The human race is on. Don’t come last


In the middle of last week I hit the wall. I know the wall well because I’ve been here before. A lot. There were a few obvious reasons why I went splat. I was exhausted after co-facilitating an intense Women’s Day Consciousness Café. I was sad because I had just waved my mum off at the airport after spending a few days together. And I was lonely because my husband was all the way over on the other side of the world.

“Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness,” my husband says gently, whenever I go splat – a line from the Desiderata – but it wasn’t fear that was gurning around inside my head, but rather an abyss-like what’s-the-point-of-it-all emptiness, accompanied by that old voice: “You are a failure”.

Ugh. Back here. Again. That evening, after dragging my sack-like body to a yoga class, I came home and instead of listening to the chiding and goading, I decided to research why I was here again. What was the link between depression and that pointless feeling?

As I read through psychology articles, I came across a paragraph on that hit me in the belly.

“How can you increase your sense of ‘worth’? You cannot earn it through what you do. Happiness is not obtained solely by your achievements. Self-worth based on accomplishments is ‘pseudo-esteem’; it’s simply not the real thing”.

I put down my phone and stared at the wall.

Since I left home at 17, I have associated my value as a person with what I do. And those who know me, know I do a lot. Always a project on the go, always building networks, always connecting with friends, always doing. Somewhere in my mind – pretty close to the surface, in fact – is the belief that if I do good things, then I will matter to the world. And that if I don’t, I won’t.

The article went on to explain that those who measure their self-esteem against achievements are constantly having to do more to try and have any self value at all. This constant chasing of self-worth linked to praise and achievement leads to a never-ending cycle of excitement and disappointment. And burn out.

Which is where I was now. On the couch. Barely able to lift an arm.

Over the past five years, I have been drawn to meditation and Buddhist teachings as a way of coping. A sentiment often offered up for reflection is: “We are human beings, not human doings”.

It’s a teaching that I thought I had understood, and applied. But in that moment I realised  that I had been applying it through my own particular pair of lenses.  In order to embrace more being, I had decided that I had to do more relaxing things – more meditation, more yoga, more playing in the sun. But, of course, to interpret it like that just adds more ‘doings’ to the value equation, growing the list of things to value yourself by. Meditation. Tick. Juice. Tick. Sunshine. Tick. God, I rock!

So what does the teaching actually mean?

According to the psychology article, for the good of our mental health, we need to look inside ourselves for our self-worth, valuing ourselves not on what we do, but who we are. Are we kind, loyal, creative, strong, patient, graceful, funny, thoughtful? Choose your good (we’ve all got a few of them) and value yourself on yourself, not on constantly shifting goal posts outside of yourself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do challenging and exciting things with our lives, but we shouldn’t ascribe all our value as a person to those things.

It was a light-bulb moment for me. I’m still contemplating it – how my wonky sense of self-worth links to my upbringing, my culture, and our world. I grew up in a Yorkshire family in apartheid South Africa. In the 18th century Yorkshire was the heartland of the industrial revolution, and I am a descendent of workers. In my family, having a job, being a provider, is fundamental. I was weaned on the idea that you cannot have pride or dignity if you cannot provide for yourself. “You need to stand on your own two feet, lass.”

And I’m not unique there. We live within an economic system which has competition at its core. The human race is on. Don’t come last. Capitalism firmly equates our value as people with what we do. But it’s killing us. It’s the reason I keep falling on my face with exhaustion and disappointment.

For too long I – and so, so many others – have relied on applause for our self-worth, when what we really need is a wee pat on the back from ourselves. Mine, for being a kind and honest soul.

That is good enough.

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I feel liberated – thanks to the ANC

WP_20160807_003Dear ANC

What an election! Best TV in ages. Hope you gave some of that R1bn to the SABC for its local content procurement.

Now, I know you are wondering what happened, so I thought I’d save you spending even more money on hiring consultants and write you a letter.

And let me start off by saying, I am still grateful to you for the liberation struggle. Benoni in the 1980s? What a shithole. You could hardly breathe for the stifled air. Downtown Joburg of 2016 is a place of creativity, dynamism, humour, amazing fashion. Right now, Joburg is one of the most amazing cities on earth. Your man, Parks Tau has done a pretty decent job – especially for a middle-class lass like me.

Which is why I was really confused about who to vote for. For much of the past 22 years, I quietly offered you my respect, patience and hope. I would defend you to the racists of this country. I was on your side, even though you never noticed. But recently, with every Number One cackle and corruption scandal, every attempt to dismiss us, silence us, play us off against each other, you have dulled those shiny emotions.

