A little white boy begging... From: Oliver! 1968 musical film.
“Excuse me, Sir. Please don’t get upset or irritated.” This is how the Indian man approached me last month as I sat waiting for my bus from Durban to Vereening, at the inter-city bus terminal. Whenever a stranger approach you like this in South Africa they usually want something, probably money. My wallet is securely put away in a bag. I have no intention of taking it out and so revealing the contents to the prying eyes around me. It would be like inviting a robbery; shouting: “Hey crooks, look at all this dough; come and get it!”
“Sorry, no.” I replied and tried to return to the book I’m reading. “Please support me by buying some bubblegum,” he continued and revealed a small tray with an assortment of chewing gum. “Sorry, no.” I replied. “Please Sir; at least I’m trying to do something.” True, he did have something to trade. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to advertise my wallet.
I’m a self-defence instructor and know all too well that self-protection starts long before any physical assault. It begins with adhering to safety habits – like not advertising the R100 bills in ones wallet. “Sorry, no; I cannot take out my wallet at this time.” “But Sir, just R3 will do.” “Sorry, no.” I repeated again. At last, seeing that I will not budge, the man walked away but sneered disdainfully.
What irritated me probably the most about this encounter is the prejudice. I was the only white person in the terminal. The hawker did not approach any of the black or Indian people around me; only me. Why are they excluded as potential customers? Is he assuming that because I’m white I must have money? When I travel I do not dress in a manner that gives any indication of wealth – plain jeans and a T-shirt – another safety habit I keep. The scornful laugh he gave as he walked away, indicated his disgust with the white man who wouldn’t give. After all, isn’t it the white man’s responsibility to give? Isn’t he supposed to give?
To this I reply “sorry, no” again. I’m not supposed to give purely on account of my race and skin colour. I did not contribute to the previous racist regime. Nor did I substantially benefit from it. If I did, I’m paying my dues already, seeing that I have to work abroad, since it is difficult to find a position in my field locally on account of affirmative action. University vacancies in South Africa are often advertised as “portfolio positions”, meaning that the department has to reflect a certain percentage of racial diversity and white men are not the “diversity” of choice.
And don’t talk to me about poverty either. I know what it is to be poor – to live below the breadline. I’ve done that too. Probably still have some of the tattered T-shirts to prove it. I know how to live on one bag of potatoes for a month, with nothing else to eat, because that was all you could afford with your last R20. I know how it feels to trade in old glass bottles to get a couple of cents so you can save up to buy a bread. I’m familiar with worrying month after month how you’re going to pay the rent.
Yes, I survived because of miracles and the grace of people giving me money. But never did I have the attitude that they have to give, that it is their responsibility, that they are supposed to on account of them being friends, or family, or white.
If I had R3 in my pocket I probably would have bought the packet of gum even though I don’t like chewing gum. And he would probably have raised his price to R5, or tell me some sad story of how he pays for his five children in school and his sick mother.