On the flight out here I read a rather brilliant essay in The Spectator by the white South Africa writer Rian Malan.
While being somewhat scornful of what he sees as our obsession with crime rates here, he also lacks enthusiasm for what he calls “the joyous new society Nelson Mandela seems bent on creating”.
But, after a fine night out in Soweto, he concedes there might be more to what he calls “this Rainbow Nation guff” than he thought.
So is it guff or not? I’m anxious to know. Two factors hamper my research: firstly, I’m not quite sure how to ask the question.
I’ve had the odd stab at it but find my voice trailing away before I get to the end of the sentence: “how’s the, er, black-white thing, er, going, these days?” Or “how are you all, you know, getting along now?” It sounds fatuous; probably because it is.
My research effort is also restricted by the long hours we’re working and our extremely strict security team, who more or less ban us from going anywhere without them.
Accordingly, any conclusions I reach will have to be based on what I see in the only five places I spend time in: our apartment block in the middle-class area of Sandton; the Pick n Pay supermarket nearby; a bar round the corner, and the studio.
With such limited material to go on, every encounter I have assumes vast opinion-forming significance. A good example came at the local hospital–the sixth place I’ve spent time at.
Stricken by a very minor eye infection, I was dispatched for a consultation with an embarrassingly eminent eye surgeon. A sign by the entrance to the Morningside Medi-Clinic tells us it was opened in 1985 by some city councillor with a forbidding sounding Afrikaans name–1985! So recent, yet Nelson still had five years to serve and that, you know, apartheid thing, was still happening.
The surgeon, like most white South Africans, looked like a cross between Graeme Hick and François Pienaar. When he asked me which is my dominant eye I couldn’t tell him.
“Well, how would you hold a rifle?” he demanded. “Absolutely no idea,” I replied.
He told me that he treated Mandela. “What’s he like?” I asked carefully.
“Incredible man,” he replied, up close and personal, shining a light in my eye. “Absolutely awesome.”
I breathed a sigh of relief all over him. Terrific! The Rainbow Nation’s a reality. This white eye surgeon likes Mandela so it must be!
I’m ludicrously nice to any black person I meet. Even as I write two women are cleaning the kitchen. They are plainly tiring of my chit-chat; they don’t need any more grovelling thanks for doing the ironing. They just want to get the job done and be on their way.
But the encounters I find myself most closely scrutinising are those between black and white people. I find myself straining to capture every sound and movement the white person makes. Is the (white) security guy giving enough respect or our (black) driver? Yes. Good.
In the gym at our apartment block the other day my very white, very muscular, very South African personal trainer was distracted briefly by another client, an Indian woman asking several questions in very poor English. It went on forever. I scoured his face for any sign of race-based irritation, eye-rolling or anything negative at all. Nothing. I on the other hand was glaring at the stupid woman for using up my time.
At the supermarket yesterday I was stuck in the queue behind a big square-shouldered white guy having trouble with his debit card. The black checkout woman kept trying and failing to put it through the machine.
Anxiously, fatuously, I found myself waiting for this dispute to deteriorate and divide along racial lines. The bloke tapped his Blackberry in fury, called his bank, huffed and puffed and shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other. She looked helpless.
Eventually he barked something into his Blackberry, apologised profusely to the supermarket woman for wasting her time and shouted “Bloody banks. Useless.” We all smiled and agreed.
All was well.