What is it like? Where I’m from.

A friend (I think) from California asked me over a frozen yogurt what I missed most about South Africa. “Ah” I said, for my land is beautiful. Well it’s my land for now. Malema KAN LIKE 2 HAV. But for now… no I didn’t bring that up. I have realised that a lot of the expats’ whining is really boasting – an attempt to make themselves sound interesting by pretending that their rich, middle class lives were really more in danger than those of the millions of (yes, majority black, but not only) people who are so poor that they know the police won’t come if they call.

It was Friday night, and Orange pumped… like the last pulses of a dying aorta. Cars dawdled home in time for pumpkin hour. Cyclists broke the 25mph speed limit, their spokes hissing. My arteries pulsated with joy and pain in response to a dose of “cookie dough” flavoured sweetness. And actually, I was having a cool time, in my own weird way.

I told him I missed the mix of voices most. And that is true. Here are a few that make sense of it for me – just stuff I’ve plucked off my South African friends’ facebook profiles (with their permission) or been sent by mail by them (and yes, I did ask before blogging).

Sent by email. Malema is "youth" leader of approximately 40 years whom the media ridicule, but who has a surprising amount of support. He's awful. Like a post-mugabe-post-joke media monster... who just won't die. But he's funny!

This is not a joke. Recommended to me by Facebook, which as in very poor taste, given the source...

New U. New You? Is this a joke? Sent to me by an ex, who says he could never find this street again, or any information about the supposed union. Taken in Jozi somewhere. Down a side street. Somewhere.

And then there’s this – a conversation I found on facebook and am using with permission, on condition I change the names… so I went with A (for the African person, who really is black) and B (for the Afrikaans person. who really is African, too). This conversation illustrates the openness and fearlessness with which South Africans address racial issues. Something I really miss here. Because it’s not like there’s no racism here. It’s just prettied up with this veil of so-called good manners… which really means not mentioning it at all, unless you’re entitled to by being African American, or Mexican-American.

Well, from someone who’s actually kinda like BEEN to africa..


This is the shop, launched by an ex colleague. An upmarket shop for weaves and wigs and such.

Translations for Amerians:
1. Baas=Massa
2. the weird English is mockery of the way some people speak – sometimes because English is their third language, sometimes because they’re working in a servile personality they can leave at work. In this case, my former colleagues, of various races, are all taking the piss of course…

Someone posted the picture together with a comment like “Ohhh. This is why A left. Look how well she’s doing for herself out there…”

Quoted convo follows (only names are changed)

A at least am making a living rather than looting from people….like someone’s ancestors!!!
9 hours ago ·
M O I can supply some mopcaps to cover those afro’s !
8 hours ago ·
A ‎@ mark for free???
8 hours ago ·
W I would also buy hair if….
6 hours ago ·
A haaaaaaaaaa OMG W….well I was working in the fields (farm) and given no time to take care of my hair…..you can’t blame me!!!!
3 hours ago ·
W Did you say work?
3 hours ago ·
A yes that thing my aunt does in your mama’s kitchen is called work, that thing my uncle does in your garden is called……not sittign in the sun tanning ….WORK yes you read it right!!!
3 hours ago ·
WC You two need to get a room…
2 hours ago ·
A he started it…….I think W likes me….its OK W you won’t get arresred we can be a couple its allowed…..
2 hours ago ·
WC I think it’s mutual…Is that why you moved to JHB, A?
2 hours ago ·
WG You should have learned from you aunt and uncle.
2 hours ago ·
WC Ouch!
2 hours ago ·
A nah…I was weatching baas and now am using those skills…..thanks for alowing my aunt to bring me to work…i got a chance to watch how baas moves….look at me now!!!
2 hours ago ·

Maybe I’m weird, but this is the shit I miss.

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16 Responses to “What is it like? Where I’m from.”

  1. The moment when a place becomes home… « Jean Barker's Sign Language Says:

    […] was so tasteless that it was okay. The first time I’ve had that moment here, where people were comfortable enough with racial issues to take the piss as […]

  2. Shannon Says:

    Maybe it’s all about where you hang out and who your friends are, because as an American living in South Africa, I often offer exactly the same critique of SA: my friends and I at home talk openly and fearlessly about race, we grew up in integrated schools, work in integrated work places, live in integrated communities, hang out across all color lines, have professional mentors of other races, etc. Whereas here everyone nods politely and then goes back to their monochromatic neighborhood and hangs out with their monochromatic friends. It’s driving me nuts and makes me terribly homesick.

    Your friends’ FB convo isn’t because they’re South African, it’s because they’re clever and comfortable with each other. I promise you it’s not unique to SA, and in my experience is actually quite rare here. (Joking can also be a way of covering up the serious issues–just something to consider.) Maybe you just haven’t found those people in America yet? I sure the hell haven’t found them in SA.

