Another story

Gloria is a Xhosa woman who comes to our house on Wednesdays to do some extra cleaning and ironing. She’s painfully shy, intensely god-fearing and scarily hard-working. Which means she doesn’t say much, she is sometimes fasting when she comes to work, and by the time she leaves everything is very neat and very shiny. Every now and then she needs to borrow some money for a church trip or a Transkei funeral.

A few months after starting work for us, she disappears. She doesn’t return calls, she simply doesn”t turn up for a couple of months. Pam is agitated because Gloria  borrowed some money from her. We are all worried that something has happened to her, but it’s  also annoying to be in the dark. Meanwhile the washing and ironing piles up, and I’m simultaneously frustrated by the gap in domestic work and concerned that replacing Gloria will cause more drama for her than whatever she is going through at an evidently already-difficult time. This is not helped by my inevitable guilty suspicion that if I were just a bit more energetic and multi-faceted and competent, I’d do all my own washing and ironing, and wouldn’t have to face the heavy disparity between my own privileged concerns and those of the near-destitute Gloria.

Eventually Gloria reappears, with a difficult-to-understand story about going away and losing a cellphone. Later this turns into a story about a hospital and an operation. In a successive telling, it morphs yet again into an awful story about a pregnancy she hadn’t known about, and an abortion. Each story is told in the same unemotional broken English, making it impossible to decode any nuance as to which bits are the real story and which aren’t, or how she feels about any of it, or why there has really been no communication for three months.

Now I feel simultaneously irritated about being lied to and heartsore for a woman who has been through a version of hell. And cynically mistrustful. Is each successive story just a tweaking of a fiction designed to elicit the fewest repercussions for Gloria? After all, the more awful the story, the less one is likely to hold her accountable for her disappearance, her non-communication, her absenteeism. The more likely one is to regard her as a helpless victim of misfortune.

I try to tone down the cynicism, I attempt something of a discussion around the importance of communication and honesty, and with some ambivalence, reinstate Gloria in her weekly cleaning routine.

For several months, Wednesdays are an icy affair in our house, as Gloria and Pam ignore each other in the wake of this debacle. Pam is clearly less persuaded by the story than I am. Eventually, they get over themselves and we settle back into Gloria’s weekly appearances.

Today, Gloria has another awful story.

–My son, she says, broke a house. And he stole that home theatre. So now the community says they will sell my house for one thousand five hundred. If I want to keep my house, I must give that one thousand five hundred by Friday.

–What do you mean? Why are they wanting your house? I ask.

–For my son, she says. For stealing that thing.

–But this is not your son’s house. Taking your house is stealing your thing. What about the police? I ask.

–I go to police, she says. Police says if the community is dealing with this matter, then as long as they are not killing, is not for the police.

–What about your son? I ask.

–He take that thing to sell, she says. To shipping, not to sell here. So that man, he gives five hundred for that home theatre. They must go back Friday for the other one thousand. But when they go back he isn’t there.

–OK, I say. So your community is punishing you? What about your son?

–He didn’t sleep by me two nights, she says. I don’t know. I only have to defend my house.

–And your son? What happened to the money from this thing?

She looks confused. I explain again: he stole something, he sold it – what did he do with the money?

–They use the money. They are using the drugs. They buy the drugs.

–What are these drugs, I ask. Tik?

–It’s that white powder, she says. In a small packet.

–So what will happen to your son? What if he just does this again?

–I don’t know, but they want to take my house.

The conversation goes round in circles for a bit. I find myself angry to be asked to take any part in this fucked-up situation. I find myself angry that these fuck-ups end up feeling like a phishing scam.

I reckon: either the story is true or it’s not true. Either way, she has a need for an amount of money, irrespective of the story behind it. Eventually we come to an arrangement where she will do more work in order to earn more money.

At one level, I really don’t want to know the story. Whether the money is for a bus ticket or a funeral or compensation for a theft that her son committed. Or for a new pair of shoes. In fact, I’m hoping the story is a fabrication. Which is almost easy to believe, given the precedent of fabrications. I’m hoping she’s working the extra days for a new lounge suite or lots of winter clothes for her younger, non-drug-dependent children.

Because if the story is true, there are too many what if’s and what about’s. What about the next time the drug addict son decides to do this? What about the theft which has a value far past anything she’s able to pay back on his behalf? What if the vigilante community has bloodier plans for him anyway? What if she spends the next couple of weeks working off a loan that is buying her absolutely nothing, only for the next terrible true story to come up and catch her in its clutches?

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Diary of a pregnancy – part I

Mid-December. Roughly 3 weeks: Wedding. Not aware that I’m pregnant. Top button pops off my wedding dress, and there are some flattering comments about cleavage. We put this down to my wonderful dressmaker.

Few days later. Roughly 3 1/2 weeks: Two lines on a home pregnancy test! This is a good way to wake your partner up, especially when you’ve had an annoying disagreement the night before. “I’m pregnant,” you say. “Could’ve told you that last night when you were being so unreasonable,” he says gruffly, still half asleep. But he keeps the little plastic gidget with its two lines, as a memento.

