I was talking politics yesterday with two artisans doing temporary work on the farm – mnumzane Pulambi and mnumzane Sibane (not their real names) – and the discussion moved to the topic of apartheid. They both spoke about some of their experiences, of which I want to share one. My goal is to conscientize and educate.
Pulambi told us that in the early 80s he went to go buy himself two tins of polish and deodorant at a store in Badplaas, and was accompanied by a friend. ‘Yes – deodorant and two tins of shoe polish; one red, and one brown. It was there by Thandabantu in Badplaas which opened in nineteen eighty – uh… ya no it opened in 1980. I bought my stuff and took my receipt but as we were leaving, my friend tells me he needs to go back and buy something else. So I go back inside with him.
‘There were two white ladies running the store. One of them saw me holding my stuff, and tells me that I can’t leave the shop without paying for the deodorant and polish. I confront her – I was cocky back in those days – and tell her that I had just bought these things from her! So she tells me to show a receipt, which I do: “Hier, kyk!”. But now this woman snatches the receipt from my hands and continues to demand me to pay for my stuff that I had already paid for! The woman next to her even tried to tell her to just give them back but she eventually gave up. She even look at her colleague, then look at me, then looked down in shame. Afterwards the first woman’s man walks in to check what the commotion was about, at which point I just give up… What was I going to do now?’
I can’t remember whether Pulambi said he eventually paid for the goods or left them – I was laughing out of disbelief. But then he brought the discussion back to politics in a way that explained something that’s been difficult for me to come to terms with: ‘See now this is why we can’t afford to vote for the DA – they’ll bring all of this back. Despite whatever the ANC does, we just can’t.’
While this was an isolated incident involving individuals, it still had everything to do with the cultures they carried within them. That day like many others, all of white South Africa was represented by two white ladies and one white man. That day like many others, the Apartheid State, the full might of its law, and the racist and patriarchal culture that built them stood behind a petty criminal and her accomplices. That day like many others, a corrupt system of privilege did exactly what it was designed to do – deprive & dispossess.
White South Africans should understand that inasmuch as Apartheid has left uncountable burdens on the black South African, it has left a heavy burden on you too. You inherit from those that came before you a reputation – as children of inhumane and unapologetic people, despite who you are as individuals. Yes, there are black South Africans who live in the South Africa where the colour of your skin and your culture mean nothing more than they’re supposed to, but we are still few because of the lingering effects of apartheid.
In a country where 90% of the population is black, many still walk around with negative sentiments towards white people. Many still have little to no positive interactions with their white fellow citizens. Many still unwittingly pass those sentiments onto their children and grandchildren.
This is why white people’s criticism of corruption in today’s politics seems to be shrugged-off and downplated; why white media’s reporting on state captureis seldom given the time of day; why white artists and cartoonists’ work can be sharply insensitive; and why conspiracy theories of load shedding being a deliberate ploy are a non-issue: It’s because the injustices of yesteryear remain largely unrecognized let alone resolved. It makes a world of difference just to hear someone acknowledge the effect apartheid has had, and accept why the people it affected think and feel the way they do.
Next time you discuss colour, culture, and country – and this actually applies to everyone – do so bearing in mind that your book is being judged by its cover. Give the person reading it a reason to want to keep reading.
My goal is to conscientize and educate.