So, we (myself and a gentleman who’ll go by the name of TLC from hereon in…) went to see District 9. I sort of did and sort of didn’t know what to expect; whether we were dealing with a pure blood n’ guts fest, or whether this was a different sort of science fiction movie along the lines of Moon or Cypher where 90% of the tension is in things not entirely seen or known. As it turns out…
… something in between.
When we left the cinema at the end of the movie, we were silent. We were silent because our ears were ringing, our heads were pounding and a lot of people had, in the last 15 minutes, been spontaneously reduced by a blast of electromagnetism to a puddle of blood and fairly explicit dribbling bits. Finally TLC, said; ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a South African film before.’
We walked a little further, contemplating mechanical killing machines, self mutilation, angry socio-cultural forces, loss of identity, aliens with a thing for cat food, potential things yet to come and really big space ships. Now, I have seen a few South African films – not nearly enough to pretend to be an expert, but since when did that stop a graduate in a social sciences subject from having an opinion? And District 9 fell into a fairly strong picture I had of South African films, in that it was, essentially, about apartheid. It was about more, of course, much, much more, and credit goes to it for many things, up to and including have the brass which very few science fiction movies do of making its aliens both truly alien, yet clearly sympathetic. (Although yeah, I can see why the Nigerian government has issues with it – but that’s another story.) But at the end of the day, it was about apartheid, segregation, prejudice and fear, and as such was a noble, blood-drenched, limb-splattered, cringe-making addition to the genre that left a wobble in my stomach by the end of it.
To my shame, I know very little about apartheid, despite 3 years studying history. I know all the things that everyone knows; of arrests and riots, beatings and murders, prisons, sanctions, the ANC, Mandela – I have a distant memory of Mandela being released from prison on my birthday back when I was too young to really know or care, and being annoyed that my teacher was more excited about this fact than she was about my birthday cake. I have visited South Africa, and in that sense, I suppose, I know a tiny, tiny shard more about the legacy of apartheid than I do about the history itself, and even then, barely a sliver.
I went to South Africa a few years ago courtesy of the Oneword reading prize, and spent a week moving between Jo’burg, Cape Town and Durban, talking mostly to schools, for the very noble cause of promoting childrens’ literacy, and for the much less noble cause of promoting the Horatio Lyle series that I write as Catherine Webb. Arriving at the airport in Jo’burg I was stopped at customs and received the look of all young single females traveling alone that you always receive at customs, a look which was only exacerbated by my explaining all of the above. I remember the smell of Jo’burg when I first stepped outside, green and verdant, as were all the cities I visited, a curious fact considering that you could stand in the bathroom in front of a sign saying ‘there is a major water shortage; please consider your use of water’ while outside the sprinklers watered the rhododendrons. I was exceedingly well looked after, cared for all the time, the recipient of more hospitality than I’ve ever experienced in my life. A lot of it was a bit of a blur, since the day would begin quite early (by my student standards!) and invariably end with a collapse face-first into a bed, but some impressions stand out and will stay with me I think, for the rest of my life.
I remember, for example, arriving late at night in Durban and collapsing straight into bed with the gratitude of someone who’s talked far too long and fast throughout the day. No sooner was the light out than there was a scratching at the walls; then on the roof. Thumping and banging that went on through the night and, having no idea what it was, my heart raced every time, since it sounded almost inside the room. I fell asleep eventually, dreaming of all the usual monsters that an over-active fantasy writer’s imagination can conjure up in a strange land, and woke the next morning to find it was still going on. Getting up, I went outside and found a ginger cat sat on the path outside by room, looking nothing short of terrified. Beyond it, sat with a mango in one hand and a slice of half-eaten toast in the other, was a monkey, about knee-high, wearing the smug expression of a creature that knows size has nothing on big teeth. The hotel was next to a monkey sanctuary, a fact greeted with wonder by me (I had never seen a monkey so close before) and irritation by the hotel managers who reported that they couldn’t stop the creatures getting into the kitchen and stealing everything they could lay their hands on.