Another week on. About 4 1/2 weeks: Somewhere between Christmas and New Year. We head off on a 2-week holiday up the coast. We haven’t really told anyone about this, besides the grandparents. But there is a a lot of insistent talk about watermelon cocktails. There is a lot of vodka. Even my usual lack of enthusiasm for alcohol is starting to draw scepticism. Eventually I have to explain why I’m really not going to be having these delicious-looking cocktails.

Another week on. About 5 1/2 weeks. Good thing we told holiday friends. They would’ve guessed anyway, what with my afternoon naps and inability to stay awake after 9pm. And sending Dave out for punnets of blueberries every other day. (Blueberries taste like soap to me usually. But for some reason I want LOTS right now.)

Mid-January. About 7 weeks. I admit to Kolya’s nanny that I’m pregnant. She says she figured it out at the beginning of December, when I got overreactive about the vacuum cleaner. I don’t tell her I wasn’t pregnant when that happened.

I also go for a doctor’s check-up. One embryo, not two. There are about a zillion twins in my family. So that’s quite a relief. Thankfully, my doctor is one of the three and a half medical people in this city who are supportive of midwifery. She jots down a name on a piece of paper, sends me off for routine blood tests, and tells me she will see me again at 36 weeks. I tell my gym trainer too, and she sets up a twice-weekly class tailored for me and one other client who’s pregnant. I feel a bit like I have a SWOT team on my side.

Late January. About 8 weeks. Socialising grinds to a halt. I’m a semi-zombie by noon; thoroughly zombie by mid-afternoon. Can’t really snap out of it til about 7 or 8 pm. This wreaks havoc with the late afternoon pattern of spending some time with Kolya, getting his bath and supper organised, making some sort of plan for our dinner later. Several times Dave comes home and finds me staring into space while K watches a DVD. We order a lot of takeaways.

Mid February. About 10 weeks. I’ve become almost entirely pescetarian. I eat fish at breakfast, lunch and supper. There’s also an incident where I find myself picking up Spur takeaways at 10.30am on the way into the bank. I feel like a caricature of pregnancy cravings. Don’t look remotely pregnant though. It’s all a bit unreal.

I’ve been cast in a couple of adverts, including one that involves a shoot with a lion. I get told not to tell the client I’m pregnant. I’m pretty wary around the lion.

Late February. 13 weeks. The sonographers do the much-awaited 3-month scan. Suddenly, to my surprise, it’s a she, and she looks healthy and happy. We’ve been private with the news til now, but we make a few calls. It still feels unreal to me, and people’s enthusiasm and delight surprises me.

Early March. 14 weeks. I’ve nearly stopped being such an afternoon zombie. I start cooking again. I go whole days without eating fish. I haul out my old copy of ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’. Like so much pregnancy/birth literature, it’s all centred around fear and uncertainty. I have much more fun on the visembryo site (, looking at what this tiny little bean-like life looks like.

I have, however, turned into a moody bitch of note. I have moments of roaring impatience and weep-worthy frustration. I get aggro in the car. I get argumentative and irritable. And emotional. Radio adverts make me cry. Kolya’s bedtime stories make me cry.

Later March. 16 weeks. I go to meet my midwife, Angela. She’s wonderfully warm and calming. She recommends a course called HypnoBirthing. I don’t like the name. Everyone tells me it’s wrongly named, that it shouldn’t be called that. I don’t the (TM) after the name either. But it seems like a good idea.

April. 20-ish weeks. Everything happens at the same time. We’ve sold our house, but we still haven’t found something we want to buy. Meantime, the 20-week scan throws up some irregularities, and the sonographers send us off for an amniocentesis. I watch them push a needle into my belly, watch the baby on the screen as she stays perfectly still for the 5 seconds it takes to draw out the few mls of amniotic fluid. Get sent to bed for a day, with strict instructions not to exert myself at all. The doctors are vague and uncommunicative afterwards. On strict instructions I take to my bed with magazines and chick-lit and feel fairly sorry for myself.

I’m still performing with TheatreSports most Tuesday nights.But being onstage requires you to let go of self-consciousness, to have a body that will do whatever your character requires. I’m constantly aware of my baby-belly suddenly, and I just can’t get into that unselfconscious space. My characters are all a bit slow.

We’re spending Wednesday evenings trying to stay awake through the HypnoBirthing class. It’s simultaneously lovely and interesting and informative, and infuriatingly American and branded. I find myself getting a little annoyed by aspects of the course, but also relieved that I’ve finally started to take some real steps towards relaxing and paying more attention to a calmer frame of mind. The classes also get me thinking about, and excited for, the birth, which til now has seemed a distant and hazy prospect.

At the same time, we discover that neighbours of friends want to sell their house. We go have a look at it, and start negotiations.

April. Few days later. After several miscommunications, the lab results come back. They’re simultaneously fine and totally vague, which means the technicians tell you the number of chromosomes and the sex, and have a disclaimer where they don’t rule out anything at all. But this is apparently the best possible outcome of this test. That and we seem to have bought a house.

