The COVID-19 Diaries: Dear White People

Okay, I get it, I do. I have two dogs and Husband and I often go for a run on the road to blow off steam or to remind ourselves of how unfit we are, so I get that not being able to leave your home to do those things is frustrating. It’s frustrating to be told what you can and cannot do. It is frustrating to have your freedom of movement revoked by the government. I’m definitely not saying that this is a ‘walk in the park’-okay sorry, stupid analogy. It’s hard, yes. But come on, get a hold of yourself. I mean seriously now, get a grip. And if you want to complain, put things into perspective first, not only because this is a small sacrifice to make for all South Africans, but also it would be wise to remember the very crappy things your forefathers did to people of colour in this country. Trust me, those restrictions were far more heinous than you having to deal with your dog digging up your garden. Hand to heart, the black government is not out to get you. Also, I think that if you took a moment to channel that energy spent complaining into something more fruitful, say reading up on our country’s history, you’d come out the other side of this a better South African.

In case you don’t remember, life was cruel and unjust for people of colour during the dark days of apartheid. It may be day two of the lockdown, but it’s also a week after we celebrated an important day in our history, Human Rights Day. Just the fact that we have a public holiday to celebrate our human rights should be telling in itself, we weren’t always a country that respected human rights. In fact, scratch that, the gross violation of human rights and the right to dignity can’t be labelled under the gentle tones of disrespect. The system of apartheid was far more purposeful and merciless than disrespect. I wondered on the 21st of March whether others saw the irony in facing the day by trying to restrict their movement. Was it not in Sharpeville that protesters fought, shed blood and died, to fight against the Pass Laws set in place to restrict their movement as black people?  But it is callous of me to compare the restrictions we faced both prior to, and during the lockdown, to that faced by people of colour during the apartheid. These restrictions are far too gentle and just, the severity of them pale in comparison.

Of course the apartheid regime did more than restrict movement, this was a regime that constructed clever and cunning ways to dehumanise people of colour- forced removals, making it illegal for families to live together or own land, the raids, the insanity of Bantu education, torture and perhaps the kind release of death if you were unlucky to be imprisoned. I wonder if luck had a face then, and if it was white. There are volumes written about those atrocities, so I won’t belabour the point. Let’s just focus on one particular element of the apartheid’s cruelty, the Pass Laws. Not only did people of colour have to carry around these passbooks, the Dompas (a name fit for people who are ignorant, no better than an animal and less predictable at best), they’d also have to keep it up to date, and were always at the mercy of their Baas who could at any point refuse to update the pass. Imagine that, just on a whim, maybe because you didn’t like the look of one of your workers, you could simply deny him the right to live, basically. Could the black man take you to the police or go to court? Of course not, there was another noose around his neck in the form of a law that prevented him from doing so. On the off chance that he could get an audience with the police, his Baas would probably be commended for setting a good example. Hundreds of thousands of black people were imprisoned yearly when caught without a pass or when their pass was not up to date, many of whom where never seen again. Families were destroyed, men lost their ability to provide for their families- without a pass, it was impossible to work. Children would go hungry, many would starve, their bodies weakened and primed for death when an illness set in. Life in a one room shack was hard, but you could still live through hard. Life without a pass was impossible. A piece of paper worth so many lives, a piece of paper with the power to destroy.

Maybe you’re reading this and wondering what difference it makes now, so many years later. Maybe you don’t like the guilt I’m laying at your feet. Maybe you know people of colour who never experienced these horrors. I would say to you then that those you know are the lucky few, you know the ones who are like you, like me. We are the haves. What of those who fall into the majority of our country, what of those for whom liberation has not brought real freedom? What of those who cannot get work, not because of a law but because of the unconscious bias that propagates the white competence myth? What of those who due to the structural legacies of our passed are still confined, are still restricted?  I can tell you this much, they’re not complaining about not being able to walk their dogs. And maybe, just maybe you should get to know some of them before you do.

For the LPGs (Lotus Park Gangsters)

Trust the LPG’s (Lotus Park Gangsters) to get upset about me excluding them from my ‘Spingo blog.  Well, I hope this makes up for it. For you, Desan, thanks for setting me straight and reminding me to write about Lotus Park as well.

When I think about Lotus Park, I immediately want to tell the story about how a dead body was found in our school’s swimming pool. There’s so many juicy bits in that one sentence alone, I’m not sure what’s more shocking – that my school had a swimming pool or that there was a dead body in it. That I can’t remember whether the story about the dead body is true or not does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm about the story either. But I guess that would be far from starting the story at the beginning, so perhaps some context would go a long way here.

While it wasn’t often that the pool contained a dead body, just the fact that my primary school, Kamalinee Primary, had a swimming pool was something to behold. For a substantial part of my primary school years, the apartheid was well and truly underway, and although me schooling in an Indian area would mean that we had access to basics like furniture and toilets, it was something else that we had both an impressive library and a swimming pool. Now a charou that can, and likes to read is not uncommon, but a charou that swims, well let’s just say that’s an exception. Sure, we’d lug a pot of breyani to the beach and walk on the sand wearing our jeans, a few daring ones might brave the shallows but by and large, swimmers we were not. Please read that last bit with an undertone of smugness, my family is a family of very proud swimmers. The idea of pool in an Indian school was both mesmerising and impossibly posh, I felt posh going to Kamalinee because of that pool alone. Of course, what wasn’t that posh was that many of the students who came to my school faced the dehumanising effects of poverty daily and as much as I loved that pool, I always thought it was a bit unnecessary in the great scheme of things. Something that the teachers organised at the school that I loved though, was a feeding scheme of sorts where potato sandwiches would be made and wrapped in paper and placed outside the library for anyone to collect so they could have something for lunch. Now, being a kid, there was nothing worse than a potato sandwich for lunch and my mother somehow thought that I had the appetite of a rugby player so my lunch pack consisted of four slices of bread, chips, a chocolate and a juice box (yes for a six year old). Needless to say there was absolutely no reason for me to take one of those wrapped potato sandwiches when they presented themselves. And of course, that’s exactly why I did. Flip, that sandwich was probably the best potato sandwich I’ve ever eaten, nothing like an illicit meal to make you appreciate the simple things in life. It probably was not worth the lashing I got from my mother afterwards and the years of guilt I’ve carried with me but, no one said I was a smart child (although it does seem apparent that I was a hungry one).

