Walking out of the coffee shop and down the movie set street — it was uneven and way too small for two cars to pass at once but lined with greenery that created a perfect tunnel for those below it to pass — she came to the realisation that she had become a parody of herself. She looked down at her no name brand shoes, a sign of her disdain for the capitalist fashion industry but her eye got stuck at her right hand holding a silver sliver of a thing with an apple on it. She walked under the lush cover, passed the quaint little shops advertising handmade furniture and selling alleged art. She crossed the street just in time to miss a mother with a baby in her arms in order to avoid having to say, “Sorry I don’t have cash today”, even though the R20 K device in her hand, the car keys and the smaller R10 K device slightly hanging out of the left pocket of her sweatpants suggested otherwise. She dodged that bullet and walked swiftly to her car, gifted to her by her parents a few years ago, under much duress from her 22 year old self, whining about it being a necessity. She then drove back to safety behind high walls and an electric fence at her complex with an ill-fitting Italian name.
When she got back to her apartment, kicking off the too white shoes and wiggling out of the too baggy tracksuit pants, she had the urge to make herself sing. She had recently walked into a dodgy shop at the strip mall near the coffee place and bought herself a microphone that would buzz her into chorus. She forgot that she hated herself for 20 minutes as she flipped through a slight collection of XX sleepovers, naughty neighbours and other hard-core enablers. When she found one that she hadn’t seen too recently, she slipped under her covers and began making a melody. The momentary paralysis that followed allowed her to drift off to semi-unconsciousness.
Waking up she started to play back what had happened before she drifted off to her unconscious self, what she considered her true self. She remembered the woman with the baby and the incongruity with the words she said and the way she actually lived. Looking down on those who refuse to help those who need it the most, yet she lied daily about not having cash on her or looking straight ahead at the robot when someone started rubbing their belly and motioning at their mouths with pinched fingers. She quickly erased the negativity with an imaginary damp cloth that reassured her, “You have a platform for a reason, not everyone gets to do this”. With that in mind, she peeled off the now sticky, creamed underwear, threw off her light grey 100% organic Woolies jersey and headed to her bathroom. The neatness of it made her happy every time she walked into it. The carefully picked ‘New York Subway’ black and white tiles on the wall had cost an arm and a leg but she reminded herself that this place was hers forever so it was worth it. The other details like the silver rack over the toilet, the stand alone wooden sink stand with a deep porcelain bowl, the matching towels and Malcolm X blown out photograph overlooking the claw foot bath all spoke to her need to keep things random and quirky but always in some kind of order. Every time she spent money on something nice, she had this internal debate with herself about the less fortunate and how she was getting sucked in to the consumerist machine and all those laborious, ideological Political Science lectures played back in her head. Sometimes that part of her won and shamed her into frugality, but other times the Sandton in her won and said, “blacks deserve nice things too, you work hard, go on you can afford it”.
Arriving at the dimly lit underground basement for Mandisa’s birthday dinner, the heaviness of her head lifted when she saw the back of him just beyond the big red door. She walked slowly and raised both her hands to cover this eyes from behind and made him guess who. “Hmmm, it may be my mistress Thandi,” he said. She lightly pressed onto his sockets in protest, her lips curling to form a small smile. They liked to play with each other. They had been taunting one another for years, suggestively trying to say that they more than liked each other but not knowing how, surrendering to their bodies during stolen moments in dark rooms. “Okay now, those are definitely the dainty little hands of my one true love, Jeanine,” he responded. She kissed the back of his neck. He let out a small groan, “Hey babe,” he said, she let her arms fall and he turned and slid his around her to greet her properly. It wasn’t a big turnout, Mandisa prided herself on keeping a small, tight group of people around her, something about more loyalty and less drama.
They spoke about the things they always speak about — money, race, sexism and crushing the system. The “men” in the room always a cause for concern with their one dimensional views on how to fight certain ism’s and which ones were more important than the next. Today the difficulty of saving as a brown person was on the agenda. Mandisa’s flame of the moment being the first to be fucky that night. “I think it’s not fair to say that ‘the system’ isn’t set up for us, we just don’t know how to deal with money nje. We spend on dumb shit like di Carvella le di hempe tša Pringle. And let’s not lie we all have that one uncle who’s BMW is parked outside his RDP house right now. We just aren’t used to money,” he said. Mandisa nodded in agreement adding, “That’s our idea of nice things. Meanwhile Jonathan and them are going on a different international holiday every year because they don’t wear brand names or care about what model car they drive, you know.”
Now there is some merit in these thoughts, she thought, but they are also problematic, they are devoid of a context in which black people have been systematically excluded from economic and social growth — most work to live and live to work. The diatribe in her mind went further, she was seeing the rebuttals taking shape, but only saw their lips moving, while her grip on her knife grew tighter in silent frustration. The money people like her make is usually a third or a quarter of what their fairer counterparts make, families larger and mostly living just on the poverty line or under it. That money has to stretch to reach the ones below and on the border. That money earned under duress in hostile corporates, crumbling underground tunnels, hot kitchens and manning busy tills has to stretch beyond the self for most. So yes, maybe we could go without the “nice things” but why should we, she asked herself. Sometimes that “nice thing” is a way of finding a way to breathe amid the mess. Perhaps Jonathan can afford to save half his salary because the house he lives in was a gift from his parents in law, his car a gift from his parents, his bloated salary also helps and that he grew up on airplanes crossing seas is another plus. But she doesn’t say this. She sighs and rolls her eyes, then turns her back on the table to ask Sam (also known as him) about his day.
