I was attending a book launch and while trying to make a sneaky getaway from the snack table (after doing a fair bit of damage) I was spotted by a guy I had known while I was at school. He had been a couple years ahead of me and had gone off to study law at the University of Cape Town. Not being particularly fond of him I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen him and ducked behind a book shelf. When he finally cornered me, and the pleasantries had been dealt with, we moved on to the topic of my studies.
“So, what are you studying?” he said as he reached over and picked up a snack.
“I majored in English last year and I’m taking am extra year to get my third major. By the end of this year I’ll have an undergrad in English, Political Science and Legal Studies. I’m planning, at the moment, to do my honours in Politics.”
“Oh, so you want to be a politician, eh?” he quiped with a little smirk and a wink of his eye.
“No.” I replied with a returned smirk; no wink of my eye.
In between ingesting a mini-quiche he asked me his next question.
“So, I know you’re on holiday now… but…where did you… end up studying?”
“I actually stayed in Durban. I’m at UKZN – at Howard College.”
With mini-quiche halfway down his throat he swallowed intently, took a sip of his wine and leaned in. I leaned backed. I waited.
“Really? Interesting.”he nodded as he sucked the remnants of his quiche out of his teeth.
I took this moment to try to catch my mother’s eye across the room. I gave her our established “get me the hell out of here” signal. She thought I was pointing out that I was chatting to a boy, so she smiled and gave me a thumbs up – obviously we needed to establish it a bit more. I was stuck.
He whispered the word black as if it made his statement more politically correct. As if by dropping it a couple decibels he made himself less of a bigot. It wasn’t as if he was making a purely empirical observation regarding the percentage of black students who are enrolled at UKZN. Because yes, compared to UCT there are more black students than white students at my university. His statement very black meant so much more. It meant very dangerous, very poor, very bad, very inefficient.
Now, I’m not a stalwart defender of my university. I’ve spent enough time there to know that it has its problems. Hell, I’ve sat crying in corridors because of its problems. I’ve been chased out of lecture venues by striking students. I’ve heard rubber bullets being shot on campus and watched screaming students running for cover. I’ve fought with the administration and I’ve fought with the SRC. But for this man in front of me, all the university’s problems could be summed up in one phrase: very black. A lazy and ignorant statement and sadly one that I’ve heard many times before.
“Oh, I didn’t realise that you were planning on immigrating?” I said as I took a sip of wine and smiled at him.
“No, I’m not going anywhere. Why would you think that?” he chuckled.
“It’s just that South Africa’s very black – actually being in Africa and all. They make up nearly 80% of the population. God, isn’t that terrifying? I’d be careful if I was you. Wouldn’t want them to get you!”
He looked confused, as if he wasn’t sure if I was joking or not. Mr Lawyer wasn’t bright enough to catch a little bit of sarcasm. I excused myself and slipped away to find my mother. We seriously needed to work on our emergency signals.