I was just quickly catching up with last weekend’s New York Times Book Review before I leave, and read the review by Adam Kirsch of “Letters From Johannesburg: Fifty years’ worth of essays from the Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer”. Her book is called Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008.
One couldn’t move in the artistic circles in Johannesburg without coming across Nadine Gordimer and she was, obviously, a revered figure. (She also happens to live next door to my dear, dear friend in a quiet, tree-lined neighbourhood in Johannesburg.) Her voice against apartheid was valiant, and so it was arresting to read in the review about her “sense of personal injury when she observes, in 1977, a growing black contempt for white leftists”. She is quoted as saying, “The thing is those whites failed: failure in the ranks of those who have power is not forgiven by those without power.”
I suppose whites who lived through the years of apartheid will always ask, “what more could I have done?” Even someone with a powerful platform like Nadine Gordimer or Athol Fugard had to fall short in some way. If you were not of the struggle, your attempts to ameliorate things from the outside seemed at best noble and at worst futile. My own personal response was minimalist. I didn’t have a powerful platform, I didn’t have the psychological make-up to be an activist, and so I reduced it to trying to treat each person I came across as an individual – to avoid thinking of people a part of a mass and, in that way, not to think of “them and us”. But it’s hard when everything in the country, from the legal system down, is mitigating against that.
When I was a student at the Drama School attached to the University of Cape Town we were doing a production of “The Bacchae”. Playing the role of Dionysus was a young man who was of Malaysian heritage, and he was one of the most exquisitely beautiful people I have ever seen. But it wasn’t just a physical beauty. He was also a wonderful, warm, gentle man. One night, keyed up after a rehearsal, we were discussing where we could go for a late night snack. Ideas were batted back and forth and then one of us became aware that our Dionysus was quietly disengaging himself from the group and unobtrusively slipping away. He knew what we had not thought of; he would not be allowed admittance to any of the places we were thinking of patronizing. We ended up going to someone’s home for our late night snack. That brought it all home to me. What I had been aware of in abstract terms, became a reality just like that.
Another experience I had as a student still haunts me. I was mailing something in a post office and was in line behind an elderly Black woman. It turned out she was mailing a package back to her rural village. She asked the clerk behind the counter to address the package for her, and had the address on a scrap of paper. He angrily, and loudly, told her that he didn’t have time to do this and, as the exchange went forward, it became clear that the woman was unable to write herself. With a brusqueness born out of embarrassment for the situation, I took the package from her and wrote out the address. And she was so grateful that she took my hand and kissed it, thanking me in broken English. It still makes me hot with shame to think of it. Here was an elderly woman being treated appallingly by the clerk, and being grateful to me only because I’d had the privilege of having an education to which she should have been entitled.
We talk hopefully of a post racial society in America now that we have our first Black President but the racially based incidents that continue to bubble to the surface are an indication that that utopian state has not yet arrived. Even leaving aside the truly racist elements, one wonders how long it will take for the sense of injury on the one hand and the sense of overcompensating hypersensitivity on the other to give way to a situation where race is really not an issue.