I have been meaning for sometime to write about my brief flirtation with party politics, when I stood as a ward Councilor this past election. In summary it was an interesting experience. Bland way of putting it I am sure, but really the speed at which things happen, Wade Van Niekerk setting a new record, Castor Semenya winning gold, a new Mayor in Egoli.
Interesting sums up my experience rather neatly.
So to begin with, why did I put my name forward? I did so, because the opportunity presented itself. My father has been involved in politics for a very long time and thus over the years I have cultivated an interest in politics, development, and social justice issues more broadly. And this was an avenue I was keen to explore and come to understand better.
I don’t belong to the school of thought that says ALL politicians are corrupt,- don’t get me wrong I am not a praise signer, and don’t think that politicians or public servants are never up to a good amount of “skelemheid”. I feel, however, irritated by people who say, “nothing has changed in SA”. That sentiment combined with the idea that only corrupt people enter politics has a devastating effect on the national psyche. I also feel that if we keep repeating that only ‘corrupt people want to enter public office’ as a mantra. Individuals who would be excellent candidates to hold public office will be dissuaded and we will have a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We need to support people, especially young people who want to enter public office and we need to keep working at building a more inclusive, more caring South Africa. This needs to be done and we need to encourage people to put their hands up and play a part in building our country. Veterans of the liberation years also need to create space for young people to assume leadership roles. These icons and heroes who have a wealth of experience need to act as guides and advisers, but need to step back from active leadership. One idea would be to set up a training programme that allows young people working on community issues in their area to partner with councilors and MPs. This would serve all interested parties well, for a young passionate individual wanting to see change they will gain knowledge and experience of the inner workings of democracy, its strengths and limitations. For a Councilor or MP it creates a space for open dialogue between themselves and their constituents.
COPE is a tiny party and I was under no illusion of my actually winning seat. For me it was to enjoy the experience of what the opportunity presented. The first thing I learned is that for a party to have a chance at election success they need money. COPE had to rely on volunteers and there was no way they could compete with the DA or the ANC. Which brings me to a very important point. To make sure we don’t take the USA route, we really need to have transparency regarding party funding. South Africans friends, this is an issue we must adopt and support the public campaigns like the Right to Know on this issue.
The part that I most enjoyed was participating in the TV and radio debates. I liked the interaction with the other candidates and the enthusiasm and passion people displayed. I didn’t like having to answer for the actions of party members and party leadership, but such is the nature of party politics.
What was also apparent was that at the events I participated in, there were NO young woman. At most of the engagements I was at, I was pretty much the only woman. Politics is still a man’s game. Which is why I am thus unsurprised by the stance of the ANC woman’s league when the 1 in 3 protesters made their bold statement when the President spoke at the IEC results.
I really appreciate the importance of institutional culture. What I hope for is that at all levels and in different settings in SA that culture can be diverse, respectful and nurturing.
My experience of working in a hyper masculine environment was pale in comparison to what my sister in law Yumna Moosa experienced you can watched her video here http://www.capetalk.co.za/articles/15657/yumna-moosa-exposes-bullying-of-junior-doctors-in-a-youtube-video
I draw attention to this, because people often ask if feminism is relevant. I believe it and has a significant role to play in transforming workspaces and society more broadly.
Perhaps it is the confluence of capitalism and masculinity that leads to these toxic work situations, where everyone needs to be “hardcore”. To show how tough you are, you need to be angry and disrespectful. I had an experience once where it was commonplace for my colleagues to swear at each other and to burst into fits of anger with each other because that was the best way to illustrate displeasure with the inequality in society. Speaking respectfully or calmly with one’s colleagues or the mere suggestion of wanting to have a work-life balance was viewed with hostility. Commitment, real commitment could only be measured by anger, disrespect and sheer rudeness and bullying.
I mention this because those in managerial roles need to create work environments that support diversity and where people are respected in their jobs and in their respective roles, and very importantly where it is no longer necessary to show your commitment or passion by not attempting to lead a healthy, balanced life.
There are two other incidents that stand out for me with regard to my election experience. The first is that I met a woman from the Local People’s party- “local is lekker” party. I was totally shocked by her statements. She preferred to be called coloured – which is fine, but the racism and hostility she showed for black African people set my teeth on edge. When I asked her about it, an aspect was economic and I quote “The ANC and DA throw us away like used condoms”.
At one of the 1001 SA Stories session MR Dinga Sekwebu spoke about the tension between coloureds and black Africans in Cape Town. In it he explained the animosity that arose because of apartheid and the fighting over limited resources
if you haven’t seen it please do https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI051G2NTuI
1001 South African stories is an oral history project that aims to capture and document the stories of South Africans. The purpose of this is to fill gaps in our knowledge of our recent history. (Please like the FB page and share the videos.)
In any event it reminded me that we need to do a lot more work on race relations between the blacks of our country – divide and conquer worked very well. We need to think about black on black relations and explore those dynamics and hopefully reach a point beyond acrimony.