  3. Shannon Says:

    And Afropop looks like a million places I’ve been to in Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, New York, LA, Chicago, ad infinitum…

  4. jeanbarker Says:

    Are you offended in some way? Sorry you’re homesick. Maybe you are right, and maybe you just haven’t found those people in SA. How long have you been there? Let me know where you are and I’ll try to help.

  5. Shannon Says:

    Not offended at all–just taking issue with the suggestion that South Africans are better at talking about race than Americans. Neither am I suggesting that Americans are better at it; frankly I think we’re all pretty awful at it. But I would point out that the OC probably isn’t the best place to look for honest engagement, just as I’m probably not going to find it in, say, certain parts of Pretoria.

    I do think the US is a bit ahead in that we have had at least one generation, maybe two (depending on how you measure generations) who have grown up in integrated schools, workplaces, public spaces, had childhood best friends and adult best friends across color lines, had professional and personal mentors of other races–I don’t think that generation has yet come of age in SA. And I do think the stratification is more severe here.

    In my experience here, which includes six trips to the country and now a year-long stint, whites get nervous or defensive on the topic of race. As a black American friend of mine said, “I didn’t fully appreciate Arkansas until I lived in South Africa.”

    Oh, I’m in Cape Town.

  6. jeanbarker Says:

    Oh good, I’m relieved. I don’t doubt you’re right about Orange being a bad place to evaluate this. But the people I know in Orange are not from Orange. They’re from everywhere else BUT here it seems… and as an outspoken kind of person by any standards I keep tripping over cultural sensitivities I had no idea lurked under the surface. The words “I don’t appreciate…” have been spoken more than once.

    When it comes to open discussion, this would apply to you as a foreigner too, even though you’re there a lot – I suspect people are less relaxed around those who are from elsewhere, as they wish to prevent misunderstanding. Also less willing to accept an outsider’s opinion? South Africans, and white ones particularly, tend to get defensive there.

    The longer I’m here, the more what I said mere weeks ago changes for me in every respect, not just just one. Interesting to see my own first impressions of the USA preserved here actually.

    Cape Town is a pretty racially divided town even by SA standards. My experience of Pretoria was less so! Just shows, it’s all perspective really. The only way to avoid the cliche of that is to actively try to. This has its own tricky things as I’m sure you’re discovering.

  7. jeanbarker Says:

    Oh, and try making some friends in media – they’re rude, fun, and get around more than most I suspect. The NGO scene too, though they’re much more uptight, in a very well-meaning way.

  8. warren Says:

    i agree with shannon on this one. the degree of openness and integration varies, and thats the same no matter where you are. and you’re right, maybe being a foreigner excludes you somehow. you’re a foreigner too.

    i live in the uk. i’ve lived here for about 5 years now and in that time i’ve pretty much forgotten that i’m ‘coloured’. i occasionally get asked about apartheid and what it was like and even then my race is just part of the story, it’s not who i am. thats the thing i love most about being here. people are prejudiced in other ways but that prejudice is usually fueled by ignorance, so it’s pretty easy to dismiss.

    the only time i’m ever aware of my race, is when i’m around south africans. and it’s hilarious, almost every time, without fail, someone will be like (usually after a few drinks), ‘hoe gat my bru’, duideluk! ‘hosh my bra’ and in my head i’m thinking ‘f*ck you, i grew up speaking english you c*nt’. (soz!) I suppose thats sinking back to the same level but thats what happens… it’s frustrating! but i digress. i just really don’t want to be coloured or black or whatever. i just want to be me. so avoid south africans, and happily go on doing just that…

    i dont doubt that there is lots of intelligent and lively debate going in south africa. what bugs me about it though, is how little that debate translate into real cultural change. there is discussion about race here. less then in sa, this is true but the crucial difference is that it happens in both the private and public domains. there’s political weight behind it which makes even the private discussion more vital. the talk about being a free and equal society feels real and tangible. it’s a long way off for sure, it’s happening…

    i had a similar facebook conversation not too long ago on a friends wall. it was me arguing with a middle aged afrikaaner (who i don’t even know) the tone became racist very quickly. i forget the details. he apologised in the end. what struck me was his frustration. here was a man, reasonable and intelligent, who needed to take sides. it was us vs them, black people vs white people… that was how this guy saw the world. he was aware of it, but it was felt trapped in that reality.

    that is the big difference about racism here in the uk versus in sa. here you can chalk it up to (mostly) ignorance, in south africa it’s still woven into the fabric of social life.

    it’s great being part of a peer group that’s intelligent and open minded enough to tackle that debate. but how much of that reflects the general experience? how meaningful and open is the race debate in the public sphere?

  9. Shannon Says:

    I’m sure I’m trampling all over cultural norms, but interestingly, I have been told several times by black and Coloured South Africans that they can speak more freely to me because as a white American, they perceive me to have far less baggage than a white South African. So white South Africans may be less honest with me, but I think other South Africans are perhaps more. When I interned with an NGO here, the director noted that people had opened up and told some very painful stories to me much more readily than they do with white South Africans.

