#alienadventures: sowing the subtle seeds of hate
[This is my latest column for City Press, published with the title “Playing Russian roulette in the Rainbow Nation“. I think so many South African’s – and most people who live in unequal societies – simply do this without thinking. If it resonates, pass it on. We must be mindful about spreading hate – especially unintentionally].
It all seemed so innocuous, but so terribly cruel: a brief interaction that, I’m sure, planted yet another unnecessary seed of hate in our damaged society. If you blinked, you would have missed it, but for those who noticed, the unpleasant residue left a bitter taste in the mouth.
It was lunchtime on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a trendy Jozi suburb. The sidewalk cafe was filled with shiny, happy people: the rainbow nation’s comfortable middle class enjoying the alfresco life. These high street restaurants are also the perfect lure for the occasional hawker who, respectful of being intrusive, pace up and down the street displaying his wares, hoping to catch the eye of the cafe crowd, and score a sale.
He was lucky, or so it seemed. Most people shook their heads politely at his range of beaded key rings, but a pretty blonde took interest in the beaded trophy-head he carried on his other arm. She jumped up and started making inquiries. The hawker’s day was looking up. The odd key-ring sale might just buy enough for a small meal, but selling a large item like the trophy-head would afford him (and probably his family) an opportunity to keep the wolf from the door for the next few days.
A lively banter broke out between the blonde and her table of friends. She fielded questions about why she was even vaguely interested in this piece of street decor. From her responses, the hawker’s prospects were looking good. She really loved the piece. But then the spell was broken.
Her dog had wandered off into the restaurant in her absence. One of her friends yelled out that her dog was heading for the kitchen, and in a flash she was off, leaving the hawker in mid conversation. He hung around, obviously thinking the bartering process had begun. When she returned with her pampered pooch, she went straight back to her table and immediately got distracted by something on her phone – predictable generation-Y behaviour.
At this stage, the hawker found himself caught in an uncomfortable situation. He had ventured off the street and was now standing amongst the shiny happy people, like a fish out of water, but the prospect of a decent sale kept him rooted on the spot. After a while it became clear that the blonde had completely lost interest in the beaded trophy-head as she was back multitasking between her phone and holding court with her friends. No acknowledgment to the hawker still standing there awkwardly, no “sorry, maybe next time”, nothing. Just the cold shoulder of a spoilt princess with the attention span of a lab rat. Eventually the hawker moved on. He looked back at the group one last time, and while impassive, his expression spoke volumes.
These little incidents happen in our country every day, and while the rainbow nation beer ads try and tell us that we come together for group hugs and sing “kumbaya”, we very rarely do. We live in a country that respects eleven official languages, but there’s one universal language that we seem oblivious to – body language – and the unspoken words that passed between the blonde and the hawker did not need interpreting.
South Africa has the world’s largest gini-coefficient (the gap between the have’s and the have not’s) and we are starting to see what happens when this gap continues to widen. Studies have shown that inequality, rather than poverty, breeds violent crime, and our nation’s propensity for disproportionate violence gives credence to this theory. While complex, the root problem that lead to the Marikana massacre was, in essence, a basic issue of inequality.
Inequality breeds envy and jealousy, and once you have those emotions locked in place, it’s easy to move onto contempt, anger and hatred, which in turn opens the way to justifying, not only crime, but violent crime: a sadistic form of revenge.
Reducing a country’s gini-coefficient does not happen overnight. Being mindful that you live in such a society is the duty of the citizens of that country. As an individual, you may not be able to fix the problem, but you should at least be empathetic and respectful to those who have less than you do.
The blonde displayed neither of these qualities. What for her was spur-of-the-moment shopping indulgence, was for the hawker the difference between a full and a hungry stomach.
She was blissfully unaware of the hurt and humiliation she had inflicted, and that was perhaps more painful than if she had simply been rude. For the hawker, she just reconfirmed the callousness of the rich, and her blonde hair just another symbol re-enforcing a racial stereotype.
The incident was like a quick game of Russian roulette between the have’s and the have not’s.
We can’t afford to gamble like this.
The stakes are just too high.