I suppose there were loads of things we weren’t good at at Kamalinee Primary, but it amused me to no end that our school did not churn out an abundance strong swimmers. Wait, scratch that, some of the “swimmers” we churned out where the kind that needed to be rescued whenever they ventured into the deep end of the pool. Our pool was only a meter deep so that meant one could easily get away with being a “swimmer” by walking through the water and throwing your arms about. You weren’t fast but you sure didn’t drown. I wonder if that’s why the pool was prime ground for the storage of a dead body. It’s quite clever really, it sort of reminds me of all the Indian aunties who never turn on their ovens, choosing instead to use it as cupboard space. I mean whoever chucked that body in the pool probably thought “this is a good use for this space” and did it to save us the embarrassment of having to be rescued during inter-school swimming galas. It is also possible that the dead body in the pool story was made up one winter when the pool turned a decidedly unappealing shade of pond scum green, and if it is, well that just goes to show that we could use a pool to spark our imaginations if not better our swimming abilities. Kudos to the Kamalinee Primary students on that one, perhaps we were better than we realised at certain things.

It’s hard for me to think of Lotus Park and not think of my school, a school that I’m convinced was one of the best in that area. I loved that school. Sure it was the place where my sister started to disown me (imagine being violently shook by the shoulders and a threatening voice saying “Don’t call me Akka”) but at least I would be able to convince my mother to buy Asterix comics for the school library, something I’m convinced is one of the biggest accomplishments in my life. I am biased to say that we had incredible teachers (my mother was one of them, and yes, I’m still working through it with my therapist) and that they always seemed to want the best for us, they pushed us, they shouted at us but most importantly, they created a foundation like no other. You’ll also understand that I say, with complete love in my heart, that I think they were a bunch of sadists. Hear me out, here. I mean I just took a look at my primary school concert pictures and remembered the sheer horror of those strangely choreographed dances, the costumes that didn’t fit the way they were supposed to, and worse still, the ones that fell apart in public. Why was it that most of our pageant/concert clothes were put together by nothing more than safety pins and hope? Remember the duck dance of ’90? Of course, we were cute in our yellow crepe paper outfits and we had a little hip shaking dance to go with it, but let’s just take a step back and examine the mechanics of the thing. Crepe paper on a good day is only slightly more substantial than a politician’s promise in election year, but couple that with a windy day, squirming children and you’ve got outfits that are able to spontaneously destruct. Thank goodness none of us had boobies then, and that that number saw the great crepe paper ban.  I honestly think that whenever there was an opportunity to dress us up oddly, the teachers would jump to it, be it at concerts, school sports or at the min debs ball. Okay, that last one was totally on my mother, apparently she thought it was in fashion to dress your kid like the bride of Frankenstein.

Dead bodies in swimming pools, stolen potato sandwiches and clothing malfunctions aside, Lotus Park is also a place that reminds me of my late uncle, Juggie. It’s where he lived the last few years of his short life and when I think that I am older now than he ever was, it’s hard not to get emotional. Both Juggie and Lotus Park were a huge part of my childhood and sometimes when I think of my uncle, I’d like to think he would have grown old in that house in Lotus Park. That house where we would run around the living room singing “Beans kota sapa dingo”, where I learnt the reason why “stinkbombs” where named as such, and where I have the dent in my right shin from. My uncle wasn’t the youngest of his siblings but his crazy personality, his enthusiasm for life and that he could always get others (read his nieces and nephews) to do his chores for him, made me feel like he was. Maybe a part of my uncle will always be in Lotus Park, maybe it’s with that small part of me that was a child there.

This is ‘Spingo, Marms

I can’t quite recall what I was saying but the person I was talking to said, “That’s because you’re a ‘Spingo stekkie,” and strangely enough, instead of me thinking he had had a stroke, hearing him say those words cemented our friendship. There’s something to be said about shared meaning, about the ease of which that is known to both parties that makes for easy dialogue and communication but, of course, I can’t start a blog about ’Spingo and ramble on to deeper things and musings about how shared meaning comes about. No, no, I must, as with all stories, start at the beginning.

That the Durban International Airport was housed in Isipingo sort of made me feel like all roads lead to Isipingo

First some clarification for the uneducated reader. ‘Spingo is actually a town called Isipingo found in Kwa-Zulu Natal, but the only time you’d refer to it as such is if you were taking to a white person, or if you grew up somewhere fancier and were trying to act like a white person (and no, growing up in Umhlatuzana does not make you fancy). I’m pretty sure I’m making it too fancy by my reckless apostrophe before the “s” and that I’m going to lose street cred by constantly referring to it as Isipingo, but you’ll forgive me.  Right, where was I? Yes, the great town of Isipingo.  That the Durban International Airport was housed in Isipingo sort of made me feel like all roads lead to Isipingo, you could always find a road sign pointing you home. Man, were we proud of our proximity to the airport. Not only could anyone coming to Isipingo easily find us (all roads lead to ‘spingo remember?), but we also had a restaurant in the airport. Yes, one entire restaurant. Hey, don’t judge, we only went to that airport restaurant for the non-important occasions, for birthdays and dates we’d usually brave the drive to Toti to marvel at the white people. It was only testament to our wiliness and ingenuity that we used the airport not only as a means of travel, but also as a way to give direction, provide entertainment and sustenance.

