Book extract: 5 insidious everyday scenarios that indicate that racism is alive and well


This excerpt was taken from Writing What We Like by Yolisa Qunta and was published with permission from NB publishers.

When I was about seventeen, I asked my mother what the mission of our generation was now that we were free. I felt strongly that, as a generation who was benefiting from living in freedom, we should remain aware of apartheid’s legacy and our obligation to take further strides.

I vaguely remember my mother responding that although we were free, the struggle was not over.

Fast forward many years, and I have become aware that South Africa’s greatest challenge is also the one that is least acknowledged: racism. Unfortunately, I can say from personal experience that the ghost of apartheid is alive and well. Here are a few examples of how I have seen it manifest itself:

1. The hard-of-hearing saleswoman

One day, strolling through the mall, I came across a Karen Millen store. My heart beat a joyful tune: I no longer had to travel to London to acquire exquisite clothes. A vision of perfection in navy caught my eye; I knew there and then that I had to have it.

I asked the shop assistant whether she had it in a size twelve. Instead of looking for a dress that would fit my wonderful curves, she replied by giving me the price of the item. I was confused, but assumed that years of listening to Lady Gaga full blast through her cellphone headset had affected her hearing.

Then I asked my question again: this time I was sure to repeat it slowly and clearly. At this point, she stopped mentioning prices, deigned to inform me that the dress was ‘expensive’, and enquired whether I was sure I could afford it.

All I could do was turn around and walk out.

I defer to the patron saint of scorned shoppers everywhere, one  Miss Vivian: ‘Big mistake. Huge.’

2. The statistician security guard

Your parents were right to insist that you focus at school. Education is a truly wonderful and empowering tool that will take you  places. Sometimes, it even gives you powers that seem mystical to the untrained observer.

Take, for instance, the moment when you are stopped for a ‘random’ search, or you find yourself being followed around a store by a security guard, and you realise that you are the only person with a darker skin colour in the vicinity.

In the interests of fairness, you try to engage said security guard in a discussion about the merits of the Monte Carlo methods or to have a chat about independent variables, since you had wrestled with Stats 101 at some stage at varsity.

At this point, you discover that your homie is actually an expert in entomology, because all you hear is crickets.

3.  The advertising exec who moonlights as a choreographer

Firstly, I need to point out that I’m not a party pooper. I love to dance, and can think of quite a few scenarios that would make me twalatsa with the best of them. If I won the lotto, I would spontaneously break into a cha-cha.

When Idris Elba finally asks me to marry him, you’d better believe that I will do a spectacular victory dance past every well-meaning girlfriend who has ever told me that my obsession with him was unrealistic. I really don’t have a problem with dancing.

What truly irks me is the narrative that white advertisers are pushing: that black people will dance for  just about any reason. Switch on your TV on any night of the week and you will see women old  enough to  be  your grandmother dancing in paroxysms of joy over a Kit Kat or men you  would call bhuti gyrating because of five rand’s worth of airtime.

The reason for this is quite simple.

There is a field in which white people in advertising grow all the fucks they give when it comes to respecting black people and their culture. Right now, that field is bare. As in completely empty. A veritable wasteland.

Think about that the next time you’re shopping or when your kids ask why Makhulu is twerking about a certain brand of chips.

4. The classist doorman

Whenever the debate about whether Cape Town is a racist city comes up,  so does the issue of how black patrons are treated at bars and restaurants.

It seems you can’t take more than three steps without meeting a person of colour – from an award-winning DJ to a lowly social drinker – who has been a victim of apartheid-style door policies. I had first-hand experience of this at Asoka.

Back in the day, I was a regular patron. I liked it for many reasons – firstly, because it was open all week and each day had a different vibe. Then there was the Porn Star Martini, a delicious concoction with fresh passion fruit and a shot of bubbly that tasted like more.

Add to that a friendly bartender who knew my favourites, and was able to serve them after a few finger-waves from the back of the three- deep crowd, and you can see why I kept going back.

Then, one day during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, I was denied entry in exactly the same way as all those other black people I refused to believe.

Of course, I e-mailed the owner, but got whitesplaining, mostly, and a laughable apology that had he known it had been me at the door, things would have been different. I wrote an article about my experience, which went viral. I have still not been back.

There will be people who try to negate my and other black Capetonians’ experiences at restaurants and bars by claiming classism rather than racism. I beg to differ. Sadly, black people who don’t love themselves keep going to these places and are still getting the same treatment today.

5. The online troll

Anyone who is familiar with Tolkien mythology will know trolls. These unpleasant creatures have very little intelligence, are rather inarticulate, are not particularly attractive and turn into stone at sunrise.

Online trolls have much the same characteristics, but, sadly, are impervious to the sun’s rays. They trawl the dark alleys of the interwebs from the safe anonymity of their keyboards, spilling their vitriol among their ilk.

These losers hide behind the mask of free speech. Online companies are mostly too cowardly to expose them even when they are clearly intent on causing harm.
But I say they should all be exposed. The last thing mild-mannered Bob   wants his family and friends to know is that, under cover of darkness, he transforms on- line into a rabid fascist, homophobe, or sexual deviant.

The common denominator in all of these scenarios, barring the last one, is that they are so insidious that, to the casual observer, they may appear as if nothing is amiss – or as incidents in which I had simply experienced a combination of stupidity and poor customer service.

Trying to explain racist incidents to people who have never been exposed to racism themselves, or who choose to remain oblivious to it, feels like walking into a spider’s web.

There’s the all-too-familiar flailing as you try to disentangle yourself from the invisible skeins. But even though it might look like nothing from the outside, the person inside the web is acutely aware that something is wrong.

News reports tell us that overtly racist incidents happen across the country every day. This suggests that something is bubbling under the surface of our collective psyche, something that could burst horribly if things continue as they are. A first step could be deep introspection on both sides. Being made to feel as if you are imagining things doesn’t help.

As black South Africans, we need to admit that we are angry and have every reason to be. The next step is to take ownership if we want to be change agents and to challenge racism actively whenever we encounter it. This is not easy – some days, you really just want to take the skinny latte and hold the side order of racist bullshit.

Until we teach people how to treat us and are prepared to articulate exactly why specific behaviour is not okay, we will never feel comfortable in our own country.

In this, we have to keep in mind that being economically empowered plays a major role in how comfortable you are about speaking up.  As a middle-class black person with an education, it is easy for me to tell off service providers and send strongly worded e-mails to corporate head offices to get my point across. However, if I were working for  a pittance as  a maid, I would probably not tell  my  employer how much her refusal to use my  Xhosa name, because she finds it too hard to say, offends me.

Until black people in this country are economically empowered, equality will remain a pipe dream. It’s very easy for us to pat ourselves on the collective back for being a free country, but without economic freedom people are barred from so many things.

#currentsituation Attending the Writing What We Like panel discussion with @refiem ?? #writingwhatwelike

A photo posted by Mashudu Hlayisi (@bubbly_mash) on

For more information or if you’d like to purchase a copy of this book, visit

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