crying. A new baby, the trip, put a strain on me and Risenga. We were watched constantly (this has gone on up to 2012). I felt R needed some kind of reconciliation that the country couldn't give him because he'd left.

Everything was a struggle or looked as if it was going to be. The security guards everywhere, the hours it took to change money, the bank asking where R got his pounds, not believing the stamps in his passport – Denmark, England, Ghana, Ivory Coast. So often he was taken for a foreigner, his clothes, his attitude, new trainers, big hair, baggy shorts, Che Guevara t-shirt - all this disturbed people, in a subtle way. He was just strange enough to demand a second glance, a close listening with he spoke Zulu.

I was surprised, though, that even on that first trip I had a sense of belonging, of being more than a tourist. To my children South Africa is half their heritage. It is blood, it is culture and knowing they belong. I was welcomed as a member of the family, even though I still speak no South African languages. My children's cousins call me Aunty Jackie. Being a mother was enough.

But when I'm there it is sometimes complicated. When people see a mother and child whose skin colour is different, they stop looking at features. Of course none of us experience that when we're with family in Palm Springs, or Orange Farm, in Eldorado or in Venda. But leave the cushion of the family and I have felt, at times, like a walking freak show. In Venda in 2012, a security guard at the entrance to the Albasini Dam actually congratulated R for securing me, a white woman, to have his children.

In 1994 I didn't have the distance to make light of it. In 2012 I sometimes joked that R was my guide adding (with a straight face) that he wasn't getting a tip.

It was always a delight to watch peoples' faces when we were in a line: me (white), Giya (mixed), Risenga (black) as if we were a walking educational resource. A kind of powerpoint presentation. If there was any doubt, Giya and I showed the gap in our teeth. But that was 2012.

In 1994 my extreme experiences in South Africa prepared me for what was to come in the UK as the mother of children who looked different to me. I can summon up the shout 'where did you get the white woman' from that first trip and it has a Brighton twin. Years later when the children were at school and we were in the North Laine a child, in ringing tones, asked his father, "why are those children a different colour to their mummy?"

Brighton's not multi-cultural. It's changing but Londoners still remark on the absence of black people. Mrisi and Giya had mixed race and black friends at school, but they could count them on one hand.

So when they were little, South Africa was a chance for them to see their mother, not their father, in a minority. As they grew, it became a focus for talking about race and colour. Where best, frankly, to examine those issues than in a place where hair was tested for curliness, where separation was an art?

Risenga rescued one of the old signs: NON-WHITES ONLY. It's nailed to a shelf over the stairs to the cellar. And when I feel uncomfortable in South Africa, as I do often it does me no harm to remember that sign. When anger wells up and on that first trip it did to the extent that I could have got us into trouble, I wonder at the capacity of people in that country to contain themselves.

But it's not over and what I have witnessed as my children have grown up bounces me back to those experiences in 1994, as if that first trip somehow set a standard, defined boundaries, provided a set of impressions I could call on, go back to, rethink.

February 14 1995

Remembered, back in Brighton

...we pull up opposite the petrol station, driving too fast after the long straight road through the scrub. The sun is bright, hot. I unpeel my legs from the seat, shake my shirt to allow air in, dry out the long wide patch of sweat on my back. We have a number to phone – the mother of a friend who will know where we can stay, the five of us, our two babies, your mother. It’s as if you, too, are a stranger in this country. You know the road but have never used a hotel – it wasn’t allowed before. She isn’t there. We look over the wall at a boarding house, agree that I’ll go with our son and ask if there are rooms.

The night the police were waiting is pulling me back into the car. I’m anxious as if there’s someone hiding behind that wall. Mrisi wants to try the swing in the garden, anywhere else I’d let him but here we must be careful. The man who opens the door is a big Africaaner, unshaven, wearing a vest. I ask if there are rooms, he says yes. Then I have to tell him, my husband’s black, we’re traveling  with his mother. Is that okay? It feels treacherous, asking. He laughs – it’s fine.

We look at the room, three beds, a shower, somewhere to cook outside, a fridge. We buy chicken over the road, feel they’re watching us as if we’re thieves. This time we will not go into town, none of these places have parks or shade, they have back gardens for that. There is no community, no sharing.


This isn’t a place to stay for long, there’s no reason to upack, just toothbrushes, flannels, a change of clothes. In the wardrobe there are two hangers.They’re bent wire, the kind you unravel to unblock the hoover, fish out rubber gloves from behind a radiator. My bed is high and slopes. I hold the baby tight so she doesn’t fall, sleep early, it’s soon dark.

But sometime in the small hours she slips from me, in my deep sleep I’ve let her go and she drops to the floor. The scream wakes me and I scream too, both of us terrified now and suddenly I hear your mother whooping, you shouting, fumbling for a light until we see each other, all of us dancing after midnight, the baby calm now and unhurt, laughing more than we have at any time in this country, relieved, laughing at Mani's dance, as you put away the knife still sticky with mango, laughing into the curtains, then whispering ‘ have we woken anyone else?”.


R was convinced it was a break-in, me sleeping by the window, that someone from the town had heard we were there, was chasing us away as if we had no right to be in a car traveling back to the big house and the zozo from the coast with its white beaches , the fish markets and craft markets, Langa with its wide streets and dust, the lush suburbs, farewell barbeque.

Mrisi sleeps through it all. The next day, the Africaaner tries to sell R a flag, the old one. He’s never been out of the country, doesn’t ask about us, as if he’d rather not know. He talks about the mayor, the people who steal bricks from his wall. This town is in the middle of hundreds of miles of scrub, its nearest neighbours just copies of itself. He tells us to visit the dam. The next morning at 5 we set off, seeing the sign we backtrack for a few miles until we see it over a hill, as if all the water’s been pumped from the desert, emptied into this hollow between hills for the pleasure of landlocked fishermen and sailors, around holiday houses with grass roofs and bathrooms.


Back in Johannesburg we visited Mai Mai, the market under a flyover with muti stalls and workshops making Zulu sandals, selling skins, horns where women made beaded skirts and laughing at me feeding Giya.

For sale at the side of the road, our hosts spotted a massive carving of a woman with her children.

Such a big tree, (they needed a truck to bring it back. the woman’s as tall as me but sitting with her child. It must have been cut off at ground level, a great root system below. Who knows who the sculptor is? A man was selling it by the roadside. It’s orange-brown, the features that of the wife, the baby their first.  She sits by the kitchen door, looking down the long table.


It was on that first trip, in the hire car, that the windscreen wipers failed on the flyover into the city centre. I still wake up wondering what could have happened, driving blind in torrential rain, the police taking one look at us and ordering me to follow them down a slip road, then speeding off, the lorry I just missed.

I had been introduced, in a small way, to the physical consequences of apartheid. Guns at the B&B, indifference to the danger we were in that storm, a baby and toddler in the back of the car.


I need to be gently stretched, have my fingertips rubbed, my arms and legs pulled, my scalp lifted slightly off my skull…..