I’m not white

That’s what I used to say to everyone whenever I was trying to make them understand that I’m not South African, nor a rich tourist. It was funny seeing their puzzled faces wondering what was I on about. But I had a reason to say it, which I tried to explain them. See, I am an immigrant in Ireland but I have almost never felt excluded. Definitely not because the colour of my skin. I even lived in India for several months and I could only feel the opposite, that locals considered me “superior” just because I am white. That was something I didn’t really like, but it wasn’t too bad after all.
On the other hand, I became aware of the differences between people in South Africa due to the colour of their skin early on, and I wasn’t conformable about it at all. I had red about Apartheid and race segregation, but I thought it would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is a part of people’s life on a regular basis. White people seem to have the money and resources to make even more money. They hold power and influential positions in companies and governmental institutions, they live in fancy houses and have their own schools where there’s no blacks, or maybe just one or two. The nearby town to where the township was, Stellenbosch, has a university with a big campus and I could only see white young people around.
In the township, on the other hand, the situation was even more noticeable, as there were only black people living there, apart from me and a few other volunteers. Wherever I went in Kayamandi I was the odd one, the strange one, the foreigner. Or, as children and teenagers used to call me when they realised it was me passing by their shacks, “umlungu,” meaning white man in the local language, Xhosa. But being white in South Africa has even more connotations than in other countries where the majority of the population are not predominantly white. For a start, they think you are local and speak to you in Afrikaans, which I couldn’t understand. Even if you only speak English, they still assume that you have lots of money and ask you for a few Rand or to get them a job. There’s also, apparently, high risk of being attacked and robbed if a white person wanders around on their own anywhere in the country, not only the township.
Although, as I said in one of my other posts, I never felt in danger anywhere, neither in the township nor in the city or while travelling on my own. I could feel there was a constant tension between people of different races, which I never felt comfortable with. But I was never more aware of this issue as when I rented a car to travel and visit some of the wonderful natural areas in the Cape province during my time off in the weekends. I spent most of the time driving, because there were many far away places I wanted to see and visit, and I could see black people standing by the roads hitch-hiking.
Soon enough I realised that many of them were holding a bank note in their hands, but I couldn’t believe that they would pay to get a lift. I never heard of that before! Moreover, those picking them up were all white people with, I’m quite sure, enough money to afford a car and to give a lift to someone on their way home or work for free. It wasn’t until I decided to stop and invite some local people to get in the car that I began to understand more about the everyday life of many black South Africans.
The first person that was in the car was an old woman on her way to church. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak much English, so all I could learn from her was her name and little more. But, as I drove more kilometres and went to more remote areas, I kept seeing more and more people by the roads, so I decided to give a lift to as many as I could. That way, I thought, I could help them and get to know them and their life stories.
The next person was a group of three women and a man who had been waiting by the hard shoulder for nearly three hours! I just couldn’t believe it when they told me that they work cleaning this very luxurious estate, near one of the longest beaches in the region, where only whites stay, and there was no transport for them to get back home. Like many other things in that country, it’s not officially forbidden for blacks to stay there, but not a single one of them could afford it anyway. These people were so delighted when I stoped that I felt comfortable enough to ask them some questions about their lives and situation.
The first thing I said was that I would take them to their homes, wherever they may be, and they all got a bit nervous because they didn’t want me to go into their townships. They all thought I would be in danger or even could get lost, but I reassured them and said that I would be all right, which I was. The only one of them who spoke a bit of English told me about their job and life conditions. She was saying it with no resentment or hatred at all, they were just facts. I was very angry and outraged. That was when I tried to explain, for the first time, that I wasn’t white. Or rather, that I’m not that kind of white person. They all started laughing when she translated my words, it was a great moment, although I’m afraid I didn’t manage to send the message across.
Another day, I picked this young lad up and took him to the farm where he lived and worked with his brother. It took us almost half an hour to get there in the car, and we had to leave the motorway and drive on a dirt track for most of the journey. He explained to me that his boss, a white man of course, didn’t care about how they got to the village, where he was coming from when I saw him walking and carrying two big sacks full of who knows what. All his boss cared about was that they got their job done, plain and simple.
All along the south-west coast of the country there’s a very popular region called the “garden route” that stretches for more than 200 miles and is so called because of its abundant plant life and wonderful scenery. As I drove eastwards, I could see the coast to my right and the valleys, fields and mountain range to my left. The views were absolutely breathtaking at times. At one point, I decided to draw away from the more popular and touristic roads and took this secondary road that went along an amazing forest. That’s where I picked this two people up, who had worked all their lives in the fields planting and growing anything and everything. They were very funny and even comical saying the things they were saying in their broken English. Yet, they also told me about the inequalities and injustices they suffer on a regular basis even today. And, when I told them that I wasn’t white they couldn’t stop laughing!
I gave lifts to a few other people, but I just want to tell you about this one to conclude. I had spent almost two full days, nearly 40 hours, driving and stoping whenever I was tired to take a nap in the car or to go to a shop and buy something to eat. I was heading back home to the township when it was getting dark. I took a right in this crossroad when I saw, by pure chance, a reflection coming from the hard shoulder, so I decided to stop. This young man put his two huge bags in the back seat, as I told him to seat at the front with me. It was funny how every single one of them were taken by surprise when I asked them to seat at the front with me. So, he told me where he was going which happened to be nearly 70 miles away! It took us more than an hour to get there. I don’t want to even imagine how he would have managed to bring all his stuff home and be back to work the next day, but he said, very humbly, that it was they way things were in that country. He also told me about his work at the shipyard where he worked twelve hour shifts every day with one day off every fortnight and how he ended there. He couldn’t just make a living doing what he had been trained to do, tiling, because white people would usually hire them and, once the job was finished, not pay him for his work. He had a wife a child to take care of!
These are just a few examples of the people I met at the roads and to whom I had the privilege to know and talk with. Even if it was just for a few minutes and with no much knowledge of each other languages, I could get a sense of what it really is to live in South Africa in the year 2017 being a black person. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t understand that anyone who owned a car and had money, white people basically, could charge a single penny to this brave and hard working people. I kept telling them, when they tried to pay me, that I didn’t want their money, I wasn’t doing it for that. I just wanted them to make good use of those few Rands and buy something they really needed.
There’s nothing I can do about the colour of my skin, not that I want to. But it was quite shocking to see how different people are treated in South Africa depending on their race. When I told some of these stories to some people I met at the township, all I could say to make them understand is that, in Spain or Ireland, there’s no race discrimination but, as I see it, there are still many inequalities and issues to solve. The only difference is that the colour of your skin doesn’t seem to be the main reason to be discriminated against. With one distinction though, they don’t know whether I’m a foreigner or not by my looks, until I open my mouth and I start speaking English. Yet, as I told people I met there, I would consider myself more of a coloured person, if that existed in Europe, due to my upbringing and the economic status of my parents when I grew up. Even now, living in Ireland for so many years, I feel integrated in society, but I will always be a foreigner to some. That’s not a big deal and doesn’t bother me at all, and that’s why I keep thinking that I am a very lucky person. But I’m not white, at least not that kind of white.

Posted in reflective post.

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