I MUST be giving off bad vibes, because I’m on a Paris to Durban flight full of white Southern Africans and it still takes the woman sitting next to me five gin and tonics before she feels bold enough to talk to me.
By the time the captain announces our descent, she’s in full swing. Her new life in Wales, her son, his girlfriend…. Her eyelashes are heavy with the mascara she’s just reapplied, and I find myself mimicking her wide eyes as I listen.
She can’t tell her life story to the couple to her left. It turns out they’re the long-lost friends of her father. They already know it.
“What a small world, hey?” she says, looking around for anyone willing to hear about the coincidental reunion.
Yes, I think, White South Africa is small.
By the time our plane touches down on the tarmac at King Shaka International Airport, people are leaning over the backs of their chairs, discussing which friends they have in common, where they’re going to spend Christmas, and who’s going to whose wedding.
We’ve taxied into place. The plane’s been stationary for at least ten minutes now. Bent backs and strained arms under the weight of our bags as we all wait for the doors to open. Our little community has grown quiet. The queue doesn’t budge. All we want is to be out in that humid Durban air.
Just when our tired silence becomes too much to bear, my mascara neighbour leans forward to the man she was chatting to earlier and says in a thick pastiche of a black South African accent, “There seems to be a problem with the door.”
He sniggers and sends a ripple through the cluster of passengers that overheard. All the warmth drains away. Unsurprised eyes and shaking heads. The words “black incompetence” drift unspoken on the air, and I’m reminded why all the chummy small talk makes me claustrophobic. It’s only chummy because we’re united by colour. The sealed door of our insulated community has barely been opened and already white South Africa is cringing in the face of black South Africa.
* * *
It’s been two weeks and now I’m in a car driving through the green hills of the Eastern Cape, where Nguni cattle graze and where thunderstorms eat at the rivers and make them deep and angry with erosion.
Today the new South Africa is a glinting skyline of solar water heaters over a lean-to shantytown. Today, the new South Africa is all about the silver linings.
The dorps slip by. Maclear, Ugie, Indwe, and then I see a dusty cemetery with skinny gum trees and yellow grass. All the marble gravestones are caged and padlocked against theft. They drift past the window and no one says a thing. That quiet vision of peaceless rest pulls me back from my lighthearted hope and says, “This new South Africa is a whole new beast.”
* * *
The smooth green of the Eastern Cape turns to flat dust. In the Karoo, the finger-long thorns of dead acacias are bleached bone white by the sun. The red and orange cliffs of Meiringspoort rise up out of the desert in time for lunch. It’s like weaving through the molars of a giant. You have to keep your head low to see the mountaintops singing in the bright light.
All the cars that have been making their way through the landscape alone have parked together in a concentrated hub at the riverbed.
“Shall we just turn around and keep going?” says Ma.
Crowds in beautiful places are her worst, but it’s too hot and we all want to swim in the waterfall. One by one the plug of people drips into single file, and we scramble over the rocks in loose flip-flops and bright swimming trunks. There are thick-necked, hairy-bellied whites. There are slinky, urban, cool-cat blacks. Slim-wristed Indian girls and teeming families of Cape-Coloured kids with gold earrings and scabby knees.
The only thing we all have in common is we’re all middle class enough to be on holiday, and just middle class enough not to turn our noses up at somewhere free.
The waterfall is a high ribbon of white water. It’s drilled a deep black pool into the rock below. Kids patter about in the blue shallows further down, but the real action is happening up at the main falls.
I wend my way up through the crowds and try to ignore the smell of piss coming from the rocky alcoves to my left. There are small ledges high above the pool that you can jump from. The rotund body of an Afrikaaner man waits above us, feet on the edge, stony faced with virility. A buzz of chatter erupts behind me as a black 20-something splits from his group and starts to climb up the cliff. He’s climbing fast, as if going any slower would give him time to think twice. The ledge is small and the two bodies vie for space. The young man whips off his t-shirt, fishes out his cellphone for a quick selfie, removes his cap, and hands the neatly folded pile to the Afrikaaner. His new iPhone crowns the pile. In a place where gravestones get stolen, this is trust. Could it even be community?
The young man says a short prayer and throws himself off the edge.