Diane Awerbuck
Diane Awerbuck


At the Harrington Street drop-off today, there was a woman sitting on the floor, her legs stuck out straight in front of her in that peculiarly African pose. She was staring at her limbs, as if she could not believe that they had carried her here, that the same legs had carried her over moss in streams and stones in deserts, over barbed-wire fences, over and under, all the way up the street, to a safe house, to here.

All around her the bags were arranged in heaps, the contents neatly labelled by the volunteers. Pillows, said one. Women’s (warm), said another. Babies’ clothes. In one of the open bags there were Crocs in kids’ sizes, the little plastic charms still stuck into the holes like a surrealist painting. How had those children been persuaded to part with them? How did their mother explain who was getting their shoes? (Were they still alive, these children? Maybe they were also gone — to white deaths: a car accident, a drowning in the swimming pool, a girl who choked on a lollipop while her parents watched her on a park swing.)

It reminds you of Auschwitz, there, even though the volunteers in the Foreigner T-shirts stand for the opposite. The bustle is the same when the numbers are great. Those black and white pictures show 1930s shoes arranged in heaps, dusty and unfashionable, their heels worn through as if back then men and women were made for dancing. Thousands upon thousands, and each shoe lost without its partner. You would have to double that to get the pairs of feet that had worn them, times by ten to get the number of wintry toenails turned to ash in the air over Europe. Double that, triple that, times it by a thousand.

It reminds you of the Cape Town chuckers, whose first pair of sneakers you saw linked by their laces and thrown over the Rondebosch power lines, where they dangled over the traffic like they had been hanged, or like they were tripping Hermes-wise into the sky. And then there were more sneakers, sneakers with skulls painted on them, sneakers covered in Tippex. And then, months later, pictures of sneakers, as if they had been eroded by the southeaster until they could only hold paper feet, as if the idea of shoes was more important than anything else.

Times that by hundreds to get the number of people who think they have time to wait for the buses for the border, and times again by a thousand to see the pairs of feet that have been here before and started to walk: some of them are in wheelchairs, some are aided by sticks, but there are enough stones for everyone on this side and the other, plenty of stones and barbed wire to go round.

One woman stays. She stays, with her dumb legs, on the cement floor.

  • Alisdair Budd

    The major difference was thatr Kristallnacht was planned by the govt.

    no-one has yet suggested the violence is an ANC re-election strategy.

  • SMS

    what a beautifully written, haunting piece!

  • http://letpeoplespeakamagama Lyndall Beddy

    If everyone, who owns their own home, collected one family and housed them temporarily, we would solve the problem. No spare room ?- use the garage, borrow a tent or a caravan.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/dianeawerbuck Diane Awerbuck

    Mister Budd –

    The sad part is – it doesn’t matter if it was state-sanctioned. This is what mob rule looks like. It’s catching.

    Pardon me for stating the obvious, but sometimes it has to be done:

    “In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;

    And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;

    And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;

    And then they came for me. And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

    Make like Pastor Martin Niemöller: Speak up now, while you still have a tongue.

  • mundundu

    this isn’t the first time i have seen the events of the last few weeks referred to as kristallnacht.

    it’s really disturbing, each time i see it.

  • dynamo

    i found it interesting that Mbeki’s speech a couple nights ago was firstly delivered in English and secondly deploring of violence in the new south africa, as if that weren’t the norm.
    South Africa truly is a tinder box in a room of random sparkiness, but there are crucial differences between the holocaust and our potential holocaust. The most important and possibly ironic, is that the Holocaust was an act of premeditated destruction that was “executed” in a very systematic manner according to a twisted and yet clear ideology. Our latent holocaust is far more like many other African holocausts, in which there are few clear reasons. Where a true “mob” mentality rules, and much brutality is exacted in such a random fashion that one almost regards it as the work of innocents.
    We might easily predict what awaits us as fuel and food prices sky rocket in this country.
    It’s also interesting that we think that the “immigrant problem” can be solved. It cannot because it is symptomatic of much larger problems which really don’t have a chance of being solved anytime soon. Specifically, that 40 percent of the local population is unemployed and desperate. That in a country heavily burdened by poverty and lack of facility, resources are becoming scarcer and more expensive. Education, Africas only hope, is now a secondary concern.
    The ultimate irony is that a functional Democracy needs its constituents to be educated enough to understand the ambiguity of political discourse.
    There are two obvious instances in which this “literary” ability does not exist. Amongst those that are not educated enough to conceptualise double or multiple meanings in political rhetoric. For example, consider Bush’s use of the word “freedom”. What does that mean to him, to his followers and everyone else? many answers, and yet there is a single implication when he uses it. That implication is really the fear that it could be removed, regardless of what freedom really means. This is dangerous but effective use of rhetoric.

