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.

68 thoughts on “On Stupid White People and Ubuntu

  1. What an absolutely beautiful post! You capture the moments so well I feel as if I am right in your shadow breathing in the smells, hearing the sounds. Thank you. xx

  2. Wow.

    Anyone who knows me knows I am very far from a bleeding heart leftie, but this post is incredible. What an amazing, uplifting experience, really shows who actually underpins the fabric of this country (women, to a large extent, of whatever race or class, in my opinion), and how little we really know or understand of how it works. What a great experience to have had!

  3. Yes, Susan, makes you reconsider who is actually rich and who is poor in this crazy country. There is a richness of life in those supposedly poor communities that those of us who live in big homes will never know or fully understand.

  4. I remember standing in a post office queue, the people both sides uncomfortably close to me, and thinking I could either get all “I need my space” or just relax and enjoy it,
    decide to feel welcomed. I chose the latter and it was one of my best moments in loving the new South Africa.

  5. Susan – your incredible insight, way with words and unashamed openess is heartwarming. If only there were/was(?) more of your honesty in this world, it would make being here just that little more interesting and easier!

  6. Wonderful post, it gave me goosebumps. Earlier this year I went into Katlehong in Jo’burg for a morning and really identified with your story.

  7. Love your blog – :) you write well, and just the name grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and pulled me in …. Disco pants indeed!

  8. I want to compliment you Susan, on another finely written post. This one goes to the heart of what really matters on this short planetary journey – how we can allow ourselves into the hearts and minds of others always, setting aside ‘barriers’ that are anyway false. I salute your honesty and courage to take that that trip and write about it the way you have here. Ubuntu is real, and that was a pretty fine example of it right there.

  9. Thank you for another inspiring post. I am moved to tears because this is what I so long to see more of in this country.

  10. Thanks once again. One thing I reckon we all try, is greeting each other. An indian colleague of mine once asked why black people greet each other and not greet her. I advised her to just greet people, as greeting each other is purely acknowledging each other. Since then she’s always greeting everybody and anybody.

  11. Stunning post!!! Kudos for you for actually venturing into Khayelitsha! Hubby and I have been there but I must honestly say i would not take my daughter (and this is not a proud admission!).

  12. Such a refreshing post. Its nice to see white South Africains posting postive things and not how they wanna leave this country. Ja us blk folk are strange lol but u gotta love us… I’m sure u were offered food at every house u went to. And its rude to say no thanks u don’t want…
    Thank you so much for the post I am honored to be south Africain with u…
    Ubuntu is not just 4 blk ppl.
    U my lady gave shown ubuntu.
    UNkulunkulu akubusise (God Bless)

    1. At EVERY house, Nosisa! Luckily Nosipho explained that we had all just been eating for five hours :-) Thanks for the cool comment, and Unkulunkulu akubusise right back at you x

  13. Uhm… don’t mean to be a Debbie downer. I’m a black South African… I believe that I uphold the spirit of ubuntu as best I can but if I am at a restaurant and some random stranger came over and sat at my table while I was having a meal which I paid for I would definitely not be pleased. Isn’t it part of the waitron’s job to seat people at Spur?
    On a more lighter note, I also live in the township (Mdantsane, eastern cape – 2nd largest township in SA after Soweto) and when I see white people or generally non blacks I am delighted! Or even when I see one in a taxi I just think “wow, we’ve come so far as a country that white’s feel safe to come into our communities”.

    On the other hand, I did attend a mutli-racial school and I had plenty white friends growing up… and even though they knew and loved me I would never expect them to come visit me in the township.

    I can’t speak for other townships, but I don’t think it’s unsafe for whites to visit Mdantsane. I would think that they would have a similar experience as Susan where people would actually extend themselves and go out of their way to make them feel welcome. We want to be seen as human, equal and non threatening… and erase the views that the apartheid government had instilled in most white people in the past that were are less than or our social behaviour is barbaric and that we can’t think for ourselves and that the only thing we’re good for is manual labor.

    1. Grew up in East London and have worked at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital there for uni a few times. Prefer it above Frere, frankly. I myself have only been invited into townships a handful of times, but always had fantastic, hospitable experiences there. I think the EL schools should actually do exchanges or something, if they can manage not to make it a stupid touristy thing.

      Anyways, loved reading your response.

