|Bheki prepares to board the Shosholoza Meyl.|
A suggestion had been made that I not travel alone in Economy Class on the Shosholoza – at least not on my first trip. “Take a local with you,” friends advised, “Someone who has been on the train before and who speaks Xhosa and Afrikaans.”
The closer it came to the time for me to board the train, the more I warmed to the idea of traveling with a companion. Was I getting cold feet? And if so, why? Was this journey upsetting some deep-rooted racism or classism in me? Was I playing into the fear of being a minority – the only white person on a train of black and coloured people? And which was more unsettling: race or class? Was being in the minority more troubling or was or sitting in “third class” when, on the Shosholoza, I could afford to travel in “premier class?”
Was my hesitation to take the Shosholoza by myself really about race and class – the “isms” that are buried somewhere in all of us except, perhaps, for saints and poets? Or was this truly about listening to locals and avoiding, as much as possible, any potential trouble? That long-ago incident in Peru, when I had a knife pulled on me, continues to be my touchstone for taking caution when setting out on new adventures.
I wanted to be certain that my decisions were being guided by caution and not fear. But if it was fear, I wanted to be damn sure that it was not fear based on racism and classism, but a justified concern for safety. And just as importantly, perhaps more importantly, if I was making decisions based on racism and classism that lives within me somewhere, I needed to acknowledge that. Perhaps this would really be more about a personal journey of a widening worldview than it would be a commentary on “economic segregation” along the rail lines of South Africa.
I don’t know the real reason why I invited a friend from the township of Khayelitsha to join me on my first experience on the Shosholoza. Throughout history, explorers have engaged the services of a guide. I hoped my motivation for doing so was similar to those earlier adventurers, but I would be less than truthful if I didn’t say that an element of fear also played into my decision to travel with a local. That and I thought it would just be more fun to have someone to talk with on my first six-hour train journey and the three days spent in the tiny village of Matjiesfontein.
Deciding whether or not to travel with a local was the challenge. Once the decision was made to do so, I knew who I would invite to join me on the Shosholoza.
I met Bheki Kunene when he was just 14-years-old and was dreaming of becoming “South Africa’s greatest in-line skater.” It was an especially daunting goal when you realize that Bex, as his friends call him, had the drive and the vision to realize his dream, but lacked the very tool he needed to be successful. He didn’t have in-line skates.
I had written about Bheki and his aspirations when I was on a fellowship in South Africa in 2003. Late one night, I e-mailed a vignette about Bheki to friends in the U.S. and went to bed. By the next morning, my inbox was full of replies from Americans offering to buy skates for this township kid. Bheki got his in-line skates, began competing in tournaments, and though he didn’t become South Africa’s greatest skater, the two of us did become friends.
The story I wrote then was really less about Bheki than it was about dreams. Over the years, as I got to know Bheki better, I realized that he did have a powerful story to tell.
Bheki was a sensitive child, raised by his mother and grandmother. His father was out of the picture – in prison serving 18 years for robbery – all of Bheki’s young life. His mother, seeing education as the only way out of poverty, encouraged Bheki to excel in school – which he did. He also was cast in a television show that ran for one year on South African TV. And then, things went very wrong.
Bheki did a terrible thing. He was arrested, and the crime he committed generated a good deal of media attention. He was in and out of courts and juvenile detention. In a remarkably short span of time, Bheki’s life went from one of promise and hopefulness to one of notoriety and despair. When the case was settled and the media moved on to the next crime, Bheki was returned to his community with no hope, to say nothing of any expectation, that Bheki would make anything of himself.
Heeding his mother’s advice to get an education, Bheki went from school to school in an attempt to gain readmission. His academic accomplishments would get him in the door, but when administration learned of what he had done, they wouldn’t let him attend school. By sheer persistence, Bheki eventually found a high school to attend and matriculated. He then set his sites on obtaining a degree in graphic design. Again, because of his persistent nature, Bheki made his case for acceptance and finally wore the admissions committee down at Ruth Prowse School of Arts where he was admitted on a conditional basis. Semester after semester, for the full three years of the program, Bheki proved himself and received a diploma in graphic design in 2009. He has since opened the first graphic design company, a one-man shop at this point, but still, the first graphic design company in the township where he lives.
By telling his story, Bheki could inspire young people in the townships. It could change the perceptions of those with power and privilege in South Africa. And it could show people in other parts of the world that Africans are worth investing in.
Bheki had a story to tell, but needed my help in telling it. I had long train trips to take and thought I needed a guide. Traveling together, I could assist Bheki in writing his story, and he could come to my assistance if needed. We might make an odd-looking pair, a young black man from the townships of South Africa traveling with a middle-aged white guy from the Midwestern part of the United States, but odd or not, we set off on a journey on the Shosholoza together.
Of the 60-plus people who boarded the same sitter car in Economy Class that Bheki and I did, I was the only white person. I was prepared to feel like an outsider, to endure some strange looks and possibly even to overhear negative comments, which Bheki could translate if they weren’t spoken in English. For the most part, none of that happened. One or two people may have done a subtle double take when they walked past our row and saw a sole white man in the packed carriage, but I never felt out of place on the Shosholoza.
