Why White South Africa Needs a PK*

Yesterday was one of those days where you kind of wish social media hadn’t been invented because, worse by far than the envy someone’s holiday in Prague inspires, it means you get  exposed to a kind of ignorance you’d like to think doesn’t exist. And to top it all, some of the people showing their stupidity to all the world are amongst your so-called friends. I read some of the tweets and status updates regarding #FeesMustFall and the comments that followed and started to respond, but got overcome by a dismay so deep it made me want to adopt the foetal position and rock back and forth with my thumb in my mouth until it all went away. Only, it won’t. So, to maintain my own sanity I’m going to respond, in brief, to the pearls – the ones that make you shake your head in wonderment that these people made it to the age of 50 (or 40 or 30) without falling down a long-drop or setting themselves alight. Here they are, in no particular order:

“They want it handed to them on a silver platter. They don’t understand that to succeed you have to work hard.”
Um. Firstly, who are ‘they’? But that’s a minor stjoepid compared to the rest. If you were the only person in the world who didn’t see the facebook meme that reads, ‘if wealth was about hard work every woman in Africa would be a billionaire,’ let me explain in short. Like wealth, poverty is not a choice. It comes as a result of very specific socio-political determinants that favour a small portion of the population (you) and disfavour the rest (your maid). In short, you didn’t get a job as a manager and your cleaner as a cleaner because of your superior intellect and work ethic. She works longer, harder and dirtier than you ever will for a pittance that barely keeps her kids in school. All these young South Africans want is the chance to not be cleaners. To leave the township, to afford electricity. To have basic human rights. No amount of part-time work in South Africa will cover the cost of their tuition. These students have jobs. It’s not enough. All they are asking is to be allowed an education so that they can be productive members of society. Why is that so hard to understand? I don’t know, but come over here, you need a klap.

“If I want to go overseas but can’t afford the ticket I don’t go to the airport and protest. I work hard and I save.”
These youngsters are not asking to go on overseas holidays, they are asking to be allowed to finish their degrees so that they can become tax-paying citizens like you and I. They are asking for a tiny fraction of the opportunities that we, as white South Africans, take for granted and believe are our god-given right. They aren’t asking for leg ups, they are simply asking that their one opportunity at freeing themselves from the cycle of poverty is not taken away from them. Why aren’t you supporting this effort? Don’t you understand it is for the good of all of us if South Africa lowers its unemployment rate; that if more people enter the workforce and join the middle class it translates to more money and freedom for everyone? Don’t you want this country to have a stable economy? These people are fighting for our future, for our kids’ futures. They are taking to the streets and protesting and getting arrested to save South Africa while you sound off on Facebook about how unfair it all is. No, sis on you. Come here for your klap.

“My brother has studied so hard and he’s trying to write his exams and now he can’t because of these protestors and he’s extremely stressed. If you want your degree, study and write your exams like everyone else. Stop trying to get out of it.”
We are very sorry that your brother has been inconvenienced by the student protests. We are shedding real tears of sadness for him and his friends in Constantia whose Plett holiday now hangs in the balance. I know – why don’t you get in your Mini Coopers and drive to the airport with your dad’s credit card and buy one-way tickets to Perth because you have no role to play in the future of this beautiful, troubled country. In fact, you and your kind are part of the problem. But first, come here. You’re both getting a klap.

“I work 50 hours a week and I study overseas. It is possible, but nobody wants to see it.”
Damn these students for having every opportunity to succeed but still being annoying and asking for more! I have a plan for middle class South Africans across the colour bar. Instead of taking a gap year and waitering in London, the government – like they do with medical graduates – must send you to the township for 12 months. There you must live in a shack, do a menial job, wash your clothes by hand, use a public toilet and survive with no external help for the duration of your time there. If you have to fetch your own water, so much the better. It’s the only way we will ever understand the difference between rich and poor lives; the only way the privileged few are ever going to ‘get it’. It’s dangerous? Correct. Public transport is unreliable? Shame. You have a toothache but can’t afford the dentist? Crying for you. It seems, without this experience, the privileged continue to have no conception of their privilege or the blissful ignorance in which they live their lives. Since it’s unlikely this will ever happen, I’m going to have to settle for your klap.

*Poes Klap (sorry, Mom)

A Moment

The first time I saw him he was standing on Jammie steps with his back to me, broad against the sunlight. He was dressed like Jim Morrisson, a rider on the storm, in a white pirate shirt and a series of leather necklaces. He laughed, and shook out his hair – lustrous long, brown curls that fell well past his angular shoulders. He was rangy in the way only 22-year-old men can be, and it took me some time before I realized he was something of a legend on that campus. He hung out with a posse of impossibly beautiful black girls. Skinny girls with flawless skin and ripped jeans and white teeth. I’d watch him with them – the easy way they touched him like he wasn’t Jesus at all. Just some guy studying anthropology.

