Wednesday, September 01, 2004

No reason to get excited 

Here’s a thing. If you’ve read back a bit, you’ll know that we’ve been building a house. We moved in at the end of April, but the builders are still around, fixing the stuff they buggered up the first time round. Part of this work involves some serious banging and digging in the garage to fix a water problem. Since we have moved in, the garage is full of the usual clutter that inhabits garages: bikes, tools, boxes. And my modest wine collection. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

I am a white Englishman, living in South Africa. I am painfully aware of South Africa’s history, and also of the echoes of that history that permeate every day life in this beautiful country. If, at a dinner party, you discuss the topic of having workmen in your home, then you are in danger of discovering some ugly prejudices. You can’t leave “them” alone for a second. Don’t let them see where you keep anything valuable. Don’t let them get friendly with your dogs. The general assumption is that the black guy will steal from the white guy, given half a chance. To put it another way, the poor guy will steal from the rich guy. Being of a liberal nature, I have found that these conversations tend to end awkwardly when I am involved. I would rather work on the assumption that someone is trustworthy, until proven otherwise. If you treat somebody like a criminal, then you are likely to create one if he has any tendencies in that direction. In addition, it is hard not to sympathise on some level with a lack population which, after ten years of their guys being in charge, has not seen a miraculous uplifting of their circumstances.

To get back to the builder situation, we have gone out of our way to be nice to all of the workmen on our house. My wife knows all their names, takes them ice lollies when it’s hot, and even made the foreman some dinners to take home when his wife was away for a week. Then comes that test. I noticed last week that a bottle of wine that I had been keeping for a special occasion had gone. I wasn’t completely sure I hadn’t drunk it, so I didn’t want to come over all aggressive, so I made a careful note of what was there, and checked regularly. Last night, there were two more bottles missing. This time I know exactly what they were, and when they went. As you can imagine I was extremely pissed off. I spoke to the foreman, and his boss, and they are both reasonably sure they know who it was. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. The next question is, how do I deal with this? I was stewing last night, trying to decide between the Hercule Poirot approach – trying to catch them in their guilt; or the Duncan Ferguson approach – beat a confession out of them. By this morning, though we had all calmed down a bit, although my wife was upset more than anything else by the betrayal of trust, and we had decided to leave it to the builder. He will sort it out, and will also shortly be receiving an invoice for the missing wine.

The whole thing raises a lot of issues which most of us would rather forget about. What interests me, as usual, is the way that South Africans approach this kind of thing. Most attitudes tend to reinforce the barriers between the different worlds that exist in this society. The responses vary from the resigned: “you shouldn’t have given them the opportunity” to the paranoid: “don’t confront them, they know where you live”. I’m trying to get to a point of understanding and forgiveness, but nicking my booze is straining my liberal nature. If this episode serves to make me less naïve, then that’s fine. What I don’t want it to do is to make me assume the worst next time. If this makes me open to thieves and conmen then so be it. It’s the only way I can live.

Postscript: Dad, if you’re reading – one of the bottles was from Grandpa’s collection!

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