I remember the day so clearly, the day I experienced racism, not that it was directed at me but rather at someone else, someone I had never met before. I had just finished with what you may call lunch, which consisted of four slices of bread with anything that’s available on it, see, we were poor, not in the sense that we never had any food, else I wouldn’t be here to relate this tale, but in a sense that the consistency of the unreliability of regular food defined us as poor I would find out later on. It didn’t seem to matter to me at the time because, in our neighbourhood, the richest people were the shops, only because they were always stocked with food and I surmised then that everyone in the world must be poor because I had at that point never anyone who was rich, by that I mean people that never complained about the lack of money which is a favourite pastime of the poor, but I digress.
With a half-a-belly full I dashed outside into the streets and saw a small crowd of boys I knew very well pelting someone with stones and jeering at him. He walked rather slowly and I immediately recognised an elderly man that reminded me of our beloved milky (the milkman), they shared a similar colour and the intelligible mutterings tumbling from his mouth confirmed my suspicions, yep he was definitely like the milky’s people. No-one had told me they were black, to be avoided and derided? Then one of the more brazen of the bunch of jeerers used a word I instinctively knew to be a bad word, he shouted, “kaffir” (South African epithet for Negro) and my heart fell to the pavement. How was it possible my mind tried to calculate, could you call someone by that horrible name and still love the milky that visited every day, knew all the locals and brought two fresh litres of creamy rich milk? This made no sense to me so, armed with the calculus and chided the boys who were all mostly my age for their foolish and obnoxious behaviours.
I knew I had to be careful in how I approached the situation because there was always this simmering undercurrent of fierce competition between the boys that spoke English, considered to be more refined and the ones that spoke Afrikaans (a language unique to South Africa). Problem is I was always going to be outnumbered because the majority of the coloureds (a bi-racial group of people mainly found in the Cape) spoke Afrikaans and for reasons I have yet to fathom are normally viewed as fierce and tough.
The elderly gentleman who reminded me of our milky finally made his way out of sight and the boys turned back to the normal street games that would occupy the idle hours between school and supper. I slumped down on the pavement and thought long and hard about the incident earlier but couldn’t make any sense of it other than to have a deep sense of how unfairly the old man was treated by ones so much younger than him. The paradox lay in the way we were reared, back then in South Africa an excessive emphasis was placed on displaying an almost exaggerated sense of respect for one’s elders and here this quiet gentleman was exposed to the kind of abuse I hadn’t witnessed before, could it be that the other boys knew something I didn’t I ruminated, but quickly killed that thought because I was generally considered to be the sharpest out of the lot and I augmented this with bi-weekly trips to the library, the other boys I knew didn’t even know in which direction the library sat and lacked the basic literacy skills to complete the obligatory forms without adult supervision and a copy of Oxford’s finest splayed open for all to see…..