How White is my Valet? by Colin Cotterill

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There was a black person at my event in Capetown in South Africa and he wasn’t serving drinks or cleaning the windows. I have no idea how he got in. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, unlike the suburbs of Johannesburg, the bookshop wasn’t surrounded by ten-foot high, razor wire-topped walls. There wasn’t a private militia security firm patrolling the streets to keep him out. I wanted to talk to him at the end but he skedaddled in the rush for the door that usually ensues one of my ‘live’ events. I remember he looked uncomfortable like a lone African-American at a Klan meeting.  I’d wanted to ask whether they’d hired him but he was gone and when I checked my audience photographs last night he wasn’t there so he might have been a hologram or just another ghost.

There are three shades of people in South Africa; white, black and coloured. I’d imagined the latter to be a bright array of gaudy purples and luminous pinks like the Beneton ads. But apparently, ‘coloured’ just means one of your ancestors was raped by a randy marauding western barbarian leaving you neither A nor B. For convenience, east Asians are classified under ‘coloured’ even though you’d expect in openly racist SA that there’d be a ‘yellow’ category. I was missing yellow folk. The last I’d seen of them was when they stepped off the flight from Hong Kong. I suppose those that weren’t on their ways to work in Chinese restaurants were picked up in a special bus and slotted into the ‘yellow’ tour category. For the last three days I haven’t seen one.

I’d been concerned on the flight in. I’d been working in the garden the week before and I was crisply tanned so there was a likelihood I might not make it into my rightful hue niche. I was expecting a Dulux colour chart at immigration where they would have no doubt. But no! White I was and I spent my days with snow-blindingly white but terribly nice people. Driving around Jo’berg I’d been reminded of those scenes in zombie movies where the star and a small group of hapless extras are holed up in a shopping center. They have to drive across town to get ammunition for their bazooka but ‘they’re out there. You daren’t stop at traffic lights because they come up to your car and terrorize you. They beg for money and try to sell you avocados and twinkly lights. But you have a central locking system so they can’t get at your jugular and you make it safely to the bazooka ammo discount store recounting those close shaves. ‘

For the next few days I’ll be stepping from one white rock to the next as I cross this fast-flowing dark continent and I doubt anyone will notice that beneath this saddle-leather brown exterior there beats an unashamed primrose yellow heart. But that doesn’t stop this feeling of xenophobia that lingers in my head like a hangover. (Of course that might just be the hangover)

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