It was Wednesday, or it could have been Thursday. I had lost track of the days. It was beautifully warm. I was standing on the balcony with Blessing to soak up some sun, taking in fresh breaths, observing the ships sailing. Table Mountain, the magnet of tourists, looked magnificent, a cluster of clouds hanging above its summit. There was tranquillity in the mountainside; even the cable car that usually went up and down had been shut down since the beginning of the national lockdown.
Further down in the sprawling city, I could see the tall building housing the City of Cape Town public works looming large above the Cape Town taxi rank. I fixed my gaze on its walls, admiring the gigantic, elegant graffiti of the two South African icons: Nelson Mandela, the founding father of the South African democracy, and Desmond Tutu, the founder and architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The paintings were magnificently done. In an art-obsessed city glutted with artists, someone supremely talented must have been commissioned to do the work. I shared this piece of history with Blessing proudly and she protested, accusing me of disturbing her while she was enjoying the panoramic view. We burst out into thunderous laughter.
I met Blessing here in Upper Park Road. I still remember the first day I met her. I was house-hunting. I came here in search of accommodation, and she came to open the front gate. She greeted me with a bewitching smile. When I set my eyes upon her, I felt instantly that we were destined to be together.
It was cemented later on, when I learnt that she was a deeply respectful woman. She had taken me on tour of the house, and it was here, on this balcony, that I had made the decision to take the vacant room. My decision was motivated by the fact that the vacant room was very spacious and the place had a great view. Additionally, I saw an opportunity to get close to Blessing. I needed a break from dating women always suspicious that I wanted to exploit them for papers to naturalise my stay here.
And there we were, standing together a year later, deeply in love, enjoying each other’s company.
“Babe, you should help me to market my business on your social networks,” she said.
With the arrival of COVID-19 on our shores, a lot of companies and industries had been forced to shut down, with mass retrenchment and many workers losing their jobs. Blessing was among those workers. She had lost her waiter’s job in a restaurant in Camps Bay. The management had paid them during the first few months of lockdown, but had since stopped, saying that they had exhausted all their reserves.
Unfortunately, the Labour Department had been reluctant to pay out the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) money. It confused her as much as it confused me that there were no problems in the beginning when the Labour Department was deducting money from her salary. Only now, when it was their turn to pay out the money, they started demanding documents that they never requested in the first place. Strange, it is.
Instead of lying idle, complaining, Blessing had tapped into her passion and reignited her latent talent of baking.
“I will help you, my sweetheart,” I promised, kissing her on the forehead.
“Tomorrow, the landlord is coming,” she reminded me.
It was then I realised it was a Friday, and Mr Ibrahim, our landlord, had summoned us to a meeting to discuss the outstanding rental issues. Most of our housemates had stopped working and, as a result, had been struggling to pay their monthly rentals. Suddenly the rentals felt absurdly high – or were they always high?
Take Amai Tino, for instance, an arts and crafts trader living in the next room. Her business had suffered way before the arrival of the coronavirus. The protest march by exiles and refugees living inside and outside the Methodist church on Greenmarket Square had grossly affected her business, which was forcibly closed most of the time since the beginning of the seven-month-long protest. She incurred losses, leaving her in a state of despair, struggling to pay for her rentals, along with others. Mr Ibrahim would hear none of it, and this time he had suggested that we meet to discuss it. Some were already suggesting we move out to more affordable places, depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting.
“Let’s wait and hear what he says,” I responded.
While we stood there, a delivery van approached. It came to a sudden stop in front of our neighbours’ gate. It was a Takealot van. A tall courier guy wearing a face mask alighted holding a brown box, and went straight towards our neighbours’ gate. He rang the bell and waited patiently on the doorstep.
After a few minutes, a young lady appeared. It was my first time seeing her. It could have been because it was rare to see residents in this neighbourhood. They were always indoors, and when they left their places, it would usually be in their cars.
