Afrikaans was once known as the “language of the oppressor”, and it wasn’t just a label. The 1976 June 16 uprisings were a direct result of the then government legislating that Afrikaans was going to be used as a medium of instruction in schools.
Things have changed a lot since then but we’ve recently seen Afrikaans interest groups going to court to defend the use of the language as a medium of instruction in many institutions of higher learning. How is this affecting our nation-building project? My take:
To many people the Olympics that are currently going on in Rio are just another jamboree designed to only benefit multinationals through advertising. But in truth, to millions of the poor throughout the world, witnessing one of their own take on and beat the world gives them unmatched hope.
Why do our Presidents have a tendency to disappear when the poor rise up? http://www.citizen.co.za/1176389/fiddling-while-tshwane-burns/
- Hi All,
Here’s my latest column on how we can build a common identity im South Africa.
My latest column:
I know, I know, you are feeling all tired and quite worn-out to will yourself to read another piece of writing meant to make you feel guilty for being who you are, for being white. I mean, you didn’t choose to be white, you were simply born that way, and worse still, born on this Southern tip of Africa, where you get reminded everyday that you are white and your ancestors messed up, pretty bad. Just bear with me though, my aim is not to put salt on your already festering wound of whiteness, it’s merely to relay a few sentiments that you might have missed in the recent shouting and screaming match that this country has just been through.
First things first, why write yet another piece when so much has been written on this subject of whiteness in recent weeks?(‘Whiteness’ is used here as reference to the system of white privilege as bestowed upon white people). Sorry to disappoint you, this was no ‘lightbulb’ moment on my part, it’s simply out of the pity that I felt for an ‘ordinary’ white South African who wrote:
“A question – with respect – Most white people are just living their lives, working and paying taxes, paying a home loan, and trying to live as law abiding citizens. Are they less deserving of their homes (land) simply because they are white? A friend works in a corporate company where blacks have to be paid more than whites for the same work. Surely in that company the “playing field” is more than level. I guess my real question is (because maybe I’m a little ignorant) What do black people want me to do? I cannot change the privilege I supposedly have. I am unemployed. My husband works, and we mind our own business. We don’t even vote (and have therefore been blamed for the ANC still being in power). And yet, we are part of the hated minority.”
German philosopher, Karl Jaspers put it aptly when he said “our greatest guilt is that we are alive” in reference to the general feeling of guilt that ordinary Germans felt in relation to the Holocaust. With millions of Jews having lost their lives, it only made sense that the German people take some responsibility for what Hitler had done. To paraphrase him in relation to the ‘ordinary’ South African white person, your biggest guilt “is that you were born white in South Africa”.
To attempt to escape your position within whiteness is to try and deny what has happened, to try and forget, and again, Karl Jaspers issued this warning:
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”
Oh, I nearly forgot. Most white folks are “just busy minding their own business”. They’re not like Penny Sparrow or Steve, spewing racist bile on social media. They are just good white folk trying to get by. Well, I’ve got news for you. Penny Sparrow called black people monkeys not for the sake of it, but because she is assured of her place within whiteness. Steve knows that no matter how much hateful bile he spews “whiteness has got my back”.
The same whiteness that you were born into, the same whiteness that guaranteed that you have a “business to mind”, that whiteness, is what protects the bigots. When you seek to absolve yourself of the responsibility that goes with the privileges that it bestows upon you, you are no better than Penny Sparrow, you make light of the material conditions of the majority of your fellow countrymen whose dire living conditions are a result of a system that legalized white privilege.
Sure, some white people came out and condemned Penny Sparrow, and some declare their hate for the likes of Steve but the truth of the matter is the silent majority of “ordinary” white South Africans still regard Steve as a superstar, he remains a top-selling artist, if not the best in their circles. A huge number of Penny Sparrows sit comfortably in their jobs and come out to share their racist views within the safety net of whiteness, fully knowing, “my people” have my back. Guess what, “my people” are the ordinary white South Africans who allow these bigots to flourish. “My people” keep quiet and mind their own business when the bigots call their compatriots monkeys. Worse still, “my people” react angrily when their black compatriots react angrily and generalize that “all whites are racist”. That angry reaction is very telling if you ask me.
So many “ordinary” white South Africans push themselves to a point of “minding their own business” because look at what happened to Gareth Cliff for not minding his own business. This is exactly why yours is huge responsibility, to ditch the arrogance that whiteness has bestowed upon you and come to a realization that although the problem manifests itself in a million different ways, the primary problem eating away at our supposed social cohesion is nothing other than whiteness. Like an addict, an alcoholic, until the patrons of white privilege come to a moment of clarity, that moment when the addict admits to himself and the world that he has a problem, arrogance will continue to prevail and more “innocent, ordinary” white South Africans will fall by their own sword.
