The Day Grace Came

What enlightened employers, I thought when I heard that their domestic worker lived in their house with them, and not in servant’s quarters. Now their parents were coming from overseas for a two-week holiday, so they were booking her into our Air BnB round the corner for that time. They forgot to mention her name.

She stepped out of her employers’ car on arrival, huge and stately, carrying herself with aplomb. Her hair was beautifully plaited and arranged mainly on one side of her head. In South Africa one needs to mention – none of them was white. When I stepped towards her, she touched my shoulder and inclined her head towards me. I felt an enormous need for acceptance, warmth. Her name was Grace.

Two days passed, and I didn’t see her. She was gone when I got up at 7, and came home after I’d taken Irang out for her last wee walk at 9pm. When she came home on the third day, still looking groomed, I mentioned that she was working hard. “Yes, my schedule is hectic,” she smiled, so dignified. Hectic? I thought. It’s exploitive, and now I know why they want you in the house. But I bit my tongue because I’m running the BnB for someone else. Don’t stir.

The next day Puseletso, our house helper two days a week, was scheduled to clean that room and change the sheets and towels. However, she came to me to announce, “I can’t clean that room. It’s too untidy. Clothes everywhere. And she’s only slept on the sheets for two nights, so she’s all right.” Now Puseletso is experienced and I’m a stand-in. Also, when I’m taken by surprise, I tend to react on the lenient side, a fact which my children exploited brilliantly. So I didn’t say, No it’s three nights, or Let me check with the owner. I said, “Oh. All right then.”

The next cleaning day was Thursday, which was Human Rights Day. Puseletso would not be working, of course, but of course Grace was. So I was on cleaning duty, and when I went into Grace’s room, I saw what Puselesto had meant. It looked as if a bomb had hit it, but I tackled it with determination. Pick up one tissue at a time, I thought. Fold the clothes and put them in piles on the desk – blouses, underwear, socks.. The really dirty clothes were in the laundry basket – it was full. I didn’t think about it. Too much to do. Ah, here’s the lid for that open jar of cream. Ah, this must be the net that keeps her gorgeous hair in place while she is sleeping. Another plastic shopping bag with left-over KFC. It was clear to me that she took all her rage out on her own body. I told myself not to judge. With hours like that, all she could do was eat take-aways for comfort and drop into bed to sleep at night.

Eventually the towels and linen were on the washing line and I could vacuum and dust. I brought the fresh sheets and made the bed; replaced the towels. Now that looks welcoming, I thought. She deserves it.

Then my eye fell on the corner of the laundry basket sticking out from under the bed. Our policy is that guests may use the washing machine. We show them the ropes, and it’s over to them. That works well with vacationing Parisians, but when would I show her? When would she do it? I remembered my childhood – there was always a black woman to pick up after me, do our laundry, cook our dinners… Mom never expected them to work hours like Grace’s, and we were taught to be respectful and say please and thank you. Big deal. Where were her kids? I had never asked. And this was Human Rights Day.

I took the basket to the scullery and put on another load of washing, hung it out and folded it neatly when it was dry. Thank you for the chance to pay it forward for one day. I hoped she wouldn’t be too grateful. I wanted her to be the madam – this was my Madam and Eve moment, I smiled to myself. It occurred to me that she would not know what usually happened at an Air BnB; how should she?

Indeed, when I saw her that evening and mentioned, “I didn’t iron any of your laundry,” the queen could not have been more gracious. “Never mind, dear. I appreciate it.”

That weekend I was out for much of Saturday morning. When I got back, I heard Grace talking in the kitchen area; I thought she was on her phone. I’d been looking forward to a swim, so I put on my swimsuit, wrapped a towel around myself and headed through the dining room towards the pool. Around the dining room table were five people. Grace happily introduced me to her two sisters, brother-in-law and niece. We had a pleasant chat and I went for my swim. While I was swimming, I remembered that one of the house rules the owner had mentioned was No Visitors. I’m not suited to doing this job, I thought. Surprised again, and too lenient again, but what should I have said? Walking back, I exchanged pleasantries again and noticed the glasses of sugary cooldrink, KFC boxes and more all spread out for their little party. Back in my room I worried. Could Grace think the Air BnB services included this kind of cleaning up? If they did clean up themselves, would they use the recycling bin properly?

