Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Brutal name-calling on Christmas Eve...

I just returned from the local Superette owned by Asians - and (before today) supported by myself for the odd last-minute shopping. I left with a bad taste in the mouth and almost a broken noise... and a long time afterwards still a sense of amazement and lingering fury:

Imagine a isiXhosa-speaking youngster in a bright red soccer sweat shirt at the bread counter - as thin as a reed - with a cold drink under the arm. See, also a big, bold Chinese-speaking business owner in a suit with a stick... and throw in the accusation that he is trying to steal in the shop. In broken English both tried to make their cases: The Chinese gentleman with fury, the youngster with sheer embarrassment and smiles, and the entire scene of staring customers and shouting from the small community of Asian workers escalated quickly to the cacophony of sound at the counter next to me. At which point, the business man decided to hit the young man against the head and called him 'your bloody liar and thief' ... and right there I lost it!

I should probably NOT have done it, but I stepped in between the two and held up a flat hand: "Please stop it. Just... Don't!". (It was like being trapped in a movie strip...) He basically stepped right through me, as one would guess. I stumbled against the sweets counter and tried to stay upright with some dignity. But there was a brief moment of sheer disbelief before he continued to bully the man into the street and threw him onto an equally bewildered security guard. On his return, I told the suit that hitting is unacceptable and he tried to explain how the young man allegedly 'planned to steal from them'. I was furious. Lost. "Here, in this country, we don't hit our customers. You make a case with the police if you have a problem with someone".

I patiently waited outside the gates for *Zolile and called him over. Asked him about the incident and yes, there were tears and again, the embarrassment. Shock. He was bleeding. "Do you want to go to the police... I will be a witness of what happened"? ... and he said, "Yes, please"... but friends convinced him otherwise and he walked away with them. "Spend your money elsewhere, those are dangerous people *Zolile; and they will mark you..", I managed.

I do not know if he did or did not steal. I also do not know if he did or did not plan to steal. I *do* know that he was assaulted and humiliated. I do not know if I (too) am prejudice towards Southern people from the cultural group we engage mostly in our projects - and in simply assuming that the young man spoke the truth in my short talk with him, with the man from the East not being justified in his behaviour. Maybe I should not have judged. Then again: I *do* know violence cannot be tolerated where dialogue could have been used, and I also *do* believe that there are still laws in our country and processes (like I was reminded by the fellow customer at the cashiers). I also understand I could not possibly be welcome there anymore, and I also won't do last minute shopping ever again at the small supermarket in Kommetjie Road at Sunnydale in Cape Town.

There may be good relationships at a macro-level between the Chinese and South African governments. And this may be an isolated case of prejudice and fear between different cultures doing business on the same corner. But I am convinced this is not the first and not the last clash between people at this little store....

And so, my Christmas Eve starts with much on my mind: a young man with tears in his eyes, and a white bread and soup powder on my kitchen table, that I cannot touch yet...

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