Excerpts: Pages 128, 129, 211, 212 from a book

Power Lines by Jason Carter (forward by Jimmy Carter); 

National Geographic Press, 2002

 

128 POWER LINES

"No, the people are really nice and I have been there a while so they know me. It's really great."

 

"Are you going back there right now?"

 

"Yeah, and actually, I need to go catch a taxi."

 

"A black taxi?"

 

I should have said that most of them were actually red or green or white, but I just said, "Yes."

 

"My God." They were still interrupting each other to show their concern. "Honestly, you must be careful. You know, they'll kill you and take your money just like that." Snap. "Please be careful.... My God, you just walk over to the black taxis? Behind the shopping center?"

 

"Yes, ma'am, and I actually do need to go. Thank y'all so much. I'll be sure to go by the Riverside next time I'm in town."

 

I walked down the street and across the parking lot to the taxi rank.    In so doing, I realized I was crossing a border that few others could cross.  As I sat in the taxi, I reflected that I must be one of the freest people in South Africa. Both in front and in back of the Sanlam Sentrum, people were paralyzed by their fear of each other. Black people couldn't approach a travel agent, and white people couldn't take a taxi.

 

Fear is the key emotion between white and black in South Africa. It defines their relationships at all times, throughout the country. Black people in Ermelo wouldn't look me in the eye because they were afraid. White people thought I was crazy, and they thought the same thing about the other white volunteers in my group.

 

Anna Domenico, for example, is white, from Boulder, Colorado. She speaks Zulu, English, and maybe a little Italian, but she doesn't like to speak unless she really has something to say. She was a good friend of mine during training. She loved Bra Sphiwe, my father in Kromdraai, and taught him a bunch of new songs for his guitar. If you had asked me to describe my idea of a Peace Corps volunteer before I left the U.S., I would have imagined Anna.

 

TOWN 129

The Peace Corps had placed her on a farm near Piet Relief. That town was more conservative than Ermelo and farmers in general were not known for their cosmopolitan views on racial justice. Anna’s supervisor, the principal of one of the schools built on farmers’ land, had asked permission from the owner of the farmland for a volunteer to come and live in a tiny community of mud houses on his farm. He agreed.

 

When Anna arrived, she had a nice place to stay It had no electricity and no water, but she met fun and friendly people. Eventually she went to see the farmer and his wife. They had a beautiful home with a computer Internet access, plenty of food, extra guest rooms, and satellite TV.

 

We think you should stay with us," the farmer said.

 

"No really, thank you so much." Anna replied. "But I like the place where I am staying. The Peace Corps requires that you live with the people you work with, and that you live as close to their lifestyle as possible. The last thing she needed, as a white American, was to be set further apart from her community and teachers than she already was.

 

The farmer would not have it. Anna eventually had to leave the community until the Peace Corps leadership came from Pretoria to explain their policy to the white community. The farmer remained obdurate. Yes, he had agreed to allow a volunteer to live there, but he had no idea it would be a woman, and he certainly had not known she would be white. If they think they can live with her, in the same house, what are they going to think about me and my wife?"

 

It was an interesting question. Not everyone, it seemed, was ready for the answer.

 

IN CONVERSATIONS WITH WHITE PEOPLE, I FOUND THAT MOST WERE not necessarily against the idea of Americans coming to South Africa to live and work in the black community.  But such a lifestyle choice was outside the realm of their imagination. They themselves would have never even considered it an option.

 

 

<< snip, snip, snip >>

 

FOREIGNER 211

surface of what racism meant. In America, like many people, I knew how to talk about racism. But I never really felt like I was living with it until I came to South Africa.

 

Coming to an utterly race-obsessed society where people in my small group of closest friends were harassed, where my job, my neighborhood, and my life made me constantly aware of my color, allowed me, for what-ever reason, to finally look black Americans in the face and talk clearly and truthfully about race. And, I think, South Africa allowed my friends to talk to me in different ways as well. Perhaps we were able to discuss issues more openly because we could pretend to be talking about South African racism, as opposed to America's. Whatever the reason, I had never been as close to anyone of another race as I was to the three African-American women who lived as volunteers in the valley below Lochiel and a few other African Americans whom I shared times with while I was in the Peace Corps.

 

Pretoria was an ideal place to get together and test tolerances. A group of us, black and white, men and women, would go out on the town. If we went to white restaurants, we would get terrible service. We might go to a black club, and the people there would not know what to do when the whites spoke their language and the blacks did not.

 

Hatfield, Pretoria's nightlife center, borders the University of Pretoria, one of the finest colleges in South Africa and a well-known bastion of conservatism. Hatfield Square was often filled with college kids, and after months in dusty African villages, we would feel like sailors on shore leave. One night we walked into a club called Ed's Diner. The bar, located on a lively street, had an American fifties theme. We did not know that this theme extended to racist behavior as well. We went there because they have a dance floor in the back. Other than our group, there were no black people in the club. At one point, C. D., who had dread-locks and played football at Howard, was dancing with Anna, my friend from Boulder, Colorado, who lived on the farm near Piet Retief. I was dancing with Marci, an African-American woman. Apparently Marcus,

 

212 POWER LINES

who is biracial and was dancing with another white volunteer, was just too dark for some of the boys at the bar.

 

I overheard: "Can you believe they're in here dancing with white girls? I'm going to kill that guy." They started bumping into us, spilling our drinks. We were all tottering a little after a night of drinking, and I started to get fired up. My freedom-fighter attitude was in full swing, and I wanted to tell these guys what I thought. Thankfully, someone in our group less belligerent than I decided we had better leave and began to usher us out.

 

As we left, a college student reached out and grabbed C. D.'s hair.  C. D. pulled away and glared at him, but he refrained from saying any-thing and continued walking. The young man and two of his friends followed him out. "Hey, you! I can touch your hair if I want to! Are you telling me that I can't touch you, if I want to?"

 

"What do you mean?" asked C. D., maintaining his normal diplomatic demeanor.

 

"I'm from the Free State," the guy said, referring to the Orange Free State, a conservative province. "Do you know what that means?"

 

"What?" C. D. said. "That you're an asshole?"

 

I had had a few too many drinks, and I ran up behind them cursing and yelling, just in time to hear the man call C. D. "boy." I thought C. D.'s eyes were going to pop out of his head.

 

Kathleen, a white woman from our group, offered a few conciliatory words, and the group of Free Staters turned around and walked back into the bar. C. D., Marcus, and I were led back to the taxis yelling, but a fight was avoided. On some level our behavior was a provocation, and we should have expected this response. But that did not make our anger less justified. For the African Americans in my group, the possibility of this type of confrontation was always in the back of their minds. Their freedom in white South Africa was drastically curtailed, not because all whites were like the boys from Ed's, but because it was difficult to tell which ones were.