We’re in this together

2011-11-19 15:03

Audrey Senare was surprised when a neighbour arrived with a bale of second-hand clothes to give to her. The neighbour was concerned that Senare didn’t have any other clothes as she always wore the same black outfit every day.

But what she didn’t know was that the black outfit was a way of signifying that Senare had been recently widowed and was still mourning her late husband.

This incident is just one of many culture shocks that have played out at the Chief Mogale low-cost housing settlement near Kagiso in Mogale City since a group of about 15 white families moved into the area in August.

Given the country’s history of racial segregation, the relocation initially caused quite a stir – and some anxiety. In fact, since the demolition of racially diverse settlements like Sophiatown in the 1950s, and introduction of apartheid’s Group Areas Act, South Africans have lived in areas demarcated along racial lines.

Even at the dawn of democracy in the early 1990s, bank balances determined racially mixed communities. And with the frustration of having been on the housing waiting list for many years, some people in nearby squatter settlements were unhappy that the government seemed to give whites preferential treatment.

But the ice was broken even before the whites had offloaded their belongings. And all involved say it’s really been a case of so far so good.

“We had about a hundred people waiting to shake our hands that day,” jokes Constant Beukes (32) from his RDP house.

“Most of them (whites) were crying on the day they moved in. We thought they were crying because they were scared,” says Senare.

“But we later realised they were crying because they were happy to finally have their own houses just like us.” The common struggle for survival, in an area where many people are unemployed and depend on government social grants or piece jobs, has made the bonds of neighbourliness grow stronger and erase the obsession with skin colour.

Senare’s home is one of a few with a washing line. So together with Charmaine, her white neighbour, they have devised a time-table that enables them to share the washing line without any hassles. When she goes out on errands, Senare asks Charmaine to keep an eye on her children.

Neighbours tell stories of walking into someone’s house to ask for a R20 loan to catch a taxi to a piece job, to ask for a bowl of sugar, and sharing a few beers over the weekend.

Friendships have been forged across colour lines, and even young Ian Pizar (10) and six-year-old Michael Pizar don’t have any problems playing in the streets with their toy cars after school.

“My children are very happy here,” says their dad Mark (33). Last month a daily newspaper published a story about the Pizar boys being the first white children to attend a blacks-only school. Mark and his wife gladly show off a copy of the newspaper.

“Life is life. Why must it be about colour?” reacts Mark when asked if he would approve of his sons dating across the colour line.
On the day the white families arrived, Senare invited her neighbours to her home and prepared them warm bath water on her gas stove.
“We didn’t have electricity then. To me they were just ordinary neighbours. I didn’t care about their skin colour,” she says.
But even in this area where houses look identical, it’s not difficult to identify the homes of some of the white families.

You only have to look for neat murals of rugby clubs, like the one pledging loyalty to the Sharks painted above the doorway of Charmaine’s house, to know who lives there. Black homes bear the emblems of local football clubs, instead.

Beukes says he feels safer in Chief Mogale than he would normally feel in an area that was once reserved for whites. “People here treat us like they would treat any other person. There is a difference here. In the white neighbourhood not everyone is friendly. People tend to be snobbish,” he says.

Beukes says it would be good for the country if racial integration like this happened on a wider scale. “White people watch the news a lot. They hear stories about crime and Julius Malema and they think they’re going to be attacked. But the truth is I feel safer here than anywhere else.”

Ian Pizar (10) plays in the streets of Chief Mogale near Kagiso Audrey Senare (32) and new neighbour Charmaine (who refused to give her surname) have found the struggle to survive is more important than the colour of their skins. They are good friends who share everything from bread to a washing line

|| Photos: leon sadiki

Constant Beukes (32) says he feels safer in Chief Mogale than in a traditionally white neighbourhood

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