Yesterday was my friend’s birthday, he of the lovely pink house:
When I found out about it last week I offered to do something nice with him to celebrate. Initially my plan was to take him out for dinner, as I would at home with any other friend. But then I remembered how I invited him to my house last weekend for a beer, as he had invited me to his, and he became really uncomfortable and asked to leave. I promise I wasn’t being a creep. It just wasn’t his element. So dinner might not be the best idea. Then I thought maybe a movie? Then he wouldn’t have the pressure of making one-on-one conversation with me for 2 hours and we could just enjoy a flick. But I still wasn’t sure…
He called me yesterday morning to see what the plan was for the day, and let me know that it would be better if we all just got some meat (always with the meat!) and chilled at his buddy’s place. It took me a while to come around to it, but he of course wanted me to come over and pay for the meat.
At first I was a little hurt that he was rejecting my offer to do something nice for him and was once again treating me like an ATM. I’m a bit slow sometimes, but I did eventually realize that he just wanted everyone to be together and that it wouldn’t be a very nice birthday for him if he got something that he was not able to share with his friends.
If I had known that I would have brought more cash with me.
But he danced around it and never explained his reasoning to me. I guess I should know by now.
We had a really lovely time hanging out all together and chatting. When it was time to leave, my friend gave me a hug and said “Thank you so much, you really made my day. You made me feel like I exist, like I am a real person.”
That made me want to throw up.
The scary thing is that that wasn’t the first time I have heard something like that, although never directed towards me before. That the simple act of wanting to do something nice for a friend on his birthday would elicit that sort of response makes me feel so sick and angry and sad.
This week I am working on the presentation that I will give at a conference in Durban next week. In an attempt to illustrate the complexity of the context related to tourism in the townships, I have pieced together some of the footage that my Dutch friend and I shot here in town. We wanted to show the difference between town – where the white people are – and the township.
On top of the video I plan to play an audio clip from one of my interviews. Despite having his permission to do so, I am reluctant to share the audio of his voice on here, so hopefully the transcript will do. I begin by asking him whether or not people living in the poorer parts of the township would want tourists to come and see where they live:
Kwame: Definitely. I think that the idea that a person that I see as a superior person or a person that is better than me, the idea that a person like that can come and walk in the same street as I live makes me, even if there’s no money it does something for my self-esteem.
Meg: Who is, who is the person that is better?
Kwame: Hm, a white person.
Meg: Really? Why is that?
Kwame: Well white people are better than black people.
Meg: Well [awkward laugh]…they’re not. Like, is that the consensus?
Kwame: I know that. I know that.
Meg: Okay, that kind of makes me want to cry a little bit.
Kwame: I know that. But the rest of the people don’t look like, don’t think like that. A person looks at you, you are white, they know that you have something that they don’t have, you are much better than them. You know. Financially, you know, your life is more together than mine, you have had a better life, you grew up in a house, I’ve never seen a house, I’ve always grown up in a shack that always leaks every single day.
Kwame: I, I’m, we have a single parent whereas white people have two parents, you know, I’ve never seen the inside of a car, whereas for a white person a car is something that is like nothing, you know. I’ve never had enough money to buy enough school uniforms to go to school.
Kwame: I’ve walked to school bare feet most of the time with torn trousers whereas a white person has never seen something like that. So for that person to be able to come and walk in the street that I’m walking in and be able to hold my hand and be able to come into my place before even, you know, she even gives me money, that is, means so much for me.
Kwame: You know, it means a lot.
Meg: Why? What does it mean? I’m trying to understand this, ‘cause you know I’m an outsider and I’m a white person so I…what does that mean?
Kwame: It means, it means…I’m a person too.
Meg: Wow. That’s really heavy.
Kwame: It means…people, people don’t look at me the way I look at myself, it means…some people realize that I exist in this world.
Meg: Okay. Just by coming to see where you live?
Kwame: People coming to see where I live, they, they, and they can talk to me.
Kwame: Because I grew up not knowing how to talk to a white person. You know, that there, these people are actually even making an effort to recognize that I even am alive, you know…is, is a huge thing, you know. That, that now these kids that we have now know what a white person is because they can run to them.
Kwame: Whereas I grew up not even being able to talk to a white person.
Kwame: So it’s a, it’s that self-affirmation and confirmation of existence that comes with it as well.
Kwame: I talk a lot, don’t I?
This is one person’s perspective, so please don’t take this as representative of what everyone or even most people think. It is horrible enough that one person knows this to be ‘true.’
When you talk about postcolonial studies, invariably it comes up that colonialism is finished and we need to move on and not dwell on the past. This is the long-term impact of racist colonial laws and policies. This is what is left over 20 years later. This is not the only ‘truth’ about this country, but nonetheless this remains.
Sad and mad.