About a year ago I parked my car in a street near my home. When I returned from my errand there was a note under my wipers: “Please don’t park so close.”
I was confused. So close to what? There were no other cars along this stretch of pavement. Was there some hidden pavement bailiff, with the task of saving Cape Town’s stone pavement edging from wheel rims?
I was still wondering when a garage door rolled open, revealing a long driveway in which loomed three enormous cars – about two million bucks of German swish – and a middle-aged woman, hurrying towards me, her face scrunched up in an expression of world-weariness.
She explained that she had left the note. The problem, she said, was that I had parked in such a way that she was struggling to steer her SUV into her driveway. I turned, amazed, to look at the empty street, the two metres between the front of my car and the edge of her voluminous driveway, the acres of turning room.
But she was still talking, looking even more pained, and asking me to refrain from parking anywhere along the 30 metres of pavement outside her house. I told her it was public road, and she said, “Ja, but if you people keep parking here I will have to get the council to assign parking bays and nobody wants that.”
I stayed civil and we parted, she with a cheerful “Thaaaanks!” (passive-aggressive for “Fuck yoooou!”) and nothing more was said. But here’s the odd thing. I’ve seen her a few times since then, and she is still angry with me. A year after our first meeting, she still tightens her mouth and turns on her heel when she sees me. Even more bizarrely, the more I smile, the more she scowls. The reality of that first meeting has been rewritten in her mind, and it is now a story of her victimhood and my aggression.
Yesterday, as we were all encouraged to meditate on reconciliation, I thought of her and her self-righteous anger; of the self-righteous anger that seethes just below the surface of so many comfortably-off whites. I heard it and felt it last week, in despairing conversations about “the country” and about how much we would miss “Mideeber”; exactly the same tone as I had heard in that street a year ago.
We are right to be angry; about legislated secrecy; about wholesale plunder; about generations of potential ground to pulp in the mincer that is a non-functioning education system; about the undeclared war on women and children. But many are not angry on behalf of the poor and the defenceless. They are angry for themselves, about a perceived assault on them and their way of life.
Perhaps for some wealthy palefaces the root of that anger is anxiety, and the root of that anxiety is the knowledge that reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness: true reconciliation requires books to be balanced. More idiomatically, it describes differing world views that become aligned – your conception of reality lined up alongside mine. But neither meaning implies a forgiving of old debts. Neither is a jubilee.
Perhaps those nursing their vague sense of persecution inside their million-rand SUVs have realised that there is only one way for the reconciliation books to balance: they need to feel equally wronged by our history. They need to come to the table not as the accused, but as one of two equally aggrieved parties; as one half of a grudging detente.
But what is this slight that the new dispensation has committed against them? Some might see racism at the heart of this anger, or insist that these whites resent black government and yearn for a return to apartheid. I don’t think so. Whites don’t want apartheid to return, mainly because we would have to go back to pretending to be Australian when we go on holiday to Europe. But apartheid of another sort might be to blame.
The rich have always tried to remove themselves from humanity. Luxury implies isolation: game lodges, islands, penthouses with private lifts. Exclusivity requires exclusion. People with money, whatever their race, want apartheid – apartness – from those without money. For the small tribe of wealthy whites, the realities of the new South Africa must be a terrible affront. Humanity is everywhere; outside the tinted windows, buzzing the intercom, parking beaten-up Golfs next to its houses .
Perhaps the offence I committed a year ago wasn’t to have blocked an incompetent driver’s route home. Perhaps my crime was simply to exist. For some, reconciliation is a long way away.
First published in The Times and TimesLive