Written by Steuart Pennington
I went on a cruise to the Portuguese Islands off Mozambique with 2500 compatriots and a handful of overseas visitors.
I heard every single one of our 11 official languages, except possibly Khoi-San.
I was with black people and white people, old and young, fat and thin, noisy and quiet, fashionable and sloppy, madly partying and quietly reading, fine dining and gorging.
I was in the proverbial South African fishbowl. It was crowded, it was noisy, it was diverse, it was fun, and it was real.
“So where are you guys from?” I asked of the fashionably dressed black woman and her daughter on the lounger next to me.
“Witbank, we’re here for my daughter’s 18th birthday”
“What do you do in Witbank? I used to work there yonks ago on the coal mines”
“I’m a Mine Overseer on a coal mine in charge of four sections.”
“Really, so female employment underground in the mining industry is a reality. When I was there the job of Mine Captain, as they were called, was officially reserved for big, burly white men.”
“True, but we’ve come a long way since then”
I mulled on this, then turned to the daughter “How are you enjoying the cruise?”
Her mother interrupted “She overstayed her welcome at the disco last night.”
Just then a tanned Adonis looking young white guy stopped while holding a tray load of drinks.
“Oh, there you are Bongi, kom saam, we’re having pre-lunch cocktails”
“May I Mom?”
“Oh, all right, but remember our dinner this evening is first sitting and it’s Captain’s night, in other words, formal”
Turning to me she sighed, “Honestly, the youth to-day don’t know when to stop the partying.”
Being the father of four daughters ……..I sighed too.
Turning to my wife I asked, “Where’s Caitlin?” (my 10 year old)
“Making friends at the shower pool.”
I glanced across, she was one of a handful of white kids amongst a group of black kids playing gleefully.
“We have come a long way” I mulled again
To look after us there were 750 crew, representing, I was told, 60 different nationalities. Malaysian waiters, Indian Maitre’-de, Slovak cleaners, Indonesian barman, South African entertainment organiser, German croupier….. and so on.
Maybe we were in a World fishbowl, rather than just a South African one
I chatted with many people (as is my wont). There were teachers from Polekwane, farmers from North West, Accounts Executives from Gauteng, Traders from Durban, Mechanics from Cape Town, visitors from the USA, Australia and the UK. For some the cruise was afforded by two years of saving, for others it was a spur of the moment decision.
I really felt a sense of South African from all walks of life just grooving along, no tensions, much friendly banter, just like it is meant to be.
As an American visitor commentated, “You fellas sure have come a long way since 1994, it would sure be hard to find a vibe like this in the US, we still have a long way to go.”
The Sunday Times (10 Jan) brought me back to reality.
“WE’RE A FRAGMENRED PEOPLE LIVING IN A BROKEN COUNTRY”
“WHY DO WHITE PEOPLE DESPISE BLACKS?”
“PENNY SPARROW IN HIDING”
“CHRIS HART SUSPENDED”
Page after page on the racist rants and tweets that have consumed the nation and the media for weeks. I found myself agreeing with Herman Mashaba, he is right to lay criminal charges and raise the matter with the Human Rights Commission, but for me his questions were more important.
“Why?” he asks, “after 22 years of democracy, is South Africa experiencing such human vilification? Why do whites still think they have exclusive access to certain places, and why do blacks think it’s OK to talk in their vernacular to insult whites who can’t understand them?”
He writes of the “pain of South Africans trying to be positive in a country that has be stalled by some incompetent government officials and ineffective leadership”.
During the cruise I read Yuval Noah Harari’s “SAPIENS – A Brief History of Humankind” and Boris Johnson’s “The Churchill Factor”. Both agree, the role of political leadership is to provide belief in the future, to describe a future that gives hope to all citizens.
In the absence of this, citizens will feel impotent, angry and even stateless.
Mashaba makes the point, “South Africa is experiencing racism simply because the government has evoked national impotence to such a degree that South Africans are turning on each other because we have a government that will not listen to us, shows no sign of strong and fair leadership, shows no sign of dealing with national issues, has polarised us, and promoted a sense of ‘otherness’ through race based legislation.
Mashaba urges us not to submit to this hopelessness, not to become haters. “Reject race-based philosophies, ideas, activities, protests, and legislation” he urges.
