On Stupid White People and Ubuntu

So, last night at the Spur (two burgers for the price of one, and all) my husband and I are in the middle of an enthralling married people conversation about what screens to put up on the sides of our new deck when a good-looking young black guy in an expensive shirt comes over and sits down at our table. We look up in surprise and say hello and he says hello back. ‘How are you doing?’ I ask him. He says, ‘I’ve seen better days.’ I think (being a stupid white South African with no conception of Ubuntu) ‘oh no – here it comes. He lost his job and his wallet was stolen and he just needs R20 to get home. Or worse – he ordered the full size portion of ribs and now he wants us to pay.’ I wait. He says, ‘my friends are late.’ I say (with no small measure of relief), ‘ja, that’s Capetonians for you.’ He laughs, takes out his new Samsung and checks his facebook updates, while we self-consciously resume our conversation until it’s time to go.

And it was one of those weird South African moments which illustrate how little understanding we have of one another’s cultures and ways. For we whiteys, joining someone else’s table would be unthinkable unless it was preceded by an explanation: ‘my friends are late and there aren’t any empty tables. Would you mind if I joined you for a while?’ Clearly, for him, such an explanation was unnecessary. Of course he can join us. He is a human being and we are human beings. And I was mortified with shame at having assumed what I did. But that’s how little we ‘get’ each other. And it reminded me of an incident a few years back when our nanny and cleaner (yes, the now infamous Nosipho) invited us to attend her birthday party on a Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha. While we white folk know very well where Khayelitsha is because we drive past it en route to the winelands (irony intended) I honestly couldn’t think of one single white person who had ever been there.

So, I asked around: ‘have you ever been to Khayelitsha, and is it okay for four blonde chicks to go visiting a friend on a Sunday?’ The resounding response from white people was no, and don’t be mad, while black people ummed and aahed and said it’s probably okay if you know where you’re going, but don’t get lost. Don’t get lost? I get lost in the city bowl. Anyhow. I knew that it meant the world to Nosipho that we showed up on her special day and that she had already told all her buddies we’d be coming, so on that given Sunday I piled myself, my mom and my two little girls into our Toyota Tazz and off we went. You can imagine what we looked like with our deer-in-the-headlight eyes crawling along narrow, dusty roads with not a street sign in sight behind groups of (what I imagined to be) tsotsis who turned around slowly and watched us as we passed. In my mind we were already newspaper headlines when we pulled up at a Spaza shop and phoned Nosipho to come rescue us.

We were actually closer than we thought, and her grandson appeared and showed us the way to her house. It was already full to capacity with friends and neighbours, some of whom had come to see the crazy madams for themselves. It was an extraordinary afternoon, and one I will never forget. As Nosipho was a hardened feminist and had less than no time for the men of the world, the house was filled with women of all ages, dressed to the nines for the party of the year. Not being Xhosa speakers, we were handicapped and could only contribute so much to the conversations, but we were received with grace, respect and wholehearted acceptance as we joined the table and partook of a feast of fried chicken and stewed meat and salads and drinks followed by every dessert imaginable.

And the women sang, song after song, their voices rising up in perfect harmony – proud women, poor women who had seen heartache and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. They sang their pain, their tragedies and their hope while we sat there, stupefied, trying to fight back our tears. Being Women’s Day, the 9th of August, that place we found ourselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon somewhere in a South African township couldn’t have been more fitting. And another thing that amazed us was the gifts. Some of these women hadn’t worked for a long time and relied on the handouts of neighbours for their survival, yet the generosity of what they gave to Nosipho – Woolworths vouchers worth R500, expensive towels and linen, imported beauty products – made us feel ashamed of the relative cheapness of what we, the rich ones, had bought for her.

And then, as the afternoon started to wind down, we were taken on a tour of the neighbourhood. Her friends wanted to show us the homes of which they were so proud. There must have been thirty people, at least, forming a procession up the road being followed by children, curious hangers-on and stray dogs. And then, once we had seen the houses of her guests, we started on the other houses. Nosipho didn’t even knock, just marched straight in, followed by her entourage. People were cooking, watching soccer, taking a nap, and they all got up, said their greetings and offered us something to drink or eat. Nobody seemed annoyed or put out in the slightest. And I thought to myself, imagine this in Clifton or Camps Bay – a troop of people letting themselves into other people’s homes and being received warmly and offered tea.