    Warren makes an interesting point about the assumptions made. Maybe you’re right and we are more touchy/sensitive/PC/insert word of choice here, but I don’t tease a lot about race with black friends in the “taking the piss” kind of way. On occasion we will, in an eye-rolling “well, you know how your people are” kind of way, but more often it’s a venting (X happened at work and am I crazy or is it about race?). But mostly we’re comfortable and embracing enough of each other’s differences that we don’t need to joke about them. I visit my best friend and her husband in Atlanta pretty frequently. We know that hair is a big deal: she makes sure she has conditioner for me, I make sure I have hair wraps for her. She chides me for my affection for Southern rap. We joke that when they have kids, I’ll have to come be the nanny because she doesn’t know how to braid kids’ hair and I do, from years of living and working in a black community. It’s…I’m not explaining it adequately. It’s part of the normal fabric of our life and conversation without being something we have to draw a lot of attention to. It’s not ignored–I called her once and she said dryly “Girl, I will have to call you back, Runako has just discovered he is a black man in America” because some random guy on the subway accused her husband of stealing his laptop and he was being talked to by the police. But–we’re sort of past that stage, culturally, of needing to draw attention to the differences and then diffuse them with humor. They’re there, we’re comfortable with them, we can all freely note the influence of race in current affairs and in our own lives, but we’d much rather drink pomegranate martinis and smoke shisha until 3 am and feed our hangovers at Waffle House the next day.

    As her grandmother used to say when we were in and out of each other’s houses, “Lord, time surely do bring about a change.”

    I think here, it still makes people very nervous as to what they can say around whom. (I have a friend, who is Coloured and the pastor of a very old, very illustrious, primarily white congregation, who sometimes treats me to tirades on white liberals because who else can he talk to about that?) The “I don’t appreciate…” responses you’re getting may be a sign that people are confident enough to speak up for themselves and the vision of the society they have. It may also be that filmmakers tend to be a pretty PC crowd when it comes to race and they err on the “safe” side. It’s the one area they often seem unwilling to push the boundaries–religion, sex, everything else is fair game, but race is somehow the sacred cow. But I don’t think they are representative.

  10. Shannon Says:

    OK I totally apologize for bogarting this thread but it’s interesting and it has me thinking, particularly about the ways in which our racial milieus differ and about how we might be misinterpreting the other based on our own.

    For example, I wonder if what you see as a discomfort with racial issues in not joking a lot about them is more about the fact that, to paraphrase Skip Gates (African-American Studies prof at Harvard), “There are 54 million black Americans and 54 million ways to be black.” While one may be able to talk broadly about “the black experience” in America, it is so varied and different at the individual level that there really are no longer things that you can take for granted. I have black friends who come from the projects and are in recovery for addictions, and I have black friends who are Ivy Leaguers and who are the third or fourth generation in their family to attend university. A friend of mine mentioned casually the other day that he had to attend a memorial lecture for his grandfather at Morehouse, one of the top historically black colleges in the country, and I thought, oh yeah–I forget sometimes that his grandfather wrote the textbooks I read in college.

    It wouldn’t make sense for me to joke the way your friends did because what stereotypes would I draw on?–they’re all such old canards, have been disproved so many times and don’t apply to so many people that I’d be committing the greatest sin of all: not being funny.

  11. tuberider Says:

    I’m a South African whose lived half my life out of the country & what I’ve noticed with South Africans is that the conversation is very “black” & “white,” as if the stereotypes defines THEM as opposed to US. It is changing though but slowly.

  12. jeanbarker Says:

    Maybe I know very different South Africans. Or maybe unlike every other expat, South Africa’s developing a halo due to my own own homesickness. I avoided SA expats in London – they are a plague, they are not LIKE the plague, on the whole. Seems to draw a particular type of racist homesick person. Anyhow, there I go, generalising again… Interesting discussion. As to the people on my facebook not being funny, well… it was funny to them, and I think laughter is there to release these tensions (which this discussion seems to prove do exist) so to judge them is a little unfair on everybody. It’s part of a process perhaps. Thanks for pitching in.

  13. Shannon Says:

    I didn’t mean to suggest that your friends were not funny! (I dearly treasure funny friends)–I meant only to say in my context, using our stereotypes, it would not be funny. Humor is all about context, and in that specific one, I’m certain it was.

    Thanks for the suggestions about people in media and NGOs but where does one *meet* these elusive beings? (NGOs I have some inroads in to but not media.)

  14. jeanbarker Says:

    Are you on twitter? Follow me there and I’ll put you in touch with a lot of Media in SA, some of whom might be keen to talk to you about what you do, to start with. Thanks for the stimulating discussion and all the best in my homeland.

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