South Africa is often a country of gulfs and distances, where even our closest neighbours seem to live a world away. Two women separated only by tar and traffic are asked to bridge the gap and step into each other’s lives, writes Nontando Mposo.
Cape Town - As journeys go, the one I am about to describe is among the shortest you can imagine.
It is, in a sense, so easily undertaken that the journey itself – the distance covered – might be over before you even realise it’s started.
Yet crossing Vanguard Drive turns out to be an almost unheard of, nearly epic, venture, as if standing at the kerb on one side you had reached the end of the known world and, 15 metres across the tar, was another world that had only ever existed in your imagination.
It is only a matter of getting over four traffic lanes, but the distance between Bonteheuwel and Langa is measurable not in paces, but in habits and mistrust, a geography of disaffection, muddled facts, a history of ignorance. Between the two, the departure and the arrival, is the whole of our South African mythology – alienation and suspicion, envy, anxiety and isolation.
We are common citizens, co-workers, equals before the law. We share a flag, an anthem and a parliament we have collectively chosen to direct a state that serves us all. We might even vote for the same party.
But where we live and dream our dreams are places that can be worlds apart. That’s how it was once supposed to be. And for many of us that’s how it still is. It’s what we might even think of as knowing our place and keeping to it.
It is a Wednesday morning when we set out on our mission to find two “neighbours”, one from Langa and the other from Bonteheuwel, who might be willing to cross the road to unfamiliar territories and explore each other’s worlds.
Langa I am familiar with; I have visited the area several times. The people there speak Xhosa, a language closely related to my Zulu.
On the other hand, although I have been to Bonteheuwel only once, my mind teems with the many stories I have heard of gangs running rampant in the streets, day and night.
I am not looking forward to walking blind through the community seeking that one person willing to take up our challenge.
But we are committed.
Our journey begins at the bottom of the Vanguard Drive footbridge that links the two communities. It’s a busy area as the nearby clinic is shared by the communities.
Although the streets are neat, I have an impression of unkemptness, perhaps something forlorn: the flats and houses look rundown; the paintwork faded or peeling; and there’s no greenery, no trees or gardens as if the area has been abandoned and left to deteriorate.
Groups of people on street corners look us over suspiciously as if they know we are intruders.
A brief conversation with an elderly woman who tells us that gangsters use children as drug runners fuels my anxiety.
We decide to retrace our steps and head over the road to Langa to make a start where there is a reduced risk of being hit by a stray bullet.
Kosovo in Langa is your typical informal settlement. Corrugated iron shacks are squeezed hard up against one another, some leaning over as if about to topple. The paths between them are narrow and dusty, or muddy where there’s water.
This is where we find 35-year-old Celia Gelem, doing her washing in her living room with her door open as if she’s expecting us. She greets us uncertainly and we hastily introduce ourselves, explaining what we have in mind. It’s clear she is sceptical.
Her English isn’t good, but as we chat in a mixture of Xhosa and English we begin to learn something of her life and her world view.
Gelem shares her T40 shack with her two-year-old son, Sinovuyo, and her boyfriend. The shack is divided into two rooms; her living room doubling as bedroom and kitchen, furnished with a single bed, a fridge, stove and a room divider with a TV, microwave and a radio that is turned up so high we sometimes battle to hear her soft voice.
She has been unemployed for four years. Gelem, dressed in a long black-and-white checked skirt and black jersey set off with a floral headscarf, has an infectious laugh that puts me at ease, and I feel confident enough to discuss our objective.
When I ask if she would move to Bonteheuwel if she was given a house there, Gelem is resolute.
“I would not take it,” she says. “They are not my race; I won’t be able to talk their language… coloured talk and Afrikaans. I would rather live in my shack.”
It turns out she’s not unfamiliar with Bonteheuwel residents: “They come here to sell clothes, and we buy from them.” But she admits: “We don’t really talk with them.”
The idea of visiting Bonteheuwel seems incomprehensible to her – if only because she has been robbed there.
“Why should I visit? It’s a coloured area,” she explains. “And I was robbed. I’m scared to walk in that area.”
She has been robbed more than once after getting off the train at Bonteheuwel station.
In case there’s any mistaking her fears, she mentions the gunshots at night “over there”. After a pause she decides: “Langa is safer than Bonteheuwel.”
It’s no surprise that Gelem flatly refuses to join us on any journey to Bonteheuwel. But there’s still hope. With some persuasion, we reach a compromise; she’ll wait until we find a match across the road. If we can.
And we do.
On the other side of Vanguard Drive, Barbara Meyer’s house stands behind a high vibracrete wall. Two big dogs bark at us as we peer over the wall to see if anyone is home.
Meyer, 45, comes out to see what the fuss is about, her black skirt and white T-shirt partly hidden by a baby trussed against her belly, covered by a blanket.
