Written September 2014
I met Lerato at the Benoni Museum, in the room dedicated to the history of my hometown, Benoni. Benoni is a Hebrew word which means Son of my Sorrows. I was standing in front of a board that boasted about the building of Daveyton, the township next to Benoni, describing it as a “a model township”. The words are lifted from a book published during apartheid.
“Can you believe this is still up?” I ask the young guy standing next to me.
He reads, his arms folded, his hand on his mouth, and nods.
“I live in Daveyton. It is a nice place,” he says.
“But, but… don’t you get it. It is old apartheid propaganda. It is trying to justify that it was okay for black people to be put into separate areas.”
He shrugs his shoulders.
“I grew up in Attridgeville. Daveyton is a much better place.”
He introduces himself as Lerato, a 22-year-old student at Benoni Technical College. Lerato tells me that he moved to Daveyton to escape gang crime in Attridgeville. His friends had all joined gangs and he wanted more from his life, and so he left his grandmother to live with his mother and her husband.
“And is Daveyton much safer?” I say.
“No, nowhere is safe,” he says, shaking his head. “Not being able to walk around with your belongings. That’s not life. The other day I saw a woman being robbed in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. They say it’s a free and democratic country, but you don’t enjoy your freedom. Every day a child is dead. You cannot call that freedom.”
A week later Lerato invites me to visit him in his kasi (neighbourhood). At 10am on a Saturday morning I find myself in the Daveyton mall, looking for Love. That’s what Lerato means, love.
Love is stuck in a queue though, trying to help a friend wire money to Zimbabwe, and so I go shopping. In one of the cheap fashion chains, I spot a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “You can’t sit with us”.
I consider buying it and wearing it around Daveyton. Definitely a Chinese import.
At last Love is ready.
We drive back to Barcelona, his kasi.
“I can’t believe it,” his mum, Victoria Ralefeta, says, welcoming to her home with an enveloping hug. “Lerato said he had a white friend and I told him he must be fucking dreaming.”
I’ve never heard a black mamma swear before. I snort with laughter as she squeezes me.
Victoria invites us into the front room of her home, and offers us a seat on the lounge suite, in front of a TV switched on to Soweto TV. On the walls are 3D pictures of elephants, waterfalls and Jacob Zuma. If you shift to the right, the picture of Zuma morphs into Mandela. He wishes.
Victoria treats us to a bottle of Coca Cola, and tells us about her younger life, working as a domestic worker.
“How did you come to terms with apartheid during those years?” I ask. “What did you tell yourself to make it bearable in your own head?”
“I told myself it was a bad spirit,” Victoria says. “There are two people controlling our lives – god and devil. And devil is more powerful than god, if you allow him. Apartheid was nothing, just a bad spirit.”
Lerato takes us on a stroll through the neighbourhood. A woman is braaiing chicken feet on a corner. A barber is cutting hair in a converted portakabin. Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier is playing through an open front door. As we walk past the spaza shop, an amapanstula comes out.
“Umlungu!” White person! he shouts, dropping his peanuts to the floor and starting to dance.
Lerato is delighted.
“Everyone is going to be talking about this. I’m going to be the guy, who brought the white girl to the kasi.”
We make to turn left.
“Err, no, we can’t go that way,” Lerato says. “Too dangerous.”
“Oh right,” I say, a flash of fear grabbing my belly.
Lerato laughs. “No, not dangerous for you. You could walk anywhere here. No one would touch you. They’d be too busy staring.”
Back at the house we gnaw on chicken feet and drink Coke.
“You know life is a boomerang,” says Victoria. “I can tell you I don’t even have fifty cents in my house now, but I’ve got food. So why do I want money? Money for what? Money can’t change my life. As long as I can eat with my children, it’s fine. When suffering comes, the white people cannot handle it. We, us black people, we can handle it. The white people can’t take suffering, because the money is controlling them.”
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