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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59 thoughts on “On Getting off Facebook and Talking to the Petrol Attendant Guy

  1. Thanks Susan, great perspective piece and what an easy place to start simply asking people their stories and sharing ours – great way to make connection and start to break down some of the invisible barriers between us…

    keep on
    love brett fish

  2. Susan I folllow your blog ( am a fan ) and just want to say that in my youth ( am 59) my greatest desire was to study journalism ..I would have gone to Grahamstown and probably been arrested up a bunch of times ( it was the mid 70’s) – placard wielding etc ..
    Instead , I ran off to Jeffreys Bay to follow my boyfriend and live the rebellious surfer lifestyle and forgot all about the political struggle, my desires to make a difference blah blah.. I was in love ( yeah whatever ) .. Had done kids far too young in life and lived a ” very respectable and successful life ” funnily enough in PE where we became quite respected members of the community ..
    I moved back to CT 14 years ago with my 2 sons ( who are now 34 and 35 respectively ) and am a property agent at Seeff Props in SP… Would love to meet you for coffee! Your blog is brilliant .. I feel such a synergy wit you.
    If you find 5 mins in your day please send me a mail ~ Viv@seeff.com
    A short coffee break would be fantastic and I am as busy as you – never take a break ever..,always rushing line a lunatic ..
    Would love to take a load off – even Woolies ( yenta centre ) sometime
    Best wishes
    Vivien Adler

    You are truly talented and blessed- love

  3. we have a little Xhosa boy who lives with us – our brother from another mother – we call him our chocolate smartie cos he is brown and sweet – and every time he is with me the Xhosa men and women check in with him first. When they get that he speaks fluent Xhosa albeit with a whitey accent they break out into a huge smile and then engage with me .I have been told by those who do this that it is important that we recognise his heritage and they are grateful that we have in fact done that. It then gives me the opening to engage which I do when I can. ‘When I can’ is the lazy part and after your BRILLIANT piece its going to change to all the time. I might just surprise myself and find myself at a Xhosa language class…….

  4. Good on Ya Susan! “Nothing is dangerous as a “One sided story”, and I think as South Africans we all guilty of that at some stage…. It’s platforms like your blogs that will put those one sided stories and give birth to changing our conversrions and stereotypes we have for one another….. “Ubuntu”???? Another topic for another day lol….

    Thank you once again…. Lovely read…

  5. I’m Zimbabwean and have always been shocked at how many South Africans would push their groceries through the check out till and not greet the till person. Its better now than in the ‘old South Africa’ but I am still often recognised as a Zimbabwean at the Checkers in Vereeniging! South Africans still have a long way to go. My son inherited a maid when arrived in Johannesburg – a surly rude lady whom I disliked on sight. Her ex employees told my son…”She’s ok if you greet her!!!” The next time we visited you would not believe the difference – big smiles, lots of talk about what ‘her boy’ does and doesn’t do. I even get a hug from her now – and man…does she keep his house marvelously.

  6. Hi Susan I am 69 years old and love reading your stories cos they are written from the heart which I am sure a lot of people can to relate to in these times so ‘thank you’ for that. I have missed your stories for awhile don’t know why though. Keep it up we all love the Disco pants blog.

  7. I find this blog post upsetting. I interact with people from at least 20 different nationalities on a weekly basis because we’re all thrown in together living and working in Maldives. Russian, English, Czech, Moldovan, Maldivian, Sri Lankan, South African, Australian, Bangladesh, Indian, Italian, Spanish, Nigerian, Jordanian, black, white, brown, tanned, olive, dark, light. It just doesn’t make a difference. Why should it make a difference? The weird thing is, at least you guys are all South African- you are united in some way, yet you still feel like there’s a you and a them? After all this time? In this modern world? Here, we are from all over the world. What unifies us is a passion for travel, I guess. But then you have some foreign workers here not in it for the travel. So what unifies us? We are all humans, we are all trying to make our way in the world.

    Sometimes I feel like you blame the way things are and the way your perspectives and opinions are shaped on the fact that “well this is South Africa, this is how it is, this is how it’s always been.” There are South Africans living and working here, and they don’t act like this at all. Have you traveled around the world much?

    1. Sarah I know exactly what you are talking about because I lived for 9 years overseas and worked with every nationality you can imagine. It was WONDERFUL and truly we were all united and friends just because we were human. I miss that so much. Sadly it is not that way in South Africa and there is no way to escape that fact. I may see everyone that way, but few other people do.

