Last week I had a series of meetings in Johannesburg with writers who are helping me on a new project. I was speaking with one of the writers in the canteen of the building where we were meeting when my next appointment, also a writer, arrived a bit earlier than expected.
I asked the writer who was meeting me next to have something to eat or drink while he was waiting for me, but assured him that I would only be a few more minutes. When I finished my meeting, I noticed that he was only drinking a cup of tea.
Later I asked him if he had not been hungry – it was lunchtime after all – and he told me that he had asked the woman behind the counter for a pie and she told him not to buy stuff from this canteen because it was expensive and not tasty. She suggested that he would be better off buying “pap and vleis” from the taxi rank up the road.
The writer was a black African and the woman behind the counter was too. Apart from the disloyalty to the place where she was working, he was shocked that she assumed that he would firstly not be able to afford the prices of the food, and that he looked like someone who needed to eat “pap and vleis”.
This seemingly small incident reminded me once again how easy it is to assume certain things about certain people. We do this in South Africa all the time, when we assume that because people are coloured, African, Indian or white, they have to have certain preferences and peculiarities.
I remember when I ran the Sunday Times Durban bureau many years ago and we used the canteen at Newspaper House in Greyville. They made three different meals for lunch every day: pap and vleis, a curry and then something like fish and a green salad. It was easy to figure out that they targeted the “pap and vleis” at the black African staff, the curry at the Indian staff and the fish and salad at the white staff.
But what to do about people who did not want to fit into their stereotypes?
I had great fun with the canteen staff when I ordered “pap and vleis” and they would tell me that it was not meant for me. I would ask them whom it was meant for and they would stumble over their words. “It’s meant for other people,” one of the women behind the counter once told me. I asked whether it had all been ordered by “other people” and she replied no. I then insisted that they should give me “pap and vleis”.
It was not that I enjoyed the meal – in fact, I did not enjoy any of the meals in the canteen (it was canteen food, after all) – but it was more to make a point about breaking down stereotypes.
The people who ran that canteen would probably have argued that they were merely catering to their market.
This is of course a problem in South Africa today, where people are still seen in terms of racial and cultural target markets. Based on whether you are white, coloured, Indian or African, you would have different needs for different kinds of food.
You might also have different needs for funeral cover or banking services or cell phone networks.
In many ways, we are more racially divided in South Africa today than we were under Apartheid. At least the majority of South Africans were united in their opposition to Apartheid. What is there today to unite us?
Many South Africans today merrily continue in their white bubbles, their coloured bubbles, their Indian bubbles or their African bubbles.
I am not trying to deprive anyone of the right to eat what they want to eat or to have certain tastes in food, drink or other important things in life. And I’m not trying to deprive people of the right to associate with whomever they wish to associate.
But we need to reach a point where these things do not really matter.
As South Africans, we need to try and identify the things that can unite us – not focus on the things that divide us.
Food, like music and sport, can be a great unifier but it can also be a great divider. It all depends on how we use it.
Nelson Mandela’s intervention in the African Cup of Nations in 1996, which helped South Africa win the tournament, and his intervention in the Rugby World Cup the previous year when we also won that tournament, are examples of using something that used to be divisive to unite people.
Until Mandela’s intervention, soccer in South African was seen as a sport played by black people, while rugby was seen as a sport played by white people.
Hopefully we will one day have a situation where the woman in the canteen in Johannesburg will not make certain assumptions about her customers, and the staff in the canteen in Durban will encourage their customers to try the different cuisines on offer in order to create greater understanding of our different cultures.
There is something about tasting each other’s food that can probably do a lot more to promote unity in our country than anything spouted by politicians, especially in an election year. DM
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