The white man’s last outpost: His 4x4
Whiteness and toxic masculinity are a pigeon pair on South African roads
It is a crisp Tuesday morning and the Wheels of the Bus is playing. I’m 26, a new mother with a six-week-old baby in the back of my car. I’m driving at 120km an hour, the maximum speed for the N2, when a double-cab bakkie appears in my rear-view mirror, in all its gleaming, gargantuan splendour. The driver, a middle-aged white man, hovers centimetres from my towbar. He revs loudly to intimidate me, I suppose, into changing lanes. This hostility, so familiar it is almost intimate, succeeds in frightening me. Despite the Babyon-Board sign being in full view, he hoots incessantly. I veer into the left lane.
It could be the enormity of this make of vehicle, its expense or horsepower, but something about the 4x4 channels a brand of violence and entitlement so particular to white men that this routine aggression is tolerated as much as it is commonplace.
There is no city where I’ve been on the receiving end of this aggression any more than in my hometown, East London, where white men in double-cab bakkies straddle the road with the gall usually reserved for boxing rings. Like actors out of a Leon Schuster movie, these men drive as if their very manhood is at stake, as if speed and aggression are acceptable expressions of their power, as if ignoring social niceties and putting other people in danger are natural demonstrations of masculinity.
Ironically, these drivers, who often transport their black staff on the back of canopyless bakkies, are the same people who bemoan the misbehaviour of the minibus taxis and the blue-light brigade. Forgetting is convenient. The pointed finger never points back.
I grew up with a motor vehicle assessor for a father. My family members are petrol heads. My father spent his 20s in a Mazda Rotary at the Kyalami race track in Johannesburg, my grandfather and uncle tending to its engine between races. Perhaps these are the reasons it’s always struck me how white masculinity, ever-explosive, often deadly, intersects in an almost Machiavellian performance with its counterpart, white femininity, on our roads.
It’s possible to be a belligerent driver and a gentler person away from the wheel. But if we are to interrogate its roots, we should call this behaviour what it is: violent. We should contextualise it within the private and public spheres, and interrogate how it may illustrate, in broad strokes, the misogyny and racism of white men. We are, after all, a country talking back to the white cisman, who was, arguably, the face of apartheid.
Perhaps because it is no longer legal to perform white masculinity in the ways previous governments afforded older generations, the road, as potholed and flawed as any other stomping ground, has become a convenient stage, one of the last outposts, for the white male to flagrantly flaunt his bad behaviour and bigotry.
My father often tells me that there are things tow-truck drivers, car assessors and panel beaters cannot unsee. “You must hear the stories the guys tell me,” he says, referring to the morbid scenes of accident crashes and car wreckages. When I am 12 years old, I overhear some of these same men boasting about the speeds they reach in vehicles too modified to function properly on ordinary roads.
When I am 14, one of those men, at the time a new father, races a fellow car assessor from East London to Mthatha. In his rush to beat his colleague, he risks a head-on collision and overtakes a long line of cars. Still on the wrong side of the road, in his little Corsa GSI, he meets a horseand-trailer truck. The car is ripped apart. He dies instantly. His remains are strewn across the road.
In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone says: “But while some women may still attempt to achieve their freedom vicariously through the struggle of the black man or other racially oppressed (also biologically distinct) groups, many other women have resigned from this struggle altogether. Instead, they choose to embrace their oppression, identifying their own interests with those of their men in the vain hope that power may rub off; their solution has been to obliterate their own poor egos — often by love — in order to merge completely into the powerful egos of their men. This hopeless identification is the racism of white women.”
It is 2000. Our ride: a sky-blue 1994 Volkswagen Jetta, paint peeling, rust setting in. My sister and I, then five and 11 respectively, sit quietly on the back seat. It’s 7am and we’re waiting for the first morning rush to bleed away into the red brick of our model C school. Ahead of us, an angry snake of cars, hissing and spluttering into the cold tar. Behind us, a minibus taxi. We both see it in the rear-view mirror. We turn to watch as the seasoned driver hitches the pavement with expert ease, slipping into the spaces the long line of Mercedes and BMWs and RAV4s have left.
The taxi nears us and we glance at other cars, watching their white occupants, who are quickly riled. We sit tjoepstil as our own father releases a stream of expletives, ending in an explosive last fuck just as the white man in the vehicle beside us, the father of a child we recognise, disembarks his steaming vehicle to give the taxi driver a piece of his mind.
His daughter stares straight ahead. Her father threatens the driver of the taxi, using fists and curse words, finishing with a final, racist flourish. The taxi driver winds up his window and steams ahead, while our father revs loudly. The girl begins to cry. Her father hoots at the car in front of us. We watch our father select first gear. We arrive at school.
Did we make excuses for his behaviour? Probably. As daughters of white fathers, we know that our history of white masculinities is sacrosanct; one daren’t question what Dad did at the Border or try to place it in its historical context. These glory days are not to be linked to apartheid or racism. One crack at trying to discuss the army in these terms is invitation for a swift glance from Mom and a spiel about you “weren’t there, you can’t understand”.
For most white children, to this day, home is where racism and sexism and all manner of prejudice are tended to like potted plants, watered and pruned, flourishing in the keen sun of cheek-turning mothers and blind-eyed children. Standing up to Dad is invitation to abuse: verbal, physical, financial.
Yet, in these same homes, families discuss in rapt detail the devastation of black schoolchildren dying in overcrowded taxis, but fail to recognise that for many of these families a minibus taxi is the only available transport to school.
We refuse self-reflexivity, conveniently forgetting our sins of disorderly and drunken driving, children in tow, and our disregard for the rules of the road, so inflated by the size and horsepower of vehicles bought for the price of a large bond that we cannot turn the gaze inwards lest its basilisk gaze shatter the glass houses we have built.
Imight argue then, that the double cab is the white nuclear family turned inside out. All our deformities and dysfunction are on rare display, so extravagantly, so blindly obvious that it is embarrassing. And deadly. How apt the metaphor, how almost poetic: wifey in the passenger seat, shushing the kidlets who cry with every violent swerve, while daddy threatens other drivers, pushes the speed limit, hurls abuse at smaller cars, women drivers, black drivers. As if his 4x4 is a great war machine, and his wife, with her silent compliance, is the evergreen promise of absolution as long as she shuts up.
The conundrum of the child is to call out Dad and risk a klap or clam up and swallow the petrol-fuelled, myopic behaviour of the man who so quickly transforms from a doting daddy to a monster behind the wheel, replicating the moods and mores of life at home.
In much the same way that the infamous Spur video played out, the white woman will argue with her partner, but only up to a point. He raises his voice, his hand. She acquiesces, falls back into line. Knowingly or unknowingly, she does not risk her proximity to the white man, a pattern her children absorb and replicate.
Back to my 26th year. Newborn waking. Seething, wishing I could ask the man whether he gets his kicks from being a bully, if the vehicle manufacturer supplied instructions detailing how to frighten other drivers.
He passes me with luxuriant ease, shoots me an angry look. I want to raise my middle finger in a last, childish attempt at defiance. I think he knows this. He slows, moves in, threatening to push me off the road, and then laughs when he sees my panic.
Mouthing off silently through the glass. I want to stop my car on the side of the road and march over to him, ask: Are you out of your mind? But I don’t. I’m scared.
An ex-boyfriend found the “woman driver, no survivor” joke quite amusing. Remember that these are the men we white women go home to, the men that we defend. How much hatred brews between the sheets? How many relationships are tested by the gear lever?
The double-cab driver pulls off with a smirk. I realise how pointless my questions are and press my rage into the accelerator pedal.