When things go pear-shaped

“So I suppose it went pear-shaped,” I said. The officer laughed. We were standing in the middle of Michell’s Pass between Tulbagh and Ceres, watching an accident scene that had closed off the road. A long line of vehicles, led by a Fortuner towing a horsebox (complete with horse) had ground to a halt. We were going nowhere.

You can see the horsebox at the front of the queue

You can see the horsebox at the front of the queue

None of this was planned. Earlier that afternoon, after lunch in Tulbagh, we  had headed toward the Bainskloof Pass, a national monument. The route would take us to Ceres, and because I’d never been to the town I associate with the fruit juice, I suggested we pass the turnoff to Wolseley and continue winding along Michell’s Pass, which had also been designed by the remarkable Andrew Geddes Bain.

Heading to the town – which turned out to have none of the charm  of Tulbagh or Riebeeck Kasteel – we passed an accident scene. A truck appeared to have careered off the road onto the tracks below. Judging by the state of the cab, the driver couldn’t have survived.

Truck on Michell Pass

On the way back, we found the pass completely closed to recover the truck. Drivers, realising that this was going to take a while, turned off the ignition and clambered out to see what was going on. My husband and I chatted to a police officer on the scene. The accident had happened at 9 that morning, he explained. Broad daylight, clear skies. The container the truck was transporting was full of pears for export. Now it lay some 5 metres below on the railway tracks. You can see a part of it just beneath the photo of the truck below:

ichell Pass truck accident

I asked about the driver. Oh, said the officer, he was fine. He walked away from the accident with a hurt shoulder. Mechanical failure, they thought. (As for the pears, they’d probably have to be used for juicing – said the fruit farming lecturer we met over lunch the next day.)

At the Bainskloof Pass. It was a wonderful drive.

At the Bainskloof Pass. It was a wonderful drive. My boobs look huge.

Things go pear-shaped so quickly, don’t they? (On that note, why pear-shaped? What did pears ever do to offend anyone, besides some of the women who inhabit a figure named for them? I am an apple.)

There my husband and I were in a Storks Nest consultation room this morning, all excited about seeing the baby properly for the first time thanks to a 4D scan. She was very active, moving around a lot and smiling mysteriously every now and then. She looks like a little elf right now; I wonder what she will be like when eventually she emerges.

Eventually being the operative word, because after my husband left for a meeting, I dropped by my gynae one floor below to ask about something that was worrying me. The problem probably wasn’t serious, but I was around so it made sense to find out sooner rather than later.

I wasn’t expecting to be told that I have to be admitted to the maternity ward for blood tests and blood pressure monitoring, or to get a steroid shot to prepare the baby’s lungs for possible early delivery. 12 weeks early, which translates 3 months in NICU. She weighs 1,2kg right now, and the best place for her to be is inside the original packaging (as a creative director I work with put it) for at least another two months. Last night my husband and I broke the wishbone of a chicken cooked by my mother-in-law. I got the bigger piece and my wish, instantly, reflexively was: healthy baby.

I thought of that moment as I sat on the loo in my semi-private ward, trying to get a urine sample, thinking about how put out Discovery must be (you’re supposed to ask for permission before being admitted to the maternity ward). I sobbed. I’d been so lucky so far: no morning sickness, no indication of chromosomal abnormality, no gestational diabetes or high blood pressure.

Now this.

The good news is that my blood pressure is responding well to the medication. Tomorrow morning my doctor will check up on me again, and let me know what my options are. I’m hoping that one of them will be “go home, take your blood pressure pills and don’t overdo things”.

Hospital food

Hospital food

So here I am, in a hospital bed, marveling at the magnificently bad cheese sandwiches that arrived with my rooibos tea and wondering if I should try and squeeze in a bath before the next blood pressure measurement.  The nurses have all been lovely. My husband has brought me clean underwear and toiletries and strawberry and banana juice. I’ve cursed the foetal heart rate monitor for beeping like a car seatbelt alert (it beeps if the heartbeat fluctuates, and the elf has been very very busy; at times her heart sounds like a racehorse on a morning gallop). It’s been hours since a ridiculously early supper and now I’m writing this, in between going through mails and catching up on work.

