I have been battling on two fronts recently, both WhatsApp groups. The first is an extended family group – dozens of cousins – and the second is the security group for our set of townhouses.
When family members disagree on racism, the situation is difficult and tricky. I once left our family WhatsApp group because its posts offended me, but my brother asked me very nicely please to come back, and I relented. Then one of my dozens of cousins posted a most extraordinary article about how there was going to be a civil war in SA within a year because of the secret cooperation of powers like China and the USA (they have proof). These powers want SA reduced to rubble so that they can come in and take the pickings. There was a video of the tanks that are allegedly taking up their positions.
I was still thinking about exactly what I would say when I saw a welcome post from an older cousin. I confess I was glad that it was from a senior male member of the family, and a dominee at that, because it would carry more weight. He wrote in a gentle and loving tone that politics would only serve to divide the family and said that we all had our own views and should rather post only about family matters on the group. I expressed my agreement.
Not long after we were treated to another swart gevaar piece. I decided that if a cousin could break the rule, so could I, and I replied. It took about a week for my brother to send me a private text saying he wanted to phone me and berate me for being so insensitive. I asked him not to phone about that and said that I would never, as our elder cousin had requested, post anything “political” but that I was entitled to reply if someone else did. He said he took my point.
A few weeks later it was my brother himself who posted about the plight of farmers in thinly disguised racial terms. There was the challenge again. However, he had a covering note that appealed to us not to see this as a political post but merely a request for prayers. You can call me a coward if you like, but I decided to leave it at that, for now.
The opprobrium of my neighbours is not new to me, because my attitude to homeless people differs from theirs.
Erik is tall and humble, with remnants of respectability still clinging to him, or rather, he is clinging to them, because he has fairly clean clothes that are not torn, and decent shoes. He washes my car once a month, a rule which he respects in spite of his desperation. My neighbours are nice people but they don’t have as much self-discipline as he has. One day he waited for me at my door for half an hour or so. They started exchanging messages about how scary he was, waiting there in the shade. I replied that I would be home soon and that they should feel free to go and chat to him; his name was Erik and he would appreciate an apple. Sullen silence.
My gardener has not had a better reception. He has been in and out of shelters, but is usually on the street. He is eloquent and active and maintains himself pretty well. Not only does he really know gardening, but he is a handyman too. A neighbour approached me, oozing male authority, to tell me that he didn’t like Michael because he saw him one evening and he was drunk. I replied that he is drunk every evening; that is his tragedy. However, he is never drunk in the morning. I said there is a category of alcoholics who are like that – they remain sober and work well, but when the clock hits the happy hour, they have to have a drink. Neighbour snorted in disbelief, not at what I said, but at me.
All this was par for the course, but then some homeless people set up camp in the bushes across the road. It was in the middle of the drought. I met one of them walking down the road wearing his peaked cap and saw immediately that he had the soul and mind of a child. He told me that he had come from “die plaas” where there was always plenty of water, and that he would go back if he could, but he had no idea how to get there. I gave him R10 and his eyes sparkled. “This morning I had nothing,” he said, “and just see what I have now!”
We are not a gated community and we have no body corporate. The paranoia erupted. We were going to have a Crossroads of criminals on our doorstep. Anger that the police told them to call Law Enforcement – weren’t they the same thing? Anger that they couldn’t be locked up, spirited away. Someone else definitely had to get them into a shelter. The vitriol about the tall man in the cap was mind-blowing.
I dared to post that we should not lose our humanity through all of this. I was told to pay for them to go back to the Eastern Cape “if you want to be perceived as being liberal.” Because I had taken them two black bags to help them dispose of their litter, I was told I was starting a squatter camp.
Then one of the neighbours organised a speaker and invited us to attend a meeting at her house. The man had some position in a neighbourhood watch. Now my son had been asking me not to antagonise the neighbours. My friends agreed it was a battle I could not win, so I told my son that I probably would fight with them and that he should please be my delegate. I was proved oh-so-right, because he reported to me after the meeting that the speaker had started with these words, “We have problems with baboons in these mountains, and some of them wear clothes.”
It’s not that I don’t see the potential difficulties, but as long as the City fails to provide social housing and many more shelters I don’t see that we can prevent informal settlements from springing up, and there must be better ways of dealing with the people in them, who after all are also our neighbours. The situation is unresolved. They are still there, maybe five people who hang their blankets out on bushes to dry in the morning. This is in spite of the three occasions when Law Enforcement arrived and told them to move. They arrived in about 6 vehicles with flashing blue lights and they arranged for the site to be cleared. My neighbours are disgusted that Law Enforcement has to try to get their families to take them back and consult with social workers about their fate. They watch me like hawks and strictly forbade the one woman of colour who lives there to give them any food. I now give donations and food to the shelters.
Sometimes in the evening I see the tall man in the cap walking into the bushes to sleep. In fact, my neighbour took this photo of one of them in order to prove that they were still there. He was protesting, but I just thought, “Look at him. How can you be so callous?”