Our new era has made ‘liberals’ out of most
WE CAN name the day that South Africa officially changed forever, although we may pick different days. Top of the Pops is obviously April 27, 1994, but I have some sympathy with the strict logical-minded who say that that step was the fulfilment of the step of February 2, 1990, when FW de Klerk pulled the shutters down on 336 years of white rule.
Whichever, what’s slowly penetrated my skull ever since, and the pace is accelerating, is the million little ways of change that we never thought of on either of those days; the tiny ways that human beings tune their practices to their times.
A week ago we had workmen in the house. One of them needed the toilet. I show him to the toilet. He says thanks and enters, no big deal.
I’m left thinking back a decade or more to the last time a workman needed the same facility and I showed him the same room.
That guy was scandalised. No, no, he couldn’t do this, where was the girl’s room? (His terminology.)
He was only mollified when our stately elderly housekeeper took time out to assure him that she was extremely familiar with the business end of this piece of equipment.
Adding I believe a few Zulu words regarding appellation.
Of course, these two workmen were different people, but I’ll bet that central to the different response is the different era.
My week went on to deliver many small examples of continuing change of hearts and minds and basic attitudes.
Overwhelmingly, I would say, these changes cluster around us silently embracing the idea that we are one species.
The old state had left us all (or nearly) taking one look at someone else and consigning them to their race-category box before we saw anything else about them. For years after the big change, we went on seeing each other as a walking representative of this race or that race.
Now that habit is on the ropes, which is not all credit to South African wisdom and maturity.
The triumph of the first-name, for instance, is in the world around us. People call their boss by first-name, they call the chairman by first-name. It would be bizarre, now, to have a different way to address someone of a different race.
Still, let’s take some credit. We started from a low base. We have skidded with alacrity into the world of reciprocal equal respect. In the last year I’ve had one person say “baas” and nought persons say “master”.
I rarely hear coarse words for dark people, and I have the strong sense that the few who use those words know now that they are branded as cretins, and not just by “liberals”.
In fact virtually everyone is a liberal now, in that word’s significant meaning – you respect people for who they are, not for their birth or status.
I’d be happy to see “Mlungu” take a bit of downturn.
This can have its innocent fun – I have an ex-employee who introduces me as “mlungu wami”, my white man, like a farmhand in the 1950s.
But when in the ranks of the newly great and extremely rich a pale face is obligatorily greeted as “Mlungu!”, one can worry.
Are they smokers as well, and homophobes, stuck in the past in other ways?
They might take a lesson from their humbler brethren, who get by without Being Affirmed, and who call people race-free terms, like “mnumzane” or “mfowethu”, or “daddy” or “professor” when the ages are right.
But on balance we are learning that when the political circus shrieks about racism, it isn’t us ordinary South Africans they’re talking of.