Our Destiny Is To Be Intimates, Not Strangers - The Witness

31 December 2019 - But I remain convinced that we would be mistaken to overlook what the commonplaces of everyday encounters tell us of what we might yet become as a society, and of the road we all travel together.

Michael Morris

Travelling to Bloemfontein this week, we stopped to fill up with petrol in Beaufort West, the half-way halt longed-for by the children for whom even the purgatorial phrase, ‘only five hours to go’, is a welcome gradation of the day-long passage from the coast to the hot, distant interior.

The long hours on the road are less of a torment for me, for I find the landscape teems with things that are intriguing to think about; the reasons for routes, the unknowable stories of isolated homesteads, the secret histories of those lone figures – a solitary man on a bicycle, miles from anywhere, a teen leaning against a fence – that hint at the hard-to-fathom depth of rural life.

And, whenever you stop, the brief, unexpected encounters with strangers – who are never really strangers at all.

In Beaufort West, I got talking to Cecil the petrol attendant. My family’s mirth, in fact, was what got us talking; when Cecil approached and asked, in Afrikaans, ‘Wat kan ek vir jou doen, meneer’, I’d mangled a half-Afrikaans, half-English response which was evidently so hilarious to my wife and children that they couldn’t help packing up.

Cecil was tickled by my linguistic ineptitude, too. Switching seamlessly to English, he assured me once I’d joined him at the pump that my performance, though slightly comical, wasn’t all that bad. ‘You must just practise,’ he offered generously, ‘…even if you make people laugh sometimes.’ Like me, it turned out, Cecil grew up in Kimberley. (‘Cecil,’ he said, shaking my hand, ‘like Cecil John Rhodes.’) Unlike me, he could make himself clear not only in Afrikaans and English, but also Xhosa – his home language – Sotho, Zulu and Tswana. How, I wondered, had he ended up in Beaufort West? ‘Work,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to go wherever you can find work.’

We said our farewells and parted. But I kept thinking of Cecil as we drove on to Three Sisters and beyond, the unlikely linguist who works at a garage in Beaufort West, a resourceful fellow South African, a man of goodwill.

 In these things, we are, most of us, very alike.

If there are grounds for optimism, it is that for all the contests and enmities of our history, the forlorn burden you sense at times settling across the plains like a gathering dusk, our destiny is to be intimates, not strangers.

Just a few weeks ago, days after his death, I was struck by a line from Ben Turok’s book, With My Head Above the Parapet, in an excerpt published in a newspaper.

“There is no room for sentimentality in politics,’ Turok had written, ‘and I am in no mood to put a rosy gloss on where we are now.’

Set against what is so obviously a miscarriage of the hoped-for reinvention of South Africanhood in the shocking indifference of political elites towards creating a better, fairer republic, there is assuredly no room for sentimentality.

But I remain convinced that we would be mistaken to overlook what the commonplaces of everyday encounters tell us of what we might yet become as a society, and of the road we all travel together.

Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations

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