April. 22-ish weeks. My gym partner is six weeks ahead of me in her pregnancy. She stops training. I feel a bit bereft about this; it was fun having a partner to train with. I don’t think exercising on my own is going to be such fun. I also wonder whether in 6 weeks’ time I’ll be too hefty to feel up to exercising. I want to carry on til I’m almost in labour. Endorphins are a good thing. We’ll see how that goes.

The weekly prenatal class has gotten me thinking about Kolya’s birth: the wonder of the whole experience; the strange, primal process of labour; the loveliness of having birthed him at home, the pleasure of curling up with a newborn child. I am both hopeful that this child will have a similarly lovely arrival, and a little disquieted by our experiences of doctors, and the knowledge of the very medically biased birth industry in this country.

May. 24 weeks. I eventually force myself to start paying attention to drinking enough water and eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and fibre. I do this out of concern for my physical health, but an unexpected side effect pops up: my near-constant irritability and tension dissolves and I suddenly feel a sense of pleasantness and ease return. I hadn’t even realised how absent it was til it came back.

Dave comes home from a night out with his friends in Claremont. He leans over my belly and says, “Listen, my girl, you are never leaving the house in what I saw those girls wearing on Claremont Main Road tonight. Not over my dead body.” I guess I’ll have to remind him of this in 15 or 16 years’ time.

Later May. About 25 weeks. Dave finally feels the baby kicking. I’ve been able to feel the kicking for a couple of weeks already, but now it’s getting stronger and more regular. “There’s an alien in there,” he says, looking alarmed. I try get Kolya to put his hand on my belly to feel, but he he doesn’t have the patience to leave it there, and anyway, his hand is too small to extend across more than a few centimetres of tummy at a time, and the kicks keep moving around.

We keep staying up til 1.30 am poring over house plans and discussing details of the driveway, the kitchen, how to resolve the anomalies of making disparate spaces in an old house work when you remodel them. Pinterest is the new porn.

Later May. 26 weeks. My belly suddenly feels like it is blown up like a big balloon. I’ve stopped performing with TheatreSports, and have started moving significantly more slowly. My gym trainer is being super-gentle with me; we start doing one session weekly in the pool, which is utterly wonderful.

I get a hideous bout of heartburn, which I recall from the last pregnancy too – I just didn’t think it would affect me this soon. Dial down meals to brown rice and stirfy, oats and milk.

The house is full of packing boxes. Next week we’ll start moving across to our rental house; in a month’s time, the new owner will take over this place. Entrances and exits all over the place. More to follow.

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Ina May Gaskin

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Oranges, lemons and limes

It’s been a busy time around here, but also filled with abundant surprises.

IMG_3532This is a picture of a small lemon tree that stands in a barrel at the end of the garden. The lemon tree struggles a bit: I forget to water the barrels in summer, and they’re susceptible to getting nasty sticky attacks on their leaves. Nonetheless, the little green lemon in the picture appeared today. It’s the second one to appear in about a year; a big fat yellow one had been hanging tenaciously for a couple of months, and finally got picked by Kolya this week. I wasn’t too sure what worthwhile purpose I could find for it (most lemons in our house get squished over pancakes – which just didn’t seem worthy of such a patiently awaited one-fruit harvest).

IMG_3533 Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the yellow lemon before chopping it up this morning when its moment presented itself. Dave was out fishing, Kolya was at his granny and grandpa’s, and I had the morning to prepare mother’s day lunch: homemade pasta, slow-cooked bolognese, and lemon bars, made kind of magically with a whole lemon blended up into a gooey, tart sort of mixture over a shortbread base.

IMG_3536Whole lemon bars, sprinkled with icing sugar.

IMG_3534And while all that was cooking, I got to drink tea and eat pieces of toast with an amazing eight-fruit marmalade that we received as a gift last night from the wonderful couple from whom we have bought our new house.

IMG_3501Side angle of where we’ll be living from sometime nearer the end of this year. Much excitement! Happy mother’s day to all those of you that have ever carried a child.

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A can of baby worms

When you’re pregnant, my mom always said, it seems like the whole world is having babies. And, indeed, it’s been a year of babies around here: all three of my sisters-in-law are currently either pregnant or nursing freshly minted newborns, and I’m expecting a little girl in September.

Interestingly, many of the women around me are also onto their second babies. And it’s also interesting – and a little scary – going through this pregnancy and birth in a health system (private, South African) so vastly different to the one (national, UK) where I gave birth five years ago.

Which brings me to a burning, aching, heartsore issue for me, and one I feel almost disallowed to express. 9 out of 10 women I know have brought their children into the world via surgery, rather than natural childbirth. And 9 out of 10 of the pregnant moms I know consider themselves on the ‘likely to need a C-section’ end of the spectrum. It’s an epidemic of unnecessary surgery, among a privileged, healthy section of a population who have no reason to need these high rates of unnecessary surgery.

Why the hell are the majority of women in the private healthcare system in SA being cut open to have their babies surgically removed? Why is there so much acceptance of the systematic denial of women’s opportunity to give birth naturally?

