begging

A third share from Antjie Krog’s brilliant ‘Begging to be Black’ [did you order your copy yet?] with a very different flavour from the last two i shared as this is more a reflection on the country than herself. Found in chapter 9:

Writing while busy with her time in Berlin, Antjie says, ‘I experience, fr the first time until now, coherence. For example, on my way to the woods, I walk along Furtwängler Strasse. I know who Furtwängler is. At home I have a CD on which he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic performing a Brahms symphony. During my stay here, Furtwängler was the theme of a cultural programme on rbb Kulturradio one morning, part of a newspaper article a month later, part of a museum exhibition about the choices of musicians during the Second World War, part of German history taught and written about, available as a biography in a book or CD or DVD in the bookshops, part of a documentary on late-night television, part of a street address on someone’s business card, and part of a conversation about the bus stops along the route of the M29. Furtwängler, an extraordinary musician, is woven into the fabric of the culture that intersects daily in many different ways with the lives of ordinary people in the streets ad shops; there is coherence between the life in your head and the physical life around you.

The coherence in Germany also extends to the shop windows in Kurfürstendamm. One week they display clothes and shoes for workers at hospitals, roads, construction sites, factories and cleaning sites. The following week they display dresses from the Prussian period for Christmas, then soccer gear in German colours, then artworks built on Greek and Roman mythology.

In South Africa, we all live in incoherency. It looks like this: the area I live in has a name only some people can pronounce [be it Oranjezicht or Qunu], its meaning lost to most of us. Many provinces, areas, towns and streets had other names prior to their current ones, so one will find some people still using the previous name, others the one before that. Some use the correct pronunciation, others a new anglicised version of the correct pronunciation. (Some of the taxi drivers talk of Orange-Cyst.) Apart from Mandela and Verwoerd, we do not really know the people who appear as statues on pedestals, or the people honoured by naming or vilified by renaming. No part of our history is without its exclusion and destruction of some part of the population.

Every day, most South Africans jump with stretched-out legs from one solid knowable stone, hoping to land on another – but they are mostly out of reach. If one misses, one wades in an unknown morass until one reaches something recognisable to stand on for a while and catch ones’s breath. I always think of Gloria Gotyombe: when she comes once a week to clean the house, she must ask herself: What on earth could this white woman be doing on a computer that is so important that she and her husband can generate enough money to pay for a house and a car and clothes and the abundance of food in the fridge?

Worker’s clothes would never be displayed in our shop windows, because work was racified and is therefore despised. Nobody wants to be a worker. We all want jobs, but not work. The clothes on display are suits for the bosses. Actually, we all want to be bosses, non-working bosses.

Most of the organised events in South Africa exclude, either through place or form, theme or reference, framework or cost. On our national holidays (Heritage Day, Reconciliation Day, Youth Day) we realise we have nothing in common – not what we read, not what we speak, not what we write, not what we sing, not whom we honour.

Nothing binds us. Our daily Third World lives are broken into hundreds of shards of unrooted, incoherent experiences. (Visiting Jakarta with a group of Dutch and Flemish writers, one of them remarked how they navigate with difficulty through the streets checking for ‘undesirabilities’ – unequal surfaces, unexpected holes, open sewers, pedestrians, bicycles, etc. – while I seem to walk the streets with a different sensibility, as if I know the geography beforehand.)

Of course incoherence is not new to southern Africa: centuries ago the First Peoples found their way of life splintered by black groups moving south, and after all the indigenous groups were violently invaded by white settlers. But the thing about colonialism is that the colonisers often manage to produce their own coherency, so the world in which I have grown up was a completely closed coherent world in which the first time I came across a black man with a university degree was when I was twenty-two years old. For half my life I functioned entirely in Afrikaans, from bathing my children to writing a complicated dissertation. The new South Africa changed that. Afrikaners found their way of life forcefully splintered by a gradually self-asserting black majority, and the majority of Afrikaans-speakers turned out not to be white and started claiming the majority space in their language. So Afrikaners, who have so easily appropriated the land and the continent, found themselves in a new kind of post-colonial dynamic and are still reeling and deeply resentful about the incoherence in their lives.’

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She goes on to this point which is different, but equally between-the-eyes:

‘J. [her husband] has arrived. He brought into the flat our stressed-out lives from South Africa. I shifted to my ‘official’ side of the bed, made space in the cupboard, learnt to adjust the shower and asked for a television.

We saw our president-to-be dancing in skins, takkies and sunglasses at his wedding. Then, picking up his legs as I’ve seen younger men do, he falls backwards on the people behind him. The BBC played it at least five times during the day and every time I felt the embarrassment spreading in my neck. The worst, however, was the wife-to-be: she sat in her traditional clothes plus white bra with a submissive demureness that is quite frightening. And one thinks of the impressive presences of our recent first ladies. J. tells of power failures called by the misnomer ‘load-shedding’. He says he is going to vote for the political party that is not dancing. Watching BBC or CNN, it seems the only business in Africa is dancing, dressing, ad, it has to be said, dying.

Coming down Hasensprung on Saturday, there is was: snow.

Real, big, soft flakes of snow. I put down my bags and just stood there, feeling it on my face, my heart wanting to burst. I learnt that snow has a smell, and that at night it glows into the flat as if a big, cold moon is hanging outside.

When I passedthe Hasensprung on Sunday, the pavement had been scraped clean. I was aghast. Someone had actually cleaned Hasensprung on a Saturday-fucking-afternoon! Can that be? On Monday morning, something crunched under my shoes. Gravel! I was almost moved to tears: to think that somebody cared enough that others might slip there? It’s beyond my understanding, coming from a place where we kill each other for twenty rand.’

[For the last extract – a super powerful bonus piece on Forgiveness, click here]

[For a range of other interesting South African related posts, click here]