Our new era has made ‘lib­er­als’ out of most

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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.

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