This is not my favourite sort of blog post but when I started out, I promised to try to record, as dispassionately as I could, the good, the bad, the wonderful, the miraculous and the ugly of my kind of everyday life in South Africa now. So here I go…
My tennis group is 28 years old. That’s quite a ripe old age for a collection of Johannesburg ‘girls’ who started a Tuesday tennis morning when our eldest children were about two and we were adjusting to being ‘stay-at-home’ mothers. It’s expanded and contracted over the years as some members went back to part-time jobs and others moved to different parts of the country, but the core group has remained the same.
We’ve seen each other through toddler tantrums, nursery schools, primary and senior schools, university degrees, children moving abroad or staying and settling down in Johannesburg. We’ve supported each other through illness, grief, lows and wonderful highs. Most significantly, we weathered the last stormy days of apartheid, the exhilaration of our first democratic elections, the joy of being part of the Rainbow Nation and the novelty – under Nelson Mandela – of being proud (finally) to be South African. And along the way and through it all, we’ve played some quite respectable tennis too.
Interestingly, although one member returned to England, no one else has emigrated. We’ve talked about the pros and cons of it at times but eventually one reaches an age and realisation that it’s probably too late to start afresh somewhere new and we’re all committed, one way or another, to staying here. Unless.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of our weekly conversations as being a fairly accurate ‘barometer’ of the times in which we live Two weeks ago it turned out that three of the four of us had had an indirect brush with crime within the previous few days.
The day before, I had driven past a commotion outside a house a block from mine. From the cluster of private security vans, police cars and anxious faces, I deduced that there had been some sort of altercation. Later in the day we received a text message from our neighbourhood security company informing us that there had been an armed robbery at the house A passing security patrol vehicle, realising something was amiss, had given chase. The robbers managed to ambush the patrol car a few blocks further on and had shot the security guard, injuring him in the arm. By coincidence I had driven past the scene of that shooting too and mistaken the chaos for a collision on a busy corner.
When this sort of thing happens very close to home, one tends to be a little more vigilant than usual for a while and I explained to my tennis partners that I was keeping a close eye on our electric gate because it seemed that driveway robberies were escalating once more. That reminded one of the players that a friend, who sometimes joins us for tennis, had been held up in her driveway just a few days earlier. She had been followed into her gated townhouse complex, taken into her home at gunpoint and made to accompany a group of armed men around her house, pointing out where valuables were stored. This, while her brother – visiting from abroad – and her twenty-something year old daughter, were kept locked in the wine cellar. The intruders were quite polite and promised nobody would be hurt if she cooperated. As usual, we all expressed relief and gratitude that no one was harmed.
This prompted the third player on the court to relate how a friend of hers, waiting on her pavement to be picked up for a morning round of golf, had been accosted and forced back into her house at gunpoint and tied up – along with her husband who was still at home and taken by surprise – while their home was systematically robbed of all valuables. Once again, we were relieved that neither victim was hurt and agreed that we should all be especially careful as it’s the “Xmas Shopping Season.” This is what the police told my family when we were robbed at gunpoint in a driveway as many as twelve years ago. It was the end of November and we were informed that this sort of crime peaks as Xmas approaches and people are looking for jewellery and easy cash. It was not comforting and it seems that nothing has changed. Xmas just seems to be coming earlier and earlier.
These conversations all took place in between services, lobs, volleys, rallies and the occasional ace. It wasn’t, after all, a particularly unusual subject. What was unusual was that three out of the four of us had a contribution to make during one tennis match.
The following Tuesday, in the wake of Malema’s new political party holding a meeting at Marikana, our conversation eventually turned to politics. What if Malema were to win an election? What would we do and where would we go? What about those of us with South African passports? Who would have us? Maybe after all these years some of us would be ‘packing for Perth’. If we were lucky. So many years down the line and still the same conversations crop up again and again. But they are not entirely serious. We test the subject; picturing ourselves living in basement flats belonging to long-suffering relatives in distant lands. It doesn’t sound like fun. We shrug it off and play on.
I’ve thought a lot about this over the past few days. I think back to other tennis courts I’ve known or seen; in the heart of Alabama, in the suburbs of Sydney and the gentle countryside of Surrey or Kent. I wonder about al the women’s groups who may play on them and I wonder about the conversations they might have. Somehow I feel fairly certain they would be quite different from ours. But we live in Africa, which, as we are reminded on advertising billboards, tee shirts and bumper stickers, is “Not for Sissies”. This continent, no matter how much we might love it, offers us only one sure thing and that is Uncertainty. We may not like it, but one way or another we’ve learned to live with it.