This my love letter to South Africa. Love letters can be sad. But they are still love letters.
I sometimes fear that loving South Africa will break my heart. But I remain helpless in the face of this fear, as I suppose one remains helpless in the face of any fear. But yet I choose to live here. Here, in my South Africa. Here in the land of my birth. And I do so with hope and faith. Fear. Faith. Hope. A staccato rhythm that beats in my chest; fear –faith-hope. Fear-faith-hope. And I taste it in my mouth; this bitter-sweet taste of fear-faith-hope.
My South Africa is the spicy bite of pickled fish, the saltiness of bokkoms, the distinctive taste of smoorsnoek, the vinegary comfort of a parcel of hake and slap chips.
On my morning walks through my neighbourhood I always look out for Josef, the sad-eyed man of indeterminate age with the beautiful smile. He wears long-sleeves and a knitted cap pulled down low over his forehead, trying to show as little skin as possible. But his hands belie his prison past, they have the bruised-blue tracings of prison tattoos. And underneath his eyes, trailing over his sunken cheekbones are the tattooed tears of a man who has seen too much, done too much. He always playfully rubs my dog’s ears and calls him ‘Oubaas se honne’. While me, despite my protestations, he calls ‘Nonnatjie.’ One morning he tells me that he is ashamed of his markings. I tell him that they are but skin deep. But in my South Africa, skin deep has always been the problem. He tells me he lives alone, distanced from his old friends. Far away from the old habits. That he mostly keeps to himself. That he believes in a compassionate God. As do I. Perhaps we are not so different after all. Fear-faith-hope.
My South Africa is a cheesy braaibroodjie seasoned with white pepper. It is boerewors and Mrs Balls chutney. Karoo lamb. Waterblommetjiebredie. Pap and fiery chakalaka.
Recently while rushing to deliver some documents, I passed through several security check-points in a building in the city. It was hot and I was late and irritable. It was nobody’s fault but my own. In my haste, I hooked my handbag on the turnstile causing me to falter and angrily swear under my breath. ‘Easy now, Sisi’, the security guard gently admonished me. And I was shamed by my own unnecessary annoyance. ‘Sister’, this man has called me, thus implying an intimacy our shared history had previously denied. And then he smiled. And I did too. Because we are closer to one another than we could ever have dreamed of. Fear-faith-hope.
My South Africa is the taste of cinnamon melkkos, custardy milk tart, of Cape Malay koesisters. Of sweet, luridly-coloured Bashews cooldrink. Of milky Frisco and sweet rooibos tea. Of Wicky-Wax and Chappies bubble gum. Red jelly and Ultramel. Canned fruit and Ideal Milk
Down the road from where we live, there is a ramshackle urban farm with chickens, and geese, and sheep and pigs. The ladies who lunch and recycle drop their old vegetable and fruit peels off there. This is where Andre and his extended family live. He is soft-spoken, wears kakis, goes barefoot and sports a long beard. He has kind blue eyes. He looks like a farmer. The forgotten children find their way to him. ‘God knows,’ he will tell you, ‘I never chose to do this, but they came my way and someone must take care of them.’ ‘So you take care of street children?’ I ask, to be sure. ‘No’, he denied emphatically, ‘these are not street children. They once lived on the streets, but they are not street children.’ And then a little girl runs up to him, laughing happily, for a quick hug before darting off to go and play again. Her dark skin and bright eyes are a sharp contrast to his weathered face and caring eyes. ‘The damaged souls take care of one another.’ He says after a while, apropos of nothing, while cradling a small newly hatched chick gently in his large hand. Fear-faith-hope.
My South Africa is the mince samoosa, the bunny chow, the prego roll. Samp and beans. Dried apricots.
These are the flavours that define me. These are the moments that both heal and break my heart. Fear-faith-hope.
THIS FIRST APPEARED IN THE MAY 2011 ISSUE OF MANGO JUICE