Walking into the waiting room at the Fish Hoek Driving Licence Testing Centre, I look around to see where I’m supposed to sit. A woman in the third row calls out that I’m after the Navy man in the second row. While I consider that all the seats next to him are already taken, she points to a teenage girl on the other side of the room, saying, “He goes after her, and she’s after me.” Others pipe up until the whole queue has been announced. I think I should maybe try to get everyone to sit in order, but come to my senses and sit myself down in the front row. “They should have a number system”, a blonde woman says plaintively, to no reply. It turns out that I have to return the following morning, and it’s just the same: people sit where they like and keep a running tab on who follows whom. And again, it’s the middle-aged white women who are uncomfortable.
Later I tell a coloured friend about it and she laughs. “But that’s the way we do it. If you go to a clinic or anywhere, it’s always like that!” I offer that maybe there’s something nice about everyone having to rely on each other and be trustworthy. She agrees. “If someone goes out for a smoke or whatever and his turn comes, someone will go find him.”
The second story is about a couple of young Zimbabwean men in Kalk Bay who had been living rough on the mountain and were falling into trouble. One landed up in hospital. The other was behaving erratically and aggressively around the village, scaring people. Notes flew around the Neighbourhood Watch blog and the police and private security companies became involved, but he remained on the street. A friend of mine went to talk with other Zimbabweans who make and sell craftwork by the Outspan. They were also worried, but said it was the kind of situation that had to be resolved with the families. They had pooled their money and contacted the men’s relatives in Zim. Eventually, they arranged to get the two safely home. Again I was struck by the different approaches. We who wanted somebody to do something. They who took care of it themselves.
I don’t mean to present this in terms of warm-hearted Africans vs frosty whities. I imagine it has as much to do with affluence as culture anyway. The human condition is to be with other people, and that can get pretty messy, unpredictable and alarming. If you’ve got money, you get used to subcontracting some of your contact with others. Why not? “Hell is other people”, right? And who would argue against the need for efficient systems in our complex society? Not me. But it seems that our increasing reliance on isolation and technology becomes increasingly dangerous – to ourselves, to the others, to the earth. We are all in this together: this is, precisely, a fact of life. And so, as long as we are living, we have to work it out together, get in each other’s faces, mix it up a little. WH Auden puts it more starkly: “We must love each other or die.”
Third story. I’m walking up Main Road as a gust of wind whirls off the mountain. Suddenly dozens of tin cans are flying in every direction from the corner of Windsor Road, which is another informal workshop for crafters. Everyone in the street starts jumping after the tins. Car guards, passers-by, some of the roadworks crew. An old woman in front of me stops one on her instep with a premier league move. We bashfully carry the tins over to the craftsman who, surprisingly, is laughing and laughing. “This is a good day! This is a very good day!” I ask what he means. He tells me. “Now I know I’m going to be okay. Now I know, when I have a problem, the people will help me.” I left him still smiling, packing his tins away.