It isn’t rocket science. A privatised healthcare system is consistently loaded against the interests of the naturally birthing mother. The overriding reason is that Caesarians are more profitable for hospitals. They’re easier to schedule, and they give the doctor an easy quick way to get the birth over and done with. The financial rewards are direct for hospital and doctors. The need for equipment and meds, from anaesthetics to syntocin and painkillers, adds to the profit-fest. And all this can be offered under the guise of a pain-free, quick, controlled, safe procedure. And because they are paid for by medical aids, it’s very easy to persuade the patient (as the mother becomes) that it’s reasonable. The reason that Caesarian rates are lower in countries like the UK and the Netherlands that is motivated towards best possible outcomes for mothers AND keeping healthcare costs reasonable. Not just easiest and most lucrative outcomes for doctors.

But if it’s pain-free, quick, controlled, safe, and cheaply available on your medical aid… why shouldn’t mothers embrace it? Isn’t the outcome the same? Well, yes and no. The ultimate outcome – the safe arrival of the child is paramount. And in the tiny proportion of cases where the Caesar is truly necessary, that outcome overrides the importance of other, softer outcomes. Natural birth offers a lower rate of short-term complications for mother and child [1]. Recovery time is shorter, and doesn’t interrupt the early mother-child bonding process. The natural drugs released by the body – the endorphins and hormones – completely support the production of breastmilk and post-birth bonding, unlike medical drugs and surgical interventions, which may badly interrupt these processes. But mostly (though, with so many C-section moms around, it’s taboo to say so), giving birth – if done in a relaxed, supportive environment – can be an utterly amazing process, a privilege, a once-in-a-lifetime source of joy and personal achievement.

According to a 2010 world health report by the World Health Organisation:

‘[t]he recommended minimum necessary CS rate at population level to avoid death and severe morbidity in the mother lays between 1-5%, according to WHO and others.’ [2]

This view is echoed by the UK’s National Health Service. In any given population, it’s normal for around 5% of pregnancies to involve ‘birth complications’ that might necessitate Caesarian section or other medical intervention. In other words, around 95 out every 100 pregnant moms is capable and likely to have a successful natural birth – in an environment that actually supports natural birth.

But in South Africa, the rate of C-sections in private hospitals is between 80 and 100%. That’s 75 to 95 unnecessary surgical interventions per 100 births. It’s insane. The problem isn’t the complications. The problem is the environment we’re faced with.

Like I said, I mostly feel this is a view that I should just shut up about. There are so many people I’m likely to offend. Every woman I know who’s undergone a Caesarian section has a detailed narrative about why it was necessary. The baby was too big. The baby hadn’t turned. The placenta was doing something funny. The cord was around the baby’s neck. The uterus was doing something funny. The baby was in distress. A detailed narrative, offered very convincingly – and duly frighteningly – by the medical fraternity, and taken up by mothers, who become patients, patiently accepting what doctors tell them – because what else can they do, when listening to the doctor is the only responsible choice on offer?

But it’s impossible that every one of these C-sections was necessary. We have a situation where private hospitals in this country have a rate of around 80% Caesarian deliveries. Some private hospitals have a 100% rate. There are doctors who are known to refuse to consider natural birth as an option. Without exception, in private hospitals, the labour wards have one, two, maybe three beds. And they’re never full. Because you don’t give birth naturally in this country. You “try for” natural birth. For an hour or two. And of  those who labour for 12, 15, 24 hours, most do so under the scrutiny of a medical staff who are mostly waiting for the go-ahead to transfer to surgery and get it over with. I have no idea how natural birth is even remotely possible under those circumstances. When a mom does persist with her natural labour all the way through to birthing, curious nurses pop their heads around the door to get a glimpse of her. It’s that much of an exception, and no wonder.

It fills me with resentment – not towards the mothers that get put in this position, or the babies born in this way – but towards the system so unswervingly biased towards removing any real sense of birth choice from an entire population of mothers. Healthily pregnant mothers with healthily gestated babies in healthy uteri, with potentially excellent outcomes for a natural birth. That is what is being denied here. It’s a systematic and it’s endemic robbery of choice, one that wastes money to the tune of billions of dollars internationally, in countries where privatised healthcare is the norm [3]. And, scarily, despite the fact that I have had a completely wonderful, easy, successful natural birth previously, even I hear the same things from doctors. A little detail here or there – “well, we’ll have to keep an eye on this, because if it persists you may need a Caesarian, but not to worry, we’ll just have a look closer to the time.”

I speak to first-time moms who (inevitably) talk about “trying for a natural”, and my heart sinks for them. Not because I care either way what they choose. But it saddens me that they’re not being given much of a real choice. It saddens me that they’re overlooking the astonishing job they’ve already done of conceiving and gently producing a baby.

They’re ignoring the way their body has absolutely reliably built every bone and nerve and blood cell in that baby’s body, painstakingly fed it oxygen and nutrients and a perfect blend of hormones, generated a heartbeat and a blood supply. The placenta has formed and fed and nurtured, the amniotic fluid has bathed and held and protected, the uterus has stretched to accommodate the growing child. For nine whole months, their bodies have done extraordinary things that no doctor could ever attempt. And then, just before the child is ready to arrive, the doctors have the gall to snatch away the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of the equally extraordinary culmination of this amazing process.