(People keep sending me WhatsApps telling me to rest but there’s nothing worth watching on TV. Seriously.)

Today was a reminder that things can go pear-shaped so quickly. I won’t take any of this experience, which has mostly been trouble-free, for granted. All I hope is that if things go wrong, there will be rescuers to pull me up from below, that I will walk away with the baby and we will both be fine. A little shaken, but none the worse for wear.

My view right now. Nope, nothing on TV.

My view right now. Nope, nothing on TV.



Curry and casual bigotry

Two weeks ago, a journalist sent me a list of questions about racism and parenting. “Do you often think about how to protect your child from racism?” was one of them. “Is it important in your parenting approach?” This is still a theoretical question for me right now, though in years to come I will certainly confront it. My unborn daughter is not white. Depending on what shade her skin takes on in the great Dulux colour chart of life, she will be viewed through the prism of a particular racial identity. Her surname will certainly be a clue.

So the stakes have changed for me, and certain things that once I might have dismissed with a shrug now become triggers. Usually, I’m on the sidelines watching others get their knickers knotted. It’s rare that I’ll express obvious irritation over something I encounter in the news, let alone get caught up in a minor twar. This time was different.

“We are not going to allow SA to be sold over a plate of curry,” Julius Malema said at a press conference today. It was one of his typically quotable soundbites, the ones he’s producing with admirable regularity for the past decade.

It was a literal curry, in one interpretation, what many assumed to be a reference to a comment by Helen Zille. But is a plate of curry ever just a plate of curry? In South Africa? From the mouth of the smartest, most practiced purveyor of the political insult ever to walk the local stage?

No, it is not.

And so this afternoon, I found myself in the rare and unexpected situation of a prickly Twitter exchange with two very well-known journalists. Both questioned my interpretation, as they have every right to do. I stand by my view: that this was no ordinary curry. The power of the truly brilliant insult is that it looks so innocent on the surface, while delivering the sucker punch to the solar plexus. Having published three collections of South African insults, I’m very aware of our recent history of anti-Indian slurs. Coming from such a powerful figure, someone who is set to influence South African politics for many years to come, this is not an anodyne comment about catering. “Curry” is a metonym for an entire set of cultural practices, associations, assumptions and prejudices. What Julius Malema says matters. And what he gets away with saying matters even more.

Letting his comments slide is a signal that certain types of prejudice are fine – depending on who expresses them. This is the world we create, tacitly, every day, and the world we end up despairing over because we paid no attention at the time.

The questions the journalist sent me were focused on the fallout from Penny Sparrow. “Have you spoken to your children about apartheid and racism?” she asked. “Have you spoken to them about the incidents of the past few weeks?” I have no doubt that at some point I will talk to my daughter about her roots in Huguenots, Dutch settlers, British imperialists, and indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu, and how chance brought her parents together despite the awful messiness and injustice of the past. I have already had conversations with my eight-year-old stepdaughter about my horrible ancestors (and the guilt I feel when talking to my parents-in-law about the past is sometimes so intense that I want to weep in shame). I’m sure these exchanges will get more challenging as she gets older and her little sister starts asking questions too.

This is something I know for sure: I do not want racism to shape the world our daughter grows up in. I also don’t want casual bigotry to be acceptable – amusing even – as long as it’s politically expedient. I don’t want hypocrisy and double standards to determine the way the world sees her, her family, or any of her friends.

If #racismmustfall, then all racism must fall.

“Do you think you can “racism-proof” your children?” was another question I was asked, and to that I would say: I hope I can. Calling out curry jokes for what they are is one way to start. No matter who they come from.

Thoughts on not being in Paris

I remember the moment very clearly. A sudden, intense sense of loss that bloomed in my solar plexus and rapidly filled my chest with that sort of shapeless melancholy that is so much harder to grapple with than a sharper, more focused pain. What was I losing? Why was I so sad? Tears stung, ridiculously, in the corners of my eyes.

