Making friends with six people in a taxi

2011-03-21 00:00

RACE relations in this town, like­everywhere in the country, are messy, imperfect, heartening andunpredictable.

Our post office, for example, remains divided. We all stand in the same queue, but when black people enter they greet all the black people. When white people enter they also scan the queue and greet only the white people they see with a nod of the head. It is not because they know all the white people. I know it is not, because I get greeted every time as well. And I don’t know the nodders.

This is obviously a minor issue. There is also a lot of unpleasant stuff that I don’t want to write about. It’s old news. But there are also great big psychedelic prisms of hope and amusement shining their way into our dusty streets.

My children, for example, call me “Missus” for days on end after Muttering Darkly’s grandchildren have come to play.

And my friend Adele, who works at the local photographic shop, is a self-appointed race-relations activist. She grew up in a town in the Free State that is even smaller than our town. (She finds the pace here fast and furious, and is frustrated by everyone’s pursuit of wealth). She is more concerned with eternal issues. She sees it as her mission in life to convince the stream of black customers who pour through her door needing photos for their identity documents, that not every white person is an unpleasant bigoted racist.

If you watch her through the window, you can see how seriously she takes her job. Every person who comes in, no matter how dark or rich or poor, gets treated as if they are royalty.

So it was not right that Adele became the victim of someone’s racial anger. She was the last person deserving of that. Last week, a woman went into the shop and gave Adele a piece of her mind. She was complaining about the fact that Adele stuck the photos that are never collected up against the window for the passersby to see. “You just want to show everyone that we black people are bad payers,” accused the woman, swearing at Adele in Afrikaans. Adele was too shocked to know what to do. She just listened as a tirade of anger was poured down upon her.

Eventually the woman left. Adele, who is a gentle soul, fought back her tears and turned to the next customer. But he was not someone wanting to buy anything. He was an elderly Tswana man who had watched the previous interchange, and who wanted to tell Adele not to be worried about that woman.

“Moenie jouself daaraan steur nie,” he said to her. “Daardie vrou maak moeilikheid waarook al sy gaan,” he explained.

It reminded me of an experience I had in Cape Town when I was learning Xhosa. I used to find every opportunity I could to thetha. I was once sitting in a taxi that was pretty full, and I started my usual spontaneous conversation with the man sitting next to me. “Molo tat’am, unjani?” I had found this stranger-confrontation method foolproof in terms of improving my skills and building racial bridges. This time, however, my audience was offended. “Asingotata wakho!” He retorted, and continued to mutter insults at me under his breath. Fortunately, his stop came before mine.

He had barely closed the door, when all six other passengers in the taxi quickly turned to me and began apologising for his behaviour.

As I grow older, I am all too often exhausted by the reconciliatory work that we are required to do every day in this country. It feels so nineties — haven’t we moved on yet? Can’t we move on?

So I go through phases of refusing to do it. Arrogantly, I feel like I have done my time. I don’t want to devote my life to social causes anymore. Now I want to be a businessperson. I want to write andfocus on bringing up my children without the trappings of social guilt and obligation. And yet, in our context, there is still a vacuum that sucks us in. And one cannot live spinning around, trying to turn your back on it. So we must do it as Sisyphus did. We must push the boulder up the hill every day, even if it rolls back down. Even if we roll back down again.

So, inspired by the police officer who thanked me for saying “ke a leboga”, I will now start learning Tswana. And I will provide opportunities for my children to do the same. So that when they go into the post office, they see people and not just faces. And so that they too have the opportunities to be consoled by elderly Tswana men, and to make friends with six people in a taxi all at once.

We must shoulder the boulder.

Otherwise, neither we nor our children will ever find peace.

• Catherine Smetherham is an ex-city dweller who is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West. Contact her at

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