Sunday, January 29, 2012

When Mandela Goes

Cavendish Mall is one of the key meeting places of complacent, white, southern suburb Capetonians. They have Lattes there, skinny and otherwise, topped with the lightest hint of chocolate powder. They can wander around shops sporting expensive jewellery, overpriced nik naks and the latest fashion accessories. They can meander through the bookshop and shop at a leisurely pace for their necessities at a Woolworths, where even the next available till announcements are delivered in slightly hushed tones.

It is a wealthy environment. But you would not know that if you were not awake to the signs, because they are not entirely obvious. At any restaurant in the complex, you will battle to find a black patron. It is a safe haven for white people. They can see their art movies there on a Saturday evening. They can be at home with each other and relaxed. As they look around them, it is as if democracy never arrived with all its uncomfortable side effects, like taxis on the roads, and riff-raff being given too much freedom, and black people being allowed to do what they want. Cavendish Mall is a safe and pleasant environment. It is tasteful, without being loud. In it you can be assured that standards will be aggressively maintained and everyone will have the same expectations.

You will notice that most people have an attitude. It comes with a particular angle of the nose on the face – as though it has only recently sniffed the unpleasantness of lower forms of life. As I have said, you will notice that wealth is not flashy, nor brash, nor worn on the sleeve. No. The cars are usually ordinary, sun-blasted and with dents that have never been attended to. Even the clothes are not flashy, or loud. Hairstyles are usually the simplest. Makeup is not much in evidence. Things are tasteful and understated.

But it is an environment where like recognises and affirms like. This crowd of people have a set of rules which they all know from birth and follow rigourously until they die. Nothing changes. This is Cairp Tahn. This is the Southern Suburbs.

So I was interested to see some graffiti on one of the walls on a toilet in Cavendish Mall. It read this, in an unsteady hand – “I AM WAITING MANDELA DIE.” I am sure it is already attended to and has been removed – because graffiti is a very rare thing in Cavendish Mall, you underestand – (and we don’t want any of that, do we?)

But it made me think. Something about the sentence made me think, immediately (maybe it was the lack of correct English grammar), that it had been written by someone who was black. Not because I think blacks can’t write correct English, nor because I think only a black would write on a toilet wall – no. It was because I am white and I grew up under apartheid and because those are the kind of assumptions I am bound to make. But let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that my prejudices and my instinct are correct in this instance, and that it was written by a black person – what could it possibly mean?
Is it simply a statement of fact? Does it mean nothing more than what is being said? Someone was sitting on the toilet in Cavendish Mall and decided to write those words on the wall, because that is what he was thinking. He is waiting for Mandela to die. It would be odd indeed. Of the same ilk as “The sky is blue”, “I am bored” and “John loves Mary”. Except it isn’t.

The context of Cavendish Mall inevitably makes this some kind of a political statement. It is intended to be read in that context. It has a meaning more like “Troops out of Iran” or “Nationalise the mines”. It is not a bland or a neutral statement. And it is meant to feed into the deepest fears of the majority of the patrons of the Cavendish Mall. When Mandela dies, all hell will break loose. The black hoards are sitting around waiting for the day. It is only out of respect for the old man that they have kept their pangas under their beds, but when he dies! Then we will all be braaivleis.

And I expect, if it hasn’t happened yet, that there is going to be much buying of tinned sardines, stockpiling of water and matches – just as was the case during the first democratic elections. Why? Because it is a real possibility? No. It won’t happen.

Then why? Why the subliminal fear? Why the mounting hysteria? Why the bewailing of certain doom and racial misfortune? I will tell you why. Because deep down, in the recesses of their consciousness, white people in this country know just how big a compromise was made in the interests of peace. When they lie in their beds at night, they know that the poor cannot be fooled forever and the lid has got to blow on the sham at some point. That is why, this simple, ungrammatically correct sentence, written on a toilet wall in Cavendish Mall, has profound resonance.

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