Opinion - I HAVE witnessed the following scenario many times. Waiters and waitresses with wide, inviting smiles will be standing at the door of a restaurant waiting for patrons.

As soon they catch a glimpse of Indians approaching, they will pick straws to choose the unlucky one among them to be saddled with the supposed cheapskates.

There are still many restaurants where Indians are considered to be so tight-fisted that the tip they leave behind is more an insult than reward for good service.

But it is not true that Indians as a group are poor tippers. No, not anymore. It is nonetheless true that in the not-too-distant past, Indians were not regarded as good tippers.

Old perceptions die hard and hence Indian patrons are still given a wide berth by many restaurant employees. We must make greater effort to dispel stereotypes.

About 20 years ago, I surveyed a cross-section of Durban restaurants about the tipping habits of different groups of patrons.

These included fine-dining establishments, casual restaurants and franchised outlets.

The overwhelming response was that Indian customers were by and large scrooges when it came to tipping. Whites largely tipped well.

In the late 1990s, Africans in Durban did not comprise a sizeable number of restaurant patrons, and those few who dined out, hardly tipped.

I recall being unhappy that Indians were penny pinchers because I was personally aware of how much the tips they received meant to waitering staff.

Several of my relatives worked in hotels and restaurants and I know they placed a high premium on the sixpences and shillings that they scored from happy customers, over and above their meagre wages. Of course, there was always the odd waiter uncle who boozed more than his wages and tips on his way home each night, but that’s a story for another day.

The tips and the overtime pay that they earned helped many waiters give their children a better education - many of them became professionals such as teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants.

Waiters - many of them the poorest among the poor, who were paid a pittance for their sweat and toil - also worked extra diligently with an eye on good tips so that they could pay the rent for their municipal houses on time or the bond on freehold property.

Money was also needed to pay for extensions to the house to accommodate a growing family.

As cruel and callous as it may sound, the treatment meted out to these hapless workers in the hospitality industry reduced them to little more than beasts of burden of the bourgeoisie.

Their spirits had been crushed a long time ago when their identities metamorphosed into numerals on clocking cards in hotel basements.

But they were also God-fearing and the tips they were given helped many waiters to fulfil their social obligations.

As a case in point, about 112 years ago, a group of like-minded men, most of them wine stewards and waiters at Durban’s beachfront hotels, committed themselves to preserving and fostering their religion and culture.

They contributed from their pittance income and built the Sithivinayaga Temple in Brickfield Road, Overport, which still stands today as a living monument to honesty, hard work and dedication.

In the belief that much could have happened to people’s tipping habits in the two decades since I last checked, I recently again enquired from restaurant managers and waitering staff who were good tippers and who were the culprits.

I am happy to state that a new generation of Indian diners now has a better understanding of tipping, although there are still a few among them - especially older folk - who will object to paying at least a 10% tip for no reason.

They will mumble that money doesn’t grow on trees and since they are already paying enough for the food, it’s the duty of the employer to pay the staff fairly.

However, waiters who do not get a good tip must stop blaming race.

They must stop saying that because they had too many Indians or Africans sitting in their section, their tips suffered.

I have noticed waiters and waitresses who will deliberately deliver sub-par service due to their in-built perceptions that so-and-so group does not tip well. Naturally they will get bad tips.

And this hasn’t anything to do with race; it is because of the level of service delivered.

How many times have I not seen waitering staff hovering over a neighbouring table of white diners like bees around a honeypot, and bringing through their orders faster than I can click my fingers and clear my throat to remind them that I am still waiting for a glass of water 20 minutes later.

It is heartening that greater exposure to social changes now sees most Indians - and even urbanised Africans - tipping well. Younger people working in the corporate sector are earning well and better understand the plight of waiters.

However, what I would like to see is that we start redefining what good service means, as opposed to being obliged to tip all the time.

Tips - purportedly given as an incentive To Improve on Professional Service - is not customary in Australia where workers earn enough and do not depend on gratuities left by diners. So, too, the case in Japan and Singapore where respect and politeness are expected at all times, and the tip is refused.

In South Africa, the salaries paid to waitering staff are most often disgraceful and, hence, they depend on tips to make ends meet.

Even car guards make more money. It has been said that tipping is a “hoax” that was brought in after slavery was abolished as a way to get away with not paying workers.

In order to ensure that waitering staff get a better deal; to avoid preferential treatment being accorded to certain groups because of misconceptions about their tipping behaviour; and to level the amount younger and older generation will pay as gratuity for good service, I propose a total ban on tipping.

The price the customer sees on the menu must be all-inclusive of a mandatory service charge and must return a fair salary for every member of staff, including waiters, chefs, dishwashers and those who cleaned the kitchen floor. But then will anybody listen to me, an ever-complaining columnist? Meanwhile, how do I face my many restaurateur friends who will be unhappy with my suggestion?

* Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Share your thoughts with him on: [email protected]