Tales of a Divided City: Not a place for peasants

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

I came to study at Rhodes in 2013 after spending a year at Gadra Matric school, working to improve my matric results. 

Before then, I drifted for about three years, not knowing where or how to orient my life. 

You could say that I was stuck: stuck thanks to the poor education that I got in school and stuck because township life is unforgiving and barren.

It narrows one’s horizons, making one think that the world ends at its borders.

There is the settler city, of course, but that appears to us like a distant planet.  

I grew up in shacks, always sharing one room with my mother and two sisters. 

There was no privacy. We had no money. We only had two meals a day. My days at school were marked by hunger. 

Everything about my life changed abruptly when I came to Rhodes and moved into residence. 

For the first time in my life I had my own space. 

This, on the one hand, is wonderful, but, on the other, it plagues me with guilt, for I cannot help thinking about my mother and my surviving sister living in squalor, with empty bellies.

The overwhelming majority of students at Rhodes wear fancy clothes and if you don’t wear fancy clothes you will be looked down upon, especially if you are black. 

One day last year I was walking down from my residence to a lecture venue with a friend from my socio-economic background. 

We walked past a group of students who were discussing what an appealing guy should be like. 

A female student said, “I want a man who has style”. 

Another male member of the group pointed at us, saying “not like these two”. 

They all laughed. We felt insulted. 

We wanted to return to our res immediately and not go to the lecture, in part so as not to be seen. 

"What is wrong with us?" we asked ourselves. 

In our dining hall, black female students would often laugh at us. 

My friend and I became hesitant to even go to the dining hall and hang out with other students. 

We felt alien, inferior, despised. 

A few months ago I was having a conversation with a black female student who seemed to be romantically interested in me. 

After half an hour she asked me what time it was. 

She had a phone, so she didn’t need to find out what time it was from me, but she wanted to see what phone I possessed. 

Once she found out, she never spoke to me again. She vanished from my life. 

A black male student with a new car who regularly gives lifts to other students has never given my friend or I a lift. 

We once asked for one and he just closed the car window and left. 

He told an acquaintance of mine that he would never give a lift to peasants. 

On one occasion he heard me singing with a friend, and said, “Come on guys, this is Rhodes. You don’t sing peasant songs here.” 

Female students really like him. He has a car and money. He changes girlfriends regularly. 

I don’t feel that there is any chance that anyone would date me at Rhodes. 

A friend, from a similar background to mine, told me that getting a girlfriend at Rhodes is as hard as getting a degree. 

Despite the fact that I feel deeply blessed to have the opportunity to study at Rhodes, my first year was extremely difficult for social more than academic reasons. 

These issues affected my concentration and my ability to perform. 

It is not nice to be told over and over again that one is like an untouchable. 

Knowing that my mother and my surviving sister are living the hard life in Extension 8 while I am here at Rhodes, blessed with food and intellectual stimulation, fills me with anxiety. 

When am I going to be able to help them? 

I regularly feel like taking my lunch or supper home to share it with them, knowing that they are hungry. 

I know that for now this is my place, my home away from home. 

But it is a hostile home, full of people who despise me for not having money. 

I have no middle class friends. 

All my friends at Rhodes come from my socio-economic background. 

Middle class students either reject me or don’t seem to understand what it is to be penniless, to have no surplus money for entertainment.  

Any extra money that I may come across goes to my family. 

I would be plagued with guilt if I spent the little money I have on unnecessary extras. 

Only students from my socio-economic background seem to understand this.  

I should mention that I have had very little problems with white students on campus. 

They largely ignore me and seem to live in another world. 

This is odd, of course, but it does not affect my experience at Rhodes in a terribly negative way. 

I was brought up to think of whites as aliens.

But middle class black students seem to be desperate to flaunt their wealth and to distance themselves from students from my background. 

This level of passionate rejection seems expressive of deep insecurity, of some kind of inferiority complex that they cover up with their status games. 

The fact that I am someone to be despised suggests that they fear being identified with people like me who vividly remind them that they were not born white. 

Black students in particular seem desperate to show off what they have, and the gadgets that they think give them status are those that they believe stand a chance of making them whiter.  

I met a middle class couple, both fluent in their home language, Xhosa. 

They possess all the right gadgets. 

And you will never hear them speaking Xhosa. 

They speak English to each other. 

They seem rather desperate to become white, to identify with all things white, except that they cannot become white. 

Their situation is tragic, for they want to become what they can’t. 

A black student asks an ungrammatical question in lectures. Black students break out laughing. 

I don’t understand what is in their minds, what strange pathology has taken hold of them. 

Their behavior is crazy. They are crazy. 

At Rhodes, I feel that the pressure is on for me to pretend to be who I am not.

Tales of a divided city: Relections on our place and its meanings

This piece is an instalment in a series of monthly reflections on our city. The aim is to generate conversation about our place and its meanings.

Pedro A. Tabensky, series editor and co-author of this piece, is the Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, located in the Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University.

By: Siyanda Centwa and Pedro A. Tabenky

Article Source: http://www.grocotts.co.za