By Hilton Hamann
I am, quite often, prejudiced and bigoted. I’m not proud of it but it’s true and much of my generation is the same.
That should surprise to no-one.
We grew up in the era of grand apartheid, when black people in South Africa were required to carry a “pass” that allowed them to work or live in certain areas in the country of their birth.
I clearly remember the big, Ford or Chev pick-up trucks with steel canopies and barred windows, slowly picking their way through white suburbs, on the hunt for blacks without the passes. At night, policemen jumped over garden fences and hammered “maid’s room” doors, checking passes and making sure they weren’t sleeping with white men.
At 10pm a siren sounded to signal the start of the nightly curfew for blacks.
At school we were taught about “us” and “them” and why “they” could never be trusted and why “we” and “them” should never mix, mingle or socialise. Our churches preached, “water and wine” do not mix and our government put in place legislation to ensure we wouldn’t.
Looking back, I can’t believe that we saw such things okay.
But we did. However, in our defence, I should point out, our prejudices were not confined to our fellow black citizens. We were prejudiced about everyone. English speakers hated Afrikaners and they in turn hated us and held grudges that dated back to the Boer War.
We looked down on the Portuguese, distrusted the Jews, had no good word for the “Coolies” and despised kids whose fathers worked in lowly jobs. The Catholics were leery of the Protestants. The Protestants found the feeling mutual but still found time foster differences within the churches under their umbrella.
And then, we white boys were drafted into the army where we were taught “they” were out there waiting for the chance to kill us, in the most brutal of ways!
In 1994 democracy arrived and “they” came to power and much of what we’d been told would come to pass but believed wouldn’t, did. Infrastructure collapsed as incompetent cadres were put in charge. Corruption by the political elite and those in power became a national sport as they squabbled to loot and pillage as much as possibly in the fastest possible time.
White men in particular were retrenched and new Affirmative Action laws, saw the possibility of ever being employed, vanish like smoke from a snuffed out candle. Thousands of qualified non-black youngsters, many fresh from university, packed their bags and left the country. Once again greed and political expediency drove away the very people needed to rebuild a country that was, and remains, greatly hamstrung by the screw-ups of the past.
Is anyone really surprised we are the way we are!
On the surface we are more polarised than ever before. We no longer see each other as humans but rather as differently-labeled groups. Blacks are criminals, whites are racists, Indians are shifty and coloureds are gangsters and drug dealers.
It’s easy and comforting to compartmentalise “them”. Like building a wall around a village to keep the people from the next settlement out. We feel united – in our tiny group – as we band together in our shared dislike and fear of “them”.
We dehumanise those who do not wear our particular label. Instead of Johan or Themba they become “boers” or “kaffirs” or, as was the case in Rwandan genocide, “cockroaches”. It’s much easier to kill a label than it is to kill someone whose name you know and who has the same dreams, fears and aspirations as do you.
In October of the year I was four years-old, my father brought home a live turkey, to be fattened up for Christmas dinner. My younger sister and I thought it was the coolest pet ever. Together with our mother, we named it Gobble. We fed Gobble, played with her and generally had a wonderful time with our new companion.
And then, a few days before Christmas we noticed the Old Man sharpening his axe and reality struck home. We begged and pleaded with my father not to kill Gobble and even our mother, who grew up on a farm where slaughtering poultry was a routine, everyday, occurrence, pleaded for Gobble’s life.
In the end, my father gave in and said he’d return Gobble to the farm where he bought her. She was stuffed into a box and loaded into the car and he drove away. Still, I’ve often wondered about that day because I remember eating turkey on Christmas Day that year …
Of course labelling is what politicians do. It’s in their interest. Label a group as “settlers”, “foreigners”, “racists”, “houtkoppe”, whatever, and it’s easy to convince supporters that such and such a group is the cause of all their woes and hardships.
It’s the nature of the beast in South Africa – race and prejudice is an ingrained part of our psyche that permeates every aspect of our lives.
In 2008 I found myself in the middle of a sort of perfect financial-storm. At the time I was contracted to write speeches and opinion-pieces for the CEO and other top executives of one of the country’s largest financial institutions. It was lucrative and my skills were in demand but the organisation was pursuing huge government accounts and, in order to win brownie points with the ruling party, the CEO, a white Afrikaner, was replaced with a person with very powerful party connections.
