Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

White privilege: The more things change…

I gaped at the size of the property. I stood with the owner, Peter, on a side balcony of their spacious, slightly dilapidated home. Down below, the tennis courts were dwarfed by the ring of woods surrounding its fence. Some were sagging from the cascade of trees pushing through wires or pressing down the horizontal, rusty poles of the court fence. At the time, about a year ago, I was finishing off a master’s degree at the University of Auckland with no prospect of the degree leading to employment. Then, I did not own a vehicle. Fortunately, their property was in easy walking distance.

After Peter took me on a long walk around the estate I turned and looked at him, a spry accountant in his late seventies. He’d told me he and his wife had lived in this home along with its huge grounds in North Shore, Auckland, for fifty two years. His blue eyes shimmered with nostalgia.

Fifty two years. I tried to grasp this length of time. Coming from South Africa, and sometimes feeling I had changed home nearly as often as one changes clothes (never mind having lived in four countries), this “stability” was difficult for me to absorb. It is a rootedness not uncommon among many Kiwis over the age of fifty here in Auckland. Peter had a stillness and an assurance about him. He did not have the restlessness of many immigrants, such as the numerous South Africans and Chinese who come to New Zealand. Peter was somewhat frail and spindly as he had recently recovered from a bout of cancer. He told me how he once used to look after the entire property on his own. I watched him amble about, picking at the leaves in the large bowl of a pot plant. His was a slower generation. It was built on a sense of groundedness and easy patriotism: the camaraderie of a solid little country seemingly unspoiled (in those days) by avarice. Where life, it appears, was straightforward and people were, broadly speaking, not the victims of current politics and wretched histories.

His wife Jenny came onto the deck. She was thrilled to meet me. “You are a South African?” she cried. “Oh, how we are so glad to meet you. We were really impressed with the initiative you used putting your fliers into postboxes. The grounds” — she swept her pale hand and eyes across the woods and tennis courts below — “really need good maintaining”.

I watched the way her hand and her eyes took in the property. Then I tried to comprehend what it was like to be able to use a hand in that manner, with that casual gesture of ownership. And to look on a property that you had been living on for more than half a century. My mind returned a blank.

“We are so glad your country has so utterly … changed,” she added. “We — my husband and I — ” she made that sweeping gesture again, “were so supportive of the end of white rule. I was a member of the Black Sash, you know, and had many of those women over at our home after they left your country. We even had the pleasure of meeting Desmond Tutu … ”

I was amused by what she was saying. She had no clue where I stood on the sensitive politics of South Africa. Did she even know if I was anti-apartheid or not? Most definitely I am anti-apartheid, or any form of exploitation.

As Jenny led me down to a once-manicured rose garden far below the deck to show me where she wanted to have the water sprinklers relaid and how she would like the bushes pruned, she made brief mentions of her relationship with South Africa. I kept quiet, feeling her version of what really went on in my home country came out of a Mills & Boon novelette. Did she really understand the utter hell of exploitation, of entire “races” oppressed and denied basic rights like freedom of movement, a living wage and the vote? And all this while white people used and abused them as cheap labour?

Later I raked the garden and stuffed leaves and dead rose branches into a bag, avoiding the spiky thorns. The way I handled the rose branches without being pricked reminded me of the way a history of a country might be rewritten: you smooth out the narratives and avoid the thorny, painful bits. The ones that make you bleed afresh. Then you pack it all neatly into a bag.

Over the following weeks I cleared out of their woods heaps of leaves and branches. There were other projects, such as planting new hibiscus along one of the distant boundary fences “to give the home more privacy”, as Jenny and Peter said. Sometimes Jenny spoke to me and I thought about her love for the way South Africa clawed its way to “freedom”, and their little part in it out here in New Zealand. She mentioned the rallies they joined opposing the rugby “Rebel Tour” and the vigils and demonstrations for the Sharpeville shootings. Or collecting and sending financial aid to the then banned ANC, the “true government of the people”, as Jenny put it. I couldn’t figure out if she knew she was only reciting the standard party line of many banned “governments”.

Pay day. This was every Friday, and I would stand outside on the back deck waiting for Peter to come out of the house with the cash. This was on the same deck where I could see the tennis courts, and not far from the toilet I was allowed to use. Peter liked me to re-count the cash in front of him (I liked that idea too). Once, as I counted, he said, “One of our accountant associates is a South African, by the way.” I nodded and carefully put the cash into a packet and put that into my backpack. “Such amazing hard workers” he added with a smile. I smiled back. South Africans do have that reputation.

The nitty-gritty of my wages. I was paid by the hour, and yes, it was slightly above the so-called government “minimum wage”. Excellent choice of words, that. It is not called a “living wage” because the minimum wage isn’t something you can live on. But what I was earning — at the time — still was not exactly money where one could have any left over for the “rainy days”, never mind retirement. Luckily, I then lived with my partner’s family and, thankfully, did not have to pay rent. But that was a situation which could not last forever.

I slogged away and loved the work on their grounds. To this day, in this simple work, mostly on my own, I find serenity. I hauled massive bags of leaves and branches up a hillside to where the son would collect it all with his ute. After a month I felt I had proven myself. I could see both Jenny and Peter were well pleased with my efforts. The lawns and the paths in the woods were free of the thick, dusty carpets of leaves. So I politely emailed them a request for a raise and mentioned a modest figure I would be happy with.

Two days later I received a reply from them. “We can easily get anyone to come work for us on your current wage. We can’t give you a raise. Sorry. Regards, Jenny and Peter.”

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