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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

“I’ve Decided I’d Like to Go to the Olympics”: Read an Excerpt from Ka-Boom by Gareth Crocker

Gareth Crocker

Ka-BoomKa-Boom is an extraordinary story about an ordinary guy. Or at least, that is how bestselling author Gareth Crocker describes his first work of non-fiction – a side-splitting memoir.

Ka-Boom takes the reader from one remarkable adventure to the next, sharing the life story of someone who is, in fact, anything but ordinary:

Crocker has published half a dozen novels, made a horror film, run a 90 kilometre race in which he bled through his shoes, successfully failed to play right-wing for Manchester United, attempted the Olympics at 38, wrestled a ghost, been the spokesperson for a company whose head office exploded, been run over by a Honda, survived two almost plane crashes and is currently filming a superhero TV show.

For a taste of what to expect from this memoir, read an excerpt shared on the author’s website in which he reminiscences about his attempt at the Olympics, a rather unconventional one at that:

‘Hey, Bob. This is Destiny calling.’
So that Monday I phoned the national Olympic throwing coach.
As one does.
To protect his identity, we shall call him Bob. This is pretty
much how our conversation went:
‘Hi. Is this Bob?’
‘It is. Who is this?’
‘A future Olympian, actually.’
‘Really? You sound a little old.’
‘That’s weird. I’m only 34.’
‘I’m sorry. Why are you calling?’
‘I’ve decided I’d like to go to the Olympics.’
‘I think you’ve been misinformed. I’m not a travel agent. I’m
the throwing coach for South Africa. Hammer throw, shot-put,
‘I’m a javelinist.’
‘That’s not a word.’
‘Really? Sounds like it should be.’
‘Look, is this a serious call?’
‘Absolutely. I have a really strong throwing arm and I need you
to coach me. You know … privately. I’m happy to pay.’

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“We are the Racists” – Eusebius McKaiser Suggests Most South Africans are in Denial About Their Prejudice


A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?As you must have heard by now, Eusebius McKaiser’s new book is coming out in November.

Books LIVE will be revealing the cover soon, but while you wait, take some time out to read an excerpt from McKaiser’s first book, the bestselling A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

In this chapter, McKaiser discusses Jessica dos Santos, the model who caused an outcry with a racist tweet back in 2012, and suggests that she is not an atypical South African, despite what most of us claim.

Read the excerpt:

* * * * * * * *

Racial baggage in four part harmony

Does outrage over others’ racism not mask our own prejudices?

Are you in denial?

Is Jessica dos Santos an alien, or one of us?

Sketch one:

A couple of days ago I had a rather embarrassing experience. I was sitting at one of my favourite spots in Rosebank – popular coffee shop Ninos – overlooking the parking lot while waiting for my creative juices to kick in after a bout of writer’s block. I got distracted by some noise, and looked up. Two women seemed to be having a fairly tense conversation. One of them seemed to have bumped the other’s car. I didn’t see the accident, so had no clue which one of them might have been in the wrong. As they exchanged numbers, their conversation, judging by the increasingly wild gesticulation, seemed to be getting more heated.

I instinctively found myself silently egging on the black lady, as one might anxiously hold thumbs for your favourite boxer in the ring. The Indian lady seemed louder – I could certainly hear her voice more clearly – and this made me nervous about whether or not my player in the road rage match was going to win the verbal warfare. But alas, the black lady, though also talking a lot, seemed more timid, and so I feared that she might come out of it all the worse for wear.

Why, you might wonder, did I instinctively side with her? Simply because she was black. I did not know her. I might never even meet her. For all I know, she could have been in the wrong, and hurled abuse at her Indian counterpart, thus deserving those loud protests. Yet, the fact that she was black was enough for her to get my sympathy and all my goodwill. There was no sympathy or goodwill, I’m afraid, for the person who looked less like me, the Indian lady.

Sketch two:

A good friend of mine, Seth, confessed to me many years after we first met that he had a rather horrible thought the first time he saw me. He walked into my philosophy tutorial at the beginning of his university career and when he realised that I was the tutor, he thought, ‘Oh dear, my luck to be assigned the incompetent black tutor.’ That is the sort of confession one can only trot out if your friendship is more solid than the skull of a politician. I chuckled, and we laughed it off over a pint of lager – or three.

We didn’t need to analyse the confession. It was obvious what was going on: my skin colour was assumed to be carrying information about me. And in this case, my black skin carried the warning, ‘incompetent!’ The onus was on me to disprove the assumption. Only white tutors could be assumed to be competent unless proven to be useless. It was the other way round for black tutors.

Sketch three:

Jessica dos Santos is a name we didn’t really know until early May 2012, but now her story has been filed in the annals of Twitter infamy. She is a white model who had an unfortunate encounter with a black guy who reportedly made unwelcome and unacceptable sexual advances towards her. She was so angry that she tweeted about the ‘kaffir’. She was quickly, and ferociously, sanctioned by almost every South African on Twitter. One magazine, FHM, almost instantly stripped her of some title she had won under their banner, and made it clear they would never work with her in future. She experienced the virtual equivalent of having a ton of rotten tomatoes thrown at her.

Not even a breakfast function at which she attempted to reconcile with another thoughtless tweep, a black woman who retorted with unacceptable racism (suggesting that whites ought to have been killed), could salvage her bruised image. She became the symbol of all unexpressed and latent racism that might exist in every nook and cranny in our country. And everyone wanted to prove their progressive credentials by venting more angrily than other tweeps.

I encountered at least two responses that typified the engagement with Dos Santos’s racism. One Facebook friend of mine gave me advice on my way to a recording for a television show on which I had been invited to appear to speak about the incident and its aftermath. My Facebook friend urged me to remind ‘these racists’ that their racism was disgusting and that ‘they’ had no place in our society.

At a friend’s birthday braai, the incident, inevitably, also became a topic of discussion at some point in the afternoon. One guest lamented, ‘You know, I almost feel sorry for that white girl. She must have been raised in an incredibly closed and insulated community.’

The reactions of the online masses, and the reactions of my Facebook friend and my friend’s braai guest, are intriguing: they suggest that racists are not us. Racists are alien. They are outliers in our society. They are not typical. They are a freak fact of our lives. If we could get rid of the three racists spoiling our rainbow image, we would be living in perfect racial harmony. (Cue: ‘Ebony and Ivory’ …)

I find this lie fascinating. Racists, in reality, are among us. We are the racists. ‘They’ are not from another planet. But we dare not indict ourselves.

Sketch four:

I was an obsessive competitive debater throughout my university career. And so when I arrived at Oxford University I was naturally drawn to the famous Oxford Debate Union. Probably the best part of my Oxford experience was the time spent growing as a debater, interacting with world-famous politicians and newsmakers. The Union was a space that was so well respected that, frankly, it was a feather in the career cap of anyone – even a state president – to be asked to speak there. But make no mistake, you had to know your stuff, lest the ambitious young Oxford lions, invariably wearing black tie, would offer you a lethal point of information or, worse, deliver paper speeches from the floor, that crushed your evidence or your reasoning. Fun stuff. Challenging stuff.

And so, in my first term at Oxford, I joined the Union and attended as many of the events as possible. During one of my first attendances, I found myself sitting in the main chamber of the Union. I do not recall the topic, but it was magnificent stuff with good opening speeches from both sides. Then it was the turn of a black guy who had been invited to the event.

As the man got up and walked up to the podium, I found myself thinking, ‘Pleeeeeease don’t fuck this up! Pleeeease be the best speaker!’

The basis of my mixture of fear and hope was simply that he was black. When the other speakers spoke, I had zero feelings about how they might or should perform. Whether they excelled or sank was neither here nor there. I had no stake in how well they might do that night. And yet, this stranger induced in me – purely because he was black – fear that he might not be up to the task at hand, and a simultaneous desire that he should deliver a speech worthy of a two-minute standing ovation.

Isn’t it interesting that my racial affinity could do all this to me? Years later, I am not so sure if much has changed. I still, for example, find myself desperately wanting black debaters to beat white debaters in competition; not just because I happen to coach some of them, but because black excellence is far closer to my heart than white excellence. It is a reality that is found in every part of my psyche. It is, for example, more important to me that Pieter de Villiers, former Springbok rugby coach, should have a brilliant record as coach than it is important to me that one Jake White should have a brilliant record as national coach. What is the basis of my split loyalties? Pieter looks and sounds more like my dad and me than Jake White. (Well, actually, no-one sounds like Pieterjie!) That’s how deep racial identity runs in me.

These four stories are variations on a theme: our racial baggage, as a nation recovering from a deeply racist past, is massive. Yet the way we deal with that past, in the present, is not very healthy.

First, we are in denial about the fact that racial identities are still very strong, and that they often form the basis of racial prejudices, and irrational racial affinities. Many of us who acknowledge this reality pull a different trick. We pretend the problem is small. Or we pretend that we never were, and never will be, part of the problem. The problem is out there. It is not in my home, in my heart, in my headspace.

This is why the collective outrage against Jessica’s racist tweet is slightly less comforting than it might appear at first glance. On the one hand, it is great that we collectively punish a racist in our midst. It means we do not tolerate racism rearing its divisive head. But there was, on the other hand, something disturbingly quick about the intense and voluminous reactions – something I am suspicious of.

My fear is that much of the outrage was less about Jessica’s racism than about deflecting attention from our selves. No-one who came down hard on Jessica acknowledged their own racial baggage. The subtext of the criticism was clear, ‘I am not Jessica. I am different.’ And this is why my Facebook friend could so neatly distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The ‘us’ refers to us innocent ones, and the ‘them’ refers to them racist bunch! But this is disingenuous.

