Woman at the Gate

Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa

June 8, 2009

Dear Friend,

Thanks for your concern. You are right – this lifestyle of uber paranoia does not suit me. But I have to say the narrowing of horizons and seclusion has forced reflection and strangely latent creativity that normally I am too distracted in “normal” life to make time for. So, although not comfortable, it has been productive and satisfying in its way.

When we were in Joburg last year, I was very nervous in our gated community. Now we are in a village (very Afrikanse), it does seem safer. That said, no white folks walk our lovely shaded streets (the pedestrians are black – maids and gardeners walking to work and loiterers)  and every house has its high fence, barking dogs and security systems.

Our protectors are the private security firm known as GE Secure – not the GE we know, but an old army commando named Gerard Etienne who has his own private army. Nearly all the houses and businesses in town have their recognizable GE yellow triangle and the responders wear black uniforms with red baseball caps – very militaristic.

Our security system is linked to them and when the alarm goes they are here within 2 minutes. They also call my cell phone and ask if I am okay and then I give a password to confirm. I also have two panic buttons – one that sounds the alarm and one that is silent – you can imagine the scenario of how to use one or the other. And our system is hooked to a battery if power fails.

Now all this security, which everyone feels necessary, is self-fulfilling in the sense that we are all locked into the expectation of violence. And that is as debilitating and powerful in some ways as the violence itself. There are incidents of crime for sure, but is there really enough that the whole society is locked into compounds of isolation and weighed down with its expectation? I don’t know and lack the courage to test the status quo.

I can also say that while apartheid has been abandoned under the law – it is still alive and well as social apartheid. Blacks and whites pass in the street without exchanging eye contact. It is very strange. It is as though the blacks have moved into the life of the town from their separate “location” without really integrating – everyone has a silent expectation of the behavior (or the “place”) of the other. And the social barriers are silent, deep and very real as the two races physically integrate in daily life – each within their own space, carved by the expectation of their rights rather than a shared life.

And so I’m sending you this story that will perhaps formalize some more reflections on life here. I call it, “Woman at the Gate.”

Her voice through the intercom at the security gate told me she was white, Afrikanse, well-spoken in English. A glance at the gate camera monitor in the kitchen showed she was apparently alone without a car. She asked for food or money for bread, said her husband had been retrenched (laid-off) three times and they had nothing to eat. Her name was Florine.

On impulse I took a 100 rand note from my purse hoping it would buy her groceries not booze. R100 equals about US$12.00 and would buy simple food at the grocery store for a week. By comparison, our wonderful live-in maid Julia, receives R85 per day (the high end of the going rate – and I confess I give her extras), and two people can eat at Wimpy’s or FishAways for less.

On the other side of the high barred gate I saw a tall, thin woman with short grey hair, a worn, weather hardened face typical of Afrikanse women. She was cleanly dressed in a shabby thin trench coat, slacks and worn canvas shoes, standing in the cold wind holding a large cloth shopping bag. When she spoke I realized she had no teeth on top. I passed the note to her through the bars.

She was surprised and said “Are you sure?” I knew she had been walking a long way through the prosperous end of this town to get to our house and her bag appeared empty. She asked if she could wash my car or do some work in return, but I had no work for her to do. She said she once worked at a bank but there was no work now. She noticed me looking at her empty bag.  Her eyes hardened and she said something surprising “Black people always help but I get nothing from whites – you would think we white people would stick together.” Then she gave a big smile, thanked me with “God bless you” and “this will come back to you, you know” and she said “I can go home now – it’s not good for a woman to be out walking the streets.” I wished her well and she walked away passing the big houses with their elaborate gardens and gates barred just like mine.

I wondered as I walked back into the house if I should have asked her in, given her coffee and got more of her story. I don’t usually give to beggars unless I feel some connection. I remembered those who had touched me in the past. The man with no legs who lived on a wooden plank with wheels in the filth of the floor and abattoir drains at Central Market in Delhi. He always looked at me with a cocky smile of pride and confidence, with his cigarette packet rolled James Dean style in his t-shirt sleeve. I often saw him reading the paper with his glasses on! No self pity there. I felt my small weekly contribution to him was in support of the life he made for himself in the most degrading physical surroundings imaginable.

Then there was the half-naked child standing in the middle of the traffic on a cold Christmas Eve, nose running, hair matted, crying, begging at the window of my taxi as I was on my way to the embassy Christmas party. I knew she was part of a begging gang who gathered children Fagin style. I never gave to those beggars feeling it was wrong to support that terrible practice. My impulse that evening was to scoop her up and take her with me, but I knew the gang was the only family she had and that my world was too incomprehensibly foreign. Knowing this familiar feeling of impotence all too well when faced with the overwhelming poverty in India, I emptied my purse in her hands, hoping the gang would eat that night, and that someone would wrap her in a blanket against the cold.

Back now inside my big house with its well stocked pantry, logs burning in the fireplace, while warming my hands on a coffee mug, I wondered if I would see Florine again.

by Jeanne Grant

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