Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Coloured Experience

Disclaimer: This is a recording of my own personal experience. I know the issues are so much more complicated than I have expressed here (no tribal, religious, sexuality, gender conflicts, employment issues mentioned) but I didn't want to read other theories or essays on South African politics and write a historically accurate thesis - This is more of a report. The writing here came from being present in South Africa between November 2011 - January 2012 and talking to the people living there.

On my first day in South Africa I got into a conversation with a Taxi Driver (not the one I’ve already written about) – this taxi driver would be seen as a black Arab/Asian in the UK.

Me – So, what do you think of South Africa?

Taxi Driver – It’s great but the blacks are fucking it up!

I didn’t know how to respond to this. I’d just arrived. I wondered how he’s labelled me and how he expects me to react. I didn't get offended I just felt confusion and it prepared me for much confusion to come.

I know Londoners aren’t comfortable referring to race. We like to think we’re too educated and civilised to let race define anyone's status or situation but South Africa is a country built on racial politics (i.e. how much Vitamin D your skin can absorb).

Talk Radio is popular in Cape Town and it seems all the discussions centred around race.

"GOOD MORNING! Welcome to Good Hope Radio! A teacher was fired today because she's coloured, a man was arrested today because he's black, a woman was rewarded because she's white"

It's 2012 and white South Africans (Afrikaans/British descended South Africans) make up 12% of the country and own 90% of the countries businesses. 

The gap between rich and poor is striking. 

I walked past speed boats, hummer trucks, quad bikes etc all parked in driveways and garages behind (mostly white owned) gated mansions. After working in a primary school with children (all black or coloured) some of whom couldn't afford school dinner, it's hard not to feel repulsed by this display of excessive wealth.

Apartheid is still a wound that needs tending. The white families that benefited from, well... being white are of course still going to be rich. They aren’t going to turn around and give reparations to Africans any time soon. Whites feel they've worked for all they have. Being white you got top education and top assistance from a government who wanted to help its own and exclude the rest but still, success wasn't handed to them, it was just made easier for them. The whites worked and feel entitled to their privileges. 

I heard there is one white township. I was told about it by a guy from Zimbabwe who lives in Cape Town. 

“The media like to talk about this white township but come on, to get by (during apartheid) all you had to be was white and they fucked it up! They’re the lowest of the low for sure!”

There is also this white guilt; history knows what colonial warmongering history we Europeans have and we inherit that and apologise for it but I don’t really know how useful that guilt is to anyone. Maybe it has created a sensitivity that has geared many young middle class white people towards human rights campaigning and activism which of course is cute.

I did speak to a young white British/South African who said "the blacks were oppressed for a long time by whites in South Africa and now they're getting their own back"

Here's a 15 minute documentary about "Poor Whites" in South Africa from 2006.

There is so much anger in South Africa about its history. You'll often hear people still complain about the white government as if they are still there and then complain about the black government in the same breath.

I went on a tour of the caves in the Devils Peak. The group was made up of mostly Brazilian, Dutch & American students. The tour itself was led by a English/Xhosa speaking guide. After two hours of a guided walk and talk about how the Dutch came and discovered all the caves  I managed to speak to him one on one afterwards. He went into this rant about how he has to give all the credit to the Dutch settlers and promote white supremacy to all the people that come here to visit but it's his job and he's got a family to feed. 
Much of the conversations I had with “coloured people” (political name for people of Mixed-Race, Asian, Cape Malayan, Khoisan) were about this quest for their own identity. I spoke to a coloured guy from the Eastern Cape about this. 

“Black Africans know about their tribes and their ancient traditions, whites know about their European roots but we (coloured people) are caught up between the two - We are lost in having a whole identity”.

A lot of mixed race people go through this “who am I and where do I belong?” crises. I also came though this tunnel but I think I had an easier time going through it in London and being British. In London we’re not wholly defined by our skin colour like it’s our passport, also our multiculturalism is celebrated (because it’s politically correct to celebrate it).

I met a Kiwi guy in a backpacker hostel and we went to a bar together. The people there were all white Afrikaans. He got talking to some of them but they completely ignored me. It was a strange experience and I wanted to humour it. I thought about my Dad’s stories about being Jamaican in London in the 50’s. Ultimately though, I got angrier the longer I was there. Somehow I got talking to a young white woman, after only five minutes three white guys came over and escorted her away from me saying “no, no, no”. It was a strange experience.

There were places where my colour blended me in. I went to a few coloured townships and wasn't looked at twice. I was welcomed into people’s family homes, introduced to their children and grandparents. They cooked for me and showed me around their neighbourhoods.

There was one coloured guy I met who was an ex-ambulance driver who told me things were better during apartheid.

"I had a great team of paramedics but they fired all the white ones and replaced them with these under-qualified black ones. I'll never forget showing up at the scene of a road accident and the new black guy I was with had no idea how to handle any of the equipment. He couldn't even operate the radio. I quit my job after that, I wouldn't be able to save any more lives. Things weren't that bad during apartheid - it just meant we had to live with segregation. We couldn't go in some areas because they were white - whatever! I didn't want to go there anyway! My house has been robbed three times since Apartheid ended and more people from other parts of Africa came in - The last guy to rob my house was a man from Kenya posing as a TV repairman. Came in and ran off with the DVD Player and TV set... stole some plates and cutlery that were in the kitchen too!" 

I spent New Years Eve at a party in Cape Town. It was about five minutes into the New Year and a black woman chose to have an intense conversation with me about "how white Cape Town is" and how racist the Afrikaans people are, how the black government are corrupt because they're trying to live like white people etc. The fact she couldn't let it go for one night as we went into a New Year made a sad statement. 

Apartheid isn't just a political fight, it's a psychological one.

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