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Cape Town, South Africa In his series “Hatfield Street,” Moses März observes the South African post-apartheid society. Through his eyes, we travel down his street, touch, smell, understand without being told what to think and are yet able to get a first glimpse of what might become visible through it.
“The first time I arrived in this street was as a 16- year-old exchange student, in August 2002. Ever since I left the city a year later, I dreamed about it almost every night. In my dreams I tried to connect the different districts with each other. Rivers, channels, streets, green areas, buildings and mountains whirled around in my unconscious. How could I ever describe this place to someone?”, is Moses März’s written reply to us when we ask him to explain the larger contexts in which he places the description of his street. He has been living in Hatfield Street for five years now. Here he tells us about life in the heart of Cape Town.
“My perspective, which might be of particular significance in relation to the title of your magazine, is, of course, a specific one: For one, it is the perspective of a German living in a European city in Africa. In theory, this point of view informs my interest in the provincialisation of Europe. In the practical life of a white minority, this also stands for the advance, the infiltration of the other, which, in our context, is cause for a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. This process is defined by unpredictability and promises to slowly obliterate traditional categorisations that are tied to particular colonial power constellations.
My perspective is also that of a privileged white man in the heart of the city, for whom the politically and economically exploited only appear at the roadside or behind the counter. Although they appear to be peripheral in my text, despite their numerical superiority in this part of the world, they’re still the central point of reference for all considerations. All attempts to create the illusion of normality are thwarted by them.
In writing this text my general stance is therefore, unavoidably, one of complicity and rejection of the existing structures, participation and resistance, observation and involvement, wonderment and action. It is no longer enough to just wonder.
At home, in conversations with friends and at university, in the newspapers, there were no words to speak about this situation appropriately. So I consider it to be our mission to develop a language for this in German as well, to open our doors and windows and to allow the world to enter.”
Now then, let us do just that:
HATFIELD STREET: PART I
The petrol station — 7 am
Early morning traffic is pushing its way up the gentle slope of the street and stands waiting at the traffic light. A cold breeze is blowing from the slopes of Table Mountain, which is only half illuminated by the sun at this time of day.
Minibuses filled with workers from the townships – typically maids, cleaners, babysitters and security staff – are queuing in one direction, carrying them to the wealthy suburbs in the heart of the city. Construction workers are sitting on the back of pick-up trucks. They got picked up for a day of paid work from the road side outside of town. They are wearing hooded sweatshirts and caps to protect themselves from the wind.
In the opposite direction, down the street, towards the skyscrapers of the Central Business District, the first wave of white-collar workers is commuting to their far more comfortable offices. Small groups of students dressed in green and light blue school uniforms are on their way to school.
Directly next door to our house is a petrol station. It is called the Engen 1 Plus Quick Shop. The billboard at the side of the road states that it is open around the clock: “24 Hours Fresh Woolworths Quality.” Besides simply refuelling your car, the petrol station includes a small supermarket with an integrated burger and pizza shop and a bakery, equipped with a rotisserie. Friends envy us for this petrol station.
Across the car park, the gaze falls on the lit advertising images above the petrol pumps. Each one displays a different motif with its own motto. The motto comes in the form of an emotion that is spelled out in bold letters beneath the pictures:
A laughing black mother is hugging her daughter, who is wearing a graduation robe and holding a rolled-up diploma in her right hand.
A white father in a yellow polo shirt is pushing his son on a bicycle. The scene is set in a low-traffic suburban street in front of a neatly trimmed lawn and clean house wall.
A black, somewhat corpulent man in a football uniform, stands cheering in a stadium. He is swinging the South African flag in one hand and blowing into a red vuvuzela with the other. The out-of-focus background indicates a capacity crowd in the stadium.
A white schoolboy holds his arm protectively around his sister’s shoulder. Both are wearing school uniforms and backpacks of a more exclusive brand. They are waiting for the school bus or their parents, picking them up from school by car.
This is the rainbow nation. The promise made by politicians and economists alike to steer the post-apartheid society into an orderly developmental state. The picture proves effective.
South Africa, according to the message delivered by the Engen advertisement, is a land for blacks and whites. A land that creates prosperity and good fortune for both. The effective majority-minority ratio of 92 to 8 per cent to the disadvantage of the white population is transformed to an equal 50 to 50 in the images.
The corresponding narrative is disturbingly simple: While the black population pursues social progress and is entertained by sporting events, whites are protecting each other and enjoying their prosperity. How severely these two realities are separated from each other is made clear by the lit advertisement. However, they are both undeniably heading for the same destination: The Engen 1 Plus Quick Shop.
A note about the definition of the black-white categories used in this context: We are still applying them to describe this reality, even though we have been fully aware of their absurdity for quite some time now. Because we have not yet found a different way to speak about the injustice taking place in South Africa and because the socio-economic reality still matches Frantz Fanon’s observation from 1958 to a large extent: You are rich because you are white. You are white because you are rich.
This is not to say that we, for our own purposes, do not believe in Steve Biko’s understanding of this terminology dating back to 1971, when he insisted that black should be understood as a political mentality that fights against all forces of dehumanisation.