The same day, in one of the few breaks between schools, the ladies I was with took me down to the beach, and I remember drinking a milkshake and being allowed 30 seconds to run up and down the sand in front of the ocean whooping like an idiot, just so I could say that I had. The next trip was to a school on the other side of an area of the city called the Durban Triangle, a mess of big, busy roads, in which all travellers hide their bags. The driving in South Africa is utterly terrifying. Red lights are very rarely obeyed, partially out of concern for crime, but mostly, I suspect, out of habit. The ring roads of Paris, the mopeds of northern Italy and the winding mountain roads of Southern Spain, with sheer drops on either side, hold nothing on the terror of South African roads. I think it’s an experienced best summarised by the attitude that the rules of the road… are more sort of guidelines…
Outside every city, between the airport and the centre of Jo’burg, Cape Town and Durban, there are of course, the townships. I hadn’t imagined how big they were, how far they stretched along the side of the roads. From the motorway they look like cardboard cut outs made by children for a Blue Peter project, blu-tacked together out of old toilet rolls and cardboard boxes, crooked shades of beige and brown. The fences that divide them from the motorways serve as rubbish traps, and stray too close to the townships in the car of a self-respecting middle class citizen and you get a call from a security company enquiring as to your well being. I saw no crime in South Africa; but I saw the symptoms of it everywhere, from the parking attendants charging five rand to pace up and down a street at night to watch out for your car, from the ladies hiding their bags under their seats whenever a busy junction approached. Asking about this, a kindly man in a book shop in Cape Town who gave me a discount in his store told me that the two most commonly stolen items from his shop were, firstly, the Bible, and secondly, Tarot cards. There was no sense of fear; merely of a thing that was lived with, because it was there.
The organiser of the trip was intensely proud of her country, and especially her city, Johannesburg. She took me up onto a hill between talks, and I have never seen a city so green, moisture in the leaves. Yet from air, on the flight between Jo’burg and Durban, the land was dull red-brown all the way to the foresty hills above Durban, aptly named after dragons. She also took me into Alexandra, one of the many townships around Jo’burg. To this day I’ve never been sure how to describe the experience. I freely admit that I was afraid of the townships, courtesy of the foreign and commonwealth office website, which can induce anyone to a puddle of terror just by its stern font. And yes, by every standard that I was raised by, growing up in London, they were wretched, crooked tumbles of bricks and iron, dry mud and dirt, faces by the roadside watching as if, and perhaps because, there was nothing else left for them to do, huddles of men and woman just sat on empty plastic water barrels, watching. But there was also something more, a sense of heat, of activity, like the calm side of an ants nest and just the tiniest pressure will break through the sand and out will come a whole, busy, bursting world of which there is no end. Then there was the township school in Alexandra, in which I received the warmest reception of my life. Approximately thirty students, some older than me, studying in tiny little white rooms, some of whom walked ten miles a day to get to their classes, gave me the heartiest, kindest, biggest welcome I have ever had in any corner of the earth. I distrust people who proclaim themselves to be humbled by an experience, since it’s usually something said by politicians who’ve been caught doing something shifty, but I think in that little room in Alexandra, it’s possibly the nearest handy word I can find.
I can’t make a judgment based on what I saw; I don’t know enough, I was a stranger, and this is nothing more than a medley of pictures and feelings that I still haven’t really properly filed in my own mind. On the way to the airport in Jo’burg, the two women I was with fell to talking about their work. One in particular worked for charities, raising money from the sales of books to redistribute, and told the story of an orphanage catering to children whose parents had died of HIV. They had started out using the iron freight containers that are shipped round the world on the back of ships, and which in their retirement serve as temporary libraries, moving advice centres and, occasionally even, the foundations of an orphanage in South Africa. They talked about politics, the government, disappointment with both; my limited reading on the subject of HIV in Africa is enough to scare and disappoint me too.
What else sticks in my mind? Fruit. I remember someone would ask me if I wanted something to drink, and I would say yes thank you, and every time, without fail, a glass would appear containing more fruit of different varieties than I’d ever seen in my life. Salads of lettuce and tomatoes with pomegranate seeds on top. I remember being disappointed to discover that very beautiful birds make absolutely terrible noises, and that Irish pubs the world over are a disgrace including in Temple Bar, Dublin.
My very last memory of South Africa, before catching the plane home (where I succeeded in spilling coffee on a stranger in the middle of the night… not my finest hour) was this – sitting on top of Table Mountain, watching the sun go down over the ocean, drinking hot chocolate and listening to not very much at all. I have no doubt that a week of exhausting work contributed to my state of mind at the time, but it is a picture that has stuck with me ever since, an absolute romantic painter’s dream of a crimson sky, black rocks in shadows, a city turning on the lights below, and a sea stretching to the horizon. It was the furthest I had ever been from home, let alone the furthest I had ever been from home by myself, and to this day I have no pat way to describe it, no easy one-liner that captures the sense of what I saw, just a mix of pictures and feelings tangled up.
Which is probably, even now, no bad thing at all.