The Bloem Diaries – Part 5: Of airports, pub quizzes and choosing beggars

I decide to work in one of the restaurants on Campus, hoping coffee would ease my writer’s block. Instead, I find myself watching the spectacle at the table next to me, and making angry mental comments.

No, they cannot bring a bowl to your table so that you can wash your hands. Yes, you actually do have to get up, walk (the horror!) and wash your hands in the public bathroom. With the commoners. Hardships. I am sure that yelling at the waitress just now will make the long trip easier to tolerate for you. Then you might get offended at the sign for the integrated bathroom. Yeah, they have those. For the LGBTIQ(add more letters here) community and just for everyone, really.

Apparently the toilet was quite far away (spoiler alert: it really is not, 50m at most but yes, you actually have to walk there with your own two feet). “Man, these guys are unbelievable, oh. I had to walk far, it’s like these guys are not a restaurant. Oh! Two missed calls.” (Please *do* read this part with a very exaggerated Nigerian accent).

The guy then proceeds to touching his phone before eating his chicken wings with the same hand (our cell phones generally have more bacteria than a toilet seat…). People and logic.

Before paying his bill in a hurry he explains to the waitress that he hates travelling because “you always spend so much money when you travel, oh. Then the airports and all that it is such a hassle” I am sure the waitress understands, as she herself is probably flying business class to Joburg this week-end and getting the flight for free because of all the miles she has accumulated on her Bloemfontein waitress salary… As my new Nigerian friends leave the restaurant, she lets out a sigh of relief.

Because relationships between people in Bloemfontein are so strongly influenced by race, you have to look closely in order to pick up on other variables that structure social interactions, such as social class or gender. Unfortunately, sexism seems to be one of the few things that many men here seem to agree on, regardless of race. Sexism, religion and braaing, the holy trinity of this nation.

The UFS campus is like a microcosm of the country. Yes, the students hail mainly from the middle and upper middle class, but what does that mean? Some of them come to campus in their own cars. However, many students cannot afford food and regularly go hungry. I overheard a girl talking to her friend the other day: “My mum told me I have to call my dad. He has to send me money. She doesn’t have. He is not picking up the phone. If I don’t get anything from him by tomorrow, I won’t be able to buy food until I get my allowance at the end of the month.“ The date was August 14th.

A buffet lunch with fresh vegetables in the staff restaurant costs about 100 Rand, while a portion of French fries sold in the students’ food court costs about 10-20 Rand. Some students cannot afford to eat anything else than bread and milk. Sometimes junk food. Obesity is rampant on campus and in town. Middle class is a very elastic term. Indeed, it seems that, as far as Africa is concerned, the World Bank prefers the term “floating class”. This is used to describe individuals who are just barely part of the middle class and who might be thrown back into poverty by a single unfortunate event (an illness, a death in the family, a car accident, unemployment, …).

Having studied in Switzerland, I am not used to the idea of a campus as a self-contained space for both learning and living. In Bloemfontein, many students and many foreign post-doctoral researchers live on campus. Apparently, life events also happen on campus. I have to drive around the roundabout close to my office in the wrong direction today because wedding photos are being taken. A group of girls is posing with the bride, while the groom and his pals sit behind the photographer and watch. It would never have occurred to me that someone would want to take wedding photos in front of a student dorm.

Two explanations come to my mind: Either these students have an exceptional level of attachment to their alma mater; or the fraternity and sorority culture found in many of the older dorms does indeed bear resemblance to a religious cult. Maybe a bit of both.

As I watch the bride and groom with their entourage, it occurs to me that weddings, baptisms and funerals are probably some of the most segregated events in Bloemfontein. Sitting together in a restaurant (at different tables, obviously!) is one thing, sharing the most important events in one’s life with one another is a different matter altogether. Only 4% of marriages in South Africa are between members of different races, Wikipedia tells me. Most of those probably occur in major urban centres, such as Johannesburg or Cape Town, rather than in Bloemfontein.