That arrogance manifests in whiteness wanting to retain its superiority complex which seeks to tell black people that “the playing field is level”, “more black people earn above what white people earn”, “there are unemployed white people”, “apartheid ended 22 years ago, get over it”. Listen, the reason some people claim to prefer the outspoken Penny Sparrows of this world is because there is nothing as condescending as whiteness that refuses to acknowledge its arrogance but rather stands on top of a hill and trumpets how ” I am unlike the others”, claiming that it is more enlightened. Yet it cannot believe that a black person can determine how whiteness affects him and how he will choose to react to it.
Steve Biko wrote on the role of ‘liberals’ more than 30 years ago. Not that as an “ordinary” white South African I would expect you to be familiar with the writings of Steve Biko, that would be asking too much of a person “minding their own business”. But since I’ve invited you to read this far let me paraphrase Biko for you: the “ordinary” white South African must fight for himself. He must realize that the bigotry of a Penny Sparrow and Steve oppresses him too. (“The liberal must fight on his own and for himself too…Steve Biko in White Racism and Black Consciousness”)
The question that seems to be a burning one for many “ordinary” white South Africans is “What do black people want me to do?” , because when I open my mouth I’m wrong and when I keep quiet I’m accused of complicity in racism. Biko gave you the answer years ago, “fight for yourself, fight for your own freedom”. Renounce your whiteness. Your white privilege. Truly doing this will mean you will not give the bigots the space to flourish in your midst. You will be the first to scream when a Sparrow or a Steve spew their racist bile at that Sunday lunch where you are all on your own.
When you are truly free, you will not have to be scared that your drunken Facebook post or Tweet could make you trend on the social networks. That man, Karl Jaspers says: “…to forget is guilt”. When you are truly free my dear compatriot, my dear ‘ordinary’ white South African, you will not want us to forget the past in a hurry nor will you feel guilty about it, you will be driven to truly work towards a society in which past injustices are corrected. When you are truly free, you will realize, on your own, that you do not “supposedly have a privilege”. You will simply own up to that privilege. You realize that there is nothing such as an ‘ordinary’ white South African. ‘Ordinary’ carries no privilege
If you were to stop anybody on the streets today and asked their thoughts on South Africa’s transformation you’ll most probably get a response that has to do with how many people of color are in the national rugby or cricket team. Transformation has been reduced to numbers on a sports field.
“I will not preside over a tweaked apartheid education system”. These telling words were uttered two weeks ago by the Gauteng Provincial Minister of Education, Panyaza Lesufi. It was in response to a report that confirmed that a Curro Private school had been caught out using race as a determinant in the separation of kids in their school. Lesufi has decided that the government would finally do what they should have started doing 20 years ago and overhaul the way our education system is structured.
That there is a private school that will accept money from black parents and yet find it acceptable to humiliate them by declaring their kids not “culturally” in sync with the norms of the school is testament to the fact that the custodins oftransformation have outsourced their fundamental responsibility for the true transformation of our society. What exactly must this transformation look like? At what point can we declare society transformed.
The most tragic thing about transformation in our society is that the victims of the artificially constructed race-based “crime against humanity” have turned around and trusted the beneficiaries of that system to voluntarily give up their unjust benefits and invite their former victims for a share in the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. That’s like a deer expecting a lion to suddenly give up his naturally endowed position in the food chain because it has been declared unfair. It’s not not going to happen, moreover the lion will fight to hang on to his position.
The victims of the unjust system made the grave mistake of believing that because they have repealed the laws that put the system in place, the benefits of that system will suddenly flow in the “right” direction. With a little help from affirmative action, society will be put right and everyone will be happy they thought. Twenty one years into democracy it’s suddenly dawning on them that they should not only have repealed the laws that kept them captive but also actively defined what they see as a transformed society and also clearly put in place the means to achieve this transformed society.
One of the most beautiful examples of transformation in nature is that of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Right at the beginning of the process, nature saw fit to ensure that every single caterpillar possesses the means(genes) that will ensure that the process happens, but also, it ensures that a cocoon is in place to safeguard the process. No caterpillar ever finds itself halfway through the process and wondering “is this going to happen for me? Am I stuck here? Will I ever become a butterfly?” But we have identified that we want to transform into butterflies without putting in the safeguards in place to ensure that the process happens, and happens for the benefit of everyone concerned.
I was was unfortunate enough to find myself in a University class as one of 5 black students in a class of more than 30 students in the early 90s, this in a country that’s 80% black. And I remember clearly the dead quiet that engulfed the class each time I raised my hand to ask something, like there was an expectation that I would ask something “wrong” or “not clever”. But also the “congratulations” that came with the “surprising” eventuality of me actually asking a ‘very good question, keep it up’.
Two weeks ago a black author, Thando Mgqolozana, issued a statement on why he would be attending the Franschoek Literary festival for the last time this year, detailing how tired he was of being viewed as a “specimen”(my word) at this festival. This took me right back to my Microbiology class more than twenty years ago. Yes, maybe my alma matter “transformed” their campus, but there are still many situations in this country where South African citizens are still treated as curious visitors, there for a while, but without much expectation of them making an impact because the agenda was set ages ago, and these visitors better shape up or ship out. And by shaping up, the expectation is that they will willfully go along with the tone and agenda of the festival.
