I’m asked almost every day, how people can contribute to make South Africa a better place. So here is my answer: sweat the small stuff – especially if you are white, writes Melanie Verwoerd
On Monday, I was paying for some groceries at a Fruit and Vegetable City store in Cape Town, when there was suddenly a drama behind me. A youngish man was loudly berating an older security guard for allegedly jumping the queue.
Now, anybody who has ever shopped at Fruit and Veg will know that it is a bit chaotic at the best of times. None of those orderly snaking lines that you will find at Woollies. Throw in a bit of load shedding at lunch time and it is frankly very difficult to figure out where the queues start or end.
The security guard tried to explain that he thought that there were two lines, (so did I), but young guy was having none of it.
Loudly he announced that he shopped there every day and that he knew that there was only one line and that this security guy was just trying to push in and should know better.
I was ready to intervene, but the security guard seemed to hold his own and despite the loud protests of the other man went ahead to pay for his one lunch item.
Outside the shop I spotted the security guard and the man again. The complaining guy, with a big grimace on his face, was photographing the bewildered looking security guard from all angles as he tried to walk away.
Well, I had had enough by then.
I first told Mr. Photographer nicely that he had made his point and to let it go.
However, he laughed and kept on taking photographs. I then let him have it. I told him in my “best” Irish vocabulary to get out of there and that he could see that the security guard was only trying to get lunch before rushing back to work.
I also told him that guys like him cause so much of the racial discord that exists in this country. (I’m sure that you have deducted by now that complaining man was white and security guard black).
Clearly taken aback by my fury, the guy made a beeline across the road. I turned around to apologise to the the security guard who movingly folded his hands together in a gesture of thanks without saying a word.
The far more vocal parking attendants clapped their hands and had a lot to say – as only they can in Cape Town.
I’m asked almost every day, how people can contribute to make South Africa a better place. So here is my answer: sweat the small stuff – especially if you are white.
Make eye contact, watch your tone of voice, greet people, smile, soften your gaze.
Remember that as a white person, you come with a historical price tag. Think about how you play into the stereotypes that people, who have suffered and continue to suffer under the legacy of apartheid, hold.
The question is not whether those stereotypes are right or wrong, they just are. So don’t make matters worse.
Think about it: the security guard puts his life in danger every day to look after mostly white business people and their fancy cars in the CBD of Cape Town. If his meagre lunch was anything to go by he doesn’t earn much money, despite working long hours.
He was clearly in a rush to get back to his job (of minding business people and their fancy cars).
It took him less than a minute to pay for his one item in cash.
So, would it really have made such a big difference to have allowed him to go first without a fuss?
Instead he was insulted, belittled and then photographed clearly as a way to intimidate him.
If the self-appointed queue policeman had taken the time to look around him he would have seen the way other people looked at him and how their collective anger and hatred rose.
Of course this Fruit and Veg type incident happens all the time.
I constantly see people fighting with the parking attendants in Cape Town for the few rand that they have to pay for parking. I see the fury on the faces of these attendants when the owners of the SUV speed away without paying.
I see the way the builders, who are undoubtedly paid minimal wage to build a luxurious house in my street, stare with quiet hatred at a woman who screams at them because they had briefly parked her in.
I see the exhausted anger in the faces of domestic workers when they can no longer take a short cut while on their way to clean the houses of the wealthy because my neighbourhood decided to build a fence and lock the gates to prevent “undesirable elements” from entering the area.
South Africa has enormous problems around racial inequality that will take a long time, if ever, to be fixed.
Most people can do very little at a macro level to make a difference.
However, by sweating the small stuff in how we conduct ourselves, we can all help not to make matters worse.
In addition, by speaking up when we see others hurt, belittle and insult our fellow country men and women, we could possibly even heal a little of the collective pain this country holds, by showing that we are not all the same.
– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland