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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Rubrieke | Columns > Christina Engela: Fundamentally Speaking

City of apples, land of penguins

Christina Engela - 2010-11-02

Where do I live?

I live in South Africa, a country which has one of the most advanced Constitutions on the planet in terms of human rights and equality for people like me. It’s a country full of contradictions, as a careful analysis will show. For me, as a transgender woman who doesn’t care much about the gender of my prospective partners, it’s my home, but also a place that occasionally makes me feel unwelcome enough to want to leave.

It’s a place that on the one hand claims to protect my rights and dignity, while on the other there are groups influencing government to the point where I’m not certain how much longer that will be the case. Some of these folks are now standing so close to the table holding our Constitution, that it seems at any moment they could just reach out and rip the vital pages right out of it. The POI and "porn" Bills are just two examples of this obscene attack on South African democracy, added to the rampant corruption and self-enrichment.

Contradiction? What am I referring to?

Hmm. Right.

South Africa is one of the biggest exporters of copper on the continent, in blatant and stubborn defiance of the minor detail that it has no natural sources of the metal, and no copper mines. None. Coincidentally, it is also one of the few countries where people occasionally arrive home to find that all their water pipes and metal fixtures have mysteriously disappeared. Reports that sales of PVC conduit have also increased dramatically in recent years are often described as an urban myth.

Port Elizabeth, known as the Windy City, is on the south coast of South Africa, and is known as a centre for auto manufacture and tourism, the two not necessarily being related. (The tourism office uses a jackass penguin as its symbol, which should give you an idea of what it’s like to live here.)

The name Windy City seems deserved enough when you visit for the first time – until you go to Cape Town and see birds actually flying backwards. And not stopping.

PE, as it is called, is famous across the country for having nothing happen quite frequently, and for having an unhealthy fixation with apples (and penguins). There is an Apple Train, and the Apple Express community newspaper, among others.

Established as a port in 1820 to facilitate the landing of British settlers, our city is infamous these days for allowing foreign nationals to buy pristine national heritage sites and intentionally facilitate their destruction for the sake of "redevelopment" and profit. In other cities in this country such individuals are labelled “slum lords” and dealt with appropriately by municipal authorities who actually seem to care about the character and heritage of their cities. Here, miraculously, nothing happens.

(How about those penguins?)

In the 19th century PE was dubbed the Friendly City by visiting sailors, who made use of the large complement of night workers who frequented the harbour in those days. The name has stuck, although most of the city’s ill-tempered conservative modern residents who cut you off on the freeway each morning have no idea why.

Oddly enough, the local council’s idea of dealing with speeding and noisy motorcycles is to litter the place with speed-bumps and traffic circles, often set up in the space of a working day with no prior warning – and leaving them unmarked for a few weeks. Who says the City Fathers don’t have a sense of humour?

Also called the Detroit of South Africa, the city has been twinned with Chicago (among other lucky places), which is also known as a windy city, makes motor vehicles and has occasional gang wars. PE now also includes two smaller specks on the map called Uitenhage and Despatch (only a stone’s throw away from Uitenhage). Together they all form the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, which is run by an Executive Mayor who has just recently been booked off sick for stress.

Among its long list of attractions the city has a Bay World sans any dolphins (they gave them away to China – I know, the mind boggles) and a modest pyramid of interesting dimensions (Port Elizabeth was NOT named after Queen Elizabeth, as some folks believe – it was named after the wife of a governor of the area, who was reportedly buried under it). Since the Soccer World Cup, there is also a flagpole as big as a skyscraper in the middle of a park people are frequently mugged or murdered in, and a stadium big enough to house 30 000 people, that costs R20 million a year in upkeep and has not really been used since. There is a statue of Queen Victoria (which is occasionally the victim of graffiti artists), and no Main Street. The city is also home to an obscure rugby team called the Mighty Elephants, which doesn’t live up to either of its names, and might as well substitute one part of its name with White. In its defence, the city has several beautiful blue flag beaches and a casino. (The flags are very pretty. Did we mention the penguins?)

There is at least one friendly church in the city which will welcome anyone to their services and community, just as Christ reputedly did – and funny enough, just like Christ, this same church seems to be an outsider among the rest of the gang, who don’t like the idea of socialising with "bad apples" too much. Tax collectors are not so bad after all, it seems. And funnily enough, most ministers look like penguins.

I seem to live in a city with no people in it. What I mean by this is that there are loads of "normal" people, cardboard cut-outs, who cling desperately to the inside of the little pigeon-holes society has pressed them into. Here, "nobody" is gay, "nobody" is trans, "nobody" is gothic, "nobody" is alternative, "nobody" is agnostic, "nobody" is a feminist, "nobody" is an individual. Everyone just wants to toe the line and stay off the radar. Nobody wants to be noticed or picked on for being different. Nobody wants to be themselves – being somebody else is better. Standing out in the crowd is just not on and draws way too much attention. Penguins, methinks.

PE has several golf clubs, large international-quality sports fields and stadiums, and two gay clubs – but only has one alternative club, called "Jesters", which is attended by one or two goths, surrounded by tons of metal heads. (Copper is not heavy enough to do them justice.)

And PE has two Pink Community groups too, in case you’re wondering. They’ve decided to work together for the benefit of the whole Pink Community in the area. Sometimes they do something useful for the community, like take on hate speech in the media, or provide a counselling service. Occasionally they host informative community events for a handful of people who actually turn up. Perhaps someone should remind them of how shy the community is of actually being seen in PE, or how ashamed they are of being themselves – but oddly enough, they just don’t seem to get it.

So, actually, PE might have something going for it after all, even if it is just those darn penguins again.