I sometimes think that maybe I am becoming more tolerant in my old age. You know, take things with a pinch and accept that not every fight has to be a fight. But once upon a time, as a young teenager growing up in the London area, if a white person said something derogatory, or if I felt there was any hint of racism in their responses, or even felt the way they looked at me suggested racism, then I was on their case. If I couldn’t handle it myself, then there were the big brothers, who held a respectable record of encounters with the law, who could always be relied to do something if there was a problem. But thank God, it’s not like that anymore.
Although each time I go to South Africa, I know I can be guaranteed of running into someone who will make it clear that I deserve to be spoken to in a dismissive and curt manner simply because of my colour. Something like that happened two days after we were robbed. Eddy and I had already been to the Embassy to complete the forms to cancel our passport, and were told that our travel certificates would be ready in a few days time. The next thing we had to do was go to South African Airlines to report our stolen tickets and confirm our flights back home. In the area where we were staying, we could not find a local travel agent to help us, especially with the complications of being robbed and for new tickets to be issued, so we decided to go Tambo International.
We arrived at the airport, parked our car and made our way to the counter. It was early in the afternoon when we got there, and I was struck at how desolate the place was considering it was an airport. We found the counter and there were five people waiting in the queue but it didn’t take long before we were attended to. We explained our situation to the assistant and showed him the police report. He read it quickly and sympathized at the same time. He tapped something out on his keyboard, took down the information as it appeared on the computer, and then made a call. Within the next minute or so, we were handed our ticket replacements in their gleaming new covers.
Making our way back to the car park, this new, bizarre experience of being robbed forced us to look over our shoulders ever so often. As we got closer to our car, it suddenly occurred to us that we had to pay for our parking ticket before we could leave. So we went back to the hall to look for a pay machine and we located one outside the entrance door. My husband removed lots of coins from his pocket and started sifting through, looking for Rand coins. I helped him, taking some of the coins and picking out as many Rands as I could find. Unbeknown to us, a man, elderly, white, and wearing glasses came up from behind.
‘What’s the problem?’ He said with some measure of impatience.
‘No problem’, I replied. ‘We’re looking for some coins to make up ten Rand.
‘Don’t you have ten Rand?’
I glared at him making sure my eyelids were fully stretched back. ‘It’s not that we don’t have ten Rand, we are just trying to get the right amount.’ I continued to glare at him. He backed away and quietly allowed us to gather the right amount to put into the machine. ‘There! Done!’ I said to him as we walked away with my husband smiling. And we left without saying another word about it. Thinking about it, yes, racism was a regular feature in my life but with education and exposure, I realised that there were different ways to deal with things and that violence was and never is an option. Especially when I realised that I had friends of different nationalities to help, whenever I found myself in difficulty. But I also realise that it is not the same for everyone.
When I am in South Africa and the topic of racism comes up, especially if I am in the company of white people, it seems as if it is an enigma to them as to why crime has gotten to the level it has? Or wonder if there is a particular point in time when the anger will go away? The uncivil comment about the ‘Ten Rand’ may have been said because the man was racist. Whatever it was, I can dismiss it. But imagine if I were to be living in Jo’burg and having to experience these subtle put downs, or insults all the time, why wouldn’t I be angry? And how am I to express my anger if I cannot articulate what I need to say?
It even makes for uncomfortable thinking that I thought I was experiencing racism in England, when it was nothing compared to what I’ve seen and heard of Black people’s experiences in South Africa. Yes, we were robbed by black people and there is no way I can make any excuses. Besides the humiliation of being robbed, I also feel embarrassed for the robbers and South Africa and although, luckily, no one was hurt I realised if these guys wanted to kill, they could have done it without any hesitation. If there is one thing I will always remember about this incident, was the cold anger in their lifeless eyes and wondering (and still wondering) what sort of lives do they lead.
The experience forces me to assess myself and to assess them: what I am able to do and have been able to accomplish and they, who may be destined to live a life of crime and poverty without ever being able to find out their true purpose. What I see, so far, they are dictated by anger and rage but I believe that somewhere deep, down, inside of them they perhaps still hope to receive the acceptance and respect they so much want from their former oppressors.