Meet our columnist, Queen D. Every week she will delight you, we hope, with her words. Sometimes they’ll be on diversity issues, other times simply feelings and thoughts that affect lots of women. Feel free to comment or send her ideas via our Facebook page.

Queen D’s out and about in the world this week. I’m in Cape Town, the most beautiful city in the world. Lots of queens hang out here so I’m in good company.

Cape Town’s got the lot – winelands, mountains, beaches, world class restaurants, the best nightlife. It oozes sophistication, style and wealth and it’s one of the playgrounds of the filthy rich. Gawp away. So do I.

I want to talk about choice. Our lives are besieged by choice. Every day we have to choose stuff from significant to stupid and everything in between. Which job, what house, to breed or not to breed – significant. Sushi or steak, shag in Ibiza or spa in Wales, custard creams or Bourbon – all stupid.

We can’t avoid choice. As we plough through our twenty hour days, heads down, teeth gritted, we keep having to make choices. But sometimes, we seep into autopilot mode, we keep making the same choices and that can actually feel like choice has disappeared.

Sometimes we get shocked out of our unseeing stupor and are forced to stop, rub our eyes and try to regain some vision and see where the hell we’re heading. It can be a death or illness, redundancy, an emergency. Any catastrophic event can be the jolt we need to reboot our thinking.

I got a jolt this week in this city of polished glass and steel glittering with success. Under the gloss lies the dross and millions live in poverty. In a small town near the city, thousands live in squalid conditions in shacks on the slopes of the valley.

On Friday night, one shack caught fire, killing a family of three. The flames quickly spread and within an hour, the blaze was out of control.

I had a ringside seat a mile away on the other side of the valley. Through the night, I watched in horror, tears streaming, as flames roared across the community, consuming shacks in their path. A grotesque firework display of exploding gas bottles and car fuel tanks illuminated the hellish vista. Fire engines lined the main road below, unable to find any access wide enough to get in and fight the flames. Fire hoses dragged between shacks were punctured by people desperate to save their threatened or burning homes. Human chains strung out on shack roofs passed buckets of water in fruitless attempts to halt the inferno, then dispersed in panic as fires flared up under their feet. By daylight, helicopters bearing huge bags of sea water circled the site, hunting for safe ways to douse the continuing conflagration without injuring or killing the residents below under the deluge. I stood, helpless, watching, weeping.

In just eighteen hours, 5000 shacks lay in smoking ruins, and 15000 people, one third of the town’s population, are now homeless. The people with the least have now lost even that, and are left with only the clothes they wore and the meagre possessions they managed to drag out before their homes imploded.

Through one cleared lens, I saw the horror of a destroyed community, its traumatised residents left with no choice but to stumble away and join a queue with thousands of others to try and rebuild their shattered lives again. But, you see, that wasn’t the only choice. Even in such desperate circumstances, choice revives like the little tiny green shoots which will soon peep out on the mountain. Choice is alive and well. As I became part of the relief effort, I walked down a queue of dignified, polite and desperate people, handing over food and drink.

“Would you like a sandwich?”
“What kind?”
“Peanut butter.”
“No thank you. I don’t like peanut butter.”
The same in the shoe queue. One young mum, baby strapped to her back with a shawl, was rummaging through the pile. She picked out a pair for the baby, then a pair of black loafers for herself. She held them up to me.
“Have you got a pink pair of these?” she said.

Such is the steel of the human spirit that even in the face of disaster and loss, the dignity of choice lies just beneath the surface. The fire might have consumed houses and possessions, but it didn’t burn taste buds or this woman’s shoe preference.

So, reawaken your choices. They are there, even when you think they’re not. Next time you race down a supermarket aisle, stopping for a nano second to waste time musing over whether the rosemary crackers are marginally more tasty than the basil ones, stop and take stock. Then take the first packet of biscuits you see and save up your choice points for something more important. Make your choices work for you. Don’t let them disappear. Realise how valuable your choices are and be as determined and as clear about them the lady with the pink shoes.