I was still wondering how I would deal with the situation when I fell asleep. I woke up to a roar. Good heavens, that sounded like our vacuum cleaner. Yes, for sure, and it got so close to my door that Irang gave a protective yap. Grace must be vacuuming the entire house.  She must have, like the pro she is, easily found the vacuum cleaner in the owner’s linen cupboard and taken it out to use. Wow! When I’d changed, I went to make a cup of tea. First, the dining room – oh great; spotless. The glass on the table shining without a smudge. What about the kitchen? Ditto. I opened the waste and recycling bins – nothing. The visitors had taken all the scraps and litter away with them. Bless their hearts. Grace is never going to hear from me that visitors are not allowed, I vowed. She had mentioned that they hadn’t had a chance to see one another for the longest time.  I realised how ugly my thoughts had been, that she might not clean up when she had a chance. Shame on me.

Next Thursday I will do her laundry again, although Puseletso will object. I am so grateful for the day that Grace came into my life and heart.

My Festive Season


A sailor walking among African captives in the hold of a slave ship. From the book Revelations of a Slave Smuggler published in 1860. 
Sasha

According to the newspapers, Clifton would seem to be the only thing that happened in Cape Town this festive season. Well, I experienced it differently. During the week of the Clifton saga (See   https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2018-12-30-clifton-4th-beach-of-slaughtered-sheep-drowned-slaves-and-collective-rituals/ ) I had these interactions with brown, white and black people. Doesn’t matter which is which.

On the Monday morning we heard that security men had told people to leave the white sandy beach at Clifton.

I was outside and I heard a voice shouting, Merry Christmas, Mama! I turned and saw Zaid hanging out of a car window up to his waist, in time to yell his greeting back.

When I met Zaid he was a beach bum, a hustler, an addict, but smiling and ready to help. He would help to pull boats across the beach, wash your car or have a chat. His girlfriend lived with him on the beach, and he told us they loved skinny dipping after dark. Once when I started looking for some change to give him, but he said, No, Mama, you give me enough.

Then the city locked the toilets, and winter came, but the rain did not. They could no longer wash cars, but they offered to wash the sand off people’s feet in buckets of sea water, before they got into their cars. He was popular. A group of divers sponsored him to learn diving, and he was loving it, he told me.

Later, he said he had joined the Simon’s Town initiative that was coordinating the homeless people, and he was emerging as a leader. He beat the drug habit, and stated studying properly.

On the Tuesday, our heads were whirling with accusations and lies about Clifton.

I went swimming in Gelncairn’s tidal pool. I was approaching the water across some rocks when a stranger offered me advice on a better place to enter. Once Sasha and I were swimming, both adults and children discovered that she would run and dive after a stick of seaweed. She was a great animal ambassador, giving some kids their first feel of a dog’s coat.

On the Wednesday, the Clifton story was developing with the mentioning of businessmen’s names and various denials.

I went to the mall but realized it was too hot to leave Sasha in the car, even for a short visit to Clicks. It must have been 30 degrees; there was no shade and she is a black dog. I couldn’t do it. So I found Loveous, a trolley guard who has helped me often before, and asked if I could hire him to hold onto my dog for 15 minutes. He readily agreed and took her leash. When I came out of Clicks, there was Sasha, waiting for me at the door, and Loveous beside her. He told me she had absolutely insisted, No, we must go! Come! Until she was at the right door to wait for me. We had a good laugh and I was very grateful for his sweet good humour.

On the Thursday the City of Cape Town still said it had no unwritten agreement with any private security company about Clifton.

We went walking around Kirstenbosch and a man who had his two young daughters with him, asked where the fairy tree was. My friend Jean pointed and advised them to sit very quietly under it and maybe the fairies would come. He thanked us seriously, and we all went on our way.

On the Friday I was walking in Pick n Pay when a member of the staff wished me an early Happy New Year. She saw that I was quite willing to give her a hug, and we both loved the exchange of goodwill.

