Common as Muck
When Granddad Jack died I inherited two pairs of socks. A pair of woolly green hiking socks and a pair of long beige socks that he had bought when he had come to visit us in South Africa. The latter were part of the standard dress of the Boers – the Afrikaner farmers – usually twinned with khaki shorts, a khaki shirt and a comb tucked beside the knee. Granddad Jack had no need for a comb though. He had been bald since he was 21. When Granddad Smith died five years later, my mother reached into his cupboard and handed me his tweed flat cap – the typical accoutrement of a Yorkshire man – and a blue woolly jumper with the price tag still on. This was the sum of my inheritance.
“We’re common we are,” Granddad Jack once told me, as we sat across from each other in a pub in Bridlington, a seaside town in the north of England, eating fish and chips.
At the table next to us sat a working class family: mum, dad and two kids, dad’s arms thick with tattoos.
“We’re just like them, we are,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table. “There’s nowt wrong wi’ being common.”
It was an unsolicited thought. By then Granddad Jack had dementia and you never knew what would come out of this mouth. More often his stories were repeats, usually replayed within minutes of the last telling, but this he said to me only once and I remember it because it didn’t sit well.
The uncomfortable truth was that, unlike Jack, I had grown up in South Africa where, by virtue of my skin colour, I had been catapulted to the front of the queue. My dad worked in a beer bottle factory, my mum in a timber shop, and if I had grown up in England my thick northern accent and our working class status would have fixed me firmly in the lower rungs. But in 1980s South Africa, my skin trumped their jobs, and my white-girl accent and suburban life were a supposed zenith that everyone was marching towards. So when Jack said I was common I squirmed in my seat because it was both true and not true, and because I had begun to espouse politics that wanted it to be true for no one, while still hoping that I was a little bit special.
On the day Jack and I ate fish and chips I was on my way to Scotland to move in with a wrangly ex-foreign correspondent whom I had met through my work as a journalist, and whom I lusted after not just for his high cheekbones and pouty lips, but because he had been among the first reporters to interview Nelson Mandela after he left Robben Island. On that day in 1990 when the foreign press corps had given Mandela a standing ovation, I was at high school, close to a gold mine dump, in the east of Johannesburg, ignorant of the political wheels that had been gaining momentum and were about to turn the country of my childhood on its head. The stories my roving reporter told me later in the north of the world began to plug my teenage ignorance and make me realise how cut off I was, past and present, from the country I called home.
After a few years in Scotland, during which my ignorance blistered into a sense of personal shame, I became wracked with yearning for a country that was no longer there. The Welsh have a word that describes a melancholic longing for a place that never was, or that no longer exists. Hiraeth, they say. The Portuguese call it saudade. What was it that I was feeling? Nostalgia? A craving for a racist past?
Then fate intervened. In 2010, supported by Time magazine, I was awarded a journalism fellowship from the philanthropic Open Society Foundation to return South Africa and write about what democracy had brought to the rural Xhosa tribal lands where Mandela had grown up. I harboured a hope that it would patch the holes in my head and heart, but as the day for my departure grew nearer, a deep gurning in my belly that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tried to reason with it, forced me to confront that there was something else lurking, something darker and more shadowy – something that I had never wanted to admit to myself.
White liberal media would have us believe the world is divided into nasty racists and the never-been-racist. And unless one is a signed-up member of the KKK, most of us pat ourselves on the back and feel smug that the racist is somebody else, definitely not us. The truth is less simple.
I had not been taught to hate black men, but by the way our society was structured, I was taught to fear them. Black men were not permitted in the house. Black men must drink from separate cups. Black men could not ride inside the car. And although I had gone to a mixed race university during Mandela’s presidency, lived with black and Indian friends and was sure that I had shrugged off the mantle of social conditioning, the increase in violent crime in the post-apartheid era – more often, though not always, committed by black men – had hardened that fear, and my so-called liberal consciousness had pushed it underground.
The three-month reporter’s journey that began in Mandela’s homeland of the old Transkei became a five-year journey into the darkness in my own heart, into contemplation of the nature of racism, and why it has such a powerful hold over us, even when we wish it didn’t. I came to see that my ignorance was a product of fear, and my fear was a product of racial prejudice, and I came to understand how prejudice can have little to do with hate, and a lot to do with protectionism and the myth of white supremacy, and how that myth had cast a spell over me.
It is not easy to write about a Damascene conversion. It seems it is even harder to read about it. I documented this journey in a book, Lost Where We Belong: Trying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadows, which although has the backing of a respected London literary agent, has been turned down for publication by major publishing houses because, as one editor put it: “The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting…[though]… the very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful.”
It might not be en vogue to be a racist, but nor is it profitable, fashionable or palatable to publicly undo these knots in your white self.
Which is where this story really begins.
The Wozobona Cultural Centre is on Phiela Street in Orlando East in Soweto. The main building is a takeaway shop that sells snacks and cold drinks. Out back is a shaded eating area and a pretend bedroom where tourists on a township tour can poke their head into a “real” township bedroom, without actually having to go into anyone’s real bedroom. It is owned by Mr and Mrs Dlamini, parents of Busi, an articulate feminist and racial justice activist who, having grown up in apartheid South Africa, not only has first-hand experience of racism, but has the enviable ability to lob phrases like “internalised oppression” and “cultural appropriation” at people’s heads and make them understand what they mean and why they are worth thinking about.
I had met Busi through Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia, two women who had started a pop-up dialogue café called Consciousness Café. After my five years of solo soul searching, I too had had the idea of setting up an “apartheid café” in which South Africans could come together to heal emotional scars, and Keke and Anisha – black and Indian respectively – had welcomed me as the white face of the Consciousness Café.
We began collaborating in 2015 when dark clouds were visibly gathering over the Rainbow Nation. For the first 21 years of our democracy we had attempted to do as Tata Mandela instructed: forgive, smile, dance. We collectively pretended that we had not been scarred by the shadows of apartheid. We boasted and lamented that the Born Frees – those born after 1994 – were not even interested in politics. And then, in March 2015, just over a year after Mandela’s death, the youth woke up. With the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student protests – protests that demanded the removal of colonial icons and that the government come good on its promise of free tertiary education – a new era was ushered in. It was like when a family patriarch dies and the quarrelling over inheritance can begin and the dark secrets finally come out.
In the case of South Africa, the family inheritance was land. Land that the 1913 Land Act had forbidden black people from owning, land that was taken during the urban Forced Removals that took place in the Fifties and Sixties, land that had been won in wars and bartered in shady deals with tribal chiefs. The black middle class may now outnumber the white, but for the majority of black South Africans – at least in economic terms – little has changed. Half of black households earn an average of R35,000 per annum (£2000), skilled mine workers are still underpaid relative to the value of the commodities they are extracting from the earth, and university education is still a high-price tag that most black families can ill afford. In the eyes of the students, the black majority government has not done enough to end the structural racism that favours foreign capital and continues to make second-class citizens of black South Africans.
The dark family secret, thus, was anger. A fury was brewing in the belly of the country. A rage that the Rainbow Nation had not permitted to be expressed.
Busi and I had spent the entire journey to Soweto from the leafy suburbs – where Busi and I were both living – arguing about whether dressing up in Bollywood costume for a fancy dress party was, or was not, cultural appropriation.
Busi argued that for a white person to dress in a sari was to unfairly appropriate a culture that does not belong to you. I argued that since Bollywood is a cultural export and one of the biggest moneymaking industries in the world, it is for sale, and for a fan of this film genre to dress up in a sari and celebrate the craziness of Bollywood, is cultural appreciation, not appropriation.
Eventually Busi conceded, though she would not budge with Johnny Clegg, the white South African singer-songwriter who speaks fluent Zulu and has made all his music (and money) collaborating with black musicians.
According to Busi, Clegg’s unforgiveable mistake was the way he centred himself in the band.
“But he was the lead singer,” I argued. “It’s the nature of the frontman to be centred.”
Busi wasn’t having it. Clegg had done what the white man always does; steal your thing, make it their own, take it out into the world, and make themselves rich and famous.
I conceded that I understood where she was coming from, though I thought Clegg had also done something else that Busi did not value – he had built a bridge to black culture at a time when all the other bridges were burning and we were banned from engaging with each other at all. During the claustrophobic all-whiteness of 1980s South Africa, Clegg had been one of the few doorways into a multicultural, colourful Africa that had intrigued me from a distance. Clegg showed us we could be more than good little racists and that our country could be different to the one that stifled us with fear and prejudice.
It was Busi’s idea to hold a Consciousness Café in Soweto. Much of the public discourse around the post-apartheid, still-apartheid South Africa had been taking place in the liberal media and at the universities. Busi wanted to take that conversation to the township where she grew up, hoping to attract a less middle-class crowd to the discussion. She agreed to co-facilitate with Keke, while Anisha and I would be participants. As the room filled up, we soon realised that aside from the Rasta man, the rest of those gathered – four whites, one Indian, one mixed-race American and fourteen black faces – were firmly middle-class. There was even a Zulu princess.