In Thando’s own words: “I feel that I’m here to perform for an audience that does not treat me as literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm suspicions that somehow I’m inferior to them”. Mqolozana went on further to explain that the current literary setup in our country “systematically excludes black people….setups like this one, the Franschoek literary festival”
Here’s the deal, tears of anger and outrage flowed from some members of the white literary community because they wanted the public to receive “what they paid for, not this”. “They were tired of being made to feel guilty”, they said.
Remember the example above, about the lion, he will not voluntarily give up protecting a system that benefits him, because after all, it’s his natural position.
But we, the victims of the current setup have it within ourselves to transform that setup. But we need to stop asking the lion to change voluntarily in the first place and define the path to that transformation ourselves. We must stop “defining” transformation and start demolishing the current system. Mgqolozana sums it up best when he says ” I don’t want this literary festival to change anymore….the kids at the University of Cape Town are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things…what we want is the demolition of the whole system…starting something new”.
Many people will readily agree that something new altogether must be the result of the process of transformation but what matters is not good intentions but actions taken to bring it about. Most beneficiaries of the current setup want transformation, as long as they are comfortable with the process. When uncomfortable, you will hear them utter such deep reflections as ” transformation must not result in the lowering of standards”. Really? Is that what they think of the “other side”? That we want things watered so we can feel capable of fitting in? It is not surprising then that “the other side” is now saying, keep your exclusive clubs and festivals, we will create our own.
The loss of meaning of the word transformation is not limited to universities, national sports teams and the literary sectors only. These are simply the ones that fall onto the media radar every now and then. Agendas set in the apartheid era continue to bedevil transformation efforts in the economic sector. The emergence of radical groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters are a direct result of the window dressing that is labelled as transformation. The Marikana massacre, the deadliest of the post-apartheid era is a result of this watered down version of transformation.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of accepting tweaks to the current setup as acceptable ‘reforms’, but we have a responsibility to future generations of overcoming our unfounded fears of dropping standards and demolishing what seems to be working now, for what will be inclusive and working in the future.
We need to accept that the majority of the citizens of this country are located where apartheid put them, but they are not out of sight. They are there and conscious effort by us, those that recognize the abnormalities of the current setup to construct new and inclusive ones, must be aimed at making them ‘mainstream’.
Reforming the current setup will not work because as demonstrated by Literary festivals like the Fraschhoek one, the current beneficiaries will continue to set the agenda with the excluded groups doing just the listening, to paraphrase Steve Biko. What else can you do if you are only there by invitation? You do not reform abnormal, you get rid of it.
The pain or uncomfortable feeling that comes with us breaking out of the current system to form a new one is one of the necessary ingredients in transformation. Breaking down and demolishing a system cannot come easily and we must be prepared to witnesse some ‘gnashing of teeth’ and ‘violent’ protests from those that are tired of ‘being made to feel guilty’.
This past week I sat in a school hall with about 30 other parents, playing our role in being responsible parents, attending our first PTA meeting(damn, I’m old). Halfway through proceedings I got a little lost in thought. What if I raised my hand and when afforded the chance to speak I directed this question to the school principal: “During the last week’s orientation meeting I noticed that about 30 to 40% of parents here are either African, coloured or Indian, with the remainder white. But your teaching and support staff are all white people. Seeing that 30% or more of your student body is not white, what plans do you have to get your teaching and support staff to reflect the composition of your student body?”
In my mind’s eye I could see and hear the hall quieten down. To the point of being so silent I could hear myself breathe. I could see the discomfort on the principal’s face, I could also hear the very loud objection of a white male parent shouting me down from the back of the room: “You want black teachers, take your child to the township schools!” I also heard the resounding “Yeah!” from the rest of the white parents in the hall. The principal regained his composure and some colour in his face, and responded: “Sir, this is neither the time nor the place to raise matters like that. Those can only be raised at the School Governing Body(SGB) meeting which takes place once a term, and you have to be elected to be on it at an election that only happens once every three years”.
“And just to add, we’ve had black pupils in this school since I’ve been here, which is six years and I’ve never had one parent complain of racism”. I want to challenge him on that, that my point is not about racism but having the school start to reflect the reality of our beautiful country. To allow ALL the kids in the school to learn that positions of power and authority in our society are not the sole preserve of one chosen race but that everyone, irrespective of their skin colour stands a good shot at being in charge. I want to continue this imaginary dialogue with this seemingly nice hardworking man but my reverie is rudely interrupted by the urgent and pressing matter of attending to this year’s fundraiser at the PTA.
