The quality of the silences. Or: living the dream, living the nightmare, and unable to speak.

Most of my friends I see or speak to very infrequently. I mean, some of them, you might actually realistically say I almost never see or speak to them – once in three or five years, it might be. Some I may connect with once or twice a year. Some I see in the virtual worlds of gmail chat and WhatsApp several times a day, but weeks or months may pass before we find a time to coincide in the same place. The quality of the silences between those meetings differ.

In most cases, I know and trust that we’re off down the rabbit holes of our respective universes of work, family, and whatever peculiar mix of preoccupations we spend our time on. One friend disappears on long silences in one of two scenarios – a budding relationship, or a spiralling depression. I rely on a weirdly accurate sense of intuition to tell me whether she needs me to leave her to it, or call before things get too dark.

Another friend is a constant presence of dialogue. When things are going well, we marvel and mutually congratulate. When things are dire, we commiserate and rant and listen. There’s something about keeping up with the broad strokes as well as the fine minutiae of another person’s life that gives you permission to explore your life in more detail.

This blog has become, for me, an estranged friend, the one you think you ought to catch up with, but somehow the moment never seems right. It used to be a mirror of my thoughts and obsessions, happy moments and musings, pickles and rants. This is the friend you’ve really lost touch with, the one you can’t really talk about unmentionable stuff with because it’s become… well, unmentionable. And sharing your excitement about the good stuff would be … well, out of place, because they don’t have a clue what’s been going on.

Why does this happen, this self-censorship? In friendships, I think it happens from untended hurts, tresspasses unaddressed, unacknowledged, unresolved. Here, in this somewhat public writing space, I feel my growing discomfort about South Africa and living here. I want to write about feeling increasingly, maddeningly marginalised by this country’s obsession with demographics. As a 40-year-old, a mother, white, privileged, married, living in the suburbs…. it feels like there is less and less I am allowed to say. My fears and dramas are what the journalists of this country always refer to (always pejoratively) as “suburban”. Apparently where you live affects the legitimacy of your experience. And yet the fear and outrage and dismay that simmers beneath the surface of life in South Africa is a shared one, I am convinced of it.

I read this piece by Tom Eaton this morning:

Half a day since the state told us that Jacob Zuma is untouchable and that our tax revenue is his – and all is quiet.

No candlelit vigils, no burning government buildings, not even a particularly loud noise on social media.

Tonight South Africans are speaking with one voice, and here’s what we’re telling Jacob Zuma:

“You can take whatever you want. It’s ok. We don’t like it but we’re too tired, too angry, too confused, too enmeshed in the civil service, to fight.

“You can have Nkandla. Maybe that will be enough for you, but it probably won’t be, and when you take more, we won’t burn anything then either. You win. Help yourself.”

No wonder he’s laughing so much these days. I used to think it was nervous laughter. Now I know better. It’s a logical, reasonable response to realizing that he’s won a lottery where the jackpot keeps getting bigger the longer he stays in office. He’s laughing because he’s won. And he’s laughing at us.

He sums up the sheer sense of exhaustion and powerlessness that colours our broader existence in this country. Inevitably it starts at the top, with our faith (or, more accurately, dire lack of it) in our leaders. The assaults on our trust are so continuous that we get what Ranjeni Munusamy  called scandal fatigue:

The ordinary public is fatigued by the litany of scandals, the investigating authorities are politically compromised, the independent bodies are overwhelmed by the volume of investigations, the opposition has very few powers, the guardians are demonised and threatened and the looters have free rein. It is a dangerous territory and is neither normal nor good for the country.

Most sentient people would agree that something is rotten in the Republic of South Africa. As in the case of Hamlet’s Denmark, festering with moral and political corruption, such a situation can only breed chaos and peril.

And from the systematic lawlessness at the top, there is the more everyday horror. To drive across the city is to run the gauntlet of the poster boards screaming out the latest baby rape, the latest woman murdered by her angry husband.

It becomes, increasingly, unspeakable. What shall we talk about, here, my friend? Shall we talk about living in a continuous state of outrage and fear, then suppressing it firmly and continuously, as we do, and soldiering on? At this juncture, on many days, it’s just about all I can do to keep breathing. In-breath, out-breath. Mix the dough, make the bread. Wash the olives – in a few months they’ll be ready to bottle, if I can just remember to wash them every day. And perhaps you and I can meet again, if I can take a deep enough breath to feel it’s ok to say anything at all.

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About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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One Response to The quality of the silences. Or: living the dream, living the nightmare, and unable to speak.

  1. such a brilliant piece
    Thank you for ‘unsilencing’
    your words

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