Practical hints bring back a past mind-set

2008-07-07 00:00

Living in Cape Town, one has to learn to do things a bit differently. Like, for instance, being constantly aware of where “the Mountain” is. Because all directions to anywhere and everywhere are given in relation to “the Mountain”. The weather, also, seems to be determined by which side of “the Mountain” you are on.

You have to get used to rain in winter. You have to scale everything down in relation to your living requirements, because buying the tiniest little dwelling here would probably buy a whole street anywhere else. So, in the spirit of all of this, I decided that I needed to get rid of some of my books. To be honest, I don’t know why I had so many of them. It isn’t as though I am constantly referring to them, but somehow, like old friends, and pleasant memories, it felt nice to have them around.

But, given the fact that space is now at something of a premium, I decided to get rid of many in my collection. And in the process, which brings me to my point, a yellowing newspaper article fell out of one of them. It was a clipping from what I think was the Star. It is entitled “An Afrikaner’s diary” and is signed by Jan Burger.

The date of the piece is May 4, 1958, and is mostly about an interview which the author did with poet and dramatist Uys Krige, condemning the prudishness of the censors at the time. But it was the last few paragraphs which caught my eye. The author refers to a “recent Sabra (Suid-Afrikaanse Buro vir Rasse-Aangeleenthede) congress” where some practical hints were shared about how whites could create a bit more goodwill between themselves and “non-whites” (sic). I am going to quote the paragraphs in full, because — well, you will see why:

“Mr F. J. van Wyk, assistant director of the Institute of Race Relations, asked whether the names of native casualties could not be mentioned in newspapers. Natives feel that the omission of their names is discrimination. Mrs E. S. Bell of Bloemfontein asked parents to restrain children from mocking natives in the street. Mr Krynauw of Worcester said that our attitude that natives must greet us first is wrong. The Bantu’s tradition is that the superior should take the initiative.

Mr B. Steyn, senior information officer of the Department of Native Affairs, asked whites serving behind shop counters not to throw change at natives. It hurts.”

I have read and reread the passage, wondering whether behind it, there might be some attempt at humour, perhaps. Perhaps in the last sentence? But then the other “hints” don’t seem to indicate this. The passage gives one a glimmer of what the majority white mind-set of the day was. You will agree with me, even without the considerable benefit of hindsight, it is as extraordinary as it is absurd.

But then, recently, I read of a court case where Zanele Magubane was given an apology and R10 000 by her employer, Cameron Forsyth, in settlement for an Sms which was about her and mistakenly sent to her, (but intended for his wife), calling the child minder a “kaffir bitch”.

The ongoing tragedy today, besides the mess we are in politically, is that most white people still have no concept of their absolute continued contribution to that mess — by thinking the things they think, by believing the things they do and by saying, the moment they think they have a sympathetic ear, the sort of crud they say. In Cape Town (in many ways the last hiding place of the unreformed), I hear these opinions, beliefs and statements, more than I have elsewhere.

And the most irritating thing of the lot, is that they continue to think that they are somehow superior — even after apartheid.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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