An Essay by Suren Pillay
Some people will probably call Observatory, a neighbourhood of Cape Town where I have lived, a hippy neigbourhood. You might be told that you will see some strange looking people there. Israeli Rastas, African goths, and Congolese vegan new-age artists come to mind. And in between the spectacular, there is the banal: the rest of us. Academics, students, film industry yuppies, and families in every combination of sex and gender you can imagine. Racially and ethnically mixed, international, open to all kinds of lifestyles, few things are said to shock or offend its polite residents.
Politeness permeates South Africa. For the sake of reconciliation, it is often said, we take care not to offend the sensibilities of those who might have done offensive things. Cape Town, still deeply cut by segregation, and brimming with a history of self-righteous liberalism, more so than other cities, demands this politeness from the native who wanders outside the apartheid casbah. The good life, the not so good life, and the absolutely wretched life, still follow a colour spectrum from pale, fading into black.
But I have seen a terror in Obs that can shatter even its own stereotype in the mirror. I would have a hint that the terror was visiting when the black Mercedes would be quietly parking outside the café, A Touch of Madness. A black Merc made indigenous; its familiar three-pointed star displaced by a glittering silver silhouette of the African continent, swiveling in the south-Easter. You knew then that you were going to encounter the figure of dread, Zebulon Dread quietly leaving the politeness of Observatory shaken, and definitely stirred.
Sometimes I would be sitting in one of the cafes, and he would glide in. Innocent, open and progressive minded, mostly white kids, would be taken in by the erudite greeting. Trying to keep their eyes off direct contact with the potbelly on display- sometimes thankfully covered over by the signature robes, toga-like draped over the shimmering black body. The first hint of the terror was the title: Hei Voetsek. At first glance this impact would be lost on the large contingent of foreign European and American students who have made Obs home. They might be tempted to buy a copy and part with twenty bucks. It must be the right thing to do. A progressive thing to do. Then he would move on. And I would watch them page through the magazine in his absence. And that’s when terror would really take grip, as some could hardly bear to hold the home-made magazine in their hands, as if touching it might contaminate them, and surely having to wrestle with the complicity that they paid for it. A train of words, pictures, and phrases raildroad through the senses, inducing an uncontrollable nervous tremble in the polite smile of reconciliation.
Dread. Being hit by salvos of salivating nastiness shocking your carefully crafted sensible sensibilities. It grabs at the throat of new elites and young progressives. That’s where Dread cuts deepest. His round lines have hard edges. Zebulon has been truly successful at being a disgusting voice of reason: the self-fashioned cultural terrorist he knows he is. A reminder that the middle-class, the citizen, the progressive non-racial, non-sexist world of our aspiration is a fantasy in which a small number of us live. Camouflaged in the robes of a Rastafarian, an articulate non-threatening, acceptable-to-the-white-world accent, a gregarious laugh, he slips into our fantasy, looking like one of us, and then klaps us methaphorically, to remind us of a world where you are likely to be greeted with ‘jou ma se poes’, ‘ jou naai’, ‘jou pielkop’. A world of words that we would rather not translate. Hei Voetsek. To impolitely remind all of us, in the unique grammar of the Cape Flats, through the vivid imagery that lines its public toilet walls, that justice is still an open question in Cape Town, and South Africa. And that in our politeness, our desire to reconcile, we might be creating something inauthentic, inorganic, and just too nice for our own good.