FROM Siganda communal area, my place of birth, in the Nkosikazi enclave of Matabeleland North to Pretoria, and Pretoria North for that matter, is a very long journey.
A long journey full of all the cultural and social dangers that a traveller and a kind of foreigner frequently encounters. So there I was in the Boer Republic of Pretoria North in late 2009, a rainy season in the mountainous town whose landscape resembles the sight of many breasts scattered around on the land as if persuading the sky to suckle them.
In spite of my fear of heights I rented an apartment up and high a kopje in Flaurina, a small thing that hung over there like a kite, and in there I slept during the windy and rainy nights.
For work I quickly got engaged by a commercial college that got me to train some students in literature and journalism, I assumed my responsibilities with the zest and gravitas of a true Zimbabwean educator. I carried my many bad Zimbabwean academic habits with me, one of them being the strange habit of reading in pubs under the full blast of disco music and the loud talk of drunken revellers.
At Cyrene Mission there were many good for nothing fellows in the dormitories who deliberately made noise do disturb career bookworms. Worse, at the University of Zimbabwe we assumed the habit of drinking daily and passing our exams annually which entailed that we studied while we drank and drank while we studied.
I frequently cast an eccentric figure at Vicks Pub, the watering hole that sat at the toes of the Mountain in the North, reading a book while savouring a cold Castle draft lager under the dim dom of a juke box. Many characters in the pub gave to me a look that all well-meaning people give to a mental patient.
I knew where they were coming from, if you have not been to Zimbabwe, among the literati, a long bearded fellow glued to a book at a pub must correctly look like a real escapee from the lunatic asylum. Every day after work I passed by the hole to perform my insanity, read a good book and navigate the wise waters.
The revellers, most of them true blood Boers and coloureds got used to me as almost part of the furniture in the joint, frequently shaking their heads in understandable pity at my attempt to drink the falling rain, a fool’s attempt to dig a mountain with a needle.
Of my interlocutors and observers many were well meaning Afrikaners that patronised me like a child, donating unwanted advice on how I should read, others were offended racists that could not suffer a reading black person, a studying native always irritates a settler with the simple effort to want to know and to discover and with the promise of thinking about how the world works.
The only benevolent Boer
He was old and slow but strong and gigantic. I later learnt of his military background and an impressive scholarly career, an occupation from which he had recently retired. He had a Christ like face that was punctuated with a hanging messianic beard, he spoke with a true philosophical accent, reflective and clear.
He approached my corner confidently and looked at my book with the scrutiny of an expert, “so you are a leftist, are you radical?” He said this as he examined my copy of John Pilger’s Hidden Agendas. Then he sat down and we went into a long discussion, riotous here and calm there, about the failures and successes of the radical political left in the world. As if it was an interview, when he had to leave he shook my hand and grinned in satisfaction, once I felt the offence of a white person that thinks he has discovered a good black person worth approving. I felt like a noble savage at the feet of a missionary.
We became friends and daily imbibers at Vicks. I was invited to their home braai parties, I did feel once or twice that I was being paraded as a clever black or a different darkie but the beer flowed and I wisely ignored the coloniality. We exchanged books, our conversations went into history and philosophy, politics and economics. Soon enough we were a group of the illuminati in the North. He was retired Prof Schoeman, his two friends that joined us were Arnold Goodway and Friekie Van De Merwe. Over time I realised that Friekie never, in our many exchanges, addressed himself directly to me. Even if he meant to answer me he would point the answer to either Goodway or Schoeman. There was even no eye contact between us. It was strange but he bought beer and was part of our learned society, he was a friend of my friends and not my friend, I soon realised. We were truly near yet so far as members of the same intellectual and drinking group, he was funeral cold to me. I read less and talked more at the pub because I now had friends to talk to and they truly relished my contributions, I smelt the perfume of respect from them, I was the inevitable native that cannot be ignored.
An explosive encounter at Vicks
Late 2010, my whitey friends Goodway and Schoeman went out fishing. Friekie remained. We were stuck, Friekie and myself had to be the only members of our club at Vicks. There was no avoiding each other for that week, our two friends were not there to insulate us from each other’s presence.
This one Friday, a fateful day, I arrived early at Vicks and quickly dug into a book while imbibing and remembering my ancestors in the rainy and paradisal Pretoria North evening. The Bar Lady, a young and shapely Afrikaner damsel with a permanent naughty wink on her eye was as always friendly, frequently hugging and shaking me in so many unholy but delightful ways. Schoeman always said “most of the love is reserved for you in this pub, how will this end?”
At this she would laugh while provocatively shaking the imposing geography of her exotic frame. Friekie arrived, saw me, went straight to the counter and bought two beers, mine and his then came to my table and sat opposite me, “hi !” he said. Then sat and said nothing more even as I had abandoned the book in social politeness and decorum for him. He looked up like that story teller whose body language says I have a big one for you.
I waited for the atom bomb. And it came. “You are such a clever guy, your views are fascinating and you seem to know lots of stuff, you also talk well sometimes, different guy from many of these, these, these . . . people.” I love attention and I relish a little recognition now and again, from ear to ear I smiled, I only sobered up when he said “and that is my problem with you, a real problem for me.” “Why is it a problem?” I asked with the appetite to know exactly what problem he had with me because I had always known that he had issues with me. He said it smoothly “you are a black man, why can’t you be white for the life of me?”
And then I laughed. I let out that Tsholotsho kind of laughter that sounds like many falling spoons and cups hitting the concrete floor. “I can’t stand black people, especially those who think they can be clever, I can’t, why are you not white for one day?” He was not joking. It worried him why I was a kind of friend of his, he could not fault my mind but I was black. When the winking bartender brought another two doctors, those ice cold beers covered in snow white ice like the jackets of medical doctors, she did her thing, assaulted me with a wifely side hug. That is when Friekie banged the table with his two huge hands and left me with two beers and shock in my mind, alarm in my heart.
The beautiful bartender was shocked too, she mumbled something about old fashioned people and raised the volume of the sound system. The other revellers wondered what I had said or done to big Friekie. I downed my beers and kept chatting with the attentive bartender for the rest of the evening.
I narrated the volcanic encounter to Schoeman and Goodway when they came back. Schoeman blamed the whole thing on Friekie’s poor education and rough corners of his upbringing. Goodway, the Englishman, a farmer and a gentleman took me to the balcony for a smoke, and whispered that “the Boers have never liked black men who make their girls laugh a lot, and your political talk scares them, drink and be merry, their time is up, anyway,” and he winked us back to the table. Friekie never came to Vicks again.
Once we meet on the road, and he always looks away and I smile. Schoeman and Goodway are still my buddies even as I have left the neighbourhood. Whiteness is not only skin colour, I have learnt, it is a system.
The most dangerous racists are not the open aggressive ones but some well-meaning friendly people practice toxic whiteness. Racists are themselves in spite of themselves, they are socialised and cultured into the system. Racism is a losing system, the common familihood of all human beings is durable and enduring, and it will prevail over and above prejudices and myths.
Pretoria North is one of the last enclaves of the hard-line Afrikaner Voetrakker, a dying Boer Republic.
-Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Pretoria:firstname.lastname@example.org.