Night of darkness killed our dreams

2009-10-02 00:00

WHEN my children were little my husband worked in Jo’burg and was away during the week. At night I’d sit in a chair in their room waiting for them to go to sleep and plot what I would do if intruders suddenly burst into the house.

Push a bed against the door. Overturn a chest of drawers to wedge the bed against it. Punch a hole in the window and scream. It was silly, paranoid stuff but I discovered in conversations with other mothers that some of them had had similar thoughts when they were alone with their children.

So it was with a pang of recognition that I read Sarah Nuttall’s description in Load Shedding: Writing On and Over the Edge of South Africa of her nightly routine when she was left alone in Johannesburg with a new baby while her husband travelled overseas.

Before bed she would take the contents of her handbag, her bank cards, car keys and cellphone, and lay them out neatly on the dining room table. “They were a form of address. To the man who might make his way in. Take everything you want. The computers in the studies, the music system in the lounge. The car in the garage. The money in the bank. Just let us live.”

It’s primal stuff but thankfully for the reader not all bad. Reading this book felt a lot like meeting a collection of people who share the same dark, unarticulated thoughts you’ve been hugging to yourself, and sharing their stories brought a sense of release.

Edited by Nuttall and Liz McGregor, this writing, mainly by staff of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), is a sequel to At Risk, which came out in 2007. The title, derived from the blackouts foisted on the country by Eskom last year, is archly appropriate, for herein lies an off-loading of some of the emotional and intellectual baggage that has become part of our daily existence, the doubts, insights and insecurities of living in post-apartheid South Africa.

Of course, these blackouts were also the last straw for many gatvol South Africans. The year 2008, write the editors, signalled the end of our dream years. It was a year when xenophobic attacks, ugly spasms of disunity in the ruling party and the very public failure of government service delivery, summed up most dramatically in Eskom’s humiliation, made South Africans realise it was time to start talking publically.

Whereas for years many had only voiced their misgivings in private, it became commonplace for all sorts of old faithfuls, including even African National Congress members, to voice their fears and criticisms of the way the country was being run.

The trickle of doubts and misgivings in the public domain has grown steadily into something deeper, blossoming in this book into something altogether more rich and nuanced.

Real, honest dialogue doesn’t come easy to us. Our experiences, both before and after 1994, have left most people afraid to talk or even come forward about the most seemingly innocuous things. Even now, 15 years after the end of apartheid, journalists struggle to get people to go on the record about anything. Ordinary citizens are reluctant, even fearful, of having their name and photograph linked to a story.

Sometimes speaking the truth only happens when loyalties fade. Wiser director Jonathan Hyslop writes in the book about being an eighties radical and the youthful idealism in Zimbabwe of the early eighties. He describes the disconcerting realisation that crept over him and his comrades, that the regime that had come to power was also a force of darkness.

Sometimes speaking out, especially when it involves your own kin, requires almost unbearable courage. Kgomotso Matsunyane, who was sexually abused by a relative as a child, describes the emotional devastation this experience wreaked, as well as the agony of the indifference of her family to this ordeal when she told them.

One of the most courageous and enlightening accounts in the book comes from Makhosazana Xaba, who tackles all sorts of holy cows. While she grew up in the home of an enlightened Zulu man, which was clearly her salvation, she describes the intense sexism that is rife and condoned in the daily existence of black South African women. She also writes about growing up near Richmond and her introduction as a child, on her first trip to town, to the barrage of racism that many black people were subjected to at the time at the hands of Indians.

And, most interestingly, she writes of the gloating tribalism expressed by Zulu acquaintances and relatives in the run-up to the last elections. “The Xhosas have had it nice for a long time, now it’s our turn,” said one relative. “Everyone owns a coolie”, she was told by someone else, in explaining how Zulus in KwaZulu-Natal are positioning themselves to have access to the wealth in the province, which is “still in the hands of the Indians’’.

“Times have changed and alliances are shifting,” writes Xaba. “We all have to find new and steady ground under our feet.”

Sometimes this means realising that you’re on your own, with only your own resources to defend you. Michael Titlestad writes about his fitness routine and how he’s training for the new enemy — the black man who might come over his fence to rob and kill him.

Titlestad was conscripted into the South African Defence Force as a young man and wasn’t strong enough for the army — he eventually had a breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital, along with other young troepies who had cracked. He believes that he crumbled because he didn’t care about the cause, the privations were not worth struggling to survive for. But now he’s preparing for a war, against criminals, that he must be ready for.

There’s no one else he can rely on.

Imraan Coovadia also writes about this sense of being alone, as experienced by South Africa’s Indians. He acknowledges that the anxiety of Indians is not exceptional but “every culture is nervous in its own way”. For Indians this means living by a kind of doomsday clock, a clocking ticking towards midnight, or an end. Indians — and by extension other non-black Africans — feel excluded by attempts to Africanise the country and see no future for themselves here. They live by a different clock from black South Africans, who are looking to the future.

“Time has begun for them,” writes Coovadia.

Disappointment. Betrayal. The weariness that comes with too many unwelcome insights. All in all, these stories can seem like a bleak assessment of our national psyche. So why does the book also leave one feeling vaguely positive?

Our neighbourhood, which at the time of my lonely fretting was a fairly anonymous place, went through a frightening time of burglaries and home invasions. Once or twice we woke to gunshots and across the valley some families survived terrifying attacks­.

The community was forced to become organised. Neighbourhoods met regularly and people began sharing ideas and implementing plans. All of this had a positive effect on reducing the crime rate, but, as importantly, it made the residents feel empowered. In the same way, stories can be empowering, for you can’t really know how to tackle something until it’s been articulated. If the effect of being muzzled is to feel powerless, then these brave insights should be cheered.

• Load Shedding: Writing On and Over the Edge of South Africa is edited by Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall and published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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