Later, much later, I tried to imagine how a real life discussion about race would have proceeded in that setting and all I kept hearing in my head was “Why do you people have to keep raising apartheid at each and every turn? Why must you spoil everything and blame apartheid all the time?” I didn’t answer because some of the black parents in the hall started shouting back, and chaos ensued. Far-fetched? Hardly. This, although mere constructions of my imagination, sums up the level of public debate on race in this country.
“When we blame the legacy of apartheid most white people take it as a personal attack on them…This is not the case. Blaming the legacy of apartheid is an attack on the system…We are not asking you to feel guilty…”(Khaya Dlanga,2008). I have quoted this passage elsewhere on my blog before but I’ve found it necessary to return to it because of recent events. Move away from my imagined PTA exchange with the school principal to the very real issue of one Zelda le Grange.
Zelda went and put her foot in it, actually I think she put her whole leg in it but I’m not sure that’s good English. Le Grange, Nelson Mandela’s erstwhile Personal Assistant had until last week been held up as a living example that race relations in this country are not beyond redemption and that her saviour and employer, Nelson Mandela, had done enough to show us that despite our rather painful past, we can get this race thing right. And then she goes on a Twitter rant and undoes all of that, shame on her. Okay, okay, she apologised but the damage was done already. The daggers were drawn for her and her apology did nothing to reassure those that looked up to her that she didn’t mean what she said.
Her apology is not unlike the morning regrets of a person who had too much to drink and then waking up with that weird feeling that they had opened their mouth and said everything that was in their heart. Only thing was, the audience was everyone they had wished was not around when they finally said their ‘truth’. So sheepishly, they apologise. Fully knowing the damage is done. Ask Mel Gibson, he knows rather well the consequences of a drunken rant to an unintended audience. But the truth of the matter is, what she said is what had always been in her heart. She just lacked the sober courage to voice it.
Sadly, Zelda’s rant at the President’s assertion that South Africa’s problems only started with the arrival of the white man on our shores in 1652 captures what the black majority of this country believes is the view of white people on their past and present sufferings. To allege that the President’s views that Jan Van Riebeeck was the beginning of our problems shows that “white people in this country are not wanted” is stretching the limits of degrees of association by 364 odd years. But let’s not dismiss her views as entirely racist and not worthy of discussion. And here’s why.
Each time some racist takes to an online platform to spew their racist nonsense that’s the kneejerk reaction of the majority of South Africans. “She’s showing her true colours”, “White people never loved us”, “Ja, they might as well pack up and head back to Holland” are but a few of the responses to Zelda’s utterances. But that never gets us anywhere does it? We trade insults, have a few talk shows, “condemn Zelda in the strongest possible terms” and then life goes on. In a way, for a short while, the country becomes that school hall during my imaginary PTA exchange.
What will it take for South Africans to have mature discussions on race that are not punctuated by insults on either side? I’m a bit of a dreamer and an idealist. Every once in a while I dream of “fireside chats” not very different from the ones that FD Roosevelt used in the US during the Second world war to get America to think as one. Not the contents of the chats but the style, a relaxed approach to a very difficult and messy subject. Cooling and calming emotions and dissecting an issue to its core.
Zelda might never know why what she said is racist, she knows it is for sure but that’s only because we came down on her like a ton of bricks. But if we agree Zelda represents a “majority view” of white South Africans can we honestly say we are doing enough to get them to appreciate that their view is racist?
I have come to believe that racism is not going to be solved by the racist because frankly, he couldn’t be bothered and sometimes doesn’t even know he is racist. It is not going to be sorted out by the victim of racism because he didn’t cause it. That leaves a large majority of “non-racist” whites with the responsibility of reaching out to their fellow white people and pointing out the error of their ways.
I am an idealist but not naïve. It’s been said before that one cannot change people’s warped racist ways by appealing to their “inherent” goodness. I concur, fully. If the goodness was inherent in them we would not be having this discussion now, would we? So it is necessary to come down hard on the likes of Zelda and Steve Hofmeyer when they go on their drunken Twitter rants, but the rest of sane society needs a way, a platform to educate those naïve and gullible enough to swallow their untested “truths”.
White people of our generation have access to a get-out-of-guilt-free card, “It wasn’t me”. So long as the mention of Jan Van Riebeeck, the Dromedaris, white settlers and apartheid causes white people to feel guilty, we are going to stay in diametrically opposed racial camps as a country, unable to talk anything with sense once the “A” word is mentioned. The idealist in me wonders why a white South African today would want to carry the burden of the guilt of events carried out by their ancestors (unless they believe they are still benefitting from that system or its consequences).
I know what you are thinking. I do, I kid you not. So what about your side, “it’s not like blacks don’t spew racist bile, yes, what about them?” See, I knew, what you were thinking. You are right. Black people can say hurtful things. Crazy things. And some of us believe we have earned the right to be downright nasty to other races simply because they did it first. And they did. But when have you ever seen a tit-for-tat spat resolved by pointing at who started what. Call me a Mandela apologist but I admire that man for teaching me that creating racial cohesion is a process that requires the victim to reassure the racist that there is nothing to fear. “Look, I’m normal, just like you”.
