Spring 2023 Issue

We are Everywhere

Golden hour. The 'I'll have a classic French croissant with my almond milk cappuccino' morning crowd has snuck back into their duvets to work from home. And the work lunch suits have yet to swarm down upon Cafe Sofia. 


"Aagh, I thought he was never going to go away." [Tessa]

Peaceful, almost.

The waiter has barely taken two steps away from our table. Unfortunately, Tessa is sitting across from me. Her drama, unreliant on an audience, is relentless.  

She ignores my glare. You can tell a lot about someone by the company they keep. My disclaimer: I did not know people in Joburg actually followed up to do coffee sometime. In Cape Town it was merely a polite thing to say in between awkward moments. Also, I needed to get out of my aunt's house, even for an hour. It is close to the end of my second month back in Johannesburg and I have only ‘we regret to inform you’ emails to add to my Cape Town pile. Everyone has forgotten about Covid. 

Millennial Lifestyle Survey

What are your top two concerns, Post Covid?* 

Choose the two that are most applicable to you

☐  Another Pandemic

☐  Foreigners

☐  Losing my job and income

☐  The price of avocados

☐  Dying Single

☐  Not traveling as often as I want to

☐  Trending and being ridiculed online

☐  Aliens

I am unemployable. An eight-year proven track record as a social media manager in the tourism sector overshadowed by one blip. Covid. Retrenchment.

"Lu, this is your hiatus. You've been working since you were sixteen. Relax. I am lonely in this big house. I need you."[Aunt, pleading]

My aunt fooled me. Yes, we survived the worst pandemic of our time. But contrary to what I hoped, my aunt's generous spirit is still not the norm. Can’t expect everyone will now be mindful and grateful for their still shining light. People are who they are. Sitting across Tessa, I see beyond the mask. Her playful combination of a mustard dress and fuchsia jacket may suggest a quirkiness I seek out in people. But my misfortunes will merely serve as another form of currency for her, an anecdote to break the ice or the start of a thread to be relevant on Twitter. Maybe she's born with it? 

Only a naive beholder would fall for the perfectly contoured persona. If I did not know her, I would have also been clamoring at her tweets, begging to be her friend. I have shared enough WhatsApp groups with her to know that she is only wearing the quirky personality for the day.  

“Looking good, Tess. Auditions?” [Me]

A smile spreads across her face, maybe it is even genuine.

“Another advert.” [Tess]

She rolls her eyes. She is performing for me, it seems.

“I know. I should trust my agent. The ball is rolling. But I wanna do actual speaking roles now. Get me?” [Tess]

I nod. She does not notice. Her head is down focusing on her cell phone.

“No offence but this place kinda sucks. I definitely cannot tag it. It’s most likely on the list of places to avoid if you want to succeed in my industry. I wish I was you. You can go wherever you want.” [Tess]

My aunt fooled me. People are as they are. Before I can say anything, she continues.

“And the service sucks, friend. Did you see that waiter's smile? So fake. Less cheese, just coffee please.” [Tess, with a dramatic gasp]

Save the drama for your audition.

But before I can voice my reprimand, I catch a flick of fire. Something is burning. A banner scrolls across the plasma screen in the corner of the room.

'Breaking news!

I squint. What is burning? What is breaking? The TV is muted. Chris Martin—with his love of yellow—is crooning through the speakers. On the screen, stones are being thrown. 

‘Look at the stars

       look how they shine for you’

Anger. A blur of faces. Eyes. Noses. Mouths snarled up. A gnawing at the soul.  A crowd, toyi-toying to a shared bitter heartbeat. Mouths moving. Singing. Chanting. Not Coldplay. Their faces, contorted in anger. Matchbox houses, on fire. 

‘I drew a line …

    and it was all yellow’

Houses, burning. Homes, withering. And so is a screaming body, probably woken up in the middle of the night by the smell of its own searing flesh. But this is not the unrest of the ‘80s. 

This is now.  

You can feel it. 

How did you find out about the last five breaking news stories?

☐  Social Media

      If yes, which platform?  _________________________________________

☐  Traditional News Outlets, eg. News Broadcasts, Newspapers, etc. 

      If yes, which outlet?  __________________________________________

☐  Digital Publications

      If yes, which platform?   ________________________________________________

☐  Word of Mouth

      If yes, what is your relationship with the person? _____________________________

How did you verify the news?

☐  Google (it never lies)

☐  Social Media (if enough say it, it must be true)

☐  People I trust

☐  The news is true, why verify?

“Excuse me.” 

The waiter, balancing a tray of unwanted croissants spoiled by a stench of crushed rollies and dreams, pauses by our table. Pearly whites ou Instagram-ready. 

