Sunday, January 10, 2010
The Unbearable Dysfunctionality of Being (with apologies to Milan Kundera)
Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook will have seen a multitude of sunshiny photos this week as D and I have played tourist in our own backyard. We’ve had a lovely time – good food, good wine, good weather - and looking at the photographs of the rich and gorgeous scenery that makes up the area where we live I’m struck yet again by the curious juxtaposition of life in South Africa.
On the one hand the most outstanding natural beauty, on the other, violence, aggression and a completely traumatized society. I’m not talking here about the usual crime, violence and corruption stuff – stuff that we South Africans seemingly take so for granted that we are sublimely desensitized to what would appall the rest of the world – unless you’re living in a war torn zone. What I’m talking about is the complete dysfunctionality of the average South African, a dysfunctionality that is characterized by aggression, greed and vulgarity. Of course, it is a generalization but how else is one to talk of generalities other than by way of generalizations.
I was struck a while ago when one of my critique partners pointed to the violence contained in my own writing and, on thinking about it, I realised how else could I write when surrounded by a proliferation of ongoing, daily aggression? Art reflects reality, always has done, always will, so I suppose it’s no small wonder that my own words and stories are infused with a sort of violence that some may find disturbing. Understand please, it’s not gratuitous violence or violence for the sake of violence that appears in my work – it is just a reflection of the world around me appearing in fictitious form. But it has made me realise that while I abhor violence and horror, it has, nevertheless, by dint of my location, become part of my writing. It’s a sobering – and disturbing – realization.
I often ponder the nature of balance and then try to consider the nature of balance in South Africa. But the balance seems totally unbalanced – the beauty and the beast – the land and the people. It struck me yesterday, while we were sitting in the shade of the oaks in a country village, how people have a phenomenal capacity to tarnish places.
The village which we were visiting is a beautiful place nestled between towering peaks. Once it was home to the Khoi people, the Hessequas and the Attequas, until the arrival of Dutch settlers who dispossessed the local tribes of their land and their herds. The land was given over to farming, and ultimately parts of it became a freehold agricultural village. Today the village is populated predominantly by weekending Capetonians. Watching them, this is what I wrote in my notebook:
“There are certain people who come to certain places and colonize. The places are usually picturesque, the people are usually wealthy. They arrive and take hold like poison ivy. They’ll take an unspoiled sleepy village and populate it with Volvo’s, Beemers and Benz’s. They’ll furnish their homes with antiques raided from the attics of locals (for which they’ll pay a paltry price and sell for a staggering profit.) They’ll open B&Bs, guest houses, art galleries, gift shops (that sell everything you never knew you needed or wanted) and restaurants that serve mediocre food. Their presence will encourage wannabes and the crass nouveau riche set. And were it not for the gentle breeze rustling through the trees and the infectious laughter of the real locals, you would never have any sense of the soul of the place at all.”
True, this happens everywhere, but here there is a sense of entitlement that seems to me to be uniquely South African and it’s that entitlement and the resentment coupled with it, that constantly leaves me muttering, “Nice place, shame about the people”.
And so, as I drove home yesterday, an incident played itself out which only served to confirm what I already know.
I came up the offramp of the freeway to the stop sign at the top of the bridge. Glass littered the road alongside an unoccupied Suzuki SUV with flashing hazard lights. In front of it was a large Toyota SUV. Both vehicles appeared to be pulled slightly to the side of the road and I assumed there’d been a collision. I pulled to the centre and raised my arms enquiringly at the driver of the Toyota. What was going on, could I go past, was he planning on moving? He gestured violently. I had no idea what he meant. Again, I raised my arms in enquiry. He gestured again, indicating I should “take a hike” and pulled away. I realised then that he was in fact towing the Suzuki. I found myself traveling behind him – with him going increasingly slowly – and also realised I was boxed in, with a white Honda right up my rear. The road on which we were traveling ran between the ocean and Cape Town’s biggest squatter settlement. People dashed across the road between the traffic, drunk driving was much in evidence as cars swerved around each other and people narrowly missed being hit. Feeling increasingly unsafe, I spotted a gap in the oncoming traffic and accelerated to overtake the Toyota. As I went past him, the driver, a thickset guy in his 30s, stuck his hand out the window and gave me the zap sign. Why? Probably because I’d had the “cheek” to question him at the intersection.
And this is the thing, this is the kind of aggression, unnecessary and unpleasant, that so characterizes South African society. Of course, it didn’t end there. The white Honda, driven by a hip young guy, also overtook the Toyota and charged up behind me, where he once again proceeded to sit on my tail. If I accelerated, so did he. If I slowed down, he slowed down. He had plenty of opportunity to overtake me, but he didn’t. It is more “fun”, it’s to be presumed, to threaten people because you can, because it makes you feel good and powerful, because, it seems, you don’t know how else to be.
This, amidst the beauty of the mountains, the oceans and the vineyards is just how it is. South Africa is a land characterized by greed and violence, its people - irrespective of race, creed or gender - are scarred by a long history of social and psychological trauma. And it’s not getting better. As the sun scatters diamonds on the Atlantic Ocean and glints off the granite face of the mountains, as the vines rustle in the south-easterly breeze so increasingly the pot boils and churns and no one, it seems, is willing to douse the flames.