Recently Athol Trollip, (a White Xhosa speaker) was sworn in as Mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay. It is a sign that our democracy is alive and kicking. Furthermore this has dealt a substantial blow to the Matthew Theunissen’s in our society. This should make it clear to white South Africans that they too are part of South Africa, and that they can also play a role in building a prosperous South Africa. I hope these elections go some way in dispelling myths about lack of opportunities for white South Africans. As a nascent democracy we must delight in the knowledge that we had largely peaceful elections and celebrate that there was a shift in power in the major metros without violence. I say Mazeltov South Africa, we did well!
I am not sure if party politics is for me. I think I would be more enthusiastic if there was a Justin Trudeau like leader and not only because he is gorgeous (and I am madly in love with him). But because his style of hopeful politics is what appeals to me. It provides a vision and invites us to collaborate on attaining that vision.
I also hope that given our most recent elections that when people speak about SA they can speak in more measured terms, I find it very problematic and just downright false when people say things haven’t changed. I also feel that the way we speak has consequences. The USA is the perfect example of this. It was okay to besmirch Obama under the guise of policy because he is Black. Racism was often the key ingredient in attacking his policy positions and set the scene for a bigot like Donald Trump to mount a successful bid to become the Republican Presidential candidate. I too wish Obama closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and did more for peace in the ME. He was successful in many other areas and his charm, humor, and great oratory skills have made a lastly impression on me, and I am sure others reading this.
We still have a long road to travel in SA, but I for one continue to be optimistic and hopeful about the future of my country. I am still glowing with pride thinking about Wade van Niekerk and Castor Semenya. Their courage and tenacity is the stuff Hollywood movies are made from. And they are our own!
On Sunday morning I had a delightful breakfast with some friends I had not seen in a long time, over breakfast we discussed the Hawks, the Burkini ban in France and Sipho Pitayana’s speech, which for all of us was fascinating. We all postulated different theories on what would follow, and the possible impact on SA politics. This was top of mind and little did I expect to wake up to news of a protest at Pretoria Girl’s High school. But as we all know South Africa is one dynamic place and there is never a dull moment in Mzansi.
In my half awakened state on Monday morning little could I believe that the issue of girls’ hair, more specifically the hair of black- African schoolgirls could be an issue in the year 2016!!
Facebook friends posted about their experience of school rules pertaining to hair and about other school rules relating to language. This jogged my memory about the language policy of the high school I attended. At Stanger High (Model C) school the official school languages were English and Afrikaans. Students were admonished for speaking isiZulu in the corridors of that learning institution. Which is ironic if one considers the lost opportunity of students to learn isiZulu from their schoolmates. As isiZulu was not an exam subject it raised no ire from any of the parents.
Looking back though, I think what an awful experience for the isiZulu speakers in my class, the school language policy created a reality, which was separate and distinct from actual realty where most people in KZN speak isiZulu. But we all had to conform and fit into this imagined realty where English and Afrikaans were given status. There is no doubt that the language policy of the school was veiled racism. This was however, the 1990s in South Africa and so in the context of the time somewhat unsurprising given that the nation was wrestling with the new ideas, and identities and there was a tussle between holding on to the past and creating a very different future. In 2016 the policies at Sans Souci and Pretoria Girls High, around hair and language is unforgivable.
At the same time that I was getting goosebumps over pictures of the brave young girls protesting at Pretoria High School and admiring their chutzpah, another video was appearing on my FaceBook feed; that of two Muslim women in France being refused service at a restaurant. This incident followed hot on the heels of the burkini ban. The parallels between the events in France and that at Pretoria Girls High are stark and can be summed up neatly in one word – Coercion. Arundhati Roy used the term coercion to frame the debate on the burkini ban in France. And it is the most apt and tidy way of describing it.
The hair policy at Pretoria Girls High and the Burkini ban are not just about isolated policies. They highlight issues of cultural supremacy and what is considered to be the acceptable norm. The issue of cultural supremacy takes me back to the issue of language.
On the question of language I find that there is a lot more for me to unpack. As a South African of Indian heritage I frequently question my parents on their decision not to speak Gujerati to me as my mother tongue. My situation is not uncommon. One would be hard pressed to find any South African of Indian heritage under 40 who can speak any Indian language fluently. A few like myself who were fortunate to have the influence of their grandparents would manage a smattering but would be restricted in their ability to have an easy flowing conversation.
When one digs a bit deeper, parents of children born in the 70s and 80s saw English as a sign of upward mobility; English and Afrikaans were proper languages, the languages of education. And so my parents generation successfully killed off a linguistic heritage. I am sure the cultural boycott by India also played a part; but by giving greater preference to English future generations are now the poorer for it. The loss of language was no more acutely felt that with the recent rule by the SABC to play more content of local artists. This highlighted the linguistic deficit among South Africans of Indian heritage. Most of the content played by radio lotus is imported from India. In the UK however, there is a vibrant South Asian music scene. Artists like Jay Sean debuted onto the music scene signing in Punjabi.
Some may argue that by shedding Indian languages it helped cement a more South African identity. Perhaps there is some truth to that; I am by no means arguing that language should have been used as a tool to keep a community insular, but rather I am highlighting the cultural preeminence given to English, has done my generation a disservice.
Culture and language are dynamic and ever evolving, who knows, if my generation and the future generations had greater proficiency, perhaps it would have created the space for a pidgin to develop, a combination of Zulu and Tamil or Gujerati.
