Racism in South Africa: A Snapshot from a Bar

June 12, 2014
Bar in South Africa

I had been sitting in the bar at the Cranberry Lodge in Lady Brand, South Africa for most of the afternoon, writing and waiting for it to become an appropriate hour to drink. Lady Brand could be described as a one-horse town, except there was more than one horse that mingled with traffic on the dusty roads. The population was heavily African.

In the corner sat a man with a bald head and potbelly. He had decided that the appropriate hour to drink began at noon and had been sipping rum and Coke for hours. Behind the bar worked a thin man with sad eyes, who smiled at me between unloading bottles from crates and smoking cigarettes.  The man with the bald head and the potbelly called the thin barman, Sean, and Sean called the man with the bald head and potbelly, David.

A man walked through the door, his gray hair was wet and green shirt was damp from the rain that had persisted all day.

“Hi Mitch.”

“Hi Sean.”

Mitch sat down and Sean gave him a whiskey, without Mitch having to ask for it. I looked at my watch. 4:57. I moved across the room from where I was working and took a seat at the bar.

I noticed David’s eyes move back and forth, rapidly and involuntarily. His skin was red from the sun and rum.

“I am Zimbabwean, but haven’t been back for donkey’s years. We used to own a farm there, until we had to leave,” he said to me.

David worked as a consultant for rural development projects in Lesotho and Mozambique. He spent most of his time alone.

“I always light a fire out on a site. Flames are good company.”

Mitch lit a cigarette and offered one to me. I accepted and inhaled.

“I hate going out to the villages,” said Mitch, “The people there know nothing.”

Mitch worked at another development project that printed passports in Lesotho, which required him to travel to remote villages, gathering people’s names and speaking to chiefs.

“I had to tell this boy to dig a latrine. ‘Dig!’ I said. ‘Oh no!’ said the boy, ‘just go in the bushes!’ These people know nothing. I don’t want to contaminate the village by crapping in the bushes. I tell you the blacks are stupid.”

“You can’t say that,” said David. “The blacks are at a disadvantage. They’ve been getting fucked for generations.”

“Fuck that!” said Sean. “I couldn’t get a job because I am white. I know everything about liquor. I got my degree in running a bar. No one would hire me because they have to hire a black. Now we are the ones getting fucked.”

Sean wasn’t from Lady Brand. He was from Pretoria. But six months ago, he had come to Lady Brand looking for a job and a place to live because he didn’t have either of those things.

“People don’t understand it was not just the blacks who suffered in the apartheid. The people of English descent were oppressed too,” said Mitch.

“I won’t speak Afrikaans,” said Sean. “I can understand it. But I won’t speak it. I only speak English.”

“I was spit on once in Paris for being a white South African. Why did I deserve that? What did I do? I didn’t have anything do with the laws!”

“You had a choice though,” said David, “To fight the laws or to live with them. You chose to live with it. You chose superiority.”

The evening became night, and with it their faces became pale and deformed with drunkenness. Sean came to sit on the other side of the bar beside me.

“What you doing in Lady Brand, Sean?” said Mitch. “You’re wasting your life.”

“I am happy here,” said Sean, inhaling the smoke from his cigarette deep into his lungs.

“You’re happy here? What are you running away from?”

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit.”

“My girlfriend died in a car crash last year. They pumped me full of pills and kept me in an asylum afterwards in Pretoria. I walked up and down the halls. I had long hair then. When they let me out, I started walking and came here. I can walk a long way.”

The next day I packed my bag and picked up my jacket, which I had left in the bar and headed over the border to Lesotho. In the car, I received a text from Sean, whom I apparently exchanged numbers with.

“Look in your jacket pocket. I put something there for you.”

In my pocket was a chocolate covered granola bar with a note wrapped around it.

“Come back to Lady Brand soon and I will take you to a movie.”

About Dominique Sinagra

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