In the last few days I have heard personal anecdotes from people of a spate of burglaries and robberies at a very personal level all across South Africa. It seems a result of load shedding and desperation.
Only last year my mother was attacked in her home, the robbers lying in wait in order to get through a security gate. The man who was specifically assigned to deal with this poor fragile woman carried her through the house while they demanded she show them items of value or they would cut/burn/beat her up.
He somewhat apologetically explained that they had no work, they had tried, they lived in a squatter camp and they needed to eat. He made sure he tied her up tight but not so tight that she couldn’t escape once they left and although they shut her in a cupboard on leaving, ensuring that that too could open from inside. On the one side one thinks one should be grateful because beyond being scared to death, she was essentially unharmed. I am grateful to this burglar no harm came to her. But I cannot excuse what he did, breaking into a house and threatening harm.
The other night I dreamed a dream. I am often people who are not me in my dreams. I was a middle aged white couple in a lower middle class neighbourhood, new, devoid of many trees and fences, almost like an Edward Scissorhands landscape without the sculpted shrubbery.
These little dark children belonging to staff in the neighbourhood played in the front garden. They wanted to come into the house. They were desperate to see in it and just play in it they said, not one in the ten or so of them above the age of eight. My middle class white self in my dream shrank at the thought of the mess they would make, that I did not know these children and I feared they would break or steal small items. I tried to tell them that it was my house, to placate them. Even as I let a slightly older group of many nationalities into my kitchen. These children, I tried to explain, were my domestic helper’s child and his friends, white and black, I knew them.
Then I felt guilt, historic guilt, me and my imaginary husband and we let the rabble in too. They rushed up the stairs in the house in joyous delight. In my dream I floated above them but I could feel their thoughts. Today they would see privilege, they would play amongst the wealthy and the great. Bottles of cleaning product sat on every stair going up to the bedrooms of this house. There was a massive walk in closet – in actual fact a bedroom for this childless couple had more space than they needed. But there were barely any clothes in the cupboards. There was no television. There was nothing special or extravagant in this house. My dream self felt this couple had all they needed, it was basic and sufficient but actually they could not really afford much more. The house echoed emptiness in terms of belongings.
The children felt disappointment, they felt cheated. Where were the riches they thought they had been promised they could see outside? They wanted to see this, they demanded it. All these white people in their white houses with red roofs must have more. They grabbed what little they could find. A ragged book, a bottle of perfume. The lady of the house in frustration tried to retrieve her belongings as each child tried to leave with something, if anything, egged on by the others. She felt shame that she had and they did not but the more she conceded a belonging, the larger the object the next child demanded.
I awoke to a feeling of sadness. That these dream children were future children born in ignorant belief that it is a birthright that wealth be shared, that it existed even when it didn’t through some delusion of what the white walls hid. That one day they would grow up angry and insistent for what they had not been allowed to take immediately on request. I felt the same sadness I’d felt when I read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Rian Malan’s My Traitors Heart for the first time. I cried a few tears for my beautiful country and prayed a silent prayer this was just a dream as sleep eluded me in the wee hours of the morning.