For heaven’s sake, isn’t sex also a strange mix of pain and pleasure? Imagine a world where your friends only shared horror stories about their first sexual encounter, where normal sex was replaced with a 95% IVF rate, or some kind of highly profitable surgical procedure. Imagine a world where you and your partner would be inspected by a doctor, and penis and vagina sizes analysed and compared for potential discomfort. How comfortable and fun would sex be after that? I can think of other, more scatalogical examples, but I’ll spare you. It’s a bizarre enough little picture. Orwellian even. But in the case of childbirth, we’ve gone to that dark world. A world where doctors are allowed to subjugate a normal, natural, messy real-life process and replace it with something clinical, surgical, and dominated by scheduling, equipment and profit.

A normal natural birth is both normal and completely extraordinary. It is a marathon of physical and psychological effort, yes. It is not without discomfort, no. But it is also a physical, loving, primal process – as much as the process of conceiving a child in the first place. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to allow your child to enter the world at a pace and a rhythm determined by his body and yours, in a unison of effort that will bond you like no other experience in your life. I am truly sorry for those who have missed this experience. I don’t judge them or their babies; I do judge the nasty juggernaut of a healthcare system that’s made it impossible for them to trust their bodies. And yes, in some cases –  just like in the case of those who need IVF and other interventions – it may be a life-saving, life-creating necessity. I appreciate that, and have no desire to dismiss it. But in most cases, it’s just a terrible pity.

And what angers me most is that I feel myself trapped in the same system, where doctors  wield their power to plant these seeds of fear. Even with my own history of a perfectly happy, healthy natural homebirth, I can feel that exercising my real choice involves considerable resistance, to safeguard my own fragile confidence and faith in my own real ability to give birth. I’m a few years older now. The doctors point that out. They point out blurs on a scan, and make little noises of concern, and my throat constricts. And I wonder whether I’m fated to be processed in the same way through the same system, or whether I have it in me to safely navigate my – and my baby’s – way through.


I’ve been writing this article for a while now. I’ve resisted publishing it at various points because I’ve not wanted it to look like a rant directed at any specific person’s choice. It’s not that. If you’re a mom who gave birth by C-section, I’m not saying you did the wrong thing. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about a system much bigger and more powerful than both of us.

Acknowledgements and further reading

[1] Arikan I, Barut A, Harma M, Harma IM, Gezer S, Ulubasoglu H. –Clin Exp Obstet Gynecol. 2012;39(3):288-92.PMID: 23157026 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]



There’s tons of reading on this divisive and controversial topic. Here are a few articles and blogs I came across:

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Kolya’s 5th birthday

Kolya turned 5 at the beginning of May. We celebrated with a small braai with friends and family.

Kolya with his teacher, Tasnim, at the start of his birthday circle at school

Kolya with his teacher, Tasnim, at the start of his birthday circle at school

Birthday circle at school on Kolya’s birthday. He’s carrying a globe around a candle to show the passing of each year of his life.


Smile from the birthday boy. He was wearing a white vest and black shorts because it was dress-up day at school. White and black was as far as we got with his pirate suit before he announced he didn’t want to dress up.


Marc and Dani




Gerald in good cheer


Blowing out the candles on the pirate cake.


Justin, Julia and Ollie


the cakemaker




Tandi and Calvin in pink

pirate cake

One blurry picture of the pirate cake, courtesy of Julia’s phone!

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One month…

Today is the 7th of May. This morning I flicked through my diary. Since 7th April, we have…

sold a house, bought a house, rented an in-between house…

undergone two baby scans and a slightly scary screening test that spanned 5 days of anxious waiting (happily, all the doctors’ anxiety-inducing cautioning was unfounded, and all is fine)…

within the extended family, we’ve had 4 birthdays, including my dad’s 70th and Kolya’s 5th, 1 fancy dinner (former) and 1 pirate party (latter), 1 surprise visit from Joburg (also former), and 1 new baby cousin/nephew, with another expected tomorrow. Our baby has started kicking, though Dave and Kolya can’t feel it yet.

There have been 6 appointments for doctors or dentists, 6 days and about 5 sleepless nights with sick child, 1 school fundraiser. 1 overseas trip booked, 1 visa appointment postponed 4 times because so much else was going on. 4 swimming lessons, 1 banking nightmare, 1 ongoing Middle Eastern publishing project and 1 new African one. We’ve gotten to know our new neighbours as well as the lovely people who have, for the last ten years, been custodians of our wonderful new house. I’ve lost track of the hours spent poring over plans, researching the heritage of 1930s architecture, specifically the work of the architect that designed our house, and brainstorming the renovation works and budgeting for the rest of this year.

I’ve baked about 30 loaves of bread, performed in 4 shows, fitted in 4 improv classes, 3 singing classes, met my midwife, attended 2 hypnobirthing classes and 1 amazing improv workshop. The instruction from the hypnobirthing class is that I’m supposed to be as relaxed as possible as much as possible. Working on that still.

