Monday 30 January 2012

That Story About A Guy Who Stole My Watch In South Africa

I was woken up by someone shouting outside my flat one morning, probably nothing right? – I got up and had a shower. I came out of the shower and went to put my watch on which I left on the bedside table before I went to sleep. 

It was gone. 

I searched the flat furiously, even getting suspicious about the old Indian man I shared the flat with; he was up and ironing his shirt in pink slippers.

Me - Hey! Have you seen a watch, I left it right here?

Old Man – No.

Me – Are you sure?

Old Man – Yes, I’m sure.

I wasn’t convinced but while I was thinking about ways to break into his room and trash his stuff I heard shouting again outside and went to investigate. Outside there were five Indian/Cape Malayan guys, all about my age (twenty five) talking excitedly to two ladies in headscarves, I listened in...

... yeah, he climbed the wall and tried to break through that window but Bonita woke up and called us. We were there in minutes and we caught him... fucked him up! ...

“Excuse me”, I said “I’ve lost a watch” “wait!” said one of the guys.  “Is it black with a big face!”? “Yes!” I said, “You must go the police station! The guy we caught had it on him and swore it was his.”

I went into the house and told my landlord Mr.Gool and he drove me to the police station.

When we arrived I told a police officer at the reception desk, (a black man, about mid-thirties) about my watch and he knew instantly what I was talking about.

Police Man - “Yeah, it’s an expensive watch right?”

Me – “Erm, I guess”

Police Man – “How much would you say exactly?”

Me – “Errrm... I bought it in London for about seventy five pounds”

Police Man – “That’s what, seven thousand rand?”

Me – “I don’t know... maybe.”

The police officer disappeared and came back with a sheet of paper and wrote down the incident. It took him about twenty minutes. He then showed me what he wrote and asked me to sign it. He made the incident sound like a children’s story. It started like this...

“Last night everything was fine. The victim came home and took off his watch and went sleepy. He woke up and it was loud suddenly. Something might be happening but no. Then victim see’s watch gone and thinks OH NO! And now his morning is not fine.”

I sign the statement and ask the police officer if he’s ever considered writing screenplays.

The police office disappeared with the statement and when he came back he told me the man they have arrested is denying the watch is mine. He wants me to go into the jail cell and speak to him directly.

I followed two other police officers (they were also black men) down a corridor that smelt like burnt rubber. They unlocked the cell door and we walked in. Instantly I wished I had my camera.

Scratched into the walls (probably with a knife or keys) someone had written things like - “I will never sin again”, “all I need is one love”, “my spirit is stronger than any bone” “I will do right, right now!” etc.

The robber was sitting on a bed with grey blankets over his body, he looked mixed race and young, about twenty years old. The entire left side of his face was beaten and swollen. His ear puffed up the size of a kidney and he was bruised so badly he couldn’t open his eyes. I wondered if this was done by the police or the five guys next door? (or both) - 

It was weird, before I went in I anticipated feeling angry but I felt sympathetic, my mind went through a whole list of potential scenarios that would lead to a young guy like this breaking into houses.

One of the police officers took my watch out his pocket and asked the robber “Does this belong to you?” the robber barely lifted his head and answered drowsily, “Yes, my watch”. The police officers got aggressive and spoke in Afrikaans, pulling his shirt and speaking loudly in his face until suddenly in English the robber said “Maybe I have a watch that looks like that!” this was enough for them. They made him sign a form and then the police officer put my watch in his pocket.

“So I can take my watch now right?” I asked, “No” said the police officer, “We need it for evidence” I paused and said “But you've written a description of the watch and you have a photo of it so why do you physically need it?” “Court proceedings” said the police officer plainly as he led me out the cell before asking “how much is the watch worth again?”

After a passive protest and realising they are not going to give me my watch back, they say to come back in two weeks. I get my crime reference number and leave with Mr.Gool.