But it is a mistake of mammoth proportions on the part of the white section of our population to expect black people to suddenly stop talking about an aspect of our country’s history simply because it “doesn’t sit well with us. We are made to feel guilty”. That would legitimising the shame that the system sought to implant in us. And that shame has unintended but dangerous consequences. It spawns a new brand of black consciousness that is based on a hatred of the past (the system and the white people who created it).
This new brand of “black consciousness” is based on hatred for white people and anything white. The exponents of that consciousness would actually take offence at the views I have expressed here, probably calling me all sorts of unprintable names suggesting I grovel at the feet of the masters. But they forget one simple truth. White people are here to stay. Yes, you’ll get the yellow-bellied few who will run at the first sight of trouble but it is almost impossible for white South Africans to claim another continent as home.
Zelda was wrong when she asserted whites are not needed in South Africa. They are needed, what is not going to happen though is people will not stop looking back. And if looking back and blaming a system that placed whites above all other races makes whites feel they are not needed, then white people need to look at themselves. Zelda needs to look at herself. Start with the man in the mirror and ask him why he needs to be reassured that he is needed.
If anybody needs reassuring it should be black people who have factual evidence that “they never loved us”.
Zelda, the rather likeable blonde who dedicated almost two decades of her life to be personal assistant to the man who has come to embody racial reconciliation the world over went further to suggest that she would henceforth change her surname to Van Riebeeck. To the unlucky few who are not old enough to have learnt old syllabus South African history Jan Van Riebeeck is the Christopher Columbus of South Africa. He “discovered” South Africa in 1652 and set up base in Cape Town. And as the say, the rest is history.
So Zelda Van Riebeeck understands that the black people in this country hold a rather dim or negative view of the Dutchman adventurer Van Riebeeck. Otherwise she wouldn’t suggest that marrying him posthumously is revenge enough for the president’s insults to white people.
“If I was a white investor I would more or less leave now. It’s very clear whites are not wanted or needed in SA”. This for me was the lowest of her insults, the idea that “white investors” are doing South Africa a favour by investing their money here. I swear I would have puked if I wasn’t made of sterner stuff. And then she wonders why people like the President figure white people are the origins of our problems? It’s because of this patronising attitude that they think they are also the solution to our problems, because they can tell their fellow white folk not to invest in this black people’s country.
Maybe poor Zelda didn’t get the memo, investors will invest in any place that promises returns on their investment, they follow the smell of money. President’s Hollande’s France is not looking for a group of white people who are afraid of fixing up what their ancestors messed up.
But the biggest message I have for Zelda is that your fellow countrymen, those of a darker hue, don’t hold you personally responsible for our lot. We are a bit more intelligent than that, and the majority are simply looking for a hand up from their man-made colour-based misery. PS Your dislike for No 1 is shared by millions in this country. If you think “investors” can help us get rid of him, please don’t exclude us in your campaign based on our skin colour, we want him out too.
One Monday morning in the late nineties I stood at the window of a hotel room overlooking the North Beach in Durban. There were about five or six other colleagues with me and we had arrived in the coastal city just that morning for a week-long course. It was my second time in Durban but my first at the beachfront and as I saw the beauty of the morning sun on the Ocean I couldn’t help but ask: “So how much is the entrance fee to the beach?” That was followed by a moment of stunned silence from my colleagues and then laughter. That’s when it dawned on me that I had asked one of those Jim-comes-to-town sort of questions.
Who could blame me, the place just looked so beautiful it felt like one had to pay to enjoy it. After all, a mere nine years earlier some beaches were a no-go area for Black South Africans. Although we’d already had one democratic election, the signs that declared “Whites Only” or “Europeans Only” were still fresh in the country’s collective memory.
I remember that memorable march by the leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement in which thousands of people turned up to reclaim public amenities that had been declared for “Whites Only”. The beaches were one of those. Others included parks, public toilets and even public transport like certain sections of trains.
That march, led by Desmond Tutu sounded the death knell for petty apartheid and it was only a matter of time before it was repealed from the statute books. Whilst these “Whites Only” signs were physical and visible to everyone, there is a second set of invisible “Whites Only” signs that unfortunately still stand today -(phrase coined by weavergrace,com)
A black child whose family moves to an Afrikaner-dominated area today is free to attend school in that area. That’s what the law says. Practically though, this child would have to adjust to the norms and culture of the said school, in certain cases giving up sports like soccer and be ‘forced’ to take up rugby and other traditionally “white-dominated” sports like hockey. Goodbye personal choice. Oh, but the child has another choice, find another school that offers soccer, in other words, respect the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the school’s front gate.
