Some years ago I was sitting in the Kimberly Hotel watching soccer. But my concentration was interrupted when I heard somebody shouting at the Zimbabwean barman behind me: ‘Hey bru, this fucking beer is flat. Hey bru, I am fucking talking to you. No just stop serving that guy and like get me another one hey, like now hey.’ My head sank. I remembered sitting around people like this in the 1990s to the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I got up then, in 1997, while I was having lunch with some of them and went and booked a ticket to London. A life lived with these ignorant self-entitled racist leaden-headed dullards would, I felt, be the end of me. I remember I really did feel, at the time, that having these people around me might at some point draw me to the use of a toaster in the bath tub.
So that day in the Kimberly with the man shouting at the barman I had just about had enough of it. I turned to tell the man that the time was coming for people like him, and that when it did he would be the first to be pushed through the rotating knives. However, to my utter shock I discover the man was black. I really had to take a double take. I just could not believe that the most vile aspect of white society had been transmitted through education (from his accent he was clearly a product of a ‘model C’ school or perhaps even a private one) and that this person had been turned into a middle-class ‘white’ rude, brutish and self-entitled monster. That is to say, in recent terms, he was a replica of Matthew Theunissen or perhaps even more appositely Ntokozo Qwabe. Now I say Ntokozo Qwabe because despite all of the uproar I think that the real issue here has been missed.
The real perpetuating blight in South Africa is the fact that (on the whole) white people refuse to pay (on the whole) black people a living wage. But it would seem that it is not purely a racially motivated practice. How many thousands of times has one been in a restaurant with friends and one adds up the bill only to find that there is not, at the very least, 10% gratuity added to it? How many times does one hear people refusing to give a car-guard a tip? How many times do you hear people telling you not to ‘over pay’ your domestic workers because it will give the others ‘ideas’? (This is normally said by advocates of the ‘free market’ who seem to have momentarily misunderstood the idea that that includes access to market information like wages etc.)
Personally I don’t really think Qwabe and Dlamini were motivated by the ideals of the fair distribution of land. I think they, in that entirely South African way, just didn’t feel like paying more to a person who worked for them. In other words they were perpetuating the largely white attitude of taking advantage of a person in a lower position to them. I think that they were simply replicating something that white South African society has taught. If you can get away with underpaying a worker, do it. It will only benefit your pocket. It will only leave you better off. It will only make you feel superior. What is more you can justify this behaviour with claims like ‘they don’t need the money because they have a different way of living in the townships’, ‘because I work hard for my money and worked hard to get my degrees and they should have educated themselves’, ‘because they should give us back the land’.
What is disturbing about South Africa is the failure within the middle class to recognise others as human. I know this sounds idealistic and supercilious but I believe it. That sense of humiliating somebody because they are working for you is a motivation that always existed in white society, it goes back to Rhodes and further. It is precisely what I believe to be the blight that #rhodesmustfall, in someways, stood against. It is deeply ironic that Qwabe and his friends should be replicating it.