The government of the African National Congress (ANC) has however adopted the diffuse race categories set up by the apartheid government and is continuing to use them in its policies, certainly in order to have a foundation for Affirmative Action. But also, as is now becoming increasingly clear, out of intellectual laziness and the convenience to keep political identifications unchanged.
Companies like Engen are actively contributing to the process of replacing the race discourse of apartheid with a culture discourse in which the same mix made up of biology, culture, politics and economy resonates. The discourse suggests a clear threefold division of society: Black, Coloured as intermediate stage, White. In theory, our arguments against this divide are still the same ones from 1960s. It is time we develop new ones.
Casting a glance at the cars parked here, it becomes perfectly clear that they are owned by the privileged minority: Jeep, Land Rover, Mercedes, BMW.
Two attendants are positioned at every one of the four petrol pumps, all of them are male. They are wearing work boots, blue cargo pants teamed with red and blue fleece jackets with Engen logos as well as fleece hats or caps – the same outfit at any time of year. The fact that, in line with the current categorisation, they would be categorised as black, goes without saying. As well as the remark that most customers here are white.
The luxury cars’ windows are lowered. Keys are handed over. The obligatory small talk preceding the order:
“How are you, my boss?”
“I’m fine, thanks, how are you?”
“I’m fine, what can I do for you?”
“Top up, please!”
“Sure, my boss.”
Payment, with credit card, follows later. While the attendants refuel the cars, the drivers make a quick detour into the Quick Shop.
In the morning, before work, they buy low fat yoghurt drinks, ready-made salads, energy or vitamin-enhanced beverages, chocolate bars or crisps for their lunch breaks. Some even do their weekly household shopping, despite the high petrol station prices.
Upon entering the Quick Shop, we are overwhelmed by the cold air of the air conditioning and the abundance of the deli counter. Here, regardless of the time, is always rush hour. The atmosphere is always slightly stressed. People here are pressed for time. They need to earn lots of money to keep up with the expectations attached to the so-called upper middle class – a cruel euphemism in a country with one of the world’s highest GINI coefficient scores. A recent study shows that there is no other place on earth that you can live as well with a middle class income as here. Old colonial structures are still in place, though the system is slowly starting to crumble.
During power failures all across the country, which is happening more and more often and is called loadshedding in the local jargon, the Quick Shop is even fuller than usual. The power plants that originally only had to generate power for the white minority, are now overstrained by the increased demands of 10 to 40 million customers during the last two decades. A generator in front of the Quick Shop ensures that there are never any outages and so, the neighbourhood continues to receive warm food.
The shelves in the biggest section of the Quick Shop supermarket are loaded up to the ceiling. Everything suggests better quality. Woolworths, the supermarket chain that has established itself within the Quick Shop, is the luxury chain of the country. Convenience food is lying next to fresh cut vegetables – onions, carrots and salad – cheese and sausage. It is plain to see that the people shopping here do not have time to cut vegetables themselves.
The name of the bakery in the corner of the shop suggests fake closeness to the neighbourhood – ‘The Corner Bakery.’ Far from it. The bakery is, like everything else here, part of the Engen-Woolworths conglomerate. Nevertheless, it has the supposedly best rye rolls in the city. Hamburger buns also come in a gluten-free variation.
Taking a look through the other shelves, you easily forget what you came for. Haribo, Lindt, Erdinger – the product rang is entirely World Class – a particular popular adjective since the Football World Cup in 2010.
In the queue at the register, the eye travels over the local newspapers’ cover photos: Thousands of township shacks have been destroyed in a fire; six more people have been killed in the latest xenophobic attacks; South Africa has done sensationally well in a cricket match; a whale has stranded on the coast of Hout Bay; the annual carnival parade of the coloured community has taken place in the city.
Among the people standing in the queue, I recognise a radio DJ, an up-and-coming chubby-faced politician and the cartoonist of the national academic newspaper. A blonde woman, strutting towards the exit, is probably on her way to the fashion editors’ office of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire down the street.
The employees of Engen 1 Plus Quick Shop are working 12-hour shifts from 6 am to 6 pm.
“Next customer teller 4!” an electronic voice announces through the loudspeaker next to the tills. “Please hold your Smart Shopper or My School Card ready!” The instructions resemble the check-in procedure at the airport.
On the way to the till, the shopping basket must pass through the narrow space between the backsides of other customers and the rack of sweets. The wide indentations next to the tills are made for full shopping baskets. Everything in the Quick Shop is constructed to make it impossible to buy less than a full shopping basket without leaving with a bad conscience.
The haste of the Quick Shop customers grows towards the checkout. As soon as the transfer of the card machine takes longer than usual, the customers become impatient. One of the customers ahead rudely asks why the bank transfer confirmation is taking so long. The cashier remains calm. She exchanges a few short words with her colleague in isiXhosa. She can assume that the customer is unable to understand her. Then she coolly gestures to machine, indicating that it isn’t her fault.
Our cashier’s nametag reads Happiness. Next to it is a small smiley pin. She smiles at us as we step up to her till.
Published July 2015