A colour-blind South African

It’s good to be home. Or is it?

I have always been pleased to return home to South Africa. In fact I have been known, embarrassingly, to kiss the tarmac at Johannesburg International (regardless of the political colour of its eponymous historical leader) on reaching the bottom of the steps from the plane. But after one hundred and ten days on the road, visiting eight Southern and East African nations, driving 26,000 kilometres, this time was different. Coming home was a time for reflection and contrasts, doubt and even despair.

On driving across the border from Namibia, the first South African radio news broadcast I had heard in three months was a depressing reminder of the issues we still have to resolve in this country. After months of newscasts detailing the comparatively parochial issues faced by communities in nearby lands, our own news came across as racially-polarised, self-obsessed, point-scoring and very unsettling.

Tony Yengeni was carried shoulder-high into jail, to serve his sentence for corruption, and backed up by the presence of leading members of government; statistics again revealed the disparity between the standards of living of South Africa’s various ‘population groups’; a black man’s rape of a white woman raised once again the question of whether the case would have been given such a high profile had it involved a black woman; vehicle hijackings were up; the government’s record on AIDS was criticised from Toronto; Jacob Zuma’s latest trial was due to begin and he was being championed from all sides; the Land Claims Court was blaming white farmers for standing in the way of change.

I think I had genuinely lost all racial awareness after so long out of the country but these headlines brought it back to me with a jolt. I had been pre-prepared a few days earlier by an incident in South Luangwa in Zambia when I was accused of racism by a black South African overland-truck mechanic, in asking him to turn his kwaito down in the national park campsite as he was scaring the animals away. “Let the black man play his music; leave me alone and go and look at your bloody birds” was his response. What would a German or a Brit have made of this? He or she would surely have been very puzzled that this was somehow a racial issue?

In East Africa, if you break down (which you do), you wait on the roadside, flag down a vehicle or stop a passing pedestrian and they help you, in our case, to give two examples, three Maasai helped us remove a damaged shock absorber in Tanzania and a Ugandan taxi driver (and his passengers) helped us change a tyre when our wheel spanner broke. In South Africa the best advice is to lock yourself in your car and call the police, or better still, a friend.

In East Africa, if you see a policeman, as with most countries in the world, you assume he is honest and that he is protecting you, preventing crime, would tell you the time if you asked or explain the route to you if you are lost. In South Africa the tendency is to assume that anyone in a policeman’s uniform is corrupt, about to extract a bribe from you and probably behind the latest break-in at your house.

As a result of my new-found relaxed attitude towards my fellow-Africans, I spent a very happy four hours in their company in the queue for a new driver’s license in White River the other day, sharing a joke at the undoubted inefficiencies of the system that led us all to be there for so long. I bought King Pies for my neighbours in the line at lunchtime and gave them a lift to Pick’n Pay at the end of the day. It didn’t seem strange to me and I can’t speak for them but wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were usual, not unusual behaviour?

We South Africans, of all colours if we must stipulate that fact, are perpetuating our own hang-ups by thinking in colour all the time. Them and us. ‘They’ broke into my car last night. ‘You people’ don’t understand. We are haunted by our preconceptions to the point of paranoia.

It is an obsession and we need to shake it off. In all the time that I travelled, in all those kilometres, I had not one item stolen, I was never threatened, no-one (with the exception of the above incident with the South African in Zambia) was rude to me, no-one mentioned bribery to me and no-one mentioned colour. I was South African, so we were all Africans and therefore distant cousins. That was good enough for them and more than good enough for me.

I talked about ‘the man in the purple shirt’, ‘the mechanic’, ‘the owner of the restaurant’, ‘the bus driver’. In South Africa, telling the same stories I would probably have specified that the first and third were black, the second Indian and the last white, because it would somehow have painted a necessary picture for my audience but, in fact, this tells me only about myself and my probable audience.

We expected, somewhat arrogantly I suppose, that the people we met would be slightly impressed that we were South African. Big economy, masses of tourists, Eskom, DStv, Vodacom, good roads etc. It was sobering indeed that the most common reaction was ‘South African? You have a lot of crime there don’t you?’ and, sure enough, within two days of coming home, R500 and a cellphone were stolen from my hotel room in the Karoo and I had to leave the vehicle in Secure Parking for the first time since I left home in case the roof rack was emptied in the street.

Most of our fellow East and Southern Africans have had more than forty years of independence, social revolution and nation-building. They are way ahead of us. (The notable exception is Zimbabwe, which, maybe like South Africa, ploughed ahead with a new dispensation without looking carefully enough at any issues which might arise later). We need to ask ourselves crucial questions and formulate government policy on the basis of the answers.

Do we want white people here or don’t we? Are we serious about reducing crime or aren’t we? Are we going to save the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS or aren’t we? Should we be giving away land to unqualified farmers or should we let market forces decide who farms? Are we going to have provincial government or aren’t we? Do we need to be wary of tribal divisions in the 21st century or should we abolish ten of our official languages? Should we employ on the basis of qualifications or colour?

We have another twenty years of social revolution ahead of us but we could cut that short now by straight-talking and honest action. Then we can look our neighbouring countrymen in the eye and tell them that we, like them, know who we are and where we are going.

Dogs Bite Blacks and The Young are Colour-blind – two South African truisms. Surely we are more intelligent than our dogs and can make a judgement that is not only more than skin-deep but is not based on skin at all? And if the young are colour-blind, let’s remove our ‘old’ struggle-obsessed politicians and let the young run the country before they develop cynical, partisan views.

It is very good to be home, but why can’t I always feel here the way I felt amongst our neighbours? Why won’t my government let me be African? What does colour, be it political or dermatological, have to do with it? Why are we such a sad, self-obsessed bunch? Can we move on please? The rainbow is irrelevant if it draws attention to our colour. Let’s be people.