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.

The COVID-19 Diaries: Day One of The Lockdown

I have always prided myself on being calm under pressure and being fairly level-headed when facing ambiguity, but if the Corona Virus has taught me anything, it’s that I am not half as “good” as I thought I was. I faced the thought of working remotely somewhat smugly, which did nothing apart from send a message to the gods of humility to take me down a notch, and believe you me, they did. I’d start off the day feeling absolutely pumped, ready for the challenges of remote working and social distancing (picture Rocky at the bottom of those steps with Eye of the Tiger in the background) and then Wham!, out of nowhere, my network connection drops. Still energized and beguiled by hope, I’d reset my router, make a cup of tea and pray to the indifferent gods of connectivity. From there it’s slippery slope to fighting with a call center agent who not only fails to solve my problem, but worsens it by remotely disconnecting me for five hours, and to me seeking solace in the Danish cookies I promised myself I’d stop eating. And if the gods didn’t think I was adequately broken that day, they saw fit to bring me a day that followed where my water was cut off. Each time I opened a tap, the only thing it seemed to release was my grip on my sanity (yes it was a loose hold to start with). So yeah, I’m a mess. Its like I’ve completely forgotten how to exist in the grey, in the middle, that all that is left is for me to exist in the extremes. I’m either brimming with positivity and helping others navigate this turbulent time, or I’m upset because I don’t have enough Easter eggs to see me through the apocalypse. I want to say that I’m falling apart but it’s not that, it’s more that I’m keeping myself together rather inconsistently.

Take today for instance. I wouldn’t say that I woke up ready to take on the world today, but I did wake up to a feeling of hope and gratitude. I was grateful to have the luxury of space, food and company that I loved (most of the time). There was a distinct stillness in the air that seemed to suggest that everything would be okay, we’d all be okay as we started this 21 day lockdown. Fundamentally, I believe that we, as South Africans, will emerge- we must emerge-stronger from this and I am grateful for our president and for his show of exemplary leadership when he addressed us earlier this week. Hearing the words, “Nkosi sikelel iAfrika” reminded me of the strength and beauty of our country and our people, and I knew that we find our way. I know that still. But reading about the first reported deaths related to COVID19 in our country left me cold. I don’t think I’ve ever understood that expression before today. For a few minutes all I wanted to do was cry, it did not matter that I was about to go into a meeting, it didn’t matter that the meeting was actually something important to me. I wanted to take that moment and feel the pain and sadness that those deaths evoked. I wanted to find a release for the mixed bag of emotions flowing through me daily. But I did not. I willed away the unwanted, unshed tears, I forced the thoughts of two lives cut short and I put on a happy face. And maybe this is part of the problem, maybe this is why I can only hold myself together inconsistently. Maybe it’s because all I’m doing is pretending.

Here’s what I know. I know that I am scared. I am scared that my grandmother won’t see her 90th birthday later this year. I am scared that people I love and care about will lose their jobs. I am scared that amidst all of this I am not around my family. I am scared because there are so many relationships that I had hoped time would mend one day, but that I’m coming to realize that may never happen. I am scared that I won’t be enough when people count on me. I am scared about the way we treat each other; I am scared that our divisions will play themselves out in technicolor, tearing us further apart. I fear my vulnerability, my fragility. I am scared and I guess, a lot of us are. I hope that if nothing else brings us together, it is our fear and the acknowledgement that we are all scared. Whether it’s your own hunger or that of your family’s fueling your fear, or whether it’s the restrictions on your movement, or whether you’re concerned about that nagging sore throat that won’t go away, we are in this together. Whether we hate or love each other, or if we find ourselves somewhere in-between, we are in this together. Maybe over and above all my fears, I am scared that we may miss this opportunity to truly connect and see our shared humanity. Perhaps, this fear, like most things that are difficult to bear, is beautiful lesson. A lesson in fragility, vulnerability and a lesson in the shared human experience.

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.

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.

(Un)Happy Womens Day?

In South Africa, we celebrated Women’s Day yesterday, we sent each other messages about the strength of women, we wished other women a happy women’s day, we decorated our messages with flowers. But what did it all mean? Did we stop to have conversations about how gender bias still exists in our homes, in our thoughts and actions? Did we stop to talk about what it truly means to be female in our country and in the world we live in? I’m not sure. Part of me feels like we’ve cheapened Women’s Day somehow, like we’ve missed the plot on what we should (or rather should not) be celebrating.