According to me, there were three parts to Isipingo- they were easy to identify because they started with the word “Isipingo”- Isipingo Beach, Isipingo Rail and Isipingo Hills.  Isipingo Rail was named as such because to live there meant you “lived on the wrong side of the tracks”, trust me I spent a good few years learning how to make mud cakes and ride my pink BMX there, it was rough, proper ghetto. Not only was “The Rails” a buzzing commercial hub that warranted a KFC and later a Chicken Licken, it was also home to The Isipingo Temple. I’ve seen many temples around the world, and I can say with all honesty, that none compare to the Isipingo Temple. Every year, around Easter, Hindus from all parts of Durban would make a pilgrimage to the temple. I was always a bit of strange child with an overactive imagination, and my relationship with organised religion, is and always has been, complicated. Despite that, I enjoyed my first experience at this temple. Well at least I did, at first. It was an unusual treat to walk beside my grandfather; the ground was warm beneath my bare feet and I had the special honour of carrying the camphor, which we would pause to throw into the flames as we circled the temple. The smell of camphor in my hands and the pleasure of having my grandfather all to myself seemed too good to be true. And it was, because as we completed the last circle around the temple it would seem as though we descended into the last circle of hell. I want to say that I saw a chicken flying over the temple roof in a graceful arc, but there was nothing graceful about the mad squawking and the hysteria that ensued and that’s saying nothing about how the chicken reacted. I also want to say that I was upset because this constituted violence towards animals, but in truth, I was more savage then, and I was more concerned about a wasted opportunity to eat that chicken.  I became convinced that the “Chicken Temple” was a satanic temple and that one day I too would be captured for Voodoo magic rituals (do Satanists do Voodoo rituals?). To make it worse, everyone from all over Durban came to this temple and this is how they saw the ‘Spingo members, no wonder everyone thought we were shambies.

Isipingo Beach was a place where you could lose your life, quite literally. Being an “Indian area” during the time of The Group Areas Act, the government decided that if the brown people wanted to get in the water, then we could also brave the sharks (do sharks like spicy food?). And, if the sharks didn’t get you, there was always the notorious “Beach Boys” to deal with. To be clear, I have no idea what it meant to be a “Beach Boy”, who these boys were or how the title was even bestowed upon a worthy subject, but I was told that they were fierce and fearsome. These guys were sort of like the Loch Ness of ‘Spingo for me, there would always be claims of sightings, some people would even have grainy photographic evidence, but they would always remain elusive, creatures never to be caught in broad daylight.  Isipingo Beach was also home to “Daddy’s” Supermarket and the most epic bakery next door, many a birthday would be graced by a cake from there. It was Isipingo Beach where I first ventured into the water, where I caught my first fish (a stick floating in a polystyrene cup) and where as children, the only thing wilder than our imaginations were ourselves.

Man, did I think I was fancy living in Isipingo Hills. I grew up watching Beverly Hills 90210, and even though I didn’t understand any of it- it was screened in Afrikaans and we could get the English version if we switched on the radio while turning down the volume of our TV- I knew that those rich people lived the life. I believe it was the apartheid government’s way of making us believe Afrikaans was cool, so advanced were their methods of brainwashing that I was actually surprised and somewhat disappointed to find out Kelly, Brandon and the gang were actually Americans who spoke English. I was convinced that Isipingo Hills would be similar to Beverly Hills 90210 and the fact that our telephone numbers all started with the numbers “902” added to my confidence. When we moved to “The Hills”, I imagined that our lives would be drastically different and even though high school was sort of like a soap opera, Isipingo Hills was more Little House on the Prairie than Beverly Hills 90210. Seriously, you’d easily find a herd of cattle crossing the road or a random goat meandering around. The Hills would be the place that shaped my high school years, from walking down the street to house parties, to swimming at the public pool all year long (and trying to avoid the lifeguard’s office adorned with nudie pics), to being entertained after school at Jeena’s. Jeena’s, if it still exists, should be a historical landmark. That so many high school students met there while waiting to be fetched by their parents meant that on any given day something would happen worth talking about the next day. The remark “meet you after school at Jeena’s” could be taken in one of two ways depending on the tone. If said in anger, it’s a challenge to a fight, and probably not one you can easily escape or win. Once these words are said, in that particular way, it is usually a witness or two who will turn to their friends and say in a non-threating manner, “meet you after school at Jeena’s” as an invitation to get a ringside view of the flight. I know it sounds simple enough, but I once confused the two versions and found myself slap bang in the middle of a fight, luckily, I escaped with neither a slap nor a bang, but it was a close call.

I can hardly believe that all I’ve done is scratch the surface here. Maybe there’s a great book to be written about ‘Spingo and the members, the marms, ‘Spingo Dingos but for now, this will have to do. ‘Spingo Dingo out

Welcome to the Western Cape- Please mind the gap

I’ve always harboured the belief that I could live in the Western Cape or in Cape Town, the mother city of South Africa. That aching beautiful coastline where white sandy beaches meet tortoise water. The wine farms, lush and green with abundance. That three hours out of Cape Town in almost any direction is a weekend away. Man, I knew that I could live there and more so I wanted to live there. That was of course, until I did live there for four months this year. It wasn’t that the Western Cape wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t that mother nature didn’t show off often and, in a jaw-dropping fashion. It was beautiful and that was part of the problem. It was challenging to see such beauty and think that it existed for a few, for a wealthy few. Nowhere else in our country has the divide seemed so stark and sickening. I would drive out of the estate I was put up in, the very same estate with private vineyards and stables, and not even a few hundred meters away was an informal settlement. Absolute wealth ran parallel to abject poverty. No sunset, no weekend away, no wine club “member only” benefits could take the taste of discomfort out of my mouth.  It’s one thing to read about the fact that we are the most unequal country in the world, it’s a totally different thing to see that gap manifest. How could I justify a world where the wealthy hide behind a walled, protected estate and the poor build homes of tin with no access to running water and electricity down the road? How could I justify living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, that is actually a place of misery and suffering for a vast majority?

