Her white 4×4 spills across two parking spaces. The driver’s door splays into still more colonised territory. Alone with her bulbous car, she is as thin, blonde, thirtysomething and utterly Cape Town as anyone could possibly be. Her entitlement is palpable.
A blue rubber glove covers her right hand. Her left hand is bare. A medical-grade surgical mask is pulled down below her chin, rendering it useless. Behind her back, a homeless man sits on the ground and stares into uncertainty. She stares straight down at a particular patch of tarmac near the open car door.
“Are you looking for something?”
She keeps her gaze downward. “My diamond earring. All this movement,” she motions towards the mask, moving her hand up and down, “must have pulled it out.” She aims a sharp eye at you. Why the hell aren’t you helping her?
You deliver the pie another homeless guy around the corner has asked you to buy for him. As always, when people on the street ask you to add some food for them to your shopping, he was shocked to be asked what he would like. That’s what being on the wrong side of the class equation takes from us in essence: choice.
You go home, your spirits a little lifted by the happy truth that you can’t eat, smoke or drink a damn fool diamond earring.
It’s one of those Sea Point days that neither begins nor ends, that exists in its own bubble of timelessness. Mist powders the skyline, reducing Table Mountain and the Atlantic to memories. The breathlessly slow dance of the breeze is revealed to your eyes. A quilt of quiet settles on the scene. But this is not like any other day: it’s the first Sunday of lockdown. We know there will be more like it. As Janis Joplin said: “It’s all the same fuckin’ day, man.”
The moneyed classes are snugly cocooned in their apartments, at one with their Webers, their stocks of beer, wine, whisky and gin, their treadmills, their fibre internet connections, their Netflix. And their toilet paper.
It says plenty that the first thing they think of is how they will wipe their arses. The poor never ask you to buy them toilet paper. Where their next meal might come from is much more pressing than what happens at the other end of the alimentary canal. Only people who don’t have to agonise over food and shelter – because we will always be able to pay for basic human rights, however expensive they become – have the luxury of being able to turn their thoughts to cleaning themselves. How degraded they must feel when all that’s left on the shelves is one-ply.
And how cheated they must consider themselves now that Sea Point’s remaining human detritus, the few who won’t allow themselves to be herded into potentially lethal shelters, have the streets and the promenade all to themselves, ocean views included at no charge. There they sit, in full view of the police and in the perfect limbo of not being out of their homes to go shopping for food because they have neither homes nor money. They are more vulnerable than ever, but they have never been more visibly part of a community they belong to at least as much as any property owner. They are immune to being locked down. They are more free than ever.
There are no hired vigilantes on Segways to chase these members of the public away from public spaces. Crossing the street is no longer a tedium of waiting for a pause in the parade of petrol-powered pomposity, each of which costs as much as it would take to alleviate hunger and homelessness for thousands. The roadside is cleansed of the evidence of arrogant affluence parked bumper to bumper for kilometres on end. Walking, skateboarding or riding a bicycle on our reclaimed, revitalised streets reminds us who they are meant for. And that they were there long before cars hijacked them.
You hear, from hundreds of metres away, the embracing crash of the ocean. It is arresting and beautiful and all the more poignant for its impermanence: at some point the streets will be stolen from us again. The poor will still be poor. They are already worse off. The passers-by they beg from are not passing by. The bins they scrounge scraps to eat from are empty.
Civility is slipping on Sea Point’s now more democratic streets, where not long ago a man of these great and not so great outdoors had you choking with laughter when he told the fella alongside him: “Ag man, I sommer don’t like you when you’re sober.” Now the mood is bleak and sanitised to within an inch of its humanity. And edgy.
You are locking your bicycle to a pole outside a shopping centre when an empty-eyed man in rags doesn’t interrupt his slop-shouldered shamble past you to fling his plea: “Something to eat. Buy for me.” You feel disrespected. Can’t he stop, look you in the face and ask? Like others do. Then you could ask him what he would like and be rewarded by his shock.
You want to tell him you’re not going to the centre’s supermarket but to the hipster grocer next door. But that would be telling him he isn’t worth the price of the organic, artisanal stuff sold in there. And that you couldn’t be bothered to go to the supermarket on his account. So you mumble “sorry” and go inside. You return with a bulging tote bag and nothing for him, and another glum apology.
His response is a low, growling missile of isiXhosa, of which you know little. But you understand that he is issuing a threat. Not to you but to your kind – people with money and fibre and Netflix, and an apartment in which to lock yourself down. You, the privileged.
His slivered eyes are as withering as the rasp of his voice and the tuck of his chin. He says this is the first time he has seen your bicycle – an old, clanky, rusting single-speed that bike thieves wouldn’t bother stealing – and should he see it again it will be his.
“Khawuleza,” he says softly, menacingly. “Khawuleza…” It is a promise as much as a warning. Go quickly, before I take it. You go at your own pace, which is much slower than your heart is thumping. You know you are writing this in the second person to deflect your disgust.
Once back at your desk, you look up at the bell hooks quote hanging above it. “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege. We have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it.” You’re better at this on some days than others.
Two young fish
Your phone pings with a message on your apartment block’s WhatsApp group: “For the first time since I moved in two years ago – clean pavement. No side-stepping human excrement and breathing in no urine smell.”
Another resident: “I walked there yesterday and the stench at the tree was awful. I was wondering if we can get the city to remove the tree.”
Still another: “I wonder what will happen once lockdown is over … whether they will come back?”
You: “We live in the most unequal society in the world, where all that really matters is whether you have privilege or not. I have no doubt the homeless people will be back.”
Someone else: “Agreed, and in double the numbers.”
You think of the David Foster Wallace parable in which two young fish are swimming towards an older fish, who says to them, “How’s the water, boys?” The two youngsters say nothing and once they are far enough away, one says to the other: “What’s water?” Insert privilege for water and you see where this is going.
At eight o’clock that night, as on all other nights, the balconies of Sea Point burst with forced happiness. People clap. They whoop. They blow vuvuzelas. They flash their room lights. They wave sparklers. They say they’re doing this as a tribute to healthcare workers. But how many of them have or will see the inside of a hospital during the pandemic? More likely they are congratulating each other for applauding, for doing what social media says they should, for staying healthy.
On some nights you want to go out on to your balcony and scream a particular bit of Bertolt Brecht at them:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times
On other nights you, too, go out on your balcony and whoop and whistle. And wonder if that woman found her earring.