At the time, I was standing on the 102nd floor of Freedom Tower in New York, waiting for the mocktail my husband had ordered for me from the One World Observatory. The price, in Rands, was jaw-dropping. I tried not to think of it. Instead, I gazed through the windows at the city beyond. The Hudson River, where the jet had landed so dramatically six years before and prompted me to sign up for Twitter. Helicopters slicing through the crisp late October air, the comically small brownstone blocks of Tribeca and SoHo, the spires of Midtown beyond, a slim triangle of Central Park and, still further, the shores of Brooklyn and Long Island laced to Manhattan by a series of bridges. (New York, from this height, was so much less impressive than Hong Kong.)

Would I ever get to see this again? I wondered. And the thought that no, there was a good chance that I would not, that the exchange rate would get worse, and there would be no time, and, most of all, that having a child would put an end to all of this travel, was terrible. The fabled city faded before my grasp even as I tried to hold onto it.

I have always wanted to travel, and, for most of my life, I never really did. As a teenager, I had turned down opportunities for school tours because of the expense, and later, it was unaffordable or I had studies or or or… there was always a reason. After getting married for the first time, my then husband and I booked a Contiki tour of the US and Canada and I visited New York for the first time, when the Twin Towers were still standing. It was summer, and hot, and wonderful, and I wish I’d visited them instead of waiting until now, to view the blank, empty spaces where they once stood, more than 14 years later.

During the past two years, I have visited Vienna, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangalore, Macau and, of course, New York. My husband travels often on business, and he likes me to accompany him. My job pays well enough that I can afford the airfare and the Uber rides, and my credit limit tides me over until the next pay day. I have loved all of it, and the knowledge that I have seen these places in the world illuminates the suburban quiet moments of home, when dogs bark and house alarms screech and white BMWs speed past. This is ok, because I have done this, and I have seen that and I have, quite literally, got the T-shirt. Hard Rock Café Bengaluru, it says, though it doesn’t fit me right now, and won’t for a while.

Before Thursday August 27th last year, I could see our life together mapped out: both well-established professional types who have the luxury of jetting overseas when we feel like it, the schlep of visas permitting. In our wake, we would leave a trail of Facebook check-ins and somewhat smug selfies, Instagram posts of quirky cafes and tweets about the wifi in airline lounges.

Which brings me to Paris, where I am not. I could have been there tonight, with my husband, who is there for a conference. And yet, here I am in bed, clutching my new pregnancy pillow (52% off from Groupon) and worrying about timesheets. Oh, the decision was a combination of many things: the expense of the flight, the awful guilt of taking more leave so early in the year, the weather (I hate the cold and the wet), the exchange rate – significantly worse since late October – and the thought of long hours in economy class while very much more pregnant than I was in New York.

What happened, though, between the angst I experienced in Freedom Tower and now? Paris is my favourite city; normally, I’d grab the change to visit. And yet, when I was doing a cost-benefit analysis on this trip, measuring the happiness I stood to gain from it versus the outlay, I found myself not wanting to go. Not wanting to apply for the visa, not wanting to book the ticket, not wanting to confess to the office that I was heading off on a plane yet again. Thinking about how flights would cost more or less the same as the gynae’s fees for the birth and, adding up all the transport and museum visits, I’d be looking at forking out the money I could use to produce the child I am carrying instead, and how it didn’t make sense when I’ve visited Paris twice before, in summer, and seen almost everything I want to see.

Will I come to regret this? When that second blue line appeared on the Clicks home pregnancy test, my first thought was: fuck. No more travel. And then: fuck. No more wine. So it has come to pass. My greatest priorities in life right now are choosing curtains, finding a compactum and getting the baby’s room painted.

Scrolling through my husband’s Paris photos on Facebook, I am now experiencing FOMO, of course. The menus (Rillettes de canard)! The narrow streets! The je ne sais quoi! But not quite enough to wish I were there.

Is this how my old self is to be conquered? Not by being forced into a corner by circumstance, but happily choosing to retreat there because it’s comfortable? Nesting, my husband calls it, amused. I wonder if the wanderlust will return, and if I will ever see New York or Paris again. Right now, curled up in bed, listening to soft rain outside, I am quite content to be where I am, my passport buried in a cupboard, unstamped.


