I am by no means a prude. I can also accept a compliment. I somehow feel I need to state these two points up front. This afternoon I joined a friend for lunch at Picobella in Melville. I do love going there – the food is good and reasonably priced and I often bump into people I know there – Melville is like that. I noticed two elderly men at the next table – probably because the one facing me kept ordering another bowl of spaghetti – I think he had three, in the end. I also noticed him whispering in the ear of the waitress. I thought he was a flamboyant old gay man who had had too much wine. I was well into my conversation with my friend (another rant, which I will rant about later) when the man beckoned me over. I politely obeyed (as one does when an old man calls you). The man introduced himself (I want to say Peter van Houten, but he’s the anti-social Dutch writer in John Green’s wonderful novel “A Fault in our Stars”). Well, he said someone van someone, from Holland, and he wanted to tell my he’s been watching me and I am a beautiful, dynamic South African woman and would I just open my legs for him when I sit down? Ha! I extricated myself laughing (embarrassed for him, really), not wanting to cause any scene, and went back to my companion. I was aware that the man continued to watch me. Later he sidled over to our table and whispered in my ear, “You’re wearing a black g-string. I like it”. I said very loudly, “Oh, just stop it now!”. He retreated to his seat and continued to perv over other female patrons. I was not wearing a black g-string, for the record. I had been polite to an elderly man who proved to be lasciviously looking for cheap thrills in an Italian restaurant in Melville. The incident made me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious as I ate my lunch. I don’t think that is fair.
Yes, I’m still ranting about injustice this week. Possibly because of personal experiences lately, I seem to be hyper-vigilant and keenly aware of injustice in the world at the moment – both on a small, personal scale, and on a much larger, global scale. I am equally outraged by the robber who pistol whipped and shot at my friend and ex-student in an attempted robbery in Maboneng during the week as I am by what is happening in Kiev. While Uganda and Putin wage war on their own gay citizens and activists like Pussy Riot, people around me are defending themselves against terrible bullying in their own lives.
It is time for each of us to stand up to bullies – our own bullies and anyone who is bullying anyone else. This existence is hard enough as it is, without someone trying to knock your knees out from under you. I, for one, am sick and tired of tolerating tremendous injustice in the name of appeasement. It does not serve any of us to lie down and take it. In fact, it makes those of us who do stand up to injustice look hard and aggressive. We are not. We have just had enough.
I’ve read terribly stories this week of women being violently attacked by their spouses in public (not unlike Nigella Lawson last year) and people standing by and not stepping in to help them. I am appalled! I am outraged! What is wrong with our society? How can we let this happen? My best friend stepped in this week to help a young mother who was being bullied by three police men, who had pulled her over for driving through a red light. She had a feverish child and was trying to get him to the hospital. The policemen (flying squad, not metro police) were being incredibly aggressive with the young woman. Surely the right thing to do would be to escort her to the hospital or even give her the traffic fine and let her go. But they were hounding her. And here’s why I love my friend so much. She approached the scene, asked what was going on, refused to be drawn into the aggression. She diffused the situation, “read” the one police officer who was looking most uncomfortable with what they were doing, and appealed to his sense of justice. The young mother was allowed to leave, and my friend was not drawn into the sordidness of corruption. But for god’s sake! Surely those policemen have real crimes to solve. Surely there are aggressive drivers to detain, people lurking with intent at traffic lights to be searched for spark plugs, perverts loitering with icky intentions to avert. Again, I ask why everyone can’t just do what they should be doing? And Be Nice! An act of aggression against one person is an act of aggression again all of us.
I went into town this morning. I wanted to go back after last week’s smash-and-no-grab (like getting back on the horse that’s thrown you). I took no handbag – just my phone tucked into my pants and two small rolled up notes in my hand in case I wanted coffee. Despite my apprehension, Joburg welcomed me with open arms again, as she does. The car guard near Gandhi Square asked me if I was going to see the motorbikes from overseas at FNB tonight (Nitro Cirus is in town) and I was greeted warmly by vendors and people on the streets. I did get a few curious glances as I walked through the city. Maybe I looked like I had stumbled off the set of The Film We May Not Mention That Is Being Shot In Downtown Joburg At The Moment. I certainly felt like I was tense and ready to attack anyone who approached me. I got cheeky with the guards who would not let me take photographs of the burning cars on Commissioner Street – how dare they tell me I can’t take pictures in a public place in MY city just because they have chosen to film their Hollywood blockbuster here? I felt like an Avenger too (two?).
On the way out of there, I heard the Lily Allen song “Hard Out Here”. I’m not mad about anyone calling women bitches (or chicks or hoes…), but I thoroughly related to Lily Allen’s lines – “It’s hard out here for a bitch.” It is! Never mind having to be perfect mothers, wives (or ex-wives) and daughters, juggling relationships, work, feeding, homework, household-running; we are expected to look a certain way, to act a certain way, not to rock the boat. Even if the proverbial boat is riddled with corruption and injustice. Even if what is happening is abusive and terrifying and just plain wrong. Allen sings, “Inequality promises that it’s here to stay/ Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away”.
Well, as my Standard 7 History teacher taught me that Chamberlain said to Hitler: Thus far, and no further. I will not be pushed around anymore. I will not roll over and play dead when my life, lifestyle, livelihood, liveliness, life source is threatened. Don’t threaten my children’s lives either! I will not sit quietly by when someone is picking on my people. I will not shut up when I see vulnerable being abused. I feel compelled to act.
I see so many people around me speaking up against injustice, whether it is in their own little way or on a grand scale. I have a friend who has a “No to corruption” sticker on her car. It’s got her into some trouble with policemen who have wanted bribes but No means No! I am loving watching the online activism of so many young writers, who are exposing and standing up to injustice. I salute them. I love it when friends share small stories on Facebook of doing the right thing. The only way to eat an elephant, after all, is one bite at a time. Roger Waters’ lyrics keep coming to me, too: “Each small candle lights a corner of the dark.”
I am a great admirer of Gandhi’s principles and the idea that we should all “Be the change that you want to see in the world” is resonating strongly with me at the moment. I can’t change the world on my own. Luckily, I’m not alone. I have realised over the last few years how essential it is for me to be part of a sisterhood. I have a band of women around me who are loving and supportive. They understand the difficulties of single-parenthood and the challenges of being a school teacher and a working mom. We share stories of the way our children test us and we talk about solutions and commiserate. We share our joy and our hardship. The most wonderful lesson I have learnt from being part of this informal support group is that one does not need to get aggressive or insulting to stand up to injustice. One simply needs to say ‘No’ and to stand one’s ground. Sometimes that results in more abuse being hurled our way, insults which serve not to diminish us, but rather expose the aggressors for what they are. Sometimes we need other people to step in on our behalf because the playing ground is not our turf. I can’t help thinking that if more people begin to stand up to unfairness, we will all benefit. The scales will have to tip and good, peace-loving people will prevail.
My favourite yoga pose is Warrior Number Two – a solid, grounded, defensive pose. It is not aggressive – there is no reason to attack. But if an attack is launched, the warrior is ready to defend herself and others. So it is.