A week or so ago I was invited to join a discussion group because the topic they’d picked out for the evening was my controversial blog, The Trouble with Maids. While every part of me wanted to hide in the cupboard rather than go forth and own my words, I also knew it would be a good (albeit uncomfortable) learning experience to show up and hear what people had to say. It’s by far the most un-PC thing I’ve written, and it’s the one I feel most conflicted about. Because, honestly, while it comes from a heart space of trying to bridge divides and decipher some of the complexity of the relationship between black and white South Africans, I do sound a bit like a whiny, privileged madam and I talk about the fact that she was stealing my perfume and loo paper and sugar without presenting the other side of the story – a big part of it being, of course, that when people are paid decent wages they don’t need to steal sugar.
And it was hard sitting there in the firing line, and afterwards I even wondered whether I should delete the blog entirely because who the hell am I, with my comfortable middle class life, to make judgements about domestic workers who live in shitholes and spend their days eking out a meager existence while the likes of me have cushy jobs and luxury cars and the time, frankly, to write blogs and attend discussion groups. And lately, honestly, I’m feeling like a bit of an arsehole and wondering whether I have the right to these opinions and to write about things like that, or whether I should shut the hell up and be happy for small mercies – like the fact that my house wasn’t torched back in 1994 and that, despite the horrors of apartheid (which we rather like to forget about) we transitioned into a democracy utterly unscathed, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. Really. Did our lives change in the slightest? Mine didn’t.
As I write this, I can hear the char mopping my kitchen floor. Later I’ll drive my eldest daughter to the beach with the aircon on high and nice Kauai smoothies while we wait the hour-and-a-half before her ballet class. She, on the other hand, will wait in queues to take a series of trains and taxies home while she hopes her children, who travel alone, will make it back in one piece. Extra-murals are out of the question. Then they’ll eat something starchy and filling because that’s what they can afford and go to bed very tired and probably pretty stressed out about how the hell they’re going to get through another month. And this is me speculating – I don’t even know the half of it. A while ago I tried to talk to her about her life, but I was met with the kind of resigned and slightly mistrustful reticence I used to get from Nosipho. She is far too polite to be outwardly hostile, but her eyes said, ‘who are you to ask me this? What do you understand about my world?’ And she is absolutely right. Until I’ve walked in her shoes I’ll never get it.
While it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, a lot of important issues came up on that discussion night – like, how intimidating we white people can be just by existing. And it’s something I’ve never considered before, but on reflection it’s so true. Sometimes I find myself assuming a familiarity with black strangers (in shops, whatever) that I wouldn’t use with white people. It’s an arrogance and a sense of entitlement our kind has gotten down to a fine art, and one which we aren’t even aware of. We also talked about how we white people (and it was largely white people night that night – usually the group is racially mixed), when faced with something incomprehensible, are afraid of looking stupid and endorsing the us-them divide and not understanding ‘black culture’, so instead of just asking the questions – (why are you late again? Why do you always come to my child’s birthday party without a gift? Why do you take ALL my fruit with you when you leave?), we put it down to an African thing. When it isn’t, actually.
The first thing my char did the other day when she arrived at work was complain about how all the other parents were late for the school meeting. Normally I would have nodded and thought, ‘well, I guess it’s an African thing.’ But, since it had just come up, I took a deep breath and said: ‘but, I always thought it was a bit of an African thing, and that nobody really minded.’ She said, ‘yes, I mind a lot. It’s very inconvenient.’ And it was such a relief being direct with her and getting a straightforward answer instead of surmising and second-guessing and pretending to understand things I don’t.
And the other pretty important thing that came up was the issue of whether we are even entitled to an opinion. For me, I have these opposing views – one is that we white folk need to stop sounding off and let other people speak for once; that, over the years we’ve written the history books, colonized everything we could and made all the rules, and it’s time we stepped back and let other people take the podium; tell their stories; use the voices that have been silenced for so long to present another side to the story of this divided country. And then there’s the part of me that thinks, I didn’t invent apartheid; I was also a victim, in a sense; why should I suffer and be silent for the rest of my days for the stupid mistakes a bunch of horrible, hoary old men made before I was born?
It’s a complicated topic, and I don’t begin to know the answer, but I do think that unless we raise these issues for discussion and listen to what others have to say and how they feel we’re never going to reach any kind of understanding of one another, or of ourselves and why we do and think the things we do. And it’s one thing keeping quiet out of respect for other opinions, and another thing keeping quiet out of inertia and ignorance and an unwillingness to engage with issues that makes us uncomfortable. Because we all like to think of ourselves as basically nice people. But, are we when daily, consciously, we turn a collective blind eye to the gross inequalities which beset this country we live in? Are we really better than those who instituted segregationist politics back in the day when the system is one we still largely accept and support?
Apartheid might not exist in our legislation, but it’s alive and well nonetheless. And while we pretend it isn’t nothing is going to change. And I’m as guilty as anyone. I haven’t made up my mind about the blog yet, but since it sparked a lot of dialogue maybe I should let it be. What I have made my mind up about is that I will attend that discussion group for as long as I am welcome because just by talking I’ve seen how much potential there is for learning, and it’s never too late to challenge yourself and change the way you think. And if you’re going to live in South Africa this stuff is really important.
Summing it up as only Eddie Izzard can :-)