On Dan’s first visit to South Africa in March 2009, we took out a day and a half to visit the Kruger National Park. From Johannesburg, we drove an hour and a half northeast through Witbank (now named Emalahleni: the place of coal, after the main industry there). Stopping at the local shopping mall for snacks, we were quickly made aware of the fact that we had left the “metropole” and entered a place that clearly had not yet recovered from the strict racial separation and socio-economic stratification of apartheid.
Walking through the mall, we (mostly, I) could not ignore the range of looks we received: disapproving glares and curious stares, sometimes accompanied by entertained comments – the most biting coming from a group of young black guys making fun of our being a couple. By the time we got to the Checkers (store) checkout counters, lined with older black women my mother’s age at the tills and young black people about our age as the “packers”, I could not bear for people to know that Dan and I were together. And so a dilemma: should he pay (suggesting I was dependent on him – a sort of gold-digger perhaps rescued from her poverty by this white man) or should I (making him a poor white man who would not be with a black woman but for his need for her financial support in this Black-Economic-Empowerment-defined new South Africa of ours)?
A very cynical dichotomy, I know, but it didn’t strike me as too far from reality. After all, our country – and particularly the segments of it represented in this town – had scarcely any real-life conception of the possibility of true love and equal partnership between people of different races, especially black and white.
Maybe three hours later we drove through Malelane (the town outside Kruger’s gates) and suffered similar looks in this part of the country where the white, Afrikaner man was “baas” (boss) and the black woman of whatever age was still often treated as “girl” (maid/female servant). All along our drive, we had seen perplexed glances at us in our little car – especially when I was at the wheel with Dan beside me. People just couldn’t make sense of it.
At the gate to the Kruger National Park, I had a good conversation with the friendly security guard in vernacular. This part of South Africa was my father’s country (Swati territory) and I found relief in being able to converse with the guard easily in a language that made me feel like I had not lost my blackness simply by being in intimate relationship with a white man. But when a middle-aged white couple entered the lodge, I felt my security in my identity wane again under their stares: were they shocked at the ease with which I switched between speaking to the guard in SiSwati and to Dan in English – neither with a discernibly foreign accent – or disbelieving of our simply being an interracial couple? Either way, their looks made me uneasy, as if I had done something wrong.
After checking in at the gate, we gave one of the men who worked at the camp that we were going to stay at a lift. The middle-aged man and I had a lively discussion in the car along the lines of typical conversations when strangers meet in my culture. To establish rapport, he asked questions that gave him enough information that he could finally conclude that, since his mother was born a ‘Mnisi’ as I was, I was in fact his mother! Since his English wasn’t good, this conversation excluded Dan, which was tough for Dan who wanted to live into this place even a little. But it’s significance didn’t quite settle in until we arrived at our destination and the man said a warm goodbye to me, his mother, in SiSwati then said to Dan, “Thank you, sir!” It was then that Dan decided he would learn to speak my vernacular language and hence somewhat mediate that distance between him and this man (and others like him).
On our return from the Park, we stopped in the provincial capital of Nelspruit for Dan to get a birthday haircut (wanting to look good for his first meeting with my dad). At the simple hair salon, Dan was again exposed to the racial stratification rampant in these parts: he negotiated his haircut with the white hostess; she referred him to one of the two black, middle-aged “washer” ladies; a young white stylist cut his hair. The one time that I saw one of the washer ladies come out from behind the sinks where they stood ready was when she took a broom to sweep up the clients’ hair off the floor. She drew near to me and furtively asked, in SiSwati, the critical question of whether Dan and I worked together. I said not but didn’t offer more detail, allowing her to conclude (as she did out loud) that we were friends – the word for “boyfriend” in our language is too crass to use with a person who is old enough to be one’s mother.
I then left the salon briefly and, during that time, Dan had a conversation with the young, female, Afrikaans stylist. Albeit that she had seen him come in with me earlier, she asked if he had a girlfriend (some interest seemingly implied). He said yes and indicated that the woman he’d come into the salon with was she. Appearing not to make the connection, she playfully insisted that Dan should learn Afrikaans and had him repeat some phrases after her – the meanings of which he only learned after the fact. I returned to the salon in time to hear Dan (unwittingly) say, “I love you” in Afrikaans as the washer ladies and hostess looked on somewhat bemused and uneasy
All of which is to say that, in many parts of South Africa, relationships such as ours stand outside of people’s plausibility structures: it just doesn’t compute that the former “baas” and “girl” (by appearances) should choose to make a life together.
These experiences stand out in part because they are, happily, more pronounced than we are accustomed to in urban(e) Cape Town. And going through them, we benefit from reminding ourselves that, at the time Dan and I were born, it would have been illegal to be in an interracial relationship in South Africa. Progress has been made. But there is some way yet to go.