I’d like to pretend that the idea for this blog sprung from some lofty, moral high ground. It didn’t. This post started because of a chocolate, a missing Lunch Bar to be precise. Part of me was trying to settle into being away from home, part of me was trying to find my feet on a new project and all of me felt like I was failing. So, in other words, it was another day at the office. On this particular day I knew that, despite my feeble attempts, I would succumb to the hollow and empty promises that comfort eating would provide. What I didn’t count on was not finding my “emergency” stash when I opened my kitchen cupboard (read hanging onto the cupboard door using my body weight to open it in a manner that was both lazy and satisfying). Upon closer inspection, I found that not only was my chocolate gone, but so too were some of the “just in case” biscuits I had bought earlier in the week. In the weeks that followed, other items, mainly food would go missing. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my initial reaction was one of anger. I guess it was easier to be angry at the person who had taken what belonged to me than it was to first look at myself, and to think about those tin houses walking distance from the estate. Whoever was sneaking away my junk food was actually doing me a favour but all I could focus on was the invasion of privacy I felt. All I could think about was that someone had stolen from me, someone had taken what belonged to me. Someone had gone through my things and had taken what they wanted, with no consideration of repercussions or of the fact that I was fundamentally a “good” person. I was in such a vile mood that honestly, in that moment, to consider the thief’s point of view would have been saintly. To think that someone had taken from me nothing that I needed, that someone who came to clean my apartment probably saw a reminder of life she could not afford didn’t even cross my mind.

It was only driving to work the next day, when I tugged my jacket a bit tighter to fend off the brutal winter wind that I thought about everything I had. I didn’t own the apartment I was living in, but it was paid for by work. I had warmth, I had more food than I could eat, and by many means, I lived a privileged life. When I went running in the afternoons in the estate, I would see Ferraris or people out on their horses, sure they almost always seemed offended to find a brown person in their midst but that’s a story for another blog. All around me there was excess, all around me was wealth and at a level I have never experienced before. And all around me that wealth had a face, it was white. Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither justifying theft nor am I saying that my junk food thief lived in an informal settlement or in abject poverty. But I do wonder what it must have felt like to be her. To show up at my apartment for a meagre wage, find my cupboards stocked with excess and to go home to whatever she had, all the while thinking of everything she didn’t. And to think that I never thought of her empty belly, I never thought of the fact that she might want to eat something when she came to clean my apartment. I had more than I needed and I never thought to share. I know that that scenario is no less valid in Johannesburg, where many of our domestic workers go home to small spaces, barely able to make ends meet, thinking about their children who are often sent away because their parents can’t afford to provide for them. It’s no less painful to think about, but somehow the contrast in the Western Cape was too jarring, too sharp. Somehow those high, guarded walls, the horses, the vineyards are all too much. And maybe it’s because the hands that tended the gardens, cleaned the homes and raised children were black. Maybe it’s because the wealth I was seeing was built off black labour with very little reward in return.

In the area that I lived in, it would be easy to think that the apartheid still existed and that I miraculously passed the pencil test and got in. Harsh, I know, but I don’t really have another way to describe it. Somehow, I had managed to sneak in, but I was never at home, I was always an imposter and I was constantly surrounded by talk of how our country was going to ruin. I’d listen to white women talking about how “things had changed” in the area they grew up in, and when I’d probe, they would look around trying to find a black face in the crowd and say, “you know”. I’d do a Sunday timed run in the estate and find that the only colour in that group would be that of my skin. It made me uneasy. It made me uneasy to see the clear divide between wealth and the help along racial lines. It made me uneasy to hear people talking at a wine farm about the house they’d just bought in Franschhoek and then hear of how there are no opportunities for white people in our country. I longed for the rainbow nation we were meant to be and all I got was angry. I was angry at the smugness of the wealthy, at the overt arrogance in their existence and I was angry to be a part of it. So, as much as I love the Western Cape, it’s really not for me. I cannot bear the beauty side by side with the ugliness of the divide. Nope, I do not think I could live there, my heart would not handle it.

Everyday Racism: The “Good Guy” aka the benevolent racist

Let’s preface this blog with a disclaimer; I love creating villains. To create a villain is to bask in the ideology that I am right and that I have been wronged. It truly is a beautiful space where absolutely no thinking occurs, and I can spend the currency of my intellect picking dirt from under my nails. Wonderful, right? So, it’s natural that it was these villains that I was drawn to when I first started thinking and writing about race. It was the guy in the two-tone shirt flying the old South African flag in his backyard. It was friend who used the “K” word. It was the woman who could voice her hate in hushed tones to me because even though I wasn’t white, I wasn’t black either. I am drawn to these overt racists for a reason; they’re easy to spot and they’re still arrogant and ignorant enough to not think about what is socially acceptable before they speak. They are the ones we love to hate because there is nothing to debate, the burden of proof falls away and we can look at them with disgust and horror from our vantage point of superiority. These are a special bread of human, no doubt. And that we take notice of them is great, we should. They should inspire anger and conversation. But I wonder about the rest of us, the everyday racists, the ones who navigate social settings carefully, the ones who know just what to say and to who. Never the villains nor the heroes, these are the everyday racists. And they’re us, all of us. They’re harder to spot because they’re good people, they are mothers, they are friends, they are you and me. Not ready to believe me yet? Let me introduce you to one character you may recognise, the “good” guy aka the benevolent racist.

What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person?

I’ve met him. I’ve been horrified by some of the things he has said. I’ve laughed at his jokes. He’s sat across the dinner table from me. I’ve been impressed by the compassion he showed his gardener and his domestic worker. I’ve thought he was a good guy. I’ve thought he was a bad guy. I’m beginning to believe he is both. Here’s the issue we have with the “good” guy, he actually seems to be one and we like him. So, he can’t possibly be racist, right? Racists are terrible humans, they are always the villains of the story, they believe that pigmentation should serve to create masters and slaves. They are ugly, mean spirited people. But what if that wasn’t all that they were? What if that was the truth, but only a part of the truth? What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person? What if that person you saw giving money to the beggar on the street was racist? What if the person standing next to you volunteering at the soup kitchen was racist? What if people you loved dearly, people in your family, were racist? What if you looked at yourself, examined your thoughts and actions and found bias because of race? Would you no longer be a “good” person? Would everyone stop being good people? Tough questions, I know, but it’s questions we must ask.

