That’s what I used to say to people whenever I was trying to make them understand that I was neither South African, nor a rich tourist. It was funny seeing their puzzled faces wondering what I was on about. But I had a reason to say it, which I tried to explain to them. You see, I am an immigrant in Ireland but I have almost never felt excluded. Definitely not because of the colour of my skin. I even lived in India for several months and I only felt the opposite, that locals considered me “superior” just because I was white. That was something I didn’t really like, but it wasn’t too bad after all.
However, I became aware of the racial inequalities that existed in South Africa early on, and I wasn’t comfortable with it at all. I had read about Apartheid and race segregation, but I thought it would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is a part of people’s lives. 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 are no blacks, or maybe just one or two. Stellenbosch, the town near the township where I was staying, has a university with a big campus and I could only see white young people around.
In the township there were only black people, 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 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, a high risk of being attacked and robbed for a white person who wanders around on their own anywhere in the country, not only the township.
As I said in one of my other posts, I never felt in danger anywhere in the township, or in the city, or while travelling on my own. However, I could feel there was a constant tension between people of different races, something which I never felt comfortable with. 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 at the weekends. I spent most of the time driving, because there were many far away places I wanted to see and visit.
As I rode I noticed that many of them were holding bank notes in their hands, but I couldn’t believe that they would pay to get a lift. I had never heard of anything like 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 I gave a lift to was an old woman on her way to church. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak any English, so I learned little more about her than her name. But, as I drove more and went to more remote areas, I kept seeing more and more people hitch-hiking, 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 people were 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 worked cleaning a very luxurious estate, near one of the longest beaches in the region, where only whites stayed. 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 stopped that I felt comfortable enough to ask them some questions about their lives.
The first thing I said was that I would take them to their homes, wherever they were, 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 could even 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 living 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 wasn’t 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 get 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. He was walking along the road carrying two big sacks of who-knew-what. It took us almost half an hour to get to the farm 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 him or how he got to and from work. All his boss cared about was that he got the 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 a secondary road that went along an amazing forest. That’s where I picked two people up, who had worked all their lives in the fields planting and growing anything and everything. They were very funny and witty saying the things they were saying in their broken English. Yet, they also told me about the inequalities and injustices they suffered on a regular basis even 25 years after the abolishment of Apartheid. 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 stopping 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 at a crossroads when I saw, by pure chance, something reflective at the side of the road, so I decided to stop. It was a young man wearing clothing with a reflective stripe. He put his two huge bags in the back seat, because I told him to sit in the front with me. It was funny how every single hitch-hiker was taken by surprise when I asked them to sit in 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 if I hadn’t given him a spin. 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 up working there. He just couldn’t make a living doing what he had been trained to do, tiling, because white people would usually hire him and, once the job was finished, not pay him for his work. He had a wife and child to take care of!
These are just a few examples of the people I met while travelling around the country and who I had the privilege to talk with. Even just after a few minutes conversation, with not much knowledge of each other’s language, I could get a sense of what it’s really like for a black person to live in South Africa in the year 2017. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t believe that anyone who owned a car and had money, white people basically, could charge to these brave and hard working people a single penny. 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 differently 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 was that, in Spain or Ireland, while there are still many inequalities and issues to solve, there isn’t the same level of racial discrimination. The colour of your skin doesn’t seem to be the main determinant of your status and treatment. In Ireland, though, people can’t tell I’m a foreigner from my looks, until I open my mouth and I start speaking English with my Spanish accent. Yet, as I told people I met in South Africa, 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 as I was growing up. Even now, living in Ireland for so many years, I feel integrated into 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.