Although 85 % of the population in Bloemfontein is black, space is still predominantly occupied by the white minority. The train tracks, the traditional dividing line between black and white in Apartheid-era cities, still cuts the city in half. While no strict segregation is currently being enforced, the overwhelming majority of people on the ‘white’ side are white, and apparently no white people live on the black side at all (I suppose their must be a crazy missionary and some anthropologist hiding from deadlines, every city seems to have them). The white or rich side of town takes up approximately two thirds of the urban space in Bloemfontein. All the malls are here, so is the campus, and individual houses have large compounds. The black, i. e. poor, side of town takes up the remaining third of the city. More than 80% of the population lives here. Many students commute every day from the other side of town or even from Botshabelo, a former “Homeland”, 57km from Bloemfontein. If four times more people live on an area half as big than the remaining 20% that means that every person living on the white side of town has eight times more space available for themselves than those on the other side.

Let that sink in for a minute.

I tried hard and my brain cannot quite compute this reality.

No wonder that the malls and restaurants often seem to be half-empty. They are build for a city of 300’000, but only maybe 10% of the population can afford to use them. If one considers that white people make up only about 15% of the population, the number of restaurants and bars that seem to attract only white patrons is quite surprising. Staff are black though (no, not management, I mean waiters…). Despite her very limited English skills, Alamnesh summarises it for me nicely “Supervisors white. Speak English very fast. Not understand. Cleaners black. English slow. Understand.” I think she is ready to face the work place.

The pub quiz that takes place once a month on Tuesdays in an Irish pub situated in an upper class residential area that is impossible to reach without a car is an almost all white event. As I walk in, I can see one black girl sitting at a table with three white people. She looks uncomfortable, as if brought along more as a project than a friend. About an hour later, a black guy walks in and sits down with his group of friends at a table close to ours. He looks unfazed by the presence of roughly 200 semi-drunk white people. A sign of my growing cynicism is that my first thought is “He must not be from here.”

But that thought is not entirely unwarranted. Indeed, I seem to have developed a certain degree of intuition in this regard. One day, while ordering food in one of the fast food joints in the student food court, I end up dropping some papers. A tall guy immediately gets up from his chair to pick them up, handing them to me with a nod. He looks me straight in the eyes and smiles when I thank him. I cannot explain why, but I know there is something odd going on. The way he looked at me, his body language as I sit down on the bar stool next to his, the way in which he just acknowledges me as nothing more and nothing less than another human being. The way he does not feel the need to establish any kind of ranking between us. The way he just behaves perfectly normally around me. The realisation comes to me in a flash “You are not South African”.

It is not a question, it is a statement. He grins. “No, I am not. I am from Congo. Do you know Congo?” We end up chatting for quite some time. He is on campus for a conference, he studied medicine here many years ago, now lives in Kimberly with his wife. Their children are growing up in South Africa. He likes it here although he was afraid several years ago that he might be targeted by the wave of violence that had broken out against Zimbabweans, Congolese and other African migrants in many South African towns. But he is a doctor, his patients are South Africans and he enjoys good relationships with them. Once again, things are just easier when you are educated and able to earn a comfortable living.

The second such incident involves an exceptionally chatty and friendly waiter. This time, I do not have to ask, since the South African colleagues I am with notice by his accent that he is not a local and ask where he is from. I cannot yet tell the difference between South African and Zimbabwean accents. What made me realize that the guy was a foreigner was the fact that he was smiling all the time, and that he did so with a hint of irony, as if to detach himself from the whole situation.

What surprises me about the pub quiz is that I am so good at it. It takes me a few questions to come to the realization that that is mostly because every single question is about European culture. Name the statue on Trafalgar Square. What British actor was the voice of Marvin in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Even the musical questions, where they play the beginning of a song and you have to guess the name of the band, are about “white” music (Smash Mouth, I mean, seriously?).

To be fair, there are even a few questions about Latin America. We have to identify the capital of Chile and the name of the lawyer who started the Cuban revolution. We also have to identify a mountain in Asia.

It is surreal. For about three hours I feel like I am in Britain. Not a single question about South Africa (not even sports) or even any other African country. As if one of the objectives of the quiz was to allow people to forget where we are for a few hours. As if any question one could ask about this country could spark controversy.

A big part of this is the political situation, the lack of real change, the corruption, and what is perceived as incompetence and mismanagement at the highest levels. “The ANC is destroying the country. Politics is the reason people fight. Actually, everyone in this country agrees that we have great potential and everyone wants to live together in peace. If only we didn’t have politics, everyone in South Africa would get along.” You hear this a lot from white South Africans. Just what the alternative would be is not clear.