Two weeks later I’m back at the station and I’m being told the watch is still held in the court. I threaten to file a complaint, then they say the detective involved in my case isn’t present and he needs to sign the watch out. I then go into a show about being from London and having to leave tomorrow and how I'll have to make arrangements for my Cape Town friends to pick it up. I then say how I’ve come to South Africa as a teacher and I deserve better treatment! Then I’m told to wait in another office. 

I’m there for half an hour before a woman arrives with an envelope. “Your watch" she says and hands it to me. I signed the forms, opened the envelop and find the watch isn’t working.

 I sigh but decide not to complain; instead I take out my camera and take a photo of the desk and file cabinet in the office.

“What are you doing?” asks the police officer, “I just took a photo" I said  holding up my camera as if to prove it's not a weapon, "I’m from London you see and...” “no!” she cut me off “that’s illegal! You must come with me!” now I'm being marched into another office. We walk in and she points at the chair, “Sit there”.

I was in that office for an hour explaining why I took a photo and how I was trying to be touristy on my working holiday.

I signed some forms agreeing that I wasn’t a spy and I wouldn’t release any photos in the police station. As I was walking out one of the officers recognised me as the “watch guy”, he saw me holding my camera and said “Hey! You can take a picture of me if you want”.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

The Coloured Experience

Disclaimer: This is a recording of my own personal experience. I know the issues are so much more complicated than I have expressed here (no tribal, religious, sexuality, gender conflicts, employment issues mentioned) but I didn't want to read other theories or essays on South African politics and write a historically accurate thesis - This is more of a report. The writing here came from being present in South Africa between November 2011 - January 2012 and talking to the people living there.

On my first day in South Africa I got into a conversation with a Taxi Driver (not the one I’ve already written about) – this taxi driver would be seen as a black Arab/Asian in the UK.

Me – So, what do you think of South Africa?

Taxi Driver – It’s great but the blacks are fucking it up!

I didn’t know how to respond to this. I’d just arrived. I wondered how he’s labelled me and how he expects me to react. I didn't get offended I just felt confusion and it prepared me for much confusion to come.

I know Londoners aren’t comfortable referring to race. We like to think we’re too educated and civilised to let race define anyone's status or situation but South Africa is a country built on racial politics (i.e. how much Vitamin D your skin can absorb).

Talk Radio is popular in Cape Town and it seems all the discussions centred around race.

"GOOD MORNING! Welcome to Good Hope Radio! A teacher was fired today because she's coloured, a man was arrested today because he's black, a woman was rewarded because she's white"

It's 2012 and white South Africans (Afrikaans/British descended South Africans) make up 12% of the country and own 90% of the countries businesses. 

The gap between rich and poor is striking. 

I walked past speed boats, hummer trucks, quad bikes etc all parked in driveways and garages behind (mostly white owned) gated mansions. After working in a primary school with children (all black or coloured) some of whom couldn't afford school dinner, it's hard not to feel repulsed by this display of excessive wealth.

Apartheid is still a wound that needs tending. The white families that benefited from, well... being white are of course still going to be rich. They aren’t going to turn around and give reparations to Africans any time soon. Whites feel they've worked for all they have. Being white you got top education and top assistance from a government who wanted to help its own and exclude the rest but still, success wasn't handed to them, it was just made easier for them. The whites worked and feel entitled to their privileges. 

I heard there is one white township. I was told about it by a guy from Zimbabwe who lives in Cape Town. 

“The media like to talk about this white township but come on, to get by (during apartheid) all you had to be was white and they fucked it up! They’re the lowest of the low for sure!”

There is also this white guilt; history knows what colonial warmongering history we Europeans have and we inherit that and apologise for it but I don’t really know how useful that guilt is to anyone. Maybe it has created a sensitivity that has geared many young middle class white people towards human rights campaigning and activism which of course is cute.

I did speak to a young white British/South African who said "the blacks were oppressed for a long time by whites in South Africa and now they're getting their own back"

Here's a 15 minute documentary about "Poor Whites" in South Africa from 2006.

