The estate agent sniffed me over and knew I wouldn’t be buying, but the rain was drifting down in sheets over the city and nobody had come in all morning. Boredom trumped disdain.
He stretched his face into a reasonable facsimile of a smile and handed me a pamphlet as if he were sprinkling delousing powder on a newly arrived inmate. His phone buzzed discreetly, and, with one last backward glance to make sure I wasn’t defecating in the marble fireplace, he left me alone.
The house was huge, originally built for people with an inflated sense of their self-worth and now priced for those with more money than sense. But what really caught my eye was the first line of the estate agent’s pamphlet, which proclaimed that the house was blessed with “many classic and charming colonial features”.
I was intrigued. Would there be a pile of vibrantly severed Congolese labourers’ hands stacked in the second bedroom? Would there be a whimsical tree stump in the back yard with a charmingly bayonetted Chinese person chained to it? Had the master bedroom been renamed the Yassa Massa bedroom?
No. It turned out that the only things that had been brutalised in this house were good taste and common sense. But it did leave me wondering: when did the words “colonial” and “charm” get grafted together, and just how psychotic was the person who did it? How has it come to pass that a word describing a vast system of exploitation and trans-generational pain has been rehabilitated to the point that it is now used as an aesthetic lifestyle choice?
It was time to leave: the agent curled a lip in farewell and sprayed air-freshener in the rooms I’d explored, and I scuttled out into the rain again, wondering. Surely the “colonial” thing could not be a deliberate trampling of historical sensitivity? It must be ignorance, or at least denial. After all, the people who most commonly use the word in an affirming sense are the sort who go on shows like Top Billing to pimp industrial-strength kitsch.
Perhaps you can’t blame people for being seduced by colonial buildings. Such edifices were designed to appeal to the eye and the heart, making us feel both comfortingly insignificant and heroically enlarged.
It might seem fundamentally sick that a young black couple would book years in advance to secure a Cape Dutch wine cellar as a wedding venue, so that they can pose for beautiful cheek-to-cheek photos next to the wall against which their great-great-great-grandfather was flogged to death; but the aspirational power of colonial aesthetics seems almost irresistible.
For a moment I wondered if there was something about Capetonians that made us more susceptible to colonial “charms”, more eager to divorce the politics of the era from its aesthetics.
I can’t speak for black people, but I have made peace with the fact that, as a white South African, I am part of a tribe whose collective unconscious is firmly built on two of the nuttiest and least sustainable world views you can imagine: Victorian class psychosis and Calvinistic Trekboer fuck-you-I’m-outta-here misanthropy.
Is it possible that white Capetonians have a special sub-set of nuttiness that flares up around ivy-clad Greco-Roman columns and doves snoozing over limpid koi ponds?
But of course it’s not just us. Cape Town might have been the head office of the colonial project in South Africa, but its regional offices around the country still embrace the old aesthetics just as passionately.
In the Lowveld or the Free State they don’t call it “colonial charm” – instead it’s “the wonder of the bush” or “the spirit of Africa” – but the colonial props remain the same: expensive, slightly antimalarial drinks brought by servile black people, and a pervading sense of the dominion of Man over Nature. A neoclassical courthouse in Cape Town might look nothing like a game lodge in Limpopo, but ideologically they are identical.
Unfortunately, most of us are drinking the Kool-Aid. We roll our eyes at Whenwees and their “I had a farm in Ahfrika” stories, but we’re all enslaved by our own little farms. They might take up only 200m2 and be adjoined by 40 identical farms in a suburban street, but the fantasy burns bright: a Malawian to till the fecund earth; each geranium in its pot a symbolic crop of mealies; each unclogging of the Kreepy Krauly another fountain discovered.
It was raining hard when I got back to my flat. I admired its compactness, its lack of pretension. And then I went and watered the plant on the windowsill, and wondered what it would be like if I got another plant.
First published in The Times and TimesLive