Why jobs should never trump human dignity

Many many years ago when I was 12 years old in Zimbabwe, I had a good friend named Charlie who stayed in my neighbourhood. Charlie and I used to walk to our primary school together. She would be on the sidelines cheering when I was playing hockey and I would cheer her on during athletics. We were such good friends that Charlie could come to our home and open our fridge to make a sandwich. 

And then one day I decided that Charlie couldn’t be my friend anymore. It was painful to stop being her friend because we had shared so much but to my 12-year-old self, it was also the best thing to do. 

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It all happened one afternoon. I walked down from my home to Charlie’s so that we could gist. As I arrived at her gate, her older brother Michael, then 15, was also getting to the gate.

‘Hello Michael, could you tell Charlie that I am at the gate?’ I requested.

For some reason, we could never be truly ourselves at Charlie’s home. Charlie’s mother was a stay-at-home mom and would, therefore, be in the way of our unlimited freedom. While I was a latchkey kid.

And then I heard him. Michael.

‘Charlie, your kaffir friend is here.’

Michael was the nice brother. He was always polite to me. Had he just said what he said?

I overheard his mother.

‘Now Michael, she may have heard you. Go and apologise.’

That was the depth of Mrs Uys’ reprimand to Michael.

But before Michael could come and apologise, Charlie ran to the gate. ‘Zuki hi. Michael is coming to apologise. Please just say it’s okay.’

‘What am I saying okay too?’

‘He said something silly. Just tell him it’s okay, ja?’

Charlie had two brothers. Michael was her favourite. In running to me and asking me to say it was okay, she was trying to protect her brother from explaining the error of his ways.

Michael came to apologise. I was 12 and uncertain. I said ‘it’s okay.’ But Charlie and my relationship was never the same. And I never ever went to their home again. When my mother asked me why she no longer saw Charlie visiting, I told her we had just grown apart. And when I saw Charlie’s mother at the supermarket, I would generally go into a different aisle so as to avoid talking to her.

I thought of Charlie and her family this last week when the Adam Catzavelos video came out. I thought about him too when his and his family’s subsequent apologies came out. Adam’s and his family’s apologies were familiar to me. This man, this grown man, had used the k-word so very casually in an Instagram video and later apologised for it in an apology that centred himself. He apologised for his ‘total lack of respect and judgment.’ Not for racism. Then his family apologised to the country and told us that he would no longer be part of the operations of St George’s Fine Foods.

But not too long after that, another communication was sent through Times Media, purportedly by employees of the family business through the law firm Clifford Levin Inc. The statement claimed the employees were issuing the statement voluntarily. Then it went on to state that they were a diverse group of employees and had always been treated like family by Adam’s father and brother and therefore people should stop boycotting the company as it would mean a loss of their jobs.

While I am sad that decreased business may result in job losses at St George’s Fine Foods, I find it problematic that we should put up with any business that treats anyone without dignity for the sake of jobs. This is the same argument that neo-colonialists have used to ‘invest’ in our countries tax-free or while breaking labour laws that give citizens basic dignity. Perhaps as reparations, the employees of St George’s Foods could be given funds for a start-up rather than to plead on behalf of a family that has no respect for its fellow citizens because of ‘jobs’. Human dignity should not be sacrificed at the altar of jobs.

Now it’s quite likely that the employees have often been given advances by their benevolent employers but it is also very highly likely that said employers, Mr Nick and George Catzavelos, are quite comfortable using racial epithets in the comfort of their homes. Adam has been part of that establishment for years. 

I don’t know how many of us can be convinced to believe that he and only he of the three men in the family business, is racist. As my friend Eusebius Mckaiser pointed out elsewhere, Adam used the word rather too casually. Like someone who is used to throwing it around among his family and/or friends. In the same way that my childhood friend’s brother so casually used the same term. 

I have a 13-year-old son. He knows not to use misogynistic terms because the men in his life have taught him so from a very young age. Adam Catzavelos is a grown man who obviously has grown up believing that the majority of the population in a country where he and his family have benefited immensely, do not deserve dignity. He was probably Michael while growing up and the family let it slide or asked the blacks around him to tell him ‘it’s okay’ when he fake-apologised. It is not okay and no fake apologies can make it so.

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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