Friday, July 09, 2010

An interesting... first-time fear

It's not often I get scared in South Africa but my recent sojourn up to Polokwane I have to admit I was slightly. (My point of view is odd - I have actually only experienced blatant fuck you homophobia twice before - once from a cop who hit me, and the other when a friend's father threw me out his house.) I may live in Cape Town where all this malarkey is far more common, but I have never faced shit in Joburg or Durban.

That being said, I am a big city kind of guy. And Polokwane ain't one of them. And I was actually staying outside Polokwane on a small-holding. And the door to our room was held closed with a brick. Well, needless to say, I stressed about being a gay couple in small-town SA (anything smaller than Durban is small-town in my vocabulary). Since then, I have thought about homos in small-town SA a lot and done a bit of digging around (the conclusions of which you will discover when I finish).

On this note though, I have friend who lived in Kenton-on-Sea, and he sent me the text to a column he wrote a few years back which is relevant to what I was thinking about. So here is the column published by Alistair Mackay on Mambaonline - sometime in the past.

There is a lot to be said for small-town South Africa. At least, there is a lot to be said for coastal small-town South Africa: I've always believed no one would miss the Free State if it were flooded to make way for a picturesque little inland sea or covered - this is my humanitarian side coming through - from horizon to horizon in solar panels to ease the world's energy crisis.

Similarly, I have enough friends from Benoni who claim to be from Joburg to know that Gauteng small towns won't be winning any awards any time soon either. But small coastal towns are fantastic. From the sleepy hamlets of the Transkei and the tropical greenery of KZN to the reassuringly 'boutique-y' villages of the Western Cape and the unassuming dorps of the Eastern, our coastline is magical. In some parts magnificent and dramatic, in others gentle and forgiving, but everywhere beautiful.

My mother lives in just such a village. It is the kind of place that I would call salt-of-the-earth if I were feeling diplomatic. I have been served a cosmo in a beer mug there, and the only pizzeria in town eschews this newfangled mozzarella nonsense and uses cheddar on its pizzas. But it restores my soul to go home. After all, the Buddha was a rural fella. So it was only natural that a couple of weeks into a new relationship I invited my boyfriend along on one of my weekend trips home. I phoned my mother to tell her and she suddenly sounded panicked. In a quintessentially South African moment that made me laugh out loud she blurted out "but what will the maid think?" This is the same mother who told me on the night of my matric dance how proud she was of me for taking a guy, and how handsome we both looked. She dropped me off at Pride parades when I was still too young to drive and nursed me through all those ugly teenage breakups . But this was all while we still lived in Joburg; it turns out that being ip and liberal is partly situational. "Get a grip, mom" I said, and turned into Steve's* driveway to pick him up.

The weekend got off to an unremarkable start. I ate too much, drank too much and could barely motivate myself to wander onto the beach (There is a strong disincentive to move when you find yourself on a veranda armed with gin and tonic and confronting uninterrupted views of sea, sand dunes and nature reserve). We had dinner. We went to bed. I refused to have sex because of the proximity of my bedroom to my mother's, and we woke up to the tranquil sounds of waves crashing and birds singing.

It was so cheesily idyllic it seemed almost Scandinavian. In the feature film about my life there would definitely be an ABBA track to this scene. And perhaps the director would even throw in some animated butterflies.

I went downstairs to make some coffee and ten minutes later a friend who lives a couple of houses down from my mother's place arrived. "Do you know", she said, accepting a cup of coffee, "that you are the Spawn of Satan?"

It is testament to my naive and very un-Satanic nature that my initial reaction wasn't anger so much as slow-blinking incomprehension. "Nombulelo said to me this morning that you are the Spawn of Satan. Because there's a boy in your bed," she explained.

Now do bear in mind that Nombulelo is not even my mother's domestic; she is my friend's. Which means that there must have been clandestine cell phone conversations between the two housekeepers immediately after the discovery of the sleepy Steven. I erupted into a fit of curses and indignation. My neighbour looked a little alarmed by my rant and became downright terrified when my mother heard the news and joined in (If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, try scorning her laatlammetjie son). I was on an emotional rollercoaster that fell from rage into the precipice of deep sadness that people who knew and loved me could be so brainwashed by institutional religion, and settled finally on fear.

By that evening I was tormenting myself with mental images of angry locals with pitchforks torching our house to the ground while chanting uyabaleka uSatane!** Needless to say, Steven didn't get any that night either, and I barely slept. Every snapping stick outside sent me bolt upright and wide-eyed in bed.

I was surprised by how much Nombulelo's comment had upset me. I don't suppose anyone likes to be referred to as an evil demon, but it was hardly my first brush with Christian fundamentalism. My previous partner's father has the delightful belief that gay people need to be exorcised. But it especially upset me because I had convinced myself that I was part of that little seaside community.

I had worked in the village for six months the previous year. People greet me by name in the shops and everyone knows my mom. I used to give Nombulelo a lift home after work every day. It was all very neighbourly. But it transpires that inclusion was conditional on my apparent heterosexuality.

