Opinion

No 'darkie' sarcasm in the class struggle

Fred Khumalo

Race still defines our social classes, and remains the elephant in the room, writes Fred Khumalo.

It is no accident that the majority of South Africans are black and poor; it will still take many years for this to change. (David Harrison, M&G)

A friend of mine was having a late lunch at one of the family-food franchises when he witnessed something that made him do a double-take: two tables away from him a family of six were eating sandwiches they had brought with them, in a plastic container strategically placed on the seat, away from the waitress’s line of vision.

To cover for their culinary hoard, the family had bought a round of cold-drinks and a huge plate of chips.

When they thought no one was watching, the mother would plunge a hand into the container and fish out a sandwich, surreptitiously passing it to one of her charges, who would wolf it down quickly, and pick out a chip for good measure.

These were not hoboes, by the way; they were clean and well groomed. There was even a bunch of car keys on the table. When the waitress came back and asked them: “Anything else for you folk?” the matriarch responded: “Not yet, thank you.”

Much later, when the waitress came back again one of the children – who must have been about seven – blurted out: “But mommy said she was taking us to a restaurant and all she’s doing is feeding us sangwidges from home! Mommy, ask the lady here to give us some syrup at least. The sangwidges are dry!”

When I repeated the story to a group of new friends, they laughed themselves silly. That is until I came to the post-punchline punchline: “You know, I thought smuggling food or drinks into a restaurant was a darkie thing. Only darkies can get away with that kind of thing, not you people.”

Silence around the table. You see, four of the six people around that table were white, and only one of them was a bosom buddy who is familiar with my stories; the others were strangers who were being introduced to this “writer, you’ll find him interesting”, as my friend had told her friends over the phone. And the family I’d been telling the story about was white.

Realising my faux pas, I excused myself and went to the toilet. My friend got up to join me. I said: “My bad, seems like I’ve got your friends upset. I thought they were the kind of people who’re just like you, you know, open-minded and all. But, what can I say, the story is true. The family was white.”

“That is not what upset them…”

“Then what?”

“That ugly word, which I’ve asked you not to use in the company of strangers.”

The penny dropped: darkie! Some of my best friends – make that “white friends” – feel mightily uncomfortable when I use that word.

But I sensed that this present crowd’s discomfort stemmed not just from that word, but from the very mention of race.

In the circles I move in it has suddenly become tricky to talk about race. Race becomes this elephant in the room. We know it is there; we can sense its presence; yet we avert our eyes and pretend it’s just the colour of the curtains that makes the room dark and stuffy. It’s the elephant, people! The race elephant.

One silly friend of mine, who happens to be black, said the conversation now should be about class, not race. I’ll have you know this, brother: race, in this country, is still by and large a class determinant.

It is no accident that the majority of the people who are poor are black. A racial oligarchy designed it that way. To change the class situation you will need to educate and empower the majority – a project that will take maybe another century, or even more, to realise fully.

Just because you and I live in the suburbs and hang out with white people who earn at the same level as us does not mean that our reality defines that of the rest of the South African populace. The gap between rich and poor is still driven, largely, by race. There are white people who didn’t have to raise a finger to find themselves smack in the lap of luxury. They were born into it. Race determined their class situation.

The blacks who are drinking whiskies whose names they can’t even pronounce, but are telling us to forget about race, are conveniently overlooking this: they are part of the middle class, thanks to affirmative action. In other words: because of race.

When I shared this with the friend I had embarrassed by using the word “darkie” in polite white company, she objected to my equating poverty with blackness: “What about all these black millionaires that we read about in the papers?”

Exactly my point: you read about them in the papers because they are a novelty, not the norm. How many thousands of multimillionaires are in this country that you don’t even know about because they are white? Are you therefore not equating wealth with whiteness; that it is normal to be white and rich, and nothing to write home about?

The handful of new black billionaires hasn’t changed the reality of the millions of black people in this country. According to the latest info from Statistics South Africa, between 2008 and 2009 about 26.3% of the population lived below the food poverty line of R305 a person a month.

The black population was the most severely affected by poverty, with 61.9% living under the poverty line.

The increase in the number of visibly wealthy blacks does not change the fact that race still determines one’s station in life in this country. One Khulubuse does not a contented black South Africa make.

It’s dangerous to pretend that things are normal, that people of all colours can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Most of these people do not even have the boots to start with. That’s why it becomes kind of acceptable for darkies to smuggle food and drinks into restaurants: they want to create an air of normality in a situation that is painfully abnormal.

Fred Khumalo is a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

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