The walls of Cosmo City

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Written September 2014

Trevor Davies lives in a small three-bedroom house in Cosmo City. It reminds me of the house I used to live in Crystal Park in Benoni. Trevor and I went to school together, Benoni High. Trevor is white. He is married to Chrissie, a black American woman. Together they have three children.

Trevor and Chrissie met at university in Portland, America. It was a campus of 14,000 students, only 99 were black. There was virtually no racial integration and there had been incidents of racial intimidation, including black people getting urinated on. Trevor and Chrissie, both Christians, joined the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship which was on a mission to improve race relations on campus.

“I was highly aware of my place as a white South African,” remembers Trevor. “I remember going to a platform about being from Africa and being the only white guy, and feeling the weight of knowing my history, and asking what right I had to even be there.”

As they began to confront the issue of race on campus, what they realised was that there was no space where people could deal with their ignorance, and so they started a group called Race Matters, where people from all ethnicities could come together and ask any question they wanted. They would then break out into race-specific groups, try as honestly as possible to answer the question, and then share their insights back to the group as a whole.

“What we found was that white people had never thought about race. They had no thoughts on it. But as they started to hear the stories from the black and Asian participants, they started to feel guilt and shame and anger,” remembers Trevor.

Trevor admits he was one of them.

“I only became away of the story of South Africa because everyone in America knew it. I only knew what really happened after I came home in 2008 and went to the Apartheid Museum and sat down and watched the videos of people toyi-toyiing and protesting. We never saw that. We never saw that on TV. But the people in America, they had seen it all. Everyone knew what had happened in South Africa, but not me. I realised I needed to become aware.”

But becoming aware, Trevor admits, is not easy.

“It is jarring. Everyone else has continued on as if nothing has really changed. In Benoni particularly. I wrestle with that. I am judgemental towards those Benoni South Africans and their unwillingness to live in Africa.”

Trevor recalls a fight he had with his brother.

My brother was buying a house and it all worked out well and they felt like it was God who gave them that house. So then I was like, my friends are living in a shack in Zandspruit. They have been praying for twenty years for a house and still they do not have one. Do you think that God does not answer their prayers? The reality is that God did not get you that house. You got that house because you had a friend you knew who was generous who gave you the house at a discount and because you knew a banker who was able to facilitate the loan and a mom who co-signed for it. It was privilege that enabled you to get that house. But that conversation didn’t go down very well. “

“No, it didn’t,” says Chrissie, smiling and raising her eyebrows.

I ask Chrissie how it has been for her, moving to South Africa.

“A little insane,” she says, laughing. “Moving here was like going back to the fifties. Even going to Oregon or the west coast which is like the whitest part of the US, and being an interracial couple, was more welcoming than being here and having it gawked at and pointed at.”

Chrissie recalls their honeymoon in Kwazulu Natal. They were at Ushaka to watch the dolphin show.

“I was so excited to see the dolphins, and this lady kept looking at us, and for me, I was thinking, she must think she knows us. Then she made a big fuss and pretended to take pictures like as if she was at a zoo, taking pictures of some monstrosity, and I remember thinking: she’s really angry and she doesn’t even know me. This is the 1950s.”

One of the hardest parts has been how Chrissie is treated with her mixed race kids.

“I’ll be in the shops and people will say to me: “That can’t be your child, no. You must be the nanny. Are you the nanny? Is that your job? I’m like, do you really want to hear about her birth story and how many hours of labour I was in?” she says laughing. “On good days I just reply, yes she is. On bad days, I give them what for.”

I have to accept that my role is to teach and it is hard because it is my life that is on display. I can’t go to the grocery store and get milk without somebody saying something. It is a daily experience, especially with my most light-skinned daughter.”

I ask Trevor how living in Cosmo City has impacted on his own personal transformation.

“Do you still feel flickers of white superiority?” I ask.

“I think it’s always there. It’s a continuous wrestle to figure out what the truth is and to see clearly. As a family we deal with this stuff a lot. Our middle child comes home and tells us that she loves her mom, but she doesn’t like that she’s brown, she would prefer to be white and loves Barbie,” Trevor says.

“This is in our life all the time,” says Chrissie. “We are trying to work with our kids to understand who they are, their story…”

“I wrestle with it, should white people be given the grace that they seem like they need? I don’t feel like it,” says Trevor.

“What do you mean by grace?” I ask.

“It’s been 20 years, they are still living in South Africa and they haven’t really budged. They complain about how everything is done, how bad the ANC is, and blaah blaah blaah, a long sob story of how everyone has messed up this fantastic country that was built by them, while it was the black people who actually built it, they just made the plans. White people, will argue they worked hard to build the country. And they did. But the difference was, when they worked hard they were rewarded. Whereas those folks at Marikana, they are still working hard and still not being rewarded. That’s the difference.

“I feel like: how long does one need? If you are going to play ignorance forever, you are going to get the EFF in its full wrath, and it’s going to be a mess, and I think you’ve asked for that. And you are going to get it, and you are going to lose stuff that you really care about, because you have chosen to pretend. What is it going to take for white folks to realise that they live in Africa?

“You hear white folks say that I am begging to be African. Or that I am African. But,” and here he shorts with laughter, “they are completely disengaged which the struggles of Africa. They want to live in Bryanston, and live in Africa, and go to the bush. So… even at the church we go to, people are saying they want to change. We are trying to create spaces for people to actually talk about what it would take to engage well. Starting with relationships, getting to know people, simple things. People’s desire for this, is very low. Most folks are not really interested. They will ride the train when it’s the World Cup, when the train has been cleaned and painted, but otherwise, they don’t want to come here. They’re terrified.”

 

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