‘Ah, Indians,” said the woman, raising her eyebrows and giving me a sly smile. “So we’ll charge you 8,000 rand. It’s only 6,000, but you’ll get me to give it for much cheaper, eh?”
The woman was white, South African, and I was startled.
Being cheap is a stereotype we apply freely to certain Indian communities behind closed doors. I always knew these jokes applied to them, not me. Now, we were all the same to this woman from Johannesburg.
Can’t you see I’m not them?
Stereotypes flower swiftly in the fertile ground of irritation. You think I’m cheap? I think you’re racist.
I didn’t say that, of course. I was too startled. I smiled weakly, and I remember muttering something like, “Ah. Ha ha.”
The other reason I couldn’t have said anything, even if I had a strong repartee ready — not my strength, I always think of comebacks after I’ve been insulted — was that my friend of 17 years and host in Johannesburg was with me.
He is a Zulu, a black South African who grew up in Soweto, a township that came to symbolise the cruelties of extreme racial injustice. As a youth, my friend had firebombed his high school, and he knew what racism really was. It’s not something he likes to talk about now, and it’s not something he narrates to his son and daughter.
But when he makes the trip back to Soweto — the hub of segregation, where Africans first said, ‘enough’, where his brothers still live in a cramped, little house — he makes sure his children know of the days when kids their age were shot by police in the street, for, well, protesting white rule.
My friend, too, smiled at the woman and said nothing. This, after all, was the new South Africa, the world’s rainbow nation, and everyone tries, however hard it may be, to get along. After all, the white woman meant no insult. She just didn’t know better.
As the Indian Premier League (IPL) unfolds in South Africa, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we are really not so different from that woman.
To us, South Africa is an exotic tourist destination where the cricket grounds are fantastic, where there are many ‘Indians’ who will always cheer for India, where Indian food is freely available, where Cape Town is Europe and Durban, India. And Africa?
Well, there do seem to be a few black people.
In our lighter moments we see them as exotic Africans in leopard skins with drums, brought in to entertain us. In our darker moments, we see them as the dangerous part of the South African experience.
For the record, South Africa is 80 per cent black, 9.1 per cent white, 8.9 per cent coloured and just 2.5 per cent Indian and Chinese combined.
Indian travel pieces never reflect this demographic, urging those of us headed for the IPL to take the cable car to Table Mountain (hiking isn’t for us), sipping wine in white-owned wineries and driving the Garden Route.
We forget South Africa’s dark past and challenging present, something that should particularly inspire us here in turbulent India, where it’s taken seven years and a Supreme Court order last week to begin the process of justice in Gujarat.
Last week I read another IPL travel story that referred to South Africa’s ‘reclusive’ past. I would hide too if I didn’t allow 80 per cent of my country to vote and forcibly translocate millions of them to dusty, distant ‘homelands’.
If you are going to South Africa for the IPL, please do enjoy the wine, the Indian food, Gandhi’s statue, the cheerleaders and Cape Town.
But do take the time to explore black South Africa. Swing by Soweto, now a tourist hotspot. There are B&Bs (bed-and-breakfasts) for tourists, mainly African American, who want to experience history for a night or two. If you’re uneasy about staying there, try the Holiday Inn perched above the Soweto Freedom Square, where thousands gathered to sign South Africa’s freedom charter.
As you drive further into the 10-15 km long township, you will find the houses of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and you will also find the Hector Pieterson museum.
Hector was a 13-year-old boy who was shot dead on July 13, 1976, when the students of Soweto threw their textbooks out of the windows and danced to freedom songs to protest the use of Afrikaans as a teaching medium. The museum actually has some original placards from the march. Says one: “We’re not fighting, don’t shoot.” But the police did shoot. Hector was one of the 200 plus victims of the July 13 massacre.
Elsewhere in Johannesburg, you cannot but miss the chilling apartheid museum. Apart from unimaginable atrocities, you will learn of the Reconciliation Commission, how South Africa healed its wounds by getting former racists to talk about their crimes, how it got former victims to listen.
Please visit. It would inspire us to deal with the many ghosts we cannot confront.