Some time ago a colleague and I drove to the coast. We were going to join my family and some friends to be beside the seaside for a week or so. S and I drove from Mbabane in Swaziland to a holiday town North of Durban. The journey was a long one – some six to seven hours as I remember over some dreadful roads. This was my fault because I thought it would be nice to take an unusual and scenic route along the Pongola River before joining the N2 heading south. A fat-headed idea as my passenger remarked as we were stopped at yet another one-way road-works cabin that usefully and cheerfully informed us that we are likely to be stopped for a maximum of 15 minutes, or 25 minutes, or 45 minutes depending upon the length of road undergoing pavement surgery. This was mildly bearable to S and I, but was enormously unbearable for A, S’s fractious 3 year old daughter.
By the time we reached Empangeni, a featureless “sugar” town in KwaZulu Natal on the route to Durban A was at boiling point and we decided to stop at a road house for sustenance and sodas for A, and very strong coffees for us adults. The combination of being a naturally fractious three year old exacerbated by a hot and ill tempered journey had rendered A virtually uncontrollable. About as uncontrollable as any fractious three year old can be. Food and drink was liberally strewn around our table and the noise was awful. S and I were too tired to so anything but alleviate A’s behaviour as best we could. Bolting her to the table and strapping a horse’s feed bag to her head would have been useful, but probably illegal.
A was not the only miscreant in the restaurant. There were at least two other similarly aged harridans and perhaps we could have put the three together and retreated to a quiet corner table while they slugged it out together. But that would have been impossible because S is short for Sindisiwe and A means Andza, both of whom are black Swazi’s, and I am a proto-white one. Far from being able to hook up the miscreant toddlers together and swap raised eyebrows between suffering child wranglers it was impossible to slice through the glutinous atmosphere with so much as a glance – let alone a sympathetic shoulder shrug. A mixed race couple with a badly behaved child. Typical!
Perhaps I’m over sensitive but I felt questions burning into our backs like “Surely he’s not the Father?” and comments like “Can’t they control that child.” This trip is still a subject of anecdotal amusement – but my abiding memory was the heavy sense of disapproval from an exclusively white clientele towards a non-white combo, or rather the lack of latitude that would have been given to a “normal” suffering "family" group.
There is another episode where the same small child – now five years old, considerably wiser and accompanied by some cousins, an aunt or two and Gogo. A similar scenario but much more relaxed. A road house restaurant with a deck overlooking a large inland lake. On this lake and close to the deck was a boat with a white middle aged man and a boy of perhaps 10 years old. They seemed to be fishing for the cat fish just visible under the surface of the murky waters. Andza and her cousins were fascinated by this activity and clung to the balcony firing questions at the fishermen who were a mere 5m away. “What are you doing?” “Are you fishing?” “What are you fishing for?” “Have you caught any fish yet?” They were studiously ignored. They were ignored with an intensity that was stunning. I have never before witnessed such stupendous effort expended in ignoring, by both man and boy – extraordinary behaviour!
At the same road stop I was with a friend who, through minor language difficulties and a major lack of concentration on his part could not understand the question from the waitress about whether he wanted hot or cold milk with his coffee. Her intolerance and immediate impatience with him tensed her entire body to the point where she was quivering, and even when I “translated” for him ("Khetabahle - for Christ's sake - Hot or Cold?") the sense of idiot kaffir hung around us like smog until with relief we left.
Lastly; a friend and I fetched up at a street-front café in Citrusdal in the Western Cape an hour and a half’s drive North of cosmopolitan Cape Town. An archetypal agricultural town redolent with the trappings of a recent apartheid history - indentured labour, unemployment, poverty and endemic alcoholism – the last a hangover from the historic “dop” system of payment. We had been hiking in the nearby Cederberg Mountains. After three days of absolute isolation, living on survival rations of nuts and spicey tinned tuna fish and no decent coffee we were gagging for banana splits and mocca java, both of which the café in question excelled in. We sat on the veranda watching the café proprietor feed a visiting sparrow on a variety of cheeses.
At one end of the veranda sat two elderly white couples. They were clearly upset by a european guy sitting with a coloured woman. So much so that I got the feeling that they were increasingly uncomfortable with their own company because of the obvious comfort we had in ours and the fact that we were somehow trampling over their comfort zone. The gap between our table and theirs crackled and spat with odium and disgust until they tired and left, passing our table with jutting chins and stiff backs held like body armour against marauding rioters. My companion seemed far less upset than I felt – it happens all the time – she said.
I regard myself to be hugely privileged by the company that I keep and the friends and colleagues that I have. Even the one who throws his hands up in horror when I sit next to him in a café and says “Oh no – I have to sit next to a white man!”
This is not meant to be a faux, soppy, liberal – “what a world citizen I am” sort of a piece but a real acknowledgement of the people around me that don’t actually care a stuff about what colour I am, what their or my lineage is, or what neighbours we collectively have. The fact that we come from different cultural backgrounds is regarded as a symbol of richness not a stigma. There is so much to learn from our differences. The fact that there are at times cultural and language issues and misunderstandings is part of the fabric and texture of cross-cultural relationships, and I have long stopped outwardly apologising for my own inability to assimilate other people’s languages and remain eternally grateful for non-native English speaker’s ineffable politeness in deferring to my own language arrogance.
Next time you find yourself feeling alienated by someone or something different, or wanting to alienate someone or something different, think a little about the energy that is accumulating within you and is emanating from you. It is negative and so utterly, utterly sapping. The sheer lassitude that hate inculcates is destructive and infectious.It is surely so hard to detest with the all consuming intensity that one often sees in others.
|Completely gratuitous picture of the "Mitchell Child|
Wrangling Service". You will note that aside from
the complementary headgear we also provide in-flight