South African Suburbia: The Neighbours They All Pretend Don’t Live There

[Originally posted on Huffington Post]

It started in early January this year (not really, more like in 1652 or thereabouts).

The one neighbour who acknowledges my presence and existence as her neighbour asked if I would be coming for the street barbeque at Number 23 the next day.
“Street barbeque? Ummm, I wasn’t invited,” I responded.
She let slip that “everyone” was invited in the Street WhatsApp Group.
Everyone, she said. Except I wasn’t in that street chat group nor had anyone asked to include me in it. I wasn’t surprised — several months earlier, the street I live on was permanently closed off and became a cul-de-sac following aunanimous decision by the residents on my Street. Unanimous implies everyonedecided.
I didn’t decide.
No one asked me.
No one told me.
I found out about the street closure the same way I found out about the chat group: My chatty neighbour who occasionally pops by to “update” me.

I didn’t go to the barbeque the following day. The heavens, ingenious as they are, decided to open up and release the first of the January rains on that Friday. I’d watched my neighbours throng to Number 23 earlier, so I might have smiled just a little when it started pouring. Just a little. I toyed with the thought that they got what they deserved. But it wasn’t my vengeance. It wasn’t vengeance at all. I just felt oddly vindicated. 2016-03-01-1456825322-7273933-ScreenShot20160301at11.41.24AM.png

My Street, like the WhatsApp group I then demanded (more like politely asked the only neighbour who acknowledges me to let the group admin know that they excluded me…) to be included in, is a curious case study of South African exclusion.

The goings-on in small spaces like quiet paved streets and chat groups tell a lot about a society and whether or not it is evolving…

I have lived on my Street for 3 years. The Street WhatsApp Group was created on 4 January 2014. In late 2015, six new families moved into this Street. They joined our sleepy tree-lined neighbourhood and quickly became neighbours. They, unlike me, “fit in.” So much so that they have been part of the Street WhatsApp Group for longer than I have. So much so that they were invited to the Street Barbeque and I wasn’t.

I have lived on my Street for 3 years. The Street WhatsApp Group was created on 4 January 2014.

I forced my inclusion into a chat group I have no real interest in just so I could assert myself as That Neighbour They All Pretend Doesn’t Live Here. So they would know that I am here. That I occupy this space because I can.
Because I should.
Because I will.

Having now been added into the chat group, I somehow regret insisting on being part of it. I was added on 20 February 2016 (yes, 2 whole years and 47 days after the group was created). I have lived on my Street for 3 years.

So far, I have remained silent in the group because even though I am in it, I remain excluded:

  1. • All of us on my street speak English (problematic, perhaps. But I digress), but some of us don’t speak Afrikaans, yet people insist on chatting only in Afrikaans. [I wonder where else this is happening? *stares at some Universities in South Africa & slowly removes tongue from cheek*]
  2. • When I was added, my “nice” neighbour – the one who lobbied for my inclusion in the group for a month – remarked that the group now has “colour”
  3. • A month or so ago, a neighbour (one of the newish ones) stopped to ask me if I was looking for work as I was taking my leisurely weekend stroll. I can only assume this is because – for this neighbour – black people don’t stroll…
  4. • In 2016, I – black as I am – am the minority in certain spaces (my own street and its chat group) in a country where black people are the majority, yet largely disenfranchised and marginalised.

I am part of the group, but I am not included. I am still the “other.”

2016-03-01-1456825093-8528812-CbmXQYUUEAA_txx.jpg

When, as black people, we occupy spaces that used to be boldly and arrogantly marked “Whites Only”, it can often be seen as defiance. Aggression, even.
Remember Penny Sparrow and the “dirty monkeys” on the beach?

My WhatsApp chat group issue might seem petty, but we see different manifestations of this kind of institutionalised exclusion across society.

2016-03-01-1456825866-7142771-net_blankes.jpg Some will say I mustn’t complain because I am “privileged.” That I am within the “middle-class” band and so cannot experience oppression like the economically disenfranchised and downtrodden. Some will even suggest that I be grateful I was “included” at all. That I am sitting at the table and shouldn’t complain.

No.

In the face of injustice – any injustice – those who can speak out must. If segregationist thinking and existence is still a reality even in privileged spaces, imagine then what it must be like in other sectors of South African society.

The chat group, like my street and the slowly evolving (transforming?) South African society is yet another window into the long slimy tentacle of apartheid… It is much like the continued inequality, the social injustices and the racialised – yet not so labeled – spaces.

It is a mess.

A mess that needs fixing.

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