Living in South Africa you know in the back of your mind that it will happen to you. You don’t leave stuff in the back of your car, you leave your phone at home when you walk around at night, you get burglar bars and the extra lock on your door… but eventually it happens. About three weeks ago it happened to me.
Three of us went hiking in Houtbay. We were a good 45 minutes up the mountain, overlooking the ocean, when we turned around and two coloured guys were walking along the pathway. Growing up in South Africa you learn to be very sensitive to race, and I didn’t want to assume it was something bad straight off the bat, but none the less my heart caught in my throat. I hoped they would just ask for money or were just out to scare us a bit, but the moment we started walking the other way, they made their intentions clear. “You are too far to run back, there is no-one around so all we ask is your phones, money, watches etc” the one said with a smile, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Considering where we live, maybe it was. He pulled out a large, silver knife and held it out to us as if he was showing off a newly purchased item, not threatening, just emphasizing the point that we had no other choice.
Looking into the eyes of this young, coloured man, I guessed him to be in his early twenties. I felt as if I knew him, knew his story, his motives and how he came to this moment. Since I moved to Cape Town in 2010 up until the beginning of this year, I’ve spent a few days a week volunteering in the Cape Flats. I did my master’s research interviewing young, coloured men, such as the one before me, listening to their life stories. I understood how they had come to this. I assumed the young man before me had a hard life behind him. His father was probably deceased or an alcoholic/drug user. His mother probably had many children, trying to make a way in life, while caring for her children. He didn’t get much support from home and from an early age had to fend for himself, finding a means to gain access to money, food and other possessions. He probably started smoking weed before I had even heard of the word. He tried to fit in with his friends, had to fight to prove his manliness to the world, had to learn to stand up for himself because no one else was there to take care of him. He learned this from his friends, his parents and his community. He was just another link in the chain of poverty, living the life his parents had, and that his children would most likely also live. Looking into his eyes I felt I knew his story, because I’ve heard it so many times before. I knew his struggle and his pain.
But this didn’t make the moment any easier for me. The young men I interviewed for my thesis told me of the times they had robbed other people with a gun or with a knife. Hearing those stories impacted me, but I never really thought about their victims. In their stories, they were the focus and my heart went out to them, the young men, who had found themselves pushed into the story they had been living.
Now I was the victim. Knowing them, their stories, their motives, didn’t change that it was now happening to me. A day or two afterward I didn’t think it really affected me. You are scared in the moment, but adrenaline kicks in; you go to the police, take care of the necessary admin, tell people the story over and over again. For a day or two then it all passes because everyone has heard it before. It happens to so many people. We weren’t physically injured so we had come off “unscathed”.
However, one cannot walk away unaffected. No one has that luxury. I noticed changes in myself. Where I used to not mind giving a R2 to the car guard, I now feel resentment rise up inside of me, because if I didn’t give him anything, he would just take it off me if he could. I feel angry when I see people beg by the side of the road. I feel scared to walk down my own street at night. If I’m getting into my car and a dark figure approaches my heart beats into my throat.
What it has done to me is perpetuated the stereotype of the young, coloured male, in my mind. Without having decided it, I now assume the man at my window to be a threat to myself and I impose the characteristics of lazy and aggressive onto him. I am also well aware that my reaction perpetuates his stereotype of white people; that I am a “white bitch” who doesn’t care enough to give him even some small change. Thus he becomes more aggressive towards me and “my kind” and I become more resentful to him and “his kind”.
I type this, with no answer. I have no conclusion as to what to do or how to change this. Knowing their stories doesn’t make me less scared. I am quite aware of the impact this has on me and my reaction toward them and the reason for theirs towards me. But this doesn’t make it better. For the first time in my life I am seriously considering saying “fuck this country I’m moving”. Right now, I don’t see hope of it changing. I worked hard my whole life to not create a divide between “us” and “them”; the rich and the poor, black and white, cape flats or city bowl, pre-apartheid and post-apartheid. I’ve continually challenged myself on what I believed. I’ve tried to get to know people from all walks of life in an attempt to understand them better. But right now it seems like it caught up. I am angry at what that moment has changed in me. I’m angry at how powerless I felt in that situation. I am angry at now being scared in situations where I have never been before. I’m angry that I now see a “us” and a “them”.
This is my story. This is my experience. Whether you deem my reaction as “right” or “wrong”, please in your comments try not to attack or judge it. Or further reinforce a stereotype. It is what it is. It happened and I am processing.