A disturbing incident at a neighbourhood bar brought up all sorts of issues, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - For two weeks now, I have grappled with whether to write this story. It is a story of cowardice on my part, and a story about a victim of bigotry being bigoted. It is also a story of fear.
A good friend of mine and her partner were in town and sent me a message to come and have a drink with them. They are two of my favourite people in the whole world, and two of the country’s smartest, and funniest, journalists.
And so I made my way, with a friend, over to the bar where they were having a jolly good time.
When we got to the busy neighbourhood where the bar is located, I noticed some of the places were quiet, and almost empty, even though it was still relatively early in the evening.
When I asked one of the restaurant owners why his place was empty, he told me his business had been shut down for the weekend by a bunch of metro cops who were apparently aggressive, and doing raids in the area. They found, he said, some petty reason to shut them down, and customers couldn’t even finish their food.
And so my friend and I rushed to the bar where my friends were waiting. I feared they too might have been at a spot that was raided. But when we got there, the music was playing loudly, customers were having a good time and the bar was serving alcohol.
The atmosphere was great, and we had a fabulous time catching up, laughing, debating and discussing news, politics, nonsense and whether Tina Turner was a better diva than Whitney Houston. (Obviously the correct answer is that Whitney is waaaaaaay better!)
I rushed off to the loo in the middle of this convivial gathering. And I bumped into the owner. I know him reasonably well, so I stopped to say hi, and asked if he was lucky enough not to be raided by the cops.
“No, they did raid me, Eusebius. They claimed I don’t have the right licence. They insisted I am offering entertainment just because the customers are laughing and looking like they’re having fun. I was fined R1 000!”
“That’s ridiculous!” I chimed in. And then, a conversation stopper from him, lowering his voice, coming a little closer towards me and saying, “Eusebius, I know you’re gonna hate me for saying this, but I thought to myself, ‘You f**king k*****s!’’’
I was dumbstruck. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t respond. I didn’t add anything. I also, cowardly, didn’t spit in his face, leave immediately or tell him off for his crude, naked racism.
He then continued: “And you know, Eusebius, I like black men, but, really, what the f**k?!”
“So-and-so, my friends are waiting! See you.” I left him at the bar and went back to the main table, where I told my friends what had happened. My friend’s partner wanted us to leave immediately. We prevaricated, stayed another 10 minutes, settled the bill and then left for the next venue.
There are several things about this incident that continue to haunt me.
First, I think, and I really don’t want brownie points for admitting moral guilt, I was a coward. I should have called him on his racism, right there and then. I didn’t. It is small comfort to victims of racism that I didn’t, in addition, laugh approvingly.
Given that I know him, I should have called him out. I froze. But I moan about racism in my writing and on radio all the time. I dropped the ball. I haven’t a clue why, and I’m still reflecting on my cowardice.
Second, that owner is a gay man. A white gay man. This I find interesting. I have previously written, both in my first book, A Bantu In My Bathroom, and in this column, about how deeply disappointing it is when victims of racism become bigots. I know many blacks who are homophobes.
I expect every right-thinking person not to be a homophobe. But I find it particularly disappointing when victims of racism, who should understand irrational prejudices, become bigots themselves, including black rapists who rape and kill black lesbian women in our townships.
In this story, we have an example of the same shocking phenomenon. A victim of bigotry – white gays are not protected from bigotry just because they are white – acting in a racist manner.
You will be deeply disappointed if you assumed that being gay guarantees that someone is less likely to be a bigot than if they are heterosexual. This white gay man is no different to your stereotype of the Afrikaans farmer in khaki shorts outside Ventersdorp. Don’t be fooled by the fact that he is gay.
Why have I not mentioned his name or his establishment? I am scared of him. He has enormous power, wealth and connections that made me think thrice about mentioning his name or his establishment.
Our past remains deeply present.