Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 21 March 2013

Revenge of the AWDs

A strange, mad, racist old man called me a monkey the other day. But the incident led me to a moment of strange healing. Odd, but true.

A few weeks ago I went into a garage in my neighbourhood to withdraw some cash from an ATM. As I got into the shop, I almost bumped into an elderly man standing on the mat in front of the sliding glass doors. I moved around him quickly, and headed to the cash machine. It turned out that he was also headed to the machine (at his own pace) and he thought I was trying to cut in line in front of him. He got incredibly angry (AWD style) and roared like a lion. This was a ridiculous thing to do, but it was effective. It stopped me in my tracks. He proceeded to flail his arms around in the air, showing me his ATM card and screaming/roaring unintelligibly, and then he powered forward and took my spot in front of the screen.

I realised that we had had a misunderstanding so I stood back and allowed him to get his money. But I was mad. Very mad. By this point, actually, I was an Angry Black Chick (ABC). When he finished taking out his money, I stood my ground, feeling humiliated by his carrying on (I hate public drama – for more on this, click here).

I was also pretty certain that he wouldn’t have behaved that way if I were white – call it racial radar – and so my humiliation at the loudness of it was tinged with being affronted in that way that only racism and sexism seem to provoke in me. Ahhh…how right I was.

Having finished his withdrawal, he walked up to me and got within inches of my face. Then – wait for this – he called me a monkey. Yes. He did. In fact he didn’t just call me a monkey, he actually screamed it in my face, and then said, “You drive like you are in the jungle.” This was particularly crazy since I had not been driving – my husband had been driving, and by the time we pulled into the station, he had been standing at the entrance for some time so he hadn’t even seen us in a car.

The monkey/jungle comments were said so loudly that they were impossible for others to ignore. Then, one of those great South African moments unfolded, where nobody even pretends to be minding their own business. I heard a collective gasp from the three black women who were behind the counter. Then each of them began to denounce him – in various languages. He was totally unconcerned. I screamed something incoherent at him – he had a strong Italian accent, which totally irrationally irritated me even more – as though somehow white South Africans born and bred here have more of a ‘right’ to be racist than those who emigrated here.

By this time, the heat was too much to bear, even for an obviously confused old man, and so he walked out of the shop, and got into a waiting car.

I followed him, pretty outraged and fully intending to note his licence plate number so that I could report him to the police (funny how in moments of crisis you begin to believe in institutions that you normally dismiss). His car was packed full of family members, and his wife who was crowded in amongst grandchildren in the back seat, and sounded like an extra in the Godfather, began to yell at me from her squished position in the too-small-for-a-family-of six-car. Gesticulating wildly, her voice thick as a foghorn, she told me to report him to the police. She made the cuckoo sign with her finger curling in the air next to her temple, as she did this, so I wasn’t sure whether she was really taking my side, or whether he was indeed just a sad crazy old Italian man suffering from dementia. There was no doubt that he was an unadulterated racist, but clearly there was also something else going on.

It was all too much; too weird, too aggressive and too incomprehensible. For a moment, I wondered if it was the Daily Maverick commenters pulling a stunt on me to punish me for the AWD piece I had published a few weeks before. This conspiracy theory was crystallising in my head as I turned to go back to the shop to withdraw the cash that this drama had prevented me from getting.

As I did so, I almost bumped into a short, white man smoking a cigarette. I pulled back defensively, expecting some kind of ABC versus AWD clash. Instead, in a strong Afrikaans accent, and entirely without irony, he looked at me and said, “You should report him to the Equality Court. They can’t get away with that nonsense any more.” He slowly exhaled his cigarette smoke, and looked me dead in the eyes with a mixture of sympathy and jaded knowing. He was as camp as anyone gets, one arm across his chest, the elbow of the other crooked at an angle, with his hand limply in the air.

He made me smile, and in a wonderfully bizarre way, he reminded me of why I love South Africa. It is the land of the mad and the home of the brave. Even as we are stoically predictable, hewing to old ways of thinking and doing, some among us refuse to be categorised. Some among us embrace solidarity, cut through the BS, and insist on seeing and being seen for who they are. And those who do so insist that we are going somewhere, they force us to move forward, even as some try to drag us backwards.
Long live the new South Africa, long live! Viva, South Africa, viva! DM


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