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The basis of decency is a word of thanks

Opinion
In country towns or rural provinces anywhere, you find working men's bars where the humble cleaner is ignored, writes Denis Beckett.

In my lightweight years an Afrikaner was a man from Mars.

A triangle fanned out northward from town encompassing Little England in the Veld, where the only Afrikaans to cross a kid's life was the sign in the bus, Moenie Spoeg Nie, do not spit.

To meet an Afrikaner meant the sergeant coming to arrest the maid's husband for Pass Offence, and even then you didn't hear any Afrikaans. He spoke painstaking laboured English with mangled tenses and mutilated person, like “did you got” and “you is”.

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Denis Beckett writes a bi-weekly column for The Star called Stoep Talk.

No-one who wasn't born English spoke an okay or an alright English, in those days.

A rare Afrikaner and a rarer dark person spoke outstanding English, so ultra-correct that we snot-nose little snobs mimicked their excellence as cruelly as we mimicked the flaws that normally came up in an Afrikaans or African accent, or coloured or Indian.

We were undiscriminatory in our righteousness, at least.

We were untroubled in it, too.

If you'd said “excuse, brats, would you kindly offer any of these good non-English people a few words of their own language” we'd be scandalised. How could you ask that? Didn’t you know God spoke English?

Well, Good Reader, we have sure moved on. You may say there is a heck of a lot of space for further movement, and who'd argue? But never underrate how far we have come, we many tributaries maturing and strengthening as we merge into a greater whole.

So it is with love in my heart that I confess, writing this at a scruffy table on the scruffy stoep of a scruffy bar in Boeredorp, to a certain sourness.

“Boeredorp” is not the word on this town's welcome sign. I'm not telling you that word, or the anti-racist racists will gallop in on their high horses. I'm merely acknowledging that this Boeredorp is solidly biltong, beer-boep, and khaki socks. It is so Boer that I feel a stranger, and if my proudly 100 percent Afrikaans lawyer neighbour was here, he'd feel a stranger too.

And here's the thing: my table aside, 30 people are giving or receiving refreshments, and 29 of them are insiders, all Afrikaans, all knowing each other, mostly coloured people on the giving side and white ones on the receiving.

That leaves out one person, the Xhosa woman who clears the tables. This woman is so out that it's painful, a wraith shuttling unnoticed through the throng, retrieving bottles and beer mugs and gravy-splattered plates with never a word of thank you or a glance of acknowledgement. Invisible person.

I doubt that this thing has the dreaded “racist” motivation, at least not consciously. In Dordogne, Oklahoma, Katanga, country towns or rural provinces anywhere, you surely find working men's bars where the humble cleaner is ignored.

But it's obnoxious. It would be obnoxious anywhere and is more obnoxious because of the race factor. What is she to make of our maturing and strengthening as we merge into a greater whole?

There are many places to respect white/Afrikaner people feeling jumpy about their welcome in the new society. But, damn, we/they had better do some rising.

If one person is the outsider in an in-crowd the starting point of civilisedness is to make her welcome. If someone provides you a service, the basis of decency is a word of thanks.

For years it's been easy to see people deal ever more respectfully, more decently, with one another. What a cheerful process that is. What a jolt to crash into a wall of rudeness, needing a wake-up.

The Star

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