Thank You Penny

A preamble: just as Penny Sparrow does not speak for me, I do not speak for any of you. But I am hoping that some of you will at least listen, and think, and reflect.

As a white South African, I’d like to say thank you to Penny Sparrow. Without her, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We’d be bitching and moaning as usual about the Rand and #ZumaMustFall and thinking we can continue to avoid the angry elephant in the room. Here’s a spoiler alert: we can’t.

White South Africans have to address racism in our midst, and we have to address it now.

Racist Facebook update tweeted

Racism has always been an obstacle to the building of genuine national consensus; we simply allowed shiny Rugby World Cup trophies to fool us into thinking that we didn’t have to deal with it. The Rainbow Nation myth gave white South Africans permission to let themselves off the hook without ever asking forgiveness of black South Africans, or even expressing contrition. This has caught up with us, and we can’t ignore it any longer.

So, now, we are faced with this stark reality: that racism is the single biggest threat to South Africa’s future prosperity – because it stands in the way of addressing any other issue currently facing us. Anger and hurt are justifiably dominating public discourse, which means that there is no chance of rational or considered reflection. (If white South Africans phone 702 to wail about how hurt they feel because of criticism, imagine how black South Africans feel when they see references to monkeys or entitlement.)

Every time white South Africans say “get over the past already” – while, at the same time, indulging in nostalgia about how great the Apartheid days were –  we ensure that the legacy of Apartheid will always matter more than current and future delivery, and more than holding our leaders to account. Sparrow and her ilk might as well be campaigning for a political party they profess to hate, and they’re too stupid to see it.

Racist whites vs ANC

Butbutbutbut! you protest. What about crime? Or BEE? Or Nkandla, load shedding, SAA and all your pet hates?  “I was born after 1990, so it doesn’t involve me.” And, yes, what about examples of hate speech like this?

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Well, you know what? There can be no ifs or buts. If we as white South Africans are going to refuse to deal with racism, if we are going to keep saying “but what about…” in response to every criticism, then we are going to go around in circles forever, probably around a plughole.

Someone has to take a stand. We have no choice but to live together – visa regulations and points systems mean that mass immigration of white South Africans is a fantasy, both for those who want to leave and those who want to see them go – and this means that we need to be mature about this, whether we like it or not. We have to acknowledge that we cannot talk about freedom of speech, or the Rand, or crime, or corruption, until we have this conversation. And this conversation is going to be uncomfortable for us. Having it does not mean that we will be liked, or greeted with open arms. There will be no tearful reunions where everyone hugs and says, “I love you”.

But with visible commitment by us and a little bit of luck, we may collectively emerge as citizens not of a tenuous facsimile of togetherness that flickers only into view when a national team is playing sport on TV, but a nation built on the hard daily grind of honesty, mutual respect and understanding that if we work together, we have a shot at achieving the elusive better life for all.

Sentiments are all very well, but action counts. What, then, can white South Africans actually do?

Demonstrating that we are opposed to racism is only part of the task facing us. Whether this takes the form of marches, or some kind of declaration, I don’t know. (#RacismMustFall, #RacismNotInMyName and #RacismStopsWithMe are already circulating. Hashtags don’t fix problems or replace the need for substantive action, but they can make necessary conversations visible, and that is part of what is needed.) Whatever we do, it should not involve politicians.

But what else?

For a start, we can pronounce African names correctly. There’s a reason that #TheYearWeMispronounceBack is trending. Even if the clicks defeat us (and I stumble over them all the time), we can make an effort. We can also stop mocking black South Africans for their pronunciation of English.

Listen. We can resist the urge to be defensive the moment we see a comment critical of white South Africans. We can also make an effort to understand why black South Africans are angry, and not judge or attempt to police that anger.

Speak out when we see or hear racism either online or offline. Racism should be socially unacceptable and that will only happen if white South Africans call out other white South Africans. Whether it happens on Facebook or around the braai, say something. Raise the social cost of being a racist.

Examine our own attitudes and think about the impact of our thoughts before we make them public. Yes, self-censorship is necessary, and we should practice more of it.

