The white man’s last out­post: His 4x4

White­ness and toxic mas­culin­ity are a pi­geon pair on South African roads

Mail & Guardian - - Narrative - Me­gan Ross

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.

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