No idea what the next month has in store. Probably a lot of packing and moving (round one). Crazy times around here, folks.


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The blurry world of phone etiquette

Yesterday evening, I attended a talk given by William Kentridge, part of the Mentor & Protege program being showcased at the Baxter this weekend. Well, it was billed as a ‘workshop’, but it was more of a lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session. I was there with an art student friend who’d heard about it. It was funny and illuminating and surprising and delightful.

Next to me, my friend sat with a spiral notebook, jotting down occasional notes. On the other side of her sat a pair of women, one of whom pulled out a smartphone as the lecture started.  The woman had a blunt-looking stylus, with which she also jotted down occasional notes. It struck me how thoroughly disruptive the highly reflective, illuminated smartphone screen was, and how utterly ineffective the stylus marks were – each word looked like an illegible squiggle, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the woman was sorry not to have a good old notepad and pen. But she also a exuded a sort of excitement in her squiggling, so I figured perhaps this was a way of feeling she was engaging with the lecture, converting it to this odd document of electronic pen marks. I tried to dispel my own irritation at the disturbance; after all, there had been no announcement asking the audience to turn off their phones.

But then, five or ten minutes in, as Kentridge showed one of his animated films, the woman raised her smartphone to film or photograph it. I leaned over, touched her on the arm, and asked her please to stop. She looked highly annoyed, and hissed back “Why?” “It’s very disruptive,” I replied. She put it down, bristling somewhat and the lecture continued. I didn’t really think about it again until it ended, and she turned to me, still bristling with fury and delivered a monologue about her reasons for photographing the animation, ending by declaiming “You have very bad manners!” before she stormed off.

Thing is, if there’s no announcement before a public lecture or workshop or performance, what is the protocol regarding phones? I would have thought that the photographing or filming of any event in a public theatre space is a no-go area, unless permission has been explicitly granted. This woman seemed to suggest I was infringing on her right to experience/record this event. Is that the case? Surely not?

The thing is, smartphones are not just phones anymore. A smartphone is a telephone, it’s a camera, a videocamera, a dictaphone, a reference book, a notepad, a pencil and paper. It’s all of those things, in such a shiny hi-tech package that the person using it feels like they are increasing the value of an experience by mediating it with said phone. I just find myself wondering: at an event where you have paid for a ticket in order to be present, and others have done the same, do you have the right to hold up a recording device in the middle of it? Do you have the right to text in the palm of your hand, pretending the reflective glow of your phone isn’t interrupting the experience of anyone sitting around you? Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but the glow of a mobile phone four rows away in a cinema fills me with the furious desire to leap over the seats, rip it away from its inconsiderate user and send it skittering along the popcorn-strewn floor, never to be seen again.

Little makes me feel like such a curmudgeonly Luddite as the appearance of a mobile phone at a dinner table. Surreptitious texting/BBM-ing is the worst. Surreptitious checking of texts/emails/BBMs comes in a close second. It is perhaps forgivable in teenagers, who have neither the self-control nor sufficient self-awareness to realise that they might as well be sending up a flare saying “I’d rather be elsewhere”; “I’d rather be talking to someone else”; or, more accurately: “I just have to check what’s going on in case there’s something cooler happening/being said somewhere other than here.”

To me, the intrusive mobile phone interaction is all about being not-present. You are not present with the people around you; you are declaring your disinterest in, and disregard for, the here and now. Ironically, there is seldom a conscious choice here; it’s as likely that the texter is checking a junk mail email or  bulk SMS as they are checking anything of actual interest. We simply live in times where our phones and computers endlessly promise that a bell is about to ring heralding some gift-nugget of information or experience or surprise that is not on offer in the very real present.

I like blogging. I like texting and tweeting. I check my email and Facebook and Twitter and blogs as much as the next technophile. I let my child play on my iPad at restaurants and coffee shops and social gatherings. But is there not some middle ground, where we recognise that, in some settings, an electronic device is an interruption, an intrusion? And that – despite the ubiquity of the devices –  recording on them in a public setting raises both copyright issues and permission issues. And consideration issues. There are ways of embracing technology without turning into an inconsiderate shmuck.


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The “white tribe” tweet and uneasy unbelongingness

So the following little Twitter conversation turned up on my feed today:

white tribe tweet1

Now Twitter is a funny place. It’s a place of public conversation and dialogue, but it’s also a place where, in a way, we eavesdrop on each other’s conversations. I’ve never met any of these women, but I know, via various grapevines of social and other media, who they are. I’ve read (and enjoyed and identified with) some of Marianne Thamm’s columns; I haven’t read Margie Orford’s books, but I know she’s a fiction writer; and @simpleintrigue is not someone I’ve heard of, but her Twitter handle links to a blog that seems to turn her into an artist and writer called Keri Muller. So in the funny old village that is Cape Town/the internet/the world, I can kinda figure out the voices behind these words.

Why does it matter who the voices behind these words are? Why does this little conversation matter at all? Why does it matter to me? This blog post is my attempt to figure out the answers to those questions, I think.

