Road rage or racism?

When race war finally breaks out in South Africa it will be about … wait for it … parking. It is parking that lies at the heart of one of Cape Town’s first equality court cases, in which a coloured family (they describe themselves as “so-called coloureds”) are suing their white neighbours for R170 000 in damages.

This week the Wynberg Equality Court heard that the suburban culture clash began almost two years ago, when the Rhoda family moved from the historically coloured Mitchells Plain to Southfields, a mixed area.

Across the road from them lived the Gerbers, a white family resident in the suburb for 22 years.
And the casus belli, the dissolver of the rainbow haze, was a patch in front of the Rhodas’ gate, nine metres from the Gerbers’ double-door garage, where the newcomers and their visitors began parking their cars.

This, the Gerbers complained, made it difficult to reverse out of their garage. Too bad, retorted the Rhodas, the traffic department says we can park in front of the gate.

Instead of sorting out the dispute in a neighbourly powwow, however, eldest son Emile Gerber poured fuel on the flames last February by writing to the local paper and, in bitter detail, describing the parking drama.

The letter, which says it would be “a euphemism” to describe the Rhodas as “witless, ignorant, rude and downright stupid”, has become exhibit A in the court case. Alleging it contains hate speech, the Rhodas are seeking damages for loss of dignity and harassment.

“Their whole family, three families have moved from Mitchells Plain,” Gerber protested in the offending correspondence. “Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad to see people going up in the world and bettering themselves, but these plots/houses weren’t designed for multiple families and … cars being parked all over the road blocking other people’s garages.”

He closes with a thinly veiled threat: “A group of longer-residing occupants of this neighbourhood had vowed that should these things continue to happen, matters will be dealt with, with or without the assistance of the law.”

In his court affidavit, Gerber says he wrote the letter after being threatened by the Rhodas’ daughter, Carmen Demonza, during a parking run-in.

The racial ironies and contradictions in the case were exposed this week when the two families gathered at their homes for an in loco inspection by the presiding magistrate, MM Dimbaza, and white and coloured assessors.

Standing alongside the Gerbers was their coloured struggle advocate, Roseline Nyman, and attorney Igsaan Higgins, who prefers to be called “black”. At the Rhodas’ house, the two daughters, Lana and Carmen Demonza, looked on as their white advocate, Tony Mancktelow, helped to measure the distance between the gate and the garage.

For two days this week the court heard patriarch Winston Rhoda, a property manager, describe his shock and hurt over the letter and how it depicted him. He stressed that he had not moved to Southfields to better himself, but for peace and quiet.

For the Gerbers, Nyman argued that the letter’s reference to Mitchells Plain was no more than “robust free speech”. “Since when is it racist to refer to where people come from? Is it taboo to refer to my residential area? Nowhere in the letter does he [Gerber] refer to colour or race.” The equality court was not an “appropriate forum” and could not resolve the parking dispute, Nyman added.

Mancktelow insisted the letter was veiled racial hate speech. “We all know various euphemisms are used because it is politically incorrect to refer to people by race.” Magistrate Dimbaza also emphasised that in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Discrimination Act, discrimination could be based on origin.

Added Mancktelow: “We all know when we say ‘he is a typical Khayelitsha’ we leave no doubt who we are talking about.”

Dimbaza pointed out that the first paragraph of Gerber’s letter told the reader two things — that the writer was white, because he had resided in the area for 22 years, and the other family coloured, because they come from Mitchells Plain. “The letter creates the impression: ‘Look what happens to this formerly white area when coloureds move in.’”

The neighbours ignore each other now, while the Rhodas continue to park in front of their gate. “We just wanted an apology in the paper, but they refused,” said Lana Demonza. “It’s not about the money; it’s a matter of principle.”

Emile Gerber, a call centre operator, admitted the letter was written in anger. He said he had been “enlightened” by Winston Rhoda’s evidence about what it was like to live under apartheid. “I don’t believe this is a racism matter. We both should have sat down with a cup of tea — but now it has gone too far.”

After two days of deliberations the familes decided to settle out of court.

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