  14. Great blog and yeah dts true bt we forgive u guys but we too blacks don’t give u guys time to understand u better!I but our children will be different

    1. Yes, Kutlwano, our children will be different. My daughter’s best friend is black, and neither is even aware that there are supposed to be ‘differences’ between them. It makes me so happy I can sing :-)

  15. Hi Susan – brilliant post, thank you! I attended a funeral of a colleague in Delft Sands, Khayelitsha, this past weekend and while the occasion was a much more solemn one, the experience was surprisingly similar to yours. Amazing warmth and hospitality, beautiful singing and all round feeling of we really are all one human race. xx

  16. I enjoyed this. I would have had the same reaction to some guy sitting at our table in the Spur… but you’re right that one’s response is so telling of the road we still need to walk. When I was a first year student, we once sat down at some tourists’ table in a crowded bar because there was no other open space. We also got weird stares, and we thought how rude that was, because they could have got prime and free South African travel tips! Heh.

  17. Loooooooove this post, thank you – we clearly all need to get out more. So many personal experiences like this myself over the years in many towns and places, it never tires.

  18. Wow, as a black guy (American), this strikes me as strange also. It is cultural I guess. But even I would feel weird if someone comes to my table and just sit in.

  19. Great post, thanks for sharing!

    Having moved to South Africa in 1999, the experience you describe is one of the reasons why I have fallen in love with this country. I grew up in The Netherlands, and having friends with a different skin color was as normal as eating bread every day. To this day it amazes me that there are – and so many! – whiteys who have never ventured into our townships. Having visited quite a few townships myself, I do believe the warmth and openness of the people is unique to our people, yet can be found throughout the country.

    I am a tour guide as well, and always encourage our guests to visit at least one township on their tour through South Africa. Many people are hesitant, not knowing what to expect and feeling as if they are going to a zoo…. Once they have actually visited one of our vibrant townships, their whole perception changes. To find that happiness and indeed the feeling of ubuntu does not depend on how much money you earn or how big your house is, is a life changing experience. Just like your visit to Kayelitsha changed yours!

    Thank you once again and keep up the good work!

  20. Susan, I love reading your blog! Your posts are so insightful and make me more homesick than I am already! In a good way. Been in London for 16 yrs and my hubby is now trying to find a job in SA so we can move back. Your posts remind me of why I can’t wait!

  21. It is so refreshing to see an honest post – no preaching, self satisfying crap that is so often spewed from the gobs of pseudo-liberal white South Africans. Having said this I do feel that the nature of this post seems to encapsulate (and somehow entrench) the racial separation that continues in South Africa. While you have so wonderfully encapsulated our naivety, I urge you, me and everyone else who reads this to take a further step past this point. It is not only about moving beyond our comfort zones, having new ‘experiences’, but rather about making the uncomfortable zones a living part of our lives.

    It is all good and well to promote our venturing into the dark unknown and frightful no-go-zones, yet this seems to miss the ultimate point of integration and acceptance. While your post presents a heartwarming story and valuable starting point of a journey away from the of ‘us and them’ attitude, I can’t help but feel that the continual tone of surprise (and perhaps innocent condescension) presents part of the ingrained separation that exists.

    I commend you on a wonderful, inspiringly honest post that provides us with more than the message that we should open our minds once in a while. It shows us how far we still have to go in overcoming this idea that it is a conscious unlocking of a forbidden door that requires us to attain such experiences, the attitude that seems to forget the true nature of Ubuntu – one people with no ‘us’ and no ‘them’.

  22. I remember my first visit to the township. People were almost throwing me in the air and saying “welcome sisi”. I left humbled and beaming! What a rich country we live in

  23. What can I add that has not been said more eloquently by most people who commented before me…not much, so I will just say -I love the way you write, and I can identify totally with what you write. Thanks!

  24. I could’nt agree more with the writer, we whiteys have too much pride, arrogance, selfishness and disbelief to ever care enough for each other! i hope all South Africans will see this post and “skrik ‘n bietjie wakker”!

  25. Loved your blog. I am married to a black guy and, all these years after independence, which is 33 as we live in Zimbabwe, we still get ‘looks’. When will people get over colour differences and focus on what really counts?

  26. Hi Susan, I’m new to your blog. An old school pal recently found on facebook shared a post and I thought I just had to follow, especially since Discopants is fabulous name. I left South Africa many years ago and am one of the diaspora finding themselves in Europe. I spent my formative years in KwaZulu Natal. I hated the unrelenting heat and the mozzies and absolutely loved the people and the wildness of the place. I wanted to say that in Europe (Germany, Sweden) it is quite common to share a table but most potential sharers always check with the current residents if the spaces are actually free to use. So I wouldn’t beat myself up so much about being surprised by the casualness of your unexpected sharer, it’s just what you’re used to, it doesn’t make you a bad person at all. I think we whities carry a heavy burden in our hearts and question our motives so much that sometimes it’s good just to say “It’s okay, you’re human. You’re allowed to make a fool of yourself once in a while.” That’s what makes life so very exciting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it’s good to hear positive things from South Africa.

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