Image: Illustration by Manelisi Dabata

The seasons are changing — with a certain adjustment for the climate crisis — and life is already beginning to crowd in with events and commitments and celebrations. There is something in the spirit that rejoices at the return of warm summer days, the promise of lingering sunsets, and the hope that the electricity bill will tumble now that the heaters and warming things can be returned to hibernation mode and everyone’s charring their food outside.

South Africa is a country where “yes-but” optimism springs eternal. This is never more apparent than now. Our anxieties — the crumbling infrastructure and the lights that won’t stay on and the buildings that burn with their hapless, neglected dwellers inside — make us more determined to enjoy the freedoms we have. Yes, the fuel price is rising; look away from that and enjoy lambrusco being the new prosecco.

We can, if we try hard enough, ignore the fact that the impending hot weather will be unbearably wretched, based on the miseries seen in the northern climes during their curdled summer. No, summer is a mood and an idea, a feeling and a concept that looms larger and more entertainingly than the realities that lurk offstage.

My town has already seized the spirit and is galloping away with it in a giddy way. There are more street soirees and concerts in the next month or two than you can shake a stick at. These events, where everyone briefly remembers that our built environment needn’t be subjugated to the will of the car, jostle cheek-by-sweaty-jowl with the various school farewells (surely the source of the persistent belief in adulthood that one says goodbye 30 minutes before one actually leaves?) to fill the streets with revelry. The young proliferate on every corner in the latest fashions, which are simply the fashions from before they were eating with forks (usually things you’d hoped never to see again).

The eponymous varsity, meanwhile, is organising a homecoming weekend, which means that the town will be full of dads (or men embracing the dad aesthetic) reminiscing about the days they playfully tarred and feathered their chum Jono (who hasn’t been seen since graduation). They’ll be leaning out of their SUVs and trying to interest their terminally disinterested offspring in the delights of summer nights in the Boland, while the traffic builds up good-naturedly behind them. And they’ll sit at the streetside cafés and tell stories about when you could drink Tassies all night at the place that was demolished to build the place that this place replaced.

Nothing appals quite as much as the thought that you have become someone who shares bons mots about the weather

But they’re just day-trippers, really, and they’ll go back to being analysts and accountants on Monday. The true residents of summer are the toned young happies who slather on SPF50 every morning and go forth rejoicing. Those who can get up from a comfy chair soundlessly. Those who know when the flowers are blossoming in the desert. Those who booked their tickets to see Stormzy amidst the daisies (if you don’t know who Stormzy is, these are not your people). They even whoop as they go places — when last did you whoop unironically?

If I sound cynical, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that the joy of my summer is tinged somewhat by the realisation that I too am ageing out of the picture. I realised that I was slipping ineluctably into middle age (you may think that’s 45, but why would you want to live to be 90 in this economy?) when I found myself remarking, “I bet this summer will be a hot one!” to my grey-haired neighbour in the parking lot. Nothing appals quite as much as the thought that you have become someone who shares bons mots about the weather. It didn’t help that I was climbing into my little Miata, resolving that this would be the week I got the roof off.

Like summer, a convertible is a fantasy against the odds: you only buy a car whose roof can be removed because you believe that in some world you are Dustin Hoffman speeding across the Bay Bridge with the sun just right, on the way to a rendezvous with a beautiful someone.

The optimism that the weather will always be sunny works only in the limited realm of the car journey, which is why your house’s roof doesn’t come off. Some people take this optimism too far: I’ve seen at least two Jeep Wranglers jeeping by in the past week, relieved of not just roof but doors as well. Compared to these decisive optimists, my little droptop with its canvas roof safely within reach in case of a turn in the weather seems positively half-hearted. And, of course, I don’t dare to actually put the roof down, because I fear judgement from the aforementioned youths. The mirthful glances as I lever myself out of the little roadster are bad enough without the dad-music soundtrack (Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, if you must know) escaping from the hole where a roof should be.

So, here I am, eight paragraphs in, and I’ve come to the true issue: summer is for the absolutely confident, and you’re never as confident as when you’re young. Perpetual assuredness in the rightness of the world seems vacuous when you get older, but perhaps theirs is simply the right response to a world they had very little part in ruining. They too will have their share of summertime sadness — the favourite restaurant closing, the friend on a distant shore — and they will think back on their halcyon days and wonder, “Why did we bring back low-rise jeans?” And the cycle will be complete.

 Dr Wamuwi Mbao is a literary critic and essayist

• From the October edition of Wanted, 2023.

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