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In the rainbow nation, colour and class still count

Could I be, for the first time in my life, a member of an oppressed minority? Brandon Huntley would presumably say so. The white South African applied for refugee status in Canada complaining that he had been repeatedly attacked by black criminals who called him a “white dog” and a “settler”. Canada agreed, granting him asylum on the grounds that his skin colour made him “stick out like a sore thumb” in his homeland.

It was a body blow to South Africa’s rainbow nation aspirations. The African National Congress gave Canada a tongue-lashing and a group of academics sternly rejected the notion of white people being a persecuted minority, describing it as “deeply insulting to the great majority of black South Africans who have embraced reconciliation”.

For some whites, however, Huntley was a heroic Ordinary Joe battling a vengeful, inverted apartheid. An SMS to the Citizen newspaper said: “Canada is right. Anyone who heard our obnoxious Labour minister spewing his racist diatribe would know there is no future for young whites in South Africa.” A letter in the same paper ran: “Everybody is too scared to speak their minds, but I can guarantee you that 90% of all whites in this country feel like Brandon Huntley!”

Stories like this give South Africa a nervous breakdown. Fifteen years after the end of white minority rule, race is not the issue that dare not speak its name. Instead it is shouted from the rooftops at every opportunity. Its sensitivities pervade political debate, newspaper columns and radio phone-ins. One journalist said to me last week: “There is a hyper-vigilance that’s inevitable after a traumatic event.”

It soon infects outsiders too. Since coming to South Africa five months ago, I’ve grown a third eye that perceives everything in black and white.

Recently I spent a morning in Hillbrow, a gritty inner-city neighbourhood of Johannesburg, weaving between honking minibus taxis and street traders cooking rich spices over open stoves. Ah, that’s interesting, I thought, every single person is black.

That afternoon I went to Parkhurst in the city’s northern middle-class suburbia. I peered into its smart restaurants and gastropubs. Ah, that’s interesting, I thought, nearly every customer is white. Last weekend, at the Soweto Wine Festival, I clocked a mix of both black and white faces.

Ah, that’s interesting, too. And when I meet white people of a certain age, I can’t help wondering, “What did you do [or not do] during the struggle?”

I never used to be so conscious of race, but maybe that’s the birth privilege of growing up white in Britain. It’s similarly easy to pretend you are neutral and objective about class, gender and sexuality when you’re middle-class, male and heterosexual. To be part of what history has defined as dominant, as opposed to “other”, is to be like an Old Etonian, wearing self-confidence and a sense of entitlement wherever you go.

So living in Newtown, Johannesburg, I’m acutely aware of being almost the only white in the village, but I imagine it’s a very different experience from being black in Buckingham or Darlington. I might be in a minority here, but we’re all aware of the wider socioeconomic context.

I’ve certainly never felt a sense of Huntley-style persecution. When a mugger tried to steal my phone, I assumed my race was one of several signifiers that I’m a have in a society with millions of have-nots. When I tried to report from a black township in the Free State last week, I understood the reluctance of people to talk to me when one explained: “They’re not used to seeing whites here. They think you’re the police.”

But when I discuss all this with my girlfriend, she has a very different perspective. She is American and black, with long, flowing dreadlocks, a word that rather suits her. One day Dreadlocks and I visited Soweto. A black mother, living in a tin shack with fierce pride but few possessions, ignored me but looked at Dreadlocks and said: “Welcome home.”

I was journalistically distant during the encounter, but Dreadlocks felt a visceral connection with her own slave ancestry. “It was like stepping into my own history,” she said. “I felt transported to a time when people were subjugated to a ridiculous, subhuman degree because of skin colour. If I’d been born under apartheid, that would be my life. The sense of injustice there was the most striking and impactful moment I’ve had in South Africa.”

And yet at other times, Dreadlocks’ nationality and class trump her race.

It’s obvious to most that her American middle-class appearance, manners and self-assurance are not to the township born. I have heard South Africans refer to “the blacks” in her presence as if she is not really “one of them”.

Dreadlocks told me: “It’s very strange to be black in South Africa and carry privilege. I feel myself being observed in a way I don’t feel in London or New York. In South Africa it’s very stark, with both black and white people thinking I’m a uniquely unusual and futuristic animal.”

America’s civil rights movement broke through a generation before South Africa’s liberation struggle. Its black middle class has had a long head start over South Africa’s own upwardly mobile “black diamonds”. When people here see Dreadlocks, perhaps they see their own future. She added: “I am the product of long-term racial mobility. I feel like I’m the great-granddaughter of the black diamonds.”

As an interracial couple here we still turn heads, especially male heads, it seems. The other day we passed a group at a shopping mall who shouted something in a language we didn’t understand then burst out laughing. I didn’t know what to make of it. Dreadlocks said: “I felt there was amusement, disdain and a tiny bit of potential menace.”

William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” My African-American girlfriend feels that way when she’s in South Africa. As a white Englishman, I have to look a little harder, but I can see the old wounds, too. I remember a cynic whispering in my ear: “The whites are pretending it didn’t happen; the blacks are pretending to forgive.” –

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