“Stop thinking of yourselves as black and white and start thinking of yourselves as South Africans.”
This is hard to do right now.
I reflected on my own actions of recent.
Why, when I receive my uMngeni Municipality (KZN) Tax Invoice – and for seven years they have not been able to get my rates calculation sorted out do I ask.
- What’s wrong with ‘them’, can’t ‘they’ get anything right?
Why, when I raise money for the crèche I adopted in Soweto and it is embezzled do I think.
- Why did ‘they’ take the chance, did ‘they’ think ‘they’d’ get away with it?
Why, when I play in a holiday golf competition behind a four-ball comprising Naidoo/Naidoo and Moodley/Moodley and I hear “when ‘they’ play together the competition is all but won”.
- Do I elect to let it pass for fear of taking a stand and creating unpleasantness?
Why, when I hear of quotas in sport do I find myself arguing
- Why can’t ‘they’ get their act together after 22 years and start by equipping our schools with decent facilities?
Why, when I see a KFC bag thrown out of a passing car do I say to my kids?
- Those ‘people’ don’t care about litter, it’s really disgusting.”
Why, when I listen to a white conversation riddled with racist epithets do I not
- Walk away from the conversation or reprimand the perpetrators?
Why, when I hear my own church is resisting the appointment of a black Minister do I think
- Let ‘them’ be, quietly leaving is the best thing to do?
With some introspection I ask myself, who is the ‘they/them’ that I am referring to? Is it all 43m blacks? Is it all 1.2 million Indian/Asians? Is it all 4.5m Whites? Is it all 4.6m Coloureds?
Am I alone in unwittingly giving incompetence/ dishonesty / disregard/ racism a broad racial definition? Am I guilty of consciously or unconsciously falling into the trap of crass racial stereotyping? (I have written extensively on the concept of aversive racism or unconscious racism).
To put it bluntly, am I still a racist, or as Justin Foxton puts it, a ‘recovering’ racist?
Do I believe, as John Jeffery (Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development) says in “Time for law to take a stand” (Sunday Times 10 Jan) albeit subconsciously that I am superior because I am white, that deep down I know what’s best for the rest? Am I one of those whites who is incapable of “showing humility instead of arrogance for the past wrongs committed in our name”?
I would hate to think so.
Am I personally “making efforts to redress the inequities of the past”?
I would sincerely hope so.
Am I guilty as Julius Malema will have it (ST 10 Jan) of “looking at us (blacks) with disgust and undermining our humanity”?
I truly hope never.
These are difficult questions, should I, in time like this, be asking them of myself?
On the one hand I think that, after 22 years of democracy, we, as citizens, can justifiably be angry at our tax/rates money being wasted on incompetent civil servants and poorly run municipalities/parastatals.
I think we, as citizens, can be justifiably disappointed at our political leadership and their lack of a clear vision of the future and the consequent deteriorating sense of hope amongst our people.
We can make this ‘institutional’ dissatisfaction felt, as South Africans we have a responsibility to do so. Hopefully it will be understood as legitimate ‘institutional’ criticism not ‘racial’ stereotyping.
BUT, on the other hand, do we work every day at the way we talk to and act in front of our compatriots? Do we worry about falling into the trap of ‘blaming’ incompetence or arrogance on the attributes of a group or generalising negatively about the behaviours of a race?
We should make this distinction, we must not turn on one another.
When we, as citizens, come across acts of overt and covert racism are we prepared to contest it? Or do we sweep it under the carpet for fear of creating discomfort?
Doing nothing is wrong.
And in our own circumstances do we examine what ‘Unity in Diversity’ means for us, and whether we are prepared to genuinely learn to respect and understand cultural differences?
My five days on the cruise helped answer these questions, it gave me hope, we can do this, we can be honest with each other, we can find each other, we can build trust, we can get along just fine.
My personal challenge is to get out of the fishbowl and into the hurly burly of the nation! What then, in this dark hour, is our collective challenge?
One word of caution, let’s not make the mistake of obsessing with those who are unrepentant racists, or making them infamous, let’s rather spend our time, where we can, building bridges and creating our own positive stories of our contribution towards a non-racial South Africa.
So let us draw on the wisdom of Madiba, who said, “If there is one lesson we can learn from the struggle against racism … it is that racism must be consciously combatted, and not discreetly tolerated. In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
were more important.