The moat of self-sufficiency

“Most of the ‘mine’ families lived only a few miles out from the town, but their self-sufficiency surrounded them like a moat. Their offspring could go from the cradle to the grave without having anything to do with the town other than attending its high school, placing weekly orders with the butcher and the grocer, and paying three visits to church – one for christening, one for marrying, one for burying.” 

That’s from an essay by Nadine Gordimer, ‘A South African Childhood’, where she describes the mining town she grew up in. The mines came first, the towns around these mines followed. “The ‘mine’ people and the townspeople did not by any means constitute a homogenous population; they remained two well-defined groups”.

While this separation may seem odd for a village or a town, it is common in a city, almost a defining trait. You can spend an entire life in a city intermingling with only your ‘group’, barely interfacing with other sections of the city’s populace. The segregation begins early in life, with the day-care centres that cater to a certain class, and it grows as you move from school to university to a career: our institutions and the culture that surrounds them offer few opportunities to mingle with people vastly different from our own. 

This is not a new insight. And the phenomenon itself, perhaps an emergent property of capitalism, isn’t new either. What struck me in the passage above was this: “their self-sufficiency surrounded them like a moat”.

For the privileged, this self-sufficiency is a defining feature of modern life. It came into focus, I felt, during the pandemic, in the way most of us managed to stay isolated and yet live reasonably well through it all. Everything – from groceries to medicines to furniture – could be ordered home, and the lack of friction in these transactions (made with a few clicks on your phone) created an illusion of self-sufficiency. We were still dependent on others, but those others were largely invisible. 

The irony there lies in the fact that the same pandemic that prompted in some of us this feeling of self-sufficiency also underscored – through the virus that we played host to – our connection to the natural world. We are deeply connected to – and dependent on – others, both human and non-human. But surrounded by this illusory moat of self-sufficiency, we choose to forget this.  

Cape Town weekend

CT view

On the South African airways flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, all stewards were black and the captain was called ‘Commander’. The stewards seemed to be enjoying themselves, laughing as they passed a juice can across, or chatting merrily in the steward area, and their English accent carried no hint of the American drawl or British elocution: listening to them was a pleasure.

“What would you like to drink, sir?”

I want to hear that again.

“Sir, would you like tea or coffee?”

“Tea, please. Do you have Rooibos?”

“We’re South African,” she smiled. “We serve only Rooibos.”

At Johannesburg, following my wife’s advice, I did not stray far from the hotel during the three days the conference was on. When I left the city, on a Friday morning Kulula airlines flight to Cape Town, the only authentic Jo’burg experience I could claim was a petty crime. Perhaps ‘crime’ is too harsh; ‘swindle’ is better: swindled by a smart black waiter at a pizzeria. The bill had come to fifty three rand. Keeping in mind a seven rand tip, I dropped seventy rand in notes — a fifty and a twenty — on the table. The waiter, a thin young man with a brisk manner, collected the notes with a wide grin, said “Thank you, Sir”, and disappeared inside. I sensed what had happened, but refused to believe it. Ten minutes later when I saw him idling in a corner, it was time to get up and leave.

The woman beside me on the flight — white, in her late forties — was traveling with her husband to Cape Town for the weekend. She lived in Pretoria, commuted daily to Jo’burg, worked in the Pharma industry. Weekend getaways to Cape Town were ideal, she said. She could not imagine living there — the city’s pace was too relaxed (Slaapstad, she said it was, Sleepy Town not Kaapstad, Cape Town). When she learned this was my first visit to South Africa, she grew animated and began to list places I must visit in Cape Town, pointing on my map also areas to avoid (black-only neighbourhoods), offering tips on how to stay safe: don’t walk with your camera in the open, don’t talk to strangers, avoid deserted streets — reasonable advice, none of which I had the necessity to follow. We talked cricket, the Hansie Cronje scandal and what money had done to the game, the ongoing world cup (“When you are in South Africa, support our team!”). She bought me a drink, tapped my arm when she pointed at something on the map, and tried, unsuccessfully, to draw her husband into the conversation. With him she spoke Afrikaans, but when I asked if she had Dutch ancestry she said she wasn’t sure. She had never visited Europe. “Maybe I will, someday,” she said.
Continue reading “Cape Town weekend”