I would end of by once again taking my hat off to the girls of Pretoria High School. Although we are frustrated that these types of debates still happen in our country and the attitudes they represent. The girls of Pretoria Girls High and Sans Souci do us proud as champions of equality and builders of a better South Africa. Shehnaz Cassim -Moosa
Racism isn’t a series of “isolated incidents,” it isn’t random occurrences of hatred… racism is a systemic and structural scourge gnawing at the very core of society.It is this system of racism that allows Chris Hart to blame economic decay on what he terms hate-filled and entitled black people.
It is this system that allows Penny Sparrow to refer to black people as littering monkeys who blemish *her country.
It is this system of racism that sees 12 Apostles hotel still welcoming patrons with nary a slap on their metaphorical wrists.
It is this system of racism that allows Justin van Vuuren to express his disgust at blackness and to tell black people to “go back where you came from” (without even an ounce of irony).
It is this system that sees estate agencies like Trafalgar continue to thrive even though time and time again they have shown their xenophobia…
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The first year of motherhood.
May I be so presumptuous as to write about it from within, before I have fully emerged, one-year-old and smashed (sugar and gluten free) birthday cake in each hand?
The pulsating loneliness of it. I don’t quite know how to explain it. You won’t be alone, ever. If you’re lucky, like I am, you will have a supportive and engaged co-parent, you will have wonderful family, you will have beautiful friends. But there are moments within the motherhood experience that one must go through alone. No matter how much you read all those mom blogs that speak to those experiences, no matter how your late night emails and Facebook posts and messages to your small coterie of friends who are also moms, no matter how many messages sent back to your island from across the ocean, you will have those universal moments and it will be the most alienating and lonely time. I don’t know why. You won’t be the first or the last woman to go there but you’ll go there alone. It feels like you kind of almost have to.
What keeps me sane, in those moments when I feel I have no-one and everyone to call, is to know that this is universal. That’s as good as any reason to spill my guts here on the internet. One day, someone will be desperately trawling through the web as their baby sleeps next to them and they will read this and think, Oh my god, yes, girl, yes. I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to me to come across other writing, other experiences, just like mine. Dispatches from other women who’ve been and been there, been through the loneliness, and come through it. Saying, yes, this happened to me, my baby survived it, I survived it and would you believe it, we’re on to bigger challenges. As I said in a desperate text conversation with one of my best friends, I can’t stand it when moms ONLY talk about the wonder and joy and blessedness of it all: Yes, I’m blessed, but sometimes, I’m also completely fucked (there, I said it). And it helps me so much to hear from other moms who feel this way, too. So, other moms, TALK about the dark things, the scary things, the lonely things. It may help another lonely, desperate soul who is washed up on her own island.
You will travel miles in such a short space of time. Three days after our son was born, I crashed hard. Runners have their wall; so do us new moms. I hit it hard. Coming off the hormonal high and freshly weaned off of the morphine (I’d had a c-section), I was just realising that my son was (1) super wakeful, like the most awake baby you’ve ever met and (2) super hungry, like feeding all the time, like nothing I did, including feeding him for four straight hours at one point, was enough to satiate him. It was hard. It was a truly tough time. A friend who’d been hoping to visit us in hospital sent me a text. I’d been (unsuccessfully) trying to hide how I felt from everyone, myself included. But my friend’s text came in a moment of weakness and honesty. I told her: I can’t do this, it’s too hard, what have I done, what have I done? I looked at those texts this past weekend and felt such surprise (and maybe a hint of pride?) at how far I’ve come. In those early days, it was all mechanical and new: feed baby, burp baby, change diaper, remember remember remember, rinse and repeat. I didn’t yet know how to read my kid. I actually needed people around me supporting me, reminding me, teaching me. Feed the kid, change the kid, burp the kid. Now, that stuff has all been absorbed into who I am, I’m not so worried about remembering to check and change him every two hours. There is a part of my brain, nay, my body, that just knows to do that without even being conscious of it. Now, people look to me and ask – does he need feeding, changing, tell us what we can do for him? When my friend wrote to me, I was someone trying to become someone else’s mother; to be what this tiny, hungry very awake little thing needed. Now I feel like a mother who is trying to learn the tasks involved in mothering and older, more complicated baby.
And that is a way to go in 7 short-long months.
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
It may hurt. A lot. Maybe one of the reasons for the loneliness is the true lack of real talk in the mainstream about what early motherhood is really like. I’ve often wondered, sitting up at 3am, cradling and feeding my little bundle for the fifth time in the night (yes, girl, yes), why no-one said anything. Maybe I couldn’t really hear it even if they had. But I read a piece last week that explained that you are becoming a mother. And becoming something, especially something as central and momentous as the mother to another human being, is obviously going to hurt. There’s no way around it.
