Just before Christmas I went to buy a bottle of wine in a store in a town on the Garden Route. There were two cashiers; one was talking to a friend or relative on the phone, the other one was just staring past me. After several minutes, I asked her if I could pay for the wine. Sorry, she said, she was waiting to finish a transaction with another customer, and she pointed to that person.
That customer was having a lively conversation a few metres away with a security guard about the problems of crime in the town. After what must have been a full two more minutes, I approached her and politely asked if she would mind paying for her wine so the casher could serve me – I was parked on a yellow line, I explained.
She was immediately angry. She accused me of being arrogant and, yes, white. I tried to explain that my request was a polite one and that I was parked on a yellow line, but it just made it worse and the whole exchange became a bit of a public scene. When are "you people" going to realise that you're not baas any longer, she asked.
I was deeply embarrassed – I'm normally the guy who would intervene when a white customer is rude to a black employee in a shop. I was also annoyed, because I knew if she were white, I would have been far more direct and assertive in asking her to conclude her sale.
A month or so before this incident I was driving my car out of the forecourt of a Cape Town petrol station into the street when another car trying to get to the pumps nearly ran into me. I was relaxed; I stopped, reversed a little bit and waved my hand to say, please proceed.
The driver jumped out and confronted me aggressively at my car window. What was that hand gesture about, you bloody racist, he asked, and threatened to inflict violence upon me. My explanation that it was a wave to give him right of way was not acceptable.
I was not wrong in one of the two incidents. There was nothing racist about my actions.
But these experiences stayed with me and made me think. Were these two individuals simply angry at life? Were they looking for an argument with a white male? Do I come across as an arrogant, aggressive white man, even when I don't think I am?
I never met these individuals before or after, so I can't know anything about them. Of course, they could just be unpleasant human beings, but I think there is a bigger chance that their past experiences with white people have made them suspect racism or rudeness when they encounter a white person.
If that's the case, I should admire rather than resent their willingness to engage in confrontation.
I have now resolved to try and look demurer and friendlier, extra polite and extra careful, when I deal with black strangers in the future.
But wouldn't it be dishonest and racist in its own way to treat black people differently from white people?
Well, that's our reality in South Africa right now. After a quarter of a century since the political power had been transferred from the white minority to the black majority, many or most of us are still trying to figure out how to deal with race.
When private security guards told visitors to vacate Clifton Beach last week, a lot of people reacted very angrily about the perceived racism. At first, I didn't see racism as the obvious problem – it's simply not true that black people have been kept away from that beach in the last few years.
The secretary of the ANC in the Western Cape, Faiez Jacobs, one of those asked to leave, is proof of that: His family has had their annual twilight picnic there for years. White beachgoers were also told to leave.
I was also angry at the illegal actions of the private security company, but I saw the problem as class discrimination: They were doing the super-rich Clifton beach homeowners' dirty work for them. These owners arrogantly feel it's their right to clear the beach in the evenings to make their homes safer.
But perhaps nobody would have been told to leave the beach if all the people on the beach were white, as in the days of apartheid. Black people who reacted angrily at the action suspected racism, and perhaps they're right. And even if they're wrong, I still understand why they reacted that way.
I was annoyed by the political theatre of a handful of young black men who dragged a sheep onto the beach and cut its throat "to invoke the ancestors" and the "cleanse the beach of racism". I thought it was crude and false. But then, perhaps these men sensed that this kind of ancient African ritual would anger (and scare?) white people more than the ANC's more sensible protest the next day, and that's why they did it. Or perhaps they're attention-seeing charlatans. Either way, I felt it would be inappropriate for me as a white person to express myself on this in public and politely declined when a radio station asked me for my comment.
At the same time, I don't think it's going to do anyone any good if we all tiptoed around matters of race. I'm not one of those "good whites" who believe white people should shut up and not take part in public debates. I do believe, however, that there is an onus on white people to be more respectful and to choose their words more carefully when they engage on these matters.
Perhaps one day my great-grandchildren, if they're going to be white like me, will be released from this burden.
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