It’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions

I raise the point of the benevolent racist because it’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions and quite frankly, I’m frustrated by it. I’m frustrated because every time a benevolent racist is given benefit of the doubt, it is a missed opportunity to course correct. I’m frustrated that we’ve protected these benevolent racists in our social circles, in our families and at work. I’m also frustrated by people who tell me how “good” they are, or who try to prove that they “don’t see colour” when I call them out on their bias. It’s great that you’re putting your domestic worker’s kids through school, it really is, but sorry buddy, that does not automatically cure you of racism. I think it’s wonderful that you have a black friend, less wonderful when you use said friendship as some sort of a “get out of jail free card”, though. Let me clarify, I’m not saying that you’re a bad person, you’re probably not, but I am saying that you’re ignorant or worst still, you’re arrogant enough not to know you’re ignorant. But I guess what I am most frustrated about is the well-meaning racist, the good guy who can’t keep the condescension out of his voice, the guy who tells you that if people weren’t so lazy, they’d be able to make something of themselves. It’s also the same guy who believes he made it out of “poverty” by sheer will and determination alone. It’s easy to pick this guy out. He’s often the one giving well-meaning advice, oblivious to the anger or blank stares he’s getting in return. It’s that guy that really gets me angry. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that a benevolent racist always believes he’s entitled to weigh in on a conversation that he probably understands very little about. Maybe I’m just an angry brown woman and I should learn to listen when men talk to me lest I decide to form my own opinions. Apologies for making this a male thing, be sure the “good” guy was meant to refer to both men and women alike, I guess my recent interactions with white men talking to me about race and feminism has skewed my writing a bit (read flared my temper).

If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional

As I write this I wonder if there is a cure. Is there a cure for the “good” guy or the benevolent racist? I suppose to start thinking about a cure, one first needs to start by acknowledging the problem and I guess we all have a part to play in this cure. For me the message is clear, whether you think of yourself as “good” or not, whether you have good intentions or otherwise, outcomes and consequences matter. They matter far more than what we think of ourselves or what we wanted to achieve. So, I present to you this idea that is as startling in its simplicity as it is difficult to do, when faced with a situation where you see bias, confront it. When faced with a situation when someone calls you out on your bias, listen. When I say confront it, decide for yourself what that means, even if it is an acknowledgement to yourself about your own discomfort, it’s better than ignoring it. When I say listen, I mean, don’t defend yourself, ask the person talking to say more, maybe take some time to think about your actions. If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional. If someone says something that makes you feel guilty about your privilege that’s on you, not them. You do not get a get out of jail free card no matter who you are or what wonderful things you’re doing with your life.

I don’t believe that we are either good or bad. We are entire beings who sometimes do good things and who sometimes don’t. We are more than the sum of those actions. But, for goodness sake, if you must insist on being the “good” guy or protecting one, then at least change your definition of what that means. A real good guy is one who is able to acknowledge his or her own bias. A real good guy knows that he will mis-step. A real good guy knows that she will get it wrong sometimes and who isn’t afraid of holding up the mirror to herself. Most importantly, a real good guy isn’t willing to hide behind being the “good” guy, he knows that won’t get us anywhere.

Sutherland: Searching For The Stars

Nostalgia clouds and softens a memory of the first time I heard of Sutherland, a sleepy town too tiny to be called small. Of course, the man doing the telling was in himself an enigma, a learned man who had spent decades of his life looking towards the heavens. He worked in relative isolation and seemed to speak a language only he understood, but when he spoke of Sutherland I listened, marvelling at the unbridled enthusiasm in his voice. When he spoke of The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), two things became abundantly clear to me, astronomers are literal people (how else would you name the largest telescope in the Southern hemisphere?) and that I had to see this telescope for myself. I cannot adequately explain the pull or how South Africa housing this telescope inspired me, I just knew that one day I would make the journey. Many years later, Sutherland, my first taste of the Northern Cape would charm me with it’s startlingly clear yet biting cold days and unpretentious solitude. When I stood before SALT, the sun benevolent in a cloudless sky, I had to stop for a moment. It felt like magic. It felt like possibility.

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The Northern Cape!

Now, I’m not overly fond of the cold, I love the romance of a fire and a glass of red as much as the next person but when the car you’re driving beeps in indignation and indicates that the outside temperature is 4 degrees Celsius at the warmest part of the day, I tend to question my life choices. Yes, I did once meet a Canadian who faced an Arctic Winter with nothing but a smile, a bathrobe and flipflops, but my constitution is one that developed over warm winters during which my hometown would host an international surfing competition, so I’m slightly less equipped. Make no mistake, Sutherland is cold, so cold that I’ve managed to manufacture a “fact” about it being the coldest place in our country.  I could feel the weight of that “truth” in my bones, so I have no desire to modify it with what could constitute a fact. If you have any ideas about correcting me, you best leave those intentions well enough alone, thank you. Misery and melodrama aside, there is something beautiful about the cold. There is a brutal honesty about it, one that brings with it a startling clarity, an exaggeration of the brilliance within the barren landscape that surrounds you. A tree that grows on the Martian like landscape is not just a tree, it is a brave and noble seed that sprung from hostile beginnings to flourish in world that did not want or appreciate it. You cannot help but be inspired by it’s presence and as it stands alone, you stop for a moment to give thanks to it’s tenacity. You must marvel at it’s grandeur, it is all the more impressive in it’s isolation. Bright, clear days give way to a darkness that is absolute but not heavy, and night skies so adept at capturing an imagination that they seemed to be created for that sole purpose. Sutherland invites exploration, you look up towards the heavens, feel the crispness of a winter night and are driven to see more. You tug at your jacket to keep warm, but the night sky ignites something in you. All at once you are completely insignificant yet an incredible part of something much larger. And there is nothing you can do apart from grabbing hold of someone’s hand and marvel, revel in fact, at your insignificance.