I had a real moment of despair this morning. My son’s nanny was an hour late for work (thanks, Metrorail), which means I was an hour late for work. Again. My son wouldn’t take the medication he’s been on to sort out his bowel. And I’d already changed my clothes twice as I couldn’t show up at work in breastmilk-stained clothing once again. Then, once his nanny arrived and I was hurriedly packing up my things, he gave me the most beautiful, brutal little sad smile. He can’t talk yet, but in that moment, I felt like he was saying, Oh, you’re leaving again, Mama? It was a hard time. Nothing was anyone’s fault; everything was terrible. I once again was in my car, late, sobbing. I hate this feeling. This feeling of being less than enough in all the areas of my life. Can’t be a good mom, too busy thinking about work. Can’t be a good worker, too busy being a mom. Work and home get pieces of me, no-one has my best. I hate this feeling (so much so that I have quite the work part of it – but more on that later). I called one of my best friends from the car. She told me it’s okay to feel like this: I am supposed to feel like this. There’s no way around this. There’s only through it. And, she said, if through it means sobbing in my car on the way to work, then that’s okay. I’m becoming. It’s supposed to hurt.
Maybe my gift to my friends when they finally join me on this crazy journey (any minute now, guys) will be to share this with them. It hurts. It’s not always going to be sunshine and roses and organic purees. Sometimes, it’ll be tears in your car. Or vomit in the emergency unit. Or shit in the bathtub. It sucks, and, yes, hurts. Sit with and in the hurt. Don’t try to pretend it away. Because, as the Skin Horse says, when you’re Real, you won’t mind being hurt.
In the end, we – or I – caved. My son was measuring big, huge, large, especially his head. There was no way I was even going to try to push him out. Yes, I carry that shame. And I still feel the need to justify it. But his head was huge, look at him, I say to friends who know as I thrust my son towards them. But his father’s schedule – we needed predictability, I plead. And, yes, all of those things came into play. But I also need to acknowledge that I was scared. I didn’t think I would be able to. So I didn’t.
We dutifully scheduled a C-section for the first of April. I know, I know, I knew. I didn’t care. I’d reached the end of my third trimester, a time that is wholly dominated by fantasies of having your body back: think guzzling a litre of wine all the while throwing sushi rolls down your mouth and rolling around on your baby-less belly. Things of that nature. I thought I was ready. And here’s the really hilarious part: by ready I meant ready to no longer be pregnant, ready to meet my baby, not necessarily ready to become a mother. (Yes, you can be ready to meet the baby and be unprepared for motherhood.) My doctor could only do C-sections on Wednesdays and the nearest available Wednesday before Easter break was the first. So, my child would just have to live with the inevitable jokes about being born on April fool’s day.
The Sunday before the Wednesday, I was in the grips of the panic-nesting that had taken over almost all our weekends since the second trimester. We have to do stuff, I told my husband. There was a list: assemble the stroller, practice putting in and taking out the car seat, practice using the slings and carriers. We did all that, in a very relaxed manner. (I wonder why we were so laid back? Even though we didn’t know he was coming quite so soon, he was still coming in four days. Why on earth were we all, ‘Oh we have time’ about it all?!) My sister-in-law and her partner came over and put up an adorable rocket wall sticker in the nursery. And an hour and a half after they left, I felt the first pangs of labour. I didn’t know it was labour at first. At this point, I was just past 39 weeks pregnant and was yet to experience real Braxton Hicks contractions. So, that’s what we thought this was. To make sure, we called both our mothers. Neither of them thought it was labour. Both advised baths and rest. Both were pretty relaxed for being about to meet their first grandchild. The pain came in waves, as they say it does. It rolled over me slowly and built to a crescendo before subsiding again. Slowly I started to learn it. I would feel it coming before it began to roll over my edges and I would clutch – at my husband, and the bed. My husband clutched his smart phone and started timing contractions using one of the several apps he downloaded. The waves came and went, and the peaks became slightly peakier. This was starting to feel quite real. But still, we held fast to our belief that this couldn’t be it. We had a plan, see? Plus, first pregnancy, 39 weeks – this kid was for sure not going to be that early, even if he was my child and was inheriting his mother’s obsession with being on time.
We ate dinner, went to bed. And at 3am I was hit by a wave of pain that wrenched me from my sleep and threatened to drown me. The waves were coming thicker and faster and I couldn’t sleep through them. Still, even if this was labour, I understood that it could take hours before it was even remotely worth thinking about maybe contacting our doula, never mind our OB-GYN. I hadn’t had a hint of breaking waters or bloody show. So, I decided it wasn’t worth mentioning to anyone. Except my husband – oh, I woke him up to tell him, for sure. I stayed up the rest of that morning, timing contractions on my own app. At 8am, the waves stopped. Just like that. The last one came and gripped me tight, left me gasping, and then nothing. Sudden silence. On dry land, safe from the waters, I felt confident enough to phone my doctor and my doula. I was so relaxed, I even suggested to my husband that we go out for breakfast. After all, this kid was coming on Wednesday and our leisurely breakfasts out were about to come to a halt. But my doctor put paid to that plan. Come in now anyway, she said, let’s have a quick look at that baby. This is how unprepared I was, reader. I quickly took a shower and got dressed because when I phoned the doctor, I hadn’t even showered yet. I phoned my mother to come and take me to the hospital. Off we went, sans hospital bag. My mother, perhaps because she too didn’t believe this was it, took one of the most speed-bumpiest side roads. This of course sent me into another, fiercer, more insistent contraction. At this point, I was starting to believe my baby was coming. There is something about the drama of clutching at the car dashboard while the person driving tries to drive both as fast and as slowly as they have ever driven to the hospital that just convinces you this is it. So, sure enough, as we arrived at the hospital, the contractions ceased. Just like that. I was very upset: now that I was there, and I had the attention of the nurses, I very badly needed to be in labour. You see, in week 33 of pregnancy, I had a small scare, a slight bleed that had sent me to that very hospital, to that very ward, to those very nurses. It turned out to be nothing. In fact, there was no blood by the time I got there, and I could just sense them writing me off as nothing more than a nervous first-timer, a paranoid rookie. I desperately did not want their suspicions about me confirmed.