      There are huge barriers here that we have between us – most people of other colours see white people in a way that prevents them from wanting to approach us in any way and it is not enjoyable to them to hang out and socialise with us either – the history weighs so heavily between us here. It is heartbreaking. The same goes for the white people and the barriers we have between other races. This does not mean that interaction and friendships do not happen, they do, but it is not like how it iwas when I was overseas and good friends with every race and nationality. I cannot describe how sad and heavy the history is between us – it makes things much harder. I wish it were not this way. Can you imagine hanging out with coloured colleagues thinking in your head “my ancestors kept yours as slaves and yes, lets all just be buddies now, even though your family struggles for money and has nothing and I am well-off….” Asking people of other races to look past that can be a tall order sometimes. That kind of thing is hard to bridge and that is why we need to take the tiny steps that may seem ridiculous in any context other than South Africa. That said, most of the time, everyone here is kind to everyone else despite all the ugly history hanging between us.

    2. Crumbs Sarah, what a condescending comment. As you say, you’re ‘thrown together’ with people from other countries and backgrounds by your working environment.
      Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever travelled to SA ‘much’, but like it or not, even after 20 years, we’re still usually only ‘thrown together’ in the ways Susan described. You don’t have to make an effort to reach out in your current environment. We do. And blogs like Susan’s remind us how enjoyable and meaningful that can be.
      And, by the way, your native country is one of the most hostile and difficult environments I’ve ever encountered for striking up pleasant conversations with strangers. How often do you manage to do this at home? Hmmm?

    3. I have worked all over the world and could describe myself as an expat of the world (but never would). I loved being an expat – I still am in the sense that I don’t live in SA but it is a bit different now as I have settled where I am so it is more permanent and I feel more “local”. When I was a proper expat, e.g. living in Hong Kong, there was an incredible expat community which exposed me to people from all over the world and different cultures and experiences etc. I imagine the Maldives must be similar – everyone very open to meeting new people, new cultures, transient but fun. A real adventure but not really real life. It is very easy in those circumstances to consider yourself completely open and a Person of the World. But I wonder if – when you say you speak to all people and there is no you and them – you mean that you speak to the expats and perhaps the locals that have a similar life/background/lifestyle to you? I wonder if you give the same amount of time to the person bringing you your coffee and filling your car? Because actually it would be very difficult to do that – the day is after all only so long and you can’t have heart to hearts with everyone you meet. YOUR post worries me because I suspect that, while you are quick to judge Susan , it is possible that you don’t even see the “them” – those quiet invisible people that we see every day (in all parts of the world, not just SA) who have completely different backgrounds to you – and only the “us” being the travelling, “open-minded” expat. The point of this article – which is an excellent one – is to try to be more aware, to be more present, to talk to more people who you wouldn’t otherwise speak to. I suspect that even you would benefit from this.

  8. Happy to read your posts – they are my little window into dear South Africa. With its problems and sad realities. Thanks for giving us your personal relationship with the place, makes me feel closer to it, too. :)

  9. I think this is a good start – and inspiring to many as seen in the comments. I do want to challenge you (as I need to challenge myself – make no mistake), but the assumption that a bag lady should be dishevelled or badly dressed, or that if you are dishevelled that means you look like a bag lady is the kind of thinking we should strive against. You see, EVERY occupation should be appreciated and respected. Why the surprise that a petrol attendant and bag packer at pick n pay have self respect and pride in their work? They should feel as proud and as dignified as an accountant or a doctor. Once we start to view others as meaningful contributors to society and not as lesser humans (ag shame! Look how cheerful he/she is, filling up my tank!) then we will treat each other as equals and walk even closer to reconciliation. Right?

  10. Susan, I really liked this. thank you. just simple conversations. One massive thing we can learn from the black culture… is too SLOW DOWN! Us “whites” are always “rushing off” somewhere…

  11. My first comment on this blog so want to begin with saying how much I enjoy your writing. You don’t observe passively or get all pious with your views. You make a stand and qualify it as yours.

    I think your idea of engaging with those often invisible people in our daily lives is great. Too often we get frustrated that people aren’t listening to our views on life. Sometimes it takes one to spend a bit more time listening to others first. One will be amazed how much ones views alter.

    I read an article a few years ago about the beggars at traffic lights. The author indicated that they are just people too and do not need to be treated like vermin if you do not wish to give to them. They just wish to be acknowledged. I undertook to always look at them when saying I’m sorry but I can’t help. It is amazing how often they smile back and say thanks without troubling me further. No confrontation, no quiet muttered insults or frustrated pleas to “just go away”

  12. Hi Susan, Just finished Max du Preez’s latest book “A rumour of Spring”, a good perspective of the underlying causes as to the problems facing the country and concludes that whilst we will face some storms, the middle ground will prevail.
    Whilst it’s easy to say we must move on, it’s been 20 years since the ANC took over etc, etc, many of us have benefited from Apartheid and if we can’t make a difference by providing employment, paying decent wages, contributing to education, the least we can do is treat our fellow South Africans with dignity and compassion in all aspects of our daily lives.

