/ 16 December 2008

Foraging for a convertible

Staff Photographer
Staff Photographer

There’s a reason I drive a third-hand, decade-old tjor with rust streaks down the passenger door and a starfish-shaped crack inching across the windscreen. It’s a political decision. I’m swimming upstream against the flood of bling culture that parades along the otherwise dull streets of suburbia.

Well, I told myself this yesterday when a dishy black diamond pulled up next to me at a Cape Town petrol station in a twinkling convertible, its paintwork dark as bitumen and gleaming like an out-of-the-box toothpaste ad. An R&B track belted out across three city blocks.

“Man, your music sucks,” I harrumphed, scrabbling for a tape of aging rock anthems in the cubbyhole. But a bottle of sunscreen had bloated like a puffer fish in the heat, bleeding oil over the tape and car owner’s manual. Terrific.

“My car is a comment to society,” I wanted to tell the petrol attendants, who clucked around the other vehicle, one of them dragging himself away to see to my unimpressive red heap.

“This car has nothing to do with the size of my royalty cheques,” I said in an imaginary conversation with the petrol guy, handing over an overly large tip. “And the rust — I just haven’t got around to fixing it. Too busy, no time — “

Given the time of year (’tis the season to spend ourselves into an apoplexy of debt), and the global economic climate (when the apoplexy of previous debt has come around to bite us on the arse), it’s interesting how much talk there’s been lately about the divide between rich and poor. How the rich are getting richer, the poor getting poorer.

It’s there when we talk about the collapsing American markets — “greedy traders, they take excessive gambles to enrich themselves and the rest of the world collapses into recession”. It’s there in the political doccie Behind the Rainbow when it examines the corruption eating into the ruling party, where some ANC elite enrich themselves as the poor take to the streets to protest the fact that they’re struggling as much now as they were in 1994.

It’s in the invoice of a Cape Town restaurant, which charges R60 for a dinky can of energy drink, probably half the daily wage of your average urban domestic worker.

The accumulation of wealth is likely the same natural hoarding response, built into our brain function after more than 100 000 years as hunter-gatherers in a world where access to resources — food, water and shelter — was less secure than driving up to the forecourt today and filling up.

Consumption — often conspicuous — is probably the ugly end result of a perfect storm of years of evolutionary programming (our need for security and social status) coming together with free market economics (which has allowed some to amass more wealth than others), and modern technology (which makes all the stuff we want to buy).

Our relationship with food is another one: our hunger/satiety triggers were programmed when we were foraging for foods in the wild, not in supermarkets. We’ve developed a hair trigger, telling us we’re hungry, because we didn’t always know where the next meal was coming from. And to make sure we kept eating a bit longer than we needed to, the trigger telling us we’re full is not nearly as sensitive, so we could stock up our biological larder. Now there’s so much more food around, but the same ancient food triggers are in place, so we eat more than we need, even though there’s no sign of approaching famine.

That’s it, hardwired into our brains during our days as wandering hunters and collectors of nuts and berries, and morphed into a new shape: hoard, shop, consume, eat, bling up with fashion labels, eat, shop, hoard, eat — Burp!

We probably all would, if we could — but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for those who can’t.

Ten years after emigrating to the Mother City from the Eastern Cape, I still can’t quite get used to the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Cape Town has one of the biggest divides between rich and poor globally, measured in the Gini co-efficient. In a way it’s a metaphor for the unequal spread of wealth nationally and a proxy for the divide between the global north and the global south.

After our unacknowledged forecourt posturing, Mr Black Diamond va-va-va-vroooomed off in a cloud of R-Kelly (or something like it), while I told myself that I drive my car because I’d rather have money in the bank than the appearance of money in the bank. But two things are clear: my jalopy doesn’t project an air of successful alpha-bitch and that even if we all had that blinking black convertible, it still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the hunger for success and security that’s etched into our genes.