That was the day a sheep was sacrificed on Clifton to ask for purification. I’m glad I didn’t see it, although I understand how intensely they were provoked by behaviour reminiscent of the methods of centuries of slavery, oppression and apartheid. My point is, on 2 June 2015 there had already been a solemn spiritual ceremony on Clifton Beach, a cleansing and healing ceremony that involved no shock tactics or slaughter. (See https://mg.co.za/article/2015-06-02-sa-beach-service-to-honour-slaves-drowned-in-1794-shipwreck) It was to honour the memory of the two hundred slaves who drowned there, when a slaver ship, the São José Paquete d’Africa, sank on 27 December 1794. Three hundred slaves survived, and were sold off to “free burghers”. Those 300 Masbiekers, from Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Swaziland and KZN, are an integral part the African heritage of people still classified by the Apartheid terms ‘Black’ and ‘Coloured’.

 I just hope all the prayers for cleansing and an end to racism are answered. As my experiences this week, and those of thousands of other ordinary South Africans show, South Africans know how to do it if they are given half a chance. And a word of advice to the animal activists who were so concerned for that sheep: before you say another word about it, do investigate the conditions at your local abattoir. Do it before you have your next rack of lamb or leg of mutton with mint sauce.

[Thanks as always to Tariq, who shares his knowledge so generously on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/melletpt. ]

So, one fight more…                              Diversity Story 5

Stones

I did it again today. Oh no, don’t congratulate me. It was so easy.

There was a very thin, very dark man outside my bank in Fish Hoek. He had his goods displayed on a low wall at the entrance: stones, seeds and a small framed picture. There were about fifty ordinary little stones, selected for their pretty shape. The seeds were from the coral tree: plump and red with a black heart just peeping out. The faded picture was of a pretty garden path.

Why does no one stop? This man is as invisible to them as their own privilege. I think this blindness is a protection, because to look at his pathetic goods is to have your heart broken. Then he says, “I’m doing my best, Mama.” So like a Mama I ask him where he picked up the seeds, and say how beautiful they are. I tell him that I don’t want to buy anything today, but I want to give him a donation for good luck. His face melts with gratitude and lights up as he takes R20 from me. R20 – not enough for one of the cappuccinos I love. I used to think, along with thousands of others, that I couldn’t afford such a “big” tip, but I have repeatedly proved to myself that I can. R20 makes no difference to my well-being today, but it helps him, makes a big difference to him.

When I come out of the bank a while later, he places his hands in the traditional thank you position and bows slightly. Sweet Lord, forgive me. R20. I have to face it: this is cowardice. This is a feel-good escape. It’s not that I will stop doing it; it’s that it’s not nearly enough, and I don’t mean just the amount of money.

The battle is against systemic racism, and I have not engaged it head-on. Yes, my friends tell me that my actions, my example make a difference, but that too is a cop-out. I have to take my fight to where it won’t feel nearly so good. To the man in the hotel lounge, spouting a racist joke; to my own neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group; to facebook comments and bank queues…

“I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more, The best and the last!”
[from Prospice, Robert Browning]

 

Diversity Story 3: Not winds of change

lennox-by-kelly-shelton.jpg
In England I once hired a car and felt a total idiot when I pulled up for petrol, and saw motorists helping themselves. Oh my gosh! I don’t know how… I had to ask a man at the pump next to mine how it worked, and he explained, although he looked at me as if to ask, Which planet are you from?

I haven’t forgotten since then how spoilt we are in South Africa. There’s someone to help you 24/7. You just sit in your seat like a queen and make requests. I believe that most people tip the attendants; I hope so, because our society, framed in accordance with the mighty racist machinery of the West, amplified in South Africa, means that pump attendants are neither white nor well paid.

I pulled up at a pump the other day and a man who had helped me before came smiling up to my window. “Just R50 unleaded, because it’s the end of the month,” I joked. He nodded sympathetically and proceeded to do that and clean the windows.  He asked about the oil and water, but I said they were fine. Then I tipped him R4-50 and joked again, “End of the month tip.” He laughed.

Then I drove up to the door of the mini-market and parked there to get a chocolate. When I came out, he waved energetically and said, “Go and stay at home, Mama. You feel this wind – it is too strong. Stay in the house, please Mama.” I waved back and thanked him.

His love, because that is exactly what it felt like, rubbed salt into the wound of my guilt. Yes, it was the end of the month and my cash was tight, but would I forgo my slab of chocolate in favour of a halfway decent tip? Obviously not. White privilege first.

What was so touching was that he saw me go “shopping” after pleading poverty, but that did not diminish his enthusiasm. He knew he would get no further tip that day, but bestowed the full benefit of his charm on me anyway. Coals of fire.

