There are a few things in South Africa as emotive as the subject of racism. It’s one of those topics that you want to be very careful about where and how you bring it up because it has the potential to degenerate into one of those below the belt exchanges, with insults traded freely. That said, I believe the only way forward for our country is to talk these sort of issues out in a very mature way, playing the ball at all times, and not the man(or woman).
A couple of weeks ago I went to a jewelry shop to have an old watch seen to, it had what they call a lifetime guarantee, silly if you believe that lifetime stuff like I did. I got to the door of this shop in a bustling mall and was confronted by a locked security gate, with the glass doors open. I waited by the gate to be noticed until a middle aged black lady shouted from behind the counter, “how can we help you, our gate doesn’t open?” Stunned, I tried best as I could to explain the reason I was there without attracting the attention of fellow shoppers who were going past behind me. It was difficult to do this without appearing to shout. She said something about “lifetime no longer applies, you’ll have to try next door” but made no effort to come closer to the security gate or opening it. I was getting indignant by then and on realizing this she simply moved out of view. It’s very difficult to stay mad at an empty shop so I went on my way.
It was in talking to the shop assistant in the next jewelry shop that I discovered that this particular shop had been hit by robbers several times this year already. I happened to fit the ‘profile’ of the robbers: African/black, male, young(ok, I’m not so young anymore), and neatly dressed( I try, sometimes). So the staff had been instructed not to open for those that meet the profile. Would you call that profiling racist? At first look it is, and I was suitably indignant and would have blown my fuse had I not chosen to put myself in their shoes. Looking at things from their perspective, and having been a victim of violent robberies before, I realized that given a chance I would have implemented a similar policy myself, until I could come up with a better one. South Africa’s demographics mean that the profile of its criminals will remain largely black and male, until the conditions that necessitate that change.
The second example is one I’m sure some of you have encountered. My wife and I arrived our medical specialist, who for the purposes of this piece I’ll label as white, we were flashed one of those elastic smiles by the white secretary behind the desk and we went about explaining the reason for our visit. Polite enough. Later on, when we needed assistance with a letter, the secretary explained that the doctor has “put everything in that letter”. I politely disagreed and this seemed to anger the poor secretary. She “threatened”: “would you like me to call the doctor?”, with a look that said “surely you don’t want that”. I indicated that I would appreciate it if she did that. She left her chair in a huff and came back with the doctor conversing in Afrikaans, which I have nothing against except education wise I’m post ’76 like that, and my Afrikaans is almost nonexistent. I don’t mind anybody using any language except if it involves me, but I let that slide. The doctor asked abruptly “What’s your problem?”. Now, I could have sunk to a level that responds on instincts or maintained a level of politeness that would save us all from an ugly exchange. I responded that there was no problem except for a little change that we required to be made to the letter he had given us. He made the change in two seconds and and handed the letter back. The secretary stayed mad and looked betrayed. See, given where we come from as a country, there are so many points in the conversation that I could have played that “card”: Are you being like that because I’m like this? But an second thought, I had already achieved what I wanted tbecause whilst I can’t be sure that someone else of a different race would have been treated differently, I knew that what the secretary had wanted to achieve had failed so again I let it slide.
Given our history as a country it’s very easy to take offense at the smallest things, screaming racism. I always take solace from the words of Bantu Steve Biko who maintained that a person without power cannot be a racist because, save for attitude, what can they do with their prejudice? Nothing.
The last scenario I’ll present is one I’m sure all of you have come across at one point or another. My family certainly has. You are at the till paying for your groceries and are getting nothing but attitude from the cashier. I’m from an era where we consciously went out of our way to give respect to a person based not on what they do but simply because they are, they exist. Add onto that the fact that most menial jobs are done by black people because of our history and demographics, it became doubly important for me not to make people doing those jobs feel more inferior than their job already makes them feel. So, when you get this cashier who goes on like they are doing you a favour, the temptation is there to want to tell them off. Especially given the fact that the attitude you are receiving is not displayed to all customers, but it’s black-on-black, for lack of a better description. Again, this can typically descend into one of those distasteful exchanges if you, the recipient of the attitude are not careful.
In all the examples I chose above, the potential was always there for me to play the victim, claiming “I’m treated like this because I’m black”, which would most certainly be true in most cases. But my point here is, those are small battles. I say reserve your energy and respect for the bigger larger battles. Battles where people use your skin colour, black or white, to keep you in a subservient role. What I find amazing is that South Africans of all races use social networks to trade insults. Go to any website that allows for comments and at some point , the discussion will degenerate into an ugly exchange about race, nothing related to the topic at hand. One of the greatest tributes we can pay to the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, as he lies in hospital is to think before becoming involved in a pointless exchange about race and reserving our energies to “fight against black domination and white domination”, a cause he chose to dedicate his life to. If it’s not worth it, let it slide…..