Koos Kombuis
Koos Kombuis

The unbearable whiteness of being a middle-aged Afrikaans male

When I was recently asked to perform a few of my songs at the private birthday party of an old fan from the Voëlvry era, I agreed.

“I don’t like performing at private parties, but at least these people won’t be a bunch of potbellied Afrikaans right-wingers,” I said to my wife. “This guy says that all his friends had been, in some way or other, involved in the anti-apartheid struggle when they were at university.”

So I got on a plane and off to Joburg I went to attend this gathering of old liberal stalwarts.

The evening started off pleasantly enough. I arrived in my rented car at the gigantic mansion in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg promptly at half-past seven, hoping to be back at my guest house by about 10. As I mingled with the guests before my performance was about to begin, I could hear snatches of conversation around me that intrigued me.

“When we went to Dakar … ”

“No, Polstu was before my time … ”

“Remember when we used to smoke dope at Kerkorrel’s concert … ”

Somewhere during the course of the evening, however, I made a decision that would later prove to be disastrous.

Since all these people were more or less of my own age group, and obviously shared my political persuasion, I decided I might just as well take the liberty of inviting one or more of them to help sponsor my next album. They were obviously affluent, and I reckoned I had a good chance of attracting an investor among these people.

During my set, I made my pitch, performed one of the songs from my planned new CD, and added as an afterthought: “If anyone is interested to help me with this project, and you have a business that can give us approximately hundred grand in exchange for their name on the album cover, please think about it. But don’t talk to me about it tonight. Please send me an email tomorrow. We’ve all had a few drinks, and I don’t like talking business at parties.”

The birthday boy, a 50-year-old man whom I remembered from my days at Stellenbosch, was very friendly after I concluded my performance. He took me on a tour of his house and showed me the magnificent view he had of the Johannesburg skyline from his upstairs balcony. He also said, “I’m sure one of my friends will be able to help you out with that sponsorship deal,” he said.

“That’s very nice,” I said. “I hope I hear from them. I’m going to go back to the guest house now.”

“What? You can’t go home now! The party’s just begun!”

“It’s been a rough couple of weeks,” I explained. “First the Woordfees, then the KKNK. And I have a lunchtime show tomorrow in Pretoria.”

He did not quite seem to understand, but I left it at that, and went back downstairs to pack up my stuff. Surely no-one could FORCE me to stay for the rest of the night?

Before picking up my guitar case to leave, I realised that I was suddenly very thirsty. I needed a non-alcoholic drink for the road. So I made my way to the kitchen, filled up a glass with Coke, and started walking back to the front door.

Someone grabbed me by the sleeve, pulled me down and said: “Sit with us! We need to talk about that sponsorship!”

I tried to break free, but the next moment I found myself seated against my will, surrounded by a group of men in suits who were leaning forward, watching me intently, and all talking at the same time. They were all trying simultaneously to explain to me who they were. From the garbled monologues, I gathered that most of them were either CEOs or the lawyers of CEOs.

“We’ll give you a hundred thousand rand! No strings attached!” one shouted.

“Why are you drinking Coke? Waiter, bring this man a gin and tonic!” another one gesticulated loudly to one of the black members of the sound crew.

“I really don’t feel like drinking any more alcohol, I still have to drive,” I explained, and once again tried to get up.

Once again, I was pulled back. Physically. And then I was forced to listen, for almost 10 minutes, to a litany of business plans, ideas, proposals to become the “face” of this or that product in exchange for money, etc, etc.

When, eventually, someone handed me a drink, and refused, an uproar ensued.

“You’re not going home now! No way!”

One of the men leaned close to me, and started talking at me very loudly at very close quarters.

“Do you KNOW why I want to SPONSOR you?” he said. “Because I BELIEVE in the STRUGGLE, like you! I’m not a RACIST! BLACKS LOVE ME! I go to SOWETO REGULARLY! You must come and SPEND TWO DAYS with me in SOWETO!”

I wanted to ask him, “So why are there no blacks at this party apart from the sound engineers, whom nobody has mingled with at all?”

But I knew it was time to end the dialogue. I got up for, what I hoped, would be the last time.

The man in front of me responded by trying to stand up and pushed me backwards violently with his hands, almost making me lose my foothold.

That seemed to break the spell. Suddenly, I was outside the group, half-falling, spilling my drink. I simply turned around and carried on running, leaving the drunken mob behind.

How I got out of that house with no-one coming after me, I’m still not sure. Presumably they were all much drunker than me.

I still regret that I never had the chance to greet my host. But I simply could no longer handle all that craziness.

As I finally got into my car, and drove away, I had a flash of insight.

For the first time in my life, I understood, really understood, TRULY understood, a certain concept, which until then, had been meaningless to me.

For the first time, I actually understood what the term “whiteness” meant.

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