A few years ago I changed gyms, from the one national franchise to another that was closer to home and was open 24/7, in search of that ever elusive six-pack. As I walked into that gym at 4.30am I could have sworn I was walking into some Nordic enclave or I was ‘violating the Group Areas Act’ as a Facebook acquaintance put it recently. But I was there to work out so I went ahead and did just that.
It became quite clear that I was an unwelcome visitor because when I approached the free weights area which was packed a few moments before it became almost magically empty and I had undisturbed access to the free weights. So what am I complaining about? A coincidence maybe? Well, I tried to believe that it was all in my mind the first time it happened, but over the next few weeks, my visits to the gym became acts of defiance. So when the gym underwent a reconstruction, I used that as an excuse to self to move to a more socially ‘accepting’ gym environment.
If you’ve ever suffered a proper toothache you would agree with me that Googling a friendly neighbourhood dentist is not on your list of priorities, you just want a dentist to get rid of the problem, now! So off I went to the “dentist/TANDAARTS” place that I passed daily just down the road from where I live. Now, it’s not abnormal to feel a bit uneasy in a new dental surgery but the uneasiness I felt in this particular waiting area multiplied when the dentist popped his head in and acknowledged just me in a room with about 6 waiting patients. Needless to say I was the only sprinkle of colour in there.
When you have to explain that “No I don’t speak Afrikaans” to a receptionist it’s normally a good sign that maybe you should have read the invisible “Whites Only” sign outside. The two patients ahead of me were taken into a room towards the left of the waiting area. When my turn came, I was taken to a room to the right of the waiting area. The dentist chair looked rather old and tattered, but the toothache instructed me to get help, pronto. Lying down with a numb cheek and a drill in your mouth is not the right time to ask why the cleaner walks into the dentist’s room to retrieve their cleaning equipment in a cupboard within that room. Odd I thought.
As I left, I was curious to know what was in the room to the left of the waiting area, and that’s when I saw it. A zebra-coloured newish-looking dental chair in a dentist’s room that looked nothing like the one I had just been assisted on. There were posters on the walls of this one. I attempted to utter something but everything was numb in my mouth as it all dawned on me, the sign was clear, that proper looking room was for “Whites Only”. At least I got help, I just made a mental note to look for a friendly dentist in the neighborhood.
The medical field seems fraught with professionals who would put up such signs outside their practices if they were legally allowed to do so.
I remember wanting to give up on going to a 24-hr medical centre because it just seemed to be filled with such individuals. How does a doctor diagnose a patient with tonsillitis without examining the patient, examining the mouth/throat area. No temperature taken, no “open wide”, no examination to ascertain that what I said was the problem was actually the problem.
But I should have sensed this was coming when on entering the doctor’s room, the “what can I do for you today?” came out before I had even shut the door behind me. I was left in no doubt that the intention was to get rid of me as quickly as possible. I must have been in and out of there in two minutes flat, and the bugger charged me the full rate.
As I waited in the queue to collect my medication the same doctor comes out with the patient who followed me, sympathetically conversing in Afrikaans and making the right oohing sounds and I could only marvel at the professionalism that was sorely lacking when it was my turn. And then I remembered, it must have been that I missed the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the entrance.
If you’ve never been to the year-end preschool concert in an area such as the one I live in you are missing out on a lot Afrikaans music, sokkie-sokkie I believe it’s called. That’s not really a problem because you were told it’s a dual-medium language school before you register your child there. Look, I can only take so much sokkie-sokkie in one evening, but that in a cramped school hall can drive you up the wall if your musical tastes are usually laid back R’nB.
But to then get a 10-year-old white girl frantically wiping herself because our black helper had attempted to pick her up to help her across where we were sitting is positively disgusting. I could only wonder if her parents haven’t been poisoning her mind to enable her to read the invisible “Whites Only” signs. I had an idea to ask our helper to scrub her hands with disinfectant for having touched such an obviously poisoned child but I realized sinking to their level will not help.
These are but a few examples that poison our daily social environment, but like a fellow writer wondered recently about the existence of these kind of signs in the USA where desegregation happened in the 1960s one wonders how long these invisible signs will stay in place in this country.
I applaud the efforts of all people who take it upon themselves to defy these signs daily. In the workplace, In the sport fields, at varsity, at school. It is one thing to be the only person of colour in a group of 20 or 30 people, it is yet another thing for people in that group to actively work towards making sure that you feel unwelcome. I know the feeling, I’ve been in situations where I felt like the unwanted extra. To be felt sorry for and patronized, to be assisted “quickly” so that you can leave “them” alone. Where “listen here my friend” is actually a veiled warning to stop being the cheeky black that you are.
These are only personal anecdotal instances, but from conversations with friends and acquaintances it is quite clear to me that there still a lot of areas where “Whites Only” signs are still up, although invisible. That’s why I take my hat off to my friend who has taken up mountain biking. He does it because he loves cycling, but he’s now noted that he is playing his role in ensuring that those sickening “Whites Only” signs come down.