Learn an official language other than English or Afrikaans. This is probably the single most important thing we can do in the short term.

There’s a lot more, especially when it comes to critical self-examination, but this is a start.

Phew. Deep breaths. Is your blood boiling? Are you already composing a comment refuting everything you’ve just read?

I’ve written this wondering which quotes will be selectively tweeted, which will trigger outrage, and which will get approving RTs depending on whose agenda they serve. I know that I’ll be dismissed either as a embarrassing proponent of whiteness or a contemptible libtard and worse; that this will be forwarded to expats from Canada to New Zealand with comments like SMH and WTF; that Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt will hate me more than ever, Andile Mngxitama will never love me, and it would be much, much easier to keep quiet. And yes, to be honest, I am not particularly optimistic about how many white South Africans are willing to take a step back and examine themselves critically. (If racism becomes a criminal offense, we’re going to have a real problem finding enough jail space for everyone.)

But I do believe that there are many white South Africans out there who do want to see change, and are willing to do something about it instead of pretending that it is someone else’s problem. I know some of you. It would be good to see lots more of us raising our hands.

This is just the start in a long and hard journey, and it will not be easy. But when so much is at stake, there really is no other way.

Thanks again Penny, for inadvertently giving us the collective kick up the backside that we needed.


The Exercise

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“Let’s do an exercise,” my husband says. It is a something he last did 20 years ago, at Harvard; this is the piece he wrote about it at the time.

Dinner is over. Our friend Musa, the scientist, says he thinks that he has heard of this exercise. Tonight, the conversation has ranged from Neal Stephenson’s new book Seveneves, to epigenetics, the state of the economy, social media outrage, Syria and the role of oil in geopolitics. A half glass pools darkly in the bottom of the bottle of Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon, all that is left, and it’s time to move on.

My husband leaves the table to fetch a piece of paper from the printer and a plastic dustbin. He cuts the paper into 24 rectangles and writes words in each. Each of us receives 8 pieces, and on each is written one word:






Personal Development




He places the dustbin on the table, between me and Musa.  “Now,” he says , “these, broadly, are the elements that go into making a person happy. Take a look at them.”

I place my eight pieces in two neat rows of four in front of me. I already have an idea about which ones matter more than others.

“There’s no way you can have all of these at the same time. One of them has to go. Crunch it up and throw it away.”

Musa points out that, for him, friendship and family are one and the same. What is the meaning of each of these words? What is the context? Are we talking sufficiency, or necessity?

“The words mean whatever they mean to you,” says my husband. “There’s no right or wrong answer. You have to get rid of one.”

Hmm. I examine the papers. There’s an obvious candidate to be thrown first, one to which I devote less attention than anything else. But what is this question about, really? Surely, if this is about making hard choices, it is about choosing those aspects of our lives to which we devote energy and attention? All of a sudden, the answer is clear. I take one, squash it into a ball, and throw it away.


Why? Health is necessary for happiness; health is everything. But it’s not something over which I have ever had much control. I’ve had asthma my entire life; I will never not know the subtle angst of finding myself in a self-payment gap when I pick up my chronic medication. Beyond choosing not to pick up a smoking habit, there was never much choice in that. Life and death are a lottery; good people are diagnosed with cancer or drop dead from heart attacks despite making all the healthy choices they could.

The other frown and purse their lips, then scrunch and toss. “But you can’t still fit in everything,” my husband says. “Now you have to toss something else.”

This is easy for me, much easier than it is for the other two, because this was going to be my first choice before I reframed the question. I scrunch up spirituality and throw it in the bin. Though I spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, and what it means to be good, I am not religious. My husband is an atheist. Spirituality in the churchgoing, meditating sense is not something to which I devote much energy.

Of course, other words have to go too. That is the point of all of this: reducing the things that matter in your life to their essence. Community (to which I am more attached than you might think, though I think of “community” as my social media world rather than community in the conventional sense) is followed by career, which was my world at the time when I could work 16 hours a day because I had nothing else in my life, but no longer matters as much now that I am happy and married.

Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. There’s something powerful about this small, physical act of destruction. Merely crossing out the words or doing this electronically would not be the same.

