Sunday, June 21, 2009

Speculating in the gym

I need to get back to the gym. After a month's break from my regimen, due to a slight operation on my feet, I need to get back.

When I was living in Johannesburg, a couple of years back, I liked to go early in the mornings, while I was still feeling righteous. There are not a great many people in the gym at that time. And those that were there were the people with toned bodies, tattoos and bulging muscles. There were also, like me, one or two oddities. There was a woman, who is probably somewhere in her late sixties, who wore a tight leotard, with something else colourful on top of that, which seemed designed to disappear between her butt cheeks and then re-emerge triumphant at the her low slung and rolled down waist. She had blond tie-dyed hair, which one was not fooled by, which she held back in a kind of runners Alice band – coordinated with the colour of the thing which had disappearing up her butt cheeks. The entire ensemble was finished off with some large woolie socks, rolled down for action, over expensive looking gym shoes. She was not a pretty sight, but she carried it off with such utter determination and self-delusion, that one could only admire her for it.

Behind me, on the cycles every morning, were two 30 year old boys. The one black and the other white. They were both absolutely perfect specimens. Everything about them was perfect. They wore exactly the right kind of clothes, which I would never find in the shops, even if I went shopping with a gym instructor. The black one had a shaved head. The other had hair perfectly cut. Each hair is exactly where it should be. Each gelled bit stuck up where it was meant to be. The muscles on both of them rolled around under their shirts and on their legs and on their arms as they cycled. It was a heady sight and I carefully chose a cycle for myself in front of them, but also in front of a large mirror so that I could watch this morning display. It is visual poetry. It often brought tears to my eyes. (I tried to weep discretely, so as not to alarm them).

They both spoke to each other constantly. They laughed. They joked. They pass sotto voce comments on passing women. They discussed the economy. They made rude remarks about a range of unlikable politicians. They had some telling and what seemed to me to be strong opinions on the state of the nation and world affairs. But the really interesting thing, besides their marvellous pecs, is that they only talked to each other in isiZulu! In the beginning, I thought it might be something of an affectation. But it never changed. In the change-rooms, they talked isiZulu. In the showers, they shouted across to each other in isiZulu. If anyone joins in, it is in isiXhosa!

And over the weeks and months I witnessed them, I started pondering how this relationship could possibly have come about. Maybe they grew up together? Perhaps they were best friends in school? Perhaps they met here in the Gym and found that they shared a common language? I speculated that they might be lovers, but I somehow doubted it. They seemed to be too inordinately interested in passing leotards of the feminine persuasion.

Then they shower, they put on all sorts of skin lotions and potions, which are poured out of expensive looking bottles. They put on immaculately ironed shirts, ties and suits. The white one did a final adjustment to his hair, getting just the right bits to stick up, and then off they went. They were fit. They looked utterly fabulous and they drove off, one in a very large, expensive BMW – the other in a competingly large Mercedes.

Now, envious as I was of their perfectly proportioned looks, that was not the real cause of my interest or my jealousy. I was jealous of them, because they could speak to each other in a language other than English, so fully and so fluently and with such obvious enjoyment and fluidity. I was, and remain very jealous of that. You can keep the cars and the hairstyles and the perfect suits. I wouldn’t mind the looks but what I am really envious of is the ability they had to communicate with each other.

Now, I was taught Afrikaans at school. It was never a pleasant experience. Apart from the real Anglo centric resistance that we all seemed to have to the language, there was also growing resentment country-wide about its use as a teaching medium. So for many reasons, it wasn’t very cool to learn it. I can speak it today and I can understand it – not well, but in a passable sort of way. How much I regret that I shied away from it as much as I did in school. I read, some time ago, Marlene Van Niekerk’s brilliant book Agaat (Tafelberg/Jonathan Ball, 2006, in the equally brilliant English translation. And as I was doing so, I wished with all my heart that I had the skill to read it in the original. But I know I don’t have enough to do that.

I grew up in a world when Afrikaans was the only option other than English. I live in a world today, where not having other languages, other than English and Afrikaans is a severe handicap. Strangely, I do not see white kids today chatting to their black friends, or, for that matter, to each other - in anything other than those two languages. I see lots of black kids speaking only English to each other. It is, in my opinion, a great pity and a gaping hole in our transformation.

And Cape Town is far worse than Johannesburg in terms of this kind of transformation. Sure, Afrikaans has more prominence, but isiXhosa is regarded as a kind of "minority interest" kind of thing. And Cape Town remains so fundamentally racist, that almost no-one who speaks English or Afrikaans as first languages will bother to speak isiXhosa, or even think it might be necessary.

I find, for instance, that neither "white" nor "coloured" people in Cape Town, seem to bother with the correct pronunciation of Xhosa names."Oh, something like that", I hear them say, when they are corrected. We have a long, long way to go.

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