I was fortunate last week to attend the Fourth World Summit on Arts and Culture at Museum Africa in Newtown last week.
The theme of the summit was “Meeting of Cultures: Creating Meaning Through the Arts”. For three days, we talked about intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity and everyone was agreed, roughly, on the need for both.
However, this message did not seem to reach everyone and two incidents made me realise just how ingrained racism is in our society.
The first incident happened after the second day of the summit when African delegates (as in delegates from African countries) met to discuss the formation of an African chapter of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACCA), which hosted the summit.
There was huge support from the international agency and other African countries for a South African who had been instrumental in putting the summit together to be appointed as the interim coordinator of this chapter, but, of course, there were objections from some South African delegates: because this person was not considered black by them.
This person happens to be classified as “coloured” in South African racial terms and I have always thought that such people were considered black in terms of our Constitution.
Not that that should have mattered. The only thing that should have mattered was whether this person was capable of doing the job.
The second incident was maybe not as significant but it was certainly more crass.
On the second evening of the summit, we were driven to Maropeng, close to the Sterkfontein caves, for a dinner and an introduction to what South Africans like to believe is the “cradle of humankind”.
After an hour’s drive, we arrived at Maropeng and, once we got inside, we realised that our driver did not quite know where he was supposed to take us. In fact, he dropped us off at a completely wrong venue.
Once we got back on the bus, one of the employees of the National Arts Council (NAC) of South Africa, who were co-sponsoring the event, asked the driver whether he had GPS in the bus, because that would indicate to us where we had to go.
The driver responded curtly that he had been to Maropeng more than a hundred times. When the NAC employee tried to suggest that he should check his GPS, he responded even more abruptly. The NAC employee then said: “I need to take your name because you are being very rude” to which the driver responded loudly: “No, you are being damned fucking rude.”
Those of us in the bus, including people from all over the world, were completely shocked at the response of the bus driver.
As we got off the bus, I heard the driver telling a security guard: “He thinks we can go back to the days when they used to call us kaffirs.”
The driver, as you might have guessed, was what we in South Africa call African or black or African black (I can’t keep up anymore). The NAC employee was a fair-skinned “coloured”.
The driver was young and probably never experienced apartheid, while the NAC employee was much older and lived through apartheid. In fact, I spoke to him later and he recalled how his family had suffered under the Group Areas Act and other apartheid legislation.
I thought that, just because he is black or African or African black, the driver thought that gave him the right to accuse a “coloured” man, who knows more about apartheid than him, of racism.
At the summit, I had shared a panel with author and journalist Max du Preez and poet Lebo Mashile. I was much more positive than both of them about the situation in South Africa today. After these two incidents, I found myself thinking that maybe I was wrong to be so positive. Maybe we are so deep in the racial morass that we can’t get out of it again. I hope I am wrong and can still remain positive.