So, I lay there, strapped to the monitor, listening to my son’s strong heartbeat. As my husband arrived, hospital bag in tow, finally, a wave came. And this time, we could see it building, fast, on the monitor. Only the waves were no longer rolling in. They were rushing me, subsuming me and giving me a good shake before throwing me up out the other end. And they kept coming. Initially, I felt triumphant: aha, maternity ward nurses, see, I am not paranoid! Then the fear set in: this baby was really coming. By the time my doctor came into the room, it was clear this was labour and I was to give birth at least before the first. And because I still couldn’t do it, we went ahead with our plan to have the C-section.
Once the call was made, we called my husband’s mother, our poor doula who had previously been assured that there was no chance this was it, our family members and close friends. Within an hour, we were saying goodbye to our mothers and were both being wheeled – me in my bed, my husband in his wheelchair – to the theatre. I had never up until this moment had major surgery. But if I ever do again and if any of you, dear readers, ever need to in the near or distant future, I wish you a medical team like the one that worked on my son and me that day. This was surgery but it was also acknowledged as a joyous occasion. The doctors were happy and engaging. I did not once hear the word ‘scalpel’, or any other detached medical terms. They talked us both through the process, and during lulls, they were careful to talk to us both about our love story, how we ended up here, in this room about to meet our little longed-for boy. They learnt his name so that when he emerged, all flushed skin and sound and fury, they could call him by it and welcome him to the world. I could not have asked for a more wonderful entry into the world for my son.
And there he was. There you were, my Sam. Quietly listening to your father’s voice. Watching me carefully when they placed you next to me. Desperately trying to free your little swaddled arms (something you do to this day) so you could take in more of the world. And then, finally, blissfully suckling away with an unmatched life force. But that was always you. You always wanted to be here. Exactly a year ago, I was lying in a room in a local fertility clinic as they put my son back in me. Defying crazy odds, he had survived four days in an incubator environment, becoming a few cells then a few dozen more, then a zygote. Then he made a home in my body, grew still into an embryo, then a foetus. And now here he is.
This season of motherhood is one I could not have anticipated. It has thrown me clean from the sentimentality of my pregnancy into some truly grim sleep deprived realities. It has taught me what it really means to live in uncertainty and make a home, even a refuge there. It is all overwhelm and all awe and all routine and all drudgery all at once. On that Sunday before that Monday that now seems lifetimes ago, I could never have guessed at any of this. And I probably can’t guess at any of what will come. Sometimes – truly, a lot of the time – that terrifies me. There are no answers; there are no maps (no matter how many books are out there on the subject). There is just this: your baby and this journey. And there’s no way to do it except one step at a time. For the first time in my life, I truly am learning that, courtesy of my beautiful, happy boy.
I am so grateful.
“For the first time in my life, I understand the concept of home: it is not a refuge, not necessarily a snuggly place of warmth and cheery domesticity, not some essential rightness like the satisfying click that releases a lock, but rather a sense of peace with contradiction. It is a giving in, an acceptance, the place where I finally strip life of all its decor of aspiration and regret and let it be what it is, where it is, and nothing more.”
Sarah Menkedick, A Wilderness of Waiting
The Business of Being Born was produced in 2008. At the time, it was a small indie production, released only in the US. 7 years later, it has become a launch pad for many pregnant women, one we are told we must experience, before we set off on the path of birth plans, feeding options, OBGYNs, midwives, birth centres and doulas. The movie is a rallying cry for a return to the basics of birth, before pregnancy and birth were medicalised and women found themselves navigating inductions and epidurals and the seemingly inevitable emergency Caesars.
The movie forms part of a broader movement that is in revolt against many of the changes that came after the second wave of feminism sought to liberate women from the constraints pregnancy and motherhood put on their bodies and on their ability to work outside of the home. In the post-Friedan world, women grabbed hold of the innovations medicine offered – twilight sleep, epidurals, C-sections, formula, breast pumps – so that pregnancy and birth did not mean inevitable pain and/or injury, and motherhood did not mean one would be chained to their infant twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. However, this opened the door to the extreme medicalization of all these processes. As The Business of Being Born points out, women found themselves being excluded from important decisions about their bodies and their babies. Medicine often needlessly rendered them patients and not participants.
And so the movement against the medicalization of birth began, and with it came the voices of the ‘natural moms’, who advocate home births and midwives, and who caution against the overly liberal application of medical interventions.
My husband and I unwittingly waltzed into this maelstrom some months ago. Entranced, I watched The Business of Being Born, read ‘natural’ birth story after ‘natural’ birth story, devouring the details and slowly starting imagine my own birth experience. It was a heady time. I can’t tell you the exact moment when the whole movement lost me but I remember watching the documentary again (with my husband this time) when I was about 20 or so weeks pregnant, and hearing the judgment inherent in every interview, every birth story showcased, every doctor portrayed as selfish and disinterested. I don’t know when I started seeing it, but I can tell you why. At 20 or so weeks pregnant, I was exhausted (and now, at almost 40, I am none the fresher, let me tell you), and carrying what seemed to be a large boy. I was actually starting to really picture what it would mean to push this child out of my body into the world. I started tentatively asking my doctor about epidurals. Then I started sending my husband links on C-sections. I know what you’re thinking (especially you, natural moms), but it wasn’t that I was scared. Yes, at that time, our baby was measuring well above the average for his gestational age, but as my doctor keeps telling us, that doesn’t mean much until the baby actually gets here. Big babies sometimes measure small; small babies, big. Ultrasounds, it turns out, are less of an exact science than we think. What I was starting to worry about were all the things that could go wrong. Even the best-laid birth plans cannot account for nature and the surprises it holds. I am a relatively small woman, and I’d read that babies could sometimes get stuck. I had heard stories of labour experiences that went on for days, leaving both the mother and the baby exhausted. How would I summon the energy to learn how to feed after a marathon birth? Basically, what worried me was this: my pregnancy journey, which avid readers will remember, began when we started trying to conceive, has been all kinds of surprising. It has taught me that nothing is guaranteed, and that plans can be kind of pointless. So, how could I continue to visualize and become seriously attached to a single birth narrative when I knew all the messiness and unpredictability of bringing life into the world? I’d read stories of moms who went in, armed to the ovaries with doulas and midwives and birthing tubs and breathing exercises, only to find that the universe had other plans. These women profess to having their earliest experiences of motherhood coloured by what they experienced as a ‘failure’, a capitulation to everything the ‘natural’ movement taught them was disempowering and wrong. Could I really afford to spend my son’s first few weeks of life feeling like that? With all this swirling in my head, I slowly started opening the door to medicine. Besides, I thought, I trust my OBGYN, and I am aware that she is not the kind of doctor who would ditch me for dinner. So, slowly, I have started to picture other births, medicated births, major surgeries, and anything we could do now to ease our transition from pregnant life to life with baby. My husband and I started considering support options should I need time to recover from a C-section. I haven’t given up the idea of going the ‘natural’ route (we’ve kept the doula, we’ll be practicing the exercises, we may even draw up the birth plan, eventually), but I’ve forced myself to look at it as just that – one route. And so we’ve set off on a different journey, a more cautious one. We are determined not to pick a side and to (rightly!) see our baby’s birth as the most natural, joyous experience, no matter what chemicals or scalpels may or may not be involved.
It should be so simple, right? What we’ve found – what I have found, as a woman navigating this middle ground – is that neither side is truly happy to cede ground to the other. The medical side has a history of treating women like we are idiots, especially when it comes to our own bodies and experiences. I am lucky in that the worst I experienced was our fertility specialist telling me that all my worries about symptoms or the lack thereof during fragile early pregnancy was “silly”. But the recent controversy that’s flared up once again in the US over whether or not to vaccinate children as shown up just how disrespectful and arrogant medicine can be. Yes, the anti-vaccination movement’s distrust of medicine may not be founded on sound evidence, but these are real, thinking people who are trying to make the best choices for their children in a world that offers parents a lot of conflicting ideas and conditional support. As Jessica Valenti points out in her (highly recommended) book Why Have Kids?, most of these parents are mothers, women whose very particular fears and anxieties about parenting in this age have long been disrespected and ignored by medicine. So, when someone comes along to validate these fears and anxieties, whom do you think mothers will believe? A particularly arrogant viral Facebook post by a doctor illustrates how the medical profession has contributed to the great vaccination hole they are now in: in it he admonishes patients who refuse to vaccinate, telling them of all the other serious health concerns he sees in other patients. In this practice, he tells them, we vaccinate. If you don’t, he will call Child Protective Services. My husband and I believe in vaccination, but the venom and naked contempt expressed in this post and in others like it for parents who are skeptical and maybe a little bit afraid took us by surprise. I can see why the anti-vaccination movement remains distrustful of the medical establishment. I’m not saying the natural birth and motherhood is the same as the anti-vaccination movement. In fact a great deal of what the natural movement says is based on the science of childbirth. But the vicious resistance of the medical and/or non-natural options available to moms seems to come from the same place. Who wouldn’t mistrust a suite of such openly hostile and condescending professions?