The real difference, frankly, between Jessica and us is that she got busted and we did not. It is a little bit like our outrage when a famous person gets caught for drunken driving. It is easy to be outraged by that person’s irresponsible behaviour. In reality, many thousands of South Africans drive over the legal limit every weekend and do not get stopped. Yet, with no hint of irony, these same offenders are often the first to throw stones in the direction of the busted one. It is a tactic that is aimed at drawing attention away from one’s own behaviour. It is a lie we cannot afford to encourage in ourselves and in others.

The problem with pretending that we are oh-so-different from Jessica is unless we acknowledge the scope of the problem, we cannot deal with racism and racial baggage. That is why it is important that we examine our own lives, and not just preoccupy ourselves with spotting racism in others.

It is for the same reason that I introduced gentle disagreement into the braai conversation at my friend’s house. I suggested that it was probably not true that Jessica grew up in a racist attic. But of course it is a wonderful fantasy. Since you and I live in amazingly progressive and cosmopolitan places, we never could have done what Jessica did, nor would we ever. After the attic, Jessica cannot handle the pristine multiracial space in which her modelling career has landed her. This is the logic underlying the other braai guest’s casual suggestion that Jessica grew up in a closed community.

Again, we should be careful not to convince ourselves that racial baggage is a small problem out there. Jessica grew up in our communities. She is not one-of-a-kind. She is our friend, lover, sister, daughter and colleague. She is not an alien, and her birthplace is not Mars – it is in fact South Africa. She was born in 1992, and so cannot even be written off as a relic from Verwoerdian days. She is a proverbial ‘born free’ – but, not quite. Rather, born into racial baggage. Like all of us.

We dare not pretend our racial issues are over and done with, or negligible. Jessica is one of us.

It is also evident that besides racial prejudice, racial identity runs deeper than we like to believe. This is not even necessarily a poisonous truth and yet we deny it. There is no inherent harm in my quiet desire to see black debaters excel. In fact, given the historic educational inequities that partly explain why no black African has won the South African National Debate Championship (at the time of writing this book), one might even say that my passion for disproportionately focusing my coaching energy on black debaters, is sensible. Yet how many of us would own up to be motivated by race in this fairly innocuous sense? Few of us, because we have closed the space in which we can be open about our racial identities.

My experience of the two brawling women in the Rosebank Mall parking lot is not exceptional. When I tested my story with many friends less ‘race-obsessed’ than me, a familiar smile ran across their faces – they recognised the story instantly. I got the same reaction to my tale about the black speaker at Oxford. There seems to be a kind of trope here that is unsurprising. If I grew up in a community that was predominantly black, and had my first real interracial contact, socially, at my former whites-only high school, then it isn’t surprising that I should have racial loyalties. It would be more surprising if I did not.

Yet we run away from these realities. We pretend it is only Eusebius who sees race everywhere – him and his handful of race-obsessed friends. But, how many South Africans reading this essay do not have friends or lovers predominantly from the same racial group? How many people reading this essay grew up in racially integrated neighbourhoods? How many of us, unlike the old white landlady in Sandton, could comfortably live with people who do not look like us? We have tighter social bonds with people of our own racial make-up than those who do not share the randomness of skin colour.

The story of multiracial, rainbow nation bliss is grossly exaggerated. We are not there, and we will take longer to get there if we convince ourselves that we have already arrived. We haven’t. If someone like my friend Seth didn’t own up to the fact that he took my skin colour as an indication of whether or not I was competent, then how could Seth ever have confronted his own racial stereotyping? It is only by acknowledging, in the first instance, that the racial challenges start with our individual selves that we have a fighting chance of achieving that elusive non-racial South Africa we chant about more often than we bother to work at creating.

And this is why I am grateful that Jessica put up her racist hand and demanded our attention. In the end it is the Jessicas of this world who keep us brutally honest.

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article

“No Wonder I Love to Hate Cape Town” – Read An Excerpt from Eusebius McKaiser’s A Bantu in My Bathroom

A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?In his frank political commentary, Eusebius McKaiser interrogates the mistruths that populate South African society like no one else. His new book is scheduled for release in November, from Bookstorm.

In the build-up to the publication, Books LIVE is sharing a series of excerpts from his best-selling debut A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

The first excerpt was the eponymous essay from McKaiser’s debut, “A Bantu in My Bathroom!”, and the second was “Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?” Today’s excerpt is “Cape Town’s dirty, coloured secrets”.

In the essay, McKaiser grapples with his identity as a member of the coloured community, and tries to get to grips with the shame it elicits in him. He writes that in Cape Town it is impossible for him to escape Verwoed’s legacy, adding: “No wonder I love to hate Cape Town …”

Read the third in our series of excerpts from A Bantu in My Bathroom:

* * * * *

Cape Town’s dirty, coloured secrets

Am I black or am I coloured?

What feelings does group identity evoke in us?

Does the fate of the coloured community bear testimony to Verwoed’s legacy?

Last year I travelled to Cape Town and got out in Long Street. As soon as I was out of the taxi, two little midgets ran after me rather aggressively, ‘Mister! Mister! Something, please?!’ They looked about twenty, or perhaps slightly older, but with the bodies of eight-year-olds, and certainly not taller. They were incredibly persistent as they begged for money, running in front of me, blocking my path. They looked and behaved like feral animals. I felt a mix of emotions: anger, annoyance, sadness.

When I told the story about a year later to a liberal white guy (and someone who is rather passionate about defending Cape Town as a blissful haven for all), he was deeply offended by my use of the word ‘feral’.

‘How can you describe people as feral?!’ he hissed. Such is the smugness and self-indulgence of many white liberal South Africans that I knew he would not understand my point. So I didn’t bother trying to explain myself for more than a few seconds, and no doubt his respect for me – what little he had – vanished.

But I don’t take back my words; nor do I regret the depth and strength of emotion that I felt as I negotiated the two aggressive beggars. I tried a number of tactics to escape their gaze, but none worked. I tried to pretend they were invisible, but they persisted in blocking my path. I pretended to be deaf, but their hand gestures took care of that: palms facing up, one on top of the other, like a Catholic waiting for Holy Communion (but without the dignified silence of a parishioner). I tried to be direct and firm – ‘I don’t have money, leave me alone please!’ – but that was met with the unexpected observation, ‘You’s from JO-buuurg!’ By then, I had reached the door of the hotel, and could hurry inside.

This is my regular experience of the coloured underclass in Cape Town. It is obvious to anyone who knows this city that foetal alcohol syndrome is rife. It doesn’t help that many white farmers still pay coloured farmworkers with cheap wine, encouraging already high levels of alcoholism. This, combined with the toxic evil of drug addiction, and the scourge of tik, results in babies being born with crippling physical and mental weaknesses before they have even had a decent shot at life. And this is why those men who harassed me had the bodies of boys: life had dealt them a cruel hand.

It is not surprising that they were aggressive: the alternative is suicide; or wasting away in a corner, slowly. They chose aggression. In the process they come across, and behave, like animals. This is not their fault. They are victims of society, victims of coloured communities’ fate on the South African landscape.

I wish it wasn’t so. But it is. And my white liberal acquaintance can go to hell as far I am concerned. These are members of my community who live like this. Those two could have been my cousins from Eersterivier, a very impoverished neighbourhood in Cape Town where tourist buses do not go.

It is inconvenient for wealthy Capetonians to be confronted with the truth in naked, unmediated, brutal language. Yet what they miss is that I feel the fate of my cousins, siblings, uncles and aunts. I feel it, I live it, and I drown in the shame and sense of helplessness, and the desire to wake up with a magic wand with which to make it all go away.

But for the guy who was disgusted by my description, coloureds are objects for academic study; for him, only unemotive language will do. He humanises the bergies (beggars) of Cape Town with language. I choose language that bears witness to the stripping away of their humanity. And I make no apologies for jarring the cocktail-fuelled conversation which was interrupted by my story. For me, coloured people are not objects of study. I am coloured. I love the coloured community, and it hurts to see how they live in Cape Town. Cape Town is brutally honest.

Yes, it has a mountain to die for. Yes, it seems beautiful. Yes, it is ‘chillaxed’. But that’s exactly the problem: we believe the lies of brochures. It is not really pretty. The realities of Cape Town are actually pretty ugly. And that is why I hate it. But not because lies don’t exist elsewhere. Jozi lies, too. It is easy to pretend that all there is to Jozi is Rosebank or Sandton or even bohemian Melville. But of course, like Cape Town, Jozi has dirty secrets that middle class people like to forget about when they rave about how integrated and cosmopolitan the place is. The dirty secrets of both Jozi and Cape Town are a stain on both cities’ images, like mud on a kid’s new white pants.

But I dislike Cape Town more. Not because I think it is worse than Jozi. That’s a lie too: the rivalry of the two cities’ passionate fans is silly. I personally like Cape Town less for the self-indulgent reason that its lies have personal consequences for me. Cape Town, you see, treats coloured people like dirt. And I cannot escape that fact as easily as I can in Jozi.

Try as hard as I might to call myself black, Verwoerd – the bloody bastard – had the final say.

I feel coloured in my heart of hearts. I feel fake when I describe myself as black. My black friends don’t really really think of me as black. Calling myself black is more a middle class luxury, right up there with wearing a Biko shirt, being intellectual-cool, playing around with racial labels.

This brings me back to Cape Town’s dirty secrets. In Cape Town, as soon as I land, I know that I am, and also feel, coloured. Coloured people are visible, as is their plight, in a way that is not the case in other big South African cities. This is not the end of the world, one might think, but the reason I cannot stomach that fact is because it forces me to deal with my coloured shame. Cape Town, unlike Jozi, keeps me honest. Too honest, and this hurts. It challenges me, makes me uneasy, and takes me into places deep inside that I do not want to be forced to go, at least not on racist Cape Town’s terms. I want to ‘go there’ on my own terms, in my own time – but Cape Town does not give me this control. Cape Town is brutally honest, and that is why I hate it.