‘White is still the norm in Cape Town’ screamed a City Press newspaper headline two Sunday ago. Cape Town possesses a lot of areas that Black people are regarded only as part of the cooking or cleaning staff and not the clientele. That a place like that still exists twenty years into our democracy demonstrates the short-comings of our social engineering policies. Clearly a day visitor to Cape Town can be excused for thinking this is a European city because of the lack of colour in certain establishments. Even worse is that the city as a whole should have been up in arms over the article, unless the leadership of the city likes the ‘norm’.
Until you’ve been mistaken for a member of the cooking or cleaning staff at an establishment it must be quite difficult to grasp the deep-seated embedded racism in that ‘honest mistake’. That places and establishments exist that lead to these kind of ‘honest mistakes’ is a terrible indictment on the City of Cape Town, the flagship of the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance.
A facebook friend recently posted this status on his wall. “You are at an establishment for the first time and within a few minutes you realize you are not welcome(you also happen to be the only sprinkle of colour in there, save for the waiters and the kitchen staff. Do you 1) Up and leave and go spend your hard-earned money somewhere else or 2) Exercise your right to freely eat wherever you choose to. Overwhelmingly, the response was to up and leave.
I however differed with that. It might sound like I’m a sucker for deliberate poor service but I feel these “Whites Only” signs can only be brought down by the intended victims frequenting those establishments that would wish they could go elsewhere. I call this Civil Obedience (get it?). I know what you are thinking, why don’t you leave them in peace with their bigotry? If that’s our standard response to things then Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela wasted their time and energy, ‘they should have just left these bigots in peace’ right?
This is one of those pieces of writing I have kept away from you because of this incredible pull away from ‘exposing’ myself in public. But I have come to learn that when the writing bug has truly hit you, it will create a time and space for you to share even your most intimate thoughts. In the right context. I published this piece online on Medium in June, I got about six readers and was secretly pleased. It wasn’t time.
With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week I could not help but pull the piece from obscurity onto your world, with the hope that you will read and without judging contribute to the discussion on depression and suicide. I have close family and very dear friends whose lives have been altered permanently by suicide and depression and as I wrote this, I prayed that it would come out in just the right tone to allow them to read this and not have their pain made worse. Here goes:
I don’t know how I came across James Altucher, but I did. He’s one of those few people who’ve made millions of dollars, lost them all and still had the energy to make them all over again. And he had the courage and passion to write about his journey, in books and blogs.
One particular blog got my attention recently: “Seven things happen when you become completely honest”. He writes light-heartedly about anything. It’s not unusual to find a line in his work that says, “The last time I wanted to kill myself, I decided to….” Not many people can casually admit to ever having wanted to kill themselves, not on a public platform anyway. But he does, and he means it and he writes about it so others can learn from his experiences.
He says one of the seven things that happens when you become completely honest in your written work is people think you want to kill yourself because every blog or post is like a suicide note. That got me thinking. Why have I found it so difficult to put down on paper my struggle with suicide.
Wait, hang on a minute here. You haven’t let yourself fall into that trap have you? Thinking I want to kill myself? If you did, it’s ok, it’s a natural reaction, well almost because not many people bring up a subject like this in polite company.
James Altucher reckons suicide is treated like porn by most people. It’s not discussed often enough but when it is, there’s a lot of emotion and self-righteousness that comes to the fore. I mean, let’s face it: When was the last time you discussed porn. Almost never, because society frowns at people who treat porn as an everyday subject. Ditto suicide.
But sadly, we all know someone close to us who has taken their own life or attempted to. We all know the harrowing feelings that go with the guilt. Could I have done or said something to prevent this? Why didn’t they confide in me? Was I the reason?
I saw a little note on facebook recently that said “suicide is never the solution, it just gives the pain to someone else”. As someone who has fought this battle since I was about 10 I had an instant answer to that little note. Suicidal people are not rational, not in the normal sense anyway. Besides wanting to get rid of their own pain, they reason that they cause more pain to others alive than when they are gone. In other words suicide is chosen as a way out of what is perceived as an even bigger pain. Don’t try to reason it out, like I said, the rationality is not your normal straight forward kind.
Sadly, when the discussion of suicide comes up, there is always all-round condemnation of the person who did or attempted to. “I would never kill myself, life is just too good”. “It’s so stupid to kill yourself over a man/woman, I mean really? Just leave them?” “ There’s always a way out, all you need to do is talk about it”. “Suicide is the coward’s way out” and a whole lot more. Easier said than done. I’m certain the majority of people would be literally freaked out by a friend who comes up to them and says: “you know what, I’ve been thinking about taking my own life for a while now”.
“Please don’t talk crazy” you’d be tempted to respond. You would most probably be spurred into action by a lot of tears or some form of emotional breakdown. Not many people can manufacture an emotional breakdown so they can convince someone they really want to take their own life. So they normally just go ahead and do it, to spare themselves all the judgement and condemnation that society spews out.
