/ 12 May 2016

Miss me with the two-ply toilet paper life

Milisuthando Bongela says over the years
Milisuthando Bongela says over the years

I’ve noticed something peculiar in at least three homes I have visited in the past month, something I quite like: where the toilet paper used to be two-ply, it is now one-ply. At first, it was strange to feel the sensation of one-ply on skin that has become accustomed to two- ply in my own home and even at work. The only place I know that has always been an unapologetic one-ply zone is my mother’s house, meaning I became accustomed to this “standard” after I left her patronage at the age of 17.

Is the standard changing again? I wondered, thinking about the toilet paper at my friends’ homes. There was a time in the early 2000s when two-ply toilet paper, if you were black and entering the middle regions of social class, signified your level of sophistication in the same way your social media timeline today can signify your level of social consciousness or wokeness.

Over the years, I subconsciously bought into the idea that two-ply toilet paper is superior and convinced myself that I deserve it, especially during times when I had no money to waste or no money at all. In the beginning I would stand in front of the toilet paper aisle, aspirant and contemplative, staring at the ones and twos, playing a numbers game with my rands and my consciousness. 

The moral ambivalence I felt the first time I saw two-ply toilet paper rolls sold individually should have been enough to curb my enthusiasm for bad financial decisions, especially because I did not grow up poor — but it didn’t. For a while when I had no stable income and very little extra cash, I still bought the more expensive two-ply singles. Why?

Now that I’m older and starting to toy with the idea of growing my money, now that I’m starting to understand that money is at its best when it’s static, I wonder if this partiality to two-ply toilet paper is an expression of progress or regress? Is it a justifiable matter of “I now know the finer things in life and deserve to enjoy them because I never had them before” or is it a simple case of bad financial practice precipitated by being swindled by advertising and the empty promise of a better life? I am not the same as my friend, who refuses to eat pap now because she had no other choice when she was growing up.

The quality of toilet paper is a small example of a pattern I see playing itself out everywhere I look in South Africa. The same can be said for the luxury cars we drive, the mortgages and rents we pay, the schools we take our children to, the clothing we buy — for each of us, no matter how far or close we are to the breadline. We have our own historical justifications for the ways in which we spend our money. And so we should in a democratic, capitalist country.

I attended the winter sculpture fair at Nirox last weekend. The place is spellbinding, with an endless carpet of green grass dotted with expensive sculptures made by world-renowned artists and furnished with a few cement-floored farm-style properties housing expensive art and perfectly airy studios.

When I first started going there in 2010, I enjoyed its exclusivity, the way it had a “you can’t sit with us’’ air about it even though I was never part of any “us’’. I took pride in it as a citizen of Gauteng, as if I had a stake in its success. With its beauty in sight last Saturday, I tried but I could not really enjoy myself there because of the obscenity of wealth when one is in the clutches of its seduction. I felt like I was standing in front of the toilet paper isle, negotiating.

While watching a large group of adults sliding down one of the green slopes, faces reddened by laughter, spirits heightened by white wine, I felt a familiar reasoning readying itself in my head: this is nice but …

And in an effort to negotiate my own presence there, in an effort to understand why there was a burning “but” in and around me, I realised that my standards have changed: I no longer aspire to any of this anymore.

Iimbali, a regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, ?is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.