Cape Town – By their nature, surprises come unbidden: a letter in the post, a mystery deposit of R15-billion in your bank account (yeah, right), the news that your aunt was once an uncle, a phone call from an old friend whose name you can’t remember.
However, some surprises are smaller and less dramatic, but nonetheless pack the same punch.
On Saturday, I went to buy some pens. It still surprises me that stationery shops selling actual pens and actual paper still exist. And I’m still surprised at how happy a good, extra-fine pen makes me feel. And on Saturday, a lot of happiness was needed.
Three miners were still trapped underground, our president had delivered a speech that was at best insincere and at worst schizophrenic, a friend’s mother was dying, a Richardhead in an Audi had just flipped me the finger, and universities had become tangled up in purple and black and the fine line between outrage and hatred. A fine-liner might not even cut it.
I parked the car and walked towards Cavendish, thinking bad thoughts. Rounding the corner, I looked up and saw that the cement space outside a series of vacant shops was filled with tables and chairs and ’70s-looking clocks and chessboards and a strange and wonderful silence. At each table, two people sat opposite each other, frowning at the chess pieces before making their move.
Kids shook hands after a game, a tiny boy wearing tracksuit pants wriggled in his chair when his grey-haired opponent swiftly delivered one, two, three movements, a woman wearing a cap backwards whistled under her breath and smacked the timer.
I don’t know much about chess, but it suddenly seemed magical, like an elite sect whose only entrance requirement is the ability to be comfortably silent while waving the occasional finger in the air. I stood and watched, taking in the space, normally barren but now lively, and the diversity of the players – all colours and ages with varying degrees of sartorial style. There might even have been a purple alien among them.
Organisers Reuben Salimu, of the African Chess Lounge in Rondebosch, and Abdul Kerbelker, of the Claremont Improvement District Company, explained the thinking behind the event: to bring chess to the people and bring people together by using a public space for exchange and interaction.
As I stood watching, I realised that while most of the players were deep in thought, silent as bulldogs, they were communing through a mutual language.
Studies have shown that public spaces are vital for fostering and encouraging social biodiversity. However, the creep of privatisation and development often marginalises this, turning public spaces into segregated areas arranged around class and race.
While Cape Town has a myriad public spaces – from squares and promenades to beaches, parks and trails – it also has an acutely divergent society. Many residents can’t afford to travel to the beach or the city and, because of our history, some feel the city’s public spaces are for other people and not them.
The challenge, therefore, is to preserve and expand the city’s public spaces and create environments that are participatory and socially accessible.
The chess event was a perfect example. The game doesn’t discriminate across race, age or gender, nor does it require expensive overheads or extravagant participation. All the players had to do was put their name down and show up.
Sport is an excellent tool for social cohesion, but many codes are arranged around age and gender.
The performing arts, too, are effective binders and communicators, but rely on a schism between performers and audience. Games, on the other hand, are participatory and accessible, and offer opportunities for intimate interaction, communal problem-solving – and a lot of laughter.
Okay, so Naked Twister on the promenade might be pushing it, but how about a massive outdoor Jenga game that requires a lot of bodies to move the pieces around? Or an outdoor bowling alley? Or banks of bicycles in a public space that, when pedalled, produce energy to add to the grid? Or regular Guinness World Record attempts in public spaces involving hundreds of people? Or tiddlywinks competitions? Scone-baking smackdowns? Hopscotch hoedowns?
Children learn tolerance, co-operation, respect and camaraderie through playing games. It’s obvious from recent events that we adults could do with a refresher – and, who knows, we could surprise ourselves.
We might discover we’re pretty good at hurling ourselves down a bowling lane. Or we may unearth a hidden talent for squeezing into tiny spaces. And we might find that beneath our race and gender and age and language, we’re not that different from one another. Some just might have nicer tracksuits.