From above the city was a watercolour painted in azure oceans, golden sands, dark emerald forests.
Tourists were resolute in telling Beth that Cape Town was the most beautiful city in all the world, with its curious arrangement of Fynbos flora, its scraggy strange beauty over peaks and plains, the flat mountain, two oceans, its forests, wine farms, charming Victorian buildings. So, so pretty.
What no one said was that over there . . . no, over there, where the eye never falls naturally . . . further still . . . it was nothing but a charcoal sketch. A smudge of humanity.
The dick-shaped map of the Peninsula was indecent, but no local needed a map; it was the city that had shaped their bones, its seawater that ran in their miscegenated veins.
The same tourists – aunties and uncles actually – had long ago joined the run to Melbourne or London or Toronto, leaving apartheid and its low-level war behind them. They only ever returned with new accents for biannual pilgrimages, to remind themselves why they’d left and to gorge on samoosas (no one makes them like this . . . all we see are mince-less pastry hats), bags of chips (we miss it even more than family), biscuits (just not the same back there). The tourists would rearrange your living space while subtly demanding outings to all the beauteous far-flung spots; only remembering when they reached the destination that they still weren’t welcome, still weren’t allowed because they, like you, were still the same shade of inferior. And when they returned to your unspeakable neighbourhood, hidden like an arsehole, they’d shield their eyes in renewed shame.
So no, no one could tell Beth. She knew everything there was to know about the place. Recreation in the suburb of Water Falls consisted of an embankment beside a lake that washed up dead bodies every month and a post-apocalyptic park with swings that shifted eerily in the breeze, merry-go-rounds that turned with not a person in sight; at least not until sunset, when the zombies, reeling on a cocktail of chemicals, emerged to sit in wait for the decent, and certainly, the indecent.
Beth wasn’t stupid, not even close. How could anything be yours – say like a city into which you’d been fool enough to be born – intimately yours, and not belong to you at all? The wrongness of it burned.
She ran the toe of a dog-chewed takkie along the perimeter of the loose cement block. Beth weighed up whether she should turn back or not. If she went home, she’d have to accept that this had been a failed mission. Shit, who was she to think she could ever be a revolutionary? She’d probably worn the wrong clothes, too: the oldest jeans she had, a red T-shirt she’d found at the back of her cupboard, and the filthiest takkies she owned. Beth worked her foot beneath the loose cement tile and started fiddling, balancing it on her toe before dropping it back down. If she turned her head thirty degrees, she didn’t need to look directly at the group to study them at the entrance to the hall. They were the real thing. From a township school, with authentic T-shirts with slogans and everything: A injury to one is a injury to all; Phantsi Bantu Education Phantsi, above a fisted salute.
Beth was about to walk back to the bus stop, kicking the dirt-brown sand as she’d done all the way there, when she saw a girl she recognized from school seated at the top of a flight of stairs, framed by the wooden doors of the community hall and a dusting of late afternoon light. It took some kind of courage for Beth to walk up to her.
‘You going to the meeting?’ Beth asked, laid-back as she could. ‘Yip. You?’ The girl evaluated Beth carefully as she shielded her eyes, a row of black rubber bangles swinging from her wrist to her elbow.
‘What’s your name?’
‘You have a entjie, Beth?’ she said, beneath steady, charcoal-laden eyes.
‘Me? No, I don’t smoke,’ Beth said. ‘I mean, I smoke sometimes, but I don’t carry with me,’ she added, frisking her pockets as proof, wishing she’d just stopped at no.
The girl was dressed in multicoloured pants that flapped languidly in the midsummer breeze; harem pants, Beth thought, matched with a bright orange vest. Her hair was cut as short as a boy’s and her arm rested on a pile of books beside her.
‘What you reading?’ said Beth, who might have walked away, had she not found herself incomprehensibly rooted to the spot.
‘Things I found at the school library. Mrs Adams is oulams, she won’t let us take more than three books,’ the girl said, and showed Beth the covers. Oswald Mtshali’s poetry, some sort of a pamphlet, and Buckingham Palace, District Six by Richard Rive. ‘Isn’t that book by Rive banned?’ Beth said, swallowing a gasp.