There is so much anger in South Africa about its history. You'll often hear people still complain about the white government as if they are still there and then complain about the black government in the same breath.

I went on a tour of the caves in the Devils Peak. The group was made up of mostly Brazilian, Dutch & American students. The tour itself was led by a English/Xhosa speaking guide. After two hours of a guided walk and talk about how the Dutch came and discovered all the caves  I managed to speak to him one on one afterwards. He went into this rant about how he has to give all the credit to the Dutch settlers and promote white supremacy to all the people that come here to visit but it's his job and he's got a family to feed. 
Much of the conversations I had with “coloured people” (political name for people of Mixed-Race, Asian, Cape Malayan, Khoisan) were about this quest for their own identity. I spoke to a coloured guy from the Eastern Cape about this. 

“Black Africans know about their tribes and their ancient traditions, whites know about their European roots but we (coloured people) are caught up between the two - We are lost in having a whole identity”.

A lot of mixed race people go through this “who am I and where do I belong?” crises. I also came though this tunnel but I think I had an easier time going through it in London and being British. In London we’re not wholly defined by our skin colour like it’s our passport, also our multiculturalism is celebrated (because it’s politically correct to celebrate it).

I met a Kiwi guy in a backpacker hostel and we went to a bar together. The people there were all white Afrikaans. He got talking to some of them but they completely ignored me. It was a strange experience and I wanted to humour it. I thought about my Dad’s stories about being Jamaican in London in the 50’s. Ultimately though, I got angrier the longer I was there. Somehow I got talking to a young white woman, after only five minutes three white guys came over and escorted her away from me saying “no, no, no”. It was a strange experience.

There were places where my colour blended me in. I went to a few coloured townships and wasn't looked at twice. I was welcomed into people’s family homes, introduced to their children and grandparents. They cooked for me and showed me around their neighbourhoods.

There was one coloured guy I met who was an ex-ambulance driver who told me things were better during apartheid.

"I had a great team of paramedics but they fired all the white ones and replaced them with these under-qualified black ones. I'll never forget showing up at the scene of a road accident and the new black guy I was with had no idea how to handle any of the equipment. He couldn't even operate the radio. I quit my job after that, I wouldn't be able to save any more lives. Things weren't that bad during apartheid - it just meant we had to live with segregation. We couldn't go in some areas because they were white - whatever! I didn't want to go there anyway! My house has been robbed three times since Apartheid ended and more people from other parts of Africa came in - The last guy to rob my house was a man from Kenya posing as a TV repairman. Came in and ran off with the DVD Player and TV set... stole some plates and cutlery that were in the kitchen too!" 

I spent New Years Eve at a party in Cape Town. It was about five minutes into the New Year and a black woman chose to have an intense conversation with me about "how white Cape Town is" and how racist the Afrikaans people are, how the black government are corrupt because they're trying to live like white people etc. The fact she couldn't let it go for one night as we went into a New Year made a sad statement. 

Apartheid isn't just a political fight, it's a psychological one.

Friday 20 January 2012

Sometimes Conversation Is A Hard Act To Follow

Lots of things can get lost when hiking up a mountain. 

As you probably know I wear hearing aids and when wind blows into them you can't hear anything but whooshing.

Here’s an extract from a conversation as I heard it while climbing South Africa's Table Top Mountain with a friend called Irfaan.

Irfaan – Did I tell you about what happened?-------------------------------------------grabbed his arm------------------------punched in the face---------------I said HEY! DON’T YOU DO THAT! --------------------------------- and then I said I’d put my fist through his face and that was it-------------------------------amazing story eh? ----------------------------------- Christmas.

Me – Christmas?

Irfaan - Yeah. Well, what?

Me – What what?

Irfaan – Christmas.

Me – I’m guessing you are asking what I’m doing for Christmas?

Irfaan – Erm, ok. What are you doing for Christmas?

Me –I don’t know.

Irfaan – Well, do you eat kittens?

Me – Kittens? ... Like cats?

Irfaan – What?

Ray – I don’t eat kittens’ man.