I found out his name was Ben, and that he was foreign and a member of the Mountain club. And someone told me where he lived and after a while I got a vague sense of his routines so that I knew, more or less, when he’d come sauntering by in his faded jeans and 6 foot 2-ness. And then he’d be gone again, somewhere else, and I was not cool at all nor pretty enough to compensate for my lack of street cred and there was no reason in the world why a guy like him would ever even think of a girl like me. And I didn’t question the order of the world for a second. Even though it seemed like that same order was about to change in a big way. Because, all around us, things were starting to give. In the words of Chinua Achebe, the centre could no longer hold; things were beginning to fall apart.

Sitting in my psychology class one morning beside a rich Indian girl who wore a different pair of Levis every day (you couldn’t buy them in South Africa due to sanctions against us so you had to go to London or send a friend) and behind a black guy in his thirties who worked the night shift as a petrol attendant and came straight to class in the morning, still wearing his uniform, suddenly we heard a noise and loud voices coming closer. My lecturer stopped lecturing and listened, looking worried. Then, without saying a word, went over to the door of the lecture hall, closed it and locked it. The air went buzzy with anticipation.

We all sat very still. The noise increased – it was chanting, and things were being broken. It was the early nineties and the country, so long in apartheid’s stranglehold, was starting to break itself free. A crowd of people appeared. They held pangas and they danced. They smashed windows and kicked in doors. They set parked cars alight. We watched them out the window. Nobody spoke. The riot passed, and the noise died down. Still we waited. Silence. The door was unlocked, and we packed up our notes and left the building, the affected boredom we normally took such joy in practicing replaced by a sense of fearful anticipation. We walked past the rows of police vehicles, glancing nervously at the smouldering fires. A policeman waved us along, muttering ‘commie bastards’ under his breath.

Everything was happening, and yet nothing was happening. We sat up late at night writing overdue papers and lived on popcorn and toast. I struggled to pass Stats. I flew through my English exams. I lugged The Riverside Chaucer up and down steep hills, found out I was a feminist and used the word ‘existential’ as often as I could. It was Cape Town, it was summer and there were parties to go to. And then, one night, there he was. It was a social at the Baxter, and we arrived late after most people had already left. The guy I was with knew him, and before I could even gather myself, he was introducing us and Ben was shaking my hand and smiling and saying hello.

And then, as if on cue, the opening bars of one of my all-time favourite songs, Juluka’s December African Rain started playing. And even then it was an old song, but there is some kind of magic in that music – the drums and the deep voices that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself, and how this Jewish boy from Joburg loved Zulus so much he became one, and back in those days, that was quite a thing. And by doing that, making that stand, he freed us more than we understood at the time. It was almost like everything we had not been allowed to love about Africa was being given back to us. Through his music we became impis; we were warriors; we were children of the land, united against a system so barbaric it make us sick to our stomachs. We were the new generation, and freedom was on its way.

I smiled at him and he smiled at me and we started dancing, me, my friends, the beautiful black girls, and him. And then the party was over, so we left to go somewhere else. He got in the front seat and I sat in the back, behind him, my mind reeling at his proximity to me, that he was really right here in the flesh, so impossibly close. And then, as we sped through the dark city streets, young people looking to have fun, the impossible happened. I felt his hand reach behind the seat and look for mine, find it, and enclose it in his long, brown fingers.

And I was so young and naive and taken aback by this gesture, what did I do? I giggled and pulled my hand away. I pulled my hand away. And then I sat in the darkness of the car feeling the heat creep up into my face; thinking, you idiot! You idiot! What did you do that for? And I prayed to the god of stupid young girls that he would just give me second chance. Just reach for my hand again. This time, I promise I won’t pull away. Because I have been in love with you for three years and never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine you’d even give me the time of day. And I didn’t mean it, I didn’t! I was just taken by surprise. And as we drove on and the seconds ticked by, he sat very still, looking ahead of him – nobody else in the car even aware of this monumental thing that had just failed to happen. And with every streetlight we passed I knew with increasing certainly that I had missed my moment.

We never spoke again after that night. He’d give me a vague hello when we passed each other in the halls, and then I saw him less and less as he moved to another compass. His flat used to be on Rondebosch Main Road, just as you came off the freeway, its big windows facing the flyover. I drive past it once in a while when I’m going that way and I still think of him and that one night and how he’ll never know.