Here is a man doing a humble job because education and opportunities were never his to take, as they were and are for white youngsters. History has not been kind to him and his people. No, let me say it: my ancestors were cruel and exploitive towards his. He knows this, but has chosen to be forgiving and happy. He’s clearly a happy man. I do not blame any person of colour who is bitter, and I don’t blame anyone like him who decides to live life as best he can within the parameters so unfairly defined.

Sometimes we just need to stay out of the wind. Love you too.

Photo of Lennox by Kelly Shelton.

 

 

Daily Diversity 2

What you get for R10-00.

I was leaving Fish Hoek’s only little mall to cross Main Road. A man (for these stories I have to specify: an ordinary-looking Coloured man of about 30) was sitting against a pillar. He was not begging, but when he saw me really see him, he brightened and sat up straight. “Please,” he said, “can you give me R4? I am thirsty  and I want to buy a drink.”

I did a mental knee-jerk. “Do you want to buy alcohol?” I asked. I already knew I was going to help him, but THAT is what came out of my mouth. Then I remembered the drought and that drinking water wasn’t easy to find. After that I realised that R4 would buy no alcohol of any sort. He looked a bit taken aback, but just muttered something. Then he saw that I was offering him R10 and said thank you as he took it, but the brightness was gone.

Of course the brightness was gone. I had lost the chance to be a fellow human being. What on earth is wrong with me, I thought as I crossed the road. Did I imagine that R10, not enough for a good cup of coffee, bought me the right to judge and dictate?  No, no, that isn’t me, I yelled back at myself. Isn’t it? Then why didn’t you say something harmless like Yes, it’s hot today? Entitled, arrogant, that’s what I was; still locked into all the prejudices I had been listening to since my childhood. Heck, I wish he could afford a beer!  Whatever his story was, his life had been much harder than mine.

I noticed that another white woman had been watching me and was just opening her car door. She gave me a broad, approving smile. That was something; an awful lot of whites would say R10 was too much; don’t give money for nothing; don’t encourage begging… I took comfort from her smile. She hadn’t heard what I said and thought I was building better relationships. Bless her heart.

Daily Diversity

I have found the focus for my blog -the daily diversity I experience in South Africa. I’ve been rambling about
Animals
Burglary
Considering emigration – so now it’s time for the D in
Daily Diversity.

The Facebook page Afrikaners against Racism inspired me. I thought I was woke, I mean fully. I knew all about this racism thing and would be able to contribute and after a while, I would probably lead – as whites almost always do, haha! Well, I liked and commented, and did get likes in return, all pretty cosy. But then I got rapped over the knuckles for talking about racism as an attitude. I was taken aback, hurt. They said I’d been a member of the group long enough to know that racism was systemic, and of course, that’s true. Wow! I’d better assume a little humility here and pay more attention, I thought.

So I’ll be sharing what happens every single day here in Cape Town, what it’s like on the ground. That’s the thing, isn’t it? No one can end racism but the people, ordinary people, who can be prodded in the right direction. Looking at ourselves is a beginning.

I’m an elderly (still don’t know how that happened) white woman, and that has to be my perspective, but I’d welcome your comments, reactions, outrage, understanding and stories. Let’s talk.

Daily Diversity Story 1: Danny’s Advice.

I was driving the seven-year-old I call my grandson home one day. He had been living in the Free State until a few months before (it’s complicated). I swerved to pick up a hitch-hiker. Danny went quiet. Maybe he wanted my attention all for himself. Turned out the chatty black man (for diversity stories I guess I have to mention these things?) was a bus driver. We talked about this and that, and he said he’d have liked to join the picket outside Masiphumelele where a group of us protested weekly about the conditions there, but his hours would not allow it.

He was going to get out of the car in Lekkerwater Road, or Delicious Water Road, a tantalising name during a drought. Just before he opened the door, Danny turned around from his front seat and said, “But be careful to go to the Free State!  They don’t like black people there!” We adults both smiled and quick as a flash the driver answered, “Don’t worry, my boy. We are going to create a world where that won’t happen any more. We will all be happy together.” Danny looked reassured and I hope I looked grateful as I bade him goodbye and good luck. Then he walked to his shack and we drove home to the A-frame with its bore-hole watered lawns…