Thing is, I am angry with you. Really angry. I am angry with your love-affair with foreign capital – western, Guptan, Russian and Chinese. I am angry with your inability to create jobs and lift people out of poverty, perpetuating inequality, resentment and crime.

Why are we not promoting a decentralised solar power industry? We have so much sunshine. Why have you not pushed through with land restitution so that people can have dignity again and we can really begin to put the past behind us? Why are the majority of schools in the township and rural areas offering sub-standard education? Why are you not doing everything you can to prove the racists wrong and show just how brilliantly a black man can run a country?

To me, it’s like you have morphed into another elite in a country which already values elitism over humanity.

So, as you can imagine, I felt it was time that I did not offer you yet another vote of thanks for freeing the country from the claustrophobic oppression of the apartheid state. That instead, I stood together with my fellow South Africans and offered you a lesson, which is this:

We are not your people, as you so often like to say. You are our government. And like you, we too love this country. It’s our home, and we want to make it better – together.

So I am thrilled that our metropolitans are going to have to be run by coalitions, where politicians will actually have to work together. I feel energized, enlivened and… well, liberated. So thanks again. And best of luck with the coalition talks.


PS. I heard Mantashe say that low voter turnout had worked against you. You do realise that not pitching up, is kind of the same thing as pitching up and drawing a picture of a showerhead on the ballot paper?

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Is culture just a polite word for power?


Last week, while having breakfast with a French friend at her home in France, I filled a croissant with scrambled eggs and ham, and tucked into it, sandwich style. My friend looked at me as if I had just bit into a baby.

“That’s not done,” she said.

“Well I am doing it, so it can be done,” I replied.

“Well yes, but we don’t do it. It’s not French.”

A little story. Une forte mentalité. For the past 15 years I have quietly rubbed up against the French, learning their language and often visiting the country. My frisson began with admiration. France seemed a much more cosmopolitan reality than the one I had been born into – a working class Yorkshire girl who had been chucked out of England and into apartheid South Africa by Margaret Thatcher’s iron fist. Who were these sophisticated, exotic creatures who treasured food and style? I wanted what they were having.

But as the years went by, and my fascination with cheese dwindled, something else began to grate. The French have a favourite expression.

“C’est normal,” they say. It’s normal.

They use it to describe why some things are difficult (convoluted French bureaucracy), why some things are fabulous (an entire supermarket aisle dedicated to cheese) and why some things are just not worth commenting on (another glorious day of sunshine).

“C’est normal” is the punctuation mark used to put a stop to any conversation that raises an eyebrow at French culture. And to a person who came of age with the end of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “C’est normal” is like a red flag to a bull. My only normal is change and more change. Which is perhaps why France was so attractive for a while. The lure of a solid, sure-of-itself culture.

Last week then, as I munched on my croissant, and my friend dropped into the conversation that hers was one of the bon families of France – and by bon, she meant wealthy, respected and influential – I found myself wondering: is culture just a polite word for power? A pretentious way of saying, I’m in, you’re out?

I started a dialogue with myself in my head. What does culture give you when you embrace it? A shortcut to who you are. (This is how I eat a croissant). A sense of belonging. (This is how we eat croissants). A shortcut to who others are. (They are just like me, look how they eat croissants)

And there’s no doubt that us humans like shortcuts. In his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who was co-awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2002 for his work on psychology of judgement and decision making) explores in detail how the brain doesn’t like to do any more work than it has to, always setting up easy-to-access short-cuts to help us navigate the world and thus survive.

And then I wondered: what does culture take from you when it stares you in the eye and declares: “hey you, you are not one of us”?

Can culture take from you the same thing it gives: robbing you of your sense of self, sense of belonging, a sense of feeling connected to others?

It’s unpopular to say this now, but at the outset apartheid was envisioned as a way to create a society where different cultures could flourish side by side. Where it got it horribly, drastically wrong, was in the way Afrikaner culture treated those outside its culture – with disrespect, hostility, brutality, inhumanity.

Confucius wrote: “Behave to every man as one receiving a great guest.”

What kind of country would South Africa be, if we treated those who are not of our culture, with grace, interest and respect? If culture was not used as a means to wield power and exclusion?

And one wonders the same about France. Right now the country is in a State of Emergency. It has become a prime target for IS-inspired killers, and to date, nearly all of these men with guns are French nationals.

