We had been to visit the small township that clings to the crag above the monied guts of Hout Bay. Afrika is a tour guide who walks conscious tourists through this matrix of elemental and exposed souls. Reconfigured billboards are cold comfort compared to the promises they make on their faded skins. This notwithstanding, the life that flows through the maze-like veins of the place is bright as oxygenated blood. Children run. People smile. Every now and then, Afrika begs forgiveness as he “boils” — history rises in his throat. After a pause, he contains himself and continues, a gentleman to the end of the tour.
We are in the living room of a home cobbled together from the detritus of respectable people. There is dignity between these tenuous walls, the faith here mocks any in the gilded pigsties of pious men.
The Zimbabwean tenant patiently waits in the next available space as our guide expounds on the influx of foreigners. We hear that the previous owner painted it white, inspired by George Bush. Afrika rails against the ignorance of his fellows embracing the evil of America’s former number one.
Around a twisted corner, while Henry embraces Gerry, I am pulled into a room of dark strangers, offered a swig from a bottle and the company of Malawians determined to survive in these intestines.
Gerry is wild-eyed and shakes, whatever part of his mind not gnawed at by HIV is in thrall to ARVs — he is hanging by his fingernails onto this life. Someone asks me if I want to take his sister, I decline politely, blushing at the closeness of the cheerful and round-faced girl. There are no bones about these people.
“We have Malawis, Zimbabwes, Nigerians — even the Chinese are coming here more and more.” Our incredulity prompts a detour. Minutes away, we are in a counterfeit supermarket. The silent storekeepers stand grimly, their beds tucked under counters of stacked vinyl shoes.
We swap promises and split. Afrika waves in the rain.
Coffee, heater and a phone call. The skin on the milk the thickness by which worlds are apart round here. We have a meeting with the Commandant. We will meet him at his home in the “coloured area”. Our driver, a former operative, mumbles that we are in a “bad place”. Truth is a brazen whore sometimes.
We are met by a softly-spoken older man, the fierce resolve in photographs of his arrest now refracted under the scar tissue of enforced solitude. He points to one of the paintings that plaster his walls — “I like this — it shows a black person as I have never seen in a painting — see, he is writing in a journal — he is not a labourer, he is not dancing — he is reflective”, it’s the artist’s new luminosity that grabs him, not the subject. Things they are a-changing.
Out his kitchen-sink window, a magnificent view. Waves burst themselves on the rocks at the mountain’s base, white spray rises up in outrage across the bay.
“Do you see that tiny cove across there? My last wife’s ashes are scattered there. I couldn’t look out of this window for quite some time … but I’ve started again recently.” Denis has earned the wisdom to know that we need to withstand the view, unsure if we’ll ever gain the ground. There is a heartbreaking loneliness to his warmth.
An engineer, he was their bombmaker. This was a dark business for humanitarians, but fuses grew short then. Few people could ever rebuke Madiba, young boxer or old god, but the Jew had it in him and the guts to stand firm.
“We expected to be hanged. That was the only possible outcome. When the judge pronounced sentence, my mother was nearby, but didn’t hear clearly. She asked, ‘What did he say?’ — I smiled and said, ‘life — life is wonderful!’ ”
I mumbled that he was pretty much the only man who could make that joke … later and coffee has melted into dinner. Denis asks for a slice of my pizza, and a question falls from my mouth: “After everything, are you happy with the result?”
Henry leans in. Denis chews thoughtfully on twenty two years of pain … there are pip squeaks aplenty who leak opinions on this topic, few who have given a hand or heart to forge it.
Finally,”Yes,” we breath out,”we could have done more … but we have come an awfully long way”.
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