Recently, I have acutely felt the everyday weight of living in South Africa and being South African. This is because of a recent trip abroad. It is often when I land somewhere foreign and watch others in a different society go about their daily lives that I understand the heaviness I carry as I navigate everyday South Africa. The heaviness is acutely felt when I settle into the everyday life in a foreign city, doing mundane things like taking the subway, waiting for the green figure light to cross the street, or grocery shopping. It is during these routine exercises that I begin to be aware of the weight I carry on an ongoing basis in South Africa.
I become aware of the weight I carry simply because in the foreign city I begin to lose that heaviness. It is through the process of taking on the foreign city, behaving like the locals, and adhering to the social rules of the foreign society, as one does in a new city, that I start to really appreciate the burden of everyday life in South Africa. This is because the defences I have to put up when leaving the house in South Africa are down. Unlike home, where I have to brace myself for South African society, in the foreign city I do not fortify myself as I do at home.
For most of my life in South Africa I have used public transport. If you are taking public transport, you have to deal with unsolicited remarks made by taxi drivers, bus drivers, and other public transport operators. This is before the unsolicited remarks made by other passengers. These remarks are often about what you are wearing, whether you are a girl or a boy (even though you are clearly a boy, just slightly effeminate), or other enquiries that have nothing to do with the services rendered of transporting you from point A to point B.
When I used to live at home, my mother and I would trade stories about public transport navigation, mostly I would listen to her taxi horror stories. In these conversations I only partly shared my taxi horror stories because mine included homophobic comments, and I couldn’t bring myself to share those stories at the time. My mother’s refrain during these conversations was that a taxi ride in the morning can ruin your whole day because you arrive at your destination, which was usually work for her and school for me, wounded and already exhausted.
With this history in mind, you can imagine the delight of having to take a subway train in a foreign city, without having to interact with any humans because you can buy traveling tickets in machines, and other passengers pay you no mind as they are neatly seated in their seats reading books and newspapers. In foreign cities, I have finished whole books, reading them only while in transit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanahis one such book that I read almost completely while in public transit abroad.
It is through living in foreign cities that I have come to appreciate how much I live in fear. As a South African, it is hard not to be aware that I live in a dangerous country. I live in Cape Town, the murder capital of South Africa according to police murder statistics. I don’t personally know a South African that has not been a victim of crime. Security is big business in South Africa, and so is insurance. The suburbs of South Africa are famous for their big walls and electric fences. Where I live, in the Atlantic Seaboard, there are neighbourhood watches, security listservs, WhatsApp groups, and weird random little Wendy houses in the streets for security reasons. The possibility of crime hangs over us and dictates how we navigate our society.
All of my friends have been mugged at least once. Most of us more than once. The last time I had my cell phone violently taken away from me I went home and slept. The next morning, I woke up and told the story of the mugging. I was hysterically sobbing in my boyfriend’s arms as he comforted me. He kept on saying, “I am just glad you were not harmed; it could have been worse.” He was right, people have died in cell phone mugging situations. Come to think of it, I wasn’t crying because of the cell phone that was gone, it was insured, I was traumatised by the violation. I remember repeating the words as I was sobbing, I feel so violated, I feel so violated, I feel so violated.
It has become customary for my group of friends, and as I have seen for many other groups of friends and families in South Africa to always inform others of your arrival at home after a night out. This has become so routine that when someone forgets to report arriving at home, as it sometimes happens when one is intoxicated, panic ensues.
What I am demonstrating here is the extent of the fear we live with in South Africa and the everyday precautions we take to be safe. It is living in foreign cities that I have come to understand just how much I live in fear. What becomes painfully evident is that the fear and the precautions we take on a daily basis encroach on our freedom and quality of life. It affects where we go, it affects who we go with, it affects how much fun we can have, and even what you might wear. In South Africa when you are thinking about social events or going out, safety is a key element, whereas I have experienced in foreign cities the key element is where is the most fun, or what kind of space do I desire.
Fear for your safety changes the way you relate to the world around you. In South Africa we have become so conditioned by fear that the safety precautions we take have become second nature. We are ruled by fear. Our fears have become part of the architecture of our lives. Even new buildings in South Africa are constructed with fear in mind and this obviously affects how living spaces are designed.
Contrast the South African reality with living in a foreign city where people routinely forget to lock their back doors. Contrast it with people losing their belongings and being able to claim them at a lost and found department. I once left a small bag with cards, money, keys, and other personal items in a bus. I realised this when I wanted to open the door of the house and I didn’t have the keys. A week later, when I had given up on the bag, I received a letter in the mail that my bag was at the bus depot. I went to go claim my bag, and it had everything in it, including my money which was counted, placed in an envelope, and stored in a safe. Inevitably I thought about what would have happened if I was back home. Would I have been able to find my things, and sadly I concluded that I would have never seen my belongings again.
