I am having a fun time with Catherine in her car, we are both talking shit and laughing. When she stops at the robot, a homeless man comes at the window to ask for change and suddenly her facial expression changes from an extreme joy to an extreme sadness. She pulls up her eyebrows and pushes down the corners of her mouth like a depressed duck and says to the man in an imploring voice:
“Sorry my man, I am sorry, I don’t have anything. I am really really sorry.”
As the man is insisting a little, Catherine keeps on:
“I am so sorry, but I don’t, I promise, I don’t have cash on me right now. I am so so so sorry.
I think that if “sorry” could be worth money, homeless people would be millionaires in no time with Catherine.
When the robot turns green, Catherine pulls the pedal quite abruptly (she is what we can call a “bad driver”) and makes a long sigh. But not a relieved type of sigh. More of an authentically sad sigh.
Poor Catherine, I think… It seems she will never get accustomed to the omnipresent misery in her country.
And she will always feel sorry about it, sorry, not only being compassionate, but also feeling guilty every time.
Catherine is probably the most generous person I know. Whenever she can, she gives. And she is also one of the most sensitive too.
And that is probably why she always says sorry.
It is from that specific moment I decided to follow her for one day.
I have a kind of amused interest in this question: How is it to be an oversensitive “white privileged” girl born and raised in the southern suburbs of Cape Town?
Echoing, through my head, that ironical exclamation so easily applied to Catherine’s situation: “poor little rich girl!”
From a South African perspective, Catherine’s story is worth telling, as it expresses the uncomfortable position of this new generation of white South Africans. It is the first generation who were paradoxically taught equality and tolerance by teachers and parents, yet were raised in the environment of white supremacy in one of the most segregated society in the world.
That morning, I wake up around 9am in her beautiful house in Newlands. The room is calm, the light passing through the transparent white curtains quite gentle… I feel like I am a baby silkworm waking up in a cocoon. In this neighborhood, I don’t feel AT ALL in crazy hysterical mother city Cape Town; Main Road Woodstock with streams of shuttle taxi seems to be at least one or two galaxies away from here. Through the half open window, I hear birds singing. Catherine is still sleeping, so I go to the terrace outside. A cool breeze wakes my half conscious brain with the refreshing smells of the forest.
The house was built next to a river that runs underneath, giving a smooth feeling of serenity. It is made out of wood painted in white and makes me think of old colonial houses like in the movie “Out of Africa”, but the setting is more like the southern Alps in France in summer. And the forest around me seems to whisper: “everything is going to be fine today, Bony. Today again you are going to follow your path on this planet and be a good human being. You are beautiful Bony, you should do some yoga this morning and meditate to clean up your chakras from the dark energies of the Pinot Noir from yesterday night”.
The wooden floor creaks under my bare feet as I walk back inside and I admire the walls adorned with many beautiful naïve paintings and giant tapestries. These, along with the ceramics, African masks, seashells and oriental carpets, make the house a homely yet tasteful place.
Let me make a formal statement here: Some rich people try to have taste but they just don’t. It is even more sad than poor people with no taste, because rich people with no taste think they can buy taste, but it simply doesn’t work, and you just feel very uncomfortable for them (“Oh, what a lovely owl clock ! – thank you darling, Robert bought it from an antique shop in bombay, isn’t it FANTASTIC?”) They make money and keep on spending it on very ugly things, and you can’t explain why.
But sometimes, rich people can also have taste and are able to use their money well.
Fortunately, Catherine’s family is part of this category.
I go back to Cat’s child room, where she is still asleep like a beautiful baby giraffe that seems to have grown up too fast during its sleep and will be all clumsy, struggling to use those ridiculously long members, when waking up.
Cat told me she had a problem with waking up, but this is actually the first time I see it with my own eyes. Usually, she sets at least 7 alarms, most of the time this is not enough. So after a few times where I try to let her wake up alone and she is literally falling asleep while talking, I decide to break my non-intervention animal documentary style rule and shake her like a coconut tree. Eventually, the domestic worker knocks at the door and Catherine has no choice but to stand up with her two 2 meters high skinny legs.
After a dip in the swimming pool filled with delicious salt water, we have a wonderful “tour de la propriété” where Catherine shows me all the beautiful artworks around her house and all the naked ladies in her new bedroom (Catherine has discovered not long ago she liked girls and her taste for female nude photos and paintings in her room suddenly made sense to her). Then we end up having breakfast on the deck of the pool and decide to talk about revolution while her black cleaning lady is busy tidying up the house.
You see, this is Cat’s problem, (and also mine): we just can’t enjoy our bubble correctly. We would love to somehow be just two little girls licking our life like we lick ice creams. But we know ice cream is full of sugar, so we don’t enjoy doing that anymore. And we know our life is just a little bubble, so we can’t live it to the fullest without feeling bad about it anymore. The end of Apartheid hasn’t improved much for the “less fortunate” of this country… and we won’t feel free until the last one is free. We feel super privileged, me for being born on the right side of the world, her, for being born on the right side of Cape Town. We want things to change, we want everyone to have the same privileges we had: good education, loving family, material comfort, travels and opportunities….and the extreme distance between this ideal and the reality of the people makes us unhappy. How could we blindly enjoy these things if, when leaving our beautiful house, the streets are full of miserable people living in situations that our parents wouldn’t consider proper even for their dogs?
