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26 November 2014 10:32 (South Africa)
Opinionista David Gemmell

My South Africa is integrating

  • David Gemmell
Hardly a day goes by without an article in the press lamenting the lack of integration in South Africa’s not-so-new democracy. Ironically, the proof the authors of these diatribes offer to substantiate their hypotheses is that they themselves aren't integrating. It is like the deaf bemoaning a lack of music in public places.

It is sad these articles get published at all, as I contend the writers are less representative of SA society than the people who are integrating. The articles simply exacerbate a delicate situation. 

I play five-a-side soccer. We play against teams with only blacks, only whites, only Indians or teams with any combination of the above. Our team has three blacks, four whites and sometimes a Chinaman, and ranges in ages from 18 to me, 57. We have been doing this for four years and have yet to have a racial incident. There have been some spectacular altercations, but never one based on the colour of skin - and Thabo, the young gruppenführer, no-nonsense boss who runs the show, is black.

Our goalkeeper, Themba, is good enough for any professional team, but chooses to play with us in a social league. He probably has the finest physique I have ever showered with (and no, I'm not gay). One Sunday lunch I insisted Themba have some greens. "No thanks,” he said, “No veggies, I only eat meat and potatoes.""Do you ever eat fruit?" I asked. He shook his head and laughed.

So now I only eat meat and potatoes. I want to look like Themba and am just waiting for the extra kilos of flab I've put on to turn into muscle. Who says we can't learn from each other's cultures?

A few years ago, when my daughter was at junior school, we arranged for me to collect her and a friend, to go to movies. When confirming our plans I asked which friend she would be bringing.

"Mel," she said. "Remind me, who is Mel?" I asked in typically vague father style. "She's the slightly plump girl with glasses that came to my party - you've met her."

When I picked them up, the most striking thing about Mel was that she was black. My 14-year-old daughter didn't seem to think the colour of someone's skin was useful to describe people. All my friends have similar stories.

On Thursdays I take lessons in ballroom dancing at a studio near Broadacres. My most agreeable companion in this exercise, which I think proves conclusively that white men don't have rhythm, is Pius, who is black. One night at the studio pub, he was asked by a new pupil where he fitted into the scheme of things. Pius said he was the owner's gardener and that for every four days he worked, he could have a free dancing lesson.

Later when Johnny, the owner of the studio, arrived at the bar, he was complimented by his new pupil on his progressive employment policy. "Gardener?" Johnny snarled. "Pius has a doctorate and could buy and sell you and the studio 10 times over without noticing."

Whenever my car goes in for a service, instead of taking the proffered courtesy car, I catch a minibus taxi. It's exhilarating to watch up close, the taxi-drivers chatting on their cellphones, eating, smoking and hooting at pedestrians, as they arrogantly violate every conceivable traffic law. And I love the camaraderie of the passengers as they travel in abject terror and fear for their lives. When I see taxis doing all of the above, I find it helps me to relax knowing I'm not in there with them.

My son joined Pirates in Parkhurst, to play rugby for their Under 18 team. After his first practice, I asked him what the other boys were like. "When they see you are keen, have some skill and work hard, they accept you and include you - they are cool," he replied. "And the black kids?"

"I AM talking about the black kids, dad…"

What is interesting about the belief we are not doing enough to mix is that nowhere else in the world do people generally integrate. I have friends in London who don't know a single black person. My American acquaintances wouldn't dream of consorting with African Americans and in Australia if you even see a black you're an exception.

So why this big hang-up about us mingling? Most people like to be with their own kind, be they black, white, English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Indian or coloured. They just feel more comfortable. But that doesn't mean they are making a negative statement about the people they aren't mixing with.

The other day at a traffic intersection I was asked by Aubrey, a fruit hawker, to buy some strawberries. I said I didn't have any cash on me, while my kids insisted from the back seat that I support him. As the lights changed, Aubrey settled the matter by depositing two punnets of strawberries on my dashboard, saying, "Pay me next time." The white, BMW-driving, Lanseria resident, with two kids at a private school, was being cheerfully and trustingly financed by a black salesman at the traffic lights. Who says we don't get on?

  • David Gemmell
gemmell opinionista 02

David grew up in the Free State, where his father worked on the gold mines. He has variously been a barman, labourer, truck driver, roughneck, trader, project manager and is now a full time writer.

He has had a column in Business Day and the now demised Weekender. David has an unusual talent for making people open up to him, which he later turns into a gripping read. He gained nationwide fame after he completed the biography of Joost van der Westhuizen, Joost: The Man in the Mirror. He has recently completed a biography on Father Stan Brennan, Colour Blind Faith.


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