Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Smoking Doctors

Soon after moving to Gauteng in the mid 1990s, I badly needed a doctor – the reasons for which, I now forget. I was newly arrived in Pretoria. The Boerewors curtain (and life behind it) was a strange and frightening place. The entire Department of Land Affairs was staffed by white people. More than that, Afrikaans white people, who were so furious that a white person from “outside” had been appointed to the position instead of them, that they refused to talk to me in anything other than Afrikaans for the first 6 months. So, life was a little challenging. I needed a doctor, so I asked the only person who was remotely nice to me in the directorate I was running, if she could perhaps recommend anyone. As it happened, she could but she was hesitant. I wondered why? “Because, well, because”, she said “… no, make up your own mind about him”. I was intrigued.

Within seconds of meeting him, I understood her hesitation.

On that day, he was dressed from head to toe in black leather. He had long peroxide blond hair, done in ringlets which cascaded down his back and, to the front, to his nipples. He had a black moustache and goatee. He had a silver cross dangling on a chain around his neck, which was lost in a forest of dark chest hair. He was as camp as a row of pink tents. And he was smoking a cigarette.

As you can imagine, I was a little nervous, but I needed a doctor for whatever it was. And so began what is now a 17 year relationship, because even though we moved to Johannesburg and then to Cape Town, he and I have remained in periodic contact.
He had, for a while (what my mother would have called), his “eye” on me. But he really was never my type and nothing ever happened either way. He was (is) a brilliant doctor. It was almost as though he could kind of “divine” the problem. He was certain about many things: his particular version of God; politics; men; women; cats; dogs; climate change – the lot. He was (is) also a thundering, inexcusable, unbearable racist.

Quite simply. He hates “die kaffirs”. Over the years, he had learned to pare that down slightly by calling them “them”. Arguing with him is and was futile. His views were and are based on gossip, prejudice, hate, victimisation, conspiracy theories, lies, hysteria and loathing. (I know it is surprising that he is also a good doctor, but that he certainly is). His heroes were DF Malan, Verwoerd – who knows, probably Hitler as well. He just hates blacks. (We decided very early on, that we would never take our children to him).

Now the area in which his surgery is situated is in, or very close to Sunnyside. And Sunnyside, for any of you who might know it, has become an almost entirely black neighbourhood. The area immediately around his surgery has transformed, from when first I went to see him, from being a tight-lipped, pinched Afrikaner community, to being a Boom! Boom! taxi speakers, sheep’s head on the braai kind of area. He has stayed on, hating and loathing everything and everyone around him.

Every year or so, he gets robbed, or held up, or something equally dramatic and life threatening. Every year, he has his knees removed and replaced, or his stomach diverted, or his lungs replaced, or his heart transplanted. It is always terribly dramatic and life-threatening stuff and the other doctors are always amazed at how strong he is and how quickly he recovers from whatever beset him.

Every year, religiously, he calls me to wish me on my birthday. He tells me a joke, with seemingly no punchline (I suspect it gets lost in the translation) and he tells me of the latest mishap to befall him.

A couple of days ago, I was in Pretoria with a few minutes to spare, so I went to say hello. I got hugged, as usual, so hard that the breath leaves my body for far too long. We started chatting. He had forgotten what job I was now in. Restitution, I told him. I saw his face glaze with fury. He stood up. He started shouting at me, that it was disgusting to take people’s land away from them and give it to morons who didn’t know how to look after it. Well, as it happens, I told him (trying to divert the direction of the conversation), some of the claimants are white. Restitution isn’t about colour. He didn’t hear that. He just went on ranting.

“They were bloody nomads!” he screamed “They owned nothing anywhere! The land was acquired completely legally. They were just too bloody stupid to do it first! And thank God they didn’t manage to get their paws on it first, because then we would be completely up the creek without a… what’s it called? A sort of spade thing you row boats with?... A paddle! Up shits creek without a paddle”.

And so it went for a full 10 minutes. “The whole bloody lot of them are born with their hands like this (he demonstrated hands cupped, open in the begging position). “Why don’t you just get out of here and let me do my work!? I could see that we were in the middle stages of a medical emergency, so I stood up and left.

I am sad, because obviously, that friendship (however strange it might have been) is at an end now. I suppose what is even more strange, is that it ever happened in the first place. His level of hatred is (perhaps it always was) pathological. How he survives where he does, beats me. And what he so ably illustrates is how some white people have managed to weather majority government, without changing their views or their positions (or their outlook) one iota. They are exactly the same disturbed racists which they were under apartheid.

He lives in a parallel universe. The black people braai-ing sheep’s heads on his doorstep are like a tide of garbage which has arrived and which needs to be carefully picked through to get to one’s car and then into the safety of one’s house every evening. It is “them” and “us”. The war continues. The bitterness doesn't end.

And then I remember his secretary. She used to dye her hair a vivid red and wear it in a pile on top of her head. She is a “blommetjie van die veld” if ever there was one. True Pretoria, in every way. Her daughter has adopted two black children – Matthew and Luke. She loves and adores them. They only speak Afrikaans. While I was waiting to see the doctor, she couldn’t wait to show me pictures of her grandchildren, on her phone. She has told me before that she cannot talk about them in his presence, because, well, you know how he is.

Truly, we are a strange lot. And how many generations is it going to take to make things normal? White people, generally, have simply tripped into liberation, without having to do very much at all, except put down their guns. What is so badly missing and so badly needed, is re-education.

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