When I woke up this morning post our public holiday my initial thoughts were that I was grateful for a day off but that I didn’t really understand the what the point of Women’s Day was. Sure I understand the history and the significance of the day in our country and sure I’m moved by the strength and determination of those women who marched all those years ago but if I consider my actions on Women’s Day, I’m really not sure I gave enough thought to where we are as women in our country or even beyond that. Stats SA helped to paint a fairly grim picture this morning as I read about how we’ve achieved gender parity in terms of access to education but that women are still getting left behind in terms of pay, promotions and benefits. I had to stop for minute and breathe deeply before I could accept that one in five women in South Africa have been subjected to physical violence by a partner. I remember attending a Women’s Day event and one of the speakers telling the audience that she had seen first-hand that domestic violence increased when a woman moved up the ranks in her career, threatening the traditional power dynamics that serve a patriarchal home.

So where does that leave us as South Africans? It leaves us applauding and cheering the man who talks of how “women are better/stronger/more intelligent” than men are, all the while knowing that he reigns over a home and a position that patriarchy has prepared him for.  Personally, if I never have a conversation about how “women are better” than men again, it would be too soon. That isn’t the point. The point of talking through these issues shouldn’t be some placitude about the power of a woman or how we compare against men. The concepts of “being better than”, to me, just serve the narrative of “women’s work” and “men’s work” instead of challenging the assumptions in the first place and it is immeasurably frustrating and juvenile. We celebrate and cheer, yet we’re unwilling to look deeper, into our own homes where we know that the burden of unpaid work still falls on women, a fact that will continue to stifle women until we are willing to acknowledge it and take steps towards shifting it. We want to claim progress (or maybe just the public holiday) but we don’t genuinely want to have the difficult conversations that will help us move forward. We laugh and celebrate a day off from work, yet women in our communities are being raped, more often by someone close to them and I wonder just what it is that we are celebrating. We read the stats, we are exposed to the reality almost daily and we face this reality with a sort of jaded indifference.

Last week I came across the stat that over 130 million girls were not in school worldwide and I thought of Amartya Sen’s paper, written in 1990 titled “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”. My first taste of Sen’s writing moved me because it brought to light the severity of gender bias and unequal access to basic resources. I would read, and reread Sen’s work many times over after that. Sure, this statistic of girls not being in school wasn’t as severe as the mortality of girls in Sen’s paper, but I wondered if my assumption was valid. I wondered if it wasn’t just as severe. I wondered if robbing girls the opportunity to be educated, if that “unfreedom”, was not the same as robbing them of their lives. I think about how, closer to home, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and subsequent careers are still dominated by men, serving to validate the myth that men are simply naturally inclined or better at these subjects than women are, and I wonder about the lost potential. I wonder about the “missing women” in our country, those missing in male dominated industries, those missing a seat at the table where real decisions are made. Those “missing women” who carry an unequal burden in their homes, those “missing women” who have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition that a man would.

It’s enough to break your heart. Not just because women should be given the platform, not just because it is “right” to level the access to opportunity, but because it makes sense. It makes sense that we capitalise on the opportunity that an inclusive society can bring. It makes sense that every member of our community has the opportunity to live a life they chose to value. It makes sense that our women can live in a country where they are not afraid, it makes sense that the men in our country respect women enough to also be part of breaking the cycle. It also makes sense that we stop pretending this isn’t an issue, it makes sense that we are part of the solution.  If I had one ardent hope on this day post our celebration of Women’s Day, it would be that today, you start a conversation. That you start now. That you look to your friends, you look to yourself and ask how you can be part of the solution. You ask what your ideas are about what it means to be a man or women in today’s world, you ask what messages we give to young boys and girls, you ask how in your homes you chose to serve the gender biases you were raised with. It may not be a solution, but it sure will be a step towards understanding, and in that understanding there might be a hope of knowing what the answer is.

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.

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.

What if I was born white?

There are things we don’t say, there are things we are too scared to talk about. We tip toe around sensitive topics because we don’t want people to feel bad. Hey Mr White Man, I know you didn’t earn everything you have in your life but don’t think I’m trying to make you feel bad about it, it wasn’t your fault. We create islands of politeness and steer our conversations carefully around them. All the while we still seek acceptance, we fear the rejection that the truth will bring. Don’t treat me differently, I’m just like you Baas. I’m just like you. I’m just like you, apart from the fact that I’m actually not.