In many ways traveling abroad makes you come face to face with yourself, and the question of home. As a queer person, I already have mixed feelings about “home”, and this is compounded when I travel abroad. I am South African. I have a passport to prove this, and I am psychologically and emotionally invested in my South Africaness, but truth be told, I am not even sure what being a “South African” is or means.
In the current political climate, the question of being South African becomes even more murky as you try to answer follow up questions to “where are you from.” Where are you from is a question I expect when I am the singularly black body in a room full of white people or when people detect my accent in conversations. What has become a landmine to navigate is the follow up questions after you admit to being South African. On more than one occasion I have had to circumnavigate questions of Afro-phobia attacks (often referred to as xenophobia) perpetrated by South Africans on other Africans living in South Africa. I have fumbled my way through these questions, which at times have felt accusatory, and other times said in jest. In all cases, they are awkward, they are hard to answer or to engage with, particularly in social settings with a gin martini in hand.
Another terrible interjection after you mention that you are South African is the “is it safe there” or “isn’t it dangerous there.” The answer to this question is complicated because I wrestle with how to be honest but not be a bad ambassador for the country. A job I never applied for, a job which I think many South Africans would object to me having anyway. I wrestle with not feeding already existing black and African stereotypes and singular narratives about violence and brokenness.
Since I am a sociologist, I usually want to give a 15-minute lecture, which of course is not conducive for most social settings, but really should be. The truth of the matter is that the danger question is complicated because yes, danger lurks around many corners of South Africa, as I have shared above in my own personal violations. That danger varies according to class, which is linked to race, which is linked to geographical location, which are all linked to colonialism, and then apartheid. This danger is further complicated by gender, gender identity and performance, and sexual identity. So, you can see how my answers can quickly become seminars and prove very difficult to have in pop-quiz-conversations in a gin-martini-in-hand setting.
I am currently living in Toronto on an academic fellowship for a couple of weeks. There are different social rules here, different ways of doing things, and I can’t help but reflect on life in South Africa through comparing and contrasting. While I am well aware that societies are not the same, and societies have different histories that shape them, comparing and contrasting societies offers a way to think differently about taken-for-granted social structures at home.
The question I wrestle with is, do things have to be the way they are in South Africa? The answer is no, there are other ways of making life.
Experiencing life in foreign cities you begin to see that there are multiple ways of seeing, of doing, of being. Being exposed to other parts of the world you begin to understand that your society’s way of doing things is but one of many ways of doing things. The societies we live in are worlds made up by people, they are socially constructed and engineered in a particular direction over time, which means that we can change our societies. We can create different ways of living.
Experiencing life abroad also makes you see the many ways humans are connected. That people, the world over, have similar worries, and for better or for worse, we lead similar structured lives. Being exposed to other ways of life one realises, very quickly, that one doesn’t have all the answers to society’s problems, or to life’s issues, but this is not a unique thing, it’s a human thing. It seems to me that it is of utmost importance to embrace the fact that we do not exist in isolation.
One of the questions that we must ask ourselves and try to answer as South Africans is, what kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want to create – note here I said create. Which means that we have to decide, we have to construct, we have to engineer the kind of world we want.
Another important question we ought to ask and try to answer is, what does or could living together look like? This is not a question that should have been asked in 1990 and 1994, and then shelved. It should be an ongoing question, and we need to be open to the answer changing over time as society changes. In South Africa, for the most part, we occupy the same land mass, but we do not live together.
We need to seriously imagine what living together means and entails? What would we have to do to practice living together? Are we willing to let go of some of the parts of ourselves that are divisive in our society for a greater goal of togetherness? In other words, are we willing to sacrifice some of our strongly held identities in order to create a more harmonious society?
In writing this I am not oblivious to the history of colonialism, the history of apartheid, and the history of cowboy capitalism that have shaped South African society. I am also painfully aware of the ongoing psychological impact of these historical processes on South Africans. In all of this, I do believe, with political will, and a conscientious and driven leadership, we can build a better society.
I keep imagining living in South Africa without fear. What does a life without fear look like, what does it feel like? What kind of society would we need to engineer for us to live without fear? Thinking about a life without fear I am reminded of a Nina Simone video that has done the rounds on social media. In the video she is asked what freedom to her is, and she answered, living with no fear. Imagine a life, a South Africa, without fear.