 

I didn’t really expect much in terms of tourism at Sutherland (and even what little I did expect I was wrong about in any case). Besides, I had already convinced myself that I was taking the three and a half hour drive just to see the telescope. What I didn’t count on was having to fight off Swine Flu while visiting Sutherland in the middle of their coldest month of the year. We arrived at the SALT visitors centre in time for both the first tour and for me to feel incredibly sorry for myself. Not even my teddy bear/mutant cat named Guinea Bissau could bring cheer to my feverish mind (more on Guinea in another blog, I’m convinced he wants to take over the world but isn’t smart enough to do so). There was a point at which I felt like the cold was a personal affront to me, it mocked the frivolity of my layers and I took it rather personally that the weather could be so inconsiderate towards my suffering. I lasted a good ten minutes inside SALT before trying to curl myself into a ball and praying for death. After my imploring looks at Husband had failed and once our tour guide told us that the temperature inside the telescope was set to mimic the night temperature, I almost ran towards the warmth of the four degrees outside. Okay, I’m being dishonest here, there was no “almost”, I ran out of the telescope, emerging like a drowning woman gasping for air while (rather counter-intuitively) trying to wrap my hat around my face in the process (I know Swine Flu is incredibly glamourous, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

The tour cut short, we headed off to our bed and breakfast where I would find the bed, crawl into it with my boots still on and emerge a good six hours later. Strange is definitely a word I would use to describe this bed and breakfast, not just strange because there was a small dining table in the bathroom (where else would you put a dinning table?) but strange because it could have easily been the setting for a low budget horror movie and the darkness abound did nothing to quell my fears of vampires waiting to capitalise on this little (dark) town in the middle of nowhere. I guess this is the thing about Sutherland though, it is a small town and it can’t be bothered to convince you otherwise. You can find everything you need (as long as you don’t need a pharmacy or the trappings of a modern life) on one road quite simply because there is only one road in Sutherland. I love that the “Mall” consists of one shop and that the most popular restaurant is actually in a house that was converted to a B&B. Even better, said B&B is run by a woman who greets you as though you’ve just interrupted the most important thing she’s ever had to do AND you’ve tracked mud all over her favorite rug. The place is called The Blue Moon and I’m convinced the name reflects the frequency of the owner’s smiles or ability to be pleasant. We spent the better part of an hour there, I’m convinced that most of our time was spent standing in the hallway in that awkward moment between us greeting The Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and her showing us to our seats. Maybe it was because we had left The Blue Moon without a meal that we were able to hold out for the two and half hour wait at the next restaurant we went to. Just to be clear, it was a two and half hour wait from order to meal and by the time our meals are served, the owner looked exhausted and we felt like inconsiderate fools for still being there.

Small town, strange accommodation and shocking service aside, Sutherland has some sort of magic to it. I felt something akin to regret driving out of town. I wanted to stay longer. I wanted to spend a night under the stars. I wanted to brace myself against a Northern Cape winter and look up to the heavens in awe. And that feeling makes me believe that I’m not quite done with Sutherland yet, it makes me trust in another road trip towards the solace, the stars and the strangeness of Sutherland.

Why I am (still) writing about race

We’re almost a month into a new year, we’re a quarter of a century into our democracy and it’s been two weeks since my last chocolate. I remember when I started this blog, my very first post dealt with race and even though I’ve covered a vast and maddening array of topics since, it seems like the race one is slightly stickier and more persistent. I have written people off for being racist, I have argued and shouted when I shouldn’t have, I have wept with despair and I have forgiven under the embrace of understanding. In so many ways, we have made wonderful, profound steps forward and I have tried to use my voice, sometimes in anger, sometimes with compassion, sometimes in disbelief to try to quell the fires of prejudice and ignorance. I have not always succeeded. But through success or failure, one thing has become alarming evident, we must continue to try. If we do not first acknowledge the problem, we can never attempt to resolve it. We are not a racially blind nation, we are not without bias, overt or otherwise, and as much as it is exhausting, we need to keep talking about this. I am unapologetic for my persistence in this regard and if you are one of the many who are tired of talking about race, then know, so too am I, but I am far more tired of how racial dynamics play out and of our refusal to see certain uncomfortable truths. So, I am still writing about race, and this is why.

Was it that bad?

It is one of those wonderful South African afternoons, where the setting sun brings with it a light of possibility and serenity. I have always loved the part of the afternoon that creeps into evening, it’s light forgiving and gentle. The beer in my hand is perfectly cold and I find myself sitting under an old tree that embraces the picture-perfect sky. I don’t quite remember what strange turns the conversation has taken around me but at one point the person sitting next to me says “Was it really that bad? I mean look at you, you obviously made it out okay.” I’m not so much angry as I am surprised by his comments. I have never heard anyone utter those words about the apartheid. “Was it really that bad?” I heard what he said, but I also heard what he didn’t, Do we have to always talk about this? When will people realise that the apartheid also brought infrastructure and development? And finally, I don’t think you’re black enough to be complaining. I could not answer, so I shut my mouth and frowned at him. The question kept playing over and over in my head while he looked at me as if to confirm his initial suspicion that I was no match for his intellect. What could I have said in that moment when faced with someone who could think of the gross human rights violations, the indignity of apartheid and feel apathetic? Was it really that bad- beyond the subjugation, beyond the senseless deaths, beyond the fact that to be black was not be human? Was it really that bad? It was in that moment that I left as though I had no language with which to communicate with him. It was in that moment that I felt deeply sad. Maddeningly, I know that he is not the only one who feels this way.

I wonder if apathy is a form of violence, to see someone, to know the horror of a combined past, yours and theirs and simply think, That did not really happen, It wasn’t really that bad. You see me, but you cannot hear the truth in my words, they are an exaggeration. You are blinded by your privilege, so you do hear my truth, it was never your world and maybe even then if you are forced to consider that part of what I am saying is the truth, you probably think that I deserved it. That my skin made me less than you. So, you dismiss me and with it you dispense of accountability. It is my problem and clearly it is time that I got over it. In a way, that dismissal is so much more than trying to prevent a discussion on racism, it is a dismal of a person, of their experiences and of things that shaped their identity. There is sorrow and a deep, deep hurt in that refusal to acknowledge another, in that refusal to see another’s humanity.

And so, I write for the man who asked if the apartheid “was that bad”, I write for the people that you know who are like him, for the people who ask, “What do you expect from me?” for those who refuse to acknowledge the part they play, the unearned privilege bestowed upon them. I write for those who will never read this, those who continue to struggle with ill-begotten superiority that has proven to be fragile in our new democracy. I write, because it wasn’t that bad, it was far, far worse than anything I could shape with words. I write because I must.