But “we can’t complain”.
Sometimes, criticizing our condition also feels like a betrayal towards all the people that have worked so hard to offer us what we have now. Realizing she is part of an extreme minority of people in this country and, at the same time, not being able to reproach anything of her loving parents who worked so hard for what she has, might have been one of the reasons Catherine fell into depression at the age of 17. She describes depression as “the heavy emptiness.”
So what do we do now, when our births sets us up in guilt? Just as we never deserved to have more than anybody else, but still enjoy it, we inherited this guilt, without actually being guilty of anything ourselves. Are we supposed to go “into the wild”, rejecting ourselves to the point of denying our identity and existence? Or create a backpacker somewhere in the forest to clean our karma and talk to people around a fire about our last ayahuasca experience? (“Bru, that was SO epic!”) Will we then finally find ourselves bearable?
After this interesting talk, Catherine and I walk to her holy girl school, Herschel. I wanted to see some “white privilege shit” and I am served with generosity: a lemon cream pie on a silver platter.
Herschel is a wonderful school. It is the school you wish your kids could go to. Learning life like this appears to be paradise: green lawns dotted with polite little girls in uniform, quietly reading and chatting; tennis courts and a basketball court, a theater, and a giant swimming pool. The buildings are built in an old Cape Dutch style, the staff are smiley and welcoming, the walls are filled up with really cool colorful artworks made by the girls themselves…
The only thing is that it feels like we are in Northern Europe (on a sunny day) and not at all in Africa. Where are the black people here? Somewhere at the back, gardening, probably! Or in the kitchens.
The problem here is that after 20 minutes, you simply forget about the real world. Herschel is your world and it is so beautiful that you don’t have to think about anything outside. Your mind is so filled with the incredible potential and possibilities you would have, if ever you had access to all that so young.
But, Herschel is an illusion. A beautiful, painful illusion; a dream you don’t want to let go. I almost forget the reason we came and simply want to stay forever. I think I have an orgasm watching the girls painting with huge wooden easels as if they were studying a class of Da Vinci in Florence at the time of the Renaissance. Growing up in this, you can’t be ready to face the real world, especially if you are raised in a wealthy family (which is necessarily the case), in the southern suburbs. Worse, you can’t have a fair idea of what’s really going on outside and I guess that most of these girls will never truly know, as it is very easy in Cape Town to live one’s entire life in a nice shiny bubble.
Only the curious ones, only the highly sensitive ones and only the braves, will be ready to face a totally different truth. And will be ready to deconstruct all of what they learnt to reconstruct only their own values and beliefs.
That is why I love Catherine. After a year of depression when she was 17, simply because she was starting to understand this big gap between her reality and South Africa’s reality, she slowly started to deconstruct all of what she had been told. She is now in the very interesting phase of deconstructing her sexuality.
Deconstructing one’s sexual behavior is probably the most troubling and revelatory moment: that instant when you realize that gender and sexuality are actually socially constructed (to some extent) and that your natural behavior is not the necessarily the one you were brought up with. When that moment comes in someone’s life, I personally think that the person has reached the last important step in deconstructing everything.
Emotionally, it can be very deep, and hard to manage.
That is why I decide to talk about flesh while we stand in Herschel’s noble and silent little chapel.
Catherine in front of me explains why love is better than hate and why homosexual love is still better than religious war.
She is so cute. And she is such a provocative little spoilt girl when she evokes the act of licking the clit of her girlfriend in the house of God!
Oh… I love it!
It makes me laugh so much. What would Margot think about all this? Would she be proud? It is so liberating for Catherine, and it must be so frustrating for her mother, to see that after so many years of a perfect little girl, a beautiful polished product of Hershel and good white society, Catherine (surrounded by bad friends like me) has simply destroyed everything that was conventionally taught to her. Not everything, actually: the good, she kept (the politeness, the aptitude to listen, the culture, curiosity, generosity and the sparkling smart spirit), but she deconstructs the bad and rebuilds it with her own sauce.
As part of our N.U.D.E collective, a group of kids craving freedom and beauty in a world full of machines and profits, Catherine has been filmed naked on the beach doing uncatholic things with her girlfriend. I know already where I will put these shots… I will interlace them with the ones in the chapel… it will suit perfectly. Just to annoy all the right-thinking people, the ones who would have us set in invisible cages. And I so enjoy the teenagerly behavior of being provocative in a church (maybe because as a teenager, I was still respecting all this blabla and didn’t rebel enough).
For now, we are these both stupid and smart little white spoilt girls, having finally chosen we wanted to be free and to be an active part of change, giving what we can give, acting like we can act, being who we want to be.
Catherine is officially a “born free” like all the South African kids born at the beginning of this new era of South Africa’s history.
But she was very far from free when she was born, actually. Free from poverty, and authoritarian regime, maybe, but completely entangled in prejudices and illusions. It takes a while to acknowledge it all, if ever you are courageous enough to face it one day. And once you know, it is impossible to be blind again. The only choice is to change, to act.
And to act is actually our best tool. No we don’t give up our houses and live in poverty. We don’t have to deny what we are in order to talk about change. But we can act, everyday of our lives, for our time and energy are the most powerful and beautiful things we can give.
To tell everyone that we want to live to the fullest, in this crazy thunder of energy called life. Live by doing things that matter, before we finally go back to ashes.