Roads, refugees and roundabouts.
Certain discussions in cyberspace have motivated me to write briefly about my facebook cover photo. I prefer not to discuss “my story” because, frankly, it is seldom relevant to the people I engage with: be they living on the street or sitting in the United Nations. Occasionally my story is useful as a disruptor of accepted narratives, creating a discrepancy and perhaps encouraging a little more thought where critical thinking is needed. Without much context, here is some insight into my cover pictures, in case you were wondering.
In 1996 I stood on the spot where the 2017 picture of me (above) was taken. I was looking towards my future, and this road would be part of it. It is a very beautiful spot with a natural spring flowing below a mountain of vineyards, meandering between oak trees that were possibly planted in the 1600s by one of the Cape’s first feminists, Catharina Ras. This “road” is for golf carts and is on one of South Africa’s laagers of luxury. This was where I was planning to build a house to return to after a day of expanding my empire. The “empire” was still small, but the vision was big, and if I really stretched myself, I could buy a property within this cocoon of capitalism. Every day I could walk up this path and stand, surveying the fruits of my labour, like Ozymandias.
In 2000 I was tentatively playing the game of capitalism and forming alliances with the new elite and power-brokers of the emerging “rainbow economy”. I had given instructions to my staff not to take any more names for the employment waiting list because is was full. As I was leaving to seize that week’s opportunity of the decade a man approached me and asked for a job. Despite my earlier instructions, I asked my administrator to get him a uniform and assign him a job. Two years later he was a site manager, and four years later he was running a small company.
In 2009 my mind was more on comfort than capitalism. I was sitting next to a beautiful river, with the shade of a willow tree sheltering me from the last of the summer sun. I realised that it was likely to rain the next day, and the willow tree would not provide much protection against the South Easter. Living on the street was about to get a whole lot harder. A metaphorical and literal storm was approaching. I explained these challenges to a young man who had his own challenges — dependent on heroin, just out of Pollsmore, standing in the no-man’s land between the choice of being a “number” or of being nothing more than another number. I spent my last three nights of being a “stroller” sleeping at the foot of his bed, shared with his eight month pregnant girlfriend, in the appropriately named “malhuis”.
On the fourth day I went to get ‘lunch” from the food demonstrations in Pick ‘n Pay — privilege follows one all the way down. On the way I met the man who I had given a job to in 2000. He looked at me, and said: “I have a place for you to stay, and here is R500”. The house I stayed in almost the next five years is the one in the picture above. It is here that I returned to each night during my studies, while volunteering at NGOs to gain experience. Here I found refuge and a space to think without disruption or the need to keep up a standard of living. This was my home with no running, let alone hot, water; the only toilet 30m away. This was my castle next to the noise of a taxi rank, with a leaking roof and broken windows. This is where I returned to after a day of building my “wealth”.
In 2017 I returned to that winding road. It was the day after my wedding — my first, signalling the start of my second chance at living. I stood there and looked at the houses, one of which was once “destined” to be mine. Although I am wealthier than I ever dreamed possible, I could never afford one of these houses, nor would I ever want to accumulate that level of financial wealth. My big vision of 1996 has been expanded to include people and places previously rendered invisible.
When I recently saw my friend from the “malhuis”, just out of Pollsmore, trying to comply with onerous parole conditions for drug related offences, I was overjoyed to see him. I feel very privileged to be able to assist in some small way as he desperately tries to find a place of acceptance and legitimacy in a world that is both afraid and dismissive of him. To me he is the Good Samaritan, my rescuer. A man of compassion and morality.
I see him in every person who is criminalised, marginalised, stigmatised and excluded because they happen to use the wrong drugs or survive in ways we don’t approve of. When I hear people complain about “the foreigners” I wonder what would have happened to me if it was not for my “rescugee”.
With people like this (there were others) as my companions, teachers, protectors, friends and providers I have walked the winding road and undergone a full revolution on the roundabout. I have returned to the same spot, but I find myself in a very different space.