Walking while black at 9.50am

Walking while black has always has its hazards in this country. The most common is that dogs will bark while you walk by; if you are unfortunate they may even try to bite you. It is a phenomenon which I’m sure is unique to South Africa. 

My experience in other countries has been that dogs don’t bark randomly at blacks walking down the street. It must be that these dogs are often trained to antagonise black passersby or keep the imagined or real black intruder at bay.

Walking while black might get you shot and killed in countries like the United States. Especially if you are a young man with baggy pants and a hoodie. There will be angry protests and petitions. 

Political leaders will utter politically correct statements but as time passes by and life goes on, our attention moves elsewhere until another unarmed young black man is shot dead, walking while black.

Walking while black and a woman in South Africa poses its own dangers as I’ve pointed out in a previous column. According to weekend reports, 44-year-old Cynthia Joni, a domestic worker, was assaulted by a swimming coach Tim Osrin. He allegedly got out of his car, cornered her, slapped, kicked and beat her to the ground, as she was walking to work in Kenilworth. 

His justification is that he thought she was a sex worker, therefore he was within his rights to assault her. A black woman walking the streets of an affluent and predominantly white neighbourhood could only be there for no good. He arrives at this deduction because the area has become a popular working area for sex workers. 

While visiting a friend who lives in the area a few weeks ago, I witnessed this myself. The scantily-clad women sit or stand on the side of the road along the Harfield station road, flashing their breasts to passing cars. It is the nature of their business, and I assume they remain in the area because business is brisk.

It does not matter whether or not Osrin thought the victim of his anger was a sex worker. If he thought her behaviour was suspect or criminal, then he ought to have reported it to police and not become a vigilante. It appears though that there was no suspicious behaviour; Joni’s crime was walking while black and a woman.  

What matters most is that Osrin felt it within his ambit to, without obvious provocation, strike out at a woman as she walked the streets. He feels the need to point out that Joni was walking at 9.50 in the morning. It is curious that he would mention the time to justify his actions.

Historical context
Clearly walking around at those hours makes one open to attack. Joni is a mother, grandmother and domestic worker who does housework for others in order to earn a living for her family. Walking while black at 9.50am is not an unusual activity in this country.

If he were to cast his eyes further south from his leafy suburb of Kenilworth, say to Gugulethu or Khayelitsha where Joni is from, he would find a lot of people walking the streets at that hour. They might be walking around aimlessly, exasperated by the fruitless effort of trying to find work in a stagnant economy that has stubbornly refused to create jobs for about 25% of the population for many years now. 

Most likely, though, people are walking at that hour to and between the jobs that they can get. 

Let’s give a further breakdown of what those job seekers might look like. They are likely to be black and women. Some will find housework in order to take their children to school and feed their families. Often they are the only breadwinners.

They walk with the freedom and confidence that ought to be theirs at 9.50 in the morning because they are making a living. They walk instead of leap out of cars the way Osrin did because for many, cars are out of reach. 

The deliberate spatial development of the past means that the areas where they live are situated incongruously far from where they work. Taxis and busses can only take them so far, so they will walk through the leafy neighbourhoods which we all share without the expectation that someone will haul them to the ground and beat them for doing so.

A leading South African academic remarked to me recently about the rage which engulfs us every time there has been a seemingly racist incident. He described it as an impotent rage. His question to me was why do we react as if we are a powerless people when freedom has long been won? 

Perhaps the answer to that lies in the fact that the power and economic relations haven’t changed significantly enough in our society. Osrin has internalised his sense of privilege and superiority to such an extent that he still believes himself to be superior and as such can behave whichever way he chooses towards a woman who was walking while black.


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