Jean Barker

A chance encounter

2015-10-23 09:49

Jean Barker

You never know who’s going to pick you up when you take an Uber, or what they’ll remind you of.

Today, the car was ordinary in every possible Uber way - a newish Toyota Prius. But when I get in I see there’s an older black man at the wheel, and as we exchange the usual complaints about the GPS, which gave him directions to the wrong side of the road, I hear he has a South African accent. He recognises mine and responds… well… not exactly joyfully.

Normally, I’m a one-woman South African PR machine, as I traverse LA. I tell people that South Africa is safer than they’ve heard, that we have internet access, clean hotels and Airbnb and even Uber, that people speak English, that we are not terrorists, and that they should come visit.

Of course, I don’t pretend things are perfect. I just explain that as a member of the middle class, or as a tourist, they’re not really in much danger. It’s being poor and black and stuck that’s dangerous - just like here, only more so. I tell them about the amazing people, food, music and beauty of my homeland.

Abe (let’s just call him that) asks how I think things are in South Africa now. I answer that they keep changing, but not fast enough. He questions if they are better than when I was a kid. I say of course they’re better now. People who claim they’re worse just choose to forget how the air smelt of a vague evil all the time, how weird it was that you couldn’t share a beach with black children – let alone a classroom. I still recall how you knew in your bones, something was just wrong. It’s better now, “But we have a long way to go”, I admit.  

He agrees, sadly. “It’s going to take generations”.

Abe’s returned twice, since he left in the early 80s: once, in 1987 “at the height of the violence” and again in ‘89 after Mandela’s release was announced.  

“Oh, you were an… organiser?” I ask. I choose the vaguest term possible.  He nods. He’s reluctant to say much more. I ask why he didn’t return again. He tells me that, in the years between his visits in’87 and ’89, both his parents were killed by the government. He said it’s just too painful to go back. Actually, anything to do with South Africa just hurts. I wonder if he means me, too.

He tells me how he was selected as part of a group of South Africans in the USA, for a special preview of the Mandela movie. He said he couldn’t watch for 10 minutes, and couldn’t say why. He grew up in Alex, and just seeing it… he couldn’t. He couldn’t stay.

We draw near to my destination - a block of cheap apartments two streets from a road a famous gang named themselves after, in an area of LA only immigrants consider safe to inhabit. I’m secretly relieved to leave the car. The reminders of the 1980s fill me familiar white guilt - not something I’m ashamed of admitting I feel. Honestly I’d be ashamed not to feel it, having been raised, while benefitting from it, to know how wrong the system was.

My mom and dad taught me to be that pain in the ass person you often wish would just vanish. I’m often told by irritated friends in the USA that it would be nice if I shut up occasionally, and let people have their fun, whether that be tossing cigarettes in the gutters, eating out of Styrofoam, buying disposable clothes from Forever21 made by enslaved children in the third world, or chomping up the blue fin tuna supply just cause it tastes great.

It’s sometimes hard to remember that I’m not the bad guy in these situations, because of how much scorn my principles elicit. It gets lonely.

But being myself is nothing compared to being Abe. I’m calling him Abe because I’m still not sure if he’s 100% safe, if people know where he is. Something about his manner makes me feel that he isn’t sure, either. After all these years, he still has the manner of a refugee – watchful, measured and slightly lost-looking.

The conversation with him takes me back to the 80s, when my mom worked in adult education in Khayelitsha and there were plenty of arguments around the dinner table about the violence and boycotts in schools.

The reaction from many in South Africa about the #feesmustfall protest right now and the headlines in some media, remind me eerily of those who, when student protests shut down schools, bleated about how “they” were just “burning everything down”.  They. They. They. That eternal giveaway.

It might be a good time to remember that “they” helped end apartheid. “They” may have lost their education to do so. “They” may be damaged by the violence and uncertainty of their childhoods and adulthoods. And that’s why “they” are South Africa’s war veterans, and should be treated as such. This is not just for the sake of human compassion, or honor, though it should be. It’s also because without healing and care, the hurt and anger will seep through the cracks in society and affect us all, and our children’s children.

And of course, #feesmustfall. Education is a right, and a necessity.

That’s why, before I steps out of the Uber, I turn and say to Abe: “Thank you for your service”.

Because for him, driving an Uber at the other end of the world, tortured by memories he doesn’t even want to speak of, the struggle will never really be over.  

Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here.

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