Trying to avoid the bitterness

2014-09-14 15:00

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This piece was written by Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa for the Rand Daily Mail in 1963

If I should leave this country and decide not to come back, it will be because of a desire to avoid perishing in my own bitterness?–?a bitterness born of being reduced to a second-class citizen.

Now I do not wish to despise or hate anyone. For, in my business, the writing business, nothing could be more disastrous. I could not write feelingly about anyone if I allowed bitterness to run away with my head.

For I want to write about people, not enemies.

It is for this reason I have never been able to call whites “baas” or “missus”. I could do it easily if I wished to mock and despise white people, and I would know all the time that I was playing the fool.

I have seen friends adopt this attitude to whites. This was especially true during the prohibition days when non-whites were not allowed to drink in Johannesburg.

They nevertheless got their drink, some of it through white liquor runners who cherished the commission which accrued from making these clandestine purchases.

City slickers from Soweto would approach white tramps in town when they needed booze. “Baas,” a man would say, “can the baas please buy me a bottle of brandy.”

There was no question that these men were amused by how these tramps still considered themselves as “baas”.

The same thing happens in the factories in town. Africans will spring to attention before the most junior white member of the staff. Others wear a permanent grin on their faces to give the impression they are willing servants of the “baas”.

I saw the same thing in the platteland when a friend and I were arrested while investigating farm labour conditions for a magazine feature. My friend, a photographer, had brought several cameras with him as well as a light meter. On arresting us, the police seized all his cameras. After questioning us at length, occasionally swearing at us and threatening to kick our teeth in, the police noticed they had not taken the photographer’s light meter.

“What is that?,” one of them asked. “This, baas,” answered the photographer smiling mischievously, “is a very good machine. It helps us to keep in touch with the head office in Johannesburg. Everything you say is transmitted automatically to the baas in Johannesburg.”

The photographer’s yarn worked wonders?...?The police went into conference and immediately returned our cameras and let us go.

But?...?I knew that I could not have pulled off the same trick myself, the boy-to-baas expression which I saw on my friend’s face as he talked to the constable.

I am reminded of these things because, early this week, I listened to a prosperous businessman speak at a sendoff party for Chief Kaiser Matanzima in Soweto. The man told us he had gone a long way in business because he had always humbled himself before the white man.

In other words, this man tells the white people only those things which he thinks they would be pleased to know. There is really not much communication between him and the people he meets. The businessman is unlikely to speak his mind openly for fear of disturbing the peace which now prevails between himself and the men he salutes.

Now there are those of us who believe we can, and should, get ahead in life without saluting anyone. We are the sort of people who are likely to run into trouble with white clerks behind government and municipal counters.

There was a time when it was fun for me to challenge white officialdom by asserting myself as a man, not a boy. But not any more.

The business of expecting war each time I go to buy a stamp has ceased to be a game. There are too many moments when I feel like giving in and letting this country go the way of its choice.

It is during such moments that bitterness threatens to swallow me and I lie awake considering the possibility of leaving for good.

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