An Evening with Arundhati Roy: The Politics of Post-Its and Green Lipstick

Last Thursday, as I entered my home after the Johannesburg event, “An Evening with Arundhati Roy”, there was a fair amount of sulking and foot dragging as I placed my unhappily unsigned copies of “The God of Small Things” and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” on my kitchen counter. The thicker of the two books, the older sibling to me, sighed before tipping over and as I reached beneath it to set it straight my fingers found something far more insidious and shattering than my unsigned books. I found something designed to supress the voice of the Brown people, I found something overflowing with supremacist, white colonial power. I found Post-Its.

Personally, I’m fond of the Post-It (I know, it’s abhorrent). They punctuate many of my books, their bright, prickly colours reaching out like eager hands ready to embrace me. But of course, that was before I had experienced the shock and horror of the Post-It. And I had Green Lipstick to thank for my introduction into the unsavoury world of Post-Its. You see, I arrived at the Arundhati Roy event, two of her books in hand, nervous, excited and impatient. To say that I found Arundhati’s writing fluid, lyrical and moving would be a cold comparison to the truth of my feelings but I think you get the point (you’re clever like that). The first, not unwelcome, surprise came from Arundhati Roy herself, the smallness of this powerful author was as captivating as was the spring tenacity of her curly hair. The second, far less captivating, surprise was that the moderator seemed genuinely out of her depth. If I didn’t have a strict policy on wasting alcohol, I would have probably choked on my wine when I heard this strange woman emit words that seemed to shape the idea that India was nothing but a land of colours, the home of curry, Bollywood movies and The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel Movie. I swear there was a collective sigh of relief when Arundhati Roy had to do another reading, at least that gave the moderator some shot at being exposed to Roy’s writing. If, by now, you’re thinking that the surprises are getting more and more unpleasant, good job, you earn a Scooby badge. The last surprise came in the form of Green Lipstick who introduced herself to me and everyone waiting in the line to get our books signed by being rude, obnoxious and loud. I suspect that Green Lipstick needed to raise her voice because her lipstick was too loud, and she was concerned that the rest of us wouldn’t hear her above it and let’s face it, there could be no worse punishment than not being heard for Green Lipstick.

Now before you get ahead of yourself (not you, but that other guy who is impatient and judgemental), I was not surprised Green Lipstick’s choice in lipstick. Okay, I was a little (it was so green) but what really surprised me was how she chose to use her voice. She chose to use her voice to agitate and when she realised that she wasn’t getting the desired attention she sought out ways to make herself louder. When her initial shouts of outrage about the crowd control temporary fencing “Don’t you know what fences mean to Brown people?” did not get the appropriate response she turned to a blond woman handing out Post-Its. Okay, so I am a Brown person and if you ask me, I quite like the fence around my property as I am sure Green Lipstick likes hers and it was not as if the event organisers were separating us by something as stupid as race, class, gender, caste or sexual preference. They were simply trying to maintain order at an event where there was an overwhelming number of people and were no doubt trying to make the book signing as stress free for the author as possible. Did Green Lipstick see that? You bet not, because that is the far less dramatic and anger inspiring version. So Green Lipstick turned her fury towards Blond Post-It Lady and for some reason she thought to punctuate her sentences when a swerve of her head and the words “Exactly”. The conversation would have been funny if I wasn’t so scared of Green Lipstick. It went something like this:

Blonde Post-It Lady: “Please take a Post-It and write your name on it and pass it on”

Green Lipstick: “Can you explain why there are fences here? Don’t you know what fences mean to Brown people?”

Blonde Post-It Lady: “I really don’t know, I’m just here to hand out Post-Its”

Green Lipstick (with a swerve of her head): “Exactly. Well I won’t take one, why should I take this oppression?”

The conversation deteriorated rapidly thereafter, and I decided to stop paying attention especially after Green Lipstick started to insult a woman, also standing in line who tried to keep the peace. She seemed to favour sticking out her hand with her books in them and using her free hand to smack the top of the pile and say “Have you read this? Read this Boo Boo, then we’ll talk”. To be frank, I felt like I had not read the books as I barely understood her commentary or their relationship to either of Arundhati’s books that I had read. The one thing I did understand was that Green Lipstick had done something worse than be rude or ruin my night. Green Lipstick had cheapened the very real discourse that needs to take place in our country. Brown people, Brown women, in our country should not just be heard because they shout or because they cause a scene, they should be heard because they, we, have very relevant and valuable contributions to make. I do not shy away from difficult conversations and I am unafraid of step in when I feel that someone is being wronged.

But in truth, Green Lipstick had wronged us all that day and I chose to leave her be. I chose to leave her be because that would be a greater insult than me asking her to get over herself and her delusions of inferiority. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many chains, there are still conversations to be had, fights to be fought and tempers to rise but while we’re busy fighting for freedom from Post-Its and crowd control, the anniversary of the day that the ground bled with the blood of 34 miners goes about unspoken.

The “Indian Problem”

When I wrote The curse of the Charou and the “civilised” blacks, I wrote it with an ardent hope that someone would hear my message, that someone would start having different conversations, that someone would help to turn the tide. And maybe, just maybe, as is the hope of any writer, my words did find resonance in the hearts and minds of some of readers. But I write this now, feeling like my voice is too little to be heard, that my words hold no weight. I write this now worried about our country in a way that hurts my throat and moistens my eyes. I write this now worried about the “Indian problem” in Durban and in our country.

In the last week over various social media platforms we all saw the smiling face of a woman who could all too easily be called beautiful. A Durban born beauty who spewed nothing but hate, a young woman lost in the lowest, most self-serving form of delusional grandeur. She was the woman whose actions would further serve to divide and we would grow to despise her. If you have not yet heard or read of her story and how she chose to serve herself through hate, you can read it here. I have no desire to rehash it now. I am tired and I am sad. I have the desire to reach for the back of my neck and pull at the cricks that tense and tighten there and that gather around my shoulders. How does a young woman get to be that blind? We have a serious problem and it’s not going be resolved with further hate and anger, that I know for sure but I still don’t know how it is to be resolved. A friend comments on the article shared to Facebook and when I read the comment stating “This is our country”, I almost weep with the beauty in that simple thought. It is only when I read further that “They should go back to India” that I realise that my version of “our” was different to that of the commenter. South Africa belongs to all of us, bigoted or not, brown or not, united in our diversity. I feel those words so strongly they might as well be etched onto my heart instead of written in a constitution so beautiful it should make every South African weep with pride.