Every Consciousness Café begins with the participants suggesting and voting on a topic. That afternoon the chosen topic was: “Why is there no space for black anger?”
The family secret.
To kick off a dialogue, participants are asked to flip the topic on its head and dream of a world where that topic isn’t a problem. The group were asked to imagine a South African where that anger wasn’t necessary.
People became immediately angry.
“Why am I not allowed to be angry about what white people did to my parents? Why must I forgive and forget when no one has even apologised?”
“I’m sick of my history being framed by the white man’s story,” said a historian. “Our history is framed by the wars of the white man. His attempt to conquer our country and how we lost. We need to reclaim the stories of the past outside of the white man’s memory, so we can reclaim our dignity.”
A young black woman who works for a German company operating in South Africa was soon close to tears.
“I will never make it to management in that company because they only employ German managers, and when I think that my grandmother had to wash white women’s panties and I still can’t make it to the top in my own country, it makes me want to burn it down. If I can’t have it, then why should someone else?”
The dialogue had begun.
Fifteen minutes in, I asked if I could say something. Busi nodded.
“Isn’t it that it’s difficult to find a space to channel black anger because the anger is towards a system that no longer “officially” exists? Usually when we express anger we express it towards someone who has treated us unfairly. But in this post-apartheid society, black people are no longer officially excluded, so how do you direct the anger? You can possibly direct it at a racist boss, but that’s probably not wise for your career, and because your boss is the system, he probably won’t hear it, so the anger has no place to go.”
And to explain what I meant, I tried to give my own example of how I had noticed how difficult it is to express frustration to someone who doesn’t want to hear it.
Ever since the student protests, a new narrative of “white privilege” had emerged. Black intellectuals had been writing articles in the liberal press and on Facebook forums demanding that white people “own their privilege”.
It was a new definition of privilege that included ‘not being automatically thought of as a thief/corrupt when you drive a luxury car’ and ‘not being paid less based on the colour of your skin’.
Prior to this, my definition of privilege had been private schools, yachts, overseas holidays, horse riding lessons and weekly trips to buy new clothes, none of which I – or many others – had experienced during our apartheid childhoods.
The white population of South Africa is a mishmash of religious and economic migrants, including Huguenots who fled Catholic ire, Jews who fled pogroms, Brits who fled the implosion of heavy industry in the north (my family), Lebanese and Cypriots who fled war, Czechs who fled the collapse of the Soviet Union and Portuguese who had fled the poorest country in Europe.
Over the past months I had noticed that whenever a white person tries to explain this through their lens, they get shot down. I wanted to make the point that we live in a country of multiple, complex truths that struggle to be heard, but my point drowned in a sea of anger. Around the room, eyes narrowed.
“How dare you talk about not being privileged!” a young black woman exclaimed. “You know nothing about what it was like growing up black! Your father might not have had money at the end of the week, but if he had gone into the bank, the manager would have given him a loan because he was white and considered good for it. But my black father could never get a loan, because he was black. And you might have been the first person in your family to go to university, and your dad might not have been easily able to afford it, but when he worked 16 hours a day to pay for it, it was because he had a job that paid enough to do that and when he was too tired to work those long shifts anymore and he remortgaged your house to pay for the rest, it’s because you had a house that could be remortgaged, while my father was not allowed to own a house or land.”
She was right. There was no way I could understand the indignity of growing up black in a country that skewed everything away from your favour. But from where I was standing, what she was talking about was oppression, not privilege. And if the intention of this new narrative was to get white South Africans to face up to the injustices of this land, then the word ‘privilege’ wasn’t up to the task. It was like being ordered to ‘count your blessings’. Okay, so now what?
But although I may have thought the word ‘oppression’ was the better descriptor, to be oppressed positions you as the victim and these middle-class black South Africans were done with being victims. They were taking back power and doing it the way humans do best: to deny the truth of someone else’s story. Edified and emboldened by the writings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, the black voice had awoken and a new battle was beginning: the battle for the narrative.
Across the room, the historian crossed his legs, leaned forward, and jabbed his finger in the direction of my face.
“You’ve got some work to do,” he said.
My own eyes narrowed and I could hear my heart pumping in my ears.
There was only one other person who stuck his finger in my face and told me that my thoughts were not permitted: my oft drunk, fury-fuelled father.
