Thursday, January 6, 2011

Clea's do re mi of race relations

This blog was supposed to be about being white. My wife Natasja (she's my wife because we understand and support each other like married people should. But we also have boyfriends to whom we are devoted. Everyone should have an arrangement like us) wrote a blog recently about being coloured that is too brilliant (see It is funny (in a Trevor Noah Daywalker, not a Trevor Noah Cell C kind of way) and sad and true. It made me think I should write about what it means to be white in South Africa. I wrestled with it for days, writing and re-writing it. So I am starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

I was in Grade 1 in 1994. I imagined elections happening in the equivalent of my private school grade 1 classroom: people would vote and ticks would be placed on a white board in a neat table next to the names of Nelson Mandela or...the other people (I wasn't exactly politically clued up back in the day). I was excited when Nelson Mandela won in 1994 and then when we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. They were rainbow nation moments when everyone around me celebrated (including my pre-primary principle who danced around our living room with different coloured streamers piled on top of her head). I knew South Africa had mountains and oceans and deserts; wildlife beyond belief; a flag with all the colours of the Olympic rings (a sure sign of our diverse and yet bonded nationhood); and now a country where all people could live together happily and equally. We were a miracle nation, the best place in the world where we were all learning to see beyond colour and see only other human beings.

I learned Zulu throughout my primary school years and I told off a friend's mother because she said all black people were criminals (perhaps in less polite language). We had our first black head girl (never mind that she was the only one, perhaps before or since) and my head of house (Palmer) was black. I remember crying to her when I was ten and I had my first detention. I have always been fiercely patriotic and the thought of letting down my house mortified me.

Now it is the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Eugene Terreblanche (rampant white racist Afrikaner) was brutally murdered on his farm at the beginning of last year by two of his black farm labourers. Julius Malema added fuel to the fire by reviving the old anti-apartheid song, "Kill the Boer". His millions of supporters continue to support him even more fervently even as Afrikaans hysteria reaches fever pitch. Singer Steve Hofmeyer ranted to the country about how black people are all violent and Afrikaans author Annelie Botes admits in an interview that the only thing she is afraid of is black people. White people everywhere (including book buyers in my sleepy little South Coast town) are thrilled that people are finally being "honest" about how "everyone" really feels about race.

It seems the current fashion is to throw all that 1994 reconciliation stuff out and to vent all one's racial prejudice and stir all the hatred that has been brewing for years. Afrikaans writer and journalist, Max du Preez was astute about the phenomenon. Declaring one's racism is a bit like being in a sex tape scandal or going through a messy celebrity divorce: it boosts sales enormously.

So this just has to be the extreme parts of the population, right? The rest of South Africa (the decent parts) have moved forward. Except that Glenwood Boys High School (prestigious rugby-playing government school in Durban) only just got their first black head boy. In 2011. There was a jubilant, celebratory article about it on the front page of the Mercury (a KZN newspaper) a few weeks ago. I felt more like crying. I am not an advocate of giving someone with no merit a position because of their colour, but surely in a country where the majority of people are black, there should have been more than one black kid who was head boy material in twenty years of mixed schooling.

It is not just the older people with the power that remain prejudiced, they have passed it down to their children. There are many young white people (younger than me) who still refer to the garden "boy" (that thirty-five year old man with a family of six to feed) or the "girl" who brings in the tea who is actually a grandmother.

Then there is a Scottish couple in my father's [...] club who were viciously attacked recently in their home. Their black attackers were not only robbers as they were filled with absolute hatred for the comparatively opulent white people they were attacking and robbing. The man was in hospital for almost a week and his wife is so traumatised she can barely function.

The already racist [...] club were furious. This couple were in the process of setting up a crisis centre at the local police station and were some of the most active members of charity and upliftment projects in the community. In the club's eyes, the "blacks" are just biting the hands that feed them. For them, it confirms Steve Hofmeyer's views that the "Blacks" (it's always the "blacks" the same way it is the "gays" or "them") are inherently violent.

