Thursday, April 23, 2015

For Bernie. Gone but not forgotten.

I have wanted to write this for a while now and kept coming up with reasons not to. It's been so long ... and the loss really belonged to others, to her family, which makes it not my story to tell. And yet what else are stories if not a way to remember. To make sense of the world in all it's horror and it's beauty. And so if we remember, the story belongs to us too.

At the end of December in 1993, members of the APLA opened fire in a tavern in Cape Town. The Heidelberg Tavern. A name some of us will never forget. One of the women killed in the attack was one of my best friends.

It was an attack in the name of Freedom. The Revolution. Casualties for the Struggle. The end justified the means, they said. 

There have been so many casualties. Atrocities of history burnt into memory. Too hard to talk about sometimes. All of us carrying stories of loss and grief. So many many stories.

And yet ....

This tavern was just a small place frequented by students, not all of them white. Bernie being one of them. No political agenda there, just an ordinary place on an ordinary night. 

She was at Rhodes with me. We took the same subjects ... we sat through Psychology and Art History lectures together ... we drew and drew all through that first year and went for tea breaks and suffered through those agonizing crits at the art school. We sat up for hours drinking coffee and talking ... about growing up and our families, about what we wanted from life. About boys and falling in love. About politics and how we hoped the future would go, in South Africa. She told me about her brother and how worried she was about him. How the gangs in P.E. made it not a safe place to be for her family.

Bernie is the one I sat up with the night before the 1992 Referendum in my digs just off the High Street ... a bundle of us smoking and drinking tea and worrying about the day ahead of us. What would happen to the country we loved. She's one of the first people I looked for when the results came in, a group of us jumping up and down in the street to celebrate, not caring what anyone thought. 

She dreamt of giving back to her family, and to her community. She went to UCT after Rhodes to finish her HDE so she could teach ... art and guidance counselling. She wanted more than anything to enrich the lives of the kids in the city she came from, to support her mother ... to take care of her family. She had so much to give back. It was all she wanted.

She was brave and funny and wise. And strong. She was one of the first friends I turned to when I needed advice and encouragement. She's the one who pushed me to leave when i wasn't ready to go, trying to hold on - saying life would have a way of working itself out, i would see. 

The last time I saw her she came to stay at my new digs to rewrite an exam so she could graduate from Rhodes. I had left the front door unlocked and they came upstairs in a line of laughter - her family had come to drop her off - carrying packets of food and piles of textbooks in their arms. Their laughter stopped when they saw me waiting. The unexpected color of my face.
'The other students who live here .... are they also...' The question hanging. Her mother, so worried.
'It's alright. I'll be here. And they're not like that, I promise. They know she's staying and it's OK - but right now there's no one else here. It will be fine.'

It's how things were then. Having to reassure.

It was the height of summer, the heat of January flattening us and sending everyone indoors to sweat and dream of cooler weather. In between my waitressing shifts and Bernie's studies, we sought out the breezes on the balcony and continued with our conversations from years before. We drank tea and cold cokes and told stories from our childhoods. I still remember the way the heat sat on our shoulders. How empty the streets were, how quiet my house ... waiting for the noise that came when varsity began and the streets filled up with students. How impatient she was to be done, to be able to leave. A new adventure waiting.

She went to Cape Town and I stopped my studies and returned to Durban. She graduated that December, just weeks before her death. She wrote to tell me, so relieved and proud. Against all odds, she had done it. Her future lay open before her.

The years have gone by, but she has not been forgotten. We remember her, the ones who knew her. The memories come to me on the wind sometimes, when I am walking alone. Or driving with the window down, air rushing to snatch at my breath. A quiet moment when the sun is setting just so, and I think of all she has missed.

Today I pulled out the newspaper cutting from the shooting with her photo. I have kept it all these years, to never forget. I read the transcript of the Truth and Reconciliation hearing from that night, online. How strange that it's all there now, for anyone to see. For the first time I read her mother's words as she described her beautiful daughter to the court that day.

Even after all the years, there is still crying to be done.

We remember, Bernie.
We will never forget.



Friday, April 17, 2015

South Africa and immigrants ... here and there.

I read a blog post a little while ago (find it here) about how we bury our heads in the sand, sometimes ... reading blogs about interiors and the latest fashion trends ... how to plant a spring garden ... celebrity gossip. When there are serious issues at hand, things we should be talking about. I know what she meant ... it's the song from Midnight Oil from all those years ago ... how can we sleep while our beds are burning ... but at the same time it's also about what we choose to spend our time reading, seeing, believing, wanting. And sometimes we choose to escape a little.

Sometimes it's because the politics are too much, the world is heavy on our shoulders, and we find no answers ... that we look to escape ... a book about somewhere completely different, a movie to take us away, new recipes to try ... Pinterest with its beautiful interiors and perfect images.

This week my thoughts have turned to home a lot ... so many conversations on Facebook - articles flying back and forth, opinions, thoughts, worries. A friend who wrote about turning to her husband's facebook feed at the end of a long and stressful day to find pictures of beautiful travel destinations, interiors, smiling babies. It's what we choose to see and feed ourselves with ... sometimes.

Still, from far away the talk all week has been about an uprising in Xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the unease that has been spreading ... outbreaks of violence and looting. The chasing out of immigrants. Illegal or not. Just a small group involved, this in no means reflects on the majority of the country ... there is so much outrage and anguish at the uprising starting. We've been through this before, long enough ago to still remember. 

Immigrant : Someone who leaves a place to make his or her home elsewhere. Usually permanently.

That's me. That's so many of us. So many of my friends, and family too. Maybe not intentionally .. but we leave or wander or move for all the reasons that it means to be human. Because of love, we run towards or away from it ... for adventure ... to study, work, progress, change. To try a new horizon. To see something of the world. And it's to survive. After War. Famine. Disease. Disaster. 

It's quite a thing, to leave one's home and set off for new horizons ... it's quite a thing to make a new home somewhere else, to start again. Day after day in the unfamiliar. Never quite belonging, never fitting in. All the new rules to learn, new languages.

I think of how it is at home, of the anger and the suffering so many are experiencing. Of what it means to have crossed borders on foot to set up home somewhere else, at the very toe of Africa ... after which there is no where else to go. To be forced back again, to the beginning, after all of that. To have to leave friends and new family, wives and husbands even. Because of jealousy and narrow vision. To try to find refuge until the violence calms.

In Australia, this beautiful campaign. 

The struggle happens everywhere. I felt it in England. I feel it here. Sometimes with pride when I look around at the history of this country, this city where so many seem to come from somewhere else, or their parents before them. Sometimes with less than pride when people talk about first generation immigrants with pity, and I realize I am one too. 

It's a conversation with no beginning and no end ... I'm one in a long line of travellers ... great grandparents who came to Africa, and we who left ... and so the story continues. Those of us who are living the story know the only way to survive is through kindness and compassion from those around us, and towards others living our story with us.

Onward and upwards.