‘Dunno . . . maybe,’ the girl said, ‘Anyway, what you doing here? I never imagined I’d see anyone else from school.’
Beth straightened her back against the girl’s gaze. Didn’t she know she was wearing the wrong outfit entirely to be a revolutionary?
‘Saw a poster at school. Took some doing to get where it’d be held from the comrades smoking at the back of the school,’ Beth said.
‘What, people actually read the posters?’
‘Wait . . . you’re the one that pastes them everywhere . . .’ Beth said, forgetting to disguise a tone of awe. The posters had become a site of conflict at Water Falls High. Despite Principal Salie’s decree that nothing was to be stuck onto the school walls that ruined the façade, the notices reappeared regularly, stealthily.
‘Ja, but you gotta keep it a secret between us. This shit can get a girl killed. I’m kak scared of the boere . . . and also Salie,’ she added, laughing, so Beth noticed her uneven smile that stretched to below her cheekbone on one side, stopping far short on the other.
‘I’m kak impressed,’ Beth said, loosening her tongue, catching on fast.
‘Toss for secret.’ She offered her small finger.
‘Toss. Are you going in?’ asked Beth, who was sure she’d felt a quiver run through her pinkie as the girls locked.
‘Ja, but they always late. The township comrades have to travel far when the meetings are held this side.’
‘Sure,’ Beth said, nodding so hard her neck started to ache. ‘And sometimes they have to walk deurmekaar to get to a meeting. Throw the cops off their scent. Walk one by one from the station, take different routes.’
A rowdy group came around the corner just then in complete defiance of what the girl had said, filtering in through the door as many as would fit at the same time.
‘Comrades . . . discipline!’ She shouted after them.
‘You know them?’ Beth asked.
‘Come,’ she said, rising and following the group into a small room at the side of the community hall.
‘Check you later.’ She directed Beth to a chair beside a boy wearing an oversized green jersey in the process of unknitting itself at the cuffs and collar. ‘We can take the bus back to Water Falls together.’ Beth nodded dutifully, not even bothering to fight the sense of wonder that was now creeping up her back.
The girl did a rough count of everyone, jotted it into a black hardcover book, and when she had finished raised her fist high into the air: ‘Amaaaandla!’ her voice cut right through the cacophony, simultaneously leaping like wildfire into Beth’s heart.
Her name was Kalliope but everyone called her Kay.
Probably just as well Beth hadn’t known who she was – chair- person of the student’s congress at their school and on the executive committee of the region – else she would never have spoken to her. Kay, at all of sixteen, already had a reputation. The story had become legend. A girl in Beth’s class said Kay’d had an argument with Mr Salie at the last Student, Parent, Teacher meeting, calling him a coward to his face. A parent had retorted.
‘Show some bladdy respect for your principal.’
‘And when will you show respect?’ Kay had shot back without a quiver in her voice. ‘Doing nothing while your countrymen get shot almost every day. But you go to church and ask to stay meek?’ A glint of madness and danger had shone in her eyes, it was said, which the woman must have seen, because she sat down and said nothing else.
Kay’s father was serving ten years on The Island for treason. Kay said he’d been arrested for trying to bomb a police station. This explained a lot to Beth. Like why Kay wore whatever she wanted, rejecting the go-to Struggle fashion trend of jeans, T-shirt with slogan, and Arafat scarf, opting instead for a decades-old style that no one – or at least no one not as brave as Kay – would be caught dead in. She was the real thing. A child of the revolution. A revolutionary in her own right.
After their first encounter, Beth wanted to see Kay again. But the next meeting was weeks away.
That Tuesday Beth saw Kay reading at the top of the stairs, refusing distractions or to give way to the march of school shoes. At least she wasn’t surrounded by the comrades arguing passionately and smoking as they usually did behind the school. No way would Beth walk up to that group ever again. Beth rushed to the library hoping the book was in. After that, she climbed past Kay twice, who was still resident on the steps in an untidy mix of legs, lunchbox and bag. Immovable.
Finally, on her third rotation, Beth said, ‘Erm . . . Kay?’
‘Ja. Beth, right? Been thinking about you . . . haven’t seen you on the bus. Wanted to tell you about a meeting.’
