On Getting off Facebook and Talking to the Petrol Attendant Guy

While apartheid ostensibly ended two decades ago, you’d have to be in all kinds of denial not to see how apartly (made-up word) black and white people still live, and it’s a phenomenon I alternately accept with a kind of soul-weary resignation and then sometimes regale against with all my heart because the fact that we don’t talk to each other lies at the very heart of this country’s ongoing problems. But because of this reality – my age, where I live, where my kids go to school – the only black people I encounter on a day-to-day basis are the ones at the supermarket checkout, the one bringing me my Americano and the guy filling my car up with unleaded. So, when I’m not feeling that I-can-t-make-a-fucking-difference-here-so-I’m-not-even-going-to-try feeling (usually brought on by reading the paper), I’m trying a new thing which is talking to every black person I get a chance to talk to.

Sometimes it will be the woman with the great weave at Sea Point Pick n Pay (there’s this drop dead gorgeous woman who sits there all day ringing up groceries and every day she is so glamorous and perfectly groomed she makes me feel like the bag lady); sometimes it will be the parking attendant – though, less often him, because I’m usually rushing somewhere – and often it’s the petrol attendant guy because he’s standing around, anyway, and you’re sitting there waiting will a few minutes to kill, and what I’ve discovered since doing that is that these micro conversations have probably changed the way I understand how people are feeling in this country.

The first time I did it was when Madiba was very sick and it felt like nobody was telling us the truth about what was going on and for weeks I was distressed and vaguely ill-at-ease. In the context of that shared tragedy it felt less weird to engage a complete stranger, and I put my skaamness about being white and in a fancy Swedish car aside and asked the guy what he thought of the whole thing. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember him telling me his family was from around the Qunu area and, as a young boy, he knew of the Mandela clan and was going there in the next while to pay his respects. Just hearing that was comforting. We shook hands awkwardly – me doing the formal thing, him doing that hand-clasp thing I’ve never quite grasped – but that part didn’t matter. We were just two grieving South Africans.

This week the guy I spoke to works in Green Point and, it as it transpires, he is from East London where I was born and my parents both grew up which means it’s a special part of the world for me and with anyone who comes from the Eastern Cape I feel an instant kinship. His name was Dumisani, and this is how our conversation went:

Me: Oh, wow, I haven’t been back to East London for many years, but I want to go soon. I want to take my mom and dad back.

Him: You’ll be surprised at what you find. It’s not like it used to be. I go back to visit my sister and when you come from Cape Town it’s like arriving in a different country.

Me: Ja, I hear that.

Him: I can’t understand, when people see how badly an area is being governed, they’ll still vote ANC. Look at what the DA does for Cape Town.

Me: Ja, but we’re still in transition. This stuff takes time. People vote for a party, not an individual. You can’t expect black people to vote for a white party.

Him: No. It’s been twenty years now. People need to wake up. The time of thinking like that is over. Who is serving you? Who is making your life better? These are the only issues that matter. I struggle. I do. But I’m providing for my kids, and they won’t struggle like I do. Their lives will be different. I’m teaching them to ask questions. When they vote it won’t be about what’s black and what’s white, it will be about what’s good and what’s right.

I didn’t really have much to say after that, but I thought about our conversation and I repeated it to my parents that evening over supper. Because we all still maintain this myth that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and all the time, when I can be bothered to pay attention, I’m reminded that there is just an ‘us.’ If this ship goes down, it’s the under-classes who drown first. We whiteys can still weasel a passport to New Zealand. Dumisani? Not so much. I don’t know this man from Adam, but I can tell you that he’s smart and hard-working and doing everything in his power to make a better South Africa for his family. Unfortunately, his ceiling of opportunity was low and standing around all day washing people’s windscreens was one of the few jobs he was able to get. But he does it with pride and enthusiasm and he has a plan and a purpose and I drove away humbled and with great admiration for that kind of can-do attitude. Because, god knows, we in our nice cars like to whinge.

So, the point, I guess, is that all around us all time are these little windows of opportunity for us to engage and get to know one another a little bit better. It’s just about putting your phone down and taking them. They’re there. And the thing is it’s me who drives away feeling better, feeling more connected and more hopeful about the future. Less of a stranger in my own country. I’m going to try to do it more often.

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