Then again, the reaction to medicine’s condescension can be taken to the extreme by the natural movement. These extremes often harm the parent and the child, rather than offer the easy, uncomplicated liberties promised. When we first met with our doula, she asked about our plans. I launched into an incoherent ramble about how I had been considering a C-section, but now wanted to try, as long as the pain relief was available to me (i.e., let’s write it down somewhere that I may request an epidural so that no one can tell me that the lesser-spotted anesthetist isn’t there when I need it, damn it). Her lukewarm response? “Interesting”. She’s a nice lady, though, and she later talked me off my ‘no-pethidine-so-help-me-goddess’ ledge, and showed signs of warming to our not-totally-drug-free tentative birth plan. A few weeks ago, we completed a series of (otherwise) edifying and extremely helpful antenatal classes. One of the last classes was on breastfeeding. This is important, we thought, we want to get this part totally right (and not chicken out like we did with the birth plan business – kidding). Turns out, getting it right includes but is not limited to: cue feeding (where you feed whenever your baby signals their hunger or need for attachment, even if you’re in the middle of say, a work day); avoiding bottle feeding (even if the milk in the bottle is your own); avoiding supplementing with formula (don’t you know, formula is the devils, folks? Besides, think of all those antibodies you’re cheating your baby out of. Why would you diss your baby?). The kicker was a pamphlet handed out during class on ‘Breastfeeding and the Working Mother’. Ah, I thought, here finally, is something to assuage one of my greatest anxieties about motherhood. The pamphlet advises us working moms that leaving our child in the care of nannies and daycare workers is “less than ideal”. What you should really do, Mom, is negotiate serious flexi-time (a couple of mornings a week is one option offered), and try to be near your baby as much as you possibly can. Breast is best, and your baby knows that, we were told. In fact, some babies may refuse to feed all day from bottles you loving pumped into, knowing that the real thing, you, will be home and can feed them all night. And if you don’t or won’t do this? Well, your baby won’t get those antibodies they so need. You also miss out on key bonding experiences, which is a cause of postnatal depression. Afterwards, when I had emerged from the dumb silence into which I was struck, I said to my husband, “You know what would depress me? Being told that there’s only this one way to do it and if my life or finances or identity cannot bend to it, I am basically endangering my child and the bond between us!”
So, the ‘natural movement’ for all of its emphasis on the empowering reclamation of women’s bodies from the evils of medicine basically does the same thing medicine stands accused of. It tells women there is one right way, and anything else, any slight misstep and there are consequences to your child’s well being. Had an epidural or pethidine? Your baby will be born drugged out – congrats, Mom! Unlucky enough to have had a C-section and had your doctor deliver your baby (I have seriously heard C-sections described in this way)? You’re missing out on one of the all-time greatest experiences of being a woman and becoming a mom, and also bonding – good luck with that, Mom! Need to go back to work after baby? Well, you may compromise your baby’s internal feeding schedule, and also, you are making a tiny baby follow your selfish schedule? Really, Mom? Not to mention that moment when your baby calls the nanny ‘Mama’. But go on, you hardened careerist, you! As I said to my husband, once the shock of the breastfeeding class had worn off, “Seriously?” These can’t be women’s only narrative options. You’re either a perfect mom who went ‘natural’ or an uncaring, selfish bitch who chose comfort and career over your child?
I write this very much aware of all I am still to learn about babies and how they get here (still). I write from a completely rudderless middle ground, where the instructions are many and are polarizing. And the thing is, we need those instructions. Pregnancy and the preparation to become a parent are the most soul-destabilising processes I have ever experienced. They wrench you, quickly and brutally from all your easy answers, your coping mechanisms and you are disabused of everything you ever thought you knew about yourself and the world. And, of course, this is all before the baby is even here. What I really needed – what I think most women going through these experiences really need – are stories from those who have been through it and have lived to tell the tales, as they are, unvarnished and real and raw, minus the ideological stands. What I have found more helpful than any of the classes and the movies and the books are the stories told to me by the women in my life who’ve given birth: my mother’s stories that reveal how different it was giving birth to my baby sister in a country that is not her own, far away from her own mother and her first long and difficult labour and birth; my mother-in-law’s stories about her two very different births and the very different children and mothering experiences the births brought her; my friend who had her twin boys at 28 weeks and the difficult, life-changing months that followed; the friend-of-a-friend who heard a short while ago that a years-long adoption process is now final and her daughter is legally her daughter. These stories, told by women of great strength, still standing long after birth and well into motherhood, are what we need more of. The essence of these stories doesn’t lie in the kinds of births they had, or not they were medicated. Those are not the indicators of a woman’s ownership or presence in the story of how she began to become a mother. They are only the beginnings of a series complex relationships and long stories, developing and unfolding still, rich, vibrant tapestry over the neat black and white lines of limiting ideology.
Pema Chödrön writes that
“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”
As my husband and I approach the next beginning in a series of beginnings, this is what we hope to hold on to: a middle way, and a comfort with ambiguity, far away from the brutal certainties that threaten to rob us of lived experience.
Another year, another viral story about Cape Town’s insidious racism.
This time the story came from a young woman who was visiting the city with her family over the festive season. At some point, she and her family tried to make reservations at an upmarket Camps Bay restaurant, using (as you do) their own black name. They were told the restaurant could not accommodate their party. Suspecting that something was not quite right, they asked a white friend to try and make the same reservation, for a party of same size, on the same night, using her white name. She was accommodated without incident. But the saga didn’t end there: when the family arrived at the restaurant, they were seated, with clear reservations (pun intended), only to be unceremoniously unseated and told that their reservation could not be found. What followed was a series of insult after insult being heaped upon the initial appalling injury. Thankfully, the family did not take it lying down. Complaints were lodged at the time and they and their white friend who made the booking on their behalf have since spoken out on various media platforms.