See, it starts with that little comment: “Melissa’s Newlands: where the white tribe gathers…” See, if you didn’t know the social context of Cape Town, of the divisions and tensions and identity struggles in this little town, you’d have difficulty decoding that line. See, she’s not saying, “where the tribe gathers” or even “where our tribe gathers”. That would suggest a sense of belonging with the tribe. No, no, no, quite the opposite. This is the white tribe. This is the too-white tribe, in fact. The too-white tribe, from which Ms Thamm feels vast distance. That Other Tribe, that silly, despicably shallow, overprivileged tribe. To which she simply doesn’t feel any sense of belonging.

Oh, I get it. I get the stifling claustrophobic what-the-actual-fuck sense you can get, ordering wildly overpriced coffee and almond tart, looking around at the soccer moms, the Botoxed, tancanned trophy wives of the southern suburbs, nipping in for lunch (it seems) between the Pilates and the school run. I get it that the idea of a coffee at Melissa’s seemed kind of a nice treat (or just the most convenient place for a meeting that had to be somewhere between Rondebosch and Claremont), til you found yourselves seated there amongst the rest of a target market, wondering whether, by being there, you doom yourself to being lumped in among the horrifying homogeneity of the white suburban middle-ageing elite. Oh yuck, ne?

Oh, I know the cringe that comes with watching the 4x4s mount the pavement, power steering twirling under French manicured NailBar nails. These are SUV drivers whose idea of the Big Five is Cavendish, the V&A, Giovanni’s, Woollies and – well, yes – Melissa’s. There’s something so very awful and predictable and narrow about this universe. Something a little inauthentic about those towers of handmade strawberry preserves (not just jam here) and “rustic” breads sitting as a backdrop to shrill conversations about private-school kids or what the plastic surgeon said or how much the divorce is costing.

Oh, surely we do not belong to this awfulness? Oh, surely we have a sense of belongingness to something more authentic, more diverse, more Real than all this? I mean, after all, I live below the line/ I am an artist/writer/critic/intellectual (and you can fill in your escape clause here). Yes? No? Or: maybe, just maybe, the problem is the harsh, harsh stereotyping – and massive fear of stereotyping – that’s sitting a little too neatly hidden behind this critique.

Oh, I know the desire to narrow one’s eyes and lump them together, these white women of the south, the desire to distance yourself from them. I get the desire every time I see myself trundling a trolley of groceries out of the Woollies at Palmyra, sighing a bit at the parking congestion, feeling like I’ve turned into a caricature of a suburban housewife, stressing about getting home in time for the nanny. Stressing about traffic. Stressing about nothing, really.

But the problem with these stereotypes is that there is no escape from them. The problem with these stereotypes is that they’re racist and sexist, and that the women of the southern suburbs (or in Joburg, the northern suburbs) may well get very trapped by them.

Oh, I know it, girls. But I also know the unease that I feel when I see women – white women, privileged women, South African women, intelligent women – so very very disparaging and so very dismissive of their sisters. Each of these women you would dismiss as too suburban, too ordinary, too boring – move a little closer to their lives, scratch the surface somewhat. You might find someone that surprises you in one way or another. You might find someone that easily fits into the White Tribe vision when you glance her way and see her as part of a blurry crowd. But that’s the thing with stereotypes. They’re a bit blinding, a bit unfair. They’ll hide reality from you, and you’ll miss a whole lot of gems along the way.

It bothers me that “white” is shorthand for inauthentic, shallow, unworthy. It bothers me that there’s an element of self-loathing in there. At some level, it’s not really okay to be an ordinary, white, middle-aged middle-class woman in this country. It’s perceived as too cushy, too narrow-focused, too privileged, too something. And I’d be interested to ask the Marianne Thamms of this world, the Margie Orfords of this world, how they get over the violently silencing effect of this particular stereotyping. I know many, many women who will never voice their opinions or write their novels because of this social duct tape.

It bothers me that these women – this handful that DO have public, prominent voices – buy into this. Ja, the coffees in Melissa’s may be overpriced, honeys. But no more so than those at Superette or The Kitchen. And these are the women that buy Fair Lady and read your column, and that buy your novels for their book clubs. These women are you too.

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Reflecting on Mike van Graan’s analysis of the Oscar Pistorius case and the South African psyche

The multiply horrendous tragedy of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp. Where does one start? Despite myself, I’ve been gripped by the unfolding of this terrible case, along with the rest of the country, the rest of the world. I  knew who the guy was (more or less) before this story broke – that Olympic runner without legs. I didn’t know anything much more than that. I wish nothing had happened to focus my attention on him any more acutely than that. But this. This.

I totally understand that folks are getting uneasy with the deluge of attention this case is getting. I sort of understand the desire to make the hysteria go away. But whenever a story grips me, becomes an obsession – be it a novel, or a news story or an urban legend, or even just an individual – I can’t help a stronger desire to understand: what’s going on here? What does this story tap into? Why does this person capture the imagination as they do?