As with most emotions, it is difficult to get a full grip on the nature of shame. It is also difficult to know when it is appropriate to feel shame. So I’m not sure if it really is shame that I feel about being coloured, and in relation to the coloured community.

I know it is not merely embarrassment at the sight of people who look like me, who look like my relatives, and who share a history with me, as members of the group ‘coloured’. You can be embarrassed about something without feeling implicated in the source of the embarrassment. Embarrassment is, for the most part, morally neutral. I can be embarrassed, for example, if I trip as I walk down the stairs of a restaurant. Embarrassment is not a cool emotion to feel, but it is fairly innocuous in the bigger scheme of life’s journey. It can even be useful – the prospect of embarrassment can be an incentive for you to do the right thing to avoid feeling embarrassed.

My grappling with being coloured, and my emotional reaction to the underclass of coloured people in Cape Town, is – sadly – not mere embarrassment. Embarrassment is not strong enough to capture the depth of my anxiety, my grappling, my guilt – and more. Shame feels like the label that just about gets it right.

There are two reasons I feel shame. The first is shame-as-recognition: I experience shame in the moments I recognise that I am a member of this pitiful underclass. The second is shame-as-guilt: I feel ashamed of myself, morally, for feeling ashamed of being coloured, for wilfully doing nothing to change the fate of my community, and for not challenging and eradicating the basis of my shame.

When I see a drunken coloured guy being a nuisance along Long Street, I recognise in that moment that I could have been him if life had dealt the cards differently. It also reminds me of my own family. I grew up with many family members who struggled with alcoholism. Of course alcoholism comes in all kinds of racial packaging, and has no respect for income or class. But a white drunkard does not move me quite the way a coloured drunk does. Put bluntly, the sight of coloured drunks in Long Street is a sight that is simply all too real. I can imagine being them, and I am instantly reminded of my uncle Alfred who struggled for many years with alcoholism. I often had to endure the shame of his violence and drunkenness as he fought with my cousins when I got home from school. The shame was particularly strong when friends of mine came looking for me, and witnessed the spectacle. It is that kind of hidden memory that the coloured underclass of Cape Town instantly awakes in me when I set foot in the city. It forces me to relive truths about my past, and my present – truths that I usually get to interact with how and when I choose. Not so in Cape Town – it is a city that takes control of my relationship with memory.

For me, walking around Cape Town is like paging through a photo album that contains a collection of the most painful memories of an earlier life. And because that earlier life hasn’t changed much – a trip to Eersterivier in Cape Town confirms that my relatives look and live as they did twenty years ago – I am ashamed of their poverty, their lack of mobility and their ignorant bliss. And it is of course not only my relatives’ fates that haunt me when I see a drunken coloured stranger. It is also, more painfully, the fate of my sisters and cousins in Grahamstown where I grew up. That small town, tucked away in a hole just off the N2 that connects Port Elizabeth with East London, is a town as filled with as many lies as Cape Town or Jozi. It, too, has the veneer of integration and cosmopolitanism, in the form of Rhodes University, one of the best places in the country for a liberal arts education. Yet, cross the bridge that separates town from the coloured and black townships, and you get a taste of the deep scars left by apartheid – geographically, socially, materially, and psychologically. I feel deeply ashamed of the horrid conditions in which most members of my community, including my sisters and their children, are trapped, like hapless flies in a Venus flytrap.

I am overwhelmed by the emotional burden of surviving that space, of getting away. And the only form of escape is to bury my past in the memory banks, and to assuage pangs of guilt with measly remittances home, and a flood of regular SMS messages, and the occasional phone call. The rest of that journey is between me and a diary or between me and a therapist – when middle class indulgence kicks in.

But when I walk down the streets of brutally cruel Cape Town, none of these crafty coping strategies have any chance of working in the face of aggressive bergie midgets taunting me, almost as if they were sent by an existential philosopher – or the Devil himself – to make me panic as I remember my family, my community …

I have come to the realisation that part of my shame about my coloured identity is actually self-directed moral criticism. I have fallen short of my own moral expectations. I have dropped the moral ball. I have messed up in the sense of not showing enough empathy for the plight of my family and my community. Or, perhaps a little less harsh, my empathy has not translated into action with demonstrable outcomes.

When I see Cape Town bergies, I know in that moment that I have absconded.

The underclass of coloured people is not just a dirty little secret of Cape Town that is well managed so as not to spoil the experience of rich visitors. It is also a community of downtrodden, forgotten left-over pawns from apartheid’s politicised racial battles. And it is a community whose history is my history. It is a community whose fate I feel personally. It is a community I have neglected. It is a community I care for, and yet a community of which I am also deeply ashamed. It is a community I wish I was disentangled from, and yet I also know that it is a community whose fate affects my emotional state.

No wonder I love to hate Cape Town …

* * * * *

Read the previous excerpts:

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article

Another Excerpt from A Bantu in My Bathroom – Building Up to the November Release of Eusebius McKaiser’s New Book

A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?In the build-up to the release of Eusebius McKaiser’s third book in November, Books LIVE will be featuring excerpts from the political commentator’s razor sharp debut, A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

This week’s excerpt is a chapter called “Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?” In it, McKaiser tackles some tough issues and important questions about affirmative action and its worth in the South African context. It follows on Books LIVE’s first excerpt called “A Bantu in My Bathroom!”

Affirmative action has its detractors, but McKaiser believes that it is justified. He argues his case by looking closely at three of the major criticisms levelled against it, that “affirmative action is racist”, “affirmative action undermines non-racialism” and “affirmative action is an insult to black people”, and proving that they are not valid.

Read the second in our series of excerpts from A Bantu in My Bathroom:

* * * * *

Affirmative action: a force for good or racism’s friend?

Should affirmative action appointees be embarrassed?

Is affirmative action morally defensible?

Does affirmative action undermine non-racialism?

I’ve never once given a talk on race, or been part of a panel discussion about race, and not had to field a question about affirmative action. And on every single occasion the person asking the question is filled with passion, often barely holding back on very strong emotion so as not to ruin the atmosphere perhaps, especially in university settings. Recently, for example, I gave a talk on race at Stellenbosch University. And, you bettcha, the same thing happened.

I absolutely loved the whole Stellenbosch experience, though. It was the first time I had given a talk in a cinema (on campus), complete with a guitarist doing his thing, and singing gently, as students and staff made their way inside. This being Stellenbosch, there was a pub right on site, and truth be told I was wonderfully tipsy before I even started talking. It made for an honest, flowing discussion, and the students, I suspect, appreciated my combination of engagement, and the fact that I was visibly sipping the Hunter’s Dry one of them had bought me.

I shared a lot of personal stories to make the point that we have racial baggage that we needlessly fear talking about. (In fact, my anecdotes and comment were based on another essay in this collection, ‘Racial baggage in four part harmony’.) I could see the students were relieved by my frank, personal style and tone. Universities can be rather sterile places, with emotion reserved for the drama department. So they quickly warmed to my newfound Jonathan ‘let’s talk, folks!’ Jansen style. (Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, is a public intellectual well known for his ability to speak the truth – or his truth – powerfully, but plainly.)

They asked questions and made comments straight from the heart, taking their cue from me. I was very pleased. We will never make progress in dealing with racial – and other – tensions if we cannot learn to speak frankly. We too often fear that frankness must lead to anger, and alienating ourselves from each other.

This talk gave me hope that younger South Africans can learn to speak openly to one another, but with empathy, and with a willingness to listen, to be persuaded, and to examine their own deeply held beliefs and desires. Academic discourse, sadly, does not normally allow for that sort of engagement. Which is why, in part, I refuse to be a full-time academic, and rather try to bridge a gap between my academic instincts, and my commitment to public debate.

And so it was in this spirit of frankness that a white, Afrikaans student posed a question long into the session. It was clear he had listened carefully, since he perfectly summarised in beautiful Afrikaans the nuances of my viewpoint. I appreciated that. But it was clear he had a very strong counterview that was about to be shared.

Do we not, he asked me, merely reinforce the worst of apartheid’s destructive racial constructions with policies in the new South Africa that still crudely distinguish between different racial groups? Did we not choose democracy over apartheid precisely because we wanted to escape racial categories? Why, then, do we have policies that are couched in the language of which apartheid’s architects would have fully approved? Should we not, as democrats, know better?

He didn’t share a personal story, but the controlled tension in his voice gave a clear sense that he saw himself as a young South African who only happened to be white, and who was committed to the non-racial ideal that our new society is based on, but who found himself routinely labelled a white South African rather than simply a South African. Worse, he could not guarantee that his white skin might count against him when he applied for a place at a medical school, or for a job.

It was a difficult cluster of questions, and I could only sketch him the outline of a full answer. The full answer, of course, is what I want to give in this essay. The challenge from the student can be crisply formulated: is affirmative action even in principle okay?

I want to engage with some of the biggest worries opponents of affirmative action have, and so give a sense of why, despite empathising with the logic and emotional distress of that Stellenbosch student, I think affirmative action is justified.

‘Affirmative action is racist’

I often encounter the claim that affirmative action is racist. The logic is that affirmative action discriminates against whites by excluding them from certain positions based solely on the colour of their skin. Job advertisements, for example, might say or imply things along the lines of, ‘Affirmative action candidates will be preferentially considered.’ Is this racist? No. Here’s why.

First, I can certainly see why some people might be tempted to see these policies as racist. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if I say, ‘You guys are equally good for this job but I’m going to give it to Sipho rather than to Freek because Sipho is black’, you will think I am discriminating against Freek on the basis of his skin colour.