Irfaan – No Ray, CHICKEN!

 Ray – Oh’. Haha, yeah I do. I’m kind of hungry actually.

Irfaan – I got a sandwich you can have some if you want?

Ray – Sure what’s in it?

Irfaan – Feta cheese, honey and feet.

Ray – Erm... what?

Irfaan – You know what figs are? Those little...

Ray – OH’! FIGS! FIGS! Haha, yes... Not feet.

Irfaan – What the fuck is wrong with you man?  

Ray – Yeah, a lot of wind is blowing in my ears.

Irfaan – OK.. So, you been into town yet?

Ray – Yeah.

Irfaan – Was it fertile?

Ray – I know you’re not asking me if the town was fertile.


We didn’t say anything to each other for a while after that.

Later I was at Irfaan’s house sitting at a table with his little cousins when a man walks into the room wearing black overalls and a Muslim prayer hat.

Irfaan – Ray meet fuck me.

Ray – What’s his name?

Irfaan – Fuck me.

Ray – Erm...

Fuck Me – Hi, I’m Fuck me.

Ray – Hello Fuck me.

Fuck me - ...

Irfaan – There are children here man!

Ray – erm... what’s his name again?

Irfaan – FUCK ME!

Ray – Oh'...OK.

I never did find out his name... probably Funky or Totsi or Cutney or Chucky or something...

It takes a while to adjust to new accents when you travel aboard. I was asking South African people often to repeat themselves (more the first month than the second). I always considered myself as someone articulate in speech but I often had to repeat myself too. I was often thought to be a "coloured guy from Cape Town" until I opened my mouth. The look of confusion when a South African greeted me in Afrikaans or "howzit me'brew?" and I responded without flattening the vowels in my speech - "hey, I'm good thanks, how are you?".

Saturday 14 January 2012

No One Does Skies Like Africa

South Africa has been amazing. I've had such an incredible time getting to know the country. 

Upon returning home I expect to have to answer a lot of questions about my trip but sometimes after a long and eventful time away you don't want to talk about it too much. It's fresh, its sitting in you as you slowly adjust back to life as you know it. 

When asked about my trip I'll say "yeah, South Africa was great, amazing, stunning", I'll smile and look off into the distance until I'm asked if I'm alright, then I might cry and let it all out... 

I'll talk about how I stayed at the Valley Of A Thousand Hills in a Zulu Village and the Xhosa family I met along the coastal Eastern Cape. I'll talk about the Muslim family I stayed with and the wedding I went to in their local Mosque. I'll think back to the christmas I spent in a township with a Christian family eating seafood after attending sunday morning service. How I stayed with a white gay couple who adopted and are raising a black South African daughter. I'll mention the white lesbian couple I stayed with who are raising a mixed race son. I'll talk about the work I did with orphaned children, severely disabled (wheelchair bound) children, the mountains I climbed, the lone travelling across the wild coast via public transport (something I was advised not to do because of common road accidents & muggings) I'll  get animated as I recall the smells in the mini buses, trains and taxis, how I was crammed next to chickens and big boned African women with babies and baskets of fruits and veg. I'll talk about what it's like to sky dive, to go kayaking by waterfalls, to drive an old school Piaggio scooter across Cape Town in the city heat.  Where I was when I spotted my first whale and how I lost count of all the seals and penguins I saw. I'll say I survived a shark cage dive, how I walked with elephants and baboons, ate crocodiles and ostriches, raved at underground hip-hop spots, watched b-boys break, graffiti artists paint and skaters skate. The writers, poets, teachers and activists I met, how I felt their hunger, their anger, their idealistic visions of the future, how tormented they are by their own history and how intensely I listened to their struggle with African identity. I had conversations about apartheid, African politics, European-ism, Pan-African-ism. I had the kind of conversations you walk away from feeling enriched and uplifted. I met people who made me laugh until I cried, people who annoyed the fuck out of me, people with stories, incredible stories. I'll look very serious as I talk about how I almost got robbed on a mini bus and had to fight my way out. I'll tell about the morning someone broke into my flat while I was asleep and stole my watch and cash - how I had to go to the police station and confront the guy in his jail cell. I'll hold eye contact as I talk about the people I met going through grief, divorces, people who just got married, just had babies, just bought their first house, just lost their job. I'll go on to talk excitedly about how I crawled through caves, swam in the Indian and Atlantic Ocean, sat on a grassy hill watching a sunset surrounded by cows and smoked weed grown in the gardens next to pumpkins and strawberries. I'll grin as I talk about all the colours I sank into during a mushroom trip sitting next to a river and the laughing fits, bless the laughing fits! I'll recall the candle lit jazz bars and poetry readings and the books I finished and how I wrote at least five love poems about the sky. I'll recommend a range of new African authors, poets and musicians (currently reading Half A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), I'll say how I realized I like eating olives, I like hiking, I like Milk Stout beer and South African wine and cheese. I like dancing, I really like dancing... I danced more than I have in my entire life. I'll look at my feet as I tell you I realised how hard I am on myself, how much my relationship with my mother and sister has matured these past few years - I missed them in a way I never have. I thought about past relationships and best friends I've moved away from. I thought about my compatibility with my city, other cities, ambitions, dreams, business. 

