While sitting in a queue at the Hillbrow police station yesterday morning, I started chatting to the woman next to me – a young African woman, there to lay a charge against her boss – he had slapped her that morning. ‘For no good reason’, she said. She had done nothing wrong. And when she had asked him why he had hit her, his response was that he was ‘stressed out’ because his coffee shop (in an upmarket part of Braamfontein) was not busy enough. She couldn’t see how his lack of customers related to her being slapped. She thought that it was ‘unfair’. What had made her decide to come to the police station was that this was not the first time it had happened to her. He had hit her before, and she had ‘done nothing’. And, she had seen him do ‘worse things’ to other workers who were ‘not brave enough’ to report him to the police. He had once thrown hot porridge in the face of another woman worker. But this woman was ‘too afraid to do anything’. I was getting more and more upset as she spoke, shaking my head in disbelief. I asked whether her boss was white. ‘Yes,’ she said, adding, ‘but I decided to come because these people don’t know that the laws have changed and that white people cannot do whatever they like to Black people anymore. The law is now on our side.’ I nodded and smiled approvingly, supporting her decision out loud. Silently I hoped really hard that the police here would take her charge seriously, that her case wouldn’t be lost in a pile of forgotten papers, that she wouldn’t go back to further abuse from her boss for laying the charge, that she wouldn’t lose her job, and that the law would work in her favour (she did not have a contract of employment).
I was also silently seething at the fact that such things still happen today. That white people can actually still abuse Black people and get away with it in post-apartheid South Africa. I also felt a really deep sense of sadness that these young African women, dependent on a white man for their survival, are still forced to live and work in fear – measuring their behaviour according to the potential reactions of their white master. I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this young woman would have accepted a hiding from her boss if there had been ‘good reason’. And what would have constituted ‘good reason’? I also wished that she was not so alone in her brave stand…
Well past our first decade into democracy and we still seem to operate by a ‘reason’ that protects the inherited ‘superiority’ of whites. Everyday I’m confronted with another experience that leaves me asking, ‘What makes white people think they can act like this?’ From the young white girl who thinks it’s cool to call the old Black woman behind the bread counter at the Pick ‘n Pay in Killarney ‘my squeeza’, to the white kugel walking out of the CNA in Rosebank who screams at the young Black cashier when the alarm goes off as she passes through the security scanners at the exit (as if it’s his fault that the machine thinks that she could have stolen something), to the young white man in Brixton who thinks it’s hilarious to tell me (a complete stranger to him) that I have ‘Bin-Laden ore’ (ears), to the white neighbours who have only ever spoken to me to ask if I can make samoosas or whether ‘that lovely curry smell’ emanates from my flat, to the white farmer who still punishes his Black workers through torture and humiliation, and the far more brutal and savage acts by whites against Black people that the media picks up on every now and then – the list could go on – is an undeserving confidence and air of superiority held by most white South Africans (chips on their shoulders, I can hear my parents say) that they seem to have about themselves and everything they speak about no matter how inane or unacceptable they/their words might be.
While our laws and constitution speak so beautifully of commitments to non-racialism and equality, our everyday realities cannot help but remind us that apartheid’s legacy, etched deep in the minds, hearts and souls of Black and white South Africans, lives on as we each try to make our selves in communities still shaped by the ways in which apartheid made people think and behave. (Now just tweaked a little to fit the new talk of individual success and entrepreneurialism.)
The young white girl in Killarney just does not conceive of the possibility that she could be being disrespectful, and the truth is she will probably never know that she is – because none of us will ever tell her; instead we’re more likely to smile and commend her for trying. How I wished, on that day in Rosebank, that the cashier would demand to search the contents of the kugel’s bag. Instead, he apologised humbly, not even thinking that the woman could have stolen something. On that day in Brixton, my obvious irritation and anger at the guy only served to make him smirk some more. And all I could do was wish that I was bigger, stronger… While I bitch about my neighbours all the time, I’ve never given more than a sarcastic response (at best) to their annoying questions. And how many times have we been shocked at how white criminals manage to escape punishment and censure for their acts against Black people? What’s sad is how we’ve all just come to accept as ‘natural’ the racism that continues to define the ways in which we interact with each other everyday. Somehow it’s become ‘easier’ not to openly challenge the everyday acts that mock the myth of the rainbow nation – the racist realities that we confront everyday airbrushed out of its preferred pictures of pretty people of all colours spending their money happily together on pleasures previously reserved for whites. Shouldn’t we be stronger now to fight such fights? But rainbow reconciliation has demanded that we give up some of our fighting spirit, to choose our fights carefully, to hold our tongues, to wait for appropriate moments that hardly ever come, to be understanding of ‘where white people are coming from’, and to ‘allow them to try’, in the hope that someday I too will be able to be part of this picture, this dream of individual success and wealth. We forget that this was not our dream to begin with. Yesterday morning at Hillbrow police station, I was both angered and inspired – by a young, Black sister with the guts to risk the little that she has to fight again. Fighting, I can only hope that she is able to live again. It is better than to die dreaming (and working for) their dream.