And you’d be right – that is discrimination. Many supporters of affirmative action would not admit it is discrimination. But it is. I have no doubt that at least some jobs that I have got in the past have been on this basis, even in cases where my qualifications might have been decent. In South Africa, for example, there are very few black philosophy lecturers. And if I had to apply for a philosophy teaching job, and another candidate was white but not much better than me in terms of qualifications, most universities would choose me in that case just because I am black. That is racial discrimination. The Stellenbosch student is spot-on.

But here’s the thing: racial discrimination is not always legally or morally wrong. This is why it is short-sighted for a white parent to simply cite an example of their son losing out on a job application and think they have indicted the new South Africa as a racist, anti-white den. Not so. Discrimination can, actually, be morally and legally justified. And that is something that is missed in the emotional, and very personal, reactions of South Africans to the affirmative action debate. Few are even capable of listening to my claim that discrimination can be justified. They might drop their mug of coffee and Marie biscuit while reading this paragraph and dismiss its contents outright. (Sadly, critical dialogue can be hamstrung by strong emotion.) Let me explain then how discrimination can be legally and morally acceptable.

If discrimination is rational then it is acceptable. The oldest example in the book, of course, is that we discriminate against blind people. We don’t allow them to drive cars on our roads. But we allow people who can see to drive (provided they pass a driver’s test). But the discrimination against blind people is rational. It is rational because the ability to see is relevant to driving. If you cannot see, you cannot drive accurately and safely. So this is an example of fair discrimination. So the question one must ask is not, ‘Does affirmative action discriminate against whites?’ Of course it does! The real question to ask is, ‘Is it fair that affirmative action discriminates against whites?’ The answer is ‘yes’.

When two adults apply for a job, they bring history and personal narrative to bear on that job application. History has resulted in disproportionate opportunities for development and upward mobility, distributed, deliberately and structurally, across race and gender lines in South Africa. Our history over the last few centuries, and which reached a climax in the middle and late twentieth century, is a history of fierce, unfair discrimination. Jobs were routinely reserved for race groups, with the best being reserved for whites. Government spending on citizens disproportionately benefited white over non-white communities. Particularly insulting was the education system: more was spent by the state on a white child’s education than a black child.

One paragraph could never capture the full story of apartheid’s injustice. Yet the number of South Africans who debate affirmative action in an ahistorical vacuum continue to shock and disappoint me. The underlying sentiment is often that only natural ability and differences in work ethics explain the strengths and weaknesses of two candidates applying for a job. This is a bald-faced lie everywhere but particularly so here in South Africa. Two candidates do not appear at interviews for medical school or for a job from nowhere. They appear from life narratives that have shaped their current circumstances.
Anyone who denies this is culpably forgetting history, callously ignoring its reach into the present.

And this is why affirmative action is rational, and morally acceptable. It is an attempt to correct past injustices that were inflicted on us specifically along racial lines. Those policies were designed in racial terms, and implemented in the language of race, with the apartheid government treating different race groups differently. And since the purpose of affirmative action is fair – to reverse the immorality that has resulted from that racist ideology – the discrimination against whites which comes with affirmative action policies, is justified too. Just as the discrimination against blind people is rational, so discrimination against whites in the form of affirmative action is rational also because it is necessary in order to achieve a more economically and socially just South Africa.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ I have heard many people say. And, trust me, I have heard the full gamut of objections. I cannot rehearse them all here. But one of the objections that irritates me most is the idea that we could not possibly know when to stop implementing affirmative action. This is an exaggerated worry.

We have a rough idea of what a just society looks like. A just South Africa is not one in which there is a perfect match between the country’s demographics, and the demographics of the workplace, Parliament, sports teams, etc. That kind of numerically exact demographic representation would be the worst kind of deliberate design. Those kinds of projects are often rightly lampooned as ‘racial bean-counting’, but fears about such bean-counting are grossly exaggerated. Clearly, if 10% of accountants are black, we have a structural problem. If 65% are black, we have less of a problem. Similarly, if only 3%, for argument sake, of all A-rated scientists are women, then we have an unjust situation. This does not mean that 53% or so of all A-rated scientists must be female, but the injustice would be obvious if the figure was 3%.

And that is the point: in order to reverse obviously unjust situations like the hypothetical (or perhaps all too real) ones sketched here, it might well be the case that whites (or men) will not be treated the same as other groups. But this is justified because the reason is acceptable. The reason would be to achieve a more just society. In practice, this might mean giving more bursaries to black African students, say, than any other group, deliberately – or it might mean special research grants specifically for female scientists. These kinds of interventions do not undermine the idea of equality. They do the opposite: they take equality seriously enough to take account of how unequal starting points in life can skew fair competition between people. This therefore requires differential treatment in order to create, over time, a society that is genuinely egalitarian.

Anyone who says that affirmative action is racist simply does not get the meaning of substantive equality. Or they do not understand the connection between equality and justice. If they did, they’d abandon the objection instantly.

‘Affirmative action undermines non-racialism’

Some people claim that if we want to achieve a non-racial South Africa, then we should not adopt affirmative action policies. The concern is that policies that differentiate between race groups reinforce differences between people. And if you reinforce the idea that race groups exist and differ from one another, you are less likely to ever achieve a non-racial South Africa. Is there any merit in this?

I struggle to see why these concerns are legitimate. I have never understood why racial differences should be inherently divisive. But let me grapple with the concerns of opponents of affirmative action.
I think one fear people have is that if we talk about race ‘too much’ we will stay in the racist past that we are trying to move away from. I often encounter this anxiety when I am on radio. Just the other day, for example, on Talk Radio 702 I was being interviewed about an open letter I had written to the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee. In the letter I had criticised her decision to take off the newspaper’s website an image of a painting of the state president that showed, among other things, an artist’s impression of the president’s penis. I thought she had allowed political bullies to get the better of her. And I said so. But along the way I suggested that the editor’s decision also undermined black people in a sense, even though her intentions and motives were to be sympathetic to a deep sense of disgust among supporters of the president.

I thought that she had inadvertently displayed low expectations of black readers of her newspaper, low expectations of black politicians, and low expectations of angry black supporters of the president. I thought she should have held her fellow black citizens to a higher intellectual standard – as she surely would a white group that objected to a similar image of one of their heroes. So she let blacks down in her very attempt to seem emotionally mature.

The radio talk show host was astounded that the editor could be accused of having undermined blacks, given she was trying to respect black people’s feelings! Lo and behold, as always happens when this kind of discussion takes place, the very first caller predictably shouted, ‘Why do we still refer to people’s skin colour?! Why?!’ They weren’t interested in the real issue – whether I was fair in saying the editor had held blacks to a low standard of dialogue. The caller did what so many South Africans do – simply pleaded for us to stop talking about race.

That is not an isolated example. I could fill books with anecdotal examples. I once participated in a debate on Sakina Kamwendo’s talk show on Metro FM talking about coloured identity. We actually called it ‘The Great Coloured Debate’. And, you’ve guessed it, one of the very first callers shouted, ‘Why are we referring to people as coloured in this day and age? My goodness!’ It never occurred to them that not using the word ‘coloured’ wouldn’t make my coloured sisters and brothers who live in homogeneous, coloured, apartheid geographical spaces – still – from self-identifying as coloured. Linguistic denial can’t make deeply-held, and very personal, racial identities disappear.

So we’d better get over our fear of the language of race, and talk. There is no reason why the language of race should logically lead to racism. I can recognise which of my friends are black, coloured or white without using that recognition as a reason to be racist. We should stop blaming racialism for our racism. It is a bit like blaming your sexism on the fact that you can see that women and men look different. Racism’s the enemy. The language of race, and seeing differences in each other, is not the enemy.

‘Affirmative action is an insult to black people’

I remember once watching the exuberant Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, being interviewed on television and explaining with great enthusiasm to the host of the television show why he finds references to himself as ‘black’ an insult to the merit of his achievements. Being referred to as ‘the first black dean’, for example, diminished his hard work, and academic excellence, he argued. He widened the anecdote’s reach to make the point that affirmative action, more generally, undermines the achievements of black people by creating the impression that blacks only need to meet lower standards than everyone else in order to be awarded accolades, jobs, etc. That, surely, is an insult to black people, and reinforces the idea that they can only do well if they are treated as handicapped and given special assistance that would not be given to other competitors. Is that really the message of affirmative action? I’m not convinced it is.
Of course it is possible that there are personal and emotional costs that come with affirmative action policies: one might – whether true or not – be recognised as, or assumed to be, an affirmative action candidate. This could result, yes, in negative stereotypes about one’s skill-set, or gossip about whether or not one truly deserves a particular post.

The personal and social cost can be tough to bear. But how much weight should be attached to this in one’s overall assessment of affirmative action policies?

We do not have decisive empirical evidence about how the majority of black South Africans feel about the design of race-based policies aimed at restoring past imbalances. So we are left guessing whether Jonathan Jansen’s gripes are representative of the entire black population or whether they are isolated. After all, for every such example, I could cite a counter-example of someone who does not mind being an affirmative action appointee.

The reason I am fine with being labelled an affirmative action candidate is because I understand the justice argument for why the policy exists. If I had a problem with being an affirmative action beneficiary, that would be an indication that I had missed the point of the policy. Put it this way: when Jansen expresses deep annoyance at being thought of as an affirmative action appointment his annoyance is not a sign that he is a champion of black excellence. By being annoyed he is simply demonstrating that he has failed to grasp or to accept the justification for affirmative action in the first place. If you understand, accept and internalise the reasons for affirmative action – the goals
of substantive equality and justice – then you ought not to be embarrassed at being an affirmative action appointment or being perceived to be one.