  13. Wow, it always amazes me how divided south africa still is. A lot of (white) southafricans are choosing to come up to zambia, where I live, and is interesting to watch them try this “new”thing out of mingling with the locals. We don’t have a large white community so there’s no white areas, white schools etc. I was not surprised to see the headline last week on a south african news network reading “zambia returns to white rule” after our president sadly passed away and the white vice pr was put as interim, while here in zambia the majority is like “our interim president is white and…?” I hope this post reaches many!

    1. I know, Elina, especially here in Cape Town. Joburg is different, and I’m about to go to the Eastern Cape which I hear is very different. I look forward to it. What a stupid headline. That kind of sensationalist rubbish makes my blood boil. If anyone is deserving of the title ‘African’, it’s him. I fell in love with Zambia many years ago. I hope I get to go back one day. Thank you for writing :-)

  14. Just to share an aspect of every day life from a different part of South Africa, Susan ….

    Our 2 daughters go to a government school in a Karoo town. Since it is the only government school here that offers an English class for each grade (and 2 Afrikaans classes per grade) our children’s classmates are reflective of the demographics of South Africa. 40 kids per class all shades, cultures and languages. White kids are in the minority by far. There are other private English school options in town, but for the aforesaid reason we choose this route (as well as the teachers are caring and giving too of course, and sound school ethics!). We love it! Going to fetch my kids from school I’m excited that my children have the opportunity to interact with a broad base of society (where as we ourselves went to single sex, all white, all English schools) I feel a thrill to be a part of the New South Africa in this way – this mix of parents united in simply wanting what is best for our kids. It’s so the norm now that our kids cannot even begin to comprehend the enormity of the shift in their school life and their friendship base from ours. And isn’t that the wonderful part.

    My husband and I are eagerly trying to learn Xhosa : him through his work colleagues and myself whenever I can. When I kept asking my 10 year old daughter’s BFF “how do you say ….” , she drew up lists of words in beautiful bright colours for me, and ranging from such random things like “the world”, “priest” to “doll” and “stars” . I feel so touched and privileged to be learning in this way.

    Keep your conversations going…

    1. I love this story so much, Lisl. You’re fabulous, and if only more South Africans shared this attitude of openness and willingness to embrace the changes and make them work. And, like you, consciously opted to be part of the solution. Can you imagine how cool this country would be? How much we could achieve? LOVE you in the world. Write a blog, would make for a great read :-)

      1. oh wow. Thanks Susan. Perhaps I will [write a blog] one day…life in the Platteland is never dull that’s for sure. I’ll let you know if I do!!! Thanks for your entertaining and real stories. x

  15. Yay you’re back. I’m also from the Eastern Cape, went to school in East London and try to return twice a year with my kids. It is getting worse and worse and I’ve often gone over in my head what I would do if I was in a position of power to change things there. In each scenario I concoct, the problems seem insurmountable and so I give up, feeling that it will never get better. Duminsani’s option is a great one. I hope he spreads the word to his sister and family living there. I certainly will when we go up in December.

  16. What a inspiring start to a Monday morning. I live in East London but originally I’m from Umtata (Mthatha). Unconsciously being living the lifestyle you wrote about – but occasionally slip into another mode – which I suppose is just part of human nature. Enkosi!

  17. I can relate to what Sarah says. Maybe it has to do with me getting older. I just talk to anyone whom I think is ok to talk to, regardless of colour and creed. I used to be a snob, and not proud to admit it now, but thought it important to choose my company as I was taught by my mother, but I study and research many things ‘of the world and universe’ and I have come to realise that we’re all in this boat on this planet, just trying to make it work. I think SA’ns are a friendly people, despite the anger toward crime, but generally most people of all colours just want to make a living to survive. The ‘divide & rule’ policy practiced here during apartheid and still intact and initiated by the western world toward other countries for gain, is part of the problem. It is not so much the colour as it is the cultures which are so different, instead of having a unified SA’n culture.
    Just last week (might get into trouble over this one) I was having brunch with my son at Cassis in Newlands and lo and behold, out came the bagpipes in the opposite car-park. Me, now having become very pro-SA’n warts and all, immediately said to him, we’re in a part of Cape Town where people here still think they’re in Little England, and you will see now how they respond to the bagpipes. (and I live right here) No sooner had I said this and there were clapping and cheering from the Barristers patrons and smiles all around us. My son immediately said, ‘ugh..I’d rather listen to a vuvuzela’ which I thought was hilarious. Funny thing is , it was always nice to have the bagpipes on a New Year’s dinner dance at some fancy hotel at the stroke of midnight for 5mins, but these guys hung around for about an hour in the car-park, by which time I had got a headache.
    I doubt any other country will be blowing vuvuzelas, or sing Afrikaans songs. One hardly find a SA’n culture restaurant restaurant overseas.

