What We Lose(4)

From a blog post, “Some Observations on Race and Security in South Africa,” January 6, 2015, by Mats Utas, a visitor to Durban from the Nordic Africa Institute

But how dangerous is it really? We try to investigate. Talking to taxi drivers is interesting. A black South African says that he would never walk around in downtown Durban late at night because of the immanent dangers.* He states that people are frequently robbed [during the] daytime or pickpocketed, but investigating further he has only once in his entire life been pickpocketed and never robbed. Nothing has been stolen from his home in one of the residential townships. An Indian taxi driver complains about the increased insecurity in the city, but he has never been robbed during the twenty years (!) he has run the taxi. Once his house was burglarized and the thief stole his wallet, phone and cigarettes—nothing more. His response was to raise the wall half a meter. The taxi agency he works for runs throughout the night, and although most of the company’s drivers are Indians, the nighttime drivers are black, actually Nigerians: “they are much smarter at night”. When we ask him if they are robbed, he simply says no.*

Kevin Carter was the first professional photographer to document a brutal necklacing execution, in which a victim has a gasoline-soaked rubber tire placed around their neck, and the tire is lit on fire. His photo of a Sudanese child emaciated from famine, struggling to walk while a vulture gazes at her from the background, came to symbolize the desperation on the African continent in the 1990s. Carter, a white South African born to liberal parents, was drawn to the racial conflict going on in the black townships of Johannesburg. According to his friends, he empathized deeply with the plight of blacks under apartheid and experienced tremendous guilt for being a white South African. This guilt, combined with his constant exposure to the atrocities that were part of his job, were reportedly major factors that led him to abuse drugs.

In April 1994, Carter found out that his photograph of the Sudanese child had won the Pulitzer. A few days later, his best friend, photographer Ken Oosterbroek, was killed in the Thokoza township while documenting a violent conflict. Carter had left that scene earlier in the day, and after his friend’s death, he agonized that he “should have taken the bullet” for him. The Pulitzer-winning photograph drew criticism from those who thought Carter should have done more to save the child, as well as from fellow journalists who found him inexperienced and undeserving of the honor.

In July of 1994, three months after his win, he committed suicide by running a plastic hose from his exhaust pipe to the passenger-side window of his truck. In his suicide note, he wrote:

“depressed . . . without phone . . . money for rent . . . money for child support . . . money for debts . . . money!!! . . . I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . . I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

“Some Observations on Race and Security in South Africa,” continued

On the other hand in the game of blame-throwing much negative is given to the Nigerians: they are amongst [the other ones] controlling the drugs trade in the Point area of Durban. When it comes to distrust it is all about categories of difference and appears and almost always in racialized terms. Indians don’t trust the black South Africans, the white blames the black, but also the Indians, the black community distrust the whites. The only thing they appear to have in common is that they all distrust the Nigerians. Is that the basis to build new South African security upon?

To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours. Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson. Martin Lawrence, Michael Jordan, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington. We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational. It was a freedom synonymous with democracy, with political freedom—with America itself. It was rarefied, powerful.

But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance. They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race—and my father is light-skinned black. I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be.

American blacks were my precarious homeland—because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any race. Plus my family had money, and all the black kids in my town came from the poorer areas. I was friends with the kids who lived on my block and were in my honors classes—white kids. I was a strange in-betweener.

Yet my parents always spoke of a strong solidarity with black people in Africa. To call themselves something other than black was to take on the divisions of apartheid that grouped them according to skin tone and afforded them unequal privileges to keep them beholden to the state. They had been unfairly segregated, and it was their wish to live outside these divisions. That was something I absorbed, that never left me as the years went by. But when I expressed this desire outside the house, I was met with confusion and, at the worst, hostility.

At a party during my senior year of high school, when my friends and I were just beginning to drink beer and learn how to be ourselves in the company of these new factors—drunkenness, adulthood—I mentioned, as I often did (I fashioned myself as a politically engaged contrarian in my high school years), that I was the only black person at the party.

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