I am growing and I have grown through all of this, I can feel it already... I'll wipe my eyes and say I am in love, in love with everything... all the beautiful things and their shadows.

Monday 9 January 2012

Bridges & Marriages

I saw the bridge. I saw the man get ready to jump, and then I saw him plummet two hundred and sixteen meters towards the ground; why, why would you do that? It’s all I could say as the rope pulled him back up. He dangled at least fifty meters below the bridge and hung there upside down and waited to be pulled back towards the ledge.

The bungee jump is potential suicide but I had some strange inner madness that wanted to do it but I needed encouragement.

There was a man standing behind me also watching the people jump. He looked to be in his early forties. I turned to him.

Me - You going to do it?

Man – Yes, I’ve come across the world to do it.

Me – oh’, you’ve come across the world for this kind of death sport, why?

Man – I’m going through a divorce.

After he said that he walked off towards the bridge. I already imagined him at the ledge, looking down towards the rocks in the green river below. I imagined how much of the world he’d put into his lungs before stepping over the edge and free falling over a hundred miles an hour, completely alone, completely alone.

Monday 2 January 2012

District 6 (The film District 9 is based on this history)

District 6 is an area in Cape Town where 60,000 people were forced to leave their homes in the sixties after the white government declared the district a “white group area”. When South Africa became a democracy in 1994 the original residents were given the option to move back.

Conversation With A District 6 evictee.

They told us we could go back, back to what?  I knew if my avocado pear tree was not standing up in the garden I would not go. As a boy I’d climb that tree, eat the avocado pears and throw the pips at passers by.  My neighbor kept homing pigeons and he lost them all after his removal. He was sent to live in a township shack and couldn’t make his birds follow. Guess you can’t shit on pigeons. Some of the residents did fight but they only stayed in their homes to watch the colour of the district pale around them. Its seventeen years into democracy and people can’t forward move. There is still so much anger here because of apartheid. Even my old neighbor to this day will not forgive the white government, but now he’s as angry at the black government. Since 94’ not one president has served a full term. They get into office and exploit and cause corruption for their own financial gain, knowing they won’t be in power for long. Most of the coloured people will tell you the white government were less corrupt and people lived better with official division. The coloured people feel this because when the whites were ruling they favored the coloured (including the lighter skinned blacks). Generally they got better jobs and education so when the blacks took power the coloured people couldn’t believe it. They had tried so hard to disassociate themselves with the blacks and then they ended up ruling the country. If we are a rainbow nation every colour is still living behind its own fence. It’s a shame we are a nation of people defined solely by the colour of our skin before our South African nationality. But I will say there are also great people here doing great things to ensure South Africa becomes one of the driving forces for a united Africa, an Africa that is always home.