She smiled and instructed the courier guy to place the box on the doorstep. She waved goodbye and watched the car moving slowly down Upper Park Road until it disappeared into Coronation Street. She went inside, leaving the parcel, only to come back later to fetch it wearing green gloves.
Was this the ‘new normal’ they always referred to?
This is Walmer Estate, situated on the periphery of District Six. It is an historic place. During the apartheid era, the National Party government, under the leadership of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, developed and enforced the separate development policy. They forcibly removed coloured and black people from this place and dumped them on the outskirts of the city in areas like the Cape Flats. This legacy of apartheid still lives on. The ANC-led government, which took over after the 1994 democratic elections, has failed to redress the historical imbalances and inequalities created by apartheid’s iniquitous laws and policies.
I had visited the Cape Flats a number of times. I even participated in protest marches. The most memorable one was the protest against drug-dealing and gang violence organised by the Manenberg Youth Collective, together with other several community organisations. The atmosphere was tense. The protest took place on the day after there had been a shoot-out between rival gangs. The Cape Flats residents wanted to reclaim the streets and recreational parks, which were no longer safe for them, especially for women and children.
At one point during the march, I questioned my decision to participate. I was overwhelmed with fear. I cursed myself for making such a stupid decision. Was I flirting with death? However, after the protest, I was glad that I had participated. Our physical presence assured the Cape Flats residents that they were not alone.
A bird chirruped from the acacia tree across the road. A pigeon landed on the corrugated roof of our neighbours’ house and started preening. A MyCiti bus roared past Chester Street. It was entirely empty. The usually vibrant city had turned strangely quiet. The government had deployed soldiers and police to control the movement of people strolling aimlessly on the streets. Only essential workers were allowed movement, and vagrants clad in ragged clothes could be seen strutting about the streets. These measures were put in place to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“You have become quiet. Are you thinking of your comrades?” Without waiting for a reply, Blessing continued, “I am going to cook before the electricity is gone.”
I had mentioned earlier to her that I was worried about Dan and his comrades. Dan had been one of the refugee and immigrant protesters living inside and outside the Methodist church near Greenmarket Square, the economic hub for African immigrant traders. Their main demand has been to be resettled overseas, especially Canada, a name by which they ended up being referred to. I chuckled at the thought that I once joked with Dan that there would be many ‘Canada’ babies after the protest.
I first met Dan on one of my occasional visits to Amai Tino at her stall in Greenmarket Square. We had a great conversation and a friendship started to grow. I invited him to the Balcony Jam Sessions, a platform created for artists to showcase their talents, sharing their creative works with the audience and building confidence as well as connecting with other artists for potential future collaborations. He performed his protest poetry to thunderous applause. He shared the stage with several prodigiously gifted artists: Soundz of the South, Black Consciousness Poetry, Haven of Art, Foreignh, Yonelisa Wambi, and Enkosi Camagu, to name just a few.
Dan had been living in South Africa for many years. He was an acerbic critic of the despotic Cameroonian government. He studied engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but dropped out because of lack of financial assistance. I knew many intelligent young people who had tried to acquire an education to improve themselves, but were greatly disappointed when they failed to finish their studies. They spent so many years studying, but had nothing to show at the end of those years. It was out of this frustration that Dan desperately wanted to leave South Africa for overseas. Like many other young, African immigrants, he thought there would be better opportunities for him there.
I reached for my phone and scrolled through the messages. Dan had not yet replied. I phoned him but I could not get through: his phone was still off. I was anxious to find out about their fate and developments of their struggle after the announcement of the national lockdown. Just before lockdown, it was rumoured that the City of Cape Town was planning to move them. To where? I still had to find out.
After futile attempts to contact him, I stayed standing there briefly, catching the sunset, watching it sinking behind Signal Hill. Afterwards, I followed Blessing inside the house, and waited for tomorrow’s meeting with the landlord.
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