Today I walk my son to school. It’s about 700 m from our house to his pre-primary school.
Along our road, past the pub, where last night’s mountain of bottles will be picked up later by the Wasteman truck on its daily round. We pass the pizza restaurant. We talk about maybe going to eat early pizza this evening. He’s excited about the idea.
We head up Kenilworth Road. I grip his hand tightly and feel my heart thud a bit when cars scream past us, 10 or 20 km over the speed limit for this thin suburban road. The drivers’ lips tighten in fury and frustration when they see the booms at the train station closed up ahead. I know that feeling: trapped on the wrong side of the train line, at traffic hour. But there is always a stream of cars that forget the closing times. We see them speed down first avenue, adding their stress to the pile-up in Lansdowne Road.
I’m wearing black today. It’s #BlackFriday around here. Elsewhere that’s a day of sales and shopping. Here it’s a day to acknowledge the crisis of violence, assault and rape that faces women in this country. A crisis that’s been brutally highlighted in the events of the last two weeks. I don’t see anyone else wearing black, though, as we walk. We weave our way through the nannies and labourers and shopworkers streaming out of the train station.
Street fashion around the station is elegant, vibrant, surprising. A young woman with bits of shell woven into her long black braids, an apple green T-shirt, a printed skirt. Women call out “Morning Kolya and Kolya’s-mom!”
We walk under the subway at the station. I get a pang of anxiety as Kolya runs ahead. Ahead where I can see you is fine. The second you are out of sight, in the subway of a train station, not so fine. This would be the same anywhere in the world, no? No?
Now round the corner where the workmen have gradually been paving the walkways with beautiful pink and ochre cobblestones, and painting new zebra crossings. Past the taxis screaming into Claremont, and the bakkies heading towards Lansdowne, and the school parents lifting or walking kids to school, and the commuting suits. Past the four homeless people sitting on crates washing their faces from the open drainwater. Round into the neat matrix of lower Kenilworth houses. Past the one with the ‘Sold’ sign on it, that we almost set our hearts on. Past its neighbours, lovely old stone houses with big, quiet leafy gardens, old and regal. Behind one of the hedged fences, I hear a trickling fountain.
From here the walk is quieter. We cross each road carefully. There are fewer people walking, and it’s the part where Kolya gets a bit tired. I rush him slightly to get to to the road that the school is in, where there are more people, security guards in a hut on the corner. And into the school, where it’s all hello’s and remembering to put your fruit in the bowl for sharing, and off to play, to brave the scary playground.
Now it’s my turn to walk home alone. I have no watch or ring on me, as sometimes I fear that someone will hurt or break me for these things. If someone chooses to hurt or break me for what I can’t leave at home – my body – I will not be able to phone for help, because my BlackBerry is also a risky thing to carry. Alone, I am even more aware of the suburban roads where no one else is walking. No one is fine. One person is ok if it’s a woman, not ok if it’s a man. Elderly men are ok. Younger men not so much. Yesterday there was a man sauntering slowly ahead of me with a wire coat hanger in his pocket. I didn’t want to think what a man could do with a wire coat hanger, if he was so inclined.
When younger men walk ahead, I slow down to make sure they turn a corner ahead of me. I navigate my walk so that I don’t reach the lower road alongside the train line to soon, too far from the station. Too many taxi’s speeding past, and they slow down and whistle and yell. Even just the innocuous “Claremont?!!” elicits an unwanted surge of adrenaline to my stomach.
Back down past the station. This time, the subway is more deserted. I try not to think what could happen in a deserted subway. Back to the busier roads closer to our house, that feels safer.
Wearing black today feels pointless, hopeless. It feels to me like there has never been a darker, more twisted time to live in South Africa. I close my eyes and see a teenage girl, conscious enough to speak, her intestines lying around her in the sand. I see men whose lips thin with silent rage. I see uniforms that hide and obscure humanity. This is where we live. We are at the mercy of drivers ragged with road rage, and men with coat hangers in their pockets. And somewhere, a fountain flows, just out of reach.