It was an amazing day and it taught me a thing or two and I wish we did stuff like that more – moved out of our comfort zones and tried to understand the different people who make up this country. Because until we do we’re going to be stuck and never move on from the past. As we drove home towards Table Mountain with the sun in our eyes I felt nothing but gratitude for that experience, and for the gift of being a South African and the opportunities for growth and learning that this astonishing country presents. If only we would be better at taking them.

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68 thoughts on “On Stupid White People and Ubuntu

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. You have some wonderful insights. I remember I was living in Clifton and I would usually drive Joyce, my domestic back to her home in Gugulethu. This would raise some eyebrows among some of the Clifton crowd.

    There’s a stirring novel, Age of Gold by JM Coetzee and I recall the very powerful description of the voyage of a white woman to her maid’s township.

  2. A lovely story and a total example of the gifts gained by ‘facing the fear and doing it anyway’. I have a similar story receiving the same generosity and warmth of spirit. This is what many of us could experience if we got out of ‘our box of preconceptions and fear’,

  3. Thank you for your incredible blog. I am fiercely and proudly South African and so appreciate what you are writing. Initially I thought you were a man writing ( the first post I read was about angry emigrants who couldn’t believe this place hadn’t gone to the dogs!) thank you!

  4. If you can get my husband to rave about your blog, you have really achieved something – we both love it – thank you for entertaining us so royally :)

  5. Just stumbled upon your thoughtful, interesting, well-written blog. Your Khayelitsha experience resonated with us. With my 2 adolescent daughters in tow, I too got quite lost trying to meet a contact there on our way to a school on a sunny afternoon last week. I had to stop 4 young women walking by on the street & ask for help, which turned out to be a wonderful experience. They were so sweet. Have only been in this country 15 days & wish I could stay forever. Keep writing & hopefully opening minds. Totally agree with Norma’s comment above … Thanx!

  6. I’ve been I to Khayelitsha many Times as well as cross roads and browns farm. I’ve never felt scared its the reality of life in south Africa that so many people ignore. I have felt more scared in campsbay, being stinkeyed by pencil thin botoxed mommys, who are trying to ascertain if my schooling or car I drive is sufficient enough to dane a greeting. ;)

  7. I lived in Cape Town back in the 80’s and on a couple of occasions I went into the townships (once being lost) second and subsequent times giving a lift home to a colleague who was unwell. It was at a time when rioting in the townships was a regular part of life and I will say I was scared so I didn’t hand around.

    Eight years ago we were back in Cape Town visiting family from the UK. My sister-in-law was a tour guide at the time and she encouraged us to take the township tour. My kids were 12 and 10 at the time and I felt it was important for them to see how the other half lived because to them Cape Town was white and beautiful beaches and designer stores, rich peoples houses in Camps Bay and the like.

    It felt weird going to Langa, Nyanga and Khayelitsha as a tourist – very uncomfortable and I said so to the tour guide until she pointed out that many of the township dwellers welcomed the fact that some of us took the time to come and see for ourselves.

    It was a memorable day, one which my kids now 21 and 18 still talk about. The warmth of the people in the sheen who were keen to tell us what it was like to live there during apartheid, the entrepreneurship of the woman who runs a B&B and who welcomed us with open arms into her home for tea and cakes, the community centre in Langa.

    A day I will never forget and one I hope to repeat when we go back to Cape Town again at some point in the future when finances allow.

    1. Agreed. Most people in SA are good, decent people no matter the colour and just want the best for themselves and their community. This applies to people all over the world as well of course, except possibly for places riven by religious and sectarian violence like the Middle East, with Isis, Sunni fanatics and Shia crazies, all at it, as well as the Jewish fundamentalists in Israel who claim the land for themselves and refuse to make space for others. Much has been done in SA to promote understanding and lessen the burden of poverty though much remains. But I am glad that we at least don’t suffer the religious wars that they do. Here in SA I live in the hope of a better future in a city, like Cape Town that inspires me not least because of that mountain, these blue skies and sunny shores.There is a lot to be said for a sense of place and a landscape that satisfies the inner eye.

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