Bheki and I would talk for some time and then he would sleep and I would read. We would buy grapes and snacks from the vendors who walked up and down the aisles, all day long, selling their wares for a couple of rand. Bheki would watch the bags so I could go to the toilet and I would sit in my seat while he tried to get a break from the oppressive heat by standing between the cars and catching a breeze from the open doors. Occasionally, one of the passengers who had purchased one too many Castle beers would burst into a song or break out laughing, but mostly, that first train journey was just monotonous – and hot.
The first thing I wanted to do after our hot journey on the Shosholoza, was to go for a cooling swim at the pool at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein. Bheki and I checked into our rooms, changed into our swimming costumes and met at the pool where we lounged, swam and talked about, what else, race.
Bheki told me how few swimming pools there are in the townships outside of Cape Town – even though more than a million people live there – and how, for the most part, black kids would not usually go swimming as a fun, recreational outing. I told Bheki that in the U.S., the white kids who can, pretty much live at community pools in the summer, or in the water at a family’s get-away lake, or on the ocean beaches of America’s coastline.
Discussing race in the swimming pool with Bheki reminded me of a conversation I had with an elderly Afrikaner woman who learned that I was staying in the Sea Point neighborhood of Cape Town. Outside of my flat was a beautiful public swimming pool situated at the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The white-haired woman was lamenting how she used to enjoy taking her family to the pool but that those days now were gone. Thinking it was because her children were grown and had moved away, I asked if that was the reason. “Oh, no, dearie” was her response. “You can’t go there now because it’s the blacks and coloureds who swim there. It’s a shame. It used to be so lovely.” Lovely for whites only.
Half joking, but only half joking, Bheki asked, “Do you think that’s why none of the other guests are joining us in the water? Because a black man is in the pool?” I didn’t think that was the reason, but the fact that we were even having this conversation, decades after the end of segregation in the U.S. and nearly 20 years past apartheid in South Africa, was unsettling. There would be no overt examples of racism during our stay in Matjiesfontein, but there would be stares and comments that would prove more unsettling than our conversation in the pool.
Both of us were cognizant of the eyes following us as we were shown to our table each night at the only restaurant that serves dinner in Matjiesfontein. One night, a diner stared long enough at Bheki to make him uncomfortable. Indeed, Bheki was more uncomfortable as the only black guest in the hotel than I was being the only white man on the Shosholoza. Servers would ask me which side dishes I wanted with my meal, but just assumed Bheki would eat whatever they put on his plate. With the exception of one guest and one employee, no one would engage with either Bheki or me. Of course it’s conjecture on our part, but both of us sensed extraordinary curiosity about this “odd couple” in Matjiesfontein. That feeling was confirmed one night as we were leaving the restaurant and passing the bar before returning to our rooms.
Three men, who had spent a good deal of time drinking in the bar that day, were sitting outside having a beer. Earlier that evening, when Bheki and I had stopped by for a drink before dinner, the men were talking in English, laughing with other guests and eventually joined the piano player in singing a rousing rendition of “Marching to Pretoria.” My few attempts to engage the men in conversation ended in silence. They must have assumed that Bheki couldn’t understand Afrikaans, or they didn’t care, because when we passed them later that evening, one of them said in a voice loud enough for us to hear – and for Bheki to translate for me – “Sjoe! What is this, then, a white American man with an African boy?”
There could have been all kinds of thoughts racing through this white man’s mind, but we now had confirmation of something both Bheki and I felt since the moment we arrived in Matjiesfontein: people were curious about the two of us and talking about us, but no one would ask us any questions. And although we will never know exactly what they were thinking of us, we knew that race was part of it – at least with the men at the bar. Why else would they need to define us by the color of our skin with me being white and Bheki being African – which is understood to mean black. And although Bheki looks young and is a young man, he is not a boy and wouldn’t be mistaken for one. Certainly, not in the bar where he had been served a beer just a few hours before.
The thing that is so insidious about all of society’s “isms” and “phobias” – racism, classism, sexism, ageism, anti-Semitism, homophobia – is that it is often so covert that it is difficult to prove that you even experienced it. That maybe classism is why you got the worst table in a restaurant; and homophobia is why you didn’t get the job you applied for; and racism is the reason why guests at a hotel in the middle of the Great Karoo Desert stare at you.
You want to be able to say, absolutely, that the other guests just didn’t want to go for a swim on that particular hot afternoon; but you’re left wondering if there might not, just possibly, be some other reason. And in the “isms” and “phobias” of others, you recognize something similar in yourself. That you might not care who you swim with, but you think your safety is jeopardized because the people you travel with in a certain train car, look different than you do.
Bheki and I missed our scheduled train back to Cape Town from Matjiesfontein because we listened to the advice of a local who told us it was running two hours late. She was wrong. Just goes to show that it’s not always good to listen to the advice of locals after all.