/ 6 October 2017

The strange places we misplace power

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Milisuthando (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Ukuhamba kukubona. Travelling is seeing, they say in my language. My friend X and I took a day trip on Sunday morning, to a small town in the Free State not far from Johannesburg. It’s a generic South African town clutching on to the promises of dead patriarchs and driven through by fleeting strangers who witness the segregation of lives ossified by apartheid town planning. Afrikaans is the main language spoken in the pragtige white part of town, with Sesotho and Afrikaans spoken in the parts we didn’t see that day.

X and I are always searching for, talking about and building our friendship around understanding and healing our personal and social pain. I’m also currently thinking about the idea of power and understanding how and when to use the power I have as a working person with access to spaces, things, knowledge, people, privilege. What are my responsibilities with it, when do I deploy it and what do I have to sacrifice to exercise it?

We went on this trip because we are exploring the idea of slower, cheaper small-town life. Not to relocate, but to buy a place to escape to when Jo’burg gets too much, a conceptual space that we can share with a community of fellow searchers. My other friend J thinks it’s a strange idea, to look for “peace and quiet’’ in a small Afrikaner town where things are just as hectic but in a different way, especially for black women. He’s right, but where is it not hectic in urban South Africa for black people when it comes to land, space and ownership?

Our intention is to speak to our own needs when we look for weekend getaways and are told a place is “fully booked” for us but not for our French friends. Also, we are fatigued with giving our money to Airbnbs, farms and guesthouses that are so nice, so welcoming and so owned by white people who stay economically ahead of black people. Because no matter how much we try to transcend the race connection to everything in search for human connections, a short trip out of cosmopolitan Jo’burg will tell you what era it still is out there.

This first trip, when we were looking at show houses, was like throwing a stone into a pond to see how deep it is. It’s deep, but not for obvious reasons.

We didn’t have any expectations besides the dishonest politeness that results when the two sides of any “us and them” group meet. We are young and they are old. We are from the future, they are from the past. We are African and they are Afrikaner. We are all likely full of assumptions about each other.

We arrived before midday and met our real estate agent, a burly woman with short, greying hair, a limp in her step and a warm disposition. We followed her as she drove us to three properties.

The first property is owned by a tall woman in her 80s with tired eyes whose husband died a long time ago and whose children flew the nest and laid their own eggs elsewhere. The number of photographs of her children and her children’s children displayed around the four-bedroomed house exhibited a palpable loneliness that manifested in how slowly she shuffled around, having suffered a stroke recently. The house felt like how she looked, holding it together but tired.

The second house was on a 2 000m2 plot that dwarfed it. Owned by a patriarch with many dogs, a wife and their grandchild, the stench of years worth of cigarettes made the place unusually dark inside. The man took us around each bedroom, where an unimaginable air of repression permeated the space. The wife had on her Sunday best, blue eye shadow and red lipstick on a thin, droopy mouth. Perhaps they had just come from church. She wore thick glasses and she rolled up her sleeves as she stood over the kitchen sink defrosting Rainbow chicken pieces in the dark.

I could describe the intimate spaces of the remnants of apartheid all day, but the feelings I felt, I did not anticipate. By the time we left the third house — a dirty house on a beautiful property with four coffee cups, four motorcycle helmets and four unmade beds the only indication of human occupation — it was clear that the power we attribute to the people in whose name apartheid was made is perhaps too generous at times and too limited to the power to have things.

Things they have, but power? I don’t know. I saw emaciated spirits and a deep dissonance with the larger reality of South Africa’s pathologies that can hardly be helped. These are not people who are going to awaken to a new consciousness rooted in swapping their whiteness for being abantu anytime soon.

As we were leaving the town, we stopped at a boerewors roll stand run by two women in their 40s who were very helpful, in a manner rooted in a deep desire to connect. I looked at X and said: “Yeah, my friend, people are just people.”