What these white people conveniently forget is that South Africa has been a society of enforced violence almost since the Europeans arrived almost four hundred years ago, with black populations on the receiving end of enforced discrimination and savage oppression for almost all of that time. Just as racism is passed from parents to their children over the generations among white people, so it does among black people, with the added pressure of hundreds of years of repression and brutality.

It doesn't matter that this couple were doing their best for the community and weren't even in South Africa during apartheid. They are caught up in the wider currents of boiling violence and frustration of the millions of the poor, black oppressed. It is not right (it is awful), but it is - depressingly - unsurprising.

Poor black people in South Africa are still oppressed because their oppressors have just changed, they haven't gone away. A man I know has been in education in South Africa since the 1960s. He says education for the poor is worse now than it was under apartheid. Education for the poor was not good under apartheid. On the contrary, an old woman came up to me at the bank ATM one day with her bank card and pin number and asked me to withdraw the amount that was written down for her. She was illiterate, and unable to do it herself. Her powerlessness and vulnerability because of her lack of education epitomised much of what was wrong about apartheid and its legacy of dependent adults. That the education system is now worse makes my skin crawl.

Another man who has been in the meetings of the very top ANC people says that the ANC are happy to keep it that way. An uneducated people will keep believing propaganda. That was the original purpose of Bantu Education: keep the black people stupid and under control. Now it seems the new game plan is to keep the poor people stupid and under control.

And white people are taught by their parents - even many of the relatively liberal ones - that poor black people don't have to be noticed or seen, and that wealthy, educated black people in positions of power are to be feared or resented.

So race relations in South Africa are still extremely fraught. They are, however, intricately bound up with power struggles, class differences and the aftershocks of a brutal past: they are not exclusively about race. The ANC taking away the opportunities for education from the poor, black population is an evil scheme to keep power, not a race struggle. They play the race card to keep these people angry. When these poor black people serve white people in supermarkets or as domestic workers in white homes or send their children to formerly white schools, however, they cannot help but notice that not much has changed.

Some black families have managed to live better lives in the new South Africa. Their children have grown up to be good accountants, doctors, lawyers and businessmen or artists, able to live a good life. Money opens many doors between races, but for the most part, black and white people in South Africa still live separate lives. For poor black people - as I have said before - there has been little or no difference.

When I was in a certain part of Soweto two weeks ago, I was such a rare event that little children (they barely came up to my waist) gathered at the gate of the house I was visiting. I was there with two black men (my boyfriend and his friend). They therefore wanted to know if I had been bought. In other words, whether I was a prostitute.

The three of us had a good laugh: to be mistaken for a prostitute in Soweto was definitely something I can tell my grandchildren one day and laugh about. If I think of the real implications of the situation, however I am more inclined to feel sombre. It reminds me of when I went to Fort Hare University (Alice Campus) with fellow opera singers. I haven't often felt so scrutinised. It was clear that young white students (rather than the few old white lecturers at Fort Hare) were unheard of at this university. When Intervarsity expanded to include Fort Hare a little while ago, the Rhodes students set up an intervarsity party in Grahamstown rather than drive through to Fort Hare. I don't believe it was done with racist intentions, but perhaps those students wouldn't have found me such an oddity if the two universities had more to do with each other.

By the same token, Soweto is perhaps the most cosmopolitan township in the country. If - usually - a white woman only appears in parts of it when she is paid to do so, I can only imagine how little people from different races really do mingle outside of the few mixed race schools and the workplace. Few steps can be taken to erase inherited prejudices when people of different races spend little to no time in each other's company, as equals.

*A postscript: I have written about white people and black people simply because it is such a complex topic as it is that I have not space to include further complexities of Asian, Indian, Arab and Coloured/Mixed Race relations. There are more blogs to follow on this topic (this first one contains the bare musical notes so to speak), so perhaps one day I will remedy my omission.


  1. Clea, this piece made me want to cry... The poor woman wanting to draw money... I know there are lots of unsavoury issues that you brought up, but that absolute dependance and vulnerability just got to me the most!

  2. But let us take those steps, Clea, though they be few.

  3. I am reading this more than a year later (on Nelson Mandela's birthday to be precise) and it is still pertinent.

    We have a long way to go, and the first step is understanding where we are. Thanks for helping me with that Clea!