    The second, is when you have groups of people that are literalists by definition. for example, many christians regard the Bible as the only piece of literature worth reading. In addition, it is regarded as “evil” to do anuything except take the Bible at face value. To read double or mataphorical meaning into the scriptures is evidence of deceptiveness, of a lack of faith etc.
    One cannot expect your average biblical literalist to engage in what is considered to be the “doubting Thomas” dialectic of the liberal or thoughtful portions of society.
    The irony of this situation is that political liberation is delivered to those who are fundamentally incapable of appreciating it. The right to vote is a tiny part of what constitutes a healthy democracy.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/dianeawerbuck Diane Awerbuck

    ‘Dynamo': I’m going to address the first part of your response here.

    The ‘Final Solution’ (thorough extinction through genocide) was what it sounds like: the last-ditch attempt of a state panicked by its unsuspected success, a response to the terrible truism that you should be careful what you wish for. This forms the backbone of most conventional historiographical approaches, and I say this as a History teacher, a trauma writer, a novelist, and a part-Jew (but not the part that counts).

    So. What ended up being the holocaust/Shoah began, as these things do, as something else – and that something is what it shares with all ingroup-outgroup brutality everywhere. By tacitly consenting to this brutality, we facilitate it. Not choosing is also a choice. It happened in Germany, it happened in Rwanda, it happens every day somewhere in the world, and it’s happening here now. This is how it begins.

    To have to point this out seems odd.

  • dynamo

    Yes i agree that there is often a “situation” that allows these gruesome acts of violence or genocide to become permissable. In fact, there is much violence in this country that is considered permissable, a sort of balancing of the scales. This is an unspoken truth, and many people in this country carry that burden as a sort of guilty-past-must-now-play-russian-roulette with criminal probabilities, and not expect that the system deplore this reality.
    I agree that a stand must be taken against violence itself and certainly when it is directed at what could only be considered a scape goat community.
    But like i said, the parameters of permissable violence have only broadened in this country ( babies being raped etc), and strange now that Mbeki would appear on television to condemn the violence, in English, when it is directed at a non-local community. Just painfully ironic, thats all.

  • http://NA abduraghiem johnstone

    Waar hakkies draad wei as blomme
    The current orgy; of violence mainly felt and viewed by those on the frontline and some journalists, transported by the media into our lving rooms, left us with shock horror. Ostensibly the violence reminescent of the eighties has never left –it has just reared its demonic head. And the probability exist for it to rear its head when the next opportunity arises. And it might not be against foreigners.
    We labelled the occurrence in many different name, “genocide, xenophobia, xenocide. Kriselnacht (Crystal night).
    Crystall Night takes me down a path leading me to 1938.
    On November 7, 1938 a junior diplomat Ernst vom Rath was murdered by Herschell Grynszpan. Grynspan (Greenspan). Greenspan 17 at the time enraged by his family’s expulsion from Germany entered the German embassy in Paris and shot von Rath who died two days later. Thereafter in a single (“Crystall Night”) night Germany was in a grip of skilfully orchestrated anti-Jewish violence (November 10), 1, 0000 synagogues and tens of thousands of Jewish business and homes were ransacked, 91 Jews were murdered, and 25,000-30,000 were arrested and transported to concentration camps. This, amongst many other reasons served as a prelude to the holocaust. (see-en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristallnacht-K142K)
    The holocaust and the humiliation and suffering of Afrikaners in British concentration camps led to militant nationalism. .
    Though there are many ways of seeing and naming, if you should name the killing of foreigners by another name would we travel down a different path, leading to resolves for South Africa?
    It appears as if there is a need to locate, debate and disect the notion and nature of SA violence including the the stage it plays itself out.
    There is no collective pogrom. This is shown by the response of those who assisted in ways that they know best, the giving of the self, including offering material assistance and finance is not foreign to the country, its well known, and many volunteers in the past have become leaders in government and functional members of civil society.
    I enjoyed reading (your blog).And cannot find a better way of expression it, so I will borrow SMS’s “what a beautifully written, haunting piece!”
    SMS on May 28th, 2008 at 1:35 pm