Here’s what I hate, I hate that part of me agrees with Malema when he talks of how racist Indians can be, when he talks of the superiority complex that seems to grow within the minds of many South African Indians. I hate that it’s a large part of me because I’ve heard the talk of people close to me, I heard the talk when I go to Durban and I know that it is true. With the prevalence of racist comments or remarks that serve to denigrate Black people in our country, I am ashamed to be called an Indian. I want to scream “That’s not me” because I know it isn’t me, but I also know it is. I also know that within my family and the families of those close to me, there lives this hate. I also know that when people younger than I am talk of how “Black people drive nice cars” there is almost no one who says “So what?”. When the old aunty tsks that she has black neighbours, no one says “That’s great, we’re moving forward as a country!”, instead we commiserate, we console. We are saddened that our place in the hierarchy is so delicate, we are saddened that those who we deemed so unworthy are now doing so much better than us. Maybe we carried with us notions of the caste system that is still prevalent in modern India when we crossed the ocean and arrived in South Africa? Maybe when the White man told us that there was another version of the caste system that he had labelled apartheid we were all too eager to comply, at least we weren’t at the bottom of the rung, that would have been too much. So comply we did, because we knew we were better, we would not sully ourselves with the Blacks. Personally, I am disgusted with the thought that people who were born here, should “go to back to their country”, this country belongs to all its people. But maybe, just maybe I hear the anger and the pain that simply says “those who hold on to ideals of a broken past, those who hold on to delusions and those who sow hate, you have no place in our country”. The trick of course is that is is our country, bigoted or not, brown or not, but we are not united in our diversity.

The curse of the Charou and the “civilised” blacks

A weird thing happened to me when I moved out of my hometown a few years ago; my perspective changed. Also, it was the first time in my life where I lived in a neighbourhood where almost no one looked like me. Well if I’m being honest, it was the first time I lived in a neighbourhood so white I’m shocked the whole community didn’t glow in the dark. I was surprised, hurt even, when racism and prejudice started to rear its ugly head. Hadn’t I moved up in the world from growing up in an “Indian area” to now living the high life in a “White area”? Wouldn’t my granny talk with pride when she said that I had White neighbours? I was quick to complain, to talk of the ever evil White Man and I found sympathetic ears in my family who shared my outrage and roared at the injustice of It All. I read anything and everything I could about our country’s history, I spoke to anyone who’d listen and of course, I sought solace in writing. Maybe I was too busy doing all of those things to actually see the wood from the trees, maybe that’s why when I heard the phrase in reference to Black people “They’ll always have one foot in the bush” at a family gathering, all I could do was feel shame and anger.

Now, I don’t intend to make excuses for my family, but here’s the backstory- not unlike “the boy who can’t be named”, it’s ugly and not something I like talking about. I grew up, as did my mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents, in what the Group Area’s Act labelled an “Indian Area”.  When people tell me that the past is the past, I often think about how long-lasting and crippling the effects of such segregation really is. Outside of my racial grouping, I met poor Black people who were maids, or “boys” (who did garden work or any other kind of manual labour required) and I saw White people on TV so, of course, they were special and to be revered. I would live a childhood where Black men were referred to as “boys”, irrespective of age, they would never be men. Black women had no voice other than the one their Madame gave them. For the maids or “boys”, we would have special crockery and utensils, often chipped and placed far away from the normal plates and cups we would use as if it was permanently unclean. We would take our leftovers and pile them high on those chipped plates and say “Here you go Black person, look how generous I am to you!”. I remember competing with a White school at some event and giving up even before we began because I knew I would never be as good despite topping my grade in my Indian school. A hierarchy had been developed, clearly isolating “us” from “them”; white was right and black was bad. For the Indians caught in the middle, sure times were rough, but we never forgot that the White Man thought better of us than the Blacks. Sure, I’m oversimplifying and I know that many Indian men and women fought to bring about change during the dark days of apartheid but this isn’t about them, it’s about the rest of us.

The apartheid had served to denigrate and dehumanise our Black brothers and sisters and you know what, some of “us” were happy about it. Some of “us” looked on and thought, “Well, that’s great because the White man is good to me, and they belong in the bush in any case”. Better them than “us” right? Yes, our Indians are hardworking, they’re clever and those Blacks are just lazy. No matter what, dear self-esteem, no matter how lowly and horrid of a human being you are, you will never be as bad as “the Blacks”. Why do some of “us” need that to be true so desperately? Do we believe ourselves so unworthy that we need to place an entire race beneath our boots to feel better? I am selfish in writing this because what lies within my anger at this kind of talk is shame. I am ashamed that people in my family still tell me of how “some Blacks are different”, how they met a Black person who “was so civilised and well-spoken” and how worried they are because their neighbours are Black. I wonder sometimes if the ideals of a non-racial society that I thought I was raised on were just a myth, a bedtime story. How can I even believe that we’re making progress as a country if this exists within my own family? All the while I had been growing and changing and somehow, I left parts of my family behind. Is it not the responsibility of the younger generations to challenge our thinking, to break the mould? I had failed those closest to me.

I know that I’m probably going to make a few people angry with this post and I deserve that but South Africa deserves more from us. Change takes time, but we will never move forward until we start being honest. If I’m being honest, I am disappointed with some of my family and with some people close to me but I am probably more disappointed in myself for not making my voice heard. I’m disappointed with myself for thinking that change would happen without me being actively involved in it. So, if you are a Charou like I am, or if you’ve identified with what I’ve written, I urge you to do what I am doing. That is; start the conversation, disagree with your elders or peers, speak up even though you may not be heard at first. And whatever you, do it gently, everyone knows how proud “our Indians” are.