I’ve recently started to wake up sometimes in the middle of the night wracked with fear. My girlfriend doesn’t know that for the first time since I left England on a one way ticket and decided to make South Africa my home five years ago, over the past few days more than once I’ve caught myself wondering, even if only for a second, if it’s time to give up and move back.
My girlfriend looks up from whatever it is she’s just read online and says, “It’s happening. There’s going to be a full-on civil war”. Her eyes look tired, and though she is sometimes prone to wild exaggeration I know that in this instance at least part of her is deadly serious.
The pot has been simmering for some time, and it seems like now it’s finally boiling over.
She’s frightened. And so am I. In fact, I’ve recently started to wake up sometimes in the middle of the night wracked with fear. My girlfriend doesn’t know this. She also doesn’t know that for the first time since I left England on a one way ticket and decided to make South Africa my home five years ago, over the past few days more than once I’ve caught myself wondering, even if only for a second, if it’s time to give up and move back.
I haven’t told anyone this because I’m ashamed by these thoughts. I’ve stuck up for South Africa so many times over the past years. I’ve gone out of my way to try to convince moaning South African expats in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere that things are changing for the better, that the newspapers don’t tell the full story. Then I’ve gone away and bitched about them afterwards – called them cowards and worse. I’ve adamantly stood by my decision to set up a life and envisage a future for myself, my girlfriend and our prospective family here in South Africa.
But at the moment, it’s difficult. The xenophobic violence and looting rages on in the townships, while the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the government either sit idly by or actively add fuel to the fire. Crime and a general sense of lawlessness are on the rise, with South Africa’s politicians leading the way. The country around us seems to be becoming more unequal, more divided and more divisive every day. The youth are routinely referred to as a “ticking time bomb”. Oh, and we are running out of power.
So it is that I find I don’t have many positives to proffer my girlfriend in response to her defeated remark. Truth is, South Africa is wearing me down a bit at the moment. And the events of the past 24 hours are still weighing heavily on my mind.
It started on Sunday while we were shopping in Longbeach Mall, on our way to visit my girlfriend’s parents’ house. My girlfriend is black and I’m white. While we are used to getting the occasional unpleasant stare from certain members of public, this is generally tempered by the positive responses we get from others. But on Sunday, we were met with a sea of negativity, shaking heads and turned up noses from all sides – from old white men and from young black women and a whole lot more in-between. While Sun Valley is hardly the capital of progressive thinking, we both felt, having not been “that side” for a while, that the negativity was more pronounced than usual and that this indicated the growing racial divides and resentments that seem to be opening up right across Cape Town.
We tried to put it out of our minds and move on. We parked off at Slangkop and went for a walk. When we returned to our car an hour later, the passenger window had been smashed in, and all of our groceries (about R500 worth) had been taken from the boot. Strangely, they’d left the radio.
This took us to Ocean View Police Station to report the incident. We gave our story to a sergeant. Next to us, a woman was trying to ask two other officers to come and remove her husband from her house. Though she looked visibly distressed and her voice was shaky, the two sergeants continued to shout questions loudly at her from behind the counter on the other side of the room.
She told them that she had kicked her husband out some time ago and had tried to prosecute him for domestic abuse but had eventually dropped the charges because he moved away. Now he was back unannounced and uninvited and was threatening to beat her up again if she tried to get him out of her house. The police officers accused her of being a “nuisance” and showed little sympathy. Directly behind the two officers on the wall, I noticed a SAPS poster that promised respect for victims’ dignity and privacy.
Meanwhile, our own sergeant seemed to feel we were simply wasting his time while I increasingly felt we were wasting our own time. There was no denying that our complaint was trivial compared to most of what these guys usually had to listen to.
Already drained by the day, we headed back home and stopped at our local Pick ‘n’ Pay for round two of grocery shopping. Within 20 seconds of walking through the door, the power suddenly went off and we were plunged into darkness. Load-shedding. My girlfriend let out a short squeal and held me tight in the darkness. The generator kicked in a moment later. I looked down and she was still just holding on, eyes closed, like I was the only solid thing left in the world. I waited silently as passersby looked at us strangely.
So here we are the next morning, just after my girlfriend has made her prediction of civil war. Now her mother phones us to say they had a break-in in the annex at their home. This is the second time in a few weeks. During the same period there have also been other strange incidences of vandalism to the outside of their house and to my girlfriend’s mother’s car. She has begun to suspect it is some kind of intimidation plot by ADT due to an unpaid bill that my girlfriend’s parents are still disputing. A friend of mine at work told me that he’d had a similar issue with ADT, gone to the police about it, and been told that such reports are increasingly common.
I leave the house to go to work only to find the traffic is unmoving. I turn on the radio and hear this is thanks to taxi protests nearby. Apparently shots have just been fired. Another motorist phones in and says, “They are not protests, they are riots”. The next caller wants to talk about how South Africans must “civilise” foreigners so that they know how to drive properly and stop being so dirty.
In front of me there is a construction vehicle with a load of coloured guys in the back. One of them stands up and shouts to the Zimbabweans and Malawians waiting patiently on the side of the road for any work that might come their way. “One,” he shouts, “one for work”. A couple of those waiting jump up hopefully. The guy in the construction vehicle cracks up laughing and gives them the finger, then sits back down as his co-workers laugh along with him. One of the guys on the roadside looks so humiliated I think he might cry. But he doesn’t.
Away to my left I suddenly notice a huge plume of smoke rising towards the sky. It’s hard to see where it ends and the early morning mist begins. For a split second I think that maybe the civil war has started. Or maybe it’s worse; maybe it’s the beginning of the end of the world.
Whatever it is, I try to ignore it all. I keep sitting patiently in traffic and crawling slowly to work. I don’t really know what else I can do.
Half an hour later the smoke has gone again and the traffic is finally easing. The morning mist is clearing too. And as the sun emerges, despite all the crap, so does a new sliver of hope.
As I change through the gears and pick up speed, I remember it was not so long ago that London had its own riots and mass, lawless looting throughout the city. I remember the anger and resentment, the apathy, the class divides. I also remember the long, dark and unforgiving greyness of an English winter, the deathly silence and sterility of a packed Underground train.
I realise that for any fleeting moments of doubt or fear, I won’t be giving up on South Africa anytime soon, if ever. I’m not sure I could even if I wanted to. For better or worse, South Africa has become my home. I truly love this beautiful and incomprehensible country and its crazy people, warts and all. And if you are honest with yourselves, no doubt so do most of you reading this. As long as that remains true, there will always be that sliver of hope behind the clouds. And in these parts, the clouds can come and go pretty quickly. DM
Christopher Clark is a British journalist and wanderer based in South Africa. He writes for a range of local and international publications on travel, conservation and international affairs and has twice been featured among South Africas best writers and thought leaders by The Big Issue magazine.
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