Multiculturalism and Shades of Meaning in the New South Africa

1I hate being misunderstood. I guess we all do, but it goes with the territory.

2I use the word coloured, and he seems offended: 'We Brits don't say 'coloured'. It's regarded as patronising. We say black, if we say anything. And if we do it's for reasons of simple practicality. It doesn't matter. '

3Of course, what he seems to be missing, is that the word coloured in South Africa now refers less to skin colour, and more to a distinct cultural group, with it's own language (a dialect of Afrikaans), food (of Malay origin), and music. To say black in this context would be inaccurate, and cause confusion.

4Danya and Kyla attend the Yeoville Community School, situated in a vibrant and culturally diverse suburb of Johannesburg. On returning from school one day Danya announces: 'We have to do something at school about our culture. What is our culture Daddy?'To which her father replies, 'Go and ask your mother.'

'Well…we're sort of New Age, sort of holistic…', Toni fumbles.

A few days later… 'So what did you do in the end?' Soli asks.

'Oh, us and all the other coloured kids sang, Daar Kom die Alabama'1 says Kyla.

It would seem that children want to know where they come from.

5'I want you to divide yourself up into your different race groups', the facilitator says. We are in a Managing Diversity workshop, and he means the old South African race classification system, but of course he wants to see what we do with it. We end up with a group of Blacks (including three 'Asians'); an African group (including two 'Whites'); a White group (two); and the Human Race (two).'Why didn't you join the white group?' Thloki asks the Human Race.'I don't define myself by my race', I reply.'Ha! Wait till there's a war over resources' he laughs, 'then you'll quickly pick a side!'

6The postmodernist argument ensues: 'There is no such thing as race…all these arbitrary classifications…it's nothing but a social construct!''Well you never lived as a black person under apartheid. It was very real to me!'The facilitator aims to mediate/translate for the rest of us: 'Well yes, it is just a social construct. But one which had very real consequences for people.'

7'Nobody goes into town anymore' a woman says. To which Har Bhajan replies, 'When I was last in town, there were lots of people there.' Of course, what she means is, hardly any white people go into town anymore. (And she's right about that.) But what is that, the way certain people become invisible, depending on who's looking?

8My friend Karima and I attend an Al Jarreau concert. Fairly expensive tickets, and almost the entire audience is black. I'm not sure why I'm quite so surprised. But this is Sandton, the richest formerly white suburb of Johannesburg. Perhaps working in the NGO sector I've missed how much things are actually changing… I wonder how many people in the audience have been into town lately.

9With the shift in power, and the -- albeit slow -- levelling of the playing field, now it is possible for white South Africans to be at the receiving end of racial discrimination too… I am visiting my cousin. He is 60, and a musician. But times are tough for him now. His brother was shot dead in his driveway while someone stole his car. And it's hard for him to find work. 'I am too white, now', he says. He is not bitter, just saddened. In his day he had probably the most famous jazz club in Johannesburg. Rumours it was called. 'The best little bootlegger in Bellevue' he called himself. He was known for breaking the law then. His club was racially integrated long before it was allowed.

10Controversial South African artist, Beezy Bailey, has an alter ego: 'The creation of Joyce was born of the frustration of 'increasingly prevalent affirmative action'. Bailey submitted two artworks for a triennial exhibition. One was with the traditional 'Beezy Bailey' signature (rejected) the other signed 'Joyce Ntobe'! The latter now enjoys an honoured place in the SA National Gallery as part of its permanent collection. When the curator of the SA National Gallery wanted to work on a paper about three black women artists, Joyce Ntobe being one, Bailey let the cat out the bag which caused a huge media 'scandale'.' (Carmel Art)

11I spent three months in London, and I realised how easy it is to be white there. Or rather, how easy it is to not be white. Of course, it 'doesn't matter' there, because it doesn't matter. It's easy to donate a monthly cheque to Worldvision, and read about the latest chaos in Zimbabwe in the free rag on the tube, and never have to look overwhelming poverty and disease in the face. But when you live on the African continent, you are very aware of being white.

12At the diversity workshop, I realise how white South Africans seem to get to take the rap here for the actions of white people on the planet. It's not just the effects of apartheid that black South Africans are angry about it seems, it's also the effects of the global economy, that cause the rich to become richer, and the poor to become poorer. Oh sure, that's not just an issue of race, but the poorest on our planet remain 'people of colour', and wealth remains concentrated in the West/North.

