Life in Cape Town – when the lunatics ran the asylum

Imagine a world in which everything you do is a political act. And no one will talk about it.

It was the simple things. If I took a bus anywhere, there was enormous pressure to conform – sit in the ‘white’ section. As soon as I was old enough to choose, I tried to rebel by squeezing into the crowded ‘non-white’ section. The whites, the blacks, everyone objected. I was usually ejected from the bus. It was the same with the post office, shops, swimming pools, cafes, beaches. This was law.  People can hardly remember what it was like. The rotten heart of apartheid contaminated every act and every place. You either went along with it or found yourself taking on the State. And at my parents’ dinner table where the servants served food produced on starvation wages, the guests – women bedecked with the diamonds and gold for which South Africa is famous – would say, ‘oh, me, I’m not in the slightest bit political’, or, ‘now, let’s not talk about politics.’

When I got to Cape Town University, that beautiful, pine-scented campus halfway up a mountain, it was an oasis, a place where ability rather than skin-colour mattered. There I found people who thought like I did. I loved the place. And at a time where gatherings of more than two people were banned, we attempted street theatre, guerilla theatre and dared to dream that the world could change. We soon found it was the black actors who were arrested and beaten. Us white kids got off lightly.  It was another betrayal.  But when I spent some months up the East Coast, things were even worse. The local farmer locked his farm workers’ kids into the freezer overnight as punishment for stealing sweets. They died. The police did nothing. It felt impossible to do any good inside the country. Those of us who could, left. It was inevitable.

I found myself in a squat in Camden Town where brilliant South African jazz musicians were withering in the London winter. I remember Louis Maholo saying he would kill to eat a small juicy African orange. Many of those bright, talented artists and musicians died young. Very few of my contemporaries have returned to Cape Town, which is tremendously sad.

Troubled by these tragic losses, I wrote Salt River, a stage play about a Cape Town ‘madam’ and her three maids. I thought what I’d written was a tragedy and was surprised to find everyone laughing uproariously at the first performance – especially the exiled South Africans who should have known better. The same thing happened in the next and in every performance. After a shocked silence, when I didn’t write anything, I’ve written comedies. After all, it’s the hardest form, even if I have stumbled on it by mistake. Laughter has such a radical effect on people that I’m amazed it’s still allowed. I’m hoping Rules for Thursday Lovers is comic. You never know.


About the author: Born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa, Yana Stajno enjoyed an artistic and eclectic start to life. Graduating in English and Drama at Cape Town University, Stajno was politically active, joining the anti-apartheid movement where she met her future husband in the middle of a riot. Leaving South Africa for a damp squat in Camden Town, she studied acupuncture and Chinese Medicine before becoming an artist and teacher. Stajno has written plays including Postcards from the Swamp and short stories Ten Plastic Roses (published in the Bristol Short Story Prize, 2010) and Flash in the Park (published by SelfMadeHero, 2012). Rules for Thursday Lovers is her first novel. Yana can be found in her artist studio at the Chocolate Factory, Wood Green, where she happily splashes paint and hosts workshops for children of all ages with the Booster Cushion company.

One thought on “Life in Cape Town – when the lunatics ran the asylum

  1. This is so poignant, Yana. Deeply sad and shocking. I’m still imagining how it must feel when every move you make is a political act and I love what you say about being surprised laughter is still allowed.

    Liked by 1 person

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