Religion doesn’t help either. The condemnation there is double because one is regarded as having decided to play God. Worse still, heaven is supposedly not welcoming to suicide victims. So how does a well-meaning child of God raise such a matter and still feel holy?
I’m no psychologist so I will not try to talk for all people who have ever attempted suicide or even just thought about it. I just know what goes on within me and that’s what I’m sharing.
The intensity of the thoughts or ideation differs from person to person. Like I said above, I recall my first suicidal thoughts as having come about at age ten. I had done something I felt ashamed of and could see no way out of the situation. Yes, at ten. It all started as a silly feeling in my head. More like, would I feel all this shame if I was not here? And the idea grew. Like, honestly, if I wasn’t here, would I be feeling this shame and pain?.
The idea of not being ‘there’ stayed with me for a long time. Plus I was an emotionally fragile young person, I easily internalized pain. Whenever I was faced with a situation that seemed to offer no way out, I always reverted to thinking ‘not being there’ was the solution.
Somehow this idea of ending it all when pain surfaced got linked to my performance in life. And any perceived failure triggered the thoughts. I cannot remember the first time I actually thought an attempt through. Like think of a way to end it all and when. That only came later in life, in my late teens. I suppose it could be that by then I was exposed to things in life so even the ideation began to take form and shape. So I began to think of various ways in which I could end the pain. This is another thing that people get completely wrong in how they discuss suicide.
There are some bright sparks who like saying things like ‘If she was serious about taking her life she would have shot herself/thrown himself in front of a truck/drank stronger poison’ and some such nonsense like that. I know in my case it was important to me that I felt no pain. I’m generally averse to physical pain and whichever method I was to choose would include little or no pain.
And I constantly fretted over “what if I survive the attempt” question. The bright sparks above never consider that. Things always go wrong. Even in suicide. The one thought that I could never get out of my mind was how a certain girl ingested some poison and survived the attempt, but she went blind. I know it’s a completely irrational thing to ask you to imagine but try this: try imagining surviving a 10-storey fall or being hit by a truck and surviving or surviving a gunshot wound to the head. Highly unlikely but it could happen.
But the emotional pain from the depression grew stronger as I grew older. Pain stopped being a factor. So yes, even the painful methods were in consideration now. When the vortex of depression is swirling around you, escaping that constant pain becomes the only focal point. Funnily though, once decided, to end it all I mean, this calm came over me. It was like some pressure has been taken off. So you start thinking rationally but only as far as the attempt is concerned. Where am I going to do this? Do I leave a note?
I have always avoided going into how many times and when because I feel it detracts from the point I want to make. Whenever possible, wherever possible, don’t avoid talking about it. Also, either keep your silence or be kind when talking about recent suicide victims because you have no freaking idea who else is going through the pain as you senselessly declare: “only cowards take their own lives”.
The first time I sat down in a psychiatrist’s office and answered all her questions she looked at me and asked me: “Do you feel like taking your life right now?” I answered No because I didn’t. She said to me, “You are very lucky to be alive.” Medication and therapy followed. I’m still on the meds. Will be for as long as I live. The urge to go off them has been there before, but the knowledge of the pain that I went through without them is scary. So I take them like clockwork.
Do I still get the thoughts. Yes, but not as often as before, which was almost daily. Do I still get depressed, Yes, but I cope better now.
When I sat down to write this I had intended for it to be a light-hearted look at a difficult subject, and I could feel it getting away from me as I wrote. If it got you a little upset, believe me, that was not my intention.
As a caring friend you are probably thinking did this man ever attempt suicide for real. Did he get help? And just maybe, was it really necessary to share such a personal and maybe even shameful, embarrassing thing?
The answers to the three questions above are yes I did attempt suicide many times. And yes I did get help, and continue to get help. Which is the whole point of my sharing this with you. There are people like me who are born with a chemical imbalance that predisposes them to suicidal depression. And is it really necessary to share such a personal (and shameful secret), then you know it wasn’t meant for you, but for that one person who is going through a similar journey or knows someone who is. If just one of those people can read this and seek help, then I do not care about the shame( or your thoughts).
Lastly, should it be that you read this and were upset by how such a serious subject can be treated so light-heartedly, then my profound apologies to you. You obviously have been affected by suicide and are still dealing with it. My one lesson from all my attempts, nobody could have stopped me. It’s almost impossible to stop someone from committing suicide but I truly believe if we stop treating it like porn, a taboo subject, then we are well on our way to creating conditions where I could have just blurted out to my parents one day: “You know, I have always wanted to end my own life” and they would have sought help for me.
(PS When I read that Robin Williams was 63 when he passed I felt so proud that the man had fought this diabolical disease for 6 decades, and managed to entertain us along the way. Anyone whose thoughts are what a waste is selfish, imagine the pain he had to work through to entertain you.)