Archives For Capetown

Time Out

November 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

South-Africa-teen-RayBan-sunglassesI’ve taken a little break from posting here the last few weeks — haven’t had the time or the brain-space. The freelance writing world has always been a feast-or-famine dynamic… and after almost a year of scary, Sudan-like famine, I’m suddenly buried under a Bacchanalian bounty of work coming at me from everywhere. No complaints from me — the bill for Mtuseni’s last year of tuition just showed up this morning — but any break I can take from all these projects requires me to walk away from the keyboard… and the blog.

But that doesn’t mean there’s been a break in the story. The past month has been a particularly dizzying roller coaster ride of ups and downs, as is usually the case with my little buddy. The high point was an audio-file message Mtuseni sent, where he sang Happy Birthday, thanked me for being a father to him and said he loved me. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I mean, what 20-year-old sings “Happy Birthday to you” without a touch of irony? And both verses! The kid is so sweet and good sometimes that I am often in awe of him.

And then, in typical fashion, the carnival ride plunged into the depths when Mtuseni sat on his laptop and broAsus-laptop-netbook-brokenke the screen — less than three months after I bought it! Our MXit chat line was full of some savory language that day, and we still haven’t come up with a solution. For now, he’s working on two-thirds of a screen — and I need to figure out if the cost of shipping and repairing it is the same as just buying a new one. (But, really, do I need to buy this kid a new laptop every three months? When he’s already lost two cell phones? The first pocket angel I sent him? And the Ray-Bans I bought him in Capetown — the same day he crushed the laptop?)

And the final straw has been our ongoing push-pull over allowance. Having never had a real job, he seems unclear on the value of money and earning it. I set him up with simple tasks — like sending me photos of his day or writing a new LinkedIn profile — to earn his $75 a month. Yet each month he resists more and more. (Passive-aggression makes me crazy!) I generally have little leverage on the issue; he needs the money to get to school and pay for lunches, so I always end up caving in. But last month, after I kept moving the deadline and simplifying the tasks and he still did nothing, he actually got zero allowance from me. Because school was off for study week and he only had to go there a few days for final exams this month, the money wasn’t so critical — though I’m sure it took a bite.

And yet this month, the same issue! He cannot, will not, or refuses to follow simple directions for his allowance. I’ve heard from his school administrator that he’s a star on the student committee, organizing major soccer tournaments. But for me, suddenly he’s incapable of a few lightweight tasks each month. Some people say he’s testing me, but I can’t figure out why. My theory, ironically, is that as our relationship has shifted from mentor-mentee to more father-son, he feels comfortable and secure enough to be resistant and disrespectful — as most kids his age are toward their parents. Do I really need that black fly in my Chardonnay?

So last week I took a rare time-out from Mtuseni. I was super-stressed trying to figure out how to work on three big projects simultaneously, and he was stressed about his final exams. Neither of us had the mental space to be battling. I told him I was logging off MXit for a while and wished him good luck on his exams. He took his last one yesterday, and his three-month school break starts today. (And he better be out looking for a Christmas/summer job as I write this!)

This is the last free stretch of time before he finishes school next year. I’ve got to get the train back on track. He needs to lose some of his immaturity (even if it is loveable). He needs to start prepping for internship and job interviews. He needs to decide on a major. And he needs to stop squandering mentoring opportunities by fighting me at every turn. So that’s my mission starting this weekend. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a long, hot summer ahead for my little buddy!

And although I dialed down the stress a bit by taking a time-out from him this past week, I miss the knucklehead. A lot. So give me another E-ticket, carny, and fire up the ride!

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Every year on 9 August we celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa, a public holiday that pays homage to the women of our nation — the mothers, the wives, the sisters and the daughters who fought tirelessly against the tyranny of the Apartheid government.