Why is it that gay people are not entitled to rural life? I love living in the city, but I'd also like the option of a quiet seaside existence one day. Why does being liberal depend on a high population density? And does acceptance of gay people only come with the full spectrum of acceptance of drugs, prostitution, urban decay and crime? What kind of pick-and-mix is that?

I see now why small towns often have reactionary, camp, self-ghettoising gay communities. It is defensiveness. Our sexual orientation, which to me is no more interesting as a characteristic than having blue eyes or being Chinese, becomes a defining characteristic in small towns. It is met with denial and abhorrence by some and with curious fascination by the well-meaning.

Wouldn't it be great if the barman casually enquired after my boyfriend while handing me my cosmo in a beer mug? But until that happens, perhaps I should listen to my mom and realise that in small towns, feeling welcome means deferring to what the maid thinks.

* Not his real name
** IsiXhosa for "run away Satan"

By Alistair Mackay.
See Alistair's blog here or follow him on twitter.

Friday, July 02, 2010

An interesting... life which fits into one bag

I like hanging around the Sea Point Promenade. It's this kind of weird part of Cape Town where everyone goes with no worry. The crowds there extend from rich housewives jogging along with their fake boobs bouncing like badly attached Weber lids in an earthquake, all the way to homeless folks who sleep under the trees with their entire lives sitting in a Checkers packet next to them.

A while ago I was sitting on a bench reading my book having a smoke when this random man walked up to me and tried to sell me a little wooden elephant. I told him I had no cash but if he wanted a smoke I was happy to pass a few along. "Sweet" he said, and happily plonked down next to me.

We started chatting and smoking up a storm, and he told me he was from Malawi. He said he was from Bwaila which, according to a map I looked at, is either right near, or in Lilongwe (the capital)

He told me he'd walked to South Africa from Malawi - something not unexpected in this day and age. I remember hearing about that Somali chap who walked almost two-thirds of the length of Africa not so long ago to get to Johannesburg.

What did stick out for me was that this guy sitting next to me said he kept all his possessions on him at all times. I asked him why he lugged around such a big bag and he said he always had to make sure that he could move quickly. I asked why. He looked like he was about to start sulking so I apologised for sticking my nose into where it wasn't welcome (while trying to work out how I could ask the question in a better manner). While I was considering, he said to me "I might be killed".

He explained to me just how tense it can be for a foreigner living in South Africa, without getting into details. But there he sat with a bag containing all the stuff he wanted to sell, plus all the shit he owned - kept to a minimum to ensure he can bugger off if needs be.

We saw people being killed during the xenophobic violence in 2009, but it is difficult to remember that because of it, so many people's lives changed.

This chap I met couldn't settle down and live anywhere. He is constantly on the move. Constantly vigilant. Never relaxed. Rarely calm. It's a tense way to live.

And the imminent threat of xenophobic violence as the World Cup ends isn't being acted upon in any massive degree that I can see.

It may sound extreme, but a "bad day" could result in him being necklaced.
It’s a horrific thought.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

An interesting... lesson for foreigners

My boyfriend is from the USA, and I take every opportunity to teach him and his kinfolk about South Africa, leaving verbose comments beneath is status. I had an ally teacher today in Kimstories, and this is how the conversation went.

BF's status was:

Don't know why people were scared to come to Johannesburg for the World Cup #wc2010. Wal Mart is SO much scarier!!!!

And so the comments beneath, for the benefit of globalisation and learning were as follows:

Simon: There's no elephants in the USA - how can it be scary? There are loads in Jozi. That's why I use Fourways Mall. You can park your elephant for free for 2 hours.

Kimstories: only if it has a dual saddle Simon

Simon: Hahahaha Kim are you joking? Who the hell still uses a single saddle? Durban's not THAT far behind Joburg, surely? By the way I owe you a mail. The post wagon is leaving on Saturday. It should be in Durban by Tuesday.

Kimstories: In Durban our elephants are smaller so we do the single saddle thing. I know - its so embaressing! I iwll look out for the post wagon - i think it will be behind the milk delivery cows

Simon: I tried sending a letter with the milk delivery last week but they get a bit gumpy (it's not really their responsibility, I suppose) so I went with the July post wagon. I am so excited. You know that big-ass building in Joburg where them silver things come out the sky to? They carry post too, but it's expensive.

Kimstories: the milk delivery doesn't come from jhb to durban - they tried that once and now the zuzlus think maas is on purpose

Simon: The post wagon was delayed last month because the zebra that pulls it got sick. It was so hectic. We couldn't send out our financial papyrus. The Durban hunter-gatherers owe us three fish and two cows in interest.

Kimstories: you guys charge some scary interest rates. i have been asked to negotiate a sugar cane settlement (and thats not a place people live)

Simon: Last time we went down to the sugar cane fields the elephants wouldn't go into it because of the cane rats. Why do we use animals who are scared of rodents as transport?

Kimstories: don't blame the rats for the elephant neuroses
the elephants are such girls

And this is why the Yanks think we have ellies running down the streets of Joburg. Don't be surprised when the next tourist asks you where the parking lot for them is.