Rethinking racism in South Africa
Xhanti Payi for Daily Maverick
The other day I went to view homes with the intention to buy one. There are few things I can imagine people value as much as they do their homes. Well, maybe their cars, if you live in Johannesburg. More than the sentimental value, a home is supposedly one’s best investment.
What was a warm afternoon in Joburg, made better by a warm-eyed and sun-coloured-hair sales person, turned quickly to feeling like the winter Sunday it was.
As the sales lady handed us her business cards, plans of the building and pricing per square metre, one part of the black couple I happened to arrive with to the viewing asked, “So, please tell us about the demographic who is interested here.” In my mind I’d figured out the demographic – young people who work in Sandton and cannot afford bigger places, and want to save on transfer costs (this was a new development). I was also excited because I thought, “Well, I can live in a place where I don’t have to worry about older people who are sensitive to loud music and the cheer my friends bring every time I invite them for meat, potato salad and booze.”
As it turned out, what this lady was asking is how white or black this new block of flats we were considering as a prospective home and an important investment would be. In particular, she wanted to know if there was a lot more interest from whites or from blacks. Being the admittedly naïve person I am, I had not realised that the lady intended to be clear about the security and value of her potential investment, and had based that on the racial demographic of the block of flats. As we approached our German cars – theirs double the size of mine – she exclaimed, “You know, you don’t want a place that’s only blacks. It’s not good for the value of the house. You know how black people are.” Perhaps she knows, given that she is herself black, and validated by her nodding spouse.
With my naiveté now behind me, and only shock and unplanned disgust, I walked off. I admit I didn’t take the time to challenge or try and correct what I believe was an offensive and deeply misguided kind of thinking. I hope she’s reading this, though, so that I can get the redemption I always so long for every time I shut my mouth when I believe I should have said something.
My attitude towards her is, of course, only my inclination to be judgmental – to ride on the moral high horse. You see, she’s probably my age. I was in primary school when black people were first allowed to go and live in white suburbs and send their children to white schools. Most of my friends whose parents could afford to send them to these schools were snatched from our school and transferred to private and Model C schools. I still don’t know what Model C means, but I know it was better than the school I went to, or my school was inferior. This is because many of my friends who transferred were required to go back a grade or two upon acceptance in the new school.
Many people who could afford to buy homes in town, some of which were old and dilapidated and not much of an “investment” – a hint of sour grapes here – picked up their families and moved.
These people, who were the “better” in society – from nurses, to teachers, to doctors and business people – left for better education and the suburbs. Those people, made the conscious or unconscious declaration that white is better, and we learned it. My peer at the house viewing probably learned from this.
Once I’d stayed over at my friend’s house in town after they had moved, and his mom and dad weren’t there that evening. They’d gone to a parents meeting at his new school. I remember thinking, “Wow, they go to parent meetings”. That made an impression on me because I know his and my parents never went to parent meetings while we were classmates. They were always busy or too tired. He explained to me that his parents wanted to be involved in his education, and the school and its programs. That this was a requirement and his parents were very welcome by the white parents. But why were they not involved in ‘our’ school when he was there, I wondered.
The late Professor Derrick Bell of New York University, a scholar whose ideas on race and racism I respect, made the point that black people [in America] don’t want equal education (meaning same education as white), but good education. But do the best in our society, by which I mean the educated and the financially able, move for better education, or for white education? If it is true that a child’s education is better because in the main, the parent is involved – first in homework, and then in the running and resources of the school – our moving of children from black to white schools wasn’t and isn’t about good education, but white education, or the perception that white education is better.
Of course, I would not argue that white education is not better than black education. The Apartheid government withheld resources from black schools deliberately to impoverish blacks of decent education. But if it is, it will stay this way, because black people do nothing about black schools and thus education. Let me say of course that I use white schools and private/Model C schools interchangeably, which some will take issue with. Perhaps the right phrase is predominantly or previously white schools, which still doesn’t alter the sentiment.
Many of us, including myself, would claim that I stay in Sandton because it is closer to work than Soweto. I don’t include Alexandra, which is closer, because, well, I would have to say that I’m afraid of crime. Crime is a fear of white and middle class people.
When white people fear crime, they raise walls, start neighbourhood watches and gate their streets. Some pack for Perth, of course, but by no means in the quantum that blacks move to suburbs. Black people move to white suburbs and get involved in neighbourhood watching, and pay for security and street gates and take part in bodies corporate.
We face the same challenges with regards to entertainment. Often, and legitimately, we complain about being excluded at ‘white’ clubs or restaurants. We still go to these places, and not because there are no black establishments.
Why do we believe, honestly, that we need to live in places which are majority white? Is it because Apartheid fundamentally messed up our minds?
Today we have a black government, or at least one which is voted into power by a black majority. Yet we all know that many black children go without books and learning material.
Who will fix or improve black schools and neighbourhoods? Who will sit on governing bodies in black schools, making sure teachers are in class, on time, teaching with the relevant materials? Who will hold school leaders to account? Who will make sure that black townships are watched and monitored by co-operatives? Whose talent and work will ensure clean and secure streets in townships and predominantly black suburbs and apartment blocks?
No doubt, there are many credit-worthy achievements by black people in the cause to improve social standards and education. The problem is, those achievements are too often exceptional that we want to give these people awards.
Soon, black people will have to step up to the real confrontation we face in our society. It is not about being excluded from white schools or being bothered by racist or inflexible white neighbours, but about creating the kinds of neighbourhoods and schools we all move for when we abandon townships.
Xhanti Payi wears a suit during the day and has worked for almost ever South African bank. He moonlights as a columnist