The South African Series

I saw the face of apartheid today

I would never insult your intelligence, Reader, by assuming that you are unfamiliar with South Africa’s apartheid past, so suffice it to say that it was brutal to say the least. Apartheid was a wicked, insidious regime that made portions of America’s civil rights struggle look like a scene from an animated Disney movie. Fortunately, that regime ended, culminating in Mandela’s release from prison and ushered in a new era for the ‘Rainbow Nation.’

Before we got here, I did a brief study on what exactly that term meant: Rainbow Nation. South Africa was and is a country rich is natural resources. In the late 18th century, these resources drew people from all over the world – some voluntarily and some a little less so. Indians and Chinese were brought in from Asia to work as laborers and as infantry in the Colonial army. The Dutch Boers (Afrikaner) came to take advantage of the fertile soil and temperate climate and created farm settlements. The English had their stakes in the ground (as they did all over Africa), and finally there were the natives – Bantus, Zulus, Koi/Saans, Xhosas, etc. who were all lumped in as “Black”. With all these different ethnic groups sharing land space, there was sure to be some mixing, which in turn created a new race referred to as ‘Colored’. Their descendants make up the Rainbow Nation as we know it today.

Let’s just cut to the chase: When it comes to race, South Africa has some serious issues. I thought we had it bad in the States… but whew! Oh everyone is polite enough in public, co-existing by basically ignoring the race of their neighbor instead of embracing it, but when you pull back the veneer the cracks in this rainbow colored castle become very apparent. The Whites who were brought up English think that they are better (i.e. more sophisticated) than anyone else, including the Afrikaners (who are pretty much Dutch rednecks). The Afrikaners in turn believe that they are just as superior, if not more so than the English and proved it by winning the English-Boer war. (Hey, whaddya know? The South actually won this round.) Next is the Chino-Indo group, who mingle almost exclusively with one another…because NO ONE elese is even fit the carry their plate of dhosa; unless you’re Colored. But only the right type of Colored, mind you! The lighter, the better. Ahh, and then there’s the Colored – Black dynamic, which is by far my favorite fragment. The Coloreds, who often live in townships as well, are of the firm opinion that they are superior to Blacks, even though they are only a modicum less poor. The difference is they’re Colored, and that’s just better than being Black. I dunno. I think it’s a ‘good hair’ thing.

So with that in mind, I am always mindful of who I’m talking to and how I talk to them…and by that, I mean I try to be as AMERICAN as possible. When I talk to Coloreds and Blacks, I speak with my whitest accent possible; and when I speak to white South Africans, I’m damn near incomprehensible. And they LOVE it.

“Where are you from?” a red haired pharmacist asked me when we first got here. “Atlanta,” I replied.

“A real American accent!” she gushed. “It’s so good to hear a real American accent.”

I smiled. As usual, Nadjah found a way to subvert my smuggery.

“I thought you were from Ghana,” she asked, feigning confusion.

“Yes…well, I’m both.” I let my voice trail off, failing to conjure up any sort of recovery.

Fortunately, the pharmacist seemed oblivious.

So, secure in my American-ness, I’ve pretty much cajoled myself into a world where I believe that everyone loves me and that in some way, I too am superior because I’m not just Black – I’m Black American. This security was shattered this afternoon when I encountered a blatant racist.

Marshall and I were driving through downtown Plett, on our way home to get some lunch. A white pick-up truck (and why are they ALWAYS in a pick-up??) suddenly stopped 2 car lengths in front of us and began to back up with no warning. Keep in mind downtown Plett is no bigger than the parking lot of a Super Target. Marshall failed to notice this man’s sudden reversal until I yelled “Hey!”

So Marshall honked his horn.

The dude keeps reversing!

Marshall honks again until the man is literally inches from our bumper. A city bus stops behind us. Annoyed, the man signals for us to move backwards.

“Where do you want me to go?!” Marshall yells into the windshield. (Our windows were up.) I happened to look behind and saw that we had about 10 feet between us and the bus. I told Marshall he could go back a bit. Y’all, do you know this fool hopped out of his car, puffing on a cigarette like he was Al-frikkin’-Pacino. Like he was about to DO something. Seeing that we backed up, he got back into his car and KEPT ON COMING.

That’s when he started yelling – in that Afrikaner accent that makes my skin crawl. He had made his way to Marshall’s driver side door, his wrinkled face browning in fury.

“Move your car back!” he screeched. “There is a car coming out and I want his space!”

Really dude? He was scowling and huffing on a dingy looking cigarette. I felt my jaw tighten. This nigga was about to be called all kinds of motha f-*clickers*, b-*clicks* and c-*click*rackers. I looked at Marshall, waiting for him to uncage me. He was busy looking at the windshield, ignoring the wrinkly old idiot barking at our door…and honking his horn at the now driverless vehicle in front of us.

You’re holding up traffic!” he howled in that hateful accent, pointing to the line of cars forming behind us.

Heh! Didn’t he know we were Black Americans? How dare he?!? A pair of Black women crossing the street spoke for us.

“Where do you want him to move to? Heh?” they said in English and Xhosa.

That’s when the cops rolled by, in that stealthy, shark-like cruise they do when they smell ticket money. Seeing a small crowd amass, the Afrikaner got into his pick-up and sped off like he was auditioning for a Vin Diesel movie. He lost his parking space, and I lost an opportunity to lose my temper. (I’m actually grateful for that; I don’t believe God would have been pleased and it would have only served to ruin an otherwise good day.)

“I would have backed up more if he had just asked me nicely,” Marshall later said nonchalantly. “But he was being a jerk!” “I know, right?”

Then we drove home and had a fabulous lunch.


Today’s incident made me think about how differently that whole scene would have played out just 30 years ago. Marshall and I would have been arrested, and that dude would have been within his rights to administer a beat down, for which we would not be permitted to retaliate. First of all, our passbooks would have not allowed us to come to that part of town. We’d be trespassers. That’d a fine and an additional police beat down…just to drive the point home.

This Thursday is a holiday in South Africa to commemorate the school massacre in Soweto in 1976 where 500 elementary school children were gunned down during a protest against Afrikaans education – the language of the ‘oppressor’. In those days, the end result of racism often meant the real threat of death and/or captivity, whereas today racism is merely an inconvenient irritation: such as facing down a washed up old douche sack who clearly can’t drive. The experience is clearly different, but the roots of the emotion are still the same.