It is undeniable that the hatred between racial groups is exploited by many politicians, namely within the ANC and the EFF. It is equally undeniable that corruption is rampant in South Africa. But so is inequality and poverty. And no one has yet presented me with a convincing recipe for handing over power to a formerly oppressed category of society without creating any sort of backlash. Especially in a country where the differences between rich and poor are huge, where millions of people are infected with HIV/Aids, where the general level of education is low, where a dozen languages co-exist, and where the population was taught to hate each other for several decades. The argument that racism is something that is propped up by politicians is generally accompanied by stories about people mislabeling themselves as victims. And yes, these examples exist: You don’t want to queue in the post office? Claim you are not being helped immediately because people are racist. You don’t want to go through the trouble of writing high-level academic publications? Claim you are not being promoted because of your skin colour.

While these stories do exist, they are wrongly used to justify the idea that racism is just a trope people use to get away with stuff, not a real problem. I volunteer a story of my own: “I have heard of cases where female PhD students falsely claimed to be sexually harassed by their supervisors because they were not able to finish their work on time. That is terrible for the supervisors. But the truth is that harassment actually happens a lot, so if you want to treat claims about it seriously, you run the risk that some people might abuse the system.”

Silence. It is much more complicated than any individual story would suggest. Here, it always is.

Earlier that morning, I downloaded a podcast about South African writers and was excited to listen to the episode about Bram Fischer. A white South African lawyer who fought against Apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela. The airport in Bloemfontein is named after him and he lived and worked here. Finally a person from this city that I could really get interested in. The podcast begins with some house-keeping, before the journalist moves on to to the main topic. “This episode is about Bram Fischer. The president South Africa should have had.”

I switch it off. Not today. Maybe another time, but just not today.

Yes, everyone wants to get along. Unfortunately, everyone also wants to have a car, eat food, own land and fulfill their professional ambitions. When all those things are scarce, it is no longer that easy to just get along. Especially when the top 10% hoards the vast majority of these resources and leaves nothing to the rest, especially when people of one race are particularly over-represented in that top layer of society.

By the way, that also leads to an over-representation of their language. You might wonder why I keep mentioning Afrikaans and remain silent about Sesotho, the language spoken by the actual majority of people in this town. I have pondered this question and found essentially four interlinked answers:

  1. I pick up Afrikaans words easily because it is close to English and German.
  2. People tend to speak to me in Afrikaans everywhere, simply because I am white.
  3. Afrikaans is visible everywhere in the city, product labels are usually in English and Afrikaans, while Sesotho is completely invisible.
  4. Afrikaans can be heard in the corridors of the department where I work. It is a small department, with 8 academic staff. Three are foreigners and speak neither Afrikaans not Sesotho. Of the remaining five, only one is black and a Sesotho speaker. The other four are white and their mother tongue is Afrikaans. The Sesotho speaker is not a crazy person. Consequently, he does not walk around the corridors loudly conversing in his language with himself just so that I can hear it a little.

Once again, this invert proportion runs through the upper echelons of society: what was 80-20 at the beginning becomes 20-80 once you reach the top. A lot of people disappear on the way up. More than 90% of professors at UFS are white.

All my colleagues in the department are extremely generous, open-minded, progressive and tolerant human beings. They are what this environment tried hard to prevent from existing, yet somehow produced despite itself. The lack of representation in the department is not their fault. This situation is the product of a system that is bigger and older than them, bigger and older than all of us.

I wish I could be certain of who I would be, had I grown up in this environment. It is a scary thought, that makes me respect them even more.

And, no, not all white people in Bloemfontein are rich. In fact, whenever I drive to town, I see quite a lot of white people begging at one specific red light. Obviously, also black people, and they are by far more numerous. But they have their own intersections.

In Bloemfontein, it seems, even beggars are choosers.

Author: CarmenDelgado

I’m a trained translator (MA), Conference interpreter (MA), Interpreter trainer (MAS) and researcher (PhD, University of Geneva) with an interest in development anthropology, ethnography and technology. Currently Director of the Language Centre at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland

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