She quickly brought in her own people and many of us had our contracts terminated. I believed it would not be difficult to find new clients – I was, after all, skilled at what I did and well-known in the financial industry. It was not to be. Affirmative Action and BEE legislation had made me too white to be employed. And, at the same time, the world went into global melt down.
I quickly went from someone courted by credit card providers to someone harassed by them. And there were times we survived only as a result of the kindness of friends, family and sometimes strangers.
I suddenly knew what it was like to struggle and when I saw guys begging at traffic lights, I viewed them in a new light. Where previously my outlook and attitude was to mutter “get off your ass and get a job”, I realised I was only one small step away from being one of them. I had skills and connections way beyond anything they had, and I couldn’t find work!
Slap I needed
It was the cold, wet slap in the face I needed. Heck, I was now one of “them” – unemployed, with a family to feed, rent to pay, bills to meet and I didn’t have a damned clue how I was going to do it. For the first time ever, I could empathise with people I’d always looked down upon. I could now understand that they had the same fears, dreams and desires as me. They suddenly became… real people!
Fast forward a couple of years.
We were largely able to weather the financial storm by cutting every possible expense and luxury and living as frugally as humanly possible. My wife is the major bread-winner, while I earn small amounts writing a blog for an NGO and work on building JoziFolk into something that will one day pay.
On the financial totem-pole I’ve slid a long way down from where I once was. Things I once took for granted, are now just memories or future dreams. But the weird thing is, I am happier than I’ve been for years.
Every day my life is enriched immeasurably. Starting and publishing JoziFolk has been a gift. How else would I ever have had the opportunity to get out and be forced to engage with fellow South Africans?
Where, previously I had little hope for this country, I now am optimistic.
I set out on this endeavour with much trepidation. For good reason South Africans have built physical, emotional and attitudinal boundaries around themselves. Crime, and our constant focus on what is wrong, has made us fear and distrust each other – which politicians and other interests groups mercilessly exploit.
If truth be told I was worried about how I’d be received but I need not have feared. In not a single case amongst the many people I’ve so far stopped to interview and photograph, was I met with aggression or rudeness. Some politely declined but most were happy to chat. In fact, it seemed they welcomed the opportunity to talk to a stranger.
What I’ve learned is, everyone has a story to tell and it is important to them. And though the stories are different, they are the same. They’re about the hopes, tragedies, fears and dreams we all share.
No matter what label is assigned or chosen, scratch us all hard enough and below the surface we are all the same.
I could empathise with the 18 year-old youngster who grew up in rural Lesotho and made his way to Jo’burg in search of work and a perceived brighter future. But there was no work to be found and now he searches through people’s trash for stuff he can sell to recyclers. God knows, it took my son a few years to find a job!
The “scary biker” turned out to be a family man with a normal job during the week and the same concerns about educating his children and paying his bills as the rest of us.
There are endless examples.
But I would never have known had I not stopped to talk to them. They would simply have remained strangers who, because of my ill-founded perceptions, made me wary and nervous.
JoziFolk has taught me what I believe is the most important lesson of my life. As ordinary people we do have the power to save South Africa and the way to do it, is to start talking to each other.
We’ll discover “they” are human beings, with actual names and real living, breathing, children – who also have names. Human beings who have mortgages and bills and worry about corruption, the government and the future. “They’ll” become the Christmas turkey who got given a name – as will “we”!
Is this too simplistic? Will doing this simple thing mean we’ll all miraculously live happily ever after? That crime will magically disappear and South Africa will become a giant love-fest?
Of course not! There will always be evil and dishonest people. Criminals will always exist and some will always lie. But what’s the alternative? What we’re doing now is not working. We are more polarised than ever and the concept of a united, rainbow nation is little more than PR-speak.
In a survey of 25 000 people, published in August 2014 and carried out by The Observatory – a partnership between the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand, the Gauteng government and the South African Local Government Association it was found:
• 73% of blacks said they would never trust whites and
• 35% of respondents said all foreigners should immediately be sent home
(See the results at http://www.gcro.ac.za/gcr/review/2013/gcro/life-and-people/race-relations)
Something has to change!
Something has to change and God knows, politicians and government aren’t going to do anything that will make us “South Africans” first!
If we want to save this country, the most important thing we can do is to talk to and get to know each other. It will enrich our lives, reduce our stress and fear, and free us from the bullshit some would have us buy. It will teach us to think for ourselves and ask questions.
It’ll be like naming the turkey.
22 August 2014. Visit Jozifolk at www.jozifolk.com