Consider this analogy. I am often gobsmacked by some of my friends who are genuinely hurt by perceptions that they are gay. At least one of my friends now practically introduces himself as ‘not gay’ in anticipation of the assumption that he is. Why is it such a big deal to be mistaken for being gay? Would someone mind being mistakenly thought of as the most attractive person on the planet or the smartest person in the room or the nicest guy ever? I suspect not. The only reasonable explanation is that being gay is not something the person wants to be mistaken for. But, if the person truly understands that there is nothing wrong with being gay, then they would stop having anxiety attacks about the mistaken identity. At the root of the discomfort is a failure to properly grasp that homosexuality is acceptable, and innocuous.

Similarly, anyone who truly understands the logic of affirmative action and who has taken that logic to heart should not be fazed by being teased for being an affirmative action candidate. This is not necessarily easy, I admit, and it can be tiresome to experience insults and venom. But it does seem to me that most people who are easily affected by these jibes believe in their heart of hearts that affirmative action is embarrassing. And that is the problem here: the failure to take seriously the compelling arguments in favour of affirmative action.

Affirmative action is not racist; it is not an obstacle to non-racialism and it is not an insult to black people. It is legally and morally justified, because it serves to achieve a substantively equal society, one that has redressed the racist structural consequences of apartheid.

* * * * *


Read the previous excerpt:

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
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Warm up for Eusebius McKaiser’s New Book – Out in November! – with an Excerpt from A Bantu in My Bathroom


A Bantu in My BathroomCould I Vote DA?Fans of razor sharp social and political commentary will be glad to hear that Eusebius McKaiser’s new book will be hitting shelves in November. In the meantime, Books LIVE will be sharing a series of excerpts from his first book, A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics.

A Bantu in My Bathroom, which was published in 2012, holds immense relevance for South Africa today. Our first excerpt comes from Chapter 1 of the book, in which McKaiser reflects on an incident where a woman advertised a room for rent but specified that only white people were welcome.

McKaiser, who hosted a talkshow on Radio 702 at the time, shared the story with his listeners, and to his horror discovered that the majority of South Africans – black and white – “thought that it was not racist to have a racial preference for a tenant”.

“It was one of the most revealing conversations I’ve had with a radio audience,” McKaiser says, adding that it was only in the weeks that followed that the true implications of the conversation sunk in.

“When those underlying attitudes are fully excavated and closely examined,” he says, “they betray a deeply ingrained and objectionable racialism – and sometimes outright racism – many years after democracy’s birth.”

Read the first in our series of excerpts from A Bantu in My Bathroom:

* * * * *

A Bantu in my bathroom!

Is it morally acceptable to stipulate the colour of your housemate?

Is it really possible to leave your privately-held views on race at home?

Are we really prepared to accept the requirements of a non-racial democracy?

Last year I came across an interesting ad in The Star while searching for accommodation. The person who placed the ad was willing to share her house with a stranger. But it was the description of the preferred lodger that really caught my attention. The advertiser – call her Sally – made it clear that she was looking for a white person.

I could not resist. I picked up my phone and called her.

‘Hi there. Is that Sally?!’

‘Yes it is!’ a rather friendly voice answered. She could not possibly be racist, I thought. Racists can’t be so jolly, surely?! Racists are supposed to be angry and have heavy Afrikaans accents. This woman did not sound like someone whose late husband wore khaki shorts. She sounded like someone who could make us cute little cucumber sandwiches and a fresh pot of Earl Grey tea – using tea leaves. She could have been Mrs Higgins, the wonderful old white lady who taught me to play the piano at primary school – St Mary’s Primary, for poor coloured kids in Grahamstown. And, like Mrs Higgins, I imagined Sally owned a bicycle with a square, brown basket at the front, which she cycled around her quiet neighbourhood, especially when she needed to go to a grocer to stock up on Earl Grey tea leaves.

But, of course, it is difficult to recognise a racist only by the tone of their voice, so it would be unfair of me to deprive Sally of a chance to defeat a stereotype. Non-racists do not have a monopoly on being jolly. Besides, it didn’t help that I was ‘speaking well’. At any rate, I shouldn’t be hasty with character judgements on the basis of a phone chat. I needed to hear a bit more.

‘I’m phoning about the room that you advertised? I came across the advert in The Star and was wondering whether the room is still available?’

‘Oh yes it is! Are you interested?’

Wow, how welcome can one be? Is the company of the family cat that tiresome after all those decades of unconditional love and dedicated companionship? Is the little puss no longer good enough as an old white lady’s best friend?

‘I am interested, yes! I have been looking to move to Sandton ’cause it is closer to work. But … I’m not white, my dear. Do I have to be white?!’ (I suspect it is not necessary to confess parenthetically that I was having soooo much fun.)

‘Yes, as the advert said!’ There was a slight but noticeable shift in her tone now. A hint of irritation could be detected miles away and the possibility of a khaki-clad husband, still alive and well, could no longer be ruled out. In fact, I imagined a man called Gert sitting in the background, reading the back pages of Beeld, lowering the newspaper, and looking beswaard (‘gravely concerned’ in the most Afrikaans way possible; ‘beswaard’ is an emotion uniquely felt in the language and being of Afrikanerdom). I was on a roll now and decided to go for gold!

‘Don’t you think that’s a little bit racist?’ I asked.

‘Not at all! I just want to live with people of my kind! People I can relate to! What’s wrong with that?’

A fair response, perhaps? I wasn’t so sure. So I continued for a little while longer. I had nothing else to do that morning; no Earl Grey tea to serve visitors at my end.

‘But what does race have to do with getting along with someone? How do you know that your next best friend will NOT be a black person? You can’t know just by looking at someone’s skin colour whether or not you will get along with them, surely?’

‘You clearly have a chip on your shoulder!’ she snapped back. At this point I realised that she would make for a wonderful guest on my radio show. I started regretting not recording our exchange.

‘I am a talk show host at Talk Radio 702, ma’am and would like to …’ and before I could finish she hung up. I was left with a naughty smirk on my face and my brain went immediately into ‘so-what-does-it-all-mean?’ mode.

I decided to share the anecdote with listeners of my weekly radio programme Politics and Morality on Talk Radio 702. I posed the question, ‘Is it racist to rent your room only to persons of a particular race group?’ It was one of the most revealing conversations I’ve had with a radio audience.

It goes without saying that each radio station – in fact, each show on a radio station – has a specific profile of listeners who self-select that station or slot. So I know we cannot draw easy generalisations about the entire country based on the viewpoints of one radio station’s callers. In fact, one can’t even take those who call in during a particular time slot as representative of all those who are listening to that particular slot! But from somewhere deep inside my gut (if that counts for anything?), I suspect that the discussion which followed did probably reveal truths about most of us. Social scientists, of course, might have other thoughts. Anyway, here is what happened on radio that night.

There was a broad convergence in opinion among my listeners, black and white. The majority thought that it was not racist to have a racial preference for a tenant.

One group of listeners thought that since the property was privately owned, Sally could do whatever the heck she wanted to do with it so long as she did not break any general laws of the land. For this group, Sally’s preference was no different from someone who wanted to live only with non-smokers. It was not even a question of whether Sally’s attitude was justified. It was simply her right to have this attitude, finish and klaar!

A second group had a somewhat more complicated position. This group thought that if Sally had a flat or cottage in her yard and only wanted whites to live in it then she really would be a racist. However, from my description of the advert it was clear that we were talking about a room in the main house. That, apparently, changed everything. Your own house is a much more intimate, private space than a cottage on your property that you’re not living in yourself. And so Sally should be let off the hook for having race-specific preferences in her choice of housemate.

These arguments fascinated me. I was desperately trying to make sense of our racialism, and attitudes towards others, in this conversation. I disagree profoundly with both sets of opinions and wrestled with my callers for almost two hours. I understood where they were coming from but could not quite put my finger on a deep discomfort I felt with their convictions, especially those who fell into the ‘in-my-backyard-perhaps-but-NOT-in-my-house!’ category. As is often the case with live radio discussion, the most precise language often only hits you after the fact. While I put up a good fight challenging my listeners, it was only really in the days and weeks afterwards that I figured out what had bothered me. The attitudes which lurked beneath those seemingly reasonable and innocent arguments were morally odious. When those underlying attitudes are fully excavated and closely examined, they betray a deeply ingrained and objectionable racialism – and sometimes outright racism – many years after democracy’s birth. I believe that those callers who argued that what happens behind the walls of private property is not up for moral evaluation, are just not thinking carefully.

First, let me make an important concession. There is definitely something both tempting and intuitively right about the claim that we all need a break from the burden of social and moral rules. Our private lives, including decisions about who we let into our homes, must be allowed to be beyond the wagging finger of moralists. ‘Allow us to be racist at least on our own turf!’ a choir of Save Our Sally (SOS) members might shout. To shout back ‘No!’ seems hasty.

There is something to be said for protecting the private space from public morality. If we value individuality and authenticity, as we surely must if we are to take seriously the meaning and point of liberal pluralism, then we must allow for conditions under which all of us can peacefully co-exist with maximum opportunity to be our true selves.

And, if your true self is someone who only wants to break croissants with whites (or only eat pap and chakalaka with blacks) then society must put up with those preferences. That is logic that I get, with which I agree for the most part, and which I am happy to attribute, in the non-white spirit of Ubuntu, to those Sally supporters who argue for her entitlement to do as she pleases with whomever, and on, her property.