Inaugurated in 1994, along with a free, democratic South Africa, the public holiday commemorates a 1956 protest lead by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn. To rise up against the legislation that required black South Africans to carry the “pass” (special identification documents which infringed on their freedom of movement during the Apartheid era), approximately 20,000 women from all over the country took to the streets of Pretoria – many carrying the children of their white bosses on their backs – to stage a peaceful march to the Union Buildings.

After dropping off bundles of petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at Prime Minister J.G Strijdom’s offices, they stood in silence for thirty minutes. An inspiring display of political strength, female solidarity and inner fortitude, the march on August 9 1956 is both a reminder of the great women who helped mould South Africa and the trailblazing women who continue to lead the country forward.

“If you strike a woman, you strike a rock”

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Seasons Turn

July 15, 2012 — 3 Comments

It’s hot here in the Northeast, actually across much of the country. I’m locked in my office working to finish the Long-Distance Dad book proposal. It’s over 90 outside, but I’m comfortable with the A/C cranked. I was thinking about how hot it was in Johannesburg when I visited in January — and how Mtuseni not only doesn’t have air conditioning, he doesn’t even have electricity for a fan. His mother’s windowless brick shack must be like a mini-oven on summer nights. Mtuseni is now in the “annex” that he built with his brother. It’s made of gypsum wallboard or something, just panels haphazardly nailed together into walls, the dirt floor covered with blankets. I’m certain that it must be a bit cooler than the shack in summer.

South Africa-settlement-shack-JohannesburgExcept that it’s not summer in South Africa; it’s the middle of winter. Last night Mtuseni’s MXit status line said “cant feel my legs, the Cold has completely paralysed me.” I laughed. As a writer myself, his ability to paint evocative word pictures is one of the things I most love about him. And he does have a flair for drama. He’s been complaining about being cold for months, well before winter set in. It’s not like he has any fat on his bones to keep him warm. When we were in Cape Town during the Southern Hemisphere summer, he slept in long-legged, long-sleeved pajamas, complaining about the barely-there air conditioning. We fought like an old couple over the thermostat setting.

I checked the weather online yesterday and, indeed, the overnight forecast for Joburg was 34 degrees. But the city gets the urban heat island effect. Mtuseni has often said that his area 15 miles from downtown gets much colder. So it is likely well below freezing in his community — and the forecast shows those conditions for the next several nights. Mtuseni told me that the gas-powered fridge in his mom’s shack throws a little warmth, perhaps from the compressor. But now that he’s in the ramshackle annex, he is essentially sleeping outside with walls. He only has one heavy blanket and thin cotton sheets.

As I dial the thermostat to ensure my own temperature-controlled comfort while working on this book, I hope that one day I’ll be able to buy flannel sheets and warm blankets for the whole family. Perhaps even sleeping bags. Someday, maybe I’ll explore a more comprehensive solution such as solar panels for all the community shacks — to power a cooling fan on hot January nights, and maybe a little extra warmth in the bitter-cold South African July. recently ran an interesting feature on the city of Johannesburg’s nascent resurgence following decades of post-apartheid decline.


Click to see CNN feature on Johannesburg. (Source:

As a casual student of urban redevelopment and a resident of a vibrant U.S. city that was considered dying in the 1950s, I’m happy to see Joburg on the mend and coming back. But I wonder if and when the benefits will make their way to people like Mtuseni’s family. Will hip new cafes and airy lofts eventually lead to electricity and toilets in his house and those of his neighbors? I recently learned that his little brother has pneumonia — and the boy’s rural public school by the river has no heat.

In my visit to South Africa earlier this year, I stayed out of downtown Joburg after repeated warnings about violent crime. I spent a few days in the bland, wealthy, office-park suburb of Sandton where Mtuseni goes to school before we flew off to Cape Town. I was glad to be in a lively city environment again! Perhaps on my trip there next winter I will explore downtown Joburg to see some of this new economic vitality. But I don’t expect to see any related improvements in Mtuseni’s neighborhood. Maybe some day…

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