Experiences: Shopping day at a South African mall.

‘Thandie. I’ve got to go Gallo Manor and get a card. I forgot the kids will be going to a birthday party tomorrow and they need to take a card.’ I grabbed my bag and looked up to see Thandie glaring at me. She adjusted her uniform and turned off the radio.
‘Why don’t you use the car? It’s not safe to walk like this!’
I prodded my cellulite-laden thighs and looked at the beckoning Mercedes tempting me to take it out.
‘Nah! I’ll be all right. I can do with the exercise.’ My decision was met with a sudden switch on the radio knob releasing the gravely sounds of Brenda Fassie and an urgency to pile up the dishes to put into the dishwasher.
‘By-eee!’ I called out and closed the door not expecting a reply. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate Thandie’s concern but she was always dramatizing the dangers of Johannesburg that I as a foreigner couldn’t understand. She was probably right. My family and I had been in South Africa four months; ten months after Nelson Mandela had been elected. Apartheid had been brought to an end and black people like myself, were now allowed into the country. My home, England, had given me all it wanted to give. It was time to see if the new South Africa would embrace the long lost orphan still searching for a home.
I pressed the button on the remote to open the gates and walked through feeling pleased at our decision to move here. I glanced back the white-bricked bungalow, the huge garden, the crystal sparkling pool and the foaming bougainvilleas over the high wall. The smells from the red and purple flowers were subtle and profuse at the same time.
As I turned into Bowling Lane, a white man from a speeding bakkie (van) shouted something in a tongue I didn’t understand. (I found out later it was Afrikaans) I didn’t need to. Whatever was said there was no mistaking the contempt and hate. It was then realized that what Thandie said was ringing true. The route I took was lined with thick trees and soft turf that surrendered with each tread I made. As there was no pavement I decided to walk along the red path close to the huge houses. Each house I passed, German shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweiler’s ran to me spitting and barking, with only the electronic gates separating us. Thandie’s prophetic warning was now like massive bells ringing in my ears. At one party I attended, somebody told me that guard dogs had been trained to smell blacks and attack on sight. I pulled my blouse away from my neck, dipped my head and drew a quick breath through my nostrils. It was hot and the sun stood alone against the flat blue sky; a thick layer of sweat had already settled on my forehead but I could still smell the Dewberry body fragrance I bought from Body Shop in North London. The white froth dribbling from the corner of the Rottweiler’s mouth with its programmed eyes scrutinising its mark, quickly told me that no amount of fragrance was going to make much difference if those teeth ever got me!
Gallo Manor shopping centre sat in a huge basin of red earth surrounded by parking space and in its centre, a cluster of shops. Shopping trolleys were rounded up and removed out of the way of shoppers anxious to get home. I made my way to the post office remembering I needed international stamps but the long queue trickling out of the doorway put me off. On entering the centre, light instrumental music surged from the speakers, tanned tiles stretched out before me. The supermarket Pick ‘n’ Pay was busy with zealous shoppers, the flower shop still hadn’t opened and CNA was open but empty. I went in and browsed the book section. There was nothing of interest except James Michener’s’ The Covenant. I picked it up and started to read the back cover.
‘Are you all right? Can I help?’ The woman’s head was more or less over my shoulder. Her lined face was covered by white powder two shades lighter than the colour of her skin and her nut-brown eyes looked like sunken eyes surrounded by loose flesh.
‘I’m just looking. Thank you.’ I replied and went back to reading the back cover.
‘If you want to buy the book, the counter is just by the exit and if¦..’
I had no choice but to stop and look at her. The carefully coiffure hairstyle, her tone, her stance; the firmly clasped hands all said she demanded my full attention. She was used to getting full attention from the likes of me and not used to getting a part of it. ‘Yes! I understand. If I want the book, I take it to the counter and give the money to the assistant. I really do know what to do. OK?’ I replaced the book and picked up another hoping she got the message. She stood, frozen wondering what next to do.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Has that got anything to do with whether I want to buy this book or not? Our eyes held onto each other like the horns of two fighting bulls gridlocked and jammed. She then tilted her head and turned with uneasy steps back to the counter.