But there is a difference between the right to rent your room to whites only and our entitlement to judge your actions morally. We do not think that a woman’s right to marry a misogynist bastard means we cannot criticise her decision. We do not think that a gardener’s right to accept his employer’s insistence on being called ‘baas!’ and his employer’s right to offer premium wages for being called ‘baas!’ mean that we cannot evaluate the moral quality of that relationship. And many of us seem to think that the right of a millionaire to display his or her wealth ostentatiously does not mean they are immune to moral comment. Remember, for example, the uproar when businessman Kenny Kunene threw lavish parties – he was criticised for behaviour that some regard as immoral even though he has a right to throw lavish parties.

Morality follows us just about everywhere, and so I don’t think we can simply say that just because Sally has a right to live with whomever she wants, and just because she should in general be given space to live a life she chooses for herself, that we cannot ever raise moral questions about her private choices. We can, and this ad I stumbled upon seems a perfect case in a country with our racial history, about which to ask probing questions about the motives behind these preferences, their origins and their content. So her domestic preferences are fair game.

Besides, I seriously doubt that Sally regards herself as acting immorally. Only someone who is genuinely amoral would truly not care about the moral quality of her actions, let alone what the rest of us have to say about it. Sally does care.

Sally was happy to engage me and offer reasons for her actions. She was implicitly accepting that she could be criticised but thought she had a sufficient defence for her racialised preferences. She is not a hermit. She is not a sociopath. She lives in society. She is of society. I therefore reject the all-too-easy (though tempting and seemingly reasonable) claim that how we behave privately and what we do with our private property cannot and should not be morally probed. It can and it should. And if we had a chance to meet Sally, I suspect she would agree, but simply say her preferences are morally acceptable. Well, are they? Before answering this question, there is one more aspect of Sally’s case that I want to comment on and which complicates the racial preference debate.

It crystallises around a recent visit from a friend of mine, John, who now lives in Oxford.

John was fascinated when I told him about the advert saga and the radio discussion it spawned. Being a near perfect human being, the original ‘Mr Nice Guy’, John confessed that when he had been on the lookout to share a house with someone in Oxford, he declined an opportunity to live with a disabled person. He did not think he could live with someone who had a serious physical disability. Agreeing to live with such a person he felt would effectively mean agreeing to take on a certain kind of responsibility, which he felt he was not capable of fulfilling. He had no prior relationship with the person and this lessened the emotional stakes somewhat when it came to turning down the offer.

Of course, he felt horrible about the decision because it felt callous. But it was an honestly-made decision. It was based on truthful self-evaluation of what kinds of living arrangements were comfortable for John. And that, surely, is okay? We cannot be expected to be moral saints. This is also why it is okay, too, to simply not want to live with someone who is a smoker, say. But these factors – Am I ready to be a quasi-carer for a disabled housemate? Can I put up with puffs of smoke? – are not signs of a bad moral character, suggested John. They are simply a combination of satisfying one’s arbitrary preferences (‘I don’t like smoke!’) and considering practical facts (‘I just won’t be able to cope with negotiating the needs of a disabled housemate.’).

I’m not convinced that Sally’s preference is in the same category as these preferences. And it is, at any rate, debatable whether John’s attitude towards disability is acceptable, even if someone’s irritation for smoke is acceptable. These cases are too different to be treated in the same way, but there is something to be learned from the differences, and the false appearance of salient similarities. Is it possible, if we get back to Sally, that there is nothing more to Sally’s preference than convenience? John finds it inconvenient to live with a disabled person. Let’s say you find it irritating to smell smoke. So is there not simply a similar kind of inconvenience that Sally will experience in being ‘forced’ to live with a non-white person?

I hope no-one finds this line of reasoning compelling enough to let Sally off the hook. My skin colour is not a disability. It is an arbitrary difference between me and Sally. And so it is not clear to me that Sally would be inconvenienced by a black skin in her house in a way that can seriously be regarded as too high a burden for anyone to bear. If I was judging Sally for not adopting twenty orphans, I think one could easily make a case for why it would be acceptable for the inconvenience of such an adoption to be a reason for Sally to politely decline. But my skin colour? The analogy between the disabled lodger and a black lodger is therefore unconvincing. (I will leave aside another response to John, of course, which is to challenge his assumptions about disabilities, and what exactly the ‘burdens’ would be living with a disabled person. I have no doubt that millions of self-sufficient disabled persons would rightly take deep offence at the suggestion that they are an inherent burden on abled-bodied persons. All that is important here, for my purposes, is for us to recognise that when someone says she only wants to live with white people in her house, she can’t justify that preference by saying it is ‘inconvenient’ to have a black person around. That is an honest response, perhaps, but a morally impotent one. In fact, one might even doubt the supposed honesty and innocence of the ‘inconvenience’ argument: racism is often the operating motive, but how many of us are capable of admitting to that kind of motive?)

So where does all of this leave the first batch of my callers who suggested that it is Sally’s house, and so she can choose her tenant. I hope the arguments I have introduced make it clear why that is at the very least a hasty response from my listeners. In short, yes, Sally has a right to live only with white people but the fact that she has a right to make a random decision of this kind does not mean we can’t judge the way she exercises that right.

The more difficult, and much more important, question is ultimately whether there is something wrong with the preference itself? Is there something wrong with Sally wanting to live only with whites? After all, there are many preferences we have in life that are arbitrary, and acceptably so. I do not have to justify why I prefer white meat to red, Bon Jovi to Simphiwe Dana, Chopin to Mozart, Johannesburg to Cape Town, bulkier men over scrawny ones. So if there is so much in the rich texture of our lives that are merely preferences, the ingredients of our individual personalities and idiosyncrasies, then surely that can straightforwardly extend to preferences about the race of persons with whom we share a house? No?

I find it hard, I must admit, to be too prescriptive about what things should guide people’s preferences. But if we can have critical conversations about the basis of our preferences, then surely we should? I do not know the details of Sally’s preferences because we did not have a chance to take our conversation further, but I think we can make some reasonable guesses if we place her life within the socio-political context of our country. We live in a country in which all of our lives are racially saturated from a young age; this is particularly true of South Africans who grew up during apartheid. Sally is one such South African. It is very likely that she internalised the racial hierarchy of apartheid that assigned certain roles to different race groups and instilled in whites a sense of superiority and in blacks a sense of inferiority. We were legally forced, as members of different race groups, to live apart in geographically segregated areas. We socialised in reasonably homogenous groups for a large period of time. It goes without saying that as both co-conspirators and victims of this system many of us hardened our attitudes towards members of other groups.

So on the one hand, there is a certain kind of innocence about the preference that Sally expresses. It really just might stem from the way she was socialised, and she merely wishes for maximum comfort in her own home. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

On the other hand, the origins of the preference are morally odious. The preference is the product of our racist past. And there is the conundrum: if I know that preferences stem from a morally odious past, should I not find ways to rid myself of those preferences, provided that it is possible to do so? This is difficult. The argument is only persuasive, I admit, if someone accepts that preferences that stem from a racist past should be eliminated. And it is not clear that there is a duty to do so.

I would therefore criticise Sally’s preferences, still, but in a qualified way: Sally’s racialised preferences are the product of a racist past and are therefore morally odious. But Sally does not have a strict duty to now get rid of those preferences as an adult since no one is demonstrably harmed by those preferences. However, to the extent that Sally accepts that she shares the goal of a non-racial, democratic South Africa, she might want to reflect on what steps she could take to begin to chip away at the enduring nature of her racialised preferences – steps that will involve now getting to know ‘the other’.

That, to me, seems like a more careful reaction to Sally’s preference than the crude, ‘It is her home!’ retort of many of my callers.

So what then of the second batch of callers who thought it would only have been racist for Sally to object to blacks in a cottage in her garden? When the second group made that distinction between the flat in the yard (which they think Sally should be comfortable renting to Sipho) and the main house (from which Sipho can be excluded) they betrayed dark secrets about themselves and our country.

Firstly, this viewpoint is an acknowledgment (indeed, an expression) of deep racial angst. Why else would you be fine with Sipho sleeping in the flat outside but heaven forbid that you should wake up in the morning and the first thing you see on your way to the bathroom is the heart attack-inducing spectacle of Sipho smiling at you, a horror that just might elicit a scream of apartheid proportions, ‘Help! There is a Bantu in my bathroom!’

There was an eeriness about the calm with which this group of Sally-supporters made the distinction between a flat in the yard and the main house; a kind of unreflective, resigned acceptance that racial angst is a mundane truth that is to be accommodated – though, of course, in the backyard only, not in my father’s house!

Secondly, there is no appetite here for extinguishing this racialised preference. No-one ever asked what Sally might do to overcome her insistence that only whites could be housemates. I was robustly engaged for daring to criticise what someone does with their private property. I was robustly engaged for not appreciating how a room in a house – as opposed to a flat in a yard – makes all the moral difference in our choices of who to live with!

Yet, not one listener, black or white, displayed the same robustness towards Sally. No-one grappled with how it is that eighteen years after our democratic journey had started, race-specific friendship preferences (which, by her own admission, was the basis of Sally’s search for a white housemate) could still endure uncritically. Indeed, the question did not even arise for my listeners. Racialism, it seems, has become something of an enduring meme.

Not that I am a proponent of non-racialism; rather, I was fascinated by the deep inconsistency that South Africans display. Racialism, by the way, simply means that we recognise racial differences, usually on the basis of skin colour, hair texture, and other observable traits. It is unscientific, of course, but that is true of many other socially constructed categories also. We can and do ‘see’ race. Racism is something else: it is when you go a step further, using racial differences as a basis of unfair discrimination, going from ‘seeing’ race (racialism) to being prejudiced (racism). In contexts that are less personal (such as public debate about voting preferences), the same group of radio listeners are quick to bemoan racialism’s reach and endurance. But racialism’s reach and endurance inside their homes and hearts dare not be spoken about. Why can you complain so easily, in disbelief, about people with racial political preferences, but defend your right to have exclusively racial preferences when it comes to your friends? This is a tragic lack of self-examination.

