Saturday, August 30, 2014

South Africans & Race - It's the Norm Here

Siphumelele Zondi

Recently I spoke to a mate who studied in China and then the UK when I was also at university there. We’ve both been back for the same amount of time and it seems as much as we love our home country, we realise that there’s that big struggle of race. The mate I am mentioning here is a white woman. She said to me, “In South Africa politics is in your face, race is in your face, inequalities that are a result of race are in your face.”

I am a black man and I realised in UK middle class societies that I found myself in, my race didn’t matter to a lot of people. I was once in a casual conversation with two women who were convinced I was British, they never mentioned my race but were trying to find ways to prove that I am in fact British and South African. These were white women. Their race is important because I am writing this in South Africa where race seems is the “thing” that people judge you on before they realise that you are South African, a good television producer, Zulu and are a generally nice guy. Yep you are black first in South Africa and as a result you have to predominantly interact with other black people and there will be certain perceptions made about you when people meet you for the first time, before you open your mouth.

In December I tweeted about a house-breaking in my house. I realised that white South Africans on Twitter immediately assumed that those who had done it were black, some were not even afraid to share this until I tweeted again that the police had come through and the suspects were white. Those white males were later arrested for a different crime in my area. Because this is South Africa and to South Africans crime has a race and that is black. People don’t look at the socio-economic conditions that those people live under, they do not look at the history and the reasons that resulted in those people living in poverty and as a result becoming criminals. To them, criminals are black, male and as a result all black males are suspect until proven otherwise. To some, their criminality can’t even be proven otherwise because being black in South Africa just means that criminality is in your DNA.
This was tested when I was in a pharmacy in Victory Park, Johannesburg recently. There was a queue and a bench people could sit on when waiting. I sat down on the bench and as I did, the white woman next to me quickly moved her hand bag and hugged it. I could see her getting more relaxed when I stood up and left. I realised that as a white South African, she believed that I, a man in a shirt, a pair of jeans and a thousand Rand sneakers could be a criminal. Her son probably wears the same clothes as me, looks like me and the only difference between us would be race. Despite this, her South African conditioning would never let her see it at all.
This is also the case when police, including black police, deal with black criminals. I’ve been stopped by police who asked me for my ID to prove that I am South African, I’ve heard of many South Africans who’ve gone through this. A recent high profile case was that of the son of former Reserve Bank governor, Tito Mboweni, who was taken to a waiting centre for foreigners to be deported. I’ve never heard of white South African who’s been stopped on the side of the road and asked to prove that they are South African. When living in the UK, I was never stopped by cops nor have I ever been asked to prove my nationality. The only times I’ve been asked to show my identity in Britain was when bouncers wanted me to prove my age when entering clubs.

I remember an incident when I had spotted a parking bay in Greenside. The car guard stood in the middle of the parking lane, telling me that I couldn’t park there. He refused to give me a reason until a car that was being driven by an Indian man pulled up behind me. He pointed at the car and said he would get first preference and that he wasn’t going to allow me to park there. I was fuming at this stage until I heard him mumbling to himself about how he wasn’t going to let a black person park there. This was a black car guard. I drove off, screamed something to him in anger about how this country isn’t going to progress if black people like him still see other races as superior. 

Restaurants and bars in Greenside are also a huge eye-opener of how we still stay in our little racial groups. I remember a friend from Switzerland asking me why there was only one other table with a mixed race group and every other table had black people sitting with other black people or white people only with other white people. That was the first time I had noticed that voluntary racial segregation in South African restaurants. This is something that was again totally different from the British middle class societies I had found myself in when I was studying there.

South Africa has a lot of examples that show that the white race is still considered superior and is the preferred race by many. This is seen in boardrooms, social set-up of societies and even in voices that are heard in much of the media. It’s a country that is overwhelmingly black, but there are many spaces that don’t show this – like when I was in Cotton On in Sandton recently and realised that all posters have white models on them, it was as if I was suddenly living in a predominantly white society again.

As much as issues of race and racism are still an issue that haunts us, you then get people who are privileged because of their race calling radio stations to request that South Africans move on and not discuss race anymore. You get people are privileged because of their race saying we should do away with employment equity laws that are trying to right the many wrongs we see in South Africa. At some point, maybe, race will not be the first thing we see in other South Africans.

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