Monthly Archives: January 2016

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.