Four pieces of paper are left. Family, personal development, friendship and financial. One of them has to go. But which?

Faces are pulled. Explanations made. “It doesn’t matter,” my husband reminds us. “There is no right or wrong. These are the things that make you happy.”

In the end, we are left with our three pieces of paper. I examine mine. Family is an obvious one, the most obvious of all. Personal development is there, because I would not want to live in a world where I was not intrigued and excited by something new every single day.

It is the third piece of paper that surprises the others, and me too, because it isn’t actually that important to me, and it has never factored in any serious way as a condition for happiness.


The word is cold and hard. I hate it. It doesn’t belong there with the other two, and certainly not with the choices made by my dinner companions, who both had no trouble getting rid of it.

My husband has exactly the same choices he made 20 years ago; mine is anchored very firmly in my experiences of the five and a half years that have passed since I first had dinner in this house, and first met Musa. My husband and I both had significant others then, and neither of us would ever have imagined we would end up together. Amazing how things change.

I feel I must explain. I tell them that not so long ago, I gave away large amounts of money. To business partners, friends, charitable causes. I gave it away because money represented an assumption that there was some kind of future for me, and I wanted to die. No, not die – that’s too dramatic – I just wanted to not be alive. The world beyond my 40th birthday was a grey fog so thick I could see nothing through it. Nobody needs money when they are dead, I used to reason, and I might as well make someone else happy while I can.

Even after my 40th birthday, the addiction to giving away money to make me feel good when I sense the onset of self-loathing and despair has persisted, and I have to guard against it. The moment I stop caring about having money for a future in which I might need it is the moment I know that I have slipped back into the murky pit in which I floundered for so long.

So, in this strange way, money has become something that is not necessary for happiness, but a canary in the coalmine of my dark self.

Here’s the part where I suggest that you this exercise for yourself. Cut up the paper and write down the words. Crunch them up and throw them away one by one. The words that you have left, the elements of happiness, may well surprise you.

Creativity and Bic: some thoughts

A lot of brands on social media are like awkward guests at a finger lunch, making small talk because they feel they have to. And one of the things they all feel they have to talk about it public holidays. So, on Women’s Day, every brand on social media trots out a post. Most of them use stock imagery, plonk a quote next to it, and there you go. That’s all Bic did, and if everything had gone to plan, nobody would have paid any attention to it.

Bic post and reaction

The mistake that Bic made was to choose a quote that was bound to offend many women, and now their South African office is world famous for being insensitive. Into my collection of PowerPoint case studies it goes.

(I didn’t worry too much about the post itself. I was somewhat amused by the outrage, because there are more important things in this life than social media posts from brands that get ignored unless they offend someone.)

Creativity in social media requires endless stores of inspiration, commitment and willingness to fight for an idea. I’ve written content grids for clients. Sometimes you’ll come up with a radical idea and they won’t approve it. (I came up with a very different concept for one of our clients for this Women’s Day – he decided not to go for it for various (sensible) reasons. But the thought was there.)

I gave some thought to what I would have done with a brand like Bic for an event like Women’s Day. I grew up using Bic pens at school, and as a writer that is hugely meaningful to me.

The way we express ourselves changes as we grow older and, hopefully, wiser. So I came up with this idea:

Bic post idea Sarah BrittenHere’s another post, inspired by my own life. (Imagine if Bic got women to do versions for themselves, and then donated a hamper of products on their behalf to a school that needed stationery.)

Sarah BicI wrote all of this by hand, with a Bic pen. It didn’t cost much except time and some thought.

Two things that could do with a little more investment from the brands we work for, and – yes – those of us who produce work for them.

The Owl Cafe and the Beckoning Cat

Japan does things differently. These are some of the things I noticed.

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  1. Toilets. When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was convinced that I needed a degree in astrophysics to operate the toilets. There is no such thing as a piece of porcelain with a lid that flushes when you press a lever. Oh no. Japanese toilets will douche, spray, dry and even play sounds to hide bathroom noises. At the Quest Hall loos in Harajuku, I was nearly reduced to tears by my inability to flush. (It turned out that I needed to wave my hand in front of an infrared sensor.)

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