Why are these men attacking the country that raised them? Is there something within the culture of the country that they have grown up in that has undermined their sense of self, of belonging, of feeling connected to a wider community?

This is not an essay on the value of homogeneity. In nature beauty exists in diversity. The most beautiful forests are those in which different trees grow side-by-side and small flowers flourish in their dappled light. But rather I find myself pondering, how do we shape a world where not only do we aim to treat each other as guests of honour – but where it is possible to act with such grace?

I held this question in my head on a train from Marseille to Paris at the end of my French holiday. I waited for my next train in a café outside Gare du Nord, where Romany gypsy girls spend the day begging. Dressed in flowery skirts and headscarves, they thrust their cupped hands at everyone passing by, stabbing their palms expectantly with their finger. Between begging stints they laugh and chat aimlessly, like young women between customers in a clothing store.

Watching them beg, it struck me that the crisis between cultures often comes when one culture demands or expects something of the other. When one is no longer content with being treated as a favoured guest, but begins to set an agenda.

I mentioned this to my husband and he told me a story he had heard about a Bedouin tribe. In the desert in the days of old, a traveller was welcomed into a camp and could have anything he wanted for three days. The wife included. At the end of those three days, the host could kill him. It was the caveat that made sure that no one ever abused the hospitality of another.

I thought back to my visit to my French friend. Her older sister had railed against those Muslims who abuse the French social welfare state by not working, having many wives, expecting the French system to support them and their families. Her big brushstroke views had made me squirm with liberal discomfort, but whatever the truth or falsity of the accusations she was making, her voice was unmistakable: a voice of anger and resentment. The host whose hospitality had been abused. She was on day three and ready to attack.

For a long time the liberal left have kept clear of talking about what happens when cultures collide – that was reserved for the right-wing racists. But as Europe (and many places throughout the world) finds themselves on a knife-edge, perhaps its time we all posed ourselves these two questions:

Am I being a good host?

Am I being a good guest?

After all, we’re all just passing through.

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Shattered pasts

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 13.41.39

(South African war relics, Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein, Karoo)

A few years ago, while tapping away on my laptop during a flight to Cape Town, the woman sitting next to me asked me if I was writing a book.

I was. She asked me what it was about. At the time, my answer changed, depending on who was asking. I decided to give this 60-year-old white South African woman the long answer.

I had been an Open Society Foundation fellow. I had spent three months in the old Transkei investigating what democracy had – and hadn’t – brought to rural South Africa. During that journey I had run headlong into my own fears, prejudice and ignorance. I was writing a book confronting the racist shadows in me, a 38-year-old English-speaking South African.

“Would you read it?” I asked her.

She sighed.

“It’s very difficult for me to pick up one of those books and read,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Tangled emotions of guilt and regret and deep, deep sorrow.”

I waited quietly, waiting for her to say more.

“We’re in a bit of haze, perhaps we’ve had to develop that to survive. I’m sorry that we are so dulled, that there is a dullness of interest, it’s just as though…” she thought for a while, “I think we had to fall asleep. For survival. To live with guilt and regret is too painful.”

Her words echoed something I had read in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. In it he discusses Shattered Past, research that examined the behaviour of post-war German communities. The research found that even after communities had come to have direct knowledge of the killings and torture of Jews, “the majority of the population rather preferred to cover its own complicity with merciful silence”.

For close on twenty years many whites South Africans acted similarly. Silence was the norm and when you did address “it”, it was often reduce to two words: “white guilt”. Go out of your way for a black person and a colleague might mockingly chide: “white guilt!” Turn away from a beggar, pretending that neither of you are there, and your conscience would taunt the same. Try raise the topic of apartheid and its link to poverty, poor education or crime at a braai, and the reply would be: “Enough of the white guilt already.” White guilt didn’t like to chat.

Recently, I found myself reflecting on how the conversation has shifted, how 21 years later, silence and white guilt are no longer in charge. Since late last year, “whiteness” and “privilege” have become the new buzz words, and the uncomfortable thing about these new labels are that they are being put upon us. People who are not us are describing our behaviour, defining our ordinary, every day, sometimes shitty, sometimes amazing lives as a stolen good.

“How dare they?” come the retaliations. “How dare they judge us? After all, we all know how the thieves are around here, don’t we?”

Oh yes, the dialogue is shifting. Our culpable silence is being broken, and white South Africans are feeling exposed, defenceless, uncomfortable.

What are we supposed to do now?

Well, if the Shattered Past research is anything to go by, what is happening now is very similar to what happened in post-war Germany. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second War, as the old Germans begin to die, a space opened up for a new generation of thinkers and writers who were able to observe the past with a new critical consciousness.

