This comes to you from a cafe deep in the heart of Sea Point. Thirty-four of the thirty-nine people here are the same colour as their curtains, probably: white.
Apologies for getting to the point so unsubtly, but this is neither about boring, enforced decor choices nor petty power wielded by small people with big ambitions.
Instead, it’s about the fear of and consequent resistance to change. Because who knows what the future will look like if we don’t keep the present under firm control.
“You must vote DA (Democratic Alliance), hey,” a doctor’s receptionist in the Adelphi Centre breezily told a patient who had remarked on what a fine place Sea Point was to live. “We need to keep it this way.”
Keep it white, she might have said – people and curtains both. It seems one of those does not believe it can survive and prosper without the other.
Or, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Politics is the art of controlling your environment. That is one of the key things I learnt in these years, and I learnt it the hard way.
“Anybody who thinks that ‘it doesn’t matter who’s president’ has never been drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid war on the other side of the world — or been beaten and gassed by police for trespassing on public property — or been hounded by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) for purely political reasons — or locked up in the Cook County jail with a broken nose and no phone access and twelve perverts wanting to stomp your ass in the shower.
“That is when it matters who is president or governor or police chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.”
So vote DA, hey …
But Thompson is telling Sea Point what it knows already, what it peeped at from behind its white curtains not many years ago, when a significant amount of the money in the area came from the sale and purchase of drugs by the residents of buildings whose owners couldn’t give a damn what went on there as long as the rent was paid on time.
The subsequent clean-up restored a semblance of order, from a middle class perspective. The curtains that remained were white. So were most of the people. Gone, thanks to rising property prices, was Sea Point’s chance to be part of an African city instead of a scene from a Woody Allen movie.
That said, the prospect of living next door to the friendly neighbourhood heroin dealer does not appeal, even if they do whip up the most amazing Edikangikong when they aren’t selling dependency and death.
But what if the white people Sea Point succeeds in controlling to within an inch of their sentience could look beyond the blackness of those who continue to be targeted – sometimes insidiously, sometimes not – for exclusion? Even if they are the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer?
Nicholas Spagnoletti, a Sea Point stalwart, asked and answered that question in his play, “London Road”, which won the Olive Schreiner prize and a Fleur du Cap award and made it all the way to Edinburgh, where it earned rave reviews.
Rosa and Stella live in the same apartment block on London Road. Rosa is an old Jewish woman who is all but estranged from her adult children. Stella is a Nigerian drug dealer who has been infected with HIV by her absent, philandering husband. So far, so stereotypical.
But Spagnoletti ventures beyond the cliches in a way few of us would do: we think too easily that what we see on Sea Point’s streets is what we would get if we could venture beyond other people’s white curtains.
Rosa, a communist who took a Prague violinist as a lover and nevermind her husband, has lived a life rich in experience if not finances. Stella, who often has her prudishness rattled by the rudely alive Rosa, services a clientele consisting largely of advertising and film industry types.
In one scene Rosa lets Stella in on her hobby …
Rosa: “Come, let me show you a trick I learned in Hillbrow that helped me pass the time when I was nursing Isaac.”
(Rosa gets a set of binoculars)
Stella: “What is this for?”
Rosa: “This is why I will always live in flat-land.”
Stella: “What do you mean?”
Rosa: “The simple and ancient joy of watching people.”
Stella: (laughing) “You surprise me Rosa.”
Rosa: “In that block, the second flat from the right on the top floor, you see the one where the light is on – well that window there is the bathroom, and there lives the most gorgeous young black man who stands there for hours drying himself and looking at himself in the mirror.”
Stella: “You are a dirty one hey! (She looks through the binoculars where Rosa is pointing) I see him!”
Rosa: “Is he naked?”
Stella: “Topless! Not bad. Not bad at all.”
Rosa: “Who needs satellite television?”
Gradually, the two women see past themselves and discover that under their skins and their contrasting cultures they are people living in the same world – on the same street and in the same block, even. A sincere friendship develops.
It is a story richly told by Spagnoletti’s skill for putting authenticity on the page. Even in print the characters snap, crackle and pop.
But is the story cursed to remain a fiction? As an answer to that question, here’s a confession: I have lived with my wife on London Road in Sea Point since June 2014 in what could easily be an apartment happily haunted by the ghost of Stella or Rosa.
Life in a Woody Allen film is all that it is cracked up to be, and more. The Atlantic slaps and roars just a few hundred metres away. Anything you could hope to buy – probably even heroin – is for sale somewhere on Main or Regent. Everything is accessible by bicycle, including six major supermarkets, a large members-only gym, a slew of yoga studios, at least three bookstores, and Indian, Chinese, Italian, Greek, French and Mexican restaurants. Cafes have we many.
But unease lurks beyond those white curtains. It is stirred by the truth hiding in plain sight that almost all the people behind them are of a matching shade and that almost all the people on the pavements outside are darker and homeless.
Recently, I came home to find a man propping up the wall outside our building. He had suffered several cuts on his head and hands, which had been daubed with mercurochrome.
It was late afternoon and the sun was setting over the sea. The chill of an autumn evening seeped up the street. The man had laid out a blanket. He was silent, beaten in more ways than one.
My thought was to give him something to eat. My neighbour’s was to use a garden hose to spray him out of our sight and our minds.
At one of our body corporate’s annual meetings we were given a presentation on the advantages of employing a private company to patrol our street – men on segways wearing cycle helmets and dayglo bibs.
They would, we were told, maintain a “visible security presence” and could also keep the homeless “under control”. By which it was meant they erase these people from our view.
But where would they go? And wouldn’t the money we would spend on paying for this service be better spent on trying to alleviate the plight of the homeless rather than adding to their misery and making them someone else’s problem? I’m happy to report that the offer was not taken up, and for those reasons.
As we climbed the stairs back to our apartment we congratulated ourselves on our compassion. Then we locked the door and drew the curtains. Ours are off-white.