The table’s activities become a blur as she zones in on his soft brown eyes. His sideways smile makes her head tilt in wonder when the highlights of his day on the field flash across his eyes. He is on the cusp of his career reaching professional rugby player status, but she can’t be as optimistic as him. This has been his coach’s promise for the past three years but nothing has come of it yet. But she smiles anyway, nods reassuringly when he repeats the words with the same glee in his eyes. When they decide to look up from their bubble, she turns back to the table to hear Moss, their resident finance fundi saying, “It really doesn’t have to be an either or situation. If you draw up a budget, you can put away a little and still treat yourself every once in a while, just not all the time.” He is interrupted by Thandiswa, “Guys playing into their system like this is exactly what they want. Buying their stocks, joining investment schemes, being seen in Gucci and whatnot. That’s what they want. We should really be putting our money together to make our communities work, put kids through school, training bana ba di nyoape. Not all this other stuff man,” she takes a long drag of her joint before handing it Moss — cheekily blowing smoke in his face as he inhales his fill. Their conversation is punctuated with the topping up of wine glasses and champagne flutes. The men and women dressed in black and white lingering on the side-lines catching bits of conversation, looking annoyed as more food is ordered by the increasingly loud bunch — their agitation making those seated at the table slightly aware of their privilege.
During a quick bathroom break she hears two of the waitresses talking: “Yoh these kids have money moes, the bill is already R10 K and they are still drinking,” said one of the voices on the other side of the stall. “This BEE and these university degrees are working for some. They aren’t even 30 yet but all have cars and houses — we’ll never own anything choma, not even this R10 K of theirs,” said the other voice before breaking into laughter. But not real laughter. The kind of laughter that recognises crying would be futile so maybe laughter will ease the painful truth of that moment. She flushed the toilet, as she made her way out she made sure to greet the ladies, “Dumelang”. A pause. “Age sesi,” said voice 2, chewing gum and giving her a long up and down look. Suddenly her suede skirt felt tighter and hitched a bit high, she pulled at it a bit, hoping that would appease the eyes on her. No such luck. She washed her hands in silence and flashed one last hopeful smile as she dried them. She stumbled back to her seat and wanted to tell Sam what she heard and unpack it all but when she sat back down, he bit her ear and caressed her thigh — making her forget her name for a few seconds. She opened her eyes and mouthed “later”. She joined in the conversation which had deteriorated to an elongated debate on trashy reality shows and the mundane facts of some of the B-list celebrities that featured on the show.
Her vintage digital flip desk alarm clock told her the time was 04:15, she was now hungry and thirsty from all the drinking earlier in the evening and the “later” activities with Sam. She carefully lifted his arm and left the warmth of the bed, looking back at him before she went. How he managed to look so soft in slumber, a contrast to some of the sweaty roughness they had just participated in. A shiver went down her spine as she recalled the stroke that sent her over the edge and the clenching that brought him with. She bit her lip at the memory and giggled all the way to the kitchen. A peanut butter sandwich and rooibos would do the trick for her early morning hunger pang. She grabbed her laptop and opened it to find the beginning of an address she began penning or rather typing at the cafe earlier that day. She couldn’t concentrate when she was there, between the free Wi-Fi and Corrine Bailey Rae cd that was playing at the time, her attention waned. Her behaviour with the lady on the street and carefree attitude with the black faces and hands serving her at the party made her hands still over the keyboard.
She stands on podiums daily telling people what she thinks is wrong and right, how segregation and subjugation based on colour and gender didn’t end when some of us were allowed to sit at the table. In her mind she is changing the world, at most — changing minds at least. But the accolades, statues, listicles and covers she has featured on and in, are a cold comfort when she is sitting on her too expensive armchair, thinking “I am a fraud”. Knowing that while someone does have to say what she says, someone, she, needs to do what she says. At what point does her activism extend beyond the safety of picket lines ushered by men in blue. Bringing the last gulp left in her R30 bottle of wine that was standing at attention next to the armchair, she tried to wash away this obvious truth about what was next. She can’t look the other way, pretend she doesn’t like her level of comfort and not want to dirty herself with the reality of her work. With the warmth of the red courage in her throat, she began to write the speech she had to give in a few hours to a group of high school girls. In it she would tell them they can claw and fight their way out of the tin and plastic messes they call home, be brilliant and black if they were brave enough to.
She waxed lyrical about the structures that be and knocking them down in a way that would be palatable for the teachers seated on the side-lines of the school hall but also inspiring and conscentising to the faces that would be cross-legged in front of her. A small part of her knowing full well that the same structures allow her to be — to live with a loose noose that allowed her to wonder and smile. She re-read the address, clicked cmd + s and gulped enough red truth to sink back to black.