First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
In 1994, just a few months after South Africa became a democracy, my family moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg (I was 12 years old). We found a dead cat at our front door – obviously a friendly welcome message from our neighbours in the Capetonian ’burbs. We were one of the very few black families to move in.
In 1996, we moved to Pretoria, which is where we settled. It was an odd town where I experienced being spoken to in Afrikaans for the first time – to which I always stared back blankly at the speaker, wondering why they thought I would understand.
Again we were one of the few black families in the ’burbs. Walking home from school with my younger brother one day, we passed the all-white Afrikaans school and a few young boys threw stones at us and called us the k-word. Of course I had to fight back, if only to protect my then seven-year-old brother.
There was also the incident when I was in Grade 10: I was walking to the shop one day and a group of white boys drove next to me and lashed my arm with a belt before driving away laughing, while I stood helpless and stunned by the stinging pain on my arm.
And there was that time I was about to walk into a shopping centre and two khaki-clad white guys in a bakkie swerved towards me pretending they were about to knock me over. Then they sped away laughing at the fright they’d given me. Again I stood transfixed and in disbelief that my physical safety continued to be threatened simply because I was a black woman in the suburbs.
In 2017, I wrote an article about Linda Steenkamp, the pregnant farm worker who was transported in a cage in the back of a bakkie, which strangely seemed to garner a mixed response from South Africans. Some said it was inhumane; some attempted to explain being transported in the back of a bakkie as normal; and worse still, some said she “chose” to sit there because the front seat was unoccupied and had been offered to her.
To be clear, transporting people in the backs of bakkies or trucks is not normal, let alone in a cage. But what did we learn from that incident, how did it change our understanding of the power dynamics that lead to such occurrences and their normalisation in our society?
We have seen in the past two weeks the racial tensions that have been stoked between Indian and Zulu people in KwaZulu-Natal as a result of the opportunistic violence that flared up but also as a result of long-standing tension between the two groups. In times of turmoil and change what we have seen is that people become suspicious of each other, protectionist and insular.
A national agenda of breaking down racial segregation from a legal perspective has been implemented, but the cultural and social cohesion project of change is lagging and thus has been short-changed and not given life.
The point here is that although South Africa has made some strides in changing our society to become more cohesive, past experiences will always make us somewhat distrustful of one another. I have learnt to be cautious of white men because at any point they pose a physical threat to my physical being. But, to move forward and see the change I want to see in South Africa, I need to understand that fear cannot cripple me and holding on to that does not move us forward.
The thing about change is that it is continuous and requires a long-haul approach and commitment. It is shaped over time and is ever-evolving. Though we are indeed not the same people we were in 1994, 2017 or even mid-July 2021, certain traits and characteristics continue to endure. Domination based on ethnic divisions by sowing seeds of mistrust, violence and perceived cultural superiority over another stand in the way of the transformative change we seek in South Africa.
So can we start by acknowledging that there is no one part of the country that belongs to a certain group of people and that the change we seek has to start by examining honestly the things that drive us, whether these be fear, inferiority or superiority conditioning, or enforced ethnic tensions, and to what end. The departure from one way of thinking and being into a new system of thought and living tends to come from a sense of surrender to doing things differently and not resistance.
It is in the nature of people to resist change, particularly when things get painful and uncomfortable, but unfortunately that is the only way that change can happen. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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