Once upon a Tuesday morning in Johannesburg (the best time to squeeze joy out of the rock that is the gym), I went swimming at my local Virgin Active.
The pool, which is divided into four lanes, was unsurprisingly empty. As I entered the controlled-temperature water, I felt cradled by the glee of not having to ask anybody whether I could share their lane, which was usually the case during peak hours.
“Yippeeee!” I thought, it’s just me (“Yasssss!” wasn’t a thing yet in 2013). I started doing my laps, channelling Olivia Pope in that white full costume from that time wayesafratswa nguFitz in the earlier seasons.
So there I am doing my thing in the lane closest to the wall, which has the stairs that one uses to climb in and out of the water, when through the glass of my goggles I see a man standing at the edge of the (my) lane. Waiting. As I swim closer to him, a cold sensation of being “in trouble” sets in as I see that he is a white man. This is South Africa after all and I am a black doing the swimming and not the sweeping at this most privileged of hours.
When I get to the edge, I can see he wants to say something so I take off my goggles. “Excuse me, can you move to the other lane?’’ he asks me.
I look at the other lanes. The water is as still as a cooling, forgotten cup of blue tea. Then I look back at the man. I stand still, subconsciously negotiating the meaning of this ask.
The dude is old. Like, well into the realm of not giving a fuck ancient, which I get about old people. But his request is also capped with ukusa, a very particular impunity that is the lifeblood of whiteness. He is frail but brave in a bright red speedo and a vintage cap. An old white man and me, the young black woman with the land in this case — that this man is trying to take. In these crucial milliseconds between his request and my response, some old habits kick in and evict my defiance.
What I want to shout is “UPHAMBENE?” But my upbringing weighs in and I remember that I don’t speak to elders like that.
Trying to justify why I’m going to move, I think to myself that maybe he needs the stairs to get into the pool because he’s old. Maybe he doesn’t know the pool protocol. Maybe he just hasn’t learned how to ask nicely in his century on earth. The waking part of me is lusting for other reasons. Maybe he still thinks this is his father’s pool.
Does he see me as a person who also pays a gym membership or a black person who can just move at his will? Does he deserve the time I’m putting in to consider his humanity? Is he just being a prickly old man or is he being white? Am I being naive? Do I go Winnie or Mandela on him? Urrrggghhhh, I’m just trying to get fit, I don’t want to think about racism right now bletty shet.
I bail on Winnie and Tata because neither a defiant display of anger nor a gracious passivity will save me from this moment — which is as South African as it is human, as something as it is nothing, loaded as it is meaningless. I move to another lane. He thanks me. I feel a combination of guilt for not standing my ground and pride for not misreacting and end up leaving the pool soon after.
This isn’t 1970. It’s not Group-Areas-Act-O’clock but there’s a left-over struggle about negotiating space in South Africa and acknowledging the power dynamics inherent in our interactions that will always be linked to the past. These are the hairs that rise on the necks of those who appear to be easily offended, erected daily by the callous displays of power wielded by those who elect to be white as an identity, without considering that this identity is always in a position to offend and abuse by virtue of its power — whether its wearer means to or not.
As black people some of us aren’t always aware that our liberators fought for the rights for us to get into these pools to occupy them with pride. We sometimes forget that our struggle as the beneficiaries of desegregation is to solve these existing power dynamics piecemeal, from the inside of these new shared intimate spaces.
Although I think the doubt and distance that is often felt in the heart of a black person about his or her ownership of a space like a public pool or a KwaZulu-Natal North Coast beach comes directly from the fact that our liberators chose to focus more on fighting to be accepted by white people, for civil rights, veering away from the original script that was written in the frontier and preceding wars: fighting for the restitution of the land to Africans. So that doubt plays no part in these small, daily interactions of old power and new power.
For me, this is the stuff of occupying the liminal space between being umntu and being black, where two realities are always presented to you and the test is about how you react.
Is she touching my hair because she’s legitimately interested in how different it is to hers or is she casually fetishising me? Is he sprinkling his speech with isiZulu to get rainbow points or is he legitimately trying to connect with me as a human?
Nuance is a teacher in these times when I’m not trying to be disrespected, but I’m also not trying to lose that thing that makes me a person among other people.
On Monday while travelling along Houghton Drive on my way to work, I thought about the pool incident when I stopped at a robot next to a vintage car. It was a large beige vehicle, mint from another era. The driver was an old white man and the passenger, whom I assume is his wife, was carrying a beautiful basket of flowers on her lap. I rolled down my window and called out to the man: “Nice car.” “Thanks,” he said, smiling from an equal combination of pride and surprise. “What is it?” I ask. “It’s a Volvo”. “What year?”, “1970”, he says before the robot turns green.
I drove away feeling good because I was in control of activating this power dynamic.
As was the case with my old friend from the pool, it’s usually old white men who have the power to speak first when interacting with young black people like me. And, second, I felt good because my power in this case did not need to admonish or humiliate a white person for it to be exerted. Something about that felt like authentic rather than reactionary power.