Class is a whole other story. Race is big, and bold and in your face, but class is subtle and hard to understand and more difficult to negotiate. I am seeing the world more intimately from this perspective since Clementine came to work for me once a week.
She and her husband are Rwandan. Her husband came here 13 years ago, and it was a political decision. He went back home to fetch a wife over two years ago and came back with Clementine. She is well educated, has had a few excellent and well paid jobs before, and was even studying IT before she followed her heart and came here. And none of it makes any sense to her at all.
Her first exposure to Cape Town and South Africa was life in an informal settlement in Capricorn. She was totally shocked and horrified. Finally they moved into a room in a shared house in Retreat. Clementine cannot believe her circumstances. The room they have for two adults and a one year old child can only accommodate a bed. There is no space around it for Moses to learn to walk. Her life is ridiculously challenging compared to the safe, middle class life she had back home. Yesterday she said with amazement, “I had my own bedroom back home. All of us did.”
What is a huge challenge for Clementine is that she does not see herself as a refugee, even though, because she is Rwandan she has a kind of refugee status. This drives her wild. And yet, she can’t get proper work, or papers, or a bank account, and her husband spent 4 days at home affairs trying to sort out his work permit.
Clementine could be considered a bit of a snob. She is horrified by how the majority of poor black people live in this city. She is uncomprehending of the level of violence (her chief pastor was shot in the hips during a shop heist) and more and more, as she opens up, she tells me of her homesickness, the cheapness of fruit and veg back home, the friendliness of the Rwandan people, and the total lack of understanding of her situation by her friends and family in Rwanda. What’s more, she also has to take the whole xenophobia thing terribly seriously. She is challenged to speak isiXhosa at the train station, and has a generalised anxiety around being foreign.
I have been trying to keep an eye out on a house or flat share for her and her tiny family in Woodstock. The usual; on Gumtree and Facebook and things. And therein lies a very particular tale. Even though there are places they could (just barely) afford, they are aimed at a different sort of person. A perceived different class of people. Let me explain what I mean. There is cheap student accommodation next door to me. It is multi-racial, and some of the students are foreign. But Clementine and her husband (who has a good, secure, if not well paid, permanent job) are not the right class for this type of accommodation. None of the house to share accommodation is aimed at them. Even though, back home in Rwanda they would be perfectly middle class. Here they are poor Rwandan refugees, who must settle for the worst, and pay the most.
I don’t get it. At all. If any of you have suggestions, or can explain that I am looking at this wrong, I would love so much to hear from you. Maybe I am just barking up my own, wrong, class tree.