The personal triggered the political and a deep rage boiled over.
I leant forward and jabbed my own finger into the space.
“How dare you presume from my skin colour that I haven’t been doing my work?” I sneered through gritted teeth. “That I haven’t been trying to undo the apartheid shit in me? You know nothing about me. Nothing.”
“Isn’t it interesting how when the black person shows anger, the white person starts to fear?” she said.
My anger went from simmer to nuclear.
Busi was supposed to be the facilitator, which meant she was supposed to be neutral. It was entirely legitimate for her to name a feeling she noticed in me, but it was her job to check that really was how I was feeling, and not label my feelings for me. She had also been triggered and was now turning on me.
“Afraid? No, no no,” I stammered. “I am not afraid. I am angry. I’m angry that you can’t hear me. You say you hate racism because it treated all black people the same, but you are doing exactly the same thing. You refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the white experience. All you see is my skin and it makes you deaf to my words.”
“I’m sorry,” said the historian.
I glanced at him and nodded an acceptance of his apology.
“I’m sorry I ever expected a white person to be any different,” he continued. “I am sorry I came here. I am sorry I put myself in the way of yet another conversation where a white person doesn’t get it and makes it all about themselves.”
I felt the blood drain out of my body.
My fury was gone, and in its place was hatred. Hatred of this moment. Hatred of being pinned to the wall. Hatred of not being heard because I am white. Hatred of this whole fucked-up, intractable country.
Over the years of trying to untangle the apartheid mess in me, again and again I had faced the most frustrating truth of all: our identities are not our own. Apartheid was like an old fashioned folk dance, everybody had a part, everybody knew their steps, and although new music was playing, few knew how to dance any other way. As a white person this means you were constantly cast in one of two roles:
- The powerful, capable white knight who is unrealistically expected to change the life of the person in your path. The white supremacy myth.
- The one who is hated, rejected and mistrusted with a glance. Guilty before proven innocent. The same way the racist white treats black.
Try to protest the first role and you were dismissed as mean, try to protest the second and you were derided with a new phrase: “white tears”.
Recently at Joburg airport, I had overheard a young white woman crying because someone told her she couldn’t call herself South African.
“I was born here. No one has the right to tell me what I can call myself,” she sobbed.
But in the face of continued land dispossession, black South Africans were taking back the one thing they owned outright: an African identity.
And mocking the tears.
Apartheid had dehumanised black people and denied them of their identity, and revenge was turning out to be the same dish, served cold, 21 years later.
Outside on the streets of Soweto, it was growing dark and every muscle in my body was urging me to stand up, walk through the door, stride out into the street and not look back. I wanted to be away from them, from their judgements, from their labelling, from this prison. Being white in South Africa was not a life, it was a life sentence.
Just like being black.
At last we were equals.
I sat in silence as the dialogue continued.
There was anger at apartheid’s land policy that had turned black men into migrant workers, disconnecting people from their fathers, families and selves.
“I never knew my father. I don’t even know who I am.”
There was surprise from the Zulu princess who could trace her lineage back into the history of the Nguni migrations and who admitted that only now was she beginning to understand the alienation that plagued other black South Africans.
And then, finally, as the darkness was solidifying outside, a quiet voice steered the conversation back to my outburst. Gigi is a mixed-race American: Amish mother, Puerto Rican father, who had grown up in a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles and married a Zulu. She is oft heard saying, “I ain’t never been white a day in my life ’til I came to live in South Africa.”
Gigi’s experience of becoming white overnight has given her an insight into the burden of the white skin, without the emotional connection.
“Girl, it’s hard, but you need to accept that for some people, you will always represent whiteness, and there is nothing you can do about it. You have to learn to separate the truth inside you, from the truth that is inside other people. When they throw anger at you, you need to learn that it’s not about you, but about the history your body represents. Try to take yourself out of it and see the oppression that they are angry with is the same oppression that you are angry with. And no one can run away from it. Not you. Not them.”
Her words were soothing, the wisdom of a mediator who can sit in the space between conflicting pain, but they also seemed to demand the impossible. How would I ever grow big enough shoulders to be able to carry the burden of whiteness without being crushed by it? It felt like a final task for the white supremacy myth: Think you’re special? Then deal with this. The problem was, as Grandad Jack knew all too well: “We’re common we are and there’s nowt wrong wi’ that.”
Unless you’re a white in South Africa.
This essay was longlisted for the Notting Hill Editions 2017 Essay Prize.
Follow me on Twitter @writerclb