I walked out of the shop without giving the woman a second look and continued to the end of the aisle past smartly dressed women browsing the magazines. I went to the gift shop full of cards, candles and an assortment of bric-a-brac. Rich African fabric stacked the shelves and Ostrich eggs painted in various colours sat in baskets on the counter. I had been into this shop a month ago to look around, but this time birthday cards were what I came for. A tall brunette with hair roughly pulled back from her face approached me.
‘Hi there and how are you?’ she had a toothy grin and a stray curl that dangled in her eyes. Her African assistant looked at me briefly then greeted me with her head bowed. She stopped packing away some boxes then moved from her counter to the shop floor to sweep. Her body was still slightly bowed like she was trying to court obscurity.
‘You came in before. I remember!’ Her hands kept smoothing up and down the knitted tank top she was wearing emphasising her slim waist. She told me her name was Joan and she was from England.
‘You’re not from London. Liverpool maybe?’
‘Yes, you can tell.’
‘Where in Liverpool?’
‘Hmm. Croxteth. You probably don’t know it.’
I did. I visited the place a year after the race riots in 1985. ‘Well I was born in England; I’ve been there all my life and I’m not too bad when it comes to accents ‘ whether its London or Manchester, I can always tell.’ She fingered some key rings that were in front of her wearing a half smile. She wore her background like a secret never to be disclosed or revealed. This was just as well. This was a country full of secrets where people could reinvent themselves without question. Joan dropped the key ring as she looked up at me, her half smile straightening out to a thin line.
‘I suppose with your colour no-one could ever work out where you came from, even though you have that London accent.’ I answered with a knowing smile. It was smile that said I understood her annoyance. We weren’t in England now, nor was I looking for a fight.
What she didn’t understand was that she, and people like her, were not the only ones that South Africa would allow to reinvent themselves. Re-branding now applied to anyone who wanted it. It was because of my London accent that had intrigued so much attention that every weekend for the next six months my husband and I were booked for dinner parties and functions. It was because of it that a TV producer wanted me to anchor a television programme. I’ll make you South Africa’s answer to Oprah Winfrey! He said. Like Joan’s assistant I was invisible in London. Having the accent, adopting the right behaviour was a way of making me visible: a way of milking down parts of me that Whites would find acceptable. I never had this kind of attention before but here I felt there was no need to be an Oprah Winfrey when I was already a star!
My smile became a full one as I looked on at Joan telling her the reason why I came to South Africa. Her eyes formed slits trying to understand or maybe to mask her fear. I left her and walked around the assistant to the stand, surfed quickly over the cards and selected one. I walked towards the counter still looking at my choice, hoping that it was appropriate when I almost tripped over the assistant.
‘Sorry. I’m so sorry I should have seen you.’ She dipped her head, muttered something and quickly went back to sweeping. I continued to the counter, removed twenty rands from my purse and handed the note and card to Joan.
‘See you again’ she said with a smile without looking at me. She handed over the change and swiftly placed the card in a paper bag and gave it to me.
‘Of course, why not.’ I answered wearily. I took the paper bag and left leaving her to continued stroking her tank top. As I left the shop I glanced through the window to see Joan disappearing into the back room and the assistant stopped sweeping and returned behind the counter and continued with her packing.

3 thoughts on “Experiences: Shopping day at a South African mall.

  1. A powerful story, so evocative of the immediate post-apartheid era in South Africa. I like not only the way you have captured the essence of racism, but the power dynamics between the women in your prose. It is a startling yet necessary account.

  2. Thank you Sophie. It was a powerful time for me. A country full of spectacular beauty but also an incredibly sad story. I pray that things will improve (I’m referring to the crime), I know things will improve. Lots of blessings to you.

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