So I’ve been a bit stalkerish about it. (Along with 80,000 others) I’ve followed Barry Bateman (and about twenty other journalists) on Twitter. I’ve read the analysis that’s come out in the critical papers. I’ve gasped at the sensationalist non-analysis that’s come out in the tabloid press. And, so far, the most coherent and thought-provoking thing I’ve read has been Mike van Graan’s extraordinary article in the Guardian.

Van Graan notes the striking timing of the Pistorius-Steenkamp tragedy. It unfolded on the day of the State of the Nation address, and it more dramatically summed up the state of our nation than anything Zuma had to say that day. Almost every struggle, every contradiction, every subterranean war being battled out in everyday South African life, is encapsulated in this terrible story.

Van Graan looks into our obsession with sporting heroes, and their magical ability to unite us as a nation – and to rip us apart:

The 1995 Springbok rugby team and Pistorius reflect how sport and sporting heroes have a way of uniting the nation – at least across racial lines. And when such heroes fall, they reveal how fickle and fragile such national racial harmony is when it is united around a temporary emotion associated with winning, or even around a personality, rather than a set of values, principles or ideals. By contrast, the Constitution, premised on values, principles and ideals, is a vain ambition that struggles to take root in our lived reality or day-to-day relationships.

He points out how the story casts a harsh light on our stressed and strained justice system, in some ways so forward-thinking, so progressive, and in other ways as riddled with inequalities and failings as our hideous national health system. For those who have the money to pay for it, legal advice is available, privately, for payment via EFT or credit card. For those who don’t, well:

While the wealthy Paralympian athlete is able to appoint an experienced team of advocates to defend him in court and to appoint an international spin doctor to defend him in the court of public opinion, thousands of poorer accused spend, on average, two years in custody awaiting their trials. The state of the nation is such that equality before the law is rendered nonsense by a justice system that serves the rich significantly better than it does the poor.

Indeed. And although he doesn’t touch on it, there are echoes and parallels in there with our even more dysfunctional healthcare system. In a textbook I wrote last year, we had a glorious photo of the “Blade Runner” to illustrate the ways that modern medical technologies have changed, transformed and improved human life. Pistorius’ triumph is one assisted by cutting-edge technologies. And his access to those technologies is almost entirely determined by the lottery by which all South Africans either have or don’t have access to first-world privileges and lifestyle. And it’s not just a black-white thing. It’s not even a white-guilt thing. In post-Nkandla South Africa, it’s definitely not a blame-apartheid thing. It’s a bristling contradiction that even those of us who have lived here all our lives can never fully get to grips with. The bizarre mix of white guilt, middle class guilt, bleeding-heart liberalism, endemic racism, reverse racism, xenophobia, so-called black economic empowerment, the double-cross of fat cat corruption… it all simmers under the surface there.

But – most, most, most – what this story highlights, is the grim, vast and unknowable extent of violence in this country:

As exemplified by Pistorius, South Africa is a violent country. Violence is endemic to our society from the structural violence of poverty and inequality that assaults the dignity and depraves the humanity of millions of people, the criminal violence reflected in the high incidence of assaults, robberies, hijackings, murder and farm attacks, the violence that accompanies service-delivery protests and the violence of the state in dealing with such protests, to the domestic violence that afflicts our society, the incidents of road rage and school bullying. The proliferation of guns in such a society, ostensibly to protect innocents from the prevailing violence, appears to increase the levels of violence and contribute (as in the case of Pistorius) to the execution of acts of violence.

Yes. Exactly that. The timing was triply grim, coming as it did in the wake of the Anene Booysen horror story that unfolded earlier this month. Gut-wrenchingly, Reeva Steenkamp had posted on Twitter only days earlier a comment acknowledging that violence, particularly its dangers for women, in South Africa – a country where men murdering their wives/partners is a daily occurrence. She tweeted: “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did.”

Mike van Graan’s assertion – “We are all Oscar Pistorius. Oscar Pistorius is us.” – hits home darkly. This story taps into every fear, every contradiction that we live with every day in SA. We live in a world of such gruesome crime and violence, it’s entirely possible that someone could – mistakenly, tragically, in an eruption of fearful paranoia – kill the one they most love. We live in a world of such corruption and duplicity, it’s entirely possible that someone could – horrifyingly – dissemble and create a story to cover a more sinister murder plot.

The story forces us to consider all the possibilities, to consider a man as a more complex, nuanced, contradictory – and human –  creature than the usual distinctions can offer. The usual black/white distinctions –  hero/villain, good/evil, guilty/innocent – somehow blur into a scary, uncontrollable mess. The hero who overcame adversity and united a country in sporting triumph, he’s still there. And yet he has blood on his hands. Whether he intended it or not, she will never come back. Even if he’s innocent of premeditation, he’s guilty of a very, very stupid and terrible mistake. And if it was premeditated, does it make his earlier achievements and glories less heroic? Somehow not.

Watching the hysteria of the bail hearings unfold, all I see is a 26-year-old boy, distraught at having made an unbelievably massive, tragic, personal mess. In the epicentre of an unbelievably massive, tragic, national mess that both had nothing to do with him, and created him.

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