“Yes?” [Waiter]

“What’s going on there?” [Me, pitch raised]

I gesture towards the TV.

“Don’t you follow the news?” [Waiter]

I shrug. 

“What’s going on?” [Me]

“Operation Clean up the country. Aren’t you on Twitter?” [Mr. Pearly Whites]

I am done with Twitter, social media, and all you trolls.

“No, I am not.” [Me, grim] 

“People are tired. They're going around Alex, asking for proof of nationality.” [Waiter]

“Really? Is that like now?” [Me]

“Yebo sisi. Started last night. From what I heard it’s gonna spread.” [Waiter]

“Yoh.” [Me.]

Do you tend to carry a form of identification with you?

☐ YES 

If YES please tick why below:

☐  Because I drive

☐  They say I am too black

☐  They say I look young

☐  I do not want to be hassled by cops again

☐  Other. Please elaborate

☐  NO 

If NO please tick why below:

☐  Why would I?

☐  Apartheid is over.

☐  Cops love me / Fuck the police

☐  I would lose it

☐  Other. Please elaborate

Shock. Disbelief. Fear. All the emotions unmirrored in Tessa’s face. There’s a bright and shiny glaze in her eyes. Impenetrable.

“Can you believe it?” [Me, to Tessa]

"What do you expect? The government isn't doing their job, so we have to. These people jump the borders and take our women, jobs, and housing.” [The waiter, still sharing more than asked for.]

The waiter smiles.

"God helps those who help themselves.”  [Mr pointy sharp pearly whites]

He walks away.

'Hear the sound of the falling rain

coming down like an Armageddon flame (hey!)'

I wish someone could change the music. Or at least turn it down. Or put the TV's volume up.

"It's so loud. Think I can ask the waiter? Or do you think it's above his pay grade? Maybe it's all controlled remotely?" [Me]

My eyebrows, suspended, in shock. Tessa's face—still blank.

"Like the chaos." I add, testing if she is capable of reaction. 

She shrugs, returning to her phone to scroll through her feeds. Feeling my stare, she looks up again. Sips some of her coffee. 

“I don’t know why you’re so worried Lu. You are here, leaving the larney life in the 'burbs. It’s not like you ever go to Alex, sooo?” [Ah, she speaks!]

“But people are dying Tessa! Sheba! Look.” [Me]

“And? Jeeez." [Tessa]

She leans across to pout next to me.

"Cheese!" [Tessa]

A selfie. She probably loves that it caught me mid-grimace.  

"People die all the time ko Alex. It's just on TV today.” [Tessa]

"Please delete that photo of me?" [Me]

"Why you acting up? It's not like you are a kwerekwere. Chill." [Tessa]

‘But I am, you stupid fucker.’

☐ YES 

If YES please tick why below:

☐  Because I drive

☐  They say I am too black

☐  They say I look young

☐  I do not want to be hassled by cops again

☐  Other. Please elaborate

☐  NO 

If NO please tick why below:

☐  Why would I?

☐  Apartheid is over.

☐  Cops love me / Fuck the police

☐  I would lose it

☐  Other. Please elaborate

Tap. Tap. Tap. Her nails on her screen. A woodpecker. I want to grab the device and hurl it across the room, just like how the boy on the news took the brick to the window of his neighbourhood spaza shop. 

Blood and sweat of years, gone. Tears well in my eyes. This tapping woodpecker, in her element, does not see me, thankfully. I raise my hand, catch the waiter's eye. He saunters across the room, biting his lips like one of those 'bad bitch' influencers on Instagram. 

I pull my wallet out of my tote bag and draw a R50 note. 

"Keep the change." [Me]

"Sho, mabhebheza." [Waiter]

He licks his lips again. He has watched too many videos of the Kupe Boys.

"You're leaving, I never got a chance to chat with your friend." [Mack, Mr Pearly Whites]

He looks down at Tessa. We have her undivided attention, now. A scowl crawls across her face. 

"Heeey." [Waiter]

He pulls his head back. Pose. Tessa snarls at him. I shrug.

"Give it a shot." [Me]

I grin, she is coming apart, embarrassed. This is probably a bad reflection of her brand. 

'You guys suit each other, though she might not realise it yet.

"Service, please!" [Oops]

A neglected customer. The waiter saunters away, turning around for a quick wink. I return my wallet into my bag. I stand up and brush away at my dress.  

"Wait, don't go. Your cousin loves the pic I posted. She wants to say hi. I'm so jelly. You guys are living the dream. Thailand! Amazing. Stay. You're one of us, girl." [Tessa]

Dejected. I shrug. If I say anything I’m scared my composure will shatter and the dam of tears will break open. 