Cue – in South Africa – the Frantz Fanon, RhodesMustFall, EFF generation.

And if we keep drawing the parallel, what the Shattered Past research found was that “the capacity for perpetrators to change arose only after the political elites recognized more than one pain and ‘the link between the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators’ was established.”

In other words, for society to heal, it had to start setting aside some compassion for the bad guys.

In post-war Germany, the blanket of silence had meant Germans had been stopped from processing their own war wounds: the rape they had suffered at the hands of the Russians, the death of their solider sons, the intimidation and fear culture that had been Nazi Germany. Yes, the Nuremberg trials (Truth and Reconcilliation Commission) had held those with actual blood on their hands to account, but the rest of the Germans had been left alone to deal with their losses.

In 1960s Germany, the new youth consciousness heralded a phase where the personal losses and griefs of the past were permitted to be aired and dissected.

And I find myself wondering: is that what South Africa needs too? Do those white South Africans with their fortress houses and 4x4s who don’t seem to give a fuck about anyone but themselves, need to be given an opportunity to express their unresolved pain?

Admittedly, it’s often hard to feel anything but contempt for some white South Africans. On Valentine’s weekend I was at the Vaal River and felt like washing my hands of any further attempt at inter-racial healing as I witnessed the selfishness of those white South Africans, with their jet skis and speed boats who drive drunk and reckless on the river without a care for anyone but themselves. How does one even begin to have compassion for people who seem to treat the world as just a giant playground, hoarding all the toys? Who are these people?

But later, as the sun set over the river, and I connected once again with the deep peace of the land, I also found myself wondering what lurks beneath all that bravado and shiny toys and heavy drinking?

In his book Jansen remembers how destitute the white Afrikaners were at the end of the South African War. They had been chased from Europe because of their religious faith, and then they had been defeated again on this new soil as they had tried to build a new home. Out of this defeat they rose again, this time determined to create a nation that no one could destroy, and they lost control of that too.

What lies inside people who have lost and lost and lost?

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How to kill a watchman


Just over a year ago, Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird , was published. I remember the furore with which it hit the world. Newspaper headlines were thick with the tale of how this old manuscript had been found in a safe by Harper Lee’s lawyer, how Lee was now frail and unsound of mind and the lawyer had published against Lee’s will. On and on it went, with speculation, gossip and hearsay.

The story of the book trumped the story in the book.

At the time I didn’t ask myself why. I’m not a big fiction reader, preferring non-fiction, and so a year went by before I got around to reading it. I read it this weekend in one sitting and as I read I felt a fury well up in me, not at the content of the book, but at the fact that the real story of this book had been so blatantly ignored by the media who had devoted pages and page to covering its release.

So what is the book about?

The Guardian believed that “instead of clattering towards virgin territory, [the book] carries us, bewitchingly, deep into the past.”

The Wall Street Journal commented that “For the millions who hold [Mockingbird] dear, Go Set a Watchman will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Scout tells her father, ‘You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible. I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way,” sneers the journalist.

The Telegraph, the bastion of British conservative newspaperdom, didn’t even bother to find out, publishing a piece headlined “Why I Won’t be Reading Go Set a Watchman”, arguing that “what [readers] discover will make many of them sad”.

Business Insider, another UK publication, also dedicated a whole article to the musings of a journalist who refused to read the book: “I don’t want to see one of American literature’s greatest heroes turned into a racist,” she wrote, adding that ‘Gregory Peck is a total babe in the 1962 film adaption as a socially conscious lawyer, complete with three-piece suit and glasses. Racism just wouldn’t become him’.”

So for those of you who may not remember, To Kill a Mockingbird is about a white laywer in Alabama who comes to the defence of a black man who has been unfairly charged with rape. It’s about the white hero, taking on the system, and winning.

Go Set a Watchman is set about 20 years later when the white hero has become old, arthritic, and when his daughter – who had always put him on a pedastal – comes face to face with the fact that her liberal dad actually thinks that black people are less educated, that they don’t have the same values, that yes, they should have equal rights, but… in moderation.

 Says Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout:
“Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town run by – now wait a minute – Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby. Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered you know.”

Atticus Finch, you see, doesn’t have a problem with black people, as long as they are not running the country and holding the purse strings. Sound familiar?

