A few weeks back I was invited to birthday drinks at the home of somebody I’d sat next to at one of those winey, sunshiny lunches where the whole world sparkles and you can’t believe the joy of being alive in the world. We’d bonded over marriage, motherhood and writing and I’d gone home with the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you’ve identified one of your kind and know that she’s going to be a friend. And while I noticed that the address she gave me was beyond the perimeters of my usual stomping ground, I didn’t give it much thought until my husband and I found ourselves driving down a deeply tree-lined, seriously wealthy, Bentley-strewn avenue in the heart of Cape Town’s Olde Money quarter and stopping outside a house that made the Kardashians look down and out. I was still hoping the GPS lady had gotten the address wrong when a man with a torch appeared out of the darkness and ushered us down a path and through a gigantic front door.
A chandelier the size of a modest holiday home lit a room which was abuzz with waiters and trays and champagne flutes and a sizeable jazz band. This was birthday drinks? Seriously? Where were the box wine and the Nick Nacks? And it wasn’t even a round birthday. I tried to hide the tub of hummus and lukewarm bottle of Sauvignon Blanc I’d picked up at the Spar, but it was too late. My new friend hurried over and we hugged and chatted, but the light in my eyes had gone out. This was something I hadn’t anticipated and, frankly, didn’t know what to do with. My husband, who knows me well, shot me a warning we are not leaving look and to prove it, piled a plate with profiteroles. But as much as I knew I was being irrational, there was something about that level of opulence; the in-your-face grandeur of this home in the context of poverty-stricken South Africa that I simply could not abide. Out of nowhere I’d been confronted by my inner Karl Marx.
And that’s the thing about living in a country where most people are poor. There’s an element of shame you wouldn’t experience in the States where being rich is lauded and applauded. Or in England where the entitlement of the upper classes whose forebears raped and pillaged their way to wealth goes unquestioned. In simple terms, in South Africa having something means somebody else went without, and when you’re white that somebody else was more than likely black. For days afterwards I reflected on the ways our culture informs our attitudes towards money. For my husband, who grew up in socialist Denmark, the fact that our hosts were mega rich had little significance over and above the fact that they were serving good food and he loves to eat. Raised in an egalitarian and essentially classless society, it wouldn’t occur to him to judge people on the basis of how much money they did or didn’t have. Which is why he doesn’t see anything wrong with asking people what they earn or what their house cost even as I kick him under the dinner table.
What I learnt, living in Scandinavia, is that northern Europeans display a curious pragmatism when it comes to money. Denmark is the only country where I’ve ever been asked, directly, if my parents are rich and what I get paid as a writer. And while I sputtered out my answers, at the same time this lack of value attached to so-called success is very refreshing. They just don’t care. I guess in a country where the wealth is shared and poverty doesn’t really exist it’s easy to be nonchalant about it. Here, of course, with our acutely divided society, being rich or poor has deep political connotations, making conversations and attitudes around money complicated and loaded.
As many people know, Denmark also has something called the Law of Jante (or, ‘Janteloven’ in Danish) which discourages individual achievement, and somebody’s success – especially if they’re boasting about it in a social setting – will more often than not be met with disapproval and condescension. So while we in South Africa might be awed and impressed (or horrified and embarrassed) by a person’s mega wealth, in that country it will probably be treated with mistrust and disdain. Which is really different to how things work here. So different that I let a potentially nice friendship slip because I couldn’t get over myself and my issues around white guilt. Whether we have money or we don’t we are kind of stuck; held ransom by our background, our attitudes and our values. And it’s kind of a shame, really. My nearly-friend was fun. And she threw a fabulous party.