At exactly the same time as I was losing my grammar at a Norwood pharmacy in response to a racist sign that hangs in the middle of the chemist — my family, back in the Eastern Cape was sitting in an emergency meeting with a church minister and his wife, who had come to see my family to discuss the church’s decision to call off my cousin’s wedding, which was exactly 14 days away.
The sign reads ‘’Unaccompanied children will be sold into Slavery’’ and according to one of the only two black pharmacists who work there, it has been there for 60 years so I should not have a problem with it. I have been going to that chemist 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 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 the peace, but his see no evil, hear no evil silence gave his employees the license to avoid eye contact with me, as if this was a habitual drill operation, as if this had happened before, which it had because a friend of mine had performed this very scene there.
My cousin had been going to this church everyday for at least ten years, much to the chagrin of some family members. He is bright, earnest and warm and as a lawyer, has an intimate relationship with rules. He has never been alone with his fiancé, a kind, beautiful corporate professional who, like my cousin, is also a youth leader at the 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 says she saw a box of cigarettes inside the fiancé’s purse, five months prior to this meeting. With no proof, the church leaders had come to report this matter to my family with hopes of persuading my mother to discourage the marriage until the fiancé was ‘’rehabilitated’’. My cousin sat in on 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 after the clergy people had left. ‘’No Dabawo’’, he said. Until this moment, the church had been planning this wedding, adverse to any family contributions. ‘’Call this girl and ask her where she is’’, my mother growled. When his fiancé picked up his call, she was 200 km away, on the N2 towards Kwa-Zulu Natal, 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 from her distressed nephew and pleaded to whom she calls the child on the other side of the phone to ‘’please come back sweetie, we are on your side’’.
My own confrontation at the Norwood Pharmacy was remarkably less heroic. At best it was awkward and at worst, infuriatingly lukewarm because my opponents were playing dead, unsure of what to do with me, unsure where to look. Their token spokesperson, who stood in front of them symbolically shielding them from engagement, was confused as to why I was asking questions that didn’t have answers. I left the chemist dissatisfied, as if a waiter had taken my drink before I had had the last sip. I sat in my car feeling tired, foolish and bombastic, crying tears of structural anger. As my breathing stabilized, I felt relief and triumph because I had responded to the provocation, despite the clumsiness of the response.
My cousin’s fiancé, who had never met my mother prior to this church take down, arrived at the door-step to my mother’s house and without speaking, her face twisted to wring out tears from her grief-stricken eyes. 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 the opportunity of privacy when my mother instructed them to go into a room together and come out when they had made a decision about what they wanted to do. When they emerged from the room over an hour later, there were two sets of red eyes looking back at my mother as they sat together on her couch. She looked at my cousin and asked, ‘’My child, do you want to marry this girl’’? ‘’Ewe, Dabawo’’ he said. ‘’And you my dear, do you want to marry him”, she asked looking at the young woman, ‘’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 reveled 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.
This article first appeared in City Press on 29 August as part of my bi-weekly columns for that newspaper.
Image: Constance Stuart