Working to overcome a racist past.
By Obi. Akwani, MGV Editor
From the air, the long shoreline is an endlessly stretching beach lapped by the calm blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Visible beyond the shore, some distance out to sea, there is a thin land ridge that runs parallel to the shoreline as far as the eyes can see. On land, this ridge turns out to be a sizable hilly strip of land, dotted with houses, at least a mile out to sea. This is what protects Durban’s natural harbor where ships of every size dock each day to release their cargo.
Beyond the harbor is the busy street, Esplanade, with its stately homes and high rise office buildings that suggest the elegance beyond in the rest of the city. Even though Durbanites always cautioned the visitors to be wary — not to carry about expensive equipment or walk the streets alone at odd hours, the much touted high crime rate in South Africa was not noticeable, except for two incidents — the local newspapers reported a magistrate murdered in a drive-by shooting and in another reported incident, one conventioneer was strangled to death in a back street brothel. The heavy presence of police, perhaps, accounted for the relatively low incidence of crime during World Conference Against Racism.
Most of the thousands of visiting conventioneers could move freely throughout the city among the friendly people of Durban. But the racial divide for which South Africa was notorious in the past is still visible. The four main racial groups, Africans, Asians, Coloreds and Whites, remain strongly conscious of their distinct identities and apartheid-assigned social standings. This is especially true of the Asians and Whites. One night I went bar hopping with two guys, one was colored and the other black. They told me that they would not normally go into some of the bars and clubs I led them into. They still had reservations about invading white peoples space. At one night club we were denied entry because the club was exclusive to “sailors.” At another occasion, I had reason to make visit a young lady at her parents’ home. The mother, who knew the nature of my relationship with her daughter, welcomed me, but the father who had never met me before then, was instantly agitated that a black man would show up at his doorstep and be making inquiries about his daughter. His agitated hostility was only slightly mollified by his wife’s assurances that I had no unacceptable intentions regarding his daughter.
While there are no laws, in the post-apartheid era, forbidding relationships across ethnic lines, many people still hold on to the old values imbued through apartheid. But there are signs things are changing. Among the so-called Coloreds, there is an increasing tendency to identify with the African majority.
A peculiar feature of South African life is that most businesses are still run by Whites and Asians. In most banks in Durban, the tellers and managers are mostly from these two racial groups. This is true also for travel agencies and retail shops. It is fair to add that in Durban, where all of these observations were made, the Indian presence is heavy. This was the main point of landing for Indians when they were first brought to South Africa in the mid 19th century as indentured laborers. Most stayed and the current population is made up of descendants of the original immigrants. This explains the heavy presence of Indians in management and the professions, but doesn’t shed any light on the anomaly of a dearth of Black Africans in these areas.
One taxi driver, an Asian, complained to me that the practice of racism continues. In the taxi industry, Black and Asian owned taxis were apparently not being allowed to pickup fares from the most lucrative spots — at the International Convention Center itself. Many black and Asian taxi drivers complained of harassment by police as they tried to pick up fares from the NGO conference venue at the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium. But the white-owned taxi companies had apparently won the exclusive contract to pick up fares at the ICC and the Hilton Hotel next door.
The government of South Africa, however, seems to be doing a great job in its effort to build a new non-racist society. A sense of freedom prevails and there are signs of change. A new class of young black entrepreneurs are being cultivated. The South African version of affirmative action is called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Many white business men complain bitterly that this is a form of anti-white discrimination in business. A prosperous looking white businessman I spoke to in a bar told me he ‘cleaned’ computers for a living but he was angry because of what he saw as the unfairness of the BEE program.
Another sign of the new South Africa is the massive presence of Africans from other countries who have arrived here since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. The locals derogatorily refer to them as “kwerekwere” — literally “strangers” in Zulu. Because of the relatively prosperous South African economy, people from other parts of Africa converge here. I met a Malawian who worked at the front desk of hotel where I stayed. He did the overnight shift and I was able to have long, uninterrupted conversations with him during lonely night shift. He talked about the difficulty of a foreigner finding descent work in South Africa and considered himself lucky to have that job. He still harbored fears that he might be deported.
The most visible among these are the Nigerians. There are many Nigerians in South Africa and I spent many nights with them in their favorite bars and eateries. There are some Nigerian professionals — teachers and doctors — who live and work in South Africa. But these were not the ones I met. The most numerous group of Nigerians in South Africa are have arrived without professional skills. They complain that there are few opportunities for them to make a living. The job market in South Africa is closed off to them. As a result, they have created a sort of self-help business community in downtown Durban. Some of them have become quite successful as small business owners with retail outlets everything from groceries to cellular phones. Others run dry-cleaning services and barbershops. But the majority remain hustlers who rely on illicit businesses like the drug trade to survive.
Many white Durbanites complain that since the Nigerians arrived, those parts of the city, like the harbor front, where they most congregate have deteriorated as regular businesses move out leaving the crime ridden slums to Nigerians. Nigerians are blamed for much of the drug trafficking, but many South Africans quietly admit that it is not so much that the Nigerians dominate the drug trade — bigger drug barons have existed within the local population even before the Nigerians came along — what irks them, they all agree, is the brazen way Nigerians go about their drug business.