Had I been born White, I would have been born to a land that favoured me. I would have been born to a country who stacked the odds in my favour. In a country where over 50% of our population is poor, I would have been born to a race that doesn’t equally share that burden. As I entered the world of employment, I would know that of all the races in our country, I belonged to the only one with a single digit unemployment figure. I would have entered the world of employment never once having to prove that I was more than just the “employment equity candidate”. Had I been born White; my skin would have been the same colour as every single person I have ever reported to throughout my career. In meetings with my non-white counter-parts, people would turn to me for answers irrespective of seniority. Maybe when my non-white colleague tells me that prejudice exists and that even unconsciously, racial biases are prevalent in the workplace, I could chalk it down to an exaggeration. I mean, weren’t there more people of colour in the workforce now than 20 or 30 years ago? I may not get the point, but I may be eager to talk of how biases exist against white people in the workplace, providing a wealth of examples, all the while not realising that at it’s core, I am strengthening my non-white colleague’s statement.

Maybe if I was born White, I would tell you that Henrik Verwoerd was a misunderstood man because I had never really experienced Bantu education and somehow, I still fail to see the link between a crippled education system and who are considered skilled labour in this country. Maybe I would like to quote the exceptions; the young Black woman who excelled at school even though her mother was a domestic worker and she never met her father. Maybe those exceptions would make me feel less guilty to the plight of the masses in our country, it would make me feel less guilty because when I quote those exceptions, I would know that we live in a land of opportunity and all one had to do was to seize that opportunity. I would not always know that gaining access to that opportunity is open to the few and not the many, because like the generations before me, I have been part of the few. Maybe I would talk of progress and in same breath bemoan the fact that South Africa is not a place where “White men can work”. Maybe I would tell you of the incredible White candidate who my company simply could not hire instead of considering why everyone I interviewed for the position was White.

I am writing this now, irrespective of race, as a privileged person in South Africa. I was raised in a single parent home, I understood what an overdraft was, I knew what it meant to buy groceries using the budget facility on a credit card and I started working, as early as I could, so that I could worry a little less amount money, so that I could help my mother out. But make no mistake, I was privileged. I went to a school where I had resources at my disposal; we had toilets in my school, we had books and desks, we even had a library. I never went hungry, neither my older sister nor I were the first in my family to get a tertiary education and my mother had a car so I never had to take public transport. So, I live with that privilege and I live with everything that privilege has afforded me. I live with the knowledge that while I feel like I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve earned, my fight was not the same as a significant portion of young people in our country. I see that. I see that my path may have been easier and that because of that ease, and because I believe that South Africa belongs to all of us, “united in our diversity”, that I acknowledge that I am part of the solution that our country needs. I do not write this now as a plea for White people in our country to see me or to see our Black and Coloured brothers and sisters. I write this now instead, for my White brothers and sisters, I write this now for you to see yourself and for you to see your place in the solution.

What if White people were criminals too?

Now before you think I’m throwing stones, let me first remind you that I do live in a proverbial glass house here, I too have deeply ingrained prejudice that is at times very difficult to shake, so I write this now more to explore my own thoughts than anything else. But before I get ahead of myself, let me first set the scene. It is not too late on a Saturday evening, my hand is curled comfortably around an oversized glass of wine, two sleeping dogs fit themselves into the shape of my bent legs, emitting a groan of happiness when an ear is scratched or when a more comfortable spot is found and Johnny Clegg plays in the background. It was a still, quiet night with but without preamble, the calm is broken and the dogs are mobilised, an errant paw finding the softness of my leg to spring off from, leaving me muttering under my breath and rubbing my leg as I follow them to see what the commotion is about. The dogs are on high alert, barking and eager to be let out and when I reach the gate I see two people running away. The sight chills me to the bone, I make a hasty retreat towards the house calling the dogs and locking the security gate once we’re all safely inside. My eyes are fixed outside as I hurriedly tell Husband what I saw.

In the moments before I can take any decisive action, Husband is bounding through the door shoeless and armed with nothing other than his wit. I call after him in vain as the darkness envelops him. Before I can locate my phone to call the police, Husband is back inside the house. He tells me that there were some youngsters running around in our complex. Three white youngsters to be exact. I pick up my phone to check our complex WhatsApp chat and there is a frosty silence. Yes, these are the same people who said that my mother was a “suspicious person” when she waited in a parked car outside the complex. Yes, these people are the same ones who posted about similarly “suspicious” people seen driving around our neighbourhood. And yes, in all of these instances, the people under suspicion were people of colour. Maybe that’s just a co-incidence but I can’t possibly be that naïve. Clearly my neighbours are always on high alert, but clearly this level of “alertness” does not cater for those who are blatantly not of criminal disposition. And of course, for those of us not able to understand the criminal mind, we can always use race as a proxy. A bunch of white teenagers running around was not cause for concern but what would happen if I took the word “white” out of the equation?