What is one thing you hoped the last three years could have changed?

☐  Improved working conditions

☐  Opportunities to work from home

☐  A better healthcare system

☐  A renewed sense of empathy in people 

☐  World Peace

☐  Better online content

☐  Easier ways of traveling

☐  More critical thinking 

I step out into the street. No sign of the pandemonium from the news. The serenity, suffocating. I need to be home—correction—my aunt's home. 

"Hey Google."

My phone comes alive. 

"Please give me directions to Aunt Nana's."

"Drive west for five minutes. You should arrive at Aunt Nana's at five minutes past eleven"

‘When will Google realise that I don't have a fucking car anymore?’

I scroll through the phone and click on the pedestrian icon. 

"To walk to Aunt Nana's, go west and walk for twenty minutes. You should arrive at Aunt Nana's at twenty minutes past eleven." [Google]

A minibus taxi will probably be quicker than both options. But I have not been in one since returning to Johannesburg. They are always too fast, too full, and the drivers are too rude. I have nowhere to be. I’ll keep walking. 

It is a beautiful day, how I wish for bliss. The sun is pecking away, lightly on my skin. The light purple of the falling jacaranda flowers—the carpet leading me home.  

A Gauteng-based radio station is named after it. Pretoria is known as the Jacaranda city BUT is the Jacaranda Tree indigenous to South Africa?

☐  Yes, of course. 

☐  No

☐  Does it even matter?

Is it weird to relate to a tree? The striking South American lilac bulbs, somehow, thriving in the South African climate so far from home? But the Jacaranda cannot go back. This is home now even though it is not quite. Nobody asks these trees, found all over this country, for proof of nationality. Like the tree, my family has been in South Africa for several generations. People like Tessa claim I am one of them, but I know I am not. 

‘I need to be like the Jacaranda Tree—embrace the place and just be.

Flames flash in my mind. 

“Hello, beautiful.” [A soulful voice.]

A man in blue pants and a white shirt ridden with moth-bite-like holes is walking next to me, face beaming. The voice does not connect with the face.

“Hi.”  [Him]

I walk a bit faster. A futile attempt. He keeps up with no sign of strain. 

"Wow. You’re so beautiful. God was showing off when he made you.” [Him]

Nothing has changed. 

I still do not know how to reply. 

If there were no members of the opposite sex on Earth for 24 hours, 

what is the first thing you would do?

☐  Wear whatever I want without fear of being harassed

☐  Stay out all night

☐  Walk home

☐  Go to the park or the beach

☐  Take a walk in the wild

☐  Nothing would change, I am a man

I cannot seem rude. I am still fifteen minutes away from home. 

“I’m Tobi. Wena?” [Him]

His smile cracks his dry, chapped lips open.

‘I am Nanya.'

I imagine him replying:

'Nanya Business? No way, I've been looking for you!' [Him]

I am smiling. I realise,  too late. “Lu.” 

“Lu? Yoh, you’re as beautiful as your name.”[Him]

He has misread my smile. His face is truly beaming now. We are approaching a construction site. 

“Thank you, bye.” [Me]

Blue pants. Callused hands. This is surely where his journey ends.

“Yoh, yoh, yo. Look at Tobias, with a cheese girl, a miss what what.” 

A jeer from a stubby man, leading a group of more construction workers. They walk out of a narrow gap that separates the site from the street.

“Chisa Tobias!” 

Another bellow. Sweat leaks out my pores. I cannot hear what else they are saying above my galloping heart. The gang is walking towards us. Leers and mischief, etched on their faces. A smile is all I have to offer. Their sturdy bodies take up all the space on the narrow pavement. I glance to my right, hoping for a gap in the steady flow of cars speeding by. Nothing. I step out onto the road. I need to walk past them. 

Tobias seems to have stopped following me.

Some respite.

I finally pass the mass of testosterone. My heart eases back to its normal pace. I step back onto the pavement. As my right foot lifts to take the next step away, I am frozen, stuck on the spot. One of the men grabs my hand, pulling it away from me. Paralysed. I am in shock. 

What are you most scared of?

☐ Being raped

☐  Being laughed at

☐  Being cancelled

☐  Being stopped by the police

☐  Being burnt alive

I turn my head. With bloodshot eyes, Tobias stares down at me. I try to pull my hand away, but his grip only tightens. He pulls me closer—to his sweating body. An overwhelming, powerful, ripped, sweating, can-snap-your-neck-like-a-dry-twig body. I am gone. I am unable to move. My heart, galloping so fast I am afraid it will rip out of my chest. 

"Chesa Tobias!"

One of his friends approves. Whistles and laughs follow. 

