Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Us and Them

Three days ago, MHA was blessed with the presence of the ANC’s Minister of Human Settlement, Tokyo Sexwale, at the official opening for their newest project, Fleurhof House.

It was a long day of waiting for the minister, unveiling the MHA plaque, showing Sexwale around Fleurhof, and listening to political speeches.  After the event finally started to wind down, one of my colleagues pulled me aside and said, “Now you see the real South Africa.”

“You didn’t like the speeches?” I laughed.

“I didn’t listen,” he answered as he watched the crowd.

“Yes, the political jargon and promises are frustrating,” I agreed.  “Plus the vocabulary surprised me.  He talked about building a cohesive country ‘together’ but his tone was very much us-versus-them.  He used apartheid and conflict language to whip up the crowd.  Seemed like a cheap maneuver.”

My colleague continued to watch the crowd of Fleurhof tenants and TOKYO’s entourage.  Then he said, “It’s worse now than during apartheid.  There’s even more segregation.  At least we employed some blacks.  But the government won’t hire you if you’re white.  Even Woolworths [grocery and clothing store chain] won’t hire white people – they wrote it right on their website!  ‘Blacks and coloureds only.’  This country!  But what can you do?  Move?  That’s why there are so many Africans in Australia.  There used to be more whites in South Africa, but now it’s almost all blacks.”

It would be easy to paint my colleague as a racist Afrikaans – the stereotypical South African villain.  But that’s not my purpose.  The truth is that I think he’s a good person: affable and generous.  Despite our different points of view, the two of us are good friends.  We have a great repertoire together.  Moreover, he’s buddies with all the MHA maintenance employees in the projects.  The tenants know him and like him.  He does his job well and he gets along with everyone.

Despite joking with black people every day, however, he still sees them as fundamentally different.  For example, once we were walking towards the elevator but the people inside didn’t wait for us so the door closed as we got to it.  “These people,” he said.  “Y’see?  They’re not like us.  No manners.”

He says that a lot: “They’re not like us.”

Last week warned me about the date rape drug.  “You always have to watch your drink.”

“Oh it’s the same in Canada,” I said.

“No you don’t understand.  These men, they’re animals.  They’ll gang rape you and videotape it.  And they’re not… they’re not clean.  They’re not like us.”

As you can probably imagine, I had no idea how to respond to a statement like that.  Tell him that gang rape is perpetrated by white people too?  Tell him about the Maple Ridge incident a couple years ago?  Instead I did the typical PC Canadian move and changed the subject: “So how was your weekend?”

It amazes me that all these different cultures live together in the same space and still misunderstand each other to point of hostility.

Then again, it also amazes me that men and women live together (in even closer proximity than whites and blacks in ZA) yet frequently misunderstand each other.  As I wrote before, I usually have a low-lying hostility towards men!  So who am I to judge anyone?

All I can say is that I am extremely grateful to have been raised open-hearted as well as open-minded.

Sexwale talked a lot about breaking down the physical barriers left over from apartheid.  Too bad his speech purposefully encouraged the psychological barriers that still exist and – in my opinion – are more detrimental than any stretch of empty land separating white communities from black communities.


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