The jew at the table: reflections on racism and growing up Jewish in South Africa

“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition…our chief weapon is…surprise.”

So begins the famous Monty Python sketch heralded by the arrival of evil clergy in red robes.

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Well I wasn’t wearing a red robe or any identifying markings at a recent business lunch when as discussion turned to who would pay the bill, someone remarked:

“I’ll be the Jew and leave” – or words to that effect, before they got up to go.

A general snickering followed. Someone remarked flippantly that you should be careful what you say – you never know who may be around – and it was quickly forgotten.

No one knew there was a Jew at the table.

Me.

I never said anything, nor did I regard the person who said it with any particular malice. But I was a bit taken aback. It made me feel uncomfortable; I felt inclined to say something but also reluctant to make a fuss.

Others I know would have had no indecision. They would be proclaiming their Jewishness loudly and demanding an apology accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Did the person who made this remark hold some deeply felt hatred towards the jewish race or religion, or was it just like the time I remarked, flippantly, to an ex-girlfriend of mine who was half Asian that the kitchen of the digs I shared with friends in London “resembled a Chinese laundry”.

(I also recall that she distinctly did not like the South African colloquialism “china” used in the same way Australians say “mate”).

Anyway, as the words came out my mouth, I realised what I’d said, but it was too late. An uncomfortable moment followed as I apologised profusely.

And wouldn’t this person sitting across from me at lunch, who suggested “he be the Jew” have acted similarly had he known I was Jewish.

My gut feel, is yes.

And does he harbour some ill-will towards Jews. Probably…

Would he suddenly dislike me if he found out I was Jewish – probably not.

The truth is everyone has made a remark like this at some point in their lives -and it’s hard to think of anyone I know who does not hold some kind of prejudice or quasi-prejudice against some other race, religion, sexual orientation or political belief system.

At the same time, it strikes me that my Jewish brethren appear the most sensitive of all races, colours and creeds to offensive remarks, no matter how harmless or slip of the tongue they may be.

Years of persecution – the pogroms, the holocaust, indeed the Spanish Inquisition – will often be the explanation for such an acute sensitivity.

My own experience growing up in South Africa is of a deeply racist Jewish community, with the racism passed down through the generations as it is every where else.

Words learnt and bandied around Jewish social gatherings (white people only apart from the black domestics serving food or minding the children) included the horrible sounding “schvarzte” and “shoch” meaning a “black” person and “chatis” for an Afrikaner.

These words were used regularly at dinners, family gatherings, teas and barbeques – often in earshot of the African domestic clearing away plates or bringing food to the table.

Sadly they were often spoken by those who had fled pogroms or persecution or were the children of those who had. We as kids would play cricket in the garden, while the adults (BMW or Mercedes parked down the driveway) would chat away about their privileged lives: trips overseas, new restaurants opening, community gossip. As you got older, you’d join the adults and hear the conversations, where “shochs, schvartzes and chatises” were mentioned all too frequently.

Paradoxically, these same people would often stick their heads into the kitchen to say hi to the African domestic washing the dishes, to ask about their children or their health.

But it was always in the realm of the ‘master and servant relationship’:

“How are you today Sophie?”

“I am well thank-you master.”

“How are your children?”

“They are well thank you master.”

So what’s happened to these people who I remember with their expensive cars, who would sit around discussing the cricket or rugby with the odd racist remark thrown in from time to time?

Many of them have packed up and moved to Australia. They’re living on the best streets of Bondi, Vaucluse, St Ives, Toorak, Caufield, Bentleigh and Dianella. Some – would you believe it – have even brought their domestics along to do the dishes.

Few have dropped their prejudices and most will happily tell you South Africa has “gone to the dogs since the blacks took over”.

It reminds me of something someone very dear to me (but with horribly dated ideas) once said to me a long time ago:

“I don’t believe in apartheid. But really, you can’t put the blacks in charge.”

What Mandela gave me: one glorious day and hope for the future

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election in Port Elizabeth

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election (stands in Port Elizabeth)

This post first appeared on crikey.com.au,

It is also my 100th post on this blog. I dedicate 95 of those posts to Nelson Mandela, for each of the 95 years of his life:

I will always remember voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994. It was a miracle they took place at all; far-right-wing organisations threatened civil war, and only last-minute negotiations and concessions ensured all key political parties took part in the historic vote.