 “I like you, baby.” [Tobias, has his accent changed?]

His voice is coarse. Desperate. You would think he was begging me for a shot of life. 
A roar of laughter barks from the rest of the group.

“Thank you.” [Me]

I look at the road, there is still no break. 

If you see someone possibly being a victim of crime on the road, what would you do?

☐  I mind my own business

☐  I go on an Instagram Live - maybe tag the minister of police

☐  I shout from the distance for the people to stop

☐  I roll up my sleeve and get ready to kick some ass

☐  I go there and intervene (using precaution)

☐  I rubber neck it, might make a good story

His grip on me is steady. I cannot get away. 

“I love you. What do you say?” [Tobias]

“I have a boyfriend.” [Me]

I whisper. I sneak a look at his friends. The ringleader, the one who spoke first, looks me in the eyes and sneering, clicks his tongue. 

“Oho, leave her, yikwerekwere. Listen, she can only speak English. Another Graça Machel, this one.”

“Where are you from?” [Is that a gentleness I hear in Tobias’ voice?] 

He looks at me as if I am a ladybug on a leaf and he is the little child inspecting and realising his hand in mortality. I try to pull my hand away again. His grip, strong. Is this how I will die? 

"Leave me alone.”

I whimper. 

“Please.” [Me, begging]

A break in traffic. Pressure, gone. Eyes, down. It feels like he almost nudges me away. I do not wait to see how his friends will respond, I run across the street. 

The men’s cackles ring through the street. Hyenas. I do not look back. I stand on the pavement, head turned to the white combi speeding towards me. My index finger in the air, shaking. My finger, an anemometer—it can feel the combi is driving beyond the speed limit. It must be a taxi. I pray my finger is right.

If there is a god, her female side is on duty right now. 

The taxi screeches to a stop right in front of me. I wrestle the sliding door open and crouch in to sit in the row behind the driver. The eyes of the hyenas are stuck on me, I can feel them. They are probably salivating, ready to tear Tobias apart for letting their prey go. I want to turn and meet their stares, but I cannot. My body is still trying to remember how to breathe. 

With a screech, the taxi pulls away—I lurch forward. After a block, it again screeches to a sudden stop. Two more passengers get in. One is an old man, with a face and smile as sweet as my great grandfather who came to the Johannesburg mines all the way from Maputo. The man takes the seat next to me, returning my radiance. His smile gives me the peace I need.

“Did you hear?” 

One of the voices at the back of the taxi.

“We got them.”
I tap the driver lightly on the shoulder and hand him my R5 coin. 

“It's about time. They come here, take our jobs, and want to ruin our country like theirs. Voetsek!”

“Mamelani. The way they smell! Sitting next to them you just know when it is one of them. They are not like us, sies." 

A gruff voice next to me spits out. 

It is the old man who has the same eyes, same frame as my sweet, dead great-grandfather whose family housed so many of those fighting and running from Apartheid South Africa. It is the old man who looks at me, waiting. It must be my turn to throw some venom into the rotting mess. I smile at him, placid and pathetic. I nod too, ever so slightly, hoping my great-grandfather will not notice. The old man looks at me, inspecting the hue of my melanin, the wideness of my nose and the unruliness of my coiled hair. He looks away. After a minute or two he looks at me again and asks.

"Oya kae?”

‘Where am I going? The fuck out of here, that’s where.’

Passengers are alert. The traffic light is red. The engine of the taxi is a dum hum. It is quiet. 

“Sunwood village.” [Me]

“Home?” [Is that a tinge of jealousy?]

“Uh huh.”  [Me]

I dare not answer in a specific language lest my accent betrays me.

“With who?”

I am about to further entertain his interrogation but there it is, the blessed park which is right before my stop.

I lean forward.

“Short left!”  [Me]

The taxi stops at the beginning of my aunt's street. I jump over the old man’s legs. Holding onto the sliding door I stare into his deceiving face. 

'Simunye, we are one. Salani kahle.’

I want them to see I am one of them. Instead, I use the strength I wish I had to get away from Tobias to slam the door in the old man’s face. 

“Sho!!” [A collective gasp probably accentuated by someone clapping once.]

The taxi pulls away. The backs in the taxi turn, they all stare at me. 

They are probably complaining that we are everywhere.

Mabel Mnensa

Mabel Mnensa is an avid reader, poet, and writer who just completed her Master's degree in Creative Writing from University College Dublin (2022) with distinction. Her published work ranges from children’s picture stories to prose that explores alternate worlds and realities. Coming from a long line of nomads, Mabel—true to her heritage—is currently in Dublin working on her debut novel, Undocumented Secrets. Twitter: @MabelThandi_ Instagram: @mabelthandi

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