OPINION: Staying sane in a country that's gone crazy
I am reeling. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. The last week or two would have been a challenge to the most determined optimist – between xenophobic attacks, horrific rape/murders, endless revelations of sanctioned looting over the last few years, I am finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Or into it at night, for that matter.
It's everywhere: just avoiding news bulletins, the papers, the radio or news sites doesn't cut it out of my life. I have to go places, see people and do things – and between billboards, Facebook posts and people's conversations, the horror follows me around. I wonder how many people in our country suffer from some form of PTSD.
That's the thing with SA – it's a gift that keeps on giving. And it gives both agony and ecstasy – Uyinene and the Ndlovu Youth Choir in one week.
Living here is a bit like being from a very large, super dysfunctional family from which there is no escape, even if you go to New Zealand or Canada. The sad thing is that for many women (and men) in this country the last week doesn't stand out in any way – it's just more of the same they are used to on an ongoing basis.
And yet the awful story of Uyinene has affected me, and thousands of others, in a grim, haunting and visceral manner.
Not least because I went into that very same post office on the afternoon of 6 July to send a document, and was served by a middle-aged man. There was no queue, and just the one open counter, and at the time, I felt grateful that I didn't have to wait long. There was nobody else there.
The story affects me not least because she was so young, so promising, and just going about her everyday business like everyone does: the manner of her death reflects such an ingrained hatred and shocking disregard of a woman's human rights that it cannot leave anyone untouched. And it doesn't and didn't stop with her. Its tentacles have grown deeply into every aspect of how our society functions.
It is that which makes it so paralysing.
No quick fix
We live in a time when we have fallen in love with supposed quick fixes and miracle cures: for the flu, for financial problems, for relationship ills, for home cleaning, for social disasters, for everything under the sun.
But there sure is no quick fix for this latest outrage.
"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them," said author Margaret Atwood. That about sums up the enormity of what we are dealing with.
Placards and marches send the right signals, unite people, and give a very necessary platform for venting despair, outrage, fear and sorrow. But people did that when Anene Booysen died. And Khwezi. And Hannah Cornelius.
In a society where inequality, poverty, misogyny, violence and lawlessness seem endemic, healing is a thing that takes generations, and also real political and societal will.
But what do we do right now? Retreating to a corner of the house with a large bottle of wine or a packet of tranquilisers seems an attractive solution, but a short-term one. And one that certainly, over time, is bound to bring about its own set of grim challenges.
Emigrating is not an option for me – I love this country in spite of everything, my family is here, many of my friends are here, and my home language, for which I have a great fondness, is not spoken anywhere else. Besides, at my age, no other country is exactly queueing to get me as a citizen. My only special skill (I don't count language teaching and editing) is teaching Latin. And when last did you see a job advert for that anywhere? I might have felt differently if I had kids. But I don't.
How to stay sane
I keep on thinking of people in war zones, who still have to feed the children, clean their living quarters, and go to work, if they have one. If they can do it, surely we can too.
So on a purely practical level (and I know it seems trivial in the face of the growing horror, but I have to try somehow), here's how I propose to stay as sane as I can while continuing to live here.
Be grateful for what I have on a daily basis
In the greater scheme of things my life is hardly one of luxury, but in terms of the daily challenges of what life holds for many South Africans, mine is good. I have a safe place to live, my own transport (it is 13 years old, but it is reliable), food, and the means to earn a living.
Do everything I can to stay safe
I don't have to lecture anyone in SA about basic safety measures. You all know the drill. Don't let up for a second.
Keep informed, but restrict exposure to endless bad news
Sure, it's a reality, but burying myself in it day in and day out is not going to help anyone, least of all me.
Help the people around me
I cannot help everyone, but I can make a difference to those who cross my path on a daily or weekly basis. I must at least give of my time if I cannot help in another way. Sometimes a friendly word can make someone's day.
Speak out when I see unacceptable behaviour
We are naturally averse to creating scenes – but sometimes I just have to call someone out when they do something or treat someone in a way that is not acceptable. Or when a man is behaving in a sexist fashion. The small encounter in the corner café, when multiplied by thousands, does help to shift general consciousness.
Give praise where it is due
I tell people when I like something they have done – commend friendliness, efficiency, consideration and kindness. A positive reaction encourages that kind of behaviour.
Find solace in the people around me
I lean on those around me in times of grief and despair. Books, animals, gardens and music also help. Talk to the kids and listen to them as well.
Get involved in one project
It is easy to feel complete despair. So choose one project/person and set aside time to make a difference. If you think it's hopeless, think of the fact that Capetonians collectively managed the greatest water-saving effort ever in any urban area 18 months ago. That daily bucket of recycled shower water did make a difference.
In conclusion, it would do for everyone to be reminded of the song written for the 1956 Women's protest march: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.)
We are still here. And now we are really angry. You have now struck the rock.
Image credit: iStock