June 23, 2021
It took me twenty years to decide to take a walk on Rondebosch Common.
I have walked the perimeter many times, done Park Runs around it, and crossed it a few times. On the day in question, I criss-crossed it many times over, stopping by woods, minding the fynbos, watching the dogs and owners, and generally feeling deeply anxious to complete my steps and get off the Common.
My workplace is adjacent to this national landmark, which is home to critically endangered Cape Flats Sand fynbos variants. It’s a patch of land within a city which is the only patch of land on the planet where these things grow, making it awesomely unique. How this relatively small wild area can support over 100 bird species as well as small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians is beyond me - though it’s not beyond Mother Nature, wise and wily as she is.
All that is good and well, apart from the gripping fear.
All I know for sure about the Common is that when I was 14, some learners came to our school to explain that one of their school’s learners had been attacked and raped on the Common. That’s all I’ve ever needed to know about it. Nevermind the fynbos.
It’s exceptional to be a woman in this country who has never experienced an assault of that nature. I am as rare as erica verticillata and, like the flower, virtually extinct in the wild.
Yet, while I may have a memory free from terror, I share the common* lot of women who live in this world: the sensation that I am in perpetual danger. I share the anxiety of fearing outside, fearing isolation, fearing attack, fearing the day that someone, somewhere decides to treat me with violence. In South Africa, the odds are forever against us and we know it.
South Africa! I am a true daughter of your soil! Well have I absorbed your lessons of subjugation, victimisation, and “freedom”. I know to walk under street lights; I am used to being berated for being outside after dark. I stuff my pockets and bra with spare cash in case my handbag is ripped away from me, so that I can surrender it calmly. I have it all thought through. I know that men can run at 05h00 in the morning with airpods blaring, undisturbed by rush hour fumes, punishing the pavement as they hit a personal best time. I know that I can choose to do the same, but that if something bad happens to me at the hands of another human, I will be blamed.
I know my place. You have taught me well, Fatherland.
“Fynbos Rehab In Progress” a sign reads, as I walk one of the dozens of paths. I’m alone and can see in all directions around me. Any person coming to hurt me would have to hide his machete under his coat until he was right beside me in order to take me by surprise. Still, I’m sweaty, uncomfortable, and on the verge of tears. “Fynbos Rehab.” Please protect this fynbos….
Down another path, near the alien pine forest, the bushes are higher and tower on either side. Two men approach from the roadside. I make a split-second decision to stick to my path and pass them, knowing that if I turn away now it’d be giving up ground I have been reclaiming during the past forever minutes of walking. Up close, I recognise them as familiar street hawkers I’ve seen every day for years. I breathe a little easier because I know them. They, however, don’t know my face as well as I know theirs as I’m usually in a car, one of thousands. Heaven alone knows what kind of energy I am exuding as I pass them to make one of them exclaim, “Yoh! You must be scared of this lady!” to which I curtly reply, “Yes, you must,” before I can stop myself.
I pass through the narrow passage.
My rehabilitation is underway. I’ve gone three more times and the last time I downright enjoyed myself.
The trauma of being alive, of being a woman, of being a South African woman, of being part of a collective pain body that is generational, multi-dimensional, and immense…. means working on my rehabilitation to ease the collective burden, to mentally and emotionally make space, to nurture the plot of land called freedom within me, to hold space for others who cannot yet do it for themselves…. Freedom is inside work after all. Freedom in a jail cell. Freedom in a cage. Freedom in a cupboard under the stairs.
Inside work I’m learning to do out in the open air.
*Of course I intend the pun. I always, always do.