I think I know why this one incident is something I wanted to write about. Because at the core of this matter, something bothers me. Something bothers me when we associate “right” and “wrong” based on colour. Right: White teenagers having fun. Wrong: Black people livings their lives (driving a car, parking outside a complex). I know that I said this was not about throwing stones, and it isn’t. If I walk the streets of an area known to be particularly unsavoury and a Black man walks towards me, I know that I am more likely to clutch my bag closer to my chest than if it was a man of any other colour. Why? Well I can rationalise this to say that statistically we expect more Black criminals than any other race group because Black people form over 80% of our population, but there is a hollow placation in that. The truth, as we hear our parents and grandparents speak it, is that prejudice runs deeply in our country. Apartheid media taught many people that Black people were savages, turning to violence at the drop of a hat and that in actual fact Black people could never really fully be integrated into a “civilised” society. If you listen carefully to the embedded prejudice of those from generations before, you will hear it in their words. I am not making excuses for this either, none of us should. It upsets me this feeling, living amongst my colour fearing neighbours, this feeling of being less than. As if I have to catch up, as if I have something to prove, every interaction a test to see if I am human. I don’t know what the solution is but I certainly know that it does not start with silence.

Icons of Apartheid

I’m at a fairly dodgy neighbourhood haunt. Not dodgy in the way that might get you killed but dodgy in the way that you feel a distinct need to wipe down any surfaces before touching them. There is a group of us around the table and the mood is jovial, it is a Friday, the music is good and the drinks are cheap. I laughingly tell my colleague that he speaks Afrikaans as though the words are uncomfortable in his mouth, kind of the way I do. Only, it’s much worse for him because he is “Afrikaans” and of course I am not, so I get some sort of foreigner’s pass. It is in laughter and jest that the name of his high school is raised and upon hearing it, I am suspended in the moment temporarily. I am certain that the temperature has dropped a few degrees and that all of a sudden people have all stopped moving. Unconsciously I cross one arm over the other and reach up to my shoulders, hunching inwards as if to protect myself. His high school was named after Hendrik Verwoerd.

I am no historian, or political analyst and as such, my infantile way of describing Verwoerd would be to call him a monster. Not the monster that lurks under your bed, sprouting horns and beady red eyes, but a smiling monster, a cold calculated monster with a gilded tongue and keen intellect who fed on freedoms and human dignity. For many South African’s Verwoerd is known as the “architect of apartheid” and is remembered for some of the most abhorrent apartheid laws inflicted upon the masses of our population. Even before Verwoerd became Prime Minister he introduced Bantu education in an attempt to prevent “the creation of a frustrated people, who as a result of the education they receive, have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled”. What he really meant was “know your place Bantu, you are barely human and you don’t deserve a seat at the table”. I don’t write this now for a history lesson, although it is an important one, I could write myself blind about the horrific legacy of Bantu education. I write this now because I wonder about the icons of apartheid, I wonder about this school named for man who was really a monster.

It takes me back to the #Rhodesmustfall movement in our country a few years ago and there is a conflict within my mind. On the one hand, we could, as a country still struggling with invisible shackles, remove any trace of the monsters who crippled our country. To those whose hands are dirty with apartheid involvement, let us strike them from public view, let us confine them to spaces unseen. Will it do much to mend the wounds, to forge unity in diversity? I’m not sure. I am not sure that we need any help forgetting because we seem to do that well enough by ourselves.  In a free South Africa, I remember the conciliatory vision that the then ANC had in mind that the monuments should remain as reminder of our past and as a cautionary tale for our future. That we should not forget our history and those involved in it. But to what degree do we do that? To what degree to I remember John Voster, when I drive on the road named for him? Do I recall how Helen Suzman infamously said to him that he “should go into the townships heavily disguised as a human being” so that he could witness the ugly reality of apartheid? Is Hendrik Verwoerd a talking point at the high school named after him? It certainly served as a talking point when the subject was raised in our small group and for that I am grateful. I am grateful that my stunned silence confused the Australian man sitting next to me and that it enabled others to talk about the history of our country. I cannot pretend that I have the maturity to be calm and dispassionate when it seems like Hendrik Verwoerd is being venerated (as it seems to me that having a school named after you would be akin to veneration). And I cannot pretend that I have the maturity to be calm and dispassionate when I see Black children excelling at Hendrik Verwoerd High School, it is some kind of ironic justice.  Maybe just enough for me to believe that the school being named as it is has merit. Maybe just enough for me to remember that his name on that school is symbol of strength of our people and not of the ugliness of his regime.