‘Oh, ja, my father picked me up whole of last week. Old man was on leave. Heard the next meeting was two weeks away . . .’
‘Those are the official meetings. We got unofficial too.’
‘OK . . . great, can do . . . so, you like to read?’ Beth said, checking the spine of a pale pink volume that Kay was holding. ‘I was about to re-read this . . . here . . . from the library.’ Beth picked the book from her bag: The Color Purple, still new, with a tight thick plastic coat, checked out twice before.
Kay received the book with both hands. ‘You read this?’
‘Ja. Maybe you’ll like it . . . I mean if it’s your thing. It’s not politics-politics but it’s not not politics . . .’ Beth said, and shut her mouth so forcefully her teeth clattered.
‘I love this book,’ Kay said so softly Beth had to move closer in. ‘Oh . . . I thought cos no one had taken it out . . . been there for months.’
‘I took it out once.’
‘Then, I was the other time . . .’
‘Thank you,’ Kay said, holding the book to her chest. ‘You know . . . maybe we can talk about books . . . I don’t get a chance to read besides for politics-politics any more. Hardly anyone reads here. Bring me what you’ve read this year? We can talk when you come to the meetings? You’re still ready to sacrifice your life for the Struggle, right?
Beth stared at her.
‘Jokes, man. It’ll be lotsafun.’
Kay lived with her grandmother five minutes away from Beth in a part of Water Falls that no one walked through unless they were unlucky enough to live there, or they had a death wish. Why else would anyone be caught in the Skriwe Flats? The gangs gathered right there on the veld and battled, knife to axe to panga to Makarov pistol, whatever it took, because of some territorial discrepancy, or because one of theirs had been arrested on a tip-off, or because the sun had shone too brightly that day, waking them up in a Mandrax-fueled rage. A six-year-old boy had been shot while playing cars in his family’s living room, the bullet exploding from the gun’s mouth, bypassing ten to fifteen men, all of them packing multifarious kinds of contraband, clipped a tin roof, took a left and went through the window of the lounge, finding the boy’s skull.
‘Kak like that always happens,’ Kay said as the girls pretended to do their homework. ‘That’s why we have to fight the system. We have to change it. And it’s not just apartheid but capitalism that’s at the root of this evil. When liberation comes, we’ll give everyone houses, proper houses, and work, even the skollies. Clean up the Skriwe Flats, paint it, make parks for the children, make sure everyone can go to school and have free education. Especially girls and women.’
They started to see each other every day, even though Kay was a year ahead. Kay’s abrupt ways and quickness to confront usually meant other girls avoided her entirely. Beth brought books and small talk about what was happening in the rest of the school, while Kay took care of political education and carrying the world on her shoulders. It was an unequal union to be sure, but Beth didn’t mind. Not yet, anyway. No, they hadn’t known until after they’d met how much each needed the other to stand straight, finding strength in the number two.
In their world, which they decided was theirs to shape no matter what Principal Salie and the government said, there were no worries over getting knocked up (or for that matter beat up) at nineteen, or finding jobs as semi-permanent cashiers, or dreams of white weddings. No. Their conversations sparked currents that ran from here, now, and lit the future all the way.
Beth quickly realized that only Kay knew the things she wanted to know. Like how to get more than three books out of the library right under Mrs Adams’s portrait’s stare. Or how to light a new cigarette from a stompie. How to argue dialectical materialism. How to kiss a boy. How to apply lessons learned from Communist China to South Africa. How to flick a Zippo lighter with one hand. How to lead a toyi-toyi so it actually sounded and looked like a battle cry. How to do a fish plait. How to erect a barrier of burning tires across the main road. How to get the stupid cool boys to listen to you without them looking down your top. How to write a rhyming couplet. How to apply lessons from Communist Russia to South Africa. How to get the nerds to care about the Struggle as much as about their books. How to make Salie lose his temper so he started swearing like a bergie. How to lead a group of students to a mass rally. How to stay out past midnight. How to get the teachers to leave you alone. How to shout Amandla! without sounding sturvy. How to down a shot. How to be a revolutionary.
Image © Marie Pé
This is an excerpt from How to Be a Revolutionary by CA Davids, out in February 2022 with Verso.