Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dispatch: The Great Divide

I have started writing this dispatch a few times, so as it comes now, I share a series of thoughts and moments from the last few weeks.

Any time I have visitors, they always look at things with fresh eyes and inevitably open my eyes a bit wider. My sister Liza was just here for two weeks. Amidst our joking and catching up on each other’s lives there was much talk of this country, of the complexities and the divides. Of how it is what makes living in South Africa difficult and how I move through it everyday, of how she isn’t sure she could. We visited Sandile, who is healing. We spent time with my old student Babalwa and on the ride home spoke of the strange dissonance between breakfast at a cute cafĂ© in town and dropping off Babalwa in the shack settlement where she stays, called Crossroads. When we dropped her off, Liza got out of the car to hug her goodbye and chat a bit, but as their goodbye lingered Babalwa started saying, “Go, go, go,” with a sense of urgency. Liza thought she meant that she, Babalwa, had to get home. But then Liza realized that actually Babalwa was worried about our safety. It was a Wednesday afternoon on a public holiday. We weren’t worried about ourselves, but left her, amazed at how she overcomes challenges in her life, and a bit worried for her as well.

On Liza’s last night we went to hear the iconic Vusi Mahlasela in a concert that was billed as celebrating Freedom Day – a public holiday marking the first democratic elections in South Africa. As we looked around the theatre, we noticed one thing – most of the audience was White. We were celebrating the first time Blacks in this country voted by sitting in a room full of White upper class people (probably fairly liberal I am guessing), listening to the songs of one of South Africa’s treasures. I wondered for a moment if anyone else was thinking what we were. Vusi sings in a mix of Xhosa and English and he often explained the meaning of songs – songs about the struggle, about people’s experiences in prison, about life under apartheid and life now. I had seen him in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where the audience also probably looked very similar, but I didn’t notice as much. I don’t deny people their right to like any musician and I know I fit into that category that I put everyone else into that night – White, well off, educated, liberal. But it exemplifies the moments here that remind one of the great divide.

Liza left last Saturday and the news here on Sunday was devastating. A shack fire in Masiphumelele, the township where Peter, a Rwandan refugee who is in my latest film lives with his family. Only one person killed – but 1500 shacks burned to the ground, 5,000 people displaced. 5,000. No matter how I try, I can’t picture that in my head.

Last week, as I drove home along the N2 – the major highway here -- I looked to the side as we passed rows and rows of shacks filling informal settlements. I saw darkness in some and lights on in others. Some people get illegal electricity connections, other families, like Babalwa’s use, paraffin and candles. I had just come from a screening of a film about an Afrikaans theatre group. I had just come from a room that was 98% White. The film was great. It’s just the divisions in this country are so stark, so strange, at times so challenging. They are something that you can get used to, sadly. No doubt many people do. No doubt some do, because to continue to look and ask makes it difficult to live every day. Many people at the screening made the same drive home that I did. Maybe they asked the same questions I do, I don’t know. I am not trying to be critical of them, just noticing. While I ask questions, perhaps I am a bit complicit in this blindness. And Liza’s visit made my eyes open again.

Then, last night, I read this, “Is the feeling that the situation cannot possibly continue forever, really a reasonable guarantee that it will eventually change?”

It’s a quote from David Grossman’s 1987 non-fiction book The Yellow Wind about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It seems that it could apply in so many places around the world. It could have applied in South Africa in the 80s and early nineties during apartheid. And yet with so much extensive poverty and unemployment, so many people living in devastatingly inhumane conditions, a faltering school system and deep racial and class divisions, despite the freedom and democracy that came in 1994, Grossman’s quote could apply here today.

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