Such was the fear that some people took to draining their swimming pools and stocking them with cans of baked beans, mineral water and tinned tuna in case all hell broke loose — or so the urban legend went. But certainly there were empty shelves in the supermarket and a tremendous sense of tension in the air.

In the lead-up there had been bomb blasts at Johannesburg airport instigated by the paramilitary AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and, a year before, the terrible slaying of Communist Party leader Chris Hani carried out by a white Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus as part of a right-wing plot that had pushed the country to the brink of anarchy.

But the doomsayers were all proved wrong.

On April 27 the front-page headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper proclaimed boldly “Vote the beloved country”, a play on Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country about apartheid’s injustices, which we all read at school. Underneath the headline was a photo taken from a helicopter showing a snaking line of people stretching beyond the confines of the photograph waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives.

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

People queued for hours. In the big cities. In country towns. In townships. In rural villages. On hillsides.

Apart from getting married and the birth of my daughter, it was the single greatest day in my life. It was a privilege to be alive and still young (I was 21 at the time), but old enough to play my small part in such a defining moment in our troubled country’s history.

I remember it as a glorious crisp, early autumn day. Blue skies. Electricity in the air.

I voted at the nearby primary school just a short drive from home. I am not someone who shows his emotions, but as I drove past the line of people waiting on the pavement, there were tears in my eyes, and my heart felt like it was ballooning out of my chest.

In that queue was Nelson Mandela’s vision, why he had spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island and why he had emerged not to proclaim war against those who oppressed him but to suggest a vision of the “rainbow nation” where everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, could feel proud to call themselves South African.

That queue outside the primary school in leafy suburban Jo’burg, in queues all over the country from Cape Town at the bottom of the country to Messina on the Zimbabwean border, the rainbow nation was brought to life for the world to see.

“… white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed.”

Having parked my car some distance away, I took my place in the line. Ahead of me white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed. Dapperly dressed old African men, once forced to carry “passbooks” regulating their movements in white areas under apartheid, stood beside Portuguese-born restaurateurs, Italian hairdressers and sun-loving British immigrants. Petrol attendants stood next to lawyers, suburban housewives, next to black mini-cab drivers. Black gardeners stood side-by-side with white doctors and accountants. Petrol attendants in blue overalls stood next to white old ladies with permed hair and tissues tucked under their sleeves, who stood behind Indian shopkeepers and coloured fruit sellers.

There was something in the air that day. Yes the tension remained, but there was the sense the dream could be real, that we could all learn to get along and in doing so rebuild and repair centuries of inequality, injustice and brutality. It would not be easy, but it was possible.

Soon after, the votes tallied, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as our first president.

The following year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup; Mandela famously wore his No.7 jersey alongside Francois Pienaar (I retreated to my bedroom, head under my pillow, too anxious to watch the dying seconds of the match before Joel Stransky’s wondrous drop goal) and we all danced together in the streets, waving our new and strange-looking flag with gusto. The following year our soccer team, Bafana Bafana (“the boys”), won the African Cup of Nations in front of 120,000 screaming fans in Soweto.

Of course the euphoria over those early days of freedom have faded into reality. There are many challenges still facing the Rainbow Nation: crime, AIDS, inequality, corruption. But the new South Africa, even with these big problems, is a vastly better place than I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my privileged white upbringing.

I never met Mandela, though I often drove past his imposing Houghton house a few suburbs from my own on my way home from work. With a bit more luck I might have bumped into him as his picked up his medications at the local pharmacy in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Norwood, a few kilometres down the  road. Sadly, it never happened.

What would I have said to him? Perhaps, thank you for those glorious days in April. And for giving us hope and a glimpse of what might still be.

A homage to the humble boerewors

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I’m all for globalisation, the mixing of cultures, the idea of the city as ‘melting pot’. After all, who wants to eat fish and chips every day? Or meat and two veg?

But sometimes globalisation gives me the shits.

Shopping in Woolworths last weekend. Grand final weekend. I’m picking up something to take to the barbecue.

As if it’s bred into my genes, my old South African eyes lock in on a coil of sausage behind clingwrap.

Boerewors” it says. No, it proclaims proudly!

“Yes please!” (I chant to myself).