The discussion confirmed just how deeply ingrained racialism is in our collective social psyche. Sally’s advert was not an exceptional affair. She was simply being honest and giving public expression to familiar, widespread racialism that can be easy to miss because it tends to be, for the most part, non-violent, privately-held and expressed away from the glare of public scrutiny. Sally is ultimately one of us. We cannot disown her.

Most importantly, and most tragically of all, is the failure of too many South Africans to see the intimate links between the private and public spheres. If you cannot imagine being best friends with someone of another race group, if you cannot imagine sharing a house with someone of another race group, then how on earth do you think racial tension at work and in public spaces will ever be dealt a death blow? The very same radio listeners fighting for Sally’s right to display racialism privately are the ones who jam the phone lines in discussion and debate about race-based public policies like affirmative action and black economic empowerment.

‘How do you think we will ever achieve a non-racial South Africa if we still use race categories?!’ they will ask me rhetorically. Yet, the same old race categories are allowed, without a hint of self-criticism, let alone a hint of irony, to influence their most personal choices.

Clearly our private actions and attitudes provide a much more honest test of where we are at in terms of racial integration than does our willingness to participate in rainbow nation acts in the workplace or in a sports arena. Also, the amount of effort we put into eliminating racism (or racialism, if that is your goal also) in our private lives will also partly determine how successfully, and how quickly, we do so in the public sphere. This causal connection between the domestic and public spheres is lost on too many South Africans.

There are two insights we must take to heart: one is that we should be on the lookout for sophisticated tactics we all use (often subconsciously) to mask racism and racialism, such as seemingly innocent explanations for counter-productive attitudes and choices – ‘It’s simply a matter of taste (or preference or randomness) that Sally does this or that!’; the other, and perhaps more important, conclusion is that we need to appreciate how public racism, and racialism, are in part sustained by what we do or do not do in the privacy of our homes. We take our private racism, and our private racialism, into the public space. We therefore cannot make progress in the public space without fixing what we do in private.

Non-racism, and non-racialism, begins at home.

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  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
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Ekonomiese groei is die antwoord: Lees twee uittreksels uit Capitalist Crusader deur Herman Mashaba

Black Like YouCapitalist CrusaderHerman Mashaba is een van Suid-Afrika se bekendste entrepreneurs.

Armoede en politiek kon hierdie man nie onderkry nie. Die Black Like You-outeur het eiehandig die Suid-Afrikaanse haarprodukte-mark verander deur sy wêreldbekende Black Like Me-middels, ontwikkel en versprei ten spyte van ‘n hele paar struikelblokke. Vandag is hy ‘n bekroonde leier in die entrepreneursveld en besigheidswêreld en ‘n kampvegter vir sosiale geregtigheid.

In sy jongste boek deel Mashaba sy ontnugtering toe hy na 1994 moes besef dat ekonomiese vryheid nog nie almal se voorland is nie. Hy beskryf ook sy strewe na ekonomiese groei vir alle Suid-Afrikaners en beskryf die veranderinge wat die land nodig het om dit te bewerkstellig.

Lees twee vertaalde uittreksels uit Capitalist Crusader – Fighting Poverty Through Economic Growth om Mashaba se perspektief op Suid-Afrika beter te verstaan:

Kapitalisme is nié wortel van die kwaad

Toe Suid-Afrika in 1994 ’n demokrasie geword het, was ek al ’n suksesvolle kapitalis.

Dit was vir my onnodig om die swart ekonomiese bemagtiging (SEB) na te jaag.

Toe die parlement oor wetgewing vir SEB begin praat, het ek geweet dit sou met of sonder my ’n werklikheid in die land se ekonomiese landskap word. Ons het almal gedink die proses sou tydelik en pynloos wees. My wit kollegas het daagliks aan my deur geklop met die versoek dat ek in hul ondernemings belê.

Kind net vir geld in die wêreld gebring

Ek het in armoede grootgeword. Ek het gewoonlik nie geweet waar die volgende maaltyd vandaan sou kom nie en soms het ek geweet daar is daardie aand g’n maaltyd nie.

Sulke omstandighede maak een van drie dinge in ’n mens wakker: Jy word wanhopig, bitter of vasberade. Ek het al drie ervaar, maar uiteindelik was dit vasberadenheid, aangehelp deur geleenthede en harde werk, wat my gehelp het om uit die tronk van armoede te ontsnap.


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The James Patterson Approach to Non-fiction – Gareth Crocker Chats About His New Memoir, Ka-Boom


Gareth Crocker chats about the whys and hows of his new book, Ka-Boom, and shares an excerpt.

Ka-BoomCrocker is the author of a number of novels, most recently The Last Road Trip, but Ka-Boom is his first foray into non-fiction.

“With Ka-Boom, I’ve tried to write a book that will appeal to both avid readers and non-prolific readers alike,” he explains. “One of my concerns with the current book market is that there aren’t enough books that cater to an audience who just want to read something simple and funny and not have to work too hard.

“In a way it’s a James Patterson approach to non-fiction – direct and clipped storytelling without all the padding.”

Crocker describes Ka-Boom as a “comedy-based autobiography”, but says he believes many readers will recognise the experiences recounted in the book.

“Because nobody on the planet would be interested in reading a book about my life, Ka-Boom is, in fact, a story about so many of our lives. I’ve done my best to craft a kind of ‘communal biography’ for anyone who has fallen down, stood up, and clawed their way to 40. I hope it makes people laugh and reminisce about their lives.

“Did I mention that it would make a cracking Christmas present?”

Read an excerpt from Ka-Boom:

The Blunder Years

‘Gareth has such lovely hair.’

‘I suppose the only way to tell you this, Mrs Crocker, is just to come out and say it,’ the educational psychologist announced, demonstrating her superpower for stating the obvious.
         Even at my tender age – and with all the emotional depth of a hamster – I sensed that what was to follow was not necessarily going to be magnificent for me.
         ‘And don’t get me wrong,’ she added. ‘I adore Gareth. He really is such a nice and energetic boy. So full of life.’ She then looked down at me and searched for something else kind to say. ‘And he has such lovely hair. The nicest hair, really.’
         I watched as my mother folded her arms. Hmmm. That was interesting. It didn’t feel cold to me.
         ‘You see, the thing is, I believe that Gareth would be better served by … uh … attending a school more equipped to deal with his … er … condition.’
         ‘I’m not following you,’ my mother replied, firm of both lip and tone. ‘What condition?’
         As usual, I was one step ahead of my mother and now understood precisely what this meeting was about. I obviously needed to be sent to a school for kids with remarkable hair. Oh what a relief. Sound the trumpets. Let loose the monkeys from their cages. I wasn’t in trouble after all.
         ‘Well, for a start, it’s his reading ability.’
         My mother leaned forward a touch. ‘What about it?’
         ‘Yes. Well … you see, that’s the thing. He doesn’t really have any.’
         I nodded at that. It was true enough. Nothing to be ashamed of. I had a great head of hair after all. That was the important thing here.
         ‘But he’s only been learning to read for a few months. Surely the children all progress at their own pace?’
         The psychologist considered her response, before deciding that her point would be better made with a demonstration. She turned to me and smiled.
         I smiled back, the way a lemming possibly grins at a cliff-edge, and ran a casual hand through the best hair in the room. Probably in any room.
         Dr Cruella then reached down for a stack of picture cards that sat, a tad coincidentally, on the table beside her. She lifted the top card and turned it towards me.
         ‘Gareth, can you tell me what this is?’
         I was met with a picture of a cat sitting down, underneath which was a short word.
         Well, it didn’t take a rocket scientist, did it? Particularly since we had two cats of our own and I often saw them sitting down.
         ‘Of course, Miss. The word is Cat.’ I then decided to show off a little. ‘Cats have paws and tails and like to climb trees. They also like to lick their bums.’
         In my peripheral vision, I noticed my mother bringing her hands up to her face. That’s odd, I thought. It seemed a little early for her to be so tired.
         ‘Let’s try another one, Gareth,’ she pressed on. ‘What is this word?’
         ‘Dog,’ I replied at once, before adding a useful nugget of information about Canis lupus familiaris. ‘Dogs like to lick their willies. I don’t think they can reach their bums.’
         My mother glanced up at the card and then returned her head to her hands.
         Only some time later would I be told that the cat was, in fact, sitting on a M-A-T. And the dog had a B-A-L-L in his mouth.
         ‘We believe Gareth suffers from a chronic learning disability and needs to be sent to a special school where he can one day be taught a trade, say.’
         ‘A trade?’
         ‘Yes, you know … like bricklaying or boilermaking (or stamplicking). Something where he can use his hands (or tongue).’
         My mother must’ve been really cold now because she was starting to shake.
         ‘A special school is really what he needs.’
         I considered this option. A special school. Hmmm. Yes, please. I’ll have some of that, thank you very much. A place where the young folk spend their days playing football and combing their remarkable hair.
         ‘He’s small for his age. And he’s a December baby,’ my mother whispered.
         Hold the phones. What was that supposed to mean? It sounded like she was making excuses for me. Weren’t Jesus and Father Christmas both born in December?
         The psychologist then reached forward and placed a hand on my mother’s arm. ‘I don’t think another year would’ve made any difference. We also think he should be on medication to help keep him focused. He’s a perfect candidate for Ritalin.’
         Oh sweet Mary in Heaven. I had no idea what this Ritalin business was, only that my mother thought very poorly of it. Very poorly indeed. Her face switched from concerned mother to rampant serial killer. It was as if she had swapped heads with Jeffrey Dahmer.
         If I’d had either the wherewithal or the common decency, I would’ve told Dr Cruella to leap up from her desk and to not spare the horses on her way out the office.
         ‘Let’s get something straight right now,’ Jeffrey D. snapped. ‘Gareth will never be on Ritalin. Do you understand me? Never!’
         ‘All I’m saying, Mrs Crocker–’
         ‘Get up, Gareth!’ she barked, frothing at the jowls. ‘We’re leaving.’
         You can do this to an adult? Wait until my mates found out!
         As I stood up to leave, a question occurred to me. ‘What’s a boilermaker, Miss? Does he have to sit in the roof all day waiting to make the hot bubbles for bath time?’
         She smiled back at me, but seemed to be sad somehow. She must not have known the answer. Because she didn’t answer.
         I think she was mesmerised by my hair.
         I could hardly blame her.

