In Africa I was more likely to find wildlife than wifi. Of course, there were odd times, in a bar perhaps in town or in a friend’s spanking new office block, but mostly, the only form of contact with anyone at all, was with a handshake, a wide smile and an exchange of words, a state of being I rather like, even if I did, out of habit, reach for my phone if ever we stopped for coffee.
This new office block, with its wide light rooms and wrap around views across Capetown, is already a business hub. Inventive and creative thinking, interior design and spatial understanding brings together anyone with a business to run and no desk to run it from. Hot Desks are affordable and genius, because, not only do you get your own space, wifi connection, etc, but you also get to work in a bustling energetic atmosphere among other creators, all of whom are more than happy to network over coffee or a beer.
At every robot (traffic lights) there may be 3 lanes of vehicles. I look across at those parked beside us in our little silver car (Maggie) and can hardly see the tops of the buckies (four-wheel drives) without craning. Inside these sit the well-upholstered Africaaners, their windows tight shut for the aircon to work. On the other side, a people carrier taxi, all windows open, pumps out music, the black passengers grinning and bopping on their way to or from work. The second we stop, the street sellers move in, weaving their way among the cars, holding their merchandise, such as beaded animals, children’s wooden puzzles, mobiles, jewelery, long-legged birds fashioned from plastic bags, woven sunhats and the Big Issue. The sellers are clean and proud, in the main, the turbanned women flashing sparkly smiles, the men making eye contact. Not begging but business. We don’t buy because we can find exactly what they are selling on the high street or at the market, even though they did assure us it was all their own work. It could also cause a cafuffle if the lights changed in the middle of negotiations, for there are always negotiations. The asking price is set high, the rest is barter.
I found the beggars, when we did meet them in town, and you always meet them in town, most distressing to observe. I always wanted to give something, but, had I done so, I would still be there in Market Square with not a penny left to my name. Once you give to one, others move in, many of them children, and all of them thin as rakes. Those who live in Capetown are not cold hearted, but they have grown a thicker skin. They will consider employing anyone who turns up, who cleans up, who decides to move up in life, but they will not easily support those who choose doorways to sleep in and some lethal coctail as nourishment.
I thought much about that. If someone has lost whatever they had, which may not have been much, it might not take long for that loss to turn into an acceptable way to live. I imagine self-confidence and respect dissolve pretty quickquick when your only chance of food is by raiding bins on collection day. I watched a man walk down the street doing just that and talking away to himself. He was oblivious to me, beyond stepping off the pavement to avoid a collision, and his eyes were bloodshot and empty. I pulled my bag closer and felt vulnerable and overdressed and frightfully well spoken and, well, guilty. We were heading out of town for a few nights on the coast, with food and wine and a rented beach hut to wrap around us and all he had to look forward to was another long street of wheelie bins and the possibility of Thai curry leftovers in polystyrene. And a doorway to sleep in.
Then (for life always sends a balance to help out) I met young black people with a zeal in their bellies. Not priveleged and living in one of the townships – mile upon mile of tin roofs and dust floors, but still determined to find new quality for their lives, waiting at tables, working on the dustcart, cleaning, odd-jobbing, and so much more. ‘If anyone wants it, the work is here’, I was told more than once. This is a country where labour is abundant and cheap. Wages are low, work is hard, but these people have a joy about them, a laughter that may well not come from a place of comfort. It’s more an attitude than a result of how life treats them. In other words, it comes first, that smile, that easy laugh.
We saw the maids arriving at the big smart Africaaner homes every morning around 7am. Dressed in black with brilliant white aprons, they trudged up the hills from the noisy taxi that brought them out of the townships, talking and laughing together. They always looked up for a greeting and always responded with friendship. Their hours, from 7.30 to whenever they were done cleaning, looking after children and cooking, might earn them £8 at the far end of a day that expects a woman to do every domestic job required. Then they walked back to the taxi rank, back to the townships to their own families to begin all over again, every single day. When I talked with one maid, she told me she was happy to work. Work, she said, is important. No work, no importance. She look at me, astonished when I told her I had worked as a maid for a time. Why? she asked me. ‘You don’t have maids in Scotland?’ As if cleaning was not for my shiny white hands. I fumbled about for an answer that didn’t sound like ‘well, I needed the money.’ She would have fainted clean away, had she known the wage I was paid for doing far less than is expected of her. And then she smiled the widest smile and then she laughed a laugh that made her bangles jingle and shook her head in amazement and amusement at the very thought of the ‘Ma’ cleaning a house, even her own. Then she gathered up a huge pile of washing and left me wondering at my priveleged life and how often I forget to remember that it is just that.