Being nice South Africans!
I probably shouldn’t be pushing a trolley in a clothing store, but I felt it would be easier than lugging a dozen bags of supplies around a mall. Suddenly, as if it was fate, I spotted the perfect outfit for a dinner function we had been invited to. Excitedly, I swung my trolley around, maneuvering the bulky vehicle in the opposite direction. In mid action – and as if someone had switched the scene to a ‘slow-mo’ clip, my trolley collided into a black man. Everything stopped. The trolley, me and the man came to a deadly standstill. We looked up at each other. For an instant, his reaction was to scowl at me, his eyebrows angled in a ‘V’ shape and his mouth ready to connect with his seemingly angry thoughts. With a big smile, I immediately apologized and asked him if he was alright. The smile and an honest apology diffused the tense moment and both of us went on our merry way. But his obvious disdain and instinctive aggression unsettled me. It got me thinking about South Africans and about our instinctive reactions in a situation and how they either contribute to the segregation and racial tension or how they make things better.
“People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude.” – John C Maxwell
One week later, I witnessed a second negative racial interaction. I was in the ladies toilets at the Durban King Shaka International Airport. A black lady was mopping the floor and had one last little area to mop. A white lady, unintentionally, on exiting the toilet went directly to the nearest tap to wash her hands, which happened to be around the small area that still needed mopping. The black lady continued to mop that area…in close proximity to the other ladies feet! Suddenly there was an eruption of words: “You’ve got the whole bathroom to mop, but you have to mop around MY feet.” The white lady then looked up at me, shook her head as if I was completely with her on this because we were of the same race, and commented, “Can you believe these people?” Then stormed out.
I thought she looked ridiculous and her behavior angered me. I felt for the bewildered toilet cleaner who stood there speechless and confused by the irrational and insulting outburst.
“It was so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.” – Nelson Mandela
It was only a small moment, yet it was so destructive especially in this exceptionally sensitive time in South Africa. If any race-related progress had existed in that cleaner’s life, I’m pretty sure that that incident would have challenged her feelings about white South Africans. I’ve witnessed and experienced a number of these type interactions since moving back here 3 months ago to the extent that I wanted to write about it. Every shade of South African is guilty!
While South Africans are sick to death with hearing about race issues, I feel that for many of us, we are our own worst enemy. So often, our first reaction to something is hostile. When an accident occurs between people of different colour, we instinctively assume it’s race related, or intentional or ‘typical behaviour’ of that race. And we forget ourselves. We forget who we are. We forget to be nice people and we let the ugly head of racial issues become us.
My first few months back ‘home’ have been interesting. And it’s with certainty that I can say that South Africans cannot be painted with one brush. I have seen for myself, how one small interaction between 2 different people is so incredibly powerful; either taking us forward on the bumpy road or throwing us back to the start line and to ‘begin again.’
Yesterday, I sat in Home Affairs with my son waiting for my new passport. There weren’t enough seats and so my black neighbour very kindly shifted a long his seat and made space for my young son. He then said, “Don’t worry my friend, in about 18 years, you’ll get your own chair!”
It was a small act of kindness peppered with good humour – an interaction that took me forward on my South African journey and fueled the feeling of hope and positivism for our country. And all it took was someone simply ‘being nice.’
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia