As the plane screeched to a halt on the Oliver Tambo tarmac, my apprehension reached its apex, as I knew that there was no going back now. Do not get the wrong idea, I was looking forward to seeing both friends and family after all this time, but I could already feel the anxieties of “home” logged firmly in my chest. The expected ping of the seatbelt sign, an alarming confirmation of the inevitable that awaited me. And then, the cabin doors opened, and the already sizzling morning sun struck violently upon my face, there was no mistaking it, I was back in South Africa.
The airport immigration lady was the first to prod at the source of my apprehension. Upon seeing my passport and surname, she started to question me in a dialect that I no longer speak with any confidence or fluency. Her curiosity quickly turned to suspicion, as she demanded to know why I could not speak my own language. With barely contained irritation I began to tell her my life story. She no doubt noticed the reluctance with which I explained it all, as she began tut’ing and ‘ow’ing. Then finally she turned moral lecturer, “you must learn your people’s tongue”, she said as she waved me though. Barely landed and I had already been dressed down, and all this to gain access to “my home”. A part of me wanted to go back and remind her that given the history of this country I would certainly not be the only one to pass by her desk with a strange story, but just as the thought crossed my mind, I queasiness overtook me, and so I headed to the bathroom to wash my face and calm my nerves before facing my family. Perhaps I should explain, South Africa is an anomalous place that holds for me all my greatest fears and anxieties. It is a place that demands that the entierity of my being be defined and categorised. That lady had been the tip of the spear, a constant weapon that I knew would prod, poke and humiliate me at every corner.
Then came the sea of people, all impatiently waiting for their moment of reunion. Mine was as expected, full of emotion and joy, and for an instant I forgot my all my anxieties. Then came the taxi men, hustling and bustling for their next commission, they swarmed around the arrivals hall. I noticed how some of the freshly arrived tourists were taken aback by their enthusiasm, and made a beeline for the Guatrain - a supermodern shuttle that runs from the airport to the marble-floored rischness of Sandton City and Rosebank. Their eyes focused on the signs, they would take refuge and find comfort in the luxury of cushioned safety. It always occurs to me how it is possible, if you are careful and so disposed, to go to South Africa and not see any of the uneaven econmics of the country.
Meanwhile we made our way to the car-park, from where we would then negotiate the haphazard highways of Johannesburg. The cliché that you have never really driven, until you have driven in South Africa is unfortunately confirmed as we make our way towards the city. Taxis - or combis as well call them - weave in and out of lanes, often without notice or indication. And then I see it, the unforgettable and unmistakable skyline of Johannesburg’s sity centre. Emotions pour into memories and I become overwhelmed by a sense of time and absence.
My mother accidentally takes the wrong exit and soon enough we find ourselves in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. From the high walls that are garnished with electric wires, I immediately know that we are far from our own neighbourhood. We stop and ask a uniformed security officer for directions. At first he seems alert and cautious about our presence, but soon calms when he realises our passive intentions. It occurs to me that it must be strange, all these white people who employ black people to guard them and look after their children and households, all the while fearful that ‘other’ black people will come and take it all away from them. I guess not much has changed over the years, except perhaps that instead of being exclusively white, these rich gated communities are also now home to those few rich black families - the select few, the beneficiaries of corruption, opportunity and the Black Economic Empowerment Program. The truth is that even though the historical narrative of the country will most likely forever be dominated by the upheaval of the black community, the reality of post-apartheid life is that race has been superseeded by economic realities.
As I cannot understand the directions that the man is providing, I sit back and continue to ponder my position in this new world that I have returned to. Is it so disimilar from the one that I left? Will those same old borders of the past, between communities and individuals still define social cohesion - or lack thereof? The following days served to confirm of anxieties, as once more I found myself trapped between communities, neither at home in one nor in the other. Whilst the first question the credentials that I wear on my skin, the second undermines that very same skin. It is a merciless place that demands that one constantly negotiate ones place in society. I am neither black nor white; neither rich nor poor, and so I find myself in that contradictory grey space.
I had hoped that with the birth of nation would come a dissolution of those old strict murals, but instead they have simply been replaced by new ones that have been positioned haphazardly and without care. I belong to a generation that cannot entirely grapple with these new architectures of belonging and home, and so I find myself almost yearning for those archaic restrictions, as at least back then there was no question where one fitted in. The signs would clearly read, “no blacks allowed”, and would firmly set the frontiers of possibilities and space. And now, this has become a country of contradictions in which every narrative struggles for space and existence in a claustrophobia arena. The narrative of Rainbowism and equality clash with the harsh realities of everyday economic concerns, meanwhile society remains devisively francatured. For me, the marble floors of Santon City are as unwelcoming as the ashen dirt of Soweto. In neither do I find the sollace that I so desperately search for. Of course I am not the first or only one to suffer the contusions of the returning Europeanised African, for as I said, given the country’s history, many people have a particular life story.
As we finally arrived at my mother’s flat in Hilbrow, the street lights barely warning off a dangerous presence, I remembered the air of danger that accompanies the city centre’s nightlife. It had only been the first day, and yet full of exhasution I wondered how I will survive the coming days. Perhaps what is required is that I reframe my ideas of home, that I abandon my traditional desires for belonging. Resolved to do just that, I finally rested and allowed my anxieties to calm. Perhaps this was a naive resolution, but no doubt, in a country that is always shifting its interior and exterior walls, reframing remains the only means of survival.