Drive up Oxford Street in East London, away from the sea, into Southernwood. Walking distance from the centre of town, most of the grand houses in this suburb have been turned into offices. The ordinary Victorian and Edwardian houses have gone to seed and are now home, in many cases, to more than one family.
The area north of St Andrew’s Road remains middle class and white, everything between St Mark’s and St Peter’s is, from what I can make out, 100% black. People call it NU 20. (A reference to Mdantsane’s “Units” – of which there are 19). It is a curious thing for me – the way apartheid spatial arrangements morph but subsist.
Driving through this part of Southernwood at night is different. The streets are vibrant in a way you will never find in white suburb. People walking, talking on street corners, sitting on their garden walls drinking Castle Lite or Black Label…
One night, couple of weeks ago, I was driving down St George’s Road, on my way to fetch Thabisa from a friend’s place. As I passed Hillbilly’s (it is called Mario’s now, but will always be Hillbilly’s to me), Thabisa phoned to say that she wasn’t in Rodney Street, but in St Mark’s Road (the reason for this is a story for another day). I had pulled over to take the call. So… I indicated, looked in my rear-view mirror and pulled out for one of the lovely u-turns that the wide arteries of East London make so easy.
Blasting of a hooter and screeching of brakes and a large dark grey double cab stopped mere centimetres from me. Serious adrenalin. I stopped and wound down my window to apologise to the driver, who was similarly apologetic – it turned out that he had no headlights and was en route to having them fixed. We continued on our respective ways. As I drove past the house with the big grey wall on the De Villiers Street intersection I heard a voice yell “Ye mlungu iphantse ukubhoda bafethu!” and peals of laughter. There were three boys aged about 14 or 15 looking over the wall. That adrenalin was still coursing through my veins. I was livid.
I did another u-turn and parked outside the house. I wound down the passenger window and yelled, “Andiva?”. The boy who had yelled looked arrogant and repeated himself. I lost it.
“And is that funny?” I screamed in very bad Xhosa.
“You nearly caused an accident,” the boy replied in English, “it was your fault!”.
“Actually, that bakkie had no head-lights and HE was at fault, and apologised.” I was still screaming. “And, tell me, what does my race have to do with anything? You are just RUDE!”
By that time, a small crowd had gathered on the pavement in front of the house with the dark grey wall. There was much murmuring. I was suddenly conscious of the fact that I was a white woman in a black area alone at night, challenging a youth about race. I was angry enough not to care.
Comments were being voiced by the crowd, but I couldn’t make out the tone. Then… a women’s voice rose above the rest in slow and simple Xhosa – the kind I can follow. “She’s right. You are rude – you must apologise to this woman.” The murmuring from the crowd at this point was clearly in agreement. The boy looked unsure. Another voice came from the crowd “We’re waiting… apologise NOW.”
There was a moment of quiet. “I am very sorry, mam” he eventually said.
Murmurs of approval from the crowd.
The first woman called out again to the other two boys, “And you… and you… apologise”
Loud approval from the crowd. “It’s alright,” I said, “no harm done”.
“I’m really very sorry, mam,” said the first boy again. “It’s really ok,” I said and smiled – I meant it.
People moved aside so that I could do my third u-turn in St George’s Road in a very short space of time. As I pulled off, the crowd dispersed.
I drove to St Mark’s Road in a daze, processing what had just happened… one of the many, small, unreported demonstrations of what is right in the world.
I love Southernwood. I will try to take some photographs for you tomorrow if the light is good.