Anyone who has spent anytime in South Africa, will know that you can’t have a barbecue (or ‘braai‘) in the homeland without this humble sausage sizzling away alongside a few giant steaks, chicken kebabs, pap and Castle Lager.

For Australian natives, think this combination: football, beer and meat pie.

The word ‘boerewors’ is Afrikaans, the language spoken by Afrikaners (the descendents of the original Dutch settlers to the Cape in 1652) famous for lots of great things (rugby, Francois Pienaar, Charlize Theron, Ernie Else, the first heart transplant) and some not so “lekker” things (apartheid, Oscar Pistorius, PW Botha).

But the boerewors is certainly one of their finest inventions and one that all South Africans, black, white, expat, coloured, indian have incorporated into their cultures and exported to far flung places. It’s uniquely South African, as the Lamington is to Australia and pavlova is to New Zealand.

The word actually translates as: boere (farmer’s) wors (sausage), which now that I think about it throws up some rather silly jokes and images I’ve not thought of up until now.

But, no, no, no and no! The boerewors is sacred. It is delectable a mix of delicious fatty meats and spices. It’s heaven in a sausage.

But, back to the boerewors on the shelf at Woolies and my temporary annoyance with globalisation.

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Just look at the packaging! Made by the British Sausage Company. But even worse: Uniquely Australian!

WHAT???

Not a mention of South Africa or farmers or apartheid. Not a boer insight.

I shake my fists in the supermarket. I consider stealing all the boerewors packets on the shelf, justified in my mind by the lack of respect that has been shown.

But, I calm down. Gather myself. And think about boerewors.

My stomach and taste buds win in the end. I buy the damn thing, take it to the barbeque, cook it, eat it and…

It’s simply sensational. At least those boerewors-loving Brits/Aussies got the recipe right.

I eat almost the entire coil and with heaving gut, think to myself: if it wasn’t for this bloody globalisation, I’d never get to eat the damn thing in the first place.

Throw another boerewors on the barbie, Shane!

(Turns out the ‘British Sausage Company’ is a butchery in Perth, no doubt of South African heritage).

A day in the life: a review of “In Every Face I Meet” by Justin Cartwright

evryface“In Every Face I Meet” is a 1995 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Justin Cartwright that takes place over the course of a single, pivotal London day in February 1990 in the life of melancholic forty-something business executive Anthony Northleach.

Northleach, a former talented rugby player (he once trialed for England ‘B’), works for a failing company (what it does is never quite revealed), convinced that the imminent release of Nelson Mandela will fundamentally shift the trajectory of the world, Britain and his own sense of existentialism.

Much of the novel is the inner monologue of Northleach – he recalls, with detailed wonder and awe, a brilliant try scored by English rugby captain Will Carling in a weekend drubbing of the French, he remembers pivotal moments from his childhood in the kingdom of Swaziland, he ponders his marriage, a passionate affair he once had, and his friendship with his best mate and fellow former rugby player Mike, whose life is spinning out of control.

The secondary storyline is that of Chanelle, a crack-addict and prostitute living in a council estate and her black boyfriend/pimp Jason – sporting a medallion of Nelson Mandela around his neck – living on the outer fringes of London society in the final vestiges of Thatcherism.

Without giving too much away, the two worlds – Northleach’s and Chanelle and Jason’s – are on course for a horrifying collision, but what the novel is really about is Northleach’s longing for the past and his disappointment with the present.

It seems that Cartwright has honed in on the second difficult period in an adult male’s life, (the first being adolescence with all its clumsy fumblings and urges) that period from about 40 onwards when there is cause to reflect and ask the question: “Have I lived a purposeful life?”

And if not, “Is there still time to find some meaning?”

Indeed, the character of Northleach must contain parts of Cartwright himself – who was born and schooled in South Africa, the son of a left-wing newspaper editor, and who wrote the book in London, when he was in his late forties.

I have read “In Every Face I Meet” twice – once while travelling overseas in 2010 and now again, when it turned up in a crate of goods shipped over from South Africa.

What’s so enjoyable about reading the book is being inside Anthony Northleach’s head for one day of his life, following him from the office, where he muses about whether his dowdy secretary will ever make it to Thailand, then on the Tube into Soho for lunch in an Italian restaurant with Mike (bumping into Will Carling along the way) where he invites Mike to come with him on his odyssey to Cape Town and finally on his fateful drive home where he encounters Chanelle and Jason.