13I realise also that the Black and African groups at the workshop have one thing that they agree on quite strongly - the importance of making the African continent one's focus. Though the two of us in the Human Race group have both read Naomi Klein's No Logo -- and care about the effects on the poor of economic globalisation -- our sense of 'internationalism' is not viewed in a positive light, but seen rather as 'elitist'.

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15'The thing about the Dutch' says Gary, 'is that they're pragmatic. They're not politically correct -- call the prostitutes prostitutes, not sex workers, but tax them, and give them health care. They have a strong human rights culture.' The Afrikaners are descendents of these transparent, curtainless Dutch. Sometimes I can see it. 'It is not words that make for bigotry, but attitudes', says columnist Ira Pilgrim. 'Some of the most bigoted people I have known always used the 'correct' words.'2

16I am not politically correct. There are certain words I'd never use, and couldn't bring myself to, not out of political correctness, but because they're invested with hate. But words like 'whitey', darkie' and 'honky', where I sit, are terms of endearment. I'd never use them on strangers, but amongst friends, they're terms of affection and irony, because we're laughing at ourselves, and each other.

17'It's hard to explain to anyone' Gary continues, 'what it's like living in a place where -- from the time you wake up in the morning, till you close your eyes at night -- every breath that you take is politicised.' Gary left the country because he didn't want to be conscripted to fight a war he didn't believe in. He's done well for himself in Europe. But he had to give up his homeland.

18I catch a 'Zola', the mini-bus taxi named after South Africa's barefoot runner Zola Budd, probably most famous for inadvertently tripping Mary Decker at the 1984 Olympics (Finnegan). Zola was little and fast, like the taxi's that 'zip, zip, zip' -- often to the infuriation of other motorists -- hence the affectionate nickname. They're the peril of the road, but the saviour of the immobile masses, with their unique language and hand signals. I overhear bits of Zulu conversation, including 'Brooke…Ridge…Thorne.' Our soaps, too, are politicised. It would seem that even black South Africans watch The Bold and the Beautiful for light relief. Usually I am the only whitey here, but accepted as just another carless commuter moving from A to B. Despite the safety risks of bad driving, I enjoy it.

19I did a Zulu course a few years ago. I didn't learn much Zulu -- discovered I don't have the tongue or an ear for African languages -- but I learnt a lot from the course nevertheless. 'Tell us about an experience that you've had, that was a result of cultural misunderstandings' says the facilitator.

20'I spent much of my first year at University hungry' says Nhlanhla. 'My white friends would offer me food when I was visiting, but I would refuse, because in our culture, if you ask you don't really want to give. We just hand you a plate.'

21Nombulelo tells of the time she went on a yoga retreat. She was confused when she started to undress openly in the dormitory, and got disapproving looks from the other women. 'Why?' she wondered, 'we are all women together?' But these were Hindu women, whose sense of modesty was different from the openness of African women.

22For the whiteys, the major confusion seems to come from the issue of timekeeping. 'African time' is often referred to. Though in London, I did hear talk of 'Caribbean time'. Perhaps the concept of being on time is a particularly Western one (Makhale-Mahlangu).

23We are visiting friends of friends. There's an unlikely combination at the dinner table. She is tall and dark. I am short and fair. 'So where do you two know each other from?' Cairo asks. 'I'm Andie's sister', Kim replies. She reads the dumbfoundedness in Cairo's face. 'What can I say…my line got a bit deviated!' she laughs. She has my father's sense of humour. So have I.

24I ask my father, when he first became aware of racial prejudice. 'I was about six years old', he says. 'I threw my ball out of the school grounds, and called to the black man outside: 'Boy, please would you throw my ball back to me?'

And the man replied: 'I am not a boy. I am old enough to be your grandfather.''

25I am thinking about the time in our lives before we become aware of race… A friend tells me a story about how her six-year-old daughter came home from school and asked, 'Mommy, what's a [racist-term-not-to-be-repeated]?' She'd been called that.

26The late Lenny Bruce, controversial American comedian and social critic in the sixties, argued that it is 'the word that gives it the power of violence'3, and if we used 'the words' colloquially often enough, and began to invest them with new meanings, they would lose their power to hurt us.

27I am about to board a bus…'Woza (come) Mama', says the driver. 'Uyaphi?' (Where are you going?) '…green green, I'm going away to where the grass is greener still', come the Reggae sounds from his radio.

28We are discussing whether we should be focusing on our sameness or our differences. 'Of course we all want the same things…a home, a job, an education for our children', says Karima, but it's our differences that make us interesting.' I agree.