A wed­ding, a phar­macy and a war

CityPress - - Voices -

At ex­actly the same time as I was los­ing my gram­mar at a Nor­wood, Johannesbu­rg, phar­macy in re­sponse to a racist sign hang­ing in the mid­dle of the place, my fam­ily back in the Eastern Cape was sit­ting in an emer­gency meet­ing with a church min­is­ter and his wife. They had come to dis­cuss the church’s de­ci­sion to call off my cousin’s wed­ding, which was two weeks away.

The sign in the store read: “Un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren will be sold into slav­ery.” And, ac­cord­ing to one of the two black phar­ma­cists, it had been there for 60 years, so I should not have a prob­lem with it. I’ve been go­ing to that phar­macy for years. I have stood be­fore that sign count­less times. It is the pride of its au­thors by virtue of its po­si­tion­ing in the un­avoid­able mid­dle of the small shop. I had not re­hearsed my re­ac­tion when I asked the room: “What if the sign read: ‘All un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren will be sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps?’”

I was ea­ger for the sex­a­ge­nar­ian white-male owner of the phar­macy to come down from his dis­pen­sary fort to re­spond to my dis­turb­ing of the peace, but his see-no-evil-hear-no-evil si­lence gave his em­ploy­ees the li­cence to avoid eye con­tact with me, as if this had hap­pened be­fore – which it had, be­cause a friend of mine had per­formed the very same scene there.

My cousin had been go­ing to his church ev­ery day for at least 10 years, much to the cha­grin of some fam­ily mem­bers. He is bright, earnest and warm. As a lawyer, he has an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with rules. He has never been alone with his fiancée, a kind, beau­ti­ful cor­po­rate pro­fes­sional who, like my cousin, is a youth leader at the same church. The church does not al­low its mem­bers to date in the Amer­i­can sense, so they have never been to the movies or had din­ner to­gether, or even driven in the same car.

The church de­cided to call off the wed­ding be­cause a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion said she saw a box of cig­a­rettes in­side the fiancée’s purse, five months be­fore this “emer­gency meet­ing”. With no proof, the church lead­ers came to re­port this mat­ter to my fam­ily with hopes of per­suad­ing my mother to dis­cour­age the mar­riage un­til the fiancée was “re­ha­bil­i­tated”. My cousin sat in the meet­ing, or rather, wilted into the chair in si­lence. His seden­tary po­si­tion on the mat­ter was per­plex­ing to my mother, who was lis­ten­ing with a re­li­gious re­spect for the clergy.

“Well, does she smoke?” she asked my cousin im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards. “No, Dabawo,” he said. “Call this girl and ask her where she is,” my mother growled. When his fiancée picked up his call, she was 200km away on the N2, teary, alone and on her way to tell her fam­ily the bad news. She re­fused my cousin’s pleas for her to come back be­cause she was cer­tain my fam­ily would fin­ish what the clergy peo­ple had started. My mother grabbed the phone.

“Please come back sweetie; we are on your side,” she said.

My own con­fronta­tion at the Nor­wood phar­macy was re­mark­ably less dra­matic. At best, it was awk­ward and, at worst, in­fu­ri­at­ingly luke­warm, be­cause my op­po­nents were play­ing dead, un­sure of what to do with me. Their to­ken spokesper­son, who stood in front of them sym­bol­i­cally shield­ing them, was con­fused about why I was ask­ing ques­tions that didn’t have an­swers. I left the place dis­sat­is­fied, as if a waiter had taken my drink be­fore I had the last sip. I sat in my car feel­ing tired, foolish and bom­bas­tic, cry­ing tears of struc­tural anger. As my breath­ing sta­bilised, I felt re­lief and tri­umph be­cause I had at least re­sponded to the provo­ca­tion.

My cousin’s fiancée, who had never met my mother, ar­rived at the doorstep, her face twisted by her tears. My mother em­braced her and, imag­in­ing her own daugh­ters, held her un­til the re­lief set­tled.

For the first time in their un­ortho­dox courtship, they were af­forded pri­vacy when my mother in­structed them to go into a room and come out when they had made a de­ci­sion about what they wanted to do. When they emerged an hour later, there were two sets of red eyes look­ing back at my mother. “My child,” she asked, “do you want to marry this girl?” “Ewe, Dabawo,” he said. “And you my dear, do you want to marry him?” “Yes, Mama. We want to get mar­ried.” “Then you bet­ter tell those church peo­ple that this wed­ding is go­ing to hap­pen with or with­out them.”

When my sis­ter was re­lay­ing this story to me days later, I rev­elled in the con­fi­dence that comes with iden­ti­fy­ing an un­just ad­ver­sary and know­ing that the bat­tle against their dom­i­na­tion will hap­pen with or with­out their par­tic­i­pa­tion.


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