She is wary and not sure of our intentions, but invites us in all the same.
The smell of cooking oil hangs in the air. Meyer’s daughter, also with a baby wrapped against her stomach (the twin babies are Meyer’s two-month-old grandchildren) is chopping potatoes at the kitchen counter. Her sitting room is small and simply furnished, with two couches, a room divider and framed pictures: family portraits and one of a sailing ship.
There’s a dispiriting resistance, initially anyway, when we broach the subject of “Langa”. Having devoted her life to the Lord appears to have something to do with it.
“I used to go there to sell clothes or catch a taxi. Now that I’ve turned to the Lord I don’t go there,” Meyer explains. “Not that there’s racial tension between us,” she adds.
Her perception of Langa, uncannily similar to Gelem’s of Bonteheuwel, is shadowed by fear of crime.
“I was robbed there, so I don’t go any more,” she says.
Yet, when we mention Gelem, it’s obvious Meyer is curious – she’s never been inside a shack before, and warms to the idea of meeting Gelem.
And so it is arranged, after a fashion. We are not sure what to expect.
The two women meet for the first time at the traffic lights at a busy Vanguard Drive intersection on the Bonteheuwel side. Both are hesitant as we introduce them. Murmured “hellos” are all but drowned out by the traffic noise. Meyer gets the conversation going by asking about Gelem’s house, and Gelem points towards her shack. As they walk their first steps together, their conversation revolves around the one thing they share: the experience of being robbed.
We reach Gelem’s shack. Meyer is not visibly taken aback by her first glimpse of the crammed interior.
She is soon sitting on the single bed facing Gelem as they chat about their families, the election, poverty in both their communities and the differences between them.
“I’ve seen shacks but I’ve never been inside,” Meyer says. “It’s not right you should live like this. The government should build more houses.”
Her comment earns a brief, warm smile from Gelem, who reveals she’s never voted in her life, and won’t this week either.
“I have no reason to vote,” she says. “I see no change here, we still have no electricity and many are living in poverty.”
Meyer, on the other hand, is an enthusiastic democrat who’s not missed a single poll since 1994.
“I vote and hope for the best,” she says. “If I don’t vote it’s a vote less.”
Both women are supported by their partners, and share this common understanding of the challenges of relying on a single salary.
Meyer ventures a view of the perceptions of Langa from Bonteheuwel.
“There was a story going around that a black guy stabbed a coloured girl in the face and robbed her. It makes people scared of Langa,” she says.
Not that the communities are unfamiliar with each other. “Xhosa people have moved into our area and nobody bothers them,” she says. Even so, there’s little intermingling: “My children have friends from school who are from there… but they don’t visit.”
We leave the shack, the women walking along – each holding a glass of Coke, Gelem’s son Sinovuyo between them – like two friends catching up. You could not have guessed they were strangers not so long ago.
We stop at a rank of portable toilets, six or seven lined up in the open, which Gelem shares with hundreds in the area. The toilets doors are wide open.
“This toilet is not right,” Gelem declares. “There are germs here that make the children sick.”
Meyer is appalled at the smell. “They stink and are so dirty. I don’t think it’s right that people have to use them.”
Navigating through the shacks, we come to a stream of muddy water; Gelem and others get their drinking water from a hose there.
“Seeing what other people are going through has opened my eyes,” Meyer tells us. “I see them walking on the streets but I don’t really know what they are going through. We live in different worlds.”
It’s time to go to Bonteheuwel now. On the way, Gelem says she’s grateful Meyer doesn’t look down on her for the conditions in Kosovo.
“I’m sure in her heart she wants us to live like her,” she says.
At Meyer’s house, we head straight for the bathroom. It is a marvel to Gelem.
“I wish I had a house like this with a toilet inside, and safe from fires.”
The bathroom, painted in the same shades of brown as Meyer’s sitting room, has a bathtub, a shower and a toilet – although Meyer doesn’t have a geyser and has to boil water in a kettle.
The women hug lightly as they say goodbye at Meyer’s gate, promising to visit each other again, perhaps for a lunch of amangwinya (vetkoek), which they’ve discovered they both like.
Their impressions of each other are generous.
“At first we didn’t understand each other’s language,” Meyer says, “but I like her. She gave me a smile.”
Gelem remembers Meyer’s smile, too. “She seems like a nice person. She smiled when I met her.”
Gelem concludes: “I don’t see her as a white person any more; I realise we are equal.”
Gelem and Meyer’s journey is over in less than an hour.
Whether these two women, who share so much yet see their worlds in such distinctly contrasting ways, will ever visit each other I can’t say, but I am certain that should they meet again on busy Vanguard Drive they’ll meet familiarly, as equals. All it took was for them to cross that road, sit together for a while and share their stories.
And that’s quite something.