I’ve been away, two weekends in a row. First to Corana – the rural village outside Mthatha where Thabisa spent her early childhood, and late teens, and where her mother still lives. We try to go there about once a month.
Then, last weekend, to Pretoria, where her late childhood and early teens were spent, and where much of her family still lives. Three aunts, and numerous cousins, live in the same large block in the centre of town. The General Pretorius Building used to be an office block. It is HUGE and confusing in its layout. Rooms are rented out without sanitation or water. There are communal ablution facilities which are not maintained. People carry water to their rooms, and cook and wash there. It is South African inner-city working-class accommodation and I have never seen anything like it in my life. I suppose it is an arrangement similar to a bed-sit in London, but on a very large scale, and with a much denser population. We spent a lot of time there, and it felt surreal to move between that space and our luxurious hotel a block away.
People often ask me how I am received by Thabisa’s family. With complete warmth and acceptance. She is completely out, and her lesbianism is accepted. She is adored by her large family, and that love is extended to me, as her partner. We were made a huge fuss of, with people going out of their way to cook special meals for us and generally being hospitable to the full extent that they were able. I got the sense, from comments in the corridors and hallways, that a white person hadn’t been seen in the building in a very long time, if ever. I was incredibly touched by the way people attempted to do what was necessary to make me feel comfortable in what was clearly a foreign environment to me, without making me feel too obviously different.
Pretoria itself is an interesting place. It is the administrative capital of South Africa, and home to its military headquarters. Government buildings are everywhere – the ministerial departments, the national archives and even the national zoo are there. It has a reputation of conservatism – it is in the Afrikaner heartland and the legacy of the Old South Africa’s state bureaucracy is palpable. The symbol of Afrikaner nationalism, the Voortrekker Monument, dominates the landscape as you drive into Pretoria from Johannesburg. (We went there – I’ll tell you about it another day). Friends were incredulous when I said that we were going to Pretoria on holiday. “Pretoria? But WHY?”
It wasn’t relaxing – in fact I feel quite worn out – but I am really, really glad we went.