Wednesday, July 20, 2011

a question of belonging...human solidarity

I’ve just witnessed a very disturbing incident: while walking through Peppergrove Mall, I noticed a young man approach a woman driving a Mercedes Benz with his hands cupped as though he were asking for something. The woman was already in her car and she rolled down her window and shouted: “Listen here, go away, you’re not allowed to be here!” As you can guess the guy is a black and the woman is white. This is not a new scene in our daily lives, where black youngsters are out in the street begging from anybody who looks like they could have any extra cash to spare.

What was disturbing about this incident was what the woman said to the young man: you’re not allowed to be here! What does this mean? Clearly the presence of a beggar makes anyone conscious of their privilege and comfort, uncomfortable in a country like South Africa. Everyday we all encounter people who have to go to bins for any hope of something that even resembles food. What makes a difference is how we respond. Do we ignore someone asking for food or simply shrug and say I’m sorry, while driving away in a fancy car or on the way to Pick ‘n Pay to buy junk food because we have “the munchies”? How do we respond to the reality of poverty that accosts us every single day without fail? Do we become desensitized to it, or simply accept it as status quo?

I deliberately carry no money on me these days because I got tired of lying to someone asking for 50c while I have loose change in my purse. The danger of course is being on a moral high ground about how best to live everyday with people who simply, and often honestly, are asking for food. The obvious response: we don’t want to encourage laziness by simply giving something to someone who hasn’t worked for it. I’ve often convinced myself that food insecurity happens out there in Africa (like a typical South African who forgets that South Africa is part of this continent and refers to any place beyond Gauteng as “up North…Africa”) and not in the daily lives of many South Africans. But then every Tuesday, as I’m walking to campus I am bound to see women and children rummaging through rubbish bags ready to be picked up by the Municipality, and I realise that poverty and hunger are right on my doorstep and it is dehumanising.

Back to the incident that disturbed me: it doesn’t shock me that yet another black person is begging from another white person. What disturbs me is the response: you are not allowed here. Who is allowed here? And where is here? Obviously the young man was just another trespasser and an inconvenience to the woman’s shopping experience, a tiny complex that should be cleared of any riff raff who make us uncomfortable about the reality of this country. How did that woman come to the conclusion that she can tell someone where they do or do not belong?

The question of belonging raises existential questions about who we are as people. The adage umntu ngumntu ngabantu suggests a sense of belonging as people, perhaps a sense of human solidarity; that we are because we have the ability to recognise each others’ humanity. But in the incidence I describe, someone lost their humanity: both people lost their humanity. The white women lost her humanity by denying another person his humanity by telling him he doesn’t belong here and humiliating him and the young black man lost his humanity because he is out begging in a country that strips him of his humanity everyday. And I lost out on an opportunity to become a better human being because I simply walked by without offering the young man anything or questioning the white woman about her response…and I all I could do is write about the incident.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Working class issues and middle class concerns

The obsession with race and class in South Africa always leaves me with questions, usually on the brink of an existential crises. I identify with being a poor South African mostly because of the family history and schizophrenic childhood I had and I identify with the privilege few South Africans have mostly because of the education I’ve received in former “white” institutions such as Rhodes and a 12 year education at Clarendon (a school for girls in East London).

What does this really mean though and why does it matter?
Coming from a poor family (both in terms of income and education) means my family has always aspired to move up the echelons of success which has mostly meant benefiting from a good education and quiet suburbs. So we moved to a school in the suburbs and soon realised that we couldn’t afford to be there. Because the school was a public school, my sister and I were never “kicked out” of the school and so we benefited from the better half of South Africa’s education system premised on a history of privilege for white people in South Africa. Like many peers across South Africa, I was that kid who never seemed to fit in; with white parents always commenting about how I speak so well…that I’m not like other black people.
Going back home, I was aware of our lack where my mother didn’t work and my dad brought home about R500 a week working in a factory on the outskirts of the suburb we had moved to. At school I mastered the middle-class code because I had access to a library at school and in walking distance to where we stayed (note: not “home” but a place we simply stayed). This exposed me to reading and books that allowed my English pronunciation to get better while I was in a school that privileged learners who were articulate. Part of mastering the middle-class code at school meant being exposed to friends’ homes when I went to sleepovers (no-one ever came to sleep over at my “house”). When I went to Lauren’s house I slept in the spare bedroom, but when I went home, I slept on a single bed mattress with my sister on the floor(the first time I had my own room was in Grade 12 when I was in the hostel where it was a matric privilege to have a single room). When I walked into Katy’s house, her bathroom was bigger than the room I shared with my family. I always knew the new South Africa was very problematic.

Come high school, the question was never about whether I was going to varsity or not. I was streamlined into classes where the conversations were about “which varsity are you going to? Wits, UCT, Rhodes or UJ?”. I applied for NSFAS and came to Rhodes, not because I could afford to, but because that was the expected step given that my family had supported me through an education at a school where an exemption was a given.

Throughout this process, I had the best of both worlds; an understanding of the consequences of apartheid. When I looked at the options my family had and some cousins who had remained in township schools, I knew what it meant to be privileged in South Africa. Privilege was always about speaking like a white person. People still acknowledge me based on the accent that I have. Sometimes it’s empowering and sometimes it isn’t. Just last week, I had someone tell me I don’t “sound” like a Xhosa-speaking person. She interrogated me about my family and the person would have been shocked that I know my clan names, maternal and paternal. I’m still asked if I’m black and often told that I look Coloured (I’m never sure if that’s a compliment or not). Last week I was in a panel at Fort Hare University listening to research proposals. In a room of 15 people, a friend and I were the only 2 Black people, this is a university in the new South Africa.

And why does this matter? At face value I am Black and angered by the past, but I know my future is different because I’m in a position of privilege not only because of my education but because the agency I have as someone socialised in a confusing country where privilege is about class and race. I have middle class concerns about low GI bread and whether I should sign up to the gym or not, but at the same time, I am financially insecure: I can’t call my parents and ask for a loan if my scholarship money runs out and my rent is due because my parents are still poor; I am my parents’ pension fund. We don’t own property or even a bond; we’ve been renting other people’s houses for as long as I can remember. So everyday it feels like I’m caught in the crossfire trying to figure out the questions of how best to live in South Africa amidst all the questions of white guilt and black anger or amnesia.