Which has all reopened the very tired conversation about race and racism in Cape Town. And with that come the denials and the tiresome accusations of race card pulling. A particularly frustrating example can be found in the interview the manager of the offending restaurant gave to Cape Talk. The segment begins with an account of the event from the young woman. The manager is given a chance to respond. Not once does he apologise for the experience this family had. Instead, he proceeds to explain away each aspect of their story, essentially writing it all off as a series of unfortunate administrative errors. What’s worse is that the anchor – who interrupted the young woman’s account often to ask questions of clarity – gives this guy a full hearing and seems to concede that this was a series of ‘unfortunate events’.
I was confronted by another example of this denialism when I told the story to a group of mainly white colleagues over lunch. Cape Town, I told them, can be brutal in its quiet racism. One of my colleagues balked. “You always hear that,” she began, “but I have never experienced it”. Even faced with the absurdity of that statement – here is a young white woman telling me that it might not be racism because she has never experienced it – I felt I was on the back foot. Black people will know this feeling: you experienced something, it was racism, you know in your bones it was, but it wasn’t the kind of racism where you’re thrown in jail or beaten for the colour of your skin. Instead, it was the very quiet kind that when scrutinized can easily be explained away as a ‘misunderstanding’. You know what people will tell you: look for racism and you’ll find it anywhere. So, really, the fault is yours, you’re looking too hard. In such a situation, you are initially shocked. You thought it was blatantly obvious that this was about race. You try to explain this to your detractors, present evidence that will convince them to validate your experience. Which is what I did. I started with another anecdote, courtesy of my aunt. After our December wedding two years ago, my mother’s family (aunts, uncles, cousins) stayed for the rest of the holiday season. One of their stops on their tour of Cape Town included Table Mountain. When the group was in the process of joining the cable car queue, my aunt heard an obviously irritated white woman say “How many of them are there?!” “Lots”, my aunt told her, “so you need to just relax”. There. This, I thought, was inalienable evidence of the crazy-making now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t racism that permeates life in Cape Town. “Well, she could have easily said that about an Afrikaans family”, my white colleague countered. Right, okay. Seeing that she is a woman, I appealed to her status as a fellow member of a ‘designated group’. I pulled the sexism card, ya’ll. “But even though you don’t have proof, you know. It’s like when someone is condescending to you and you just know it’s because you’re a woman and there is no other reason”, I told her. She didn’t seem to buy it. Defeated, I walked away. And then I did that final thing we all do. I questioned myself. Do I see race too easily? Am I too quick to play the victim in situations like this? Maybe it was a series of administrative errors. Maybe that woman in the cable car queue would have said the same thing about a large group of white tourists. Perhaps, perchance.
But then, I realized the absurdity of it all. On the word of a white woman, who denies me my experience because she has never had it, I was denying myself my own narrative. It hit me: this is how whiteness operates. An experience that is echoed by several other black people is declared imaginary because this one white person has not experienced it. And what’s worse is the confidence with which my colleague felt she could dismiss the story. And how quickly her absolute certainty called my own into question.
That is one of the more infuriating parts about living in Cape Town. It’s not just the racism (not that the racism is fun). It’s that even when you experience these everyday slights which, when taken together can really start to gnaw away at your soul, you are still in the position of the defendant, having to justify your anger and despair. As the young woman who was on the Cape talk segment said, the word of this single white hotel employee trumps the shared experience of six black people. He was dismissive and unapologetic and failed to even entertain the possibility that some of his staff may have acted out of personal prejudice, even if this prejudice is not sanctioned by the restaurant.
So what’s a way out of this? What I want, as a black person living in this city, is not to win the argument and convince everyone that it is indeed racism. What I want is to be heard when I tell these stories and not have them immediately dismissed as figments of my overactive black imagination. I want it known that these are not stories I enjoy living or telling. I wanted my white colleague to say “That sounds awful”. That’s it. You don’t have to buy it. But you have to be open enough to the experience of the ‘others’ in this city to understand that there are things they live that you cannot know or comprehend. Trust the narrative of the other: it hurt us, and it felt like racism, and that’s all you need to know. Do not engage into a debate with us, and demand further evidence.
This morning, a friend of mine posted an article about racism in the accommodation industry in Cape Town. I have experienced a variation of this: some years ago, before I took my husband’s white last name, I was frantically trying to book accommodation for a surprise anniversary trip, in the middle of May (off-season). Of course, I filled out those enquiry forms using my own black name (as you do). I heard back from three who told me they were fully booked (in May, off season, by the way). The other guesthouses didn’t bother to respond. When I enquired once more using my husband’s very white name, I heard back from the silent guesthouses, and from at least one of the previously unfortunately ‘fully booked’ places that suddenly had room at the inn for us. I hadn’t shared this story but seeing people commenting on my friend’s post and sharing their own stories, I felt the need to share my own, briefly and hesitantly, nervous about the possible denialism to follow. There was no denialism. All of the comments agreed – this is awful and says terribly things about this city and this country. And I felt a little shift in the weight that’s been on my shoulders since last year’s banner year in Cape Town racism. It doesn’t fix the racism, but it takes away the added burden of having to constantly explain and justify one’s pain. If we can, as a city, as a country, agree to this – trust each other’s pain rather than adding to it – then we will have taken one step forward amidst all of the backward stepping that abounds.