A few nights ago I was walking along Durban’s beachfront promenade with a group of friends. We were reminiscing about the annual surfing event; the Gunston July, a highlight on our then teenage social calendar, recalling how we prepared our outfits months before hand so that we could walk along the beachfront during the event.
The promenade is a little different today. Fifa’s World Cup landscape changes may have left us with some unnecessary scars but the improvement to the beachfront has been a welcome change as is attested to by the amount of cyclists, skaters and joggers scattered across the developed coast early every morning. We now have beach cafes, a skate park, well lit piers and lengthy strips of palm-bedecked paved walkways running parallel to the sparkling Indian Ocean. Just behind the esplanade the restaurants and shops are a little drab, trying to hide their age with new paints of coat, the way some women do with magenta lipstick. The surfer night club is a little run down, the ice cream parlor has lost some of its charm and there is the decidedly kitschy feel that permeates beach towns all over the world. However, the sound remains uniquely South African; the air is peppered with the distant roar of waves, the deep sleepiness of surfer slang, the sizzle of chicken tikkas hitting the braai and the rich accent of Joburg holidaymakers, some of who still parade up and down the esplanade in trench coats and Buffalos, living in some late 90s dream.
Now, such public places draw all sorts of people; the uncle in his fifties, clad in leather jacket, comb over, gold chain and midlife crisis hanging obviously around his neck, the holidaymakers with a swarm of children, all slurping vanilla ice cream cones, aunties wrapped in jerseys, ankle-deep in water, complaining about their wayward sons, teenage girls with big hair and small dresses and drunk men in crutches making lewd comments at the girls. And of course, there are the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, the bits and pieces of society that collect along the coast much like the bits of stones and shells that gather along the shoreline.( Everyone seems drawn to the coast eventually, the pull of the sea, the longing to situate oneself specifically in the world). No one seems to notice them, they shuffle about and disappear in the alleys in town or between hotels and into parks. I have always considered them as separate from me. That, although our worlds occasionally collided in public spaces, we were still very separate people.
While my friends and I chatted, a number of beggars approached our group but we stoically ignored them. Then another man with a shrunken face and long beard headed to us. For some reason and much to my embarrassment, he approached me. He tried selling me gum, while pleading with me to help him and I politely but firmly told him I wasn’t interested. He paused, then looked at me and asked me if I attended a particular high school. I was too surprised to answer and then he mentioned some of my friends’ names.
“Don’t you remember me? I was in school with you,” he said. I searched his small lined face and scraggly beard and it was only in his eyes that I made some distant connection to the quiet, plump boy who hung out with the group under the tree in the assembly area. I was so flabbergasted I didn’t what to say. He smiled seeming to understand my sudden loss of sense.
“Look at you and look at me now,” he said, gesturing to my handbag and shoes and his tattered clothes and bare feet. It was his feet that I couldn’t bear looking at, as if his exposed soles were the undeniable proof of his poverty.
My whole demeanor changed. I turned to face him. I looked at him instead of past him. Here was someone I knew, someone I grew up with; it made such a difference in how I approached him. He was raised in the same system as me yet he seemed to have fallen to the depths of poverty. I didn’t know what to say. How do you ask someone a question like, ‘What happened to you?’ I couldn’t understand it. In my distress I merely nodded in shock and then bought all his gum.
I’m ashamed to say it was difficult for me to understand that people like that were people like me and people like me could become people like that. And yet in retrospect, it makes so much sense; the line between love and hate, between sanity and madness, between truth and lies is so fine, so delicate that surely the space between having wealth and losing it is just as thin. Life holds so many unexpected twists and turns; it is easy, so easy to fall. Simply put, even though I considered someone like him so different to me, my life could easily have turned out just like his. It was a startling reminder.
Landscapes give a clear idea of how things have changed over the years because they’re so visual; trees are cut down, buildings are bulldozed, new structures come up, a skate park is pinched and pulled into the land and cafes spring up in abandoned corners. The horizon is silhouetted with a different outline. With people it’s different, the changes are small; lines creep into the face, voices become raspy, hands curl more quickly, shoulders fall a little; so much can happen in ten years to a person. A few years ago that classmate was walking in high school laughing about school crushes and silly teachers, today he’s begging along the beachfront.
I’m not sure when I started associating those less fortunate than me as the ‘other’. I don’t know when my perceptions changed. I don’t know when the landscape of myself started shaping up and filling out. But this incident made me reevaluate my understanding of myself and my interaction with people. We’re a constantly changing landscape; our understandings, ideas and judgments are constantly altering and some things must be broken down to be built upon. Some perceptions need to be changed. I think I needed a little reminder like this to shake my foundations, to help me reconsider what I was building myself to become. There’s a very fine line between us and them, between good and bad between right and wrong.
It’s a fine line that’s easy to cross, especially if you don’t see it.
(Originally published in the December 2012 Collector’s Edition of the Big Issue)