Author Archive

Dear Afrikaans

August 17th, 2009 14 comments

loveletterIt was not love at first sight. It was hate. The first time I met you was when I was five years old, at a bilingual nursery school. In between belting out the lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you” on the tyre swing, I had a war to fight. There was our jungle gym, and there was yours. Ours was the “rooinekke” one and yours was the “afrikaaners vrot bananas” one. Our weapons were words, and the occasional stick or stone. I cannot remember who won these battles, or what we were fighting for. I don’t even remember speaking to your people because they were in the vis class, and I was in the fish class.

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Categories: Afrikaans Tags: , ,

Defy(n)ing Stereotypes

July 13th, 2009 24 comments

biltongThis topic has made my last two weeks hell. It has been like a hookworm in my heel that is festering and driving me batty! No matter how hard I reminisce, daydream, force my memories to appear, I simply cannot remember when I first realized that I was South African. This means one of two things: either I am suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s or I have never realized that I was South African. Neither of these possibilities satisfies me, because well, I have just returned from my annual medical check-up (compulsory in Japan) and the doctor assured me that my brain was functioning perfectly well by Japanese standards, and I am South African, and I know this fact about myself with absolute certainty. It appears that I just simply cannot remember when this information was coded into my brain.

My cognitive trouble starts as soon as I start thinking about the topic. It seems obvious that it would stir memories related to feelings of South African-ness. Alas, not for me. I can only remember pieces of my life that made me feel completely un-South African…

I grew up in somewhat unusual circumstances. My father is Serbian (way back in my youth it was known as Yugoslavian). He watches Disney cartoons instead of rugby (the Disney addiction is the direct result of a deprived communist upbringing). He bakes bread and baklava instead of braaing boerewors. He speaks English with the thickest Slavic accent where every second word is punctuated with a Serbian swear word. He swims in a Speedo instead of baggies.

My mother on the other hand, is the powerful matriarch (some would call it the fishwife of the household). She and all her friends seem to have a penchant for foreigners, so I grew up hanging out with family friends who included Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, Lebanese, Yugoslavians and all the other peasants who fled Europe hoping that the Apartheid system of white privilege would help them to make their fortunes.

I do not remember being aware of The Struggle or of the political turmoil that was playing out in South Africa, not far from my idyllic, sheltered life. The closest my mother got to being an activist was dating a Japanese man in the 70s. She would regale me with stories of her Japanese “friend” who had given her a snakeskin clutch, and a sewing machine (that ten years later, was still in the box, unused). I knew a lot about the foreign communities that rocked Johannesburg in the 80s, but black people, other than my nanny, were foreign to me.

No, I most definitely did not have a typical South African childhood. Even at 28, I still don’t feel like a typical South African. I have absolutely no interest in sport, I think rugby is boorish and cricket is boring, I can whip up the most fabulous fusion food but cannot cook pap, babootjie or even a melktert. I think Castle beer is unpalatable and well, my Afrikaans is English spoken with the hardest, most guttural accent I can muster. As for Xhosa, I am still trying to pronounce the click correctly.

OK, so I don’t feel like a typical South African, but I most certainly identify myself as being a South African. And, what is a typical South African anyway? I honestly have no idea! I think perhaps that one thing my peculiar childhood taught me, is that there is no such thing as a typical South African, that to be a South African is to defy stereotypes. We are this multicultural, multicoloured mix of people from all over the world. I cannot remember when I realized that I was South African because to have such a defining memory would imply that there is some definitive characteristic that all South Africans share, which I think doesn’t exist.

melktertEven my dad, who was born in a village far away from Africa, is a South African in my eyes. I remember coming home one day to see that our garage had been cemented closed and that inside were cages of chicken fencing, raw meat, spices and fans. In the cage, was my dad hanging up chunks of meat and telling me that he was going to make a fortune selling biltong! At that moment I realized that even my dad, the most un-South African man I knew was really a Seffrican at heart!

To be South African is to feel South African, to embrace South African things, and well to share a South African history. So, I cannot remember when I realized this, but I know that I am South African and proud to identify myself with a place that is so diverse that it defies stereotyping of any kind.

Oh, and before you write me off as being anti-South African produce, I must add that I am fanatical about South African wine and I think that South African soil puts any French terroir to shame…