South Africa’s history of race relations can be puzzling for a foreigner. Dazed and confused, I spent the holidays asking what colour I was, has apartheid been internalised and do you really want me as a roommate?
Christmas is a joyous time of giving filled with family love, rousing carols and gifts recycled from last year. It’s a time to celebrate with loved ones while gorging on various meats as if you’re at the world hotdog eating championship. That is, of course, unless you’re alone. Like a good foreigner I spent Christmas night scouting the streets for a band of merry revellers with whom I could mix unnoticed in my Santa hat. The chosen men were spreading their blankets on the footpath when I pulled over. A few of the group had matted beards and once-red beanies. Despite the lack of Christmas sweaters, they had decided to wear every item of clothing they owned. It seemed fitting: an orphan in Johannesburg should spend Christmas on the street, I thought.
I’d arrived as my companions were preparing to sleep, but as always the Christmas festivities were extended until the last moment. A group huddled in a doorway rolling a joint of marijuana, medication and heroin. Two friends shared a cold can of baked beans while selling another joint to a passerby. It might not have been your standard day of bonbons and backyard cricket, but I could listen to stories that matched those of my Uncle Roy (I love him, but I’m never quite sure how to react).
Perhaps it was the spirit of Christmas, might’ve been the plume of second-hand smoke, but I got the sense I had found family. It was a Christmas miracle! That was until I was politely fingered as the family’s black sheep. “It’s okay if you’re here with us, even if you are white,” said my new brother while using a razor blade to cut a pebble of “rock” on a piece of broken glass.
“Even if you are white” – race comes up often in these situations. I compare it to a greeting: it’s a well-intentioned formality we pass before earnest discussion. It’s something I’m used to yet never quite comfortable with, sort of like the awkwardness when deciding to kiss a female friend on the cheek, hug her or throw a high five. After the greetings, things get interesting when the conversation turns to relationships.
“Do you have a wife?” I was asked at a tavern in an informal settlement (it was out of work hours, I swear).
“So a wife. Why is she not here?”
“She’s in Kenya. She’s from there.” My drinking companion looked like I told him that I’m actually Jacob Zuma and then downed a bottle of vodka. He paused.
“She’s black? Okaaaaay. Okaaaaay.” He starts to see what he’s dealing with. But I wonder if I do.
What colour am I? When you land in South Africa, right after declaring whether you have any wooden products or drugs in your dreadlocks, can you choose an ethnicity for the remainder of your stay? Do I choose a race like adopting a local football team? Is it as simple as language or do we have to analyse dance style, eating habits and whether your mum is more likely to have a weave or get her hair dyed every four weeks when those non-blonde roots start to show?
Do I have a race? I’m thankful I can ask that question rather than being stuffed with an answer and I rejoice that its relevance has diminished since the eras of colonialism and apartheid. But as I drift around Johannesburg’s deserted Christmas streets, I can’t help but wonder where I would slot in and how it all works.
The confusion isn’t confined to Christmas on the street or the township tavern. My main holiday preoccupation was searching for a new apartment to rent and was confronted with a common rental clause – “Whites need only apply, sorry.”
First of all, I’m not sure this is a great way of short-listing applicants. None of my ancestors have held the required ID, but English is my first language and the time I went to a solarium for a “glow”, I was so sunburnt I looked like a communist party mascot. So you might consider me white. But do you want me as a housemate? I never pay anything on time, so I’ll be the reason our landlord hates us. I’m a terrible shopper, which means I’ll eat your cereal then try to stuff the plastic packet back in the box exactly as it was so you think you had those four bowls of Cheerios between two and four on Tuesday morning. And if I get the place, can I bring my girlfriend over? Am I allowed to play hip-hop? Is it okay to drink Zamalek?
These were the thoughts I pondered on Christmas night. Am I white enough for a “white’s only” rental? Maybe I stand out on this street corner. Perhaps I should always travel with a neat racial mix of friends like those politically correct advertisements.
“Is this country cursed by internalised apartheid?” I asked my companions. They smoked more and we cursed legislation that stated what someone was, what they could do and the limits of who they could be. “But forget that. You’re here now,” I was told. So we sat and talked about our lives as the year limped towards an end. A drunk began to sing. A man started to cry. We posed for the camera. There was a fight over sharing “presents”. I guess it was a normal Christmas, except my hosts now had a serious drug problem. But we all have our differences. And anyway, you can’t choose your family. DM
Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
The air quality from pollution on a cruise ship can at times be worse than the world's worst cities.