Separation Anxiety -- Why South Africans Can't Let Go of Their Favourite Toy

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to South Africa. It's beautiful and on the Atlantic coast the sun glints on perfectly blue waters. Surfers are out en masse, and couples with their dogs are running or walking on the white sandy beaches. It's where the beauty hurts your eyes, and your ears. It's where you hear young bikini-clad women saying that "blacks have flippin' thick skin, it's just so thick, that's why it doesn't burn like ours." As scientifically incorrect as this is, and as perfect an example of myth creation and perpetuation as any, I would have to agree. Black people do require a thick skin to live here. At least in this large enclave of white South Africa called Cape Town. Listen to the favourite racist rant medium in this tourist haven and you get an idea of what is and is not allowed to be openly said in South African society. You can anonymously state your case, but let yourself be seen to be a racist? That is something only stupid people do. People don't actually talk like that in public do they? Yet there they are on a daily basis leaving the strangest and most heinously racist comments on a public forum. The comments made on the sly, or in 'polite' company just seem to slip out unabated. It's almost natural, as one friend put it. It's inherent in the South African mentality. It is no surprise that racism continues to be part of the fabric of this society, but there is always someone there to apologise for it. It's the elephant in the room. Dare to discuss it and you will be trampled upon, as many have found.

This comment is one of the saner ones, among those that seem to proliferate on South African websites: "On South African personality traits - we do all in general, both black and white, generalize too easily and seem to have an innate fear of the 'other'."

Instead of seeing each other as South Africans with the same set of problems, wants and needs, South Africans quickly divide themselves into groups that don't always work.
"I am white therefore I have white problems and can only have white solutions to my white problems for my white neighbourhood." "I am black therefore I have black problems and can only have black solutions to my black problems for my black neighbourhood." So what happens when you're all living in the same neighborhood? How do you start thinking of your problems?

The answer is that you probably think of them the same way you always have. A friend, who happens to be white, once asked me directly: "Do you as a black person feel unsafe in South Africa?" I was so taken aback that I couldn't speak. I asked him to repeat himself. He wasn't joking, and nor did he think his question was offensive in some way. I had to filter the fact that as a woman living in South Africa I generally don't feel safe, but continue to try to live my life as normally as possible. I had to also filter the fact that it's usually black people who have the highest numbers of crimes committed against them in South Africa. We're constantly told this is due to the demographics of the country. Any social scientist worth their salt could say it's due to a number of varying factors, but that's not the point of this missive.

The point is we cannot separate South Africans from their favorite toy - racism. It affects everyone to a degree that's unacceptable, yet here they all are. They can't seem to leave the poison behind. Maybe it's the water. Maybe you drink so much of the water in South Africa that you just start to think in a wholly irrational way. You live in the same neighbourhood with someone. You rent movies from the same DVD place, and chances are you'll meet several times at the neighborhood convenience shop, or Italian restaurant. Yet chances are you're living a completely different reality. Or the perceptions you both form of your world, of your neighborhood, are completely opposite. There you are thinking you're a person, and that what's in front of you is another person, but there is that same person thinking you're 'a black.'

I have been mugged twice, gone through an attempted mugging, and once had my apartment broken into, the thieves taking all electronics and some items to which I attach an emotional price tag, including jewelry my mother gave me. This was when I was a student in Pretoria. When I lived in the US, I went through an attempted rape. That someone would suggest that I feel safer than a white woman merely because of my skin color, is so ludicrous. Yet here is the thinking I have been confronted with quite often - 'They' are killing, robbing and raping 'us'. You will hear this cry all over the country from white South Africans. What do they think black South Africans and black immigrants say when the same crimes are perpetrated against them and in higher numbers? It's not a contest here, as no-one will ever win, but why is crime against white people in this country seen as more heinous and 'unnatural' than crime against black people? Why do some people feel that pain is more keenly felt by them and not by others? Why do they think that the quality and texture of someone else's skin is so completely different to theirs? To the point where they could easily go back to the bad old days when South African news anchors' faces would beam from a television screen and their mouths would utter the words "One person was killed today and four blacks were also found dead."

So to answer the question "Do you as a black person feel unsafe in South Africa?"
As a person, not a black anything, a person, a human being and a citizen of the world, I feel unsafe from the poison of ignorance, bigotry and hatred. I feel unsafe from forms of racism that engender economic violence on a group of people. I feel unsafe as long as South Africans feel they cannot let go of their favourite toy. It's true, crime and the fear of it poisons our daily existence in this beautiful and haunted country. Yet racism threatens to have us come undone, when we do not acknowledge that we are all suffering the same way. How can we fight a common enemy when we think that the enemy is both victim and perpetrator? Must people be so stuck that they cannot separate misconception from reality? That they cannot separate themselves from their favorite toy and let go of things that leave the society immature and under-developed?