SA’s economic divides will take long time to bridge

Ryland Fisher says that the Franschhoek Literary Festival reminds him apartheid South Africa in terms of the demographics of the people who attend.

I did not go to the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year. I went last year and it was a bit much.

Like many others, I found it stifling to be in an environment that reminded me of apartheid South Africa, not in terms of the content but in terms of the demographics of the people who attended.

Apparently the situation was not much different this year, if the posts and tweets on social media are anything to go by. Perhaps I will go again in a few years’ time when people have convinced me the demographics have changed significantly. It certainly appeared to be much of the same this year and this might explain why apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock thought he would be welcome.

I don’t think the organisers are to blame, because it is not unusual for South Africans to congregate based on special interests, especially race. The festival appears to be one of those places white people feel comfortable because they are by far in the majority - they are probably in the majority in Franschhoek most other times too.

This realisation - that people don’t really like to get out of their little boxes - hit me many years ago when I was doing research and interviews for my book on race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa.

It was pointed out by one of the people I interviewed, Carel Boshoff junior, a key player in Orania, the white homeland established in post-apartheid SA.

Boshoff said he did not think there was anything wrong with Orania. They were merely doing what most South Africans were doing. Most South Africans, he believed, loved to live, work and socialise mainly or only with people who looked like them and sounded like them.

I thought about this after the interview with Boshoff and reluctantly had to concede he was probably right - those who make an effort to socialise across racial and cultural barriers are really in a minority. But this still did not give him and the people around him the right to establish Orania.

Part of the reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that the majority of people are poor and confined to townships because they cannot afford the transport costs to socialise outside their areas. Most people love to create comfort zones, where you can say what you want to say without fear of contradiction and where you are bound to get nods of approval for views you realise might not have much currency with groups of people who might be perceived to be different to you.

I was speaking to a friend, who owns a number of big retail outlets, and he told me how his choice of branch manager often determined the demographics of the staff in the store. He said when he appointed a Muslim store manager, most of the staff tended to be Muslim. The same occurred when he appointed a Jewish store manager and most of the staff was Jewish. When he appointed a lesbian manager, most of the staff were lesbian.

One of the ways in which the apartheid government divided people was by using language. They also used geographic locations and made sure only people who looked and sounded similar lived in certain areas.

Now we have a democracy, one should be able to argue people no longer need to congregate in these apartheid-defined silos, but integration is made more difficult because, more often than not, the silos in which we operate are also based on economics and in SA, the link between race and class cannot be ignored. I can’t help thinking about these self-imposed and society-imposed divisions when I visit Franschhoek.

Rich people (and in most cases one can probably substitute white for rich) have disposable income, so they can afford to attend events like the festival. Most black people, even those perceived to have money, do not have the same level of disposable income and are hard at work trying to earn a living because they did not have the head-start most whites have in South Africa. I am fortunate that I am able to go to restaurants, theatre and music concerts regularly - sometimes I am invited but most of the time I pay - and I have noticed often how most of the patrons are white and most of the staff are black.

Unfortunately, this reality will be with us for a long time in South Africa. You might be able to change political power patterns reasonably quickly - especially with democratic elections - but you do not change economic patterns overnight. It will take generations for us to change the ownership of the economy and until that happens, only certain people will feel welcome at events like the literary festival.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 21 May 2016)