    I find it increasingly sad that some SA’ns are inclined to identify with some or other country and its culture when they were born here, but the people of colour do not and nor the Afrikaners who’s ancestors are from Europe. The white Afrikaner wants to be SA’n with its own SA’n language in Afrikaans and will not keep talking about their ancestral roots. Well at least the ones I know and whose family I married into, who happens to be from French descent.

    I also see daily on news websites how SA’ns still fight with each other over this current govt and it’s past one, fuelling more hatred. I think we need a futuristic multi-party, with all groups represented equally in the new party, to take SA forward. That way we can get rid of corruption and the ills plague-ing SA today, and we can feel equalled and levelled and more untied.

    Lastly, for me personally, because I see it more from a spiritual point of view, (not religious per se) I have grown past the barriers and transcended the issues of my past ‘training’.

    Thank you for an interesting piece that keep us talking.

  18. I meant equalled and levelled and more united.

    Something else, I think our schools should start encouraging a pro-SA’n attitude as is done in many other countries with their school kids.

  19. So, why are my eyes leaking and my throat full? It may seem like a small thing that you’ve decided to do but it’s so filled with humanity. Thanks for this lovely post. We’ve lived in the US for decades now but my heart will always be in SA and with those of good intent who strive to do “what’s good and what’s right.”

  20. Hey Susan. I just stumbled on to one of your articles,”A day in a life of a SA maid”, on FB. I enjoyed it thouroughly and read more of your posts. I related to this post somehow (not anything to do with race or anything) on just taking time out and have a conversation. I hate making small talk but somehow I find it way easy with petrol attendants, waiters and cashiers at the grocery store. I find it much comfortable to strike a 1minute conversation with whoever is serving me. After which I find myself being happy and fulfilled for some reason.

    I guess because it looks like they are always hard at work for perhaps little pay but making them smile, relieving them for just a minute is quite delightful. I relocated to CT this year and must admit the language barrier is horrible, 1; because there’s the assumption that I speak Xhosa and 2; it’s strange speaking English when we are both black. They start off looking at me perculiararly, but after explaining where I come from (Mahikeng which for many is foreign) we get excited about one another’s culture and language.

    These things make me love SA; our different heritages and culture and trying to mix it all to make sense. I will certainly make more of an effort within the “corporate” working environment but I doubt the coversation would be “wow, where are you from exactly?” and more along the lines of “what do you do?”.

    Nice piece btw;)

  21. Very, very lekker. This is exactly how I feel and is in fact something my father taught us a thousand years ago. He was the only guy who never had any problems at the bank!!

  22. Oh I just love your stories and your view on the world so much. And even more so that you don’t just write about thoughts and theories, but actual people and encounters. And this shows again how much difference these small and humble human interactions can do. One drop of water at a time and maybe we can change the world.

  23. Mmm.
    I’m sort of tired of the continuous guilt trip being laid on me as a “wit-ou” from Africa. I/we’ve done it all, from paying for the maid’s house to be built to sending her kids to school to managing an AIDS orphanage/Place of safety, to giving beggars money etc. ad nausea. I am tired of being brainwashed into believing that everything wrong with SA is my fault and every black person is a victim and I am the foul perpetrator.
    If the AIDS orphanage taught us anything it is that people (irrespective of race or colour) occupy their positions in society due to their own actions and failings.

    But the daily conversation thing I have also been doing for years and with everybody I have to interact with. I speak rudimentary Zulu and have made a habit of whenever I step into a lift with black people in it to say Sanibonani. I could write a lot on the different responses, especially the one where a young black man turned to my wife and said “I don’t have a clue; what is he saying?” I can also say that since Nkandla responses in Zulu from other language groups are not as enthusiastic as they used to be. There is also a big difference between responses in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town.
    But everywhere in restaurants the expats (Zim in particular) are the most friendly. Maybe they have to be as they are strangers.
    An upsetting thing is that in the township of every small dorp I’ve been to they tell me there is a house with Nigerians selling drugs; even in Nieuhoudtville and Prince Alfred Hamlet for crying out loud. Everybody worries about their teenagers going near them.

    A cousin of mine in the USA once remarked that in the south the whites dislike the race but love the individuals while in the north they love the race but dislike the individuals.
    It is easier to get on with the individuals than with the race as caricatured by the politicians and news casts. Facebook is still OK, but switch the news off.
    Strength to the little people.

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