Northleach, despite his many failings, is immensely likeable with his sardonic political and philosophical commentary, and his honest reflectiveness.

He (and the novel itself) will particularly appeal to white South African-expats (be they in Britain, Australia or entrenched in any other “safe” country),  nearing or past forty that still have a strong sense nostalgia for the old country, especially if you were there at the time Mandela was freed and the inkling of a utopian “Rainbow nation” first emerged.

Indeed, the book was a gift from a South African expat colleague and friend who raved about it and was right when he said I would find it immensely enjoyable to read.

Looking back to February 1990 when Mandela took his first steps to freedom, they do feel like halcyon days, filled with hope and the prospect of something new and fresh, but also scary and uncertain. We certainly lived through history in the making.

Reflecting back on my own life as I fast approach forty – there is much about Northleach’s longings and existential angst that resonates with me.

Mixed emotions surely for Mickey Arthur as Australia lose to South Africa

Mickey Arthur with JP Duminy

Mickey Arthur, photographed when coach of South Africa in 2009.

I cannot help but wonder how Australian coach Mickey Arthur felt after South Africa beat Australia in the final test match to lose the series and their shot at toppling the South Africans as the No. 1 ranked test side in world cricket.

Arthur of course is a South African and about as South African as they come. He’s a ‘Vaalie’ – born on the highlands of the old Transvaal – and played all his provincial cricket in South Africa for the Free State and Griqualand West.

He was appointed coach of the South African team in 2005 and the last time he visited Australia (in a professional sense) just four years ago he coached them to arguably their greatest ever test series win – and their first ever series victory against Australia – since being re-admitted into world cricket in 1991.

Having fallen out with the South African cricket authorities in 2010, he coached Western Australia for a season and was then appointed Australia’s first foreign-born coach in November last year.

Now I am not for one moment suggesting that Arthur is not a thorough professional and has not given it his all as Australian coach – and let’s be honest they  outplayed South Africa in the first two tests and could easily have been No.1 in the world at the end of this series had it not been for FaF Du Plessis’s heroics in the second test – but I find it hard to imagine that Mickey Arthur did not take some pleasure in watching his old team and the players he coached just a few season ago win against the odds against the country of his birth’s greatest sporting rivals.

I have lived in Australia for over eight years, my daughter is Australian and my wife holds and Australian passport and yet I cannot bring myself to support the Australian cricket team or the Wallabies.

In fact I am sure they will put on my grave one day – “He died a Bok fan.”

You see the thing is this, when you grow up in South Africa, beating Australia in any sport (even lawn bowls and darts) is considered the ultimate victory.

Rivalries run very deep between the two sporting nations, and not least because there is a great deal of respect for Australia’s sporting prowess.

South Africans consider Australia one of the great sporting nations – especially when it comes to cricket – and while we have managed to beat all the other teams on a regular basis, beating the Baggy Greens has been tough – this win is only our second ever Test series triumph since re-admission.11187061_24c0790592

I found these two comments on the Supersport website (the equivalent of Fox Sports in South Africa) at the bottom of a story about the latest series win:

“South Africa clobbered Australia. It was so easy, it was scary!”

“Amazing always good to thrash the ozzies.”

Personally, I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning or watching through the night games played against Australia through the 1990s – mostly on the losing side, occasionally a much-savoured win.

The truth is being a South African cricket fan is being the ultimate sporting tragic.

A lot of times it’s been an exercise in heartache – primarily when it comes to World Cups, when we have conjured up defeats from the jaws of victory, and must live with the scars of the 1999 World Cup semi-final tie that will go down as the greatest choke in our rich sporting history, plus the sad saga of Hansie Cronje.

There are many South African expats living in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne who say they support the Australian cricket team and the Wallabies, but I have yet to meet any that I believed with any conviction.

Equally there are South Africans who have lived here many decades who still support the Proteas and Springboks and that I suspect will be me too.

It’s not that I have some deep-seated animosity to the Baggy Greens or the Wallabies, it’s just in my blood.

And it’s also surely in the blood of Mickey Arthur – who is more South African than me.

And though he will surely deny it, I am sure he did take some pleasure out of watching the team he coached to their greatest win four years ago win again this week.

After all, he’s only human!

(And the same I am sure can be said for Robbie Deans, New Zealand-born and raised coach of the Wallabies).