The race relations drama is superficial

2013-04-07 10:00

Last week, Ferial Haffajee ­reported on her brief visit to a two-day conference on “whiteness” in South Africa.

She seemed unforgiving of the folly of spending serious money and effort on such topics as “theorising whiteness” and “whiteness in visual presentation”.

But academics live in this sort of eggshell.

A very distinguished friend once bestowed on me a rather atypical honorific: I am an honorary k****r.

I used to boast about it all the time.

The man who granted me this title was Es’kia Mphahlele, the academic and author.

We had worked together on the early Drum magazine.

Es’kia was simply Zeke in those days, a rather sombre chap who didn’t smile a lot but had a glorious laugh.

He was our political reporter and was amassing academic ­degrees by correspondence.

When he graduated with (I think) his MA, we had a party and Zeke’s mortarboard slipped more and more over one eye the more we drank, danced and shouted.

He soon left, taught in Africa and the US, and finally a celebrity came back to the new South Africa.

One day, his academic host at the University of Cape Town, where he had been invited to lecture, dropped him at the Metropole Hotel where I was waiting on the pavement with my friend, the poet Adam Small, to escort him to lunch.

Zeke’s white academic host complained that he was left out of the party.

He looked pointedly at me and said: “I thought you said this was a blacks-only affair.”

Zeke ­answered: “Of course it is. Humph’s an honorary k****r.”

This was some time after the apartheid government had transformed, with the stroke of a pen, some Japanese jockeys from being formally “Asian”, into “honorary whites” so that they could compete in a big international competition.

Instead of bothering with “whiteness” – and navel-gazing – what might some of our eggheads consider?

What about what really makes a South African?

One of my longtime favourite essayists, the American James Baldwin, gives a clue.

He left the US to escape racial humiliation and deprivation in New York City and settled in Paris to lick his wounds.

Drinking in the bars, eating on the terraces, he met dozens of other Americans, whites, blacks and all-sorts, all there for a variety of reasons.

Away from America, in this strange, neutral country, Baldwin, a black man, said he simply could not escape his own Americanness.

He wrote : “I proved to my astonishment to be as American as any Texas GI. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer (whatever his colour) I knew in Paris...”

It would be impractical to send all South Africans to spend time in Paris to help release them from their illusions of being separate, better, worse, white, black or whatever.

But in the “drama” that remains of race relations here, there are ways for people to come to realise how much each is really nothing more, or less, than basically a South African, and differences of colour, race or religion are ultimately superficial.

» Tyler is the author of Life in the Time of Sharpeville

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