Myth-making on the relationship between blacks and whites is so 1995 Rugby World Cup, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Last week, Tebogo, a resident from Atteridgeville, called into my radio show. He wanted to know from me and other listeners where all the white people have gone?
I was a little amused, and thought Tebogo was trying out his secret talent as a comedian.
But he was being serious.
He claimed that white people move out of suburbs as soon as black people move in. I thought this was surely not true and pressure-tested the singular bit of uncertain anecdotal evidence he was relying on.
His uncle, he said, had moved into a suburb and his neighbours had then moved out. When I asked whether his uncle had spoken to those neighbours, probing their reasons for moving house, he confirmed what I suspected – “No, he hadn’t.”
But then my phone lines in the studio went crazy. Caller after caller pushed back against my demands for rigorous empirical evidence by knitting together their own experiences in support of Tebogo.
One cheeky caller used my own old school, Graeme College, as a stinging counter-example to my resistance. In the early 1990s, some 90 percent of the boys were white.
Now, some 90 percent are black.
I had to concede this pattern in former Model C schools, which really does seem to raise the question: “Where have all the whites gone?” My listeners are onto something: apartheid geography is alive and well.
I can tell you where whites have not fled from though: arts and literary festivals.
On Saturday, I participated in a remarkably honest Think Fest debate at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. It was beautifully chaired by Rhodes academic Anthea Garman, and was about whether our dialogue in the country is in good shape or – especially online – whether it simply is an archive of personal attacks.
Politician Andile Mngxitima was emotionally honest and generous in letting the audience deep into his headspace on thorny race, land and other issues.
Artist Arayan Kaganof brilliantly made his convictions about whiteness understood by rehearsing mostly silence, and intervening sparingly.
Wits academic Christopher Thurman refuses – rightly so – to take a back seat as a white South African, as philosopher Samantha Vice advocates. He certainly didn’t rehearse silence but took the debate to the audience, and to Mngxitama. I was just comic relief now and then.
But here’s the point. If you looked at the audience, it was 90 percent white. Black people from Grahamstown are not in the room but are objects of anthropology.
The Franschhoek Literary Festival suffers the same fate. Audiences do not look like the country we live in. This is literary and artistic apartheid.
Little wonder Mngxitama found himself saying on Saturday: “I’m sick of coming to these events where the audience – you – look the same as you did 14 or 15 years ago. Then I tell you what I think. I make you uncomfortable. You look at me funny as I leave. Maybe I must start thinking very carefully whether I should accept invites to these events, and which ones I should accept.”
I don’t blame him. I often feel the same. As a commentator and writer, I am deeply grateful for every book buyer or festival attendee. I don’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor, urban or rural. I should be so lucky you care enough about my take on the world we inhabit that you seek out opportunities to engage me.
And, frankly, I feel sorry for festival organisers. Some brilliant sessions at Franschhoek are not reported on because pictures of the audiences immediately dominate social media responses to the event.
But it isn’t the fault of festival organisers. Or to put it differently: there is a deep South African problem here.
We live around each other. We don’t live with each other. We don’t live in each other’s spaces. We remain a divided nation.
Tebogo, my caller, was only partially right. It’s not just some white people who disappear. As blacks we do “stick to our own”. Another caller, Rina, made it clear that she regards all whites as pretenders and do not mix “with them”. She said she has only black friends and even accused white colleagues of disabling the air conditioning so that she, Rina, may have a horrible time in a room with no air conditioning. She wasn’t laughing. She sounded like someone testifying in front of Archbishop Tutu; it was her personal truth.
Don’t be surprised if Rina starts a Twitter campaign #whitepeopleneverlovedus.
But what effort do we make, too, to engage “the other”? If Tebogo’s uncle never spoke to his neighbour, then he isn’t entitled to assumptions about why they moved out. And he certainly isn’t entitled to extrapolate from an untested assumption to the entire group loosely designated “white South Africans”.
One thing is for sure though: denying these fissures is disingenuous. We must open these cans of worms. And I know if I don’t, then my vigilant listeners will. Myth-making is so 1995, so Rugby World Cup. Let’s talk frankly.