Go Set A Watchman is a radical book not because it turns a white saviour into a racist – but because it reveals that he always was. That underlying Atticus Finch’s belief in the rule of law and equal rights is a deep-seated, unexamined bigotry with which he is content, and which he believes to be right and true and justified. In the grand scheme of things Atticus Finch is still a liberal, he’s just an awkwardly familiar liberal: the one you see in the mirror.

As I reflected on Finch and the media establishment’s ploy to protect the moral legacy of this old white hero by refusing to engage with the content of this book,  I found myself thinking about one of my Benoni High School teachers who, as a teen, I had regarded as a liberal. Two years ago, I interviewed her for my book, Lost Where I Belong, in which I examine the legacy of apartheid on our hearts and the difficulty of transformation.

I asked what she had thought about apartheid during my school days, and she had replied: “We were good little products of our government, but we weren’t racist. Black people just weren’t a part of our lives. People may have become racist by events that happened after, rather than before. Before we didn’t have anything to be racist about.”

It made me reflect on how hard it is for humans to live with other humans. We can have high ideals and low ideals and fail on them both every day. And we’re certain to fail, over and over, unless we’re prepared to have difficult conversations, and unless our media is prepared to get involved in some of these gritty discussions, instead of polarising us or assuming a moral high ground, so out of reach from so many of us.

Interestingly, the newspaper that published the most decoy hype about Go Set A Watchman was the British newspaper The Guardian – the so-called bible of the liberals. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Perhaps they did just what Scout did when she realised the truth about her father. She vomited and tried to run away.

She didn’t get very far though, and to its abiding credit, in its last scene, Go Set A Watchman challenges Scout to confront her own high-minded, “turnip-sized” bigotry:
“You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas. You better take time for ‘em honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”

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Jozi: a poem


Written June 2016


Sundown behind glass towers

The old prison overlooks

Revellers contemplate pleasure

Against the fading of the past

Fires on the ramparts

Telkom blue

Transnet red and green

Ponte unseen

White light of mosque

Bruising sky

Chiselled on change

This city, my city

Pulsing, fluxing, revolting, becoming

An addiction, a habit, a comfort

A home


Eulogy to a friend

Written April 2016

You were sitting in your favourite place when I last saw you, outside by the concrete flagstones that get the sun all day. I stopped to chat to you briefly. I told you where I was going. That I loved you. A thought flitted through my mind, remembering our day together two days before, when we went to the beach for a spring outing and the Scottish sky greeted us with mournful clouds.

Perhaps it already knew.

I took the train to Edinburgh and spent the night with my auntie. She had not long since finished treatment for cancer. We checked into a spa and sat together in hot water, in steam, in dry scented wood. She told me that one day it would probably come back. The cancer. That the only life she could be sure of was the one in the present.

The call came at 1.15 on Saturday. We were walking up the Grassmarket, browsing in the windows of the women’s tweed outfitters, admiring the threads, me wondering if there would ever be an occasion where I could wear plus-fours.

You are missing.

Green seizes the back of my throat, and runs towards my fingertips. This. This that had already flitted through my mind a week before. This. This that I had never thought before a week before. This. And now this has happened. Have I made this happen? Have I willed this?

I take the train back. What should take 45 takes 90. Engineering works. I do not sigh at the iron steed. I do not curse its every stop. I do not will it faster. What had I already willed by one idle thought?

You are missing.

We cannot find you. We are looking. We are all looking. It is not just me who loves you, though my love feels stronger, bigger, thickest with guilt.

You are missing.

It is Sunday. It is Monday. It is Tuesday. It is Wednesday. It is Thursday. It is Friday.

I have cycled to the outskirts of the city. I have stopped next to a tree where Mary Queen of Scots once nursed the Earl of Darnley, her true love, back from the brink of death. I pedal on. The phone rings. It is a train driver. He has heard you are missing. He knows we are looking. He thinks he knows.

Take the train, he says, from Dumbreck to Corkerhill. Stand on the right-hand side.

We take the train at 12.47. As it leaves the station it passes under the bridge, and then it slows. Slows before the train depot, slows past the steep banks of Mosspark Boulevard, slows so we can peer through the window on the right-hand side, to see what he saw. You are not missing. You are there. Between the rails, face down, asleep, asleep, forever asleep.

You are not missing.

You come home at 2.08am, carried by two kindly men in orange overalls. I do not tell others of the blood-stained sheet. I do not tell others how the kind man in orange tells us not to open it. I do not tell others how he thinks you tried to get away. Instead I tell them that we laid you down in your bed, we covered you with a blanket, and we buried you beneath the young oak tree, on the land of your people.