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Hamba Kahle, Helen Zille! – Excerpt from Could I Vote DA? by Eusebius McKaiser

Eusebius McKaiserCould I Vote DA?DA of nie?Bookstorm has shared an extract from Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma, by vigorous political commentator Eusebius McKaiser.

The piece – which comes from Chapter 7 of the book and is titled “Hamba Kahle, Helen Zille!” – is especially relevant following Zille’s announcement on 12 April that she will not stand for re-election as leader of the Democratic Alliance next month.

McKaiser says he believes Zille is a “good leader”, who has not been given the credit she deserves for her role in opposition politics – both from South African society at large and from within her own party.

However, during the launch tour that surrounded the book, ahead of the 2014 General Elections, McKaiser repeatedly stated that he did not believe she was the right person to lead the party beyond 2014.

“Helen is not black enough and we are not colour-blind enough as voters,” he states.

Whether intentionally or not, it seems Zille has heeded his advice.

Read the prescient extract:

Extract from Could I Vote DA by Eusebius McKaiser by Books LIVE

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Love Your Wine Author Cathy Marston Recommends 7 Sparkling Wines (Excerpt)

Love Your WineIn Love Your Wine, Cathy Marston lists seven sparkling wines you must try, and explains why she believes it should be a wine for ever occasion.

Marston suggests two inexpensive carbonated sparkling wines, as well as a number of “top-class” examples. She says sparking wines go well with seafood, such as oysters or smoked salmon, but are just as suited to fish and chips or scrambled eggs on toast.

Read the excerpt:

* * * * * * * *

Sparkling wines come at all price levels; the price they sell for depends a lot on how they are made. Here are a few to try.

Inexpensive carbonated (SodaStreamed) sparkling wines:

Dry fizz made from Cape Riesling and Chenin Blanc. Fairly fruity, easy to drink and a good-value crowd-pleaser.

Sweetly pretty in pink, this is a good entry-level wine for people who don’t like weird stuff like yeastiness and acidity. Frothy and fun.

Top-class bottle-fermented (MCC) sparkling wines:

The original MCC, this has been setting the standard for Cape fizz for over 40 years now and is a crisp, fruity, yeasty mouthful with bubbles that dance on your tongue.

People often think that J.C. only makes inexpensive, carbonated sparklers. But, trust me, this flagship wine is one of South Africa’s finest and best-value fizzes. It cleans up at most MCC competitions and continues to offer wonderful depth, tangy citrus and delicious brioche flavours, and elegant bubbles.

One of the Cape’s finest fizz makers, Villiera has about eight versions in its stable, ranging from the well-known Tradition up to this one – its flagship fizz. The base wine is barrel-fermented before the fizz spends four years on the lees. Rich, savoury and utterly delicious.

My favourite from the prestigious Graham Beck range of fizzes, and one that shows well every single year. Made from Chardonnay, some of it barrel-fermented, this is elegance in a bottle.

Enduringly popular range of bubbles from Haute Cabrière (these wines are bottled under the Pierre Jourdan name because that’s how fizz is labelled in France – French tradition often uses the name of the original owner). Made from Pinot Noir, this wine is all about the fruit – fresh strawberries and raspberries with some almond notes.

Some mad individuals believe that fizz should be drunk only as an aperitif – more fool them, if you ask me. I was once at a Bollinger dinner where we drank a different Bollie with every course, including foie gras, steak and raspberries. Fizz is especially good with seafood because it has high acidity, so it can match the lemony citrus flavours, and always seems to go well with oysters and smoked salmon, and the like. But I’ve also had fizz very successfully with creamy pasta and cheese, and don’t forget that the off-dry or sweet styles are wonderful with light, fruity puds like pavlova.

Try it with anything and, whatever you do, don’t think you have to keep it for a special occasion. Fish and chips or scrambled eggs on toast on a cold Tuesday night in winter – perfect excuses to open a bottle of fizz.

* * * * *

Previous excerpts:

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4 Sparkling Wine Myths Debunked: Excerpt from Love Your Wine by Cathy Marston

Love Your WineIn Love Your Wine, Cathy Marston lays out the facts essential for giving wine the love it deserves.

In this excerpt, Marston explains some of the key features of sparkling wine, explaining distinctions by cultivar, sweetness and vintage, and sets the record straight on few champagne myths.

Read the Excerpt:


Because there is a massive range of styles, colours, sweetness levels – and quality levels – in sparkling wines, the whole range of topics we’ve looked at so far could certainly be covered again just for bubbles. Instead, though, here are a few of the essential things that will help you decipher what’s inside a bottle of sparkling wine.


We’re used to thinking of fizz as being either white or pink but, actually, there are increasing numbers of wineries that make sparkling red wines as well. I have to confess that I am not a fan of fizzy red – it plays with my head to chill a red wine to the level needed in order to control the bubbles. And when you chill it to that level, it makes the tannins very bitter (see Chapter 10 for more details on tannins). So, sorry to all you sparkling-Shiraz producers – you’re the only fizz that I’m happy to leave.

The classic grape varieties used to produce champagne (and most of the best sparkling wines in the world) are Chardonnay (a white grape) and two black grapes – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. In South Africa, we also use a lot of Chenin Blanc (because we grow a lot of Chenin Blanc), as well as Pinotage and sometimes other grapes too. If you want to make a white fizz, you can still use black grapes, just remove the skins before they can add any colour. If you want to make a pink fizz, then either allow a little bit of skin contact or simply mix some red wine into your white wine. If your wine is made solely from white grapes, it may be called ‘blanc de blancs’ on the label, meaning a white wine from white grapes. If it is made just from black grapes, it may say ‘blanc de noirs’, and this term is used for both white and rosé wine.


Most sparkling wines are made as dry wines (except for those that get SodaStreamed, which are more often than not sweet) and then, just as they are bottled, nearly all of them have the sugar level adjusted by the addition of some sweet grape juice just before the cork is inserted. This technique is called ‘dosage’ and can make sparkling wines anything from ‘sec’ (moderately or fairly dry), ‘demi-sec’ (off-dry), ‘semi-sweet’ or ‘doux’ (sweet). The most common word on bottle-fermented fizzes is ‘brut’ (‘unequivocally dry’ in French), but you will sometimes see wines labelled as ‘brut nature’ or ‘brut zero’. In these cases, there has been no ‘dosage’ sugar added, and the wine will be teeth-tinglingly dry, with a yummy, fresh, salty tang.


A wine has a vintage, or year, on the bottle if all the grapes used to make it were picked in a single year. When it comes to still wines, a vintage is considered a better-quality wine, and non-vintage or ‘NV’ is usually regarded as a term for cheaper, generic wines. However, this is not the case with fizz. There is much hype surrounding the top champagne brands and, for that matter, the top MCC (Méthode Cap Classique) brands as well. A large proportion of the price we pay for these wines goes on maintaining this hype and marketing them as aspirational ‘accessories’. It is therefore crucial that there is no variation in quality from one vintage to the next, so that the winery can maintain its ongoing brand value in the market.

Winemakers achieve consistency by blending sparkling wines from different years. The wines from previous years are called reserve wines and sometimes they will spend time in oak barrels, giving the winemaker even more options to achieve consistent results every time. So, as you can imagine, the best bubbly houses try and retain their winemakers for as long as possible, because there is no recipe to this blending process – it’s all to do with taste and experience gained over the years.


You have to hand it to the fizz marketers: they’ve done a darned fine job of creating mystique, allure, sexiness and excitement about a bottle of carbonated alcoholic liquid. After all, is there anyone who would dare propose to their fiancée without its help or celebrate a special occasion without a bottle or more? And part of their ‘creating their own reality’ has been to propound and perpetuate a number of myths about everyone’s favourite bubbles. So, here are a few truths to set the record straight.

Myth 1 A sparkling wine cannot be corked
Incorrect: the bubbles give the wine no protection from cork taint. This infection, which also affects sparkling wine, is called trichloroanisole, or TCA for short and it makes the wine taste dull, like wet cardboard, damp cupboards and mouldy mushrooms. Check out Chapter 12 for wine faults.

Myth 2 Dom Pérignon invented champagne
Sorry to bust this myth for you, but he actually spent his entire life trying to get rid of the bubbles from his wine. He should be credited instead with learning about blending different grape varieties and realising that 1 + 1 = 3, which is the basis of all great wines.

Myth 3 A teaspoon inserted into an open bottle preserves the bubbles
What utter crap! I have no idea where this comes from and in my very vast drinking experience, it has never worked. Mind you, I don’t often leave fizz open for more than an hour anyway, so I’m not an expert on this.

Myth 4 The ‘coupe’ (a shallow champagne glass) was modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breast
Well, it’s a good excuse for a few titters (as it were), but, despite every schoolboy’s lurid hopes, it isn’t true. The coupe was first used as a wine glass in the 1670s in England – some 80 years before Marie Antoinette was